My newest short story is up on Tor.com’s page. It’s about a guy walking to work and trying to deal with typical issues like obnoxious co-workers, rivers of blood, and faceless monsters. Check it out!
Horror and fantasy fiction share much of the same literary DNA. Lovecraft, for one, was influential in both fields, as were several of his influences and contemporaries like Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith. Why then are there not more novels (at least that I know of) that fuse the sensibilities of these cousin genres? I know there is more to this genre-hybrid than the titles I list here (please comment with some of your favorites that I should check out), and high fantasy is still a bit of a blind-spot for me, reading-wise. And I know dark fantasy is a subgenre that rubs shoulders with horror. But it still seems like underutilized territory. In fact, I considered making an equivalent movie list, but aside from a few pieces like Pan’s Labyrinth (itself a Machen-inspired film), I just couldn’t come up with many titles. Maybe with the success of the Game of Thrones franchise, which got darker and more violent than any filmed fantasy I’ve seen before, more filmmakers will explore the combination of high fantasy and horror. Until then, though, we have some excellent books to read that fuse fantastic worlds with a horrific atmosphere, as well as a few horror novels that lean into fantasy tropes. Maybe writers have avoided this hybridization because of market pressures, with publishers eager to stick to known genre-boundaries. Or maybe it is relatively unexplored because people have difficulty creating fantasy worlds so believable that we can then appreciate it when the horrific erupts there. The following books bring us to strange worlds with stranger inhabitants and then unleash darkness upon them.
City of Singing Flame (1931/1981)
Clark Ashton Smith
We start with Clark Ashton Smith, a younger contemporary and friend of H. P. Lovecraft, one with rather healthier views on race and sexuality. A few of Smith’s stories take place in the real world, but e often sets off to other planets, a pre-Ice Age continent named Hyperborea, or a dying and terrifying future Earth known as Zothique by its unfortunate inhabitants. Smith leans far more into what would soon be thought of as science-fiction and fantasy worlds and tropes, but his stories usually have a darkness in them that aligns with horror. In “The City of the Singing Flame,” for instance, the main character steps through a portal into a strange plain dominated by a massive alien city. Beings from all across the multiverse are being drawn here, but is it for their benefit or their doom? Clark’s stories are more diverse than HPL’s, in structure, tone, and characters, and I wish he was read more today. His prose is pretty purple, often purpler than HPL’s style, so I know that turns some readers off. But if you can get drawn into his world through (or despite) his thick style, you’ll be given visions of alien worlds and terrible beauty you won’t soon shake off.
The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-1959)
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, starting with Titus Groan, represent this completely other branch of fantasy that could’ve been, had J. R. R. Tolkien’s descendants and imitators not dominated the field for so long. In fact, despite being far less known, Peake has still had an almost secret influence on the field, with countless genre authors citing him as a big part of their creative evolution. The three finished novels (and one fragment) that make up this series are all about Gormenghast, a castle that seems to be the size of a city, or perhaps a mountain. In this castle live a fair number of royals and servants, but huge swathes of the place have been abandoned for centuries, some so thickly overgrown with vegetation that no one could enter them without a lot of struggle. The castle has been ruled over since time immemorial by the Groan family, a once proud lineage that has now shrunk to a small cast of eccentrics, grotesques, and neurotics. The first novel focuses on the birth of the latest heir of this family, as well as conflicts that arise within both the royal remnants and their servants. The characters out-Dickens Dickens with their strange personalities and sharply described oddities of dress and behavior. Magic is rare in these books and only enters later in the trilogy, but Peake’s world is so bizarre it doesn’t matter. And that castle… Whether there are monsters or ghosts deep in its recesses or not, it casts this dark and hyper-Gothic shadow over everyone trapped inside. I’d kill to see this one given a big-budget yet faithful movie adaptation.
The Bloody Chamber (1979)
The subgenre of retold fairy tales is by now a more familiar one than it was when Angela Carter started writing her stories. At least from what I hear, many of these new versions of old stories can get pretty erotic. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them manage to stir a good bit of horror, both psychological and supernatural, into the mix. But I doubt many of them can match the fever-pitched, yet strangely knowing tone of Carter’s work. If they do, it’s likely only because of the path she carved. If general audiences know her for anything, it may be that she wrote the story later adapted as the bizarre, sexual, and violent werewolf retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” The Company of Wolves. That story is in this collection, as are reimagined versions of the “Bluebeard” folktale and “Sleeping Beauty.” These are definitely not Brothers Grimm stories, however dark those original versions of these legends were. Carter introduces vampires, werewolves, con artists, and a lot of perverse sexuality into her stories, while telling them in a rich style. As with Clark Ashton Smith, this style will put off plenty of readers, but for those attuned to this sort of voice and vision, Angela Carter’s work is pure treasure.
In Peter Straub’s follow-up to his successful Ghost Story, two teenage boys at a boys’ school for the wealthy bond over being the victims of a particularly noxious bully as well as a shared love of magic. The boys put on a magic school for their school, only to have it end disastrously in a mysterious fire. When Del Nightingale invites Tom Flanagan to stay with him at his uncle’s estate, Shadowland, Tom learns that this uncle, Coleman Collins, has taught his nephew real magic. What follows is a story about growing up, first love, and real sorcery only pretending at being stage magic. As Tom gets to know the old man better, he slowly realizes Collins is hiding dark secrets, including a being the man created in order to deal with his enemies. This idyllic summer of learning and friendship soon splinters into suspicion, transformation, and magical violence. Straub’s novel, as is the case with all of his work, is no quick ride through horror and fantasy. Rather, it’s a deliberately-paced and lyrical examination of the draw of supernatural power and the ways, subtle as well as extreme, that such power could corrupt someone.
The Dark Tower series (1982-2012)
This is Stephen King’s magnum opus, a series that blends science fiction, horror, high fantasy, and westerns into a unique mixture that’s almost a genre unto itself. Largely set in Mid-World, a darkly warped version of Earth, the books follow the adventures and trials of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger/knight who is the last of his royal bloodline. Roland begins the series pursuing the Man in Black, a treacherous wizard responsible for the fall of the Deschains who may be familiar to readers of some of King’s other novels who is a minion of a far darker power. Over the course of the series, the gunslinger gathers a Ka-tet (karmically-bound fellow travelers) from our Earth, and they travel through this weird world littered with ancient technology, mutant monsters, and strange magic. Their goal: the Dark Tower, the center of the multiverse, the spoke around with all worlds turn. Something is corrupting it and should this wicked force take complete control of the Tower, every universe will fall into a never-ending hellish state called Discordia. Can a withered gunslinger, a drug addict, a wheelchair-bound sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and a young boy save literally everything and everyone? King’s series can be read by those who haven’t touched any of his other novels, but for those who have, these books are filled with great callbacks, cameos, and even explanations for some of the other evils in the King literary universe. And skip that movie. What a great cast! What a great opportunity to bring the epic to the big screen! And what a great example of why film producers and screenwriters should stick to King’s actual stories and not try compressing and mutilating them into supposedly audience-friendly mainstream fare.
The Anubis Gates (1983)
Tim Powers has made a career of writing sui generis novels that blend fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery, espionage, and comic elements. The Anubis Gates takes these tropes and throws in time travel portals. This might sound really messy, but the novels gels into its own compelling beast. Brendan Doyle is a grieving widower and expert on a strange 19th century poet named William Ashbless. After being invited to be the resident expert on a time travel trip to see the poet Samuel Tyler Coleridge, Doyle is abandoned in 1810, forcing him to try to find a living there as well as find a way back. This doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre cast of characters or the malign magical plan they are all being drawn in to serve. I will say that my favorite is a sewer-dwelling, stilt-walking sorcerer-clown named Horrabin who may have been part of the inspiration for Stephen King’s Pennywise. Someday an enterprising TV show runner will turn this into an amazing series, but until then, check out the novel for a unique and action-packed reading experience.
Clive Barker’s Imajica was the first fantasy novel I read as a teen. I’d avoided the genre largely because I thought it was all elves and dragons and other Tolkien-derived medieval settings, but when I picked up this fat novel, I saw the genre could incorporate any number of influences and visions. In Imajica, the Earth was once connected via interdimensional portals to four other universes, four other Earths. An mysterious catastrophe separated our world from this network known as the Imajica, and throughout the centuries, powerful sorcerers have attempted bringing them back together in a magical operation called the Reconciliation, each of which has failed, often dramatically. The novel follows Gentle, a lover and an art forgerer, his ex-girlfriend Judith, and a shapeshifting, gender-fluid assassin named Pie’oh’pah. These three, as well as a cast of several dozen other strange characters, will plumb the depths of the Imajica, visit the massive city Yzordderrex, and discover the secrets of the Unbeheld, the godlike creature who rules the First Dominion. One of the things I loved about this novel which may be a turnoff for some is its inclusion of occult violence and the sort of adult situations often excluded from the works of Tolkien’s acolytes but present in novels like Game of Thrones, so don’t expect a gentle ride through this amazing series of worlds.
The Throne of Bones (1997)
In this astonishing, gritty, and at times nihilistic collection of short stories, Brian McNaughton just about created an entire subgenre of horror on his own. While the stories cover all sorts of scenarios in his fantasy world, about half of them revolve around a decadent city whose graveyards are haunted by ghouls. Minor spoiler warning here, though you pretty quickly figure out what’s happening. McNaughton’s ghouls are corpse-eating abominations with one imaginative peculiarity: if they eat a corpse’s brain, particularly a fresh one, the ghoul literally becomes that person for a short time, inheriting all their quirks and memories and essentially assuming they are the deceased. As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of demented circumstances, from the comic to the erotic. What all of these stories have in common, though, are a twisted sensibility, poetic style, and an unfettered exploration of some of the darkest topics. Necrophilia, incest, cannibalism, all of it happens in these stories, so buyer beware. This ain’t your grandpa’s high fantasy. I loved it, as will some of you sickos out there. Another book that should be brought back from oblivion and given some sort of cinematic treatment.
Perdido Street Station (2000)
Set in a sprawling and comprehensively imagined city named New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is probably my favorite fantasy novel set in my favorite fantasy world, the bizarre Bas-Lag, a planet distorted by an interdimensional rift. This first book in a series of interlinked but standalone novels mostly doesn’t leave New Crobuzon. This city-state lies in the shadow of a massive ribcage belonging to an extinct creature that would’ve made the dinosaurs look like mice. The city is ruled over by a merciless police-state, one which punishes lawbreakers horribly by turning them into grotesque machine-hybrids called the Remade. At least ten wildly different species of intelligent beings live and work in this gritty city, mixing with one another in peaceable and violent ways. In the city lives Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a researcher with a leg in both science and magical theory. When an avian creature who has lost his wings due to an unspeakable crime approaches Isaac about helping him fly again, the scientist’s efforts lead him to encounter a dangerous new species. I imagine all of this sounds like a lot, and it is: an explosion of creativity and weirdness. But Miéville makes it work so well that when the novel takes a turn into being a monster story, you’ll happily ride along with wherever he’s going. Miéville’s novels are also infused with his politics, non-authoritarian Marxism. Even if that isn’t your bag, you’ll probably still enjoy the scope and intensity of his imagined world.
The Darkness That Comes Before (2004)
R. Scott Bakker
I must admit I’ve only read this, the first in a multi-book epic, so I cannot knowledgably speak of the series as a whole. The Darkness That Comes Before, however, very much impressed me with its detailed and dark fantasy world, as well as the larger story it begins to tell here. The novel is set on a continent named Eärwa which was once inhabited by alien creatures but is now dominated by humanity. Eärwa is wracked by religious conflict, and the novel shows the beginning of a new Holy War, one that will draw the attention and talents of the mysterious wandering warrior Anasûrimbor Kellhus. From what I understand, his rise and development, only begun here in this first novel, eventually is similar to that of Dune‘s Paul Atreides, though Kellhus is a Of all the works on this list, this is the one that’s closest to being a traditional work of high fantasy, but there’s nothing common or lazily Tolkien-derived about Bakker’s world. In tone and plot development, it resembles Game of Thrones in some ways, but it’s a far grimmer and more troublesome world than that of Martin’s. Eärwa feels so shadow-haunted and grim I have no qualms about labeling the novel horror-fantasy.
How do you film the unfathomable? That’s long been the challenge filmmakers interested in either adapting Lovecraft’s stories for the movies directly or crafting stories and visuals similar to those HPL employed. So much of what’s still disturbing and awesome (in the older definition of that word) about Lovecraft’s work are the ways in which he not only describes alien and magnificent visions, but also just hints at much worse waiting. Some Lovecraft adaptations, in my opinion, fail when they try ham-fistedly portraying his Elder Gods and minor monsters, throwing rubber suits or poor CGI at us instead of fleshy abominations. Other adaptations don’t do so well at trying to add a human element to the stories, all those emotions and full characters and interesting dialogue that HPL is most certainly not known for writing. That, the issue with character and heart, is something that must be worked carefully, and some of the following movies excel at it, but the issue with special effects is probably why we are only recently seeing decent HPL movies. Simply put, before the mid-eighties or so, it was too difficult to create visual analogues to Lovecraft’s fictitious monstrosities. That doesn’t mean that any movie with a good set of special effects will succeed either. Something most of the films on this list do great at is creating a sense of a vast and uncaring multiverse looming just behind the more intimate events of the movie. And that, more than bizarre creature effects, is the heart of the Lovecraftian.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
Don’t let the posters or trailers fool you: this Roger Corman directed and Vincent Price starring movie is based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft, not Edgar Allan Poe. That novella is “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and it will appear twice on this list. Here, Corman gives us a movie based on its broad outlines. The necromancer Joseph Curwen has gone a step too far in using the people of Arkham as his occult guinea pigs. After he performs a ritual on a young village girl, a mob burns Curwen alive, his last words being a curse upon the village. 110 years later, his descendant Charles Dexter Ward arrive at his estate, Ward having just inherited the old palace. It isn’t long before he and his wife are being given the rundown on the Necronomicon, the Elder Gods, and Curwen’s plan to create a new race of super beings. Ward soon falls under the spell of the dead warlock, and Curwen begins his wicked plans anew. Corman uses Poe’s poem “The Haunted Palace” as a framing device in part, I think, to try to tie this movie in with his other Poe adaptations. That, a subplot about erotic obsession, and the 19th century setting of the movie do lend it some Poe-esque touches, but this is Lovecraft’s baby. So far as I can tell, it was the first adaptation of one of his stories, or at least the first cinematic one. If you dig Corman’s Poe adaptations, you will likely enjoy this. And if you haven’t see any of them? Over-the-top, colorful, and filled with some most excellent scene-chewing by Vincent Price, they are a vital part of horror heritage and are a lot of fun.
From Beyond (1986)
In the 20 years or so separating The Haunted Palace from Stuart Gordon’s Herbert West: Re-Animator, Lovecraft’s work popped up in at least one TV show (Night Gallery) and one film adaptation (The Dunwich Horror: super campy), but otherwise the Mythos, cinematically speaking, was fairly dead. Then came Re-Animator. I’ve covered that movie already in my list of comedic horror greats, so I’d like to focus here on From Beyond, a movie which is honestly a lot more disturbing than those about Herbert West. This one too was directed by Gordon and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, but with an excellent addition of Ken Foree, best known for his starring role in the original Dawn of the Dead. From Beyond is an eye-popping and gaudy movie, and I mean that in the very best way. It concerns the mad Doctor Pretorius, a classic over-reacher who has found a way to see into another dimension. Unfortunately, the forces there can look back on him and anyone near his machine, and at the film’s beginning, the doctor has been decapitated by something from the other side. His assistant, suspected of his murder, is soon brought back to his cursed house by his psychiatrist and a cop. All sorts of madness ensues, with (IMHO) some of the best special effects used in a horror movie of the 80’s. Perhaps the 90’s as well. Seriously: this is some gooey stuff. The leads give a lot of fun acting that treads just close enough to camp to be entertaining while not overstepping the line and making it impossible to take the movie seriously. Also, in a move I seriously doubt would’ve worked for the Puritanical and sex-phobic Lovecraft, Pretorius’s machine is revealed to stimulate lust in those near it, and the film dabbles with kink in a fun and funny way.
Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
While the idea of cross-splicing the Lovecraft Mythos with Noir conventions is by now fairly old hat, it was fairly surprising when this HBO movie was first released. Cast a Deadly Spell mixes a heady brew, setting a Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett mystery in a world in which magic is commonplace. Harry Lovecraft is a private investigator working in Los Angeles. Everyone around him uses magic for everything from lighting cigarettes to laying down nasty Mafia curses, but not Harry, this despite being pulled into cases involving voodoo and a missing book called the Necronomicon. This movie has a lot going for it like its cast, which includes Fred Ward, David Warner, and a young Julianne Moore in what appears to be her first starring role. The special effects are also a lot of fun, most of them being done practically. There is a subplot about a transwoman that is handled very poorly, an element that dates the movie more than anything else. This and other small issues makes me wish they’d reboot this with more modern effects and mores. HBO made a sequel, Witch Hunt, in which McCarthyism is represented by a literal witch-hunt and Lovecraft is played by Dennis Hopper that has its moments too.
The Resurrected (1992)
This is the second adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and this one is far more faithful to the source material than Roger Corman’s was, as well as being a much scarier, gorier affair. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original Alien (he based the chestburster concept on abdominal issues that plagued him) and directed the first Return of the Living Dead, this movie is one of those criminally underrated pieces that’s due a revival. Claire Ward hires a private investigator, John March, to investigate her husband, a chemical engineer. After looking into his family history and his discovery of a painting of one of his ancestors, who appears to be a dead ringer for Charles Ward, the man bought his old familial farmhouse and cut off contact with his wife. Soon, a neighbor is dead, hideously mutilated, and March finds the engineer apparently on the verge of madness. The special effects in this one are great, mostly practical ones from what I can tell, and Chris Sarandon plays an intense dual role as Ward and Joseph Curwen. It is a darker, grittier take on HPL than STuart Gordon’s movies usually are.
Dark Waters/Dead Waters (1994)
This hallucinatory arthouse horror film mixes Lovecraftian tropes with Catholic imagery, producing a unique and truly strange experience for viewers. The movie is about Elizabeth, a young woman with hazy memories of her childhood. Her father has just died and in going through his finances, she’s discovered he donates money regularly to a convent on an isolated island. When she visits it, she finds dark secrets that involve her past. This one is a treat for the eyes. A little violent in places, it isn’t focused primarily on grossing you out but rather creating this dark and dreamy atmosphere. It’s funny that so many Lovecraftian-inspired works involve people investigating their murky pasts. I suppose it ties in with HPL’s fictional ideas about humanity discovering that it too has a strange and rather horrible pre-history. In this movie, though, that search takes on a sort of spiritual resonance that I very much enjoy.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
The concept of this adaptation of Lovecraft’s most famous story is kind of brilliant. Basically, what if instead of being a cranky recluse and small-time cult writer, Lovecraft had been famous enough during his time to warrant a movie adaptation of his work? What would a silent, black-and-white version of “The Call of Cthulhu” look like? As it turns out, it looks pretty good. Leman enlivens his movie with some good Expressionist-inspired shots and settings, something that lends the project a sense of the madness that the Great Old One tends to bring in his wake. Your patience for this movie is going to depend on how entertained you can be by pre-sound, pre-color horror. Although this movie is now a curio and I have no idea how many people actually watch it, I’d like to think that had it come out in the 1920’s it would have been a big hit and altered the course of cinematic history. As it is, it’s a fun and melodramatic show.
The Mist (2007)
I have to include this movie because I didn’t really grasp the idea of cosmic horror until I read the Stephen King novella it’s based on. An ominous mist rolls across a small Maine town. As it chokes out the light, monsters of all sorts start appearing, an entire ecosystem from another dimension. This is Lovecraftian horror without any guiding mega-minds like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, as if we’re being given a safari tour through the sort of natural life those beings must have evolved within. Our primary characters find themselves trapped in a supermarket, and as fear and fanaticism develop amongst the crowd gathered there, they find that there are horrors in the human mind that may rival any tentacular beings from another world. The creature design in this one is amazing, even if a lot of it is CGI. They do a great job of selling these alien creatures as real. I have lots of feelings about the end of this movie because honestly, it’s easily one of the most upsetting endings that I’ve seen in a horror movie, one made all the more impressive by how bloodless it is. Don’t watch this one if you really need to feel good, or maybe do if you want to see people worse off than yourself.
The Void (2016)
Jeremy Gillspie and Steven Kostanski
I love this movie and it makes me irritable that it’s not more widely known. Lovecraft is all over this one though neither he nor his Mythos are invoked in it. In terms of monstrosities, The Void is up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it adds this vast, cosmic flavor that puts it above most similar movies. When Deputy Sheriff Daniel Carter finds a wounded man in the woods, he brings him to the local hospital, a big rambling place recently damaged in a fire. Robed cultists show up and encircle the place, silently threatening to kill anyone who tries escaping. And then the madness inside begins. The creature effects in this independent movie are to die for, organic and mutating and hideous. Underlying all the supernatural violence is a mystery, one that will draw Carter and his ex-wife into an encounter with another dimension and the strange beings that make it their home. This one is intense, for sure, but so worth checking out. Some may complain that parts of the ending are too similar to a movie by Lucio Fulci, but (and this will likely lose me “horror points” with some aficionados of that director’s work) I think The Void does it better.
Color Out of Space (2019)
When something fallen from the sky infects the Gardner’s family farm with a bizarre alien color-disease, it’s members must try surviving the fallout. This adaptation of Lovecraft’s story of the same name is, in my opinion, one of the most Lovecraftian of all Lovecraft adaptations. Sure, it adds some light humor and heartfelt familial dynamics, both of which are fairly alien to HPL’s corpus, and yes, it changes some of the particulars of what happens on this farm. But it conveys the sheer weirdness of the interdimensional color in beautiful and horrific ways. The movie skimps on neither monstrous special effects nor awesome glimpses of the much larger cosmic forces behind all the strangeness. Just beware: no one is safe in this movie.
In the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean (that we know of), an earthquake slams an underwater drilling facility, forcing the survivors of the initial destruction out into the black sea. Somewhere out there is a way back up to the surface. Unfortunately for these people (but fortunately for us), so are dangerous and hitherto undiscovered creatures. Cue a fast-paced movie with excellent effects. There are some significant Lovecraftian touches to this monster movie, including particularly tentacular monsters, but what struck me most about Underwater was how well it transforms the bottom of the ocean into an eerie alien landscape, a creepy reminder that we may not have to leave this planet in order to find the eldritch and the unfathomable.
The stories and ideas of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have had an impact on 20th century horror possibly unmatched by any other early writer in the genre. Sure, Mary Shelley helped create what we think of as the horror genre, and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories set the template for countless techniques and subgenres still at work today. And yes, vampires descended from Bram Stoker’s Dracula have haunted the genre for more than a century and still lurk around the edges, however sparkly and soap operatic they’ve gotten. But Lovecraft’s vision speaks to 20th (and 21st) century concerns and realities in ways these earlier authors couldn’t have hoped to do. There’s also the fact that both Shelley and Stoker only produced a handful of genre pieces between the two of them, though those pieces and their influence are of course undeniable. This in comparison to HPL’s output, which while mostly restricted to short stories and novellas creates an entire worldview and the makings of what would eventually be known as the Mythos. From the bodily resurrections of Herbert West to the incipient invasion of the great and powerful sleepyhead Cthulhu, HPL’s work blew open the doors of a genre that was still too often tied down to Gothic conventions, ghosts and haunted castles. Lovecraft wasn’t alone in this literary expansion, and a future list is going to cover some of his contemporaries that should be better known, but none have so far had the sort of influence that he did. HPL was interested in science, history, theology, and philosophy in a way that lent depth and texture to his fiction. There is also, of course, the other side of the man, the often virulent racism and general xenophobia that sometimes is visible in his stories and sometimes, unfortunately, is the foundation on which certain tales rest. The following authors all work within or adjacent to the territory opened up by Lovecraft, struggling in different ways to update, criticize, and pay homage to this influential author.
If you can imagine William Faulkner writing a psychological horror novel with touches of the Lovecraftian Mythos, you may have an idea of what you’re getting into with this novel. Peter Leland is a minister trying to finish his book on Dagon, the ancient Sumerian fish god, when he inherits a rambling house and four hundred acres of land in remote North Carolina from his grandparents. After he moves there with his wife Sheila, though, he finds a family of strange squatters have taken up residence on the grounds. It isn’t long before this clan and their peculiar religious beliefs begin getting to Peter, but what do they actually want of him? This isn’t a rousing adventure story in the fashion of many Mythos novels, nor is it a vividly supernatural one (though there are certainly elements of that). This is a dark and poetically told tale of psychological disintegration and the extremities a desire for transcendence can drive one to.
Dark Gods (1985)
T. E. D. Klein
This collection be T. E. D. Klein, part of his sadly limited output, is made up of four novellas, one of which is a direct homage to Lovecraft. “Black Man with a Horn” deals with an old man, once a protégé of HPL himself, who learns of existence of real cosmic horror on a plane flight. Though the other stories in Dark Gods don’t deal directly with the Mythos, they are an excellent, moody set of tales. My favorite may be “Petey,” a story of creeping terror so subtle many readers don’t catch on to how disturbing the ending is. That one and “Nadelman’s God,” which mixes a Lovecraftian fear of vast and unknowable powers with Fritz Leiber’s vision of metropolitan monstrosities.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1986)
As with Klein’s stories, these pieces by Thomas Ligotti are only Lovecraftian in spirit. Expect no appearances of Cthulhu and his star-spawn here. Ligotti’s is a unique voice. What they do have in common are certain “psycho-spiritual” concepts. Ligotti’s protagonists, much like HPL’s, often teeter on the edge of madness, but Ligotti’s aesthetes and cracked actors often seem to enjoy it in some perverse way. There’s also this cosmic pessimism in the work of both authors, but Ligotti takes it to another level, suggesting in his stories (and outright preaching in his nonfiction) that existence itself is the ultimate horror, one we would’ve all been better off with having avoided. Despite how nihilistic that sounds, there is an enjoyable vein of dark humor that runs through most of his work. He’s one of the few contemporary authors I have no problem applying the word “genius” to.
Resume With Monsters (1995)
William Browning Spencer
If HPL had collaborated with Philip Dick in order to write a sequel to Office Space, they may have come up with something as batshit crazy as this fun horror/sci-fi/corporate satire by William Browning Spencer. The novel is about Philip Kenan, office schlub and aspiring author, who is constantly putting off finishing his book, The Despicable Quest. Kenan has his own strange reasons for this, reasons that tie-in quite explicitly with the Lovecraft Mythos. Resume With Monsters is an early entry in the comic/cosmic horror novel subgenre that has seen most recent success with David Wong’s John Dies at the End, though this one is less gory and more focused on satirizing big business and its organizational oddities. Time travel comes into play, as do vast and awful plans for the world. This one would be a lot of fun to see turned into a movie.
This another story with no straightforward ties to the Lovecraft Mythos, but which gleefully partakes in some of Lovecraft’s central themes, particularly the notion that there are powers so different than us that we cannot even conceive of their aims. Uzumaki is a graphic novel by the great manga writer Junji Ito, an incredibly inventive horror author. It’s an epic about the small town of Kurouzu-cho which is undergoing a rather weird and inexplicable slow-motion catastrophe. Spiral patterns are appearing throughout the town, distorting not only settings and objects but the minds and bodies of its citizens. This is a curse like none other I’ve seen with the exception of the weird events on the Gardner farm in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” in which an abstract quality, here color rather than shape, similarly creates monstrosities and drives people mad. That there should be some familial resemblance here is no surprise, in that Junji Ito names Lovecraft as one of his greatest influences. One of the things Ito’s work has going for him that is virtually nonexistent in HPL’s work is a concern with interpersonal relationships, and this spiral-driven contamination is portrayed through the lenses of many different characters and their emotional reactions to the nightmare consuming them.
Mr. X (1999)
In Mr. X, Peter Straub not only pays homage to Lovecraft and some of his conceptions, he tells a complex supernatural mystery filled with lively characters. Ned Dunstan has been haunted his entire life by the sense that he is connected to someone out there, a dark half always lingering on the fringes of his life. This ominous feeling has often been accompanied by vivid and violent visions. Now, with his mother dying, Ned is returning to his home town and is about to learn terrible family secrets. The novel alternates Ned’s story with that of the eponymous Mr. X, an arrogant misanthropic serial killer who reads Lovecraft’s fiction like scriptures. This novel, like most of Straub’s, is more literary and complicated than someone might expect from a Mythos-related piece, so don’t expect cheap thrills. It is instead an examination of the way lies and evasions can misshape families, as well an at-times amusing portrait of what toxic fandom can become. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
The Last Revelation of Gla’aki (2013)
Ramsey Campbell’s early work leaned into both Lovecraft’s style and supernatural conceptions. Fortunately for the genre, editor August Derleth, who had decades earlier been one of HPL’s friends, encouraged Campbell to shake off some of that influence, dig into his own unique terrors, and relocate his stories to England. Years later, having firmly established his own darkly subtle vision of horror, Campbell has returned to play in Lovecraft-adjacent territory in a few pieces. In this short novel, Leonard Fairman, a repressed librarian, comes to the seaside town of Gulshaw in order to secure a complete set of The Revelations of Gla’aki, a nine-volume occult treatise that no one has seen in its entirety for decades, if not centuries. When he gets to Gulshaw, though, his visit stretches longer than he’d planned, as the townspeople prove an odd bunch who clearly want more from Fairman than meets the eye. This one is creepy, visionary, and even plays with some loving satire of the whole Lovecraftian schtick while still telling a fast story of cosmic horrors and bizarre revelations.
Stephen King has certainly worked the Lovecraftian vein before, particularly in stories like “Crouch End” and “Jerusalem’s Lot.” In Revival, though, he really lets the cosmic madness shine through. The novel also shows the influence of Arthur Machen’s excellent 1894 novella, The Great God Pan, a work that itself helped form HPL’s imagination. In King’s novel, we meet Charles Jacobs, a minister with a beautiful wife and son, both of whom die in a terrible accident. Jacobs renounces his faith rather publicly and then leaves the small town he’d been ministering to. Years later, Jamie Morton, one of the kids affected by Jacobs, is an addict whose life is falling apart. Enter Jacobs, who has spent the intervening decades creating a new electrical method of healing people. When he cures Morton of his heroin addiction, the younger man thinks he has stumbled into a miracle story. But Jacobs has plans that outstrip any tent-revival healing shows, and Morton is going to regret becoming a part of them. This is King going really dark, some of the same tonal territory he explored in Pet Sematary, and while that turned off some of his faithful readers who like their horror a bit less bleak, I ate this one up.
The Ballad of Black Tom (2016)
This is another short one, but oh boy does it pack a wallop. Set in the 1920’s, The Ballad of Black Tom follows Tommy Tester, a black street musician who gets roped into a questionable scheme by a wealthy man with occult tastes. LaValle’s spare prose and vivid imagination make this a cinematic experience, but he’s also wrestling with some significant themes. There’s all the stuff about cosmic horrors and evil tomes, of course. After all, this is a Mythos tale. But LaValle’s novel also struggles with the nastier parts of Lovecraft’s personality and influence, namely his rancid views on race. Tommy faces horrors both supernatural and all too real, and the way the story pulls these threads together is both thought-provoking and enthralling, never sinking into didacticism. A TV series or movie is rumored to be coming out of this one and I look forward to it, as well as LaValle’s future explorations of the genre.
I Am Providence (2016)
I’m capping off this list with a strange one. It’s strange in that it isn’t a supernatural horror novel. Instead, I Am Providence is a murder mystery that also works as literary satire. But it does take place at the “Summer Tentacular,” a fictional Lovecraft convention set in HPL’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. And it is filled with discussion, criticism, homage, and parody of Lovecraft’s writing, Mythos, and complicated personality. Briefly, one of the writers attending the con is violently murdered, his face removed and stolen, and his ghostly self narrates a good part of the novel. Who among the weirdos, super-fans, cultists, bigots, and scholars at the Summer Tentacular could have carried out this murder? And what, if anything, does it have to do with Lovecraft? This novel is particularly amusing in its sly lampooning of several real critics and authors prominent in Lovecraftian circles, but you don’t have to be steeped in all of that to enjoy it for what it is. It also tackles both the best and worst parts of Lovecraft’s work and legacy.
Movies explore paranoia and its related mental states in different ways than literature of course. While novels and short stories can put us right inside a character’s mind, allowing us to experience their doubts and suspicions along with them, film is mostly left on the outside. This can be a strength, though, as it can leave us in doubt even of the character we’re supposed to be identifying with. And the immediacy of movies means that when a film does visualize some aspect of the paranoiac’s fears, it can do so suddenly and shockingly. Music can also do this sort of thing, subtly letting us know that however nice a scene we seem to be watching is, there’s something bad under the surface waiting to jump out at us. The movies I’ve included in this list are paranoid in different ways. Some seem to just study the minds of unreasonably suspicious people. Others bring horrible conspiracies to life in ways that can make a viewer wonder about reality. And others yet (my favorites) inject paranoia into the film itself, creating stories and visuals that seem to be warped by nameless anxieties and derangements. I hope you find one that matches your favorite way to experience this disturbing state of mind.
How sure are you of what you see? How often have you thought you were seeing something significant, only to discover that the pattern you “discovered” was never really there? We have a tendency to project meaning onto chaos, to read importance in the random. This is called pareidolia, and it lies at the heart of many a paranoid conception. It is also, perhaps, the subject of this film. Loosely based on a story by Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up takes place in the swinging groovy sixties. Thomas is a photographer who spends his days shooting and flirting with models and his nights partying. Then one day, while wandering through a park, he takes a candid photo of two lovers making out in the grass. One of the lovers pursues him, demanding he hand over his film, but Thomas tricks her. When he develops the photos, he finds his camera captured more than he was aware of, maybe even a crime. This is an arthouse movie and will frustrate and/or bore someone looking for something fast and a plot neatly tied up, but if you like the kind of movie that makes you think, you may enjoy it like I do. This movie would go on to inspire many other movies and novels, and Dario Argento actually cast the same actor who played Thomas in his movie Deep Red, which mixes the concept of this movie with violence and mystery.
God Told Me To (1976)
When a mass shooter opens fire on a crowd in New York City, his only explanation before dying is that God told him to do it. As detective Peter Nicholas begins looking into this, copycats spring up throughout the city, all of them with that same excuse. God Told Me To is an exceedingly strange movie. The fact that it features Andy Kaufman in his first big screen role ought to give you an idea of how strange, but I will say it doesn’t go where you might think it would go. Today, of course, seemingly mass shootings are even more a part of our national experience than they were in the 70’s, which makes this cult film look darker than it did 20 years ago when I first watched it. What if these purposeless atrocities did have a common motivating force? And what if your fate was directly tied to it? This may be pulp horror, but I must admit it introduced a certain “What if?” that comes to my mind when yet another disturbed individual takes it upon him(or rarely her)self to end the lives of innocent strangers.
They Live (1988)
A classic of cinematic paranoia, and one that is more ideological than most on this list, They Live‘s central conceit is simple: aliens are here already, walk amongst us disguised as human beings, and control the human population through subliminal messages. Or at least that’s what a street preacher tries telling the drifter who is this movie’s hero. When the ragtag group of resisters to this worldwide conspiracy is violently dispersed, this drifter is left with a way to see through the lies of society and a quixotic mission to try to unveil humanity’s secret masters. Carpenter’s movie simultaneously gets across an important message while not taking itself very seriously. Much of the dialogue is chewy and quotable, and the film makes use of Roddy Piper’s skills as a wrestler in a hilarious five-minute long fight scene. Perhaps it’s good that it took this attitude towards this material, as the central idea of the film, once stripped of its ideological message, is just the sort of thing that can take root in the minds of deeply paranoid people.
Lost Highway (1997)
I’d argue that of all the movies David Lynch has made, this is the darkest. Its blend of supernatural horror with psychological disorder makes for a potent mix, giving it this haunting feel that you won’t shake easily. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re with someone you know, but you somehow know they aren’t who they appear to be. Fred and Renee Madison are well-to-do, if depressive, members of the LA art scene, Fred being an avant-garde saxophonist. One day, they start finding videotapes on their doorstep, videotapes that show that someone out there is far closer to them than they could imagine. After meeting a particularly freaky fellow at a party one night, something horrible happens. It’s only in the aftermath of this realistic tragedy, though, that the film takes a bizarre turn and seems to start all over again with a new cast. This movie is a puzzle begging to be finished, an endless loop of transformation and sudden violence, making you feel like there’s an answer to all your questions there, just out of reach.
The Nameless (1999)
Based on a Ramsey Campbell novel of the same name, The Nameless begins with one of the worst fates a parent can suffer: a missing six-year-old is found dead and hideously mutated beyond recognition. Her parents are devastated and when the movie picks up again five years later, the girl’s mother, Angela Gifford, is a wreck. Then, out of nowhere she gets a phone call from a girl claiming to be her dead daughter. When Angela starts digging into the few clues she’s been given, she finds a horrific plan set in motion decades before. From the moment she gets that call, we sense a net closing in on Angela, and she soon learns that she is being watched. Campbell’s novels are masterpieces of paranoia, suffused with a feeling that someone or something is always watching just out of the corner of your eye. I won’t say more about the plot, but the movie will leave you wondering and wounded.
David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is a dark but surprisingly amusing examination of a question that just gets more and more pertinent the more powerful our technology becomes: how do you know this is reality? How do you know you aren’t trapped in an amazing simulation, playing out a game controlled by unseen forces? Set just a little in the future in a time when videogames are ported directly into their users bodies and brains, the movie follows Allegra Geller, a famous and controversial designer of simulated worlds. In a plot inspired by Salman Rushdie’s ordeal after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Allegra finds herself on the run after a radical anti-game terrorist tries killing her. With her is Ted Pikul, the poor schmoe who helped her escape the attack. Desperate to check on the health of her organic gaming system, Allegra begs Ted to join her in this simulated world and after that, all bets are off as to where they actually are. The movie spoofs videogames in funny ways that manage to get more ominous as the film goes on. Everyone has a secret agenda, and every reality they inhabit may just be another level of the game. This movie was overshadowed by The Matrix, which came out at the same time, but Cronenberg’s movie is twistier and more likely to leave you questioning reality and your place in it.
The late great Bill Paxton directed this horror movie and it’s a loss to the genre that he didn’t do another one. This may be more a study of a paranoid mindset than a movie that instills paranoia. You watch it and tell me. The movie flips back and forth in time as a man who claims his brother is a serial killer tells a skeptical FBI agent the story of their childhood. When their father declares that he’s been given a vision from God, his sons Adam and Fenton are forced to go along with his delusions. Their mission, he tells them, is to capture what appear to be normal human beings but are actually demons in disguise. Then, they must kill these monsters. Younger brother Adam starts acting as if this is real, but with every murder their father commits, Fenton becomes more sure he has to do something to stop him. Watching these kids wrestle with such a horrible situation is hard. Their father’s visions threaten to overtake Fenton and create a tension that makes the movie a powerful one.
Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn
This movie is just bananas. The plot is all over the place, the acting strange and almost parodic, and the politics of the piece may cheer, enrage, or thoroughly confuse viewers, maybe all three. But it has some incredible visionary moments and when the satire works, it works very well. Also, Max von Sydow is in it, so there you go. The movie follows the life and career of Misha Galkin, a Russian boy who grows up to be a successful marketing executive. When one of his campaigns goes disastrously wrong, Misha pulls away from society, hoping to at least do no more harm. But he will be given a vision of the forces that really control the world, invisible forces more powerful and voracious than any single human being ever could be. And Misha will have to make a choice about whether he should continue sidelining himself or wade into a war most of our species has no idea is being fought. Branded has stuck in my head largely for its vision of these controlling forces, as well as the unforgettable way it brings its thesis to vibrant life.
This moody movie, one that gets stranger and stranger in little bursts of bizarre imagery, mostly follows the plot of the novel it is based on, The Double by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. What if one night you were watching a movie and you saw, there in the background and playing a quite inconsequential character, someone who looked exactly like you with the small but strange exception that they wore a moustache? Would you let this go, just shrug and move on with your life? Or would it gnaw at you until you felt forced to reach out to this stranger in an attempt, however dangerous, to find out if there was a reason you were the two peas in the proverbial pod? This is precisely the dilemma of Adam Bell, a lonely college history professor. Much as his equivalent character does in the novel, Adam pulls at this thread until it threatens to unravel his mind. What director Villeneuve adds to this adaptation is a hallucinatory quality brought to life briefly but ever so effectively, as well as a sense that undergirding this doppelgänger story is something larger and stranger than the existence of a lookalike.
Get Out (2017)
Paranoia can be cultural as well as individual. Intergenerational trauma can instill fears and uncertainties that may have no basis in the immediate moment in which they are experienced, but that doesn’t make them any less potent. And sometimes, those fears turn out to be well justified. In Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, a photographer preparing to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage. After a run-in with an obviously bigoted cop, Chris is somewhat relieved to find that Rose’s wealthy and educated parents seem to be genuinely progressive, despite the odd comment here and there that just doesn’t sit right with him. As his stay lengthens seemingly trivial things build up, making Adam wonder if he’s just being paranoid or if a special plan has been made for him. Jordan Peele has cited Ira Levin’s novels as possibly the biggest influence on this movie, but Peele adds to Levin’s social satire an unsettling quality all his own. Early on, in what I feel is the film’s most disturbing sequence, Rose’s mom hypnotizes Chris in order to help him quit smoking. The experience, however, darkens quickly and Chris is left falling into the Sunken Place. We don’t get to see what she does or says next, nor are we given immediate explanations for some of the actions the Armitage’s and their friends carry out in front of us. It all adds up to to a beautiful paranoiac nightmare.
We’ve all felt it, at least most of us, that sense that someone is watching us, judging us, maybe planning some fate for us that we wouldn’t willingly embrace. Maybe this secretive plotting is just on an interpersonal level, involving lies and manipulations from those we think we can trust. Or maybe it goes further, stretching out to national or global conspiracies. Worst of all, maybe these truths we can barely sense hidden behind the faces of others point towards something even larger, a cosmic or existential plot against us, either as a species or as a spectacularly unfortunate individual. While paranoia isn’t usually as strong an emotion as fear or outright horror, it does belong to the same family of uneasiness. These novels won’t likely terrify you, but they may burrow into your mind in a way that reading about creaks in old mansions and the bloodlust of fictional psychopaths won’t. These books, after all, suggest that the world may not be what you think it is, and neither, most disturbingly, may you be. I would like to add a warning here: there are real psychological illnesses that exacerbate the feelings of paranoia and suspicion that are natural to our poor big-brained species. If you have one of these illnesses, you may want to think carefully before diving into these sorts of fictions. Exploring fears fictionally sometimes gives you a handle on them, a grip you couldn’t have got otherwise but by painful experience. But for others, fiction like this can add to their mental distortions. Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you enjoy these books and I hope you understand why They wanted me to recommend them to you. It’s all part of the plan, you see.
The Trial (1925)
If there is a poet laureate of the literature of paranoia, those laurels belong without any doubt to Bohemian/Czech author Franz Kafka. Not only have his mostly posthumously published works directly or indirectly inspired most of the works on this list, even his name has become synonymous with the bizarre, the labyrinthian, and the inexplicably tortuous (and torturous) windings of bureaucracies and conspiracies in the words “kafkaesque” and “kafkan.” In this, his best-known longer work, we meet the unfortunate Josef K., who wakes one morning to find two agents from an unidentified agency in his apartment there to arrest him. For what crime? That’s exactly what poor Josef spends most of this novel trying to figure out. He’s drawn through a ridiculously long and seemingly meaningless process in a system already determined to find him guilty. This novel is often seen as a sort of prefiguration or even premonition of the horrors of the Stalinist and Hitlerian regimes with their mass arrests and liquidations, but Kafka can also be seen as pointing to a deeper flaw in humans in general, one that leaves us with a haunting feeling of being guilty of some crime we can barely understand.
The Day the Call Came (1965)
Ever feel uncertain of yourself and your life? Ever feel maybe there is another reason you are here, a reason that would make sense of the chaos that inevitably invades your life or the stultifying order under which it feels you are being crushed? What if that secret plan for your life one day materialized out of nowhere? And what if that secret plan, that sense that could be made of the disparate parts of your life, what if it was terrible? In this strange little novel, one almost lost to cultural amnesia, we follow Harry Bale, a fairly successful suburbanite with a wife and the requisite two kids. Harry’s life is about to get turned upside down, because one fine day he gets a letter ordering him to “Stand by.” For Harry, this is the day the call comes, the moment in which his hidden destiny as a spy for a shadowy organization will come to fruition. That this may involve him having to do some unpleasant things bothers Harry a little, but not as much as the idea that there are forces around him working against his mission. This is a nice little slice of suburban banality, neighborly suspicion, and a vision of the lengths people may go to make sense of their lives, regardless of the truth or sensibility of that sense.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
Oedipa Maas is a bored housewife married to a radio jockey and who i seeing a psychotherapist who seems to have a few screws loose himself. One day, Oedipa finds she has been made the executrix of her former boyfriend’s estate. When she travels to San Narciso (one of many national inventions Pynchon regularly inserts in his novels), she finds a chain of hints and strange coincidences that seem to point to a centuries-old secret dispute between, believe it or not, warring postal systems. Supposedly, one of these mail delivery systems, Trystero, was driven out of existence alongside the other rivals to the dominant system of which the authorities approve. But what if Trystero still exists? Could it be having some occult effect on the course of history? This bonkers conspiracy theory drives this short novel, but it opens up onto issues both larger and stranger. And, as appropriate in a novel that represents one of the early examples of American post-modern fiction, The Crying of Lot 49 is filled with clues and misdirections as to what it may all be about, clues that range from the names of the zany characters to the use of a play within the novel that may point to the truth… Or may be just another random element in a world of chaos Oedipa only wishes would make sense. Pynchon’s longer novels take these games to even greater lengths, but The Crying is a good way into his symbol-laden, stylized worlds.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975)
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
From personal experience, I would like to begin by suggesting that readers avoid heavy usage of any narcotics that produce paranoid ideation while reading this wacky trilogy. Just… just trust me on this one, okay? The plot, a baggy and winding monster that you will most likely lose track of somewhere along the way (this doesn’t necessarily ruin the fun), begins with the bombing of a left-wing investigative magazine, one that was bringing into question primary parts of American mythology. That this eventually leads to not one but two competing global conspiracies with ties to the occult, to H. P. Lovecraft learning that his fiction may not have been all that fictional, and to talking dolphins is something you probably already guessed. Just in case you didn’t, you really should check out this book, because it seems determined to blend as many bizarre theories as possible together into one poppy confection, and reading it will wake you from your intellectual slumber, you sheeple. That, and it is a fun, kooky ride through our cultural undercurrents.
A Scanner Darkly (1977)
Philip K. Dick
If Franz Kafka had been fed a steady diet of science fiction and LSD, he may have become someone like the incomparable Philip Dick. Alien god-minds, international conspiracies, androids that think they are human and humans who fear they are androids, time travel, and horrific applications of occult technologies infest Dick’s prodigious output. Seriously: the guy wrote more than forty novels and 121 short stories in around thirty years. This novel, weirdly, is one of his most grounded, at least in that it doesn’t invoke most any of the above plot devices. It does, though, really nail down this sense of identity loss and suspicion that this list is all about, and it does so in a relatively believable plot. Bob Arctor seems to be a shiftless druggie, one who spends his time getting wasted with his group of frenemies and fellow users, but Bob has a secret: Bob is an undercover agent, one trying to track the distribution of Substance D, a powerful new hallucinogen. As a supposed member of this drug culture, though, Bob is forced to take D and to take it liberally, and unfortunately, D has begun to splinter Bob’s mind. Soon, he will start losing the plot, and his mission may turn in on itself.
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Foucault’s Pendulum seems to have one of two effects on its readers: it either sucks them into its long and winding tale of crackpots, wannabe mystics, and conspiracy theories growing out of control, or it strikes people as impenetrable. My response was the former and it changed the way I understood meaning-making in general. It also eventually led me to delve into Eco’s other novels, the most famous of which is the 14th century murder mystery The Name of the Rose. This novel, though, takes place firmly in the present, or at least the present of the 1980’s. It’s about three men who grow so interested in the histories and evolutions of conspiracy theories that, on a lark, they decide to make one of their own, using a computer to draw connections between different elements of the world’s cultural history and tying them together with the occult. In their investigations of these fragments of pseudo-knowledge, though, these men come to wonder whether they are just playing a game or whether they have indeed stumbled over a global conspiracy. And they aren’t the only ones asking themselves precisely these questions. Foucault’s Pendulum now reads like it was written as an intellectual satire of breathless pop conspiracy theory novels like The Da Vinci Code, even though Eco’s novel came over ten years before that one. Eco himself drew this comparison, and once claimed that Da Vinci‘s author, Dan Brown, was merely a character in this better, smarter, and wiser novel.
While all these global and even cosmic conspiracy theories can be the fuel of many a paranoid fixation, most people’s unreasonable suspicions and anxieties are about the more mundane, the people and situations with which they are surrounded, as well the personal histories with which they must come to grips. Patrick McGrath’s psychologically nuanced neo-gothic mysteries are minor masterpieces of this brand of fiction. Spider, which would eventually be turned into a film by David Cronenberg, is about Dennis Cleg, a deeply troubled and introspective man who has just been let out of a psychiatric hospital and must live in a halfway house. Cleg isn’t just struggling with his current, rather grim surroundings: he’s also trying to make sense of his tragic past. The novel moves back and forth between these two stories, and we gradually hear a story of adultery, cruelty, and hidden secrets, the most hidden of which are always those we hide from ourselves. McGrath’s a great stylist and a keen student of psychology.
The Invisibles (1994-2000)
Grant Morrison’s talents have often been tied up with superhero franchises, but their most unique work is surely this series and the standalone graphic novel The Filth, which is just so brilliant and bizarre I couldn’t dream of summarizing it. The Invisibles is a little easier to describe, though that’s a bit deceptive as this series eventually turns inside out, making you question not only what you’ve already read but also, just maybe, the texture of your “real” world. Here, we follow Dane McGowan, an angry young British teen who is taken in by a mysterious and colorful group of rebels who call themselves “The Invisibles.” This group is dedicated to fighting a dark force that may be behind some of the worst aspects of human history and that may have worse yet planned. The Invisibles combines the best elements of the Illuminatus! books, the wacky re-readings of history and re-mixes of history, with the more metaphysical, psychological, and spiritual concerns of Philip Dick. It even incorporates some of Umberto Eco’s criticisms of these theories into its structure. Really just a great series and very worth searching out.
The Double (2002)
You are you. That’s one of the few guarantees, few really stable things you can rely on in this troubling world: whatever anyone else can say about the way you are leading your life, it is yours alone. But what if one night you were watching a movie and you saw, there in the background and playing a quite inconsequential character, someone who looked exactly like you with the small but strange exception that they wore a moustache? Would you let this go, just shrug and move on with your life? Or would it gnaw at you until you felt forced to reach out to this stranger in an attempt, however dangerous, to find out if there was a reason you were the two peas in the proverbial pod? This is precisely the dilemma of Tertuliano Afonso, a lonely high school teacher, in this psychological mystery by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. A real treat for me in all of Saramago’s novels is his narrative voice, a garrulous, jokey, and warm if cynical presence that enlivens his plots. Denis Villeneuve directed an excellent adaptation of this novel in Enemy, one that introduces some potentially science-fictional/horrific elements, but missing from that film, necessarily, is Saramago’s voice. For that, you’re going to have to go to the source.
I’m ending this list on a light note, although this book above all the others will probably speak more closely to the everyday frustrations and suspicions of regular people. Max Barry is a funny and inventive satirist, and if you haven’t read his takedown of corporate over-reach and libertarian utopias Jennifer Government, then I strongly recommend you look for a copy. Company isn’t laugh-out-loud funny in the way that book is, but this one takes on its subject in a more realistic way. Company reads a bit as if Franz Kafka had been forced to write a season of The Office. Stephen Jones is a new employee of Zephyr Holdings, Inc., but his determination to succeed in his role as an assistant in the Sales Training department runs into a brick wall when he starts asking the most basic questions, questions like “What does our company actually do?” or “Why is a missing donut worth an office-level investigation?” There are strange things afoot at Zephyr, and although this novel is neither supernatural nor violent, it can all too easily make people stuck in similar jobs wonder what exactly they are being used for. Not that that’s a bad thing: maybe we could all use more of this particular brand of paranoia.
The Devil and his retinue have been a part of horror cinema since there was a horror cinema to speak of. In fact, he featured in two short films by cinematic pioneer George Méliès, The House of the Devil (later used as a title for an enjoyable movie by Ti West) and The Devil in a Convent, which can lay claim to being the very first horror movies made. Much later, the filmic adaptations of both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist helped cement the genre as not only a solid marketing category, but also as a good money maker. Since Méliès, Satan has appeared in all sorts of forms, from the campy to the terrifying to the heroic. He actually makes important appearances in some of the movies I’ve put on other lists, their appearances there my attempt at not spoiling his importance to the plot. As I mentioned in my list of devilish novels, I think resorting to Satan and his demons is often a cop-out, a lazy way of ginning up some fear. Nothing irritates me quite so much as seeing an original supernatural villain in a novel relabeled “the Devil” in its cinematic adaptation. Still, there are some great, chilling, and even funny portrayals of the forces of Hell in horror movies. Here are some of my favorites.
Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957)
This chilling classic horror is based on the story “Casting the Runes” by the early twentieth century master of ghost stories, M. R. James. The movie begins with a Professor Harrington begging Julian Karswell to rescind a curse Karswell laid on him. See, Karswell is running a cult and Harrington was poking his nose into it. The occultist claims he can’t do much to withdraw this curse and sure enough, Harrington is soon attacked and killed by something in the forest. The rest of the film follows one of Harrington’s colleagues, John Holden, as he gets closer to both Karswell’s cultic secrets and the dead man’s niece. When Karswell places the same sort of curse on Holden, the man has to fight past his rational skepticism in order to save himself from supernatural destruction. There is a creepiness to Holden’s situation that would prove fertile ground for future horror movies. A regular person coming to believe in a curse closing in around them is a template that Ringu and The Ring memorably updated. Director Tourneur was forced to include a shot of the monstrous force at the end of this film despite his wish to keep it entirely offscreen. That minor flaw aside, this is a great one and criminally under-watched.
I love this movie, love every batshit crazy moment of it, but it is certainly not for everyone. The characters yell almost every bit of dialogue at one another, the filming is frenetic and jarring, and the metaphysics of the movie are almost incomprehensible. It’s a bit as if David Lynch and David Cronenberg teamed up to make a movie about demonic possession. Plenty of people won’t be able to sit through its first, most “realistic” act, not to mention the nightmare that follows. But you are just never going to see its like again. Sam Neill plays Mark, a spy who lives in West Berlin with his wife and small son. When he returns home from a long mission, his wife Anna tells him she wants a divorce. Is there someone else? Certainly: an extremely odd older man named Heinrich whom Mark soon confronts. But Anna has an even darker secret, and once we discover what she’s been up to, the film spins off from a loud domestic dispute into one of the weirdest situations you’ll see on film. Don’t expect pea soup spewing and the saving powers of Christ in this surreal movie. Don’t expect explanations either. Just go into it ready for a bizarre ride into a world of psychological disorder and inexplicable monstrosities.
Legendary Italian director Dario Argento co-wrote and produced this monster movie and Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava (who is arguably the inventor of the slasher film), directed it. A crowd of mostly young Germans are given tickets to a free showing of a new horror movie in a big movie theater. Once they’re there, they find the movie is about a bunch of teens digging up the body of the crackpot prophet Nostradamus. So far, so good. But then one of the audience members gets infected after an encounter with one of the props from the movie, and when she transforms into a hideous flesh-tearing demon, the audience finds they’ve been locked inside this suddenly horrific space. Pandemonium ensues. Demons is not interested in making you think, nor is it concerned with niceties like depth of character or plot. Demons is just out to freak you the hell out. It is in some ways closer to being a zombie movie than a possession film per se, but these monsters aren’t shambling mumblers, nor do their transformations stop at rotting flesh. Lots of fun special effects, campy characters, and a steadily building sense of claustrophobia make this a great popcorn-munching fun time.
Author Clive Barker directed this movie based on his short novel, The Hellbound Heart. Here, a degenerate pleasure-seeker named Frank Cotton, in his search for ever-more varied and extreme sensations, discovers a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration. Anyone who solves this puzzle summons beings from another dimension who promise to give them the ultimate pleasures possible. Unfortunately, said pleasures involve extreme torture and hideous body modifications. These beings, the Cenobites, aren’t simple demons which is something I love about this film. When Frank’s brother Larry, his wife Julia, and Larry’s daughter Kirsty move into his house, the remnants of Frank see a chance at resurrection. The Cenobites, though, aren’t about to let go of their prey. Barker blends classic haunted house tropes with deviant sexuality and visuals straight out of a sadomasochistic wet dream in order to create this surprisingly potent film. It’s deeper than you’d think, another example of Barker’s interest in transcendence and the spiritual shining through such dark material. The first sequel to this movie is a great continuation of the story, but every movie in the series thereafter gets more and more pointless (with the possible exception of Hellraiser: Inferno) until the series collapses under its own weight. It is being remade as I write this: let’s hope this reboot does better at capturing Barker’s vision than the last eight movies in the franchise did.
The Prophecy (1995)
This is another horror movie whose reputation has been sullied by several inferior sequels. The original, though, is a fun time and manages to ring changes on two thousand year-old stories. Thomas Dagget is a former Catholic seminarian who is now a detective for the LAPD. After a violent encounter with men clearly possessing supernatural powers, Thomas discovers that the Bible has a missing chapter wherein a second angelic civil war is described, this one led by the wannabe heavenly usurper Gabriel, played with scene-chewing excellence by Christopher Walken. In order to win his war with God, Gabriel needs to secure the particularly evil soul of a man who has just died. Thomas sets off in an attempt to save both Heaven and Earth. This movie is much more of an adventure movie than most of those on this list, leading its characters through different settings and various supernatural complications. Gabriel is essentially the Devil of the movie, cruel and arrogant, but when Lucifer makes an appearance, he proves to be a more interesting character than he’s usually portrayed. In fact, I’d have to say this movie’s Lucifer is one of my favorite cinematic versions of Satan. Anyways: a fun movie regardless of how silly the sequels got.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
This is an adaptation of the novel The Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one that is somewhat faithful. The book mines literary veins opened by Umberto Eco more than it indulges in supernatural horror, but those aspects of horror that were there are brought out well in The Ninth Gate. The movie is about an American book dealer, Dean Corso, who is hired to find two of the extent three copies of a 17th century spell-book said to enable a magician to summon Satan and gain all sorts of powers. The problem is that Boris Balkan, the man hiring Corso, is convinced only one of the three has the correct spells. In his travels, Corso meets quirky booksellers, a fetching young traveler, and other occultists desperate to get hold of the method of opening the ninth gate. The Club Dumas is a book-besotted novel, steeped in literary history and allusions, while this movie streamlines most of that material. What’s left is an entertaining mystery, one with just enough hints of the supernatural to secure it a place in the horror genre. As for a possible appearance by Lucifer, I will say no more because that is part of the fun, but this movie handles that figure in an original fashion, one that stuck with me.
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
Rec is the first part of a tetralogy of movies about a highly infectious disease that may be supernatural in origin. This first movie is the tightest of the four and follows Ángela Vidal, a reporter who is tagging along with a Barcelonan fire-fighting crew one night when they are called to a disturbance in an apartment building. There, they find an old woman locked in her rooms who seems to have gone violently insane. Before the crew can leave the building, the military seals off the building, trapping them and several residents inside. This quarantine, the government claims, is necessary because of the presence of a vicious new strain of rabies, but those trapped inside soon come to suspect that this isn’t some simple virus. Rec is a found footage film and an example of just what that technique can accomplish when used well. As for the film’s place on this list, those infected with this virus may seem more like zombies, but there’s worse underlying this pandemic. Rec was remade as Quarantine for American audiences scared of subtitles. That movie is pretty good in itself, with a fine performance of Angela by Jennifer Carpenter, but I recommend starting with the original as it feels more authentic somehow. Oh, and skip the trailers for both versions, as they spoil one of the key scenes in a ridiculous way. Like, who the hell puts these trailers together?
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Unfairly overlooked when it was originally released, this comedic-horror movie has seen a revival recently as viewers have come to appreciate its sly take on gender politics. Megan Fox plays the eponymous Jennifer Check, a popular cheerleader whose best friend is dweebish “Needy” Lesnicki. One night, Jennifer drags Needy to a rock show in a dive bar, intent on pulling her out of her shell. Instead, a tragedy strikes and the girls are separated. When Jennifer reappears at Needy’s house later that night, she is covered in blood and voracious. Unfortunately, Jennifer no longer seems able to process regular food. Even more unfortunately, she soon discovers a new source of sustenance, and Needy is left trying to understand what happened to her friend that night as well as forced to try to temper Jennifer’s newfound violence. This is a great little movie and I’m glad it is getting the appreciation it deserves in our post-Me Too culture.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Cotton Marcus is a faithless pastor, one who stopped believing in his God when personal tragedy struck him. Intent on exposing the lies behind religious ritual, Marcus now carries out fake exorcisms on people he knows are either lying or are suffering from mental illness. The movie begins as a pair of filmmakers follow him around, thus giving a pretext for the film’s found footage technique. When Marcus is called to attend to a young girl suspected of being possessed, he thinks this will be just one more sad hoax. And for a while, his assumptions seem justified, but then the girl, Nell, turns violent and all bets are off. I’m not that interested in exorcism stories generally, but this one plays with a lot of interesting ambiguity before reaching a disturbing climax. The sequel is pretty decent too.
A quick heads-up: this movie’s translated title is Terrified, not Terrifier. I only mention it because the latter is a gross and nihilistic slasher that’s become a popular movie somehow, and I’d hate for you to accidentally watch it when you could be watching this awesome movie instead. Terrified is set in an Argentinian suburb that is seeing a lot of disturbing activity. In one house, a woman hears voices planning to kill her. In another, a grieving mother gets an unexpected visit. How are these incidents related? A cop and three paranormal investigators descend on this neighborhood, but even their combined acumen may not be enough to stop this evil force. Terrified is pretty terrifying, dropping horrible situations on the viewer with little to no warning, and maintaining a sense of mystery that makes the gore it does show all the more disturbing. Honestly, I’m not sure this movie should even be on this list, but there’s something evil at work in Buenos Aires and if its source isn’t a traditional devil, it is certainly demonic.
The Devil: he is often thought of as an ultimate horror baddie, particularly because of his role in the two novels and movies around which the genre as a publishing niche coalesced, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. There is something undeniably attractive about this character, his demonic lieutenants, and his fiery home. Two poets, Dante Alighieri and John Milton, created much of the imagery we associate with the Infernal, building off of and in some cases entirely ignoring what the world’s scriptures say about the Tempter. Dante brought to terrible life the seven circles (his own invention) of the Inferno, and Milton recreated him as a Romantic hero, one obsessed with a hopeless cause but possessing a certain strength, charm, and heroism despite his wickedness. The literature and cinema of horror continue to build out his legend, starting with early efforts like Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the pseudo-Arabic Vathek by William Beckford and, later the lengthy Melmoth the Wanderer. I tend to not be as into Satan stories as many others in the genre myself. Stories of wicked demons doing wicked things for, you know, their wicked purposes often bore me, and I’d rather see new creatures that elude easy metaphysical categorization. That said, there are plenty of powerful and unique takes on the Devil, his troops, and their dominion in the genre. Here are some of my favorite literary explorations of the forces of Evil.
The Monk (1796)
This is in most ways the grandfather of all horror novels. While it was preceded by William Beckford’s Vathek and The Castle of Otranto by Hugh Walpole, these earlier works were episodic and somewhat flimsy compared to Lewis’s epic story, though they (particularly Vathek) are certainly still worth a read . The Monk was written and published before the author turned 20, and it had an explosive effect on European literature. Denounced, celebrated, and imitated, it would go on to influence everyone from the Marquis de Sade to Edgar Allan Poe to Anne Rice (and most everyone between). Its rambling and multipronged plot largely deals with the temptations and corruption of the formerly pious monk of the title, Ambrosio. Early on, Ambrosio’s young friend Rosario reveals that “he” is actually Matilda, a woman who has disguised herself in order to get close to Ambrosio. She quickly seduces him and before you know it, she is using her suspiciously supernatural powers to help him gain his heart’s desires, however twisted they turn out to be. This novel is a riot (at times literally so) and involves everything from ghostly nuns to incest to deals with You-Know-Who.
The Master and Margarita (1966)
Written during the reign of real-life monster Joseph Stalin but only published decades later, this novel is a sharp satire of that dictator’s mad regime, as well as a phantasmagoria of shape-shifting creatures and magical escapades. It also flashes back and forth in time between the Soviet Union and the struggles of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea who according to myth sentenced Jesus Christ to death despite his own reservations. At the beginning of the novel, the mysterious Professor Woland tells a state functionary that he will soon die. Although the man tries dismissing the prophecy, he is soon hilariously decapitated and the fun really begins. Woland and his associates, Behemoth (a large black cat who loves firearms), Hella (a beautiful and vampiric redhead), and the hitman Azazello then proceed to wreck havoc on Moscow. Their activities intersect with the Master, an inhabitant of a lunatic asylum who has tried writing a novel about Pontius Pilate. Although a ton has been written about the possible meanings of Bulgakov’s book, I enjoyed it for what its surface presents: a wild and often funny ride filled with zany interpretations of infernal tricksters.
The Damnation Game (1985)
Clive Barker’s most well-known foray into the infernal regions is of course his film Hellraiser, based on his novel The Hellbound Heart. To be a little pedantic, though, Pinhead and his leather-clad retinue aren’t actually from the Hell we’ve been given by the major monotheistic religions. They are instead the inhabitants of an extradimensional zone characters only think of as Hell. To get something closer to a traditional depiction of Satan, read this, Barker’s first full novel. It is a gory, complicated, and literary take on the Faust theme, the deal with the Devil gone terribly wrong. When Marty Strauss is released from prison, he finds employment as a bodyguard for the wealthy, powerful, and strangely fearful Joseph Whitehead. See, years ago, Whitehead made an arrangement with a mysterious man named Mamoulian, a figure who can not only bring the dead back to life but who also made Whitehead rich beyond his wildest dreams. And now this wealthy man fears his end of the bargain is coming due. It’s hard not seeing this novel as having had an influence on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, though that’s no knock on that wonderful book. Just a warning: Barker goes there n terms of gore and aberrant sexuality, so be prepared.
The Satanic Verses (1988)
This may be one of the only novels on my lists to have gotten real people killed, though that’s not the fault of author Salman Rushdie whatever some idiot critics might have to say about the matter. Shortly after the release of this award-winning dark magical-realist/fantastical-horror novel, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the brutal religious leader of Iran at the time, declared the novel such an offense against his interpretation of Islam that it warranted not only worldwide censorship, but the murder of the author. While Rushdie luckily avoided that fate, several translators, publishers, and editors were attacked by fanatics and people died. The novel is about two Indian men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who miraculously survive the explosion of a hijacked plane after falling thousands of feet into the ocean. After washing up on shore, they both begin to supernaturally transform, Gibreel into an angelic being and Saladin into a cloven-footed hairy and horned creature. Could it be… Satan? This book, despite its reputation as a piece of religious criticism, is also a meditation on racial/national identity, film, and much more, and it is written in a thick, musical and comedic prose style that I for one find beautiful every-time I reread it.
Practical Demonkeeping (1992)
Goofier, not as bloody, and less culturally/politically-fraught than most of the other titles on this list, Christopher Moore’s first novel is about a man and his demon. One hundred years ago, Travis O’Hearn accidentally summoned a demon named Catch and has been stuck with this companion ever since. Catch has a tendency to eat people, something that keeps his unwilling master on the run. After years of searching for a way out of this predicament, Travis thinks he may have found the answer in the small Californian town of Pine Cove. This crazy little romp, comparable to a horror novel written by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett with a side of Tom Robbins, involves kooky villagers, a witch who is a member of the group Pagan Vegetarians for Peace, and the King of the Djinn. Can Travis solve his little problem before his demonic servant eats half the inhabitants of Pine Cove? Moore wrote another two novels set in the same town, and while I haven’t read them, I can recommend this one for anyone looking for a funny, breezy, and quite people-eatey horror novel.
City Infernal (2001)
So, one big old word of warning: if you are a reader who needs a trigger warning for literally any particular type of content, then Edward Lee’s books are not for you. A literary descendent of the “splatterpunk” movement, Lee writes some of the most extreme horror imaginable. Literally nothing seems to be off limits for him, which is fun for some of us and an unpleasant nightmare for others. In this pulpy and vividly imagined novel, Cassie and Lissa are twin sisters, Goths, who have a falling out over Cassie kissing Lissa’s boyfriend. To be precise, Lissa kills said boyfriend and then herself, leaving her sister devastated and wracked with guilt. Years later, after Cassie and her father move into an old house with a disturbing past, she discovers that she can enter Mephistopolis, the grand city of Hell. There, Cassie will search for Lissa, hoping to make up for her small but deadly mistake. The city is the real star of this novel, a skyscrapered metropolis filled with tormented human beings and ghouls of all sorts going about their business under a blood-red sky. Everything runs off a power-grid that runs on the pain produced in systematically tortured souls. Cassie will make friends here and discover a destiny larger than she’d imagined, but she will face pushback from those who’d prefer to keep the infernal status quo. Again: pulpy and extreme, but fun for those with a taste for that.
Come Closer (2003)
This is a short but sharp and effective little novel told in an often poetic voice. It avoids most of the extreme material on display in most of these books, but it has a way of getting under your skin nonetheless. It’s about Amanda, an architect who is happily married and seems to be on track toward a life fully lived when she suddenly starts experiencing what seem to be paranormal events. Strange noises in her apartment, visions of a bloody sea, these aren’t nearly as disturbing as the new voice that has taken up residence in her head, a voice that urges her on to fulfill desires she never thought she had. Is Amanda going insane or is something much worse digging its claws into her mind?
This novel marks out a territory all its own somewhere between satire, supernatural horror, and murder mystery, all grounded by genuine emotional resonance. When Ig Perrish was young, it looked as if his life was headed in the right direction, particularly in regard to his love of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Then, Merrin was raped and killed and, despite there not being enough evidence to convict him, there was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Ig was guilty of the crimes. The novel begins later, when Ig wakes up from a night of empty debauchery to find he is growing a fine set of horns. Not only this, Ig can now prompt those around him to helplessly confess to their darkest desires and most private thoughts and he can nudge them into acting out self-destructive impulses. This looks to be an excellent way to get revenge on all those around him who are convinced that he brutalized the love of his life, but Ig’s newfound powers will draw him back to the question of who killed Merrin. Something I enjoyed about Hill’s novel (and it’s a great feature of his father Stephen King’s work too) is that it creates its own metaphysics, not relying on a Christian-Islamic vision of the supernatural for all that Ig is beginning to resemble Satan himself.
This is another example of Chuck Palahniuk’s horror fiction, though admittedly this one leans more into both fantasy and humor than many of his others. In this weird mashup of fantastic horror and the stylings of young adult author Judy Blume, teenager Maddy Spencer wakes up in Hell, unsure of how she died and why she has been damned. After making friends with a group of teens suspiciously similar to the cast of a famous high school movie, Maddy gets a job as a telemarketer, one tasked with annoying the living and, perhaps, luring them to their own eternity in the Inferno. Soon, though, Maddy’s ambitions outpace this dull routine and she decides to remake Hell in her own image. Palahniuk is one of those authors who people typically either love or hate, as his hyperkinetic prose style and mordant observations prove a potent mixture with the extremity of his material. This novel, for all its descriptions of the vile and the vicious of Hell, has a sense of fun and even innocence (of a kind) to it and isn’t nearly as dark as many of his other stories. Responses will vary, but if you enjoy this one, make sure to check out the sequel, Doomed.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016)
Many of Grady Hendrix’s novels exist on the borderland between straightforward horror and knowing pastiche. This one leans further in the former direction than either its title or hilariously retro book-cover might lead you to believe. Abby Rivers and Gretchen Lang have been best-friends since they were ten-years old. As they’ve eased (if that can be the right term for hitting adolescence) into their teens, they’ve had all the sorts of adventures one might imagine girls in the 1980’s to have had. Despite connections with other girls, it seems as if nothing could get in between them. Not, that is, until they take LSD together at a beautiful lake house and Gretchen wanders into the woods. When she comes back, she claims to be fine, but her best friend soon notices Gretchen’s sudden lack of interest in hygiene, her complaints about invisible tormentors, and the fact that strange things now seem to happen around her. Now it’s up to Abby to try to save her friend, but how can an average suburban teenage girl hope to stand up against the powers of the Abyss? Set during the madness that was the Satanic Panic of the 80’s, this novel combines humor and horror with a close examination of female friendship and the lengths some will go to save the ones they love.
The horror genre has produced some excellent violent and soul-crushing movies, the sort of things I’ve sometimes literally watched through my fingers, unsure if I want these images imprinted on my brain-meat. There are, however, many rooms in the house of horror, and quite a few of the genre’s most powerful pieces save their more explicit material for short segments or even avoid them altogether. Thus, this list for
weenies more sensitive viewers. I recommend these movies for people who maybe don’t get into all the blood and bombast of a slasher, for instance, but who still want to be spooked. Some of these films do explore dark psychological and metaphysical territory, and they are probably not ideal for viewers who dislike tension, as that is much of what they rely upon. Some of my absolute favorite films of the genre are here, so please do not mistake these movies for runner-ups, ho-hums, or, as the kids once definitely used to say but probably don’t any longer, weak sauce.
The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and directed by the man who would go on to make the cinematic adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a movie that gave little Matt quite a few nightmares, The Innocents is up there with The Haunting as a classic of haunted house cinema. The movie is about a young governess who agrees to take care of two cute but somewhat unnerving children in their father’s massive estate, Bly Manor. As she starts learning the odd games and fantasies of these kids, Miss Giddens begins to fear they are both under the influence of some malevolent force, a force she suspects may have to do with a scandal in the estate’s recent past. Mike Flanagan adapted this same story as The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is a great show but which also collapses the source material’s ambiguities into an unmistakably supernatural tale. In The Innocents, the original ambiguity is preserved. Bly Manor is creepy and shadow-haunted, and there does seem to be something wrong with those kids, but could the haunting all be in Miss Giddens neurotic head?
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Inspired by a short story by Daphne du Maurier, who also wrote the piece The Birds was based on as well as the novel Rebecca, which Alfred Hitchcock also filmed, Don’t Look Now is about a couple, John and Laura Baxter, who lose their daughter in a tragic accident at the beginning of the movie. Grieving, haunted by their loss, the two take a trip to Venice where John can do some restoration work on an old church and Laura can hopefully do some healing. Shortly after arriving, they meet another pair of tourists, elderly sisters, one of whom is both blind and convinced she is psychic. When this woman claims to see a vision of their lost girl, the couple’s fragile peace is shattered and they begin experiencing what may be paranormal experiences, including the sight of a little figure in a red raincoat. This movie is a great slice of seventies art-house horror, with creative montages, beautiful use of music, and eerie shots. It also includes what was at the time considered to be a pretty explicit sex scene (and was rumored to be real intercourse), but which looks a little tame now. The film is eerie and leisurely paced and although it has a little violence, it should be a safe bet for anyone trying to avoid the excesses of the genre while still wanting to get their spook on.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
This movie is so low on the explicit horror scale that there are probably at least a few people reading this list who are scoffing at its inclusion. Well, scoff away, bucko: the movie creeped me out, for one, and has had a lasting influence on the literature and cinema of the inexplicable. Set in and around Appleyard College, a private girls’ school in Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock first focuses on Sara, an orphan student who has a strong bond with her roommate Miranda. When most of the girls are taken to a picnic at the eponymous rock formation, Sara is held back and thus can only learn about what happened from other girls who were there. The picnic starts off well enough despite the fact that several watches suddenly stop working. But when four girls (including Miranda) and a mathematics teacher go off on a hike of their own, a strange tragedy strikes. We see these five explore the region, one of those beautiful but eerie places in nature that seem part of an alien landscape, until the girls seem to fall under a trance. One of them, upon awakening, is struck with fear and flees, and then after she returns to the main picnic ground, the rest of the school members realize the teacher and three students have vanished. The rest of the movie is a patchwork quilt of weird suggestions and fragmented memories as everyone tries piecing together what happened. Don’t expect any answers, as neither the film nor the novel it was based on (in its published form) give them. Instead, try enjoying the atmosphere of eeriness and the unexplained, remembering that many of the mysteries of the world, while leaving behind tantalizing clues, will never be resolved.
The Changeling (1980)
This ghost story, while it does involve an act of violence or two, otherwise depends on a carefully built atmosphere of tension and dread, as well as a classic haunted house setting. George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer who is grief-stricken following the deaths of the rest of his family in a horrible accident. When he rents a large and long-unoccupied Victorian mansion, John thinks he may have found a space for both healing and creative work, but it isn’t long before small strange experiences disrupt this fragile calm. Thumping sounds, suddenly running faucets, and other eerie manifestations soon lead him to a hidden room where he discovers clues to a dark secret linked to big money, politics, and possibly murder. It’s not hard to see why this movie is a favorite for so many viewers who prefer their horror spooky and suggestive rather than bloody and explicit. The Changeling can make a bouncing ball an object of terror, and it builds its scares on the concern it creates for its very human characters, particularly John, who has gone through so much sorrow and who may not survive this encounter with the mysterious.
The Others (2001)
In this hit movie, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Stewart, a woman living in a large house on a remote island with her children, both of whom suffer from a disorder that makes them painfully sensitive to light. After hiring new servants, Grace finds that her house has a more disturbing history than she’d thought. Soon enough, odd sounds and sights around this mansion convince her she and her family may be living in a haunted house. But things get stranger than the typical ghost story. Why are the servants being so cagey? Why do some of these spirits claim a closer connection with her than should be possible? If you’ve somehow avoided having this movie spoiled for you in the years since it was released and you want a good creepy and thought-provoking experience, check it out. It has the atmosphere and style of older movies like The Innocents, and is far more concerned with generating unease than terror.
Lake Mungo (2008)
This Australian mockumentary centers on the Palmer family, recently devastated by the drowning death of daughter Alice. After her brother Matthew seems to capture ghostly images of her around the house, the family consults a psychic, hoping they can get in contact with her. The story, though, gets more complicated as lies, misdeeds, and creepy dreams are uncovered. Lake Mungo plays its game slowly and suggestively, sprinkling in more overt scares here and there, but creating much more unease in the background, sometimes quite literally. Like an odd number of movies on this list, this one is very much about grief and the inability to let go of the inexplicable. When we do discover Alice’s darkest secret, we are given a jump-scare that has to go on the list of all-time greats, but it too only works because it has been built on a foundation of real emotion and character-building. This one really haunted me.
Director Mike Flanagan has done some incredible work in the last decade, including the Haunting of Hill House series and the adaptations of both Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. My favorite of his, though, is this, his first feature film. Absentia is a memorable and sly mixture of heartfelt drama and supernatural horror, one buttressed by fine and naturalistic acting from the primary stars of the movie. Callie, a young former addict, travels to a quiet suburb in California to help her sister Tricia pack her things and find a new home. Seven years ago, Tricia’s husband Daniel inexplicably vanished, and after such a long time of clinging to the hope that he may return, she is finally ready to let him go. Or at least she thinks so until she begins having dreams and hallucinations of the man, visions that Flanagan springs on us in simple but disturbing ways. After Callie sees an emaciated stranger in a nearby tunnel, the plot takes a truly surprising turn, one that is somewhat spoiled by trailers for the movie, so I’d advise skipping them. This movie is yet more proof that a film doesn’t have to throw in a lot of explicit violence in order to give you nightmares.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Based on Susan Hill’s slim gothic novel of the same name, this movie is a throwback to earlier horror movies that used atmosphere and suggestion more than extremity in order to put the frighteners on viewers. Set in in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movie begins with a kids’ tea party suddenly interrupted by tragedy. Fifteen years later, a widowed lawyer played by Daniel Radcliffe is tasked with retrieving important papers from Eel Marsh House, an undeniably spooky house located on an island in remote marshlands. The house’s elderly owner has just died, and when Arthur Kipp arrives at the nearby village of Crythin Gifford, he finds her house has a terrible reputation amongst the locals. Why are so many local children dying in terrible accidents, and what does that have to do with the strange experiences Arthur soon has out at that isolated and moldering house?
The Babadook (2014)
In this emotionally-searing yet almost bloodless movie, a widow and her troubled son are plagued by a hideous presence after they read from a weird pop-up storybook that shows up at their house one day. Amelia Vakan is already worn-out from keeping up with her manic son Samuel when the film starts, but her anxieties turn up a notch when the boy claims to be haunted by the titular monster, the same evil creature featured in that kids’ book. What follows is a spiral into mental instability and possibly supernatural manifestations as the Babadook proves to be aa tenacious visitor in this unfortunate little family’s crummy home. I will give a warning that despite avoiding bloody violence (except for one very brief moment), this film deals with some pretty heavy topics and will give most viewers some strong feels. The Babadook is, among other things, an example of horror that explores very real emotional problems through the lens of supernatural terror. Unless it’s all in someone’s head…
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)
Rounding out this list is a movie that impressed the hell out of me with its eerie visuals and dreamlike atmosphere. It is an arthouse movie and will no doubt frustrate viewers looking for a fast-paced spook-fest, but it is rewarding for those patient and open to its peculiar brand of scares. Directed by son of Norman Bates’s actor Anthony Perkins, I Am the Pretty Thing accompanies nurse Lily Saylor (most famous for her portrayal of the malevolent and amusing Alison Lockhart in Luther) as she cares for elderly horror writer Iris Blum (someone like a cross between Shirley Jackson and Iris Murdoch). Blum’s old house steadily becomes a place of unseen threats as Lily’s stay with the old woman lengthens. A black mold and glimpses of a figure in white soon leads her to look more deeply into the house’s history, as well as Blum’s novels. What she finds there may illuminate these strange terrors, but at what cost? Again, this is a deliberately-paced movie that is more Kubrickian or Lynchian than the other titles on this list, but it sure has stuck with me.
Way back in the 1980’s and 90’s, the horror genre was almost split in half by an argument that now seems pretty quaint and needlessly divisive. One one side of this divide were those who argued that horror works best when it is quiet, understated, and reliant on implication and suggestion. On the other side were a group who’d recently been dubbed the “splatterpunks.” These authors and filmmakers often pointed towards Clive Barker as their leading light (though Barker’s work combines elements of both types of horror), and they were determined to create horror media that went just as far as it could go in terms of explicit violence, gore, and sexuality. They often saw the other side as old-fashioned and conservative, while the “quiet horror” advocates regarded them as being shallow and dependent upon shock-value and meaningless gore. Fortunately, the genre as a whole has moved on from this dichotomy, as authors and filmmakers have carved out their own niches and understood the “other side” can exist alongside them. Even better, some of the most interesting terrifying media has begun combining the effects of both understated and explicit story-telling. The following list focuses on the quiet, eerie, and creepy sort of stories. This branch of horror has a long lineage that includes the ambiguous genre works of Henry James, the ghost tales of M. R. James, and the stories of Shirley Jackson. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is another classic in this field. Here are some lesser known but amazing collections that aim to unsettle rather than horrify, that work by suggestion and creepiness rather than explicit violence. These are all perfect for readers who want their Halloween more spooky than gross or soul-crushing. That said, beware: just because these stories work on the quiet side of that divide doesn’t mean they can’t freak you the hell out!
Night’s Black Agents (1947)
Leiber is perhaps best known now, by those who still remember him, as the author of a series of fantasy tales about two rogues named Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as well as for is science fiction. He had, however, a profound effect on the horror genre, particularly through the stories collected in this book. Leiber brought a modern sensibility to his stories, replacing old castles and small towns cursed with Elder Gods with stories set in cities and other recognizable environments. His “Smoke Gost,” collected in this book as well as any decent reprint of his sorter horror works, is a chilling story about a man haunted by a feeling of being watched as well as by the sight of ragged shape moving across the rooftops of Chicago. This story is often cited as the first real urban scary story and it is still effective. Also included in this collection are a story about a model that touches on themes of celebrity worship and other tales that helped set the stage for authors like Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and T. E. D. Klein. What you should really do is find a copy of his novella “Our Lady of Darkness,” a story that hit me hard when I was a teen and changed my conception of what a monster could be.
Cold Hand in Mine (1975)
In another list, I suggest Robert Aickman as a good example of surrealistic horror. His dreamlike stories will often disturb his readers despite their refusal to adhere to conventional scary story structures, ending in strange, often abrupt ways that will leave you feeling like you can almost, but not quite, grasp the shape of something he’s gesturing at. The stories in Cold Hand in Mine tend to be a little more recognizably horrific and are some of his most famous, but they still will puzzle you at the same time as leaving a haunting aftertaste. The first, “The Swords,” is about a young man brushing up against his sexual awakening at a sideshow in a grimy circus. “The Hospice” is truly Lynchian (to be anachronistic about it), involving a guy who ends up having to stay the night at a weird hotel wherein most of the guests are chained to their dinner tables. Another favorite of mine is “The Same Dog.” Aickman won’t please everyone, but if you can appreciate unnerving, symbolic, and strange stories that combine deep character work with darkly suggestive plots, you may have found a new favorite.
The Dark Country (1982)
Etchison treads the line between quiet and more violent horror in this collection, but he usually leans into the eerie and ambiguously disturbing even when his characters do something awful. These stories are more psychological and/or science-fictional than supernatural horror, but there’s a weirdness to them that lingers. If there were such a sub-genre as Weird Noir, something creepier and less formula-bound than what is usually classified as Urban Fantasy, Etichison’s collection would be its foundational text. The Dark Country is set on the road, at rest-stops and little diners and bars. It features lonely, often desperate people, and if the stories often end in enigmatic ways, skirting the easy answers of more traditional mysteries, that may be a reflection of the moral grey zones and spiritual disintegration these characters face.
A Nest of Nightmares (1986)
Lisa Tuttle’s long lost collection of short stories has only recently been reprinted and it’s about time. These tales primarily depend on ambiguity and slowly developing dread as her characters find the unnatural and bizarre hiding just below the surfaces of their more banal, everyday problems. In A Nest of Nightmares, almost all the protagonists are women, and the stories delve into interpersonal and emotional conflicts many male horror writers skirt, while never descending into didacticism. “Bug House” concerns a woman visiting her dying aunt and may be the most explicit story in the collection. Most of the rest either avoid explicit violence and gore, or describe them in an allusive, poetic style that makes them more haunting than terrifying.
Alone With the Horrors (1993)
Anyone reading more than one of my lists of favorites will have noticed by now the frequent appearances of British author, Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the Master of quiet, unsettling horror, the kind of unease you get when you think you see something out of the corner of your eye and turn to find nothing there. While several of his novels are recognized classics of the field, I have noticed that his style is difficult for some readers to enjoy at novel length. I wish they and you would read his short stories, where his vision often works strongest. I could’ve chosen any of his collections for this list, but Alone With the Horrors is an excellent gathering from his first 30 years of writing. These stories invoke a shadowy, eerie, and often surreal atmosphere while not being quite as difficult to parse as some of the others on this list. I strongly recommend “The Chimney” (a chilling Cristmas story), “In the Bag,” “Again” (a nightmare of a story), and “The Brood,” which is one of my favorite short stories period. Read him and discover why he counts Stephen King, Clive Barker, Guillermo del Toro, and a host of other genre greats amongst his fans.
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994)
Joyce Carol Oates
The insanely prolific Joyce Carol Oates has released over forty short story collections. Of those I’ve read, Haunted is the stand-out from a horrific point-of-view. Oates is usually categorized as “literary fiction” (whatever the hell that means) and often overlooked as a genre writer, but the stories collected here would’ve made her reputation had she written nothing else. In two stories, she riffs on Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe, while in others she wrestles with issues of identity, gender, and lost dreams. One of my favorites is “The Doll,” in which she pays homage to Robert Aickman’s excellent story “The Inner Room,” while ringing her own changes upon the theme of a creepy dollhouse. Another is “The Premonition,” a story so subtle and dependent upon insinuation that I love teaching it in Creative Writing classes: inevitably, a good third of the class misses the ghastly fate of an odious character. A little warning: while Oates avoids explicit gore and extreme violence, these stories often deal with topics like domestic violence and sexual assault.
Dark Water (1996)
Koji Suzuki is best known for having written the Ringu series, the first of which was made into a smash-hit movie of the same name and remade in America as the gorgeous The Ring, and which was followed by several novelistic and cinematic sequels. His collection Birthday adds to the story of Sadako Yamamura and should be read by anyone fascinated by that dark character. Suzuki is also, surprisingly, a bestselling author of books on fatherhood and parenting. In Dark Water, we get a seven stories all linked by the use of water imagery. In “Floating Water,” a young woman and her daughter move into a dilapidated apartment building and find a mystery underlying several paranormal experiences taking place there. “Dream Cruise” involves noirish elements like adultery and financially-inspired murder, but takes a turn for the supernatural. Suzuki’s novels often involve heady science-fictional metaphysics, but these stories mostly stick to ghostly and dark psychological waters.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002)
A legend in the horror field, Matheson wrote so many classics I can’t mention them all. I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, Hell House, and a good third of the original episodes of The Twilight Zone came from his typewriter. This collection of stories from his long and varied career gathers some of his strongest short work, including the titular piece based on his screenplay for the episode of The Twilight Zone that involves a man, a plane, and a mischievous gremlin. Some other standouts include “The Distributor,” a story about a newcomer to a small town who brings havoc with him (an obvious influence on Stephen King’s underappreciated social satire/horror novel Needful Things), “Long Distance Call,” and “Prey,” which involves a creepy and all-too active doll. Some of his stories have gender politics that haven’t aged the best, but I mean… these are primarily stories from the 1950’s, so context is important. Matheson was Stephen King’s literary father, a tireless inventor of creepy situations, and reading him is a must for any student of the genre.
The Two Sams (2003)
With an introduction by Ramsey Campbell, you have a fairly good idea of the horrific territory Hirshberg occupies: subtle, ambiguous, and eerie. This author also lends an emotional depth and a realness of human relations to his creepy situations. “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” particularly stuck with me, about a professor bringing an old flame to a Halloween haunted house in an attempt at helping her out of a funk. To say there’s something off about this seasonal attraction, though, would be an understatement. “Struwwelpeter” is also set on Halloween and is like an episode of Stranger Things gone terribly wrong. You won’t find many traditional monsters in a collection by Hirshberg nor will you find gore, but you will walk away from these stories with a sense of unease and images that have imprinted themselves ever-so-delicately on your inner eye.
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (2008)
John Langan is finally getting some recognition now that his historical horror novel The Fisherman is settling in as a new classic of the cosmic horror subgenre. His short stories, though, have always been excellent. They range all over the place in terms of explicitness and monstrosity, but Mr. Gaunt collects some of the quieter, spookier ones. What all of his work has in common is an obvious concern for literary qualities like multidimensional characters, carefully built plots, fine turns of phrase, and an abiding interest in both the history of the genre as well as its future. In “Mr. Gaunt” itself, Langan explores the father-son dynamics on which he would later structure his novel House of Windows, though this story comes with a more obviously monstrous apparition. “On Skua Island” uses the story-within-a-story structure so favored by authors of early Gothic literature, this one about an archeological expedition gone wrong. Langan’s work is particularly recommended for readers who complain about the subpar writing and cliched plots that unfortunately litter the genre.
The woods are always a good setting for a horror flick. Whether they are slashers (the Friday the 13th series), demonic movies (Night of the Demon), or cabin tales (Cabin the Woods, duh), movies featuring terrifying forests have been a mainstay of the genre for decades. For some reason, arboreal horror flicks seem to have increased over the last two decades. Are we more afraid of Nature now, perhaps subconsciously worried it is preparing punishments for our mistreatment of the environment? Is this some twisted form of nostalgia, a longing for the world we are so busy consuming and paving over? Or is this just a continuation of a primordial terror inherent to our species? Whatever the case may be, here are nine recent (with one cult classic) and very creepy films set in the dark woods featuring serial killers, monsters, and nature-inspired madness.
Deep in the Swiss Alps lies the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls, a boarding school for the daughters of the elite and the wealthy. Jennifer Connelly, in her first starring role (yes, before Labyrinth), plays Jennifer Corvino, daughter of a famous film director. When she’s sent off to the Academy, she finds the region is being plagued by a series of killings of young women. After witnessing one of these murders, she meets a paraplegic forensic entomologist (played by Donald Pleasance) and his chimpanzee Inga, and this unlikely pair begin their own investigation. Oh yeah: Jennifer can speak with insects. That will eventually seem like one of the lesser weird elements in this delirium of a movie. This one is total comfort food for me and that, in no small part, is tied in with the setting this mad story is embedded within. The forest plays a more subtle role in this film than in the rest of the movies in this list, but Argento makes us feel these woods and the surrounding landscape like a dream place, like a bloody fairy tale.
The Woods (2006)
The Woods feels like a throwback to some earlier style of horror filmmaking, tense and colorful and character-driven, but one informed by a modern sensibility. Set in 1965, the film follows Heather Fasulo, a young rebel who has pulled one prank too many and has been banished to a posh girl’s school set deep in a forest, the second on this list. Once there, Heather encounters some of the usual boarding school problems, bullies, the attempt at making friends, and stern teachers. Soon, though, her stay there is darkened by rumors of the school’s past, as well as bloody nightmares about another student and natural elements acting quite unnaturally. McKee pays homage to a few of the better horror films from the 60’s and 70’s, movies I won’t mention because they would serve as potential spoilers, but he infuses The Woods with his own thoughtful, spooky, and sometimes humorous sensibilities. This one features some fun acting and a great atmosphere.
This British survival horror-comedy comes to us from the director who would go on to make the incredible Triangle. In Severance, we follow a group of office workers from a military arms corporation who have been bussed out to the woods for a weekend of team-building exercises and motivation. What they find instead is a legend of an abandoned mental asylum and a group of men seemingly intent on killing every last one of them. It’s as if the cast of The Office stumbled into a slasher movie while still retaining its characters’ quirky personalities. The woods are here the grounds for a desperate game of survival played by people used to sitting behind a desk all day.
I Can See You (2008)
This is one of three movies on this list (the other two are YellowBrickRoad and Toad Road) that I imagine would be pretty divisive if this list were anything but a record of the horror movies that have pleased me. I Can See You is a strange indie film about a group of marketers who retreat to the woods for a few days seeking inspiration for a campaign meant to green-wash the company they work for. Our main character, Ben Richards, has more to worry about than this task, though, as his imagination is being invaded by dreams and hallucinations of an increasingly disturbing tone. When two members of his group go missing in the forest and photos Ben finds of them seem to suggest foul play, things take an even darker turn. Towards the end of the movie is quite possibly the weirdest interjected scene I’ve experienced in a movie. If you watch I Can See You, you will immediately know the scene I’m talking about. Reznick is clearly working in the Lynchian vein, but there’s something unique here and I wish he would be given the opportunity to make another movie. Don’t expect to understand what goes down in this film, not completely at any rate. I sure didn’t, but still think of it quite a bit.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado
In this movie, the first horror movie to come out of Israel, a brother and sister on the run for reasons that will only become clear with time run into a serial killer deep in the woods. As they struggle with this killer, other people arrive at the scene, tourists and explorers. What looks like it’s shaping up to be a standard slasher takes a very surprising left turn in the first act of the movie, and what follows proves to be a darker, funnier, and weirdly more tragic story than what we were expecting. Misunderstandings, accidents, and cross-wired motives prove to be just as deadly as any wild-eyed mass murderer, and it’s hard not seeing the film as saying something complex of the state of affairs in that region of the world, not to mention to be pointing toward a deep flaw in human nature. A little word of warning: there is a scene of sexual assault, and though it is interrupted in a satisfying way, it still may prove upsetting for those triggered by such material.
Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton
Be forewarned: YellowBrickRoad, despite a deceptively straightforward setup proves by its end to have little interest in revealing its secrets. The movie begins by telling us about the town of Friar. In 1940, the citizens of Friar left their town en masse after a showing of The Wizard of Oz and marched off into the wilderness with only the clothes they were wearing. Of the nearly 600 people who left, roughly half were later found dead either of exposure or of violent murder, while the other 272 townsfolk were never found at all. The government then hid the location of the trailhead they took. In the present, a documentarian decides to crack this story wide open, having found the location of this path. When he and his crew head into the woods, they begin hearing old-timey music being broadcast from some unseen source. Their navigational equipment fails and tempers begin to flare. Then, a shocking act of violence splinters the group. What follows will scare some viewers, frustrate some, and intrigue the rest. Honestly, I’ve felt all three responses to this film, and still, I go back to it, sure that this time I will understand what lies at the end of this yellow brick road.
Toad Road (2013)
Where I Can See You and YellowBrickRoad confound many viewers with dreamlike logic and disturbing set-pieces, in Toad Road it’s the realism of the movie’s characters that will either irritate you or draw you further in. That and an ending that forces you to fill in the blanks in a way that I found to be authentically creepy. Toad Road is certainly the grimmest movie on this list, in no small part because the theme it tracks is addiction and the terrible places it can take you. Briefly, James is a wastrel, spending his time with his fellow slackers getting drunk, high, and in engaging in self-destructive behavior. Then, he meets Sara, a college student new to the world of drugs. As she begins using and using too heavily, she also becomes more and more obsessed with a legend that a nearby road, if walked the right direction, leads through seven strange gates down into Hell. Sara is intent on seeking out the truth, and James may have no choice but to join her. Much of this movie is improvised, lending it a sense of realism that will grate on many viewers (these are neither intelligent nor kind people whom James has surrounded himself with), but it tightens down into a story about grief, self-distrust, and the searches for transcendence that threaten to dump their investigators directly into the Void.
Lake Bodom/Bodom (2016)
True story: in 1960, three Finnish teens were violently murdered in their tent in the forest near Lake Bodom. A fourth teen was found beaten severely and with no memory of what happened. Despite sixty years of investigation, the truth has never come out about what happened that night. In this thriller, four Finnish teens obsessed with these killings decide to revisit the same secluded woods in an attempt to solve the mystery. Are you surprised to hear they’ll regret this? Or that they will soon find themselves hunted by a dark figure? Well, the plot has more twists than those. This forest feels extra dark, perhaps because of the style of the film, or perhaps because of all the films on this list, this is the only one based in part on a true horror story. Whatever the case may be, if you enjoy intelligent slasher movies, this one may pleasantly surprise you.
After losing her father at an early age, teenager Leah Reyes starts getting interested in the occult. Her mother moves them to a house in the woods, separating the girl from the few friends she had and further isolating her. Then one day, after a particularly contentious argument, Leah retreats into the forest and casts a spell invoking the demon Pyewacket in order that this creature kill her mother. Like many of these parent-child interactions, however, this one soon resolves itself into something more loving and understanding. Now, Leah is left worried that she has released an evil force on her mom and becomes increasingly desperate to find a way to cancel the task she asked of this demon. A tense and emotionally affecting horror movie that looks into our darkest impulses towards those we love the most, as well as the promise and dangers of belief.
David Amito and Michael Laicini
Antrum purports to be a film within a film. The mockumentary that brackets the beginning and end explains that a Bulgarian film shot in English in the 1970’s entitled “Antrum” has a long history of killing people who watched it. One theater burned to the ground after audience members started a fire during its screening, and another was disrupted because someone spiked the concession-stand snacks with LSD. The film was then lost until now. Then we are launched into the film proper, which is about a young boy and his teenage sister whose dog has just been euthanized. After their mother cruelly tells the boy that his dog went to hell for being bad, the sister, Oralee, makes up a story about a spot in a nearby forest wherein one can find a gateway to hell. There, she claims, she and her brother Nathan will be able to rescue their pup from the inferno. When they get there, Oralee involves Nathan in a series of spurious occult rituals, all meant to help him deal with his loss. Unfortunately, there are others in this dark wood and the kids have to deal with a steadily worsening situation. The framing narrative is creepy, and the “Antrum” movie couched within it feels sufficiently gritty to have actually been a lost 70’s flick. The directors also include strange glitches, missing frames, and film-distortions that lend it an appropriately “cursed” feel. I enjoyed the double sensation of worrying about these poor kids as well as the eeriness of the idea that the film they are trapped within may itself be dangerous. A fine addition to the “cursed film” sub-genre and a disturbing trip into the horrific forest.