Book Club Nominees

6 Horrors from other Sections of the Bookshop

by @JennyK, curator of HOWLS Book Club nominees for October’s “Diet Horror” cateory

Horror without the sugar—dark fiction that might not be shelved in the horror section. While I’ve always loved and read horror, I also have loved and read books outside of horror, though I quickly realized most of the “non-horror” books I love are actually just “not-quite-horror”. They still drip with that darkness or weirdness or terrifying thing that makes up what we might classify a book as “horror”. There’s no horror-sugar, and there’s no bubblegum-sugar either. Instead of exploring our fears or anxieties through the darkness, these books probe into family, grief, teenage girls, or the concept of death, personified. Some might classify these books as horror, but you’re more likely to find them in another area of the bookstore. 

Cover of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Cover is a plain peach color with the title in a thin blocky font. Cover features a National Book Award Finalist seal.

Geek Love by Katharine Dunn

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out—with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes—to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset.

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same. (Goodreads)

I doubt you’ll ever find another book narrated by an albino hunchback. This book has everything: Freaks and geeks (the chicken-beheading kind)! Family drama! Strippers! Artists! Drugs! This may be the wildest book ever nominated for the National Book Award. I first read this in a college Gothic literature class and fell in love with it. Almost akin to a modern Frankenstein, it explores the idea of humanity within societal “monsters”, the capitalist consumption of bodies, and familial love and trauma.

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Cover of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Cover shows trees next to the shore of a body of water.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. (Goodreads)

This book is haunting. Haunting in its lyricism, haunting in its portrayal of grief, and, of course, haunting for the fact that it includes a lot of ghosts. The first (and so far only) novel from a master of short stories, this one plays with form, sometimes looking like a list of quotes rather than a novel. This pick will almost certainly have you pulling out the tissue box! 

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Cover of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Cover shows the legs of a girl in white knee socks and a pink skirt. She is wearing brown loafers and sitting on the grass.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The shocking thing about the girls was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date of their lives. Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brassiere draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters’ breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear. (Goodreads)

This book is a fascinating look at the miserable lives of teenage girls. Told in a first person plural point of view, it is also a look into the teenage male gaze—the story is told “investigation” style from the collective group of neighborhood boys, recalling the story as adults. Having been a teenage girl previously, I found this book to be relatable and cathartic. It also explained a bit about the mindset of teenage boys, and how they truly found us a mystery to be solved.

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Cover of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Cover shows a stream, the water muddy sediment, the water a tan in color. Trees flank the stream on either side.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s harrowing account of the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Narrated in turn by each of the family members — including Addie herself — as well as others; the novel ranges in mood, from dark comedy to the deepest pathos. Considered one of the most influential novels in American fiction in structure, style, and drama, As I Lay Dying is a true 20th-century classic. (Goodreads)

Never thought you’d see William Faulkner recommended for HOWLS consumption, did you? This book is a doozy, a big heap of dark humor that would be perfect for a Coen Brothers film (get out of here, James Franco!), like if the Soggy Bottom Boys had to cart a corpse across the country instead of evading the cops with bluegrass. This is Southern Gothic at its funniest, if you can see the humor within a dark tale.

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Cover of Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Cover shows a renaissance-style painting of a naked woman. She appears to be asleep and her arm hangs down, obscuring part of her face.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift—an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille’s genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the “ultimate perfume”—the scent of a beautiful young virgin. Told with dazzling narrative brilliance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity. (Goodreads)

Though the novel has “Murderer” in the title, this story is written like a fable, but, yeah, it’s probably the closest to straight horror on the list. Translated from German and winner of both the World Fantasy Award and the PEN Translation Prize, it’s got a narrator that is both pitiable and unlikeable. This book remained on Germany’s bestseller list for over a decade, and is the highest-selling German novel of the 20th century. As someone who previously had a decreased sense of smell, I found Grenouille’s obsession with scent fascinating and bizarre. I love the blending of history and fable and getting into the mind of Grenouille, both a gross cretin and a pitiful cinnamon roll. Plus, some copies have an exposed boob on the cover.

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Cover of Death with Interruptions by José Saramago. Cover shows a darkened photo of a skull; the photo fills the cover. The photo is so dark the skull is barely visible. In the bottom of the photo, there is a butterfly, perched near the jaw and mouth of the skull. The butterfly is visible even though the photo is dark.

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago

On the first day of the new year, no one dies. This, of course, causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is initially mass celebration. Flags are hung out on balconies; people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home—families are left to care for the permanently dying; life-insurance policies become meaningless; and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots.

Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with scythe and filing cabinets and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small “d,” became human and were to fall in love? (Goodreads)

At first, you might think that an island where nobody can die might be the opposite of a horror novel, or even a horror-adjacent novel. But all good things come with their caveats, and here is no exception. The longer you think about this situation, the more horrifying it becomes, as no death doesn’t mean no pain. I’m intrigued by the Latin American magical realism genre, and this book is a prime example. It’s told in a stream-of-consciousness style, eschewing standard grammar, punctuation, and quotations for speech, not unlike The Road.  

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

And The Winner Is…

In a once in a lifetime event, HOWL Society could not break the tie between two books! Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind and Geek Love by Katharine Dunn will be our simultaneous books of the week. Join HOWL Society on Monday, October 18, 2021 to begin discussion of either—or if you’re feeling extra ambitious, both!

J. L. Kiefer is a regular contributor to Louisville Magazine, where she has won several Society of Professional Journalism awards. She has also won several awards for her fiction, including the Editors’ Award for Emerging Writers from Miracle Monocle. Her creative and journalistic work have appeared in The White Squirrel, Whisky Advocate, and The Voice Tribune. She is also a supporting member of the Horror Writer’s Association. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her spouse and two beagles.

*The HOWLS affiliate storefront pays a 10% commission to HOWL Society and gives a matching 10% to independent bookstores

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