Horror on the Horizon

Another year just begun, and the same old adage: Quot libros, quam breve tempus.

Here are 15 books scheduled for release in 2024 that I can’t wait to read (unless otherwise noted, descriptions are drawn from each book’s dedicated Amazon page).

 

The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste (S&S/Saga Press, March 5th)

From Bram Stoker Award­–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a chilling novel about three childhood friends who miraculously survive the night everyone in their suburban hometown turned into ghosts—perfect for fans of Yellowjackets.

 

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, March 26th)

The final installment in the most lauded trilogy in the history of horror novels picks up four years after Don’t Fear the Reaper as Jade returns to Proofrock, Idaho, to build a life after the years of sacrifice—only to find the Lake Witch is waiting for her in New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones’s finale.

 

A Better World by Sarah Langan (Atria Books, April 9th)

The author of Good Neighbors, “one of the creepiest, most unnerving deconstructions of American suburbia I’ve ever read” (NPR), returns with a cunning, out-of-the-box satirical thriller about a family’s odyssey into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy that might not be as ideal as it seems.

 

Midwestern Gothic by Scott Thomas (Inkshares, April 30th)

Close your eyes. Picture open plains, wheat stalks swaying gently in the wind. Picture the quaint Main Street of a one-stoplight town. Picture endless summers on sunny, tranquil lakes. With four provocative novellas, Kill Creek author and Kansas native Scott Thomas takes a hatchet to the idyllic tropes of the American heartland.

 

No One is Safe! by Phillip Fracassi (Lethe Press, April)

NO ONE IS SAFE presents fourteen stories of macabre, pulpy terror; a book filled with futuristic noir mysteries, science fiction thrillers, alien invasions, and old-school horror tales that will keep you up late into the night. Inside these covers, you’ll discover haunted dream journals and evil houses, birthday wishes gone wrong, a neighborhood cat that cures any disease, a flesh-eating beach, and mysterious skeletons on a hidden moon base. You’ll meet wise-cracking detectives, suburban vampires, murdered movie stars, and monsters of the deep. And remember—don’t get too attached to the characters you’ll meet on these pages because there’s no holding back in this book. Anything can happen, and no one is safe. Featuring an introduction by Ronald Malfi. [Lethe Press book description]

 

The House That Horror Built by Christina Henry (Berkley, May 14th)

A single mother working in the gothic mansion of a reclusive horror director stumbles upon terrifying secrets in the captivating new novel from the national bestselling author of Good Girls Don’t Die and Horseman.

 

You Like It Darker by Stephen King (Scribner, May 21st)

From legendary storyteller and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary new collection of twelve short stories, many never-before-published, and some of his best EVER.

 

Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow, June 11th)

A chilling twist on the “cursed film” genre from the bestselling author of The Pallbearers Club and The Cabin at the End of the World.

 

Incidents Around the House by Josh Malerman (Del Rey, June 25th)

A chilling horror novel about a haunting, told from the perspective of a young girl whose troubled family is targeted by an entity she calls “Other Mommy,” from the New York Times bestselling author of Bird Box.

 

I Was a Teenage Slasher by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, July 16th)

From New York Times bestselling horror writer Stephen Graham Jones comes a classic slasher story with a twist—perfect for fans of Riley Sager and Grady Hendrix.

 

Witchcraft for Wayward Girls by Grady Hendrix (Berkley, July 16th)

The latest horror comedy from bestseller Hendrix takes readers to a home for teen mothers in 1970s Florida, where five denizens discover latent talents for witchcraft. [Jump Scares book description]

 

Clown in a Cornfield 3: The Church of Frendo by Adam Cesare (HarperCollins, August 20th)

Quinn has just survived yet another bloody run-in with the murderous clown Frendo, but somehow still she knows this won’t be the last. Tired of being hunted and seeing innocent people hurt, Quinn believes the only way to beat the horror is to take justice into her own hands–and stop the Frendo followers herself. Little does she know that this path will take her across cornfields and state lines, to where she will have to face the most dangerous and bloody menace yet: True believers.

 

Crypt of the Moon Spider by Nathan Ballinggrud (Tor Nightfire, August 27th)

Book 1 of the Lunar Gothic Trilogy: a dark and dreamy tale of horror, corruption, and identity spun into the stickiest of webs.

 

Not a Speck of Light by Laird Barron (Bad Hand Books, September 10th)

Bram Stoker Award-winning author Laird Barron returns to the dark and dreadful with his fifth horror collection, which weaves sixteen weird tales into a mosaic of the bloody and the macabre.

 

The Unlikely Affair of the Crawling Razor by Joe R. Lansdale (Subterranean Press, release date TBA)

Edgar Allan Poe’s great private investigator, Auguste Dupin, gets a make-over in this unusual adventure involving a bloody mystery dipped deep in the strange.

A young woman comes to Dupin and his assistant for help concerning her increasingly obsessed brother; obsessed with the dark world that sets alongside our own, where strange creatures dwell and even stranger events occur. A world where our laws of physics are no longer applicable. A world with its own geometry of evil. It’s the place from which all our nightmares spring.

And now that dimensional world, due to spells and sacrifices, is wide open into our own, releasing the deadliest denizen of the dark—The God of the Razor.  It’s a case that will require all of Dupin’s knowledge and the highest courage from his faithful assistant, as they traverse the Parisian streets, as well as the famous Catacombs of skulls and bones, in search of answers. [Subterranean Press book description]

 

For the most comprehensive compendium of pending publications, check out Jump Scares’ 2024’s New Horror Books.

 

Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Devilish Details: The 7 Wickedest Inflictions in Dante’s Inferno

For those of you bemoaning this late-November holiday and dreading having to suffer the company of your relatives, just remember: it could always be a lot worse. Dante furnished unnerving reminder of this seven centuries ago in his classic compendium of severe yet suitable punishments. As a Thanksgiving Day special Dispatch from the Macabre Republic, here are my choices for the seven worst, most cursed fates in the Inferno–ones I’d be forever thankful to avoid.

 

7.Torment of the Barrators (Canto XXI)

The Fifth Pouch of the Malebolge combines the worst that the underworld has to offer: passive languishing and active torture. Sinners stew in a “thick and tarry mass” of boiling pitch, and when they surface, gasping for air, they are mercilessly pronged by armed guard-demons. Dante’s image of a cook’s urchins “forc[ing] the meat with hooks / deep down into the pot, that it not float” drives home the point of just how horrid this torment must be.

 

6.Torment of the Arch-Heretics (Canto IX)

In the Sixth Circle of Hell, “a spreading plain / of lamentation and atrocious pain” sports sinner-stuffed sepulchers kindled to a “glowing heat” by scattered flames. Consciousness of claustrophobic internment and the sense of impending roasting–this nightmarish situation reads like something Poe might dream up (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum”).

 

5.Torment of the Alchemists (Canto IXXIX)

Sinners–“each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs”– within the final patch of the Malebolge scratch themselves furiously yet futilely. No sooner is one scab clawed off than another crusted wound replaces it. Just thinking about the woeful Alchemists obsessing over their maddening, unrelenting itches makes me squirm in my seat.

 

4.Torment of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism (Canto XXVIII)

Clive Barker’s Cenobites seem to trace their ancestry back to the Eighth-Circle, Ninth-Pouch demon that disembowels and dismembers victims with his sword. Dante catalogues woundings of the utmost grotesquerie: one sinner’s face is “opened wide from chin to forelock,” another walks around “with both his hands hacked off,” while a Headless Horseman forerunner carries his own severed head “just like a lantern.”

 

3.Torment of Traitors Against Their Benefactors (Canto XXXIV)

The demons and assorted monsters of the Inferno are awful in their own wrong-punishing right, but imagine being personally tormented for all eternity by Lucifer himself. Such is the fate of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, each chewed down on by the “gnashing teeth” of the titanic, Saturn-like Satan (the clawed “emperor of the despondent kingdom” also subjects Judas to flaying: “his back was stripped completely of its hide”). Add in an icy cold climate for bad measure, and this all sounds utterly unbearable to me.

 

2.Torment of the Simonists (Canto XIX) 

These sinners are planted head-down inside holes in rock, with only their lower limbs showing. Their extremities are exposed to extreme torment, as flames are set down on bare feet (the agonizing Simonists’ “joints were writhing with such violence, / they would have severed withes and ropes of grass”). Anyone who has ever scampered across scorching beach sand knows just how terribly tender the soles of the feet are; I can’t stand to think of a protracted suffering of such searing.

 

1.Torment of the Neutrals/Cowardly (Canto III) 

Dante designs a system of increasingly sinister punishment, but my top choice of worst infliction harks back to the very first one detailed in the Inferno. The angels who remained neutral during Lucifer’s war against God, alongside “the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise,” file along as their naked bodies are “stung again, again / by horseflies and by wasps that encircled them.” Maybe it’s just the hopeless insectophobe in me speaking, but this sounds like the most awful and all-too-realistic plight (one that I could actually experience while still alive).

 

Of a Darker Color: Nine Frightful Horses/Horsemen in Literature (Besides Irving’s “Legend”)

“Wild Chase”: 1889 painting by Franz Ritter von Stuck

 

The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions, stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
–“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Washington Irving’s classic ghost story brought a certain “galloping Hessian” lasting fame (I track the cropped figure’s long legacy in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”), but this equestrian terror doesn’t represent the first or last of his kind. Here are nine more “dark horse” candidates who take readers on a wild and wicked ride. I’ve eschewed the obvious and excluded the apocalyptic quartet in The Book of Revelation; nevertheless the prize literary specimens presented below all succeed in putting the “eek!” in equine:

 

1. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Dante populates the 7th Circle, 1st Ring of Hell with the hybrid creatures of classical myth, the Centaurs. These literal horse-men patrol the banks of Phlegethon (the boiling river of blood in which the Violent Against Their Neighbors are immersed) by the thousands. Renowned hunters while haunting the world above, these “agile beasts” now work to ensure that the agony and indignity of damnation extend eternally, as they aim their bow-and-arrows “at any soul that thrusts / above the blood more than its guilt allots.” With their fiendish reputation (cf. Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses of the orgy of violence they instigate at the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia), the merciless centaurs make for fitting enforcers in the Dantean underworld of organized punishment.

 

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Burly, hirsute, vested in verdure colors, and mounted on a steed of strange emerald shade, the title knight cuts a sublimely striking figure as he trots into King Arthur’s court and tempts Sir Gawain into a beheading game. The giant reaches the apex of dreadfulness when–following his axing by Gawain–he casually gathers up his own decapitated head, holds it aloft, and continues to address his stunned audience. The pumpkin-chucker of Sleepy Hollow has nothing on this headless horseman when it comes to constituting a terrifying rider.

 

3. “The Wild Huntsman” by Sir Walter Scott

This 1796 translation/adaptation of the 1778 Gottfried August Bürger poem traces the grim fate of a foolish earl who is spurred on his Sabbath-scorning pursuit of a white stag by a sinister rider atop a steed with “the swarthy hue of hell.” The earl callously tramples man, animal, and nature alike, until he is divinely cursed to be himself chased by a pack of hellhounds and a “ghastly huntsman” with “eyes like midnight lightning.” This “dreadful chase” is decreed to last until the end of days, and the human quarry receives not a moment’s respite from the infernal predators in the meantime: “By day they scoured earth’s caverned space, / At midnight’s witching hour ascend.” The Wild Huntsman’s determinedly tormenting sport makes him one of the most frightening figures in all of legend and literature.

 

4. “Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s first published tale (1832) centers on a “fiery-colored” steed that appears to have leapt supernaturally into the world from a Gothic tapestry and perhaps contains the transmigrated soul of Baron Frederick Metzengerstein’s enemy, Count von Berflitzling (who perished while trying to rescue his favorite mount from a Metzengerstein-set stable fire). Metzengerstein develops a “perverse attachment” to this volatile creature, but his midnight rides have a cursed, compulsory quality: Poe’s story climaxes with this absolutely horrified horseman (“no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped form his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror”) destroyed by a mad dash up into his own towering inferno of a palace.

 

5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

The straits get dire straightaway when Frodo and friends venture beyond the bucolic sanctuary of their Shire. The hobbits are relentlessly menaced by mysterious Black Riders, cloaked/hooded man-shaped figures whose faces are veiled in shadow. These nine horsemen haunt their prey “like phantoms of the woods”; when on foot, they move “like shades of night creeping across the ground.” They are eventually revealed to be supernatural Ringwraiths, eldritch trackers who can “smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.” These ghostly huntsmen (riding actual black horses bred in Mordor) also wield dark-charmed blades that deliver worse-than-mortal wounds. Sauron’s shock troops form staunch antagonists throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nowhere do the Nazgul prove more ghoulish than in Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring.

 

6. Firestarter by Stephen King

The explosive climax of King’s 1980 novel begins with a burning stable, from which a group of fear-crazed horses flee in trampling stampede. But the most horrifying horses in Firestarter are of the mental and imagistic variety. Human lab rat Andy McGee uses his uncanny telepathic powers to set a “weird merry-go-round” spinning in the addled mind of his captor, Cap Hollister. The price for exerting such mental domination is an agonizing headache, the onset of which is described as “inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege”: “Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.” That is one nightmare of a migraine.

 

7. The Pet by Charles L. Grant 

Christine meets “Metzengerstein” in this 1986 novel by the king of atmospheric horror. Don Boyd is a bullied, beleaguered high schooler who is avenged not by a haunted car but rather an imposing black horse that has impossibly come to life from Don’s bedroom poster. Massive and darkly majestic, this unruly “pet” billows “smoke, maybe steam” from its flared nostrils; its thundering hooves spark “greenfire” of the same colorful blaze as its baleful gaze. Like a four-legged slasher figure (Jason Voorhees spliced with Irving’s Horseman), the stalking stallion dishes out bloody justice to the ostensibly deserving, and the kill scenes are thrillingly scripted by Grant. Even the avowed animal lover Don comes to fear the exacting actions of his shadowy protector, “an ebony ghost flying through the boiling fog.”

 

8. “Dark Carousel” by Joe Hill

Something wicked comes pummeling in Hill’s 2018 tale, which gives an even more harrowing spin to the Bradburian carnival ride. Stationed on a seedy seaside pier, the infernally-glowing, dirge-sounding Wild Wheel features “a uniquely disquieting collection of grotesques” as mounts for riders. Perhaps most striking is the team of white horses (reportedly salvaged from “Cooger’s Carousel of Ten Thousand Lights” following a devastating theme-park fire). Frozen in mid-lunge, the horses display mouths that “gaped as if to shriek,” and eyes that  “seemed to stare blindly at us with terror or rage or madness.” As if not daunting enough in stasis, the strange steeds come to life, vacating the carousel to hunt down the story’s protagonists following certain acts of transgression against the ride and its creepy operator. Wild horses can’t be broken, but human bodies certainly can, and Hill’s narrator recounts the subsequent assault in savage, brain-branding detail.

 

9. “White Mare” by Thana Niveau

“Halloween ain’t some kiddie fun fair” in the Somerset village of Thorpe Morag, where a pair of outsider Americans (who have inherited an English farmhouse from a distant relative) come face-to-mask with unnerving “old customs.” On Halloween night, the locals dress up and act out the “terrible ritual” of the titular spirit horse (figured by a white sheet topped by a grinning animal skull): “The community went from house to house, the Wight Mare and her demon entourage, where offerings would be made to ensure that the door between worlds would close at dawn.” When Dave Barton and his daughter Heather fail to appease the Wight Mare by welcoming in the guisers and offering them food and drink, they lose Heather’s beloved pet Callisto to a Godfather-style bit of mischief. This grisly sacrifice, though, only precipitates some awful payback, since Heather had formed quite an unusual bond with her horse.

 

Any glaring omissions above? Feel free to take the reins and steer another entrant into this macabre derby in the Comments section below.

Quoting Ghostface

The Scream franchise’s slasher Ghostface offers the best of both worlds: the menace of mute brutes such as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, and the hellish articulateness of a Freddy Krueger. Ghostface is at his/her taunting, threatening, terrorizing best when making cold calls to impending victims. In honor of tomorrow’s release of Scream VI, here are ten killer examples (two from each of the first five movies; leaving out the obvious, and ubiquitous, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”) of Ghostface’s macabre, snarky banter.

 

Scream (1996)

Casey: What do you want?
Ghostface: To see what your insides look like.

Sidney: So, who are you?
Ghostface: The question isn’t “Who am I?” The question is “Where am I?”

 

Scream 2 (1997)

Cici: Why do you always answer a question with a question?
Ghostface: I’m inquisitive.
Cici: Yeah, and I’m impatient. Look, do you want to leave a message for someone?
Ghostface: Do you want to die tonight, Cici?

Randy [answering Gale’s phone]: Gale’s not here!–
Ghostface: I’m not interrupting anything, am I? You three look deep in thought. Have you ever felt a knife cut through human flesh and scrape the bone beneath?

 

Scream 3 (2000)

Roman: It’s not just a new script. It’s a new movie.
Sarah: What? What movie?
Roman: My movie.
[Roman’s voice suddenly changes]
Ghostface:  And it’s called Sarah Gets Skewered Like a Fucking Pig. Still in character, Sarah?

Sidney: How do I know their voices are–
Ghostface: Are real? How do you know you’re not hearing things? How do you know I’m not someone in your head? Somewhere, you know. [Dewey and gale yelling in background]. Or do you?

 

Scream 4 (2011)

Sidney: This isn’t a fucking movie!
Ghostface: Spare me the lecture. You’ve done very well by all this bloodshed, haven’t you? Well, how about the town you left behind? I’ve got plans for you. I’m gonna slit your eyelids in half so you don’t blink when I stab you in the face. You’ll die when I want you to, Sidney. Not a moment before. Until then, you’re going to suffer.

Rebecca: I’m handling Miss Prescott’s calls and appearances. May I take a message?
Ghostface: You are the message.

 

Scream (2022)

Ghostface: Who played the dumb bitch at the beginning of Stab 1 who answers the door and gets carved up by the killer?
Tara: Fuck you.
Ghostface: Is that the answer you’re going with?

Ghostface: Really? You can’t save your own sister? All you have to day is say, “Kill Richie.”
Sam: Tara! Don’t hurt her! Please! Please! Please! I’m begging you!
Ghostface: Or say, “Kill Tara.” And I’ll make sure to hit all the organs I missed last time.

 

King (Story) Openings

My last post listed my selections of the top twenty opening lines in Stephen King’s novels/novellas. Tonight I am going to do the same for the author’s short stories:

 

Wharton moved slowly up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister had died in.–“The Glass Floor” (1967)

The guy’s name was Snodgrass, and I could see him getting ready to do something crazy.–“Trucks” (1973)

After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.–“Night Surf” (1974)

Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die.–“The Cat From Hell” (1977)

The question is: Can he do it?–“The Woman in the Room” (1978)

When Hal Shelburn saw it, when his son Dennis pulled it out of a mouldering Ralston-Purina carton that had been pushed far back under one attic eve, such a feeling of horror and dismay rose in him that for one moment he thought he would scream.–“The Monkey” (1980)

“The Reach was wider in those days,” Stella Flanders told her great-grandchildren in the last summer of her life, the summer before she began to see ghosts.–“The Reach” (1981)

I want to tell you about the end of war, the degeneration of mankind, and the death of the Messiah–an epic story, deserving thousands of pages and a whole shelf of volumes, but you (if there are any “you” later on to read this) will have to settle for the freeze-dried version.–“The End of the Whole Mess” (1986)

I believe there was only one occasion upon which I actually solved a crime before my slightly fabulous friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.–“The Doctor’s Case” (1987)

Looking into the display case was like looking through a dirty pane of glass into the middle third of his boyhood, those years from seven to fourteen when he had been fascinated by stuff like this.–“Chattery Teeth” (1992)

Pearson tried to scream but shock robbed his voice and he was able to produce only a low, choked whuffling–the sound of a man moaning in his sleep.–“The Ten O’Clock People” (1993)

My friend L.T. hardly ever talks about how his wife disappeared, or how she’s probably dead, just another victim of the Axe Man, but he likes to tell the story of how she walked out on him.–“L.T. Theory of Pets” (1997)

It’s so dark that for awhile–just how long I don’t know–I think I’m still unconscious.–“Autopsy Room Four” (1997)

Want you to get one thing straight from the start: wasn’t nobody on earth didn’t like my pal, Johnnie Dillinger, except Melvin Purvis of the F.B.I.–“The Death of Jack Hamilton” (2001)

They rode west from the slaughter, through the painted desert, and did not stop until they were a hundred miles away.–“Throttle” (2009; with Joe Hill)

Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke.–“Fair Extension” (2010)

As the Judge climbs into the kayak beneath a bright morning sky, a slow and clumsy process that takes him almost five minutes, he reflects that an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.–“The Dune” (2011)

Wilson’s mother, not one of the world’s shiny happy people, had a saying: “When things go wrong, they keep going wrong until there’s tears.”–“That Bus Is Another World” (2014)

Dave Calhoun was helping Olga Glukhov construct the Eiffel Tower.–“Mister Yummy” (2015)

Billy Clewson died all at once, with nine of the ten other members of D Squad on April 8, 1974.–“Squad D” (2019)

 

 

King Openings

Open Culture’s recent post “Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers” recounts the renowned author’s discussion of the importance of a good opening line–that single (though not necessarily simple) first sentence that serves as an invitation to the reader and a doorway into the narrative for the writer. King’s comments sent me scurrying over to my bookshelves to reflect on the author’s best practice of such preaching. Here’s a list of what I found to be the top twenty opening lines in King’s novels/novellas:

 

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.–The Shining (1977)

This is what happened.–The Mist (1980)

Once upon a time, not long ago, a monster came to the town of Castle Rock, Maine.–Cujo (1981)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.–The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

The most important things are the hardest things to say.–The Body (1982)

“Thinner,” the old Gypsy man with the rotting nose whispers to William Halleck as Halleck and his wife Heidi come out of the courthouse.–Thinner (1984)

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.–IT (1986)

People’s lives–their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences–begin at different times.–The Dark Half (1989)

“You stole my story,” the man on the doorstep said.–Secret Window, Secret Garden (1990)

No one–least of all Dr. Lichfield–came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told.–Insomnia (1994)

She sits in a corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none.–Rose Madder (1995)

“ASK ME A RIDDLE,” Blaine invited.–The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass (1997)

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted.–The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

When someone dies, you think about the past.–Why We’re in Vietnam (1999)

Pere Don Callahan had once been a Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map.–The Dark Tower (2004)

To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.–Lisey’s Story (2006)

When Wesley Smith’s colleagues asked him–some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically–what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology.–UR (2009)

The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How’s your marriage?A Good Marriage (2010)

It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.–The Outsider (2018)

The day Marty Anderson saw the billboard was just before the Internet finally went down for good.–The Life of Chuck (2020)

 

Speaking of King novels: his next one, Holly, has been officially announced. And the book description sounds like American Gothic nirvana:

Mere blocks from where Bonnie Dahl disappeared live Professors Rodney and Emily Harris. They are the picture of bourgeois respectability: married octogenarians, devoted to each other, and semi-retired lifelong academics. But they are harboring an unholy secret in their well-kept, book-lined home, one that may be related to Bonnie’s disappearance. And it will prove nearly impossible to discover what they are up to: they are savvy, they are patient, and they are ruthless.

Holly [Gibney] must summon all her formidable talents to outthink and outmaneuver the shockingly twisted professors in this chilling new masterwork from Stephen King.

Consider this Constant Reader hooked; I’m already counting the days until the September 2023 publication.

 

23 for ’23

Quot libros, quam breve tempus

 

My TBR pile is still towering with books from 2022, and is apt to remain stacked in the coming year. Here’s a list (unless otherwise noted, the description comes from the book’s dedicated Amazon page) of twenty-three new releases on my reader-radar for 2023:

 

1. How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 1/17/23)

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.

Most of all, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. Unfortunately, she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.

But some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…

 

2. The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, 1/17/23)

Bret Easton Ellis’s masterful new novel is a story about the end of innocence, and the perilous passage from adolescence into adulthood, set in a vibrantly fictionalized Los Angeles in 1981 as a serial killer begins targeting teenagers throughout the city.

Seventeen-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equaled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with the Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them—and Bret in particular—with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence. The coincidences are uncanny, but they are also filtered through the imagination of a teenager whose gifts for constructing narrative from the filaments of his own life are about to make him one of the most explosive literary sensations of his generation. Can he trust his friends—or his own mind—to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, he spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between the Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

Set against the intensely vivid and nostalgic backdrop of pre-Less Than Zero L.A., The Shards is a mesmerizing fusing of fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at seventeen—sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage. Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting, and often darkly funny, The Shards is Ellis at his inimitable best.

 

3. All Hallows by Christopher Golden (St. Martin’s, 1/24/23)

It’s Halloween night, 1984, in Coventry, Massachusetts, and two families are unraveling. Up and down the street, secrets are being revealed, and all the while, mixed in with the trick-or-treaters of all ages, four children who do not belong are walking door to door, merging with the kids of Parmenter Road. Children in vintage costumes with faded, eerie makeup. They seem terrified, and beg the neighborhood kids to hide them away, to keep them safe from The Cunning Man.

There’s a small clearing in the woods now that was never there before, and a blackthorn tree that doesn’t belong at all. These odd children claim that The Cunning Man is coming for them…and they want the local kids to protect them. But with families falling apart and the neighborhood splintered by bitterness, who will save the children of Parmenter Road?

All Hallows. The one night when everything is a mask…

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Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

Last Noirvember’s post gets a sequel: here are eleven more exemplary works that blur the genre lines between horror and film noir. And here on the day after Thanksgiving, I can think of no better place to start than with…

 

Black Friday (1940)

This crime drama–framed as the memoir of a condemned murderer–riffs on both Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff playing the rogue-scientist role in this one) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley is grievously wounded on the street when a gang of treacherous criminals (including Boris Karloff) attempts to depose its leader, Karloff’s well-meaning Dr. Sovac rescues his friend by implanting the injured gangster Red Cannon’s brain in Kinglsey’s body. Unfortunately, Cannon’s murderous personality starts to manifest in the organ recipient, and Sovac succumbs to greed and unscrupulous manipulation when he learns that Cannon has half a million dollars hidden somewhere. It’s hard to upstage Karloff and Lugosi alike, but actor Stanley Ridges does just that as he shapeshifts between the characters of Kingsley and Cannon.

 

Cat People (1942)

An early variation on the werewolf theme, in which Simone Simon plays a Serbian immigrant plagued by the dread that passionate or angry arousal will cause her to transform into one of the feral predators of the title. Her fears are legitimate; the Old World story told to her as a child is true. Simon’s Irena character soon bares her long claws, turned uncannily catty by jealously over her husband’s burgeoning romance with his co-worker. This Val-Lewton-produced, Jacques-Tourneur-directed film masterfully employs chiaroscuro lighting, establishing a noir ambiance well-suited to its theme of a dark shadow self. Cat People features some hair-raising thrills (e.g. the swimming pool stalking scene) and one of the first (and best) jump scares in the history of cinema.

 

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In this carnival noir classic, a sideshow performer temporarily rises to fame and fortune by perfecting a phony mentalist act. The film’s plot includes naturalistic unpleasantness (the inescapable degradation of alcoholism) and supernatural suggestion (the grim workings of the Tarot deck). But Nightmare Alley shines as a work of psychological horror, as it explores the corrosive effects of guilt. And the spurious mentalist more than meets his match in a femme fatale who is not averse of playing mind games of her own. The one shortcoming in this otherwise stellar adaptation of William Gresham’s novel is the excision of the recurring bad dreams signified by the title. Hopefully, Guillermo del Toro reinstates this aspect of the story in next month’s star-studded remake of the 1947 film.

 

Torso (1973)

This Italian giallo film directed by Sergio Martino features some stunning visuals (and I’m not just talking about the gratuitous nudity). A masked, foulard-wielding killer who strangles and then mutilates his victims runs amok on the student bodies of a university in Perugia. The murderer, though, is not merely motivated by his psychosexual kink (which stems from a traumatic childhood incident); many of his current victims are those who were attempting to blackmail him. Torso is a lurid murder mystery that also proves an influential proto-slasher, as evident in the film’s extended climax (in which a final girl emerges from the carnage caused by the killer’s crashing of a slumber party in a mountaintop villa).

 

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian neo-noir stars John Travolta as a sounds effect technician working on a slasher film called Co-Ed Frenzy (Blow Out cleverly opens with a stalking scene from the film-in-progress). One night, while out gathering wind recordings, the protagonist witnesses a car wreck that was actually a staged ambush aimed to disgrace the Pennsylvania governor (the Presidential hopeful was driving with a female escort, whose grifter partner lies in wait to snap incriminating pictures for the tabloids). The scheme doesn’t go according to plan, though, and the incident turns into a political assassination. The shooter, played by John Lithgow, is an absolutely terrifying character (who takes to serial killing to cover-up his impending elimination of the escort). This sinister strangler certainly could teach a few tricks to Co-Ed Frenzy‘s resident slasher.

 

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Made for HBO, this inventive urban fantasy stars Fred Ward as Harry Lovecraft, a hardboiled detective working in late-1940’s Los Angeles (a city rife with the practicing of magic and the presence of unworldly creatures). The private eye is hired to track down an elusive tome called the Necronomicon, and the case leads to encounters with gangsters, gun molls, and even a gargoyle (a figure formed by impressive practical fx). At times the proceedings in Cast a Deadly Spell devolve into comedy, particularly in a scene that pays obvious homage to Gremlins). But the sense of cosmic horror is unmistakable in the film’s apocalypse-threatening climax, in which a Cthulhu-esque colossus makes an awe-striking appearance.

 

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

The antiheroic Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) are a pair of bank-robbing siblings and fugitive killers on the run. Holding a pastor and his teenage children at gunpoint, they have the family smuggle them south of the border to a Mexican desert strip club. There, the Geckos plan to meet up with an associate who will transport them to a legendary criminal haven known (in a nod to Jim Thompson) as “El Rey.” All standard crime noir fare, until the film takes an abrupt left turn into supernatural horror when the strip club turns out to be a front for a horde of monstrous vampires. Director Robert Rodriguez has his ensemble cast wade hip deep in bloody gore, delivering slick dialogue all the while.

 

Saw (2004)

While later installments (featuring increasingly baroque traps) earned the franchise a torture porn reputation, the original Saw plays out as a heady mystery-thriller. A pair of apparent strangers (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) awaken shackled in a grungy bathroom, with no memory initially of how they got there. Even more unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they have been ensnared by the serial killer Jigsaw, whose fiendish game rules present murder as the only hope of escape from the room. Dark crime story elements and situations abound: a policeman who loses his badge but gains a vendetta, a freelance photographer who is hired to snap photos of an adulterous doctor, an innocent man blackmailed into illicit activity by the injection of poison. The foot-hacksawing in the climax is utterly cringe-inducing (reminiscent of Psycho‘s shower scene, more violence is implied than actually depicted), but that image gets trumped by the most startling faked-death twist this side of Diabolique.

 

Secret Window (2004)

David Koepp’s criminally underrated film (adapted from the Stephen King novella) stars Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a distraught writer who caught his wife in a motel tryst. Holed up inside his lake cabin afterward, and suffering from depression and writer’s block, Mort is confronted by a menacing stranger named John Shooter (played wonderfully by John Turturro, although Robert Mitchum would have been perfect for the role had the film been made a half-century earlier). Shooter shows up on the doorstep with claims of plagiarism, and attempts to strongarm Mort into making amends. This is another film sporting a killer plot twist, and the climax (besides invoking “The Fall of the House of Usher”) conveys strong vibes of American Gothic horror.

 

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s film combines procedural (the quest by law enforcement officers and journalists to discover the identity of the Zodiac killer, a taunting, Jack-the-Ripper type who terrorized real-world California in the 1970’s) and thriller elements. The balance isn’t always perfect, but Zodiac makes the list for its interspersed scenes depicting the titular killer in action. Fincher’s dramatizations of the slayings are deeply unsettling, especially since the audience is aware that it is witnessing the historical reenactment, not mere fabrication. Even scenes where the Zodiac doesn’t succeed leave their mark. In one nightmarish sequence, Zodiac gives a young mother a lift (after first sabotaging her car tire), and his nonchalantly voiced intention to throw her baby out the window before killing her has to be one of the most horrifying movie lines of all time.

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

The 1933 Universal horror film (which easily could have been slotted on this list as well) receives a brilliantly dark update. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with an optics engineer. Her mate, Adrian, is also frightfully obsessive: even after Cecilia effects a narrow escape from his home/prison, he plots to get her back by faking his death and then stalking her while wearing the cutting-edge cloaking suit he has designed. Adrian is invisible but not intangible: he represents quite a physical threat. But the real horror of the film is psychological, as the Machiavellian title villain methodically messes with Cecilia’s mind. Such high-tech gaslighting, and the battle of wits that ensues when Cecilia catches wise to the con, makes for one wickedly entertaining film.

 

 

Trope Trick: Six Killer Riffs on the Final Girl

Horror films are streaming seemingly everywhere this Halloween season. Classic slashers are out in full force, but I have been focusing more on the post-Scream variations that rework rather than just rehash the formula. Here are six films that have taken the final girl trope in fresh, new directions (spoilers below):

 

Identity (2003)

When is a final girl not a final girl? Answer: when she proves (along with nine other characters gathered at a remote Nevada motel one rainy night) to be a personality existing only in the mind of a disturbed killer. And even within this mental landscape, the orange-grove idyll of lone survivor Paris (Amanda Peet) gets undercut by a wicked twist at film’s end.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Tongue is impaled in cheek in this mockumentary slasher, in which a film crew follows around an aspiring killer well-versed in slasher conventions. Matters take a hilarious turn when the character Vernon has been grooming as his final girl is revealed as the antithesis of virginal. The real twist, though, is that Vernon actually has tabbed the journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) for final girl status all along.

 

You’re Next (2011)

The turn from frightened flight to vigorous fight has always been a central component of the final girl’s in-film development, but here Erin (Shari Vinson) is shown to be badass from the get-go. Moreover, a credible rationale is given for her formidable skill set (she grew up in a survival compound in Australia). Hardcore Erin also makes for an interesting final girl in her gross outnumbering–by a series of masked killers as well as the two-faced family members who contracted their home invasion.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

This uber-clever effort takes the meta in another direction: the collegiate protagonists are mostly unaware of horror film conventions, unlike the adults who are technologically and scientifically manipulating the situation. The ultimate subversiveness is reserved for the climax, when the refusal by Dana (Kristen Connelly) to fulfill her designated archetypal role and be the last girl standing precipitates the fall of human civilization.

 

Terrifier (2016)

Art the Clown is a coulrophobe’s worst nightmare in this most savage of slashers (which has a grindhouse vibe and near-torture-porn approach). But what lands the film on this list is its surprising looping structure. Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi) goes through hell to survive Art’s horrific assault, but this gritty final girl turns out to be the disfigured wretch we’ve already watch commit a gory murder, dispatching her disparaging interviewer in Terrifier‘s opening frame.

 

Happy Death Day (2017)

Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) parties hard, isn’t studious, sleeps with her professor, is a mean sorority girl, and (as is the wont of her character type in a slasher) gets killed early in the film. But while her repeated slaying take a physical toll, her each return to relive Monday the 18th pushes her further along on her slasher-unmasking, final-girl-worthy redemption arc in this witty variation on Groundhog Day.