Some ideas for different ways to unsettle, disturb and terrify yourself this year
Halloween is my favourite holiday, though I’m not quite sure why. It may be some blood-deep ethnic link to the ancient Celtic festival from whence it came; it may be the fact that I’m crazy-stupid for slasher movies and monkey nuts. Either way, Halloween puts the frights on Christmas, terrorises Easter and sends Valentine’s Day bawling for its mommy. And one of the best ways to spend 31 October is by curling up with a creepy book, in a room lit by candles, with stiff drink and loaded revolver close at hand. Just in case.
However, being the très cool, alternative trendies that we are, let’s not settle for any old horror novel. Sure, American Psycho or The Shining will scare the bejeesus out of you, guaranteed. But that’s a bit too easy.
Instead, I’ve put together an alternative Halloween reading list in preparation for next Monday: novels that are eerie, horrifying or disturbing in unusual and different ways. (And please, no jokes about Jeffrey Archer or Cecelia Ahern being truly gruesome … mainly because I’ve just made one.)
Manual by Daren King
Fetishism, psychic dislocation, unhealthy sexual obsession – Manual isn’t an easy book to warm to, but it will linger in the mind afterwards. Sometimes gruelling, but worth it if only for the wholly original style: terse, often unrelated sentences, tiny explosions of descriptive power … like reading a series of connected haikus.
The Return of the Player by Michael Tolkin
Sequel to the novel that inspired the Robert Altman movie, but this is much darker and creepier, in tone and theme, than that relatively playful piss-take. Fundamentally about death, it’s a fearful lament for the end of things.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Because Pinkie is one of the most terrifyingly believable sociopaths ever created … and the horror that awaits Rose after the final pages in indescribable.
Shirker by Chad Taylor
Set in New Zealand, this tale of one man cheating death is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Beautiful artful prose, a great, twisting noir story, and a seriously spooky, sexy atmosphere. You’ll feel all sorts of chills running along your spine.
Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
A tone of strange, spooky reverie permeates this fantasy from the incomparable Calvino. A group of wayfarers meet in the forest and, struck dumb, tell their stories through tarot cards.
High-Rise by JG Ballard
It opens with a man roasting an alsatian over a burning phonebook, and doesn’t relent from there on in. Most of Ballard’s incredible body of work is disturbing enough, but High-Rise was the one that most freaked me out.
The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
It’s a sort of ghost story – or is it? Reality, delusion and memory blur into one another in DeLillo’s short novel about the titular body artist dealing with bereavement.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Any one of a number of dystopian novels could have made the cut – Riddley Walker and Swastika Nights are particularly powerful – but Atwood’s “speculative” novel is so unsettling because everything that happens is a possible, and often probable, consequence of what we’re doing now.
The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver
Deaver might not be a literary artist, but he’s a very, very skilled craftsman. The Vanished Man has a deliriously serpentine plot – and a chameleonic villain who gets right under your skin because he can get under anyone’s skin.