Let Me Count the Slays

For me, and likely most readers of this post, horror is a year-round love affair. But no doubt it’s the High Holiday month of October that renders us the most enraptured. Halloween season is the time to bask in the enticing glow of scary films/shows both new and classic, to devote oneself passionately to the reading of horror novels, collections, and anthologies. For those trying to determine which literary treats to stock up on this October, there is no better source to consult than Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann’s new nonfiction publication 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered.

As Josh Malerman accurately glosses in his foreword, Hartmann’s impressive book presents “an overflowing bibliography of an entire genre.” 101 Horror Books focuses on title released between 2000-2023, and is organized into five thematic sections (Paranormal, Supernatural, Human Monsters, Natural Order Horror, and Short Story Collections) that are further subdivided into subgenre categories (e.g., Demons and Possession, The Occult & Witchcraft, Cosmic Horror). Each of these sections/categories receives an introductory overview; Hartmann also concludes her  reviews with a handy “At a Glance” reference guide that indexes the selected title according to its specific themes, its Tone (e.g., Bleak, Blood-Soaked, Disorienting, Humorous, Shocking) Style (e.g., Character-Driven, Dual Timeline, Lyrical, Clive Barker[ish]) Setting, and Publisher (Hartmann highlights books published both traditionally and independently).

A renowned editor, essayist, and book reviewer, Hartmann is first and foremost a horror fan. Her love for the genre shines through brilliantly here. She does not hesitate to wax enthusiastic, whether in a couple of succinct sentences (Philip Fracassi’s Boys in the Valley “is the scariest coming-of-age story I have read since Stephen King’s IT. It’s the scariest demon possession book I’ve read since The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.”) or in a more extensive passage:

Just Like Home is the future of horror. The direction we’re heading toward. It’s whipcrack smart, intricately plotted, and fluctuates perfectly between a past and present narrative. The characters are complex–each serving a purpose to further the horror embedded in this tale. Nobody is an afterthought or an add-on. Every line of dialogue develops layers upon layers of nuance. [Sarah] Gailey’s insidious brand of supernatural terror effortlessly works together with psychological elements to create a hybrid thriller-horror rollercoaster that I could have ridden on into oblivion. What a dark, delicious, seductive book. I’ll never get over it, and it’s forever on my book recommendation list.

In only a couple of pages, Hartmann’s reviews capture what each book is about, and what writerly strengths it demonstrates (e.g. Chuck Wendig’s style in The Book of Accidents “is uniquely accessible and compelling like a best friend telling you a great story. His wheelhouse is reaching past the page to grab his audience’s emotions.”). Hartmann also highlights the literary/cultural significance of her selections. For instance, she touts the modern relevance of Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching: “This book stands as a reminder that we have not evolved past the horrors of the Salem witch trials. A warning that society continues to be capable of twisting and perverting religious texts in order to persecute, and ultimately condemn, people who live lives not “approved” by whatever dogmatic leadership is in position of authority.”

Hartmann’s extensive compendium is also in a certain sense a very intimate and revealing book. The reader gains a lot of insight into the author’s personality (“I’m a scaredy cat who reads a lot of horror. The more horror books you read, the wiser you become.”). Hartmann reveals her own reading preferences–her personal favorite subgenres. She cites the books on her 101 list that strike her as the “most thought-provoking,” “taboo,” and “darkest, most extreme,” and identifies “the single most wicked character to ever terrify me in literature.” Just as rewardingly, she shares her philosophies of horror, analyzing its import as a genre (“It’s a communal way of exchanging our fears and anxieties about grief, loss, and death without the risk of actually going through tragedy. Or for people with such experiences, it’s a way to relate.”) and impact on its audience (“Horror readers are given a special gift by authors: teaching us how to broaden our capacity for empathy in the real world by braving other people’s harsh realities through their fictional accounts.”).

All told, a tour de force offering by Hartmann, but this multifaceted, polyvocal book is not restricted to her particular perspective. Hartmann features ten Author Spotlight sections (lauding writers–such as Stephen Graham Jones, Tananarive Due, and Paul Tremblay–whose admirable body of work makes it too difficult to choose a single book); each of these sections concludes with a blurb from that author, listing their own three favorite horror books. The volume also features a series of guest essays (by Cassandra Khaw, Hailey Piper, Eric LaRocca, and RJ Joseph). Such genre deep-diving by various respected professionals makes the book feel like the literary equivalent of documentary series such as Eli Roth’s History of Horror or The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time.

One major trigger warning: if you are someone who dreads the thought of your TBR pile suddenly mutating and rising to monstrous heights, avoid this book like the blackest of plagues. Otherwise, seek out 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered as if you’re life depended on the immediate purchase. I would even go so far as to recommend getting a print copy (glossy, colorful, and featuring an aesthetically-pleasing layout that includes entertaining sidebars–“Animals Gone Wild!”; “The Exorcist’s Tool Kit”) as well as an eBook edition (if you like to highlight/annotate your texts). At once informative and inspiring, Hartmann’s book is destined to prove an indispensable resource for readers and writers of horror alike.


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