Book Club Nominees

6 Horror Novels that Push the Boundaries of Form

by @Joan, curator of HOWL Book Club nominees for October’s “Hideous Experiments” category

Storylines stitched together in mad patterns, truth grafted onto fiction, uncanny voices speaking from the shadows — sometimes horror pushes the boundaries of narrative as well as subject matter. The books in this list all have experimental elements or gimmicks that could send shivers down the spine of literary traditionalists.

Cover of Blue Light of the Screen by Claire Cronin. Cover shows a comic strip containing black and white drawings. The drawings include: a spooky house, a family in a car, a woman with apparent blood on her face, an individual in a ski mask, a woman holding another person close in a bed, a person clasping their hands in front of their mouth, and a young girl in a beanie hat.

Blue Light of the Screen by Claire Cronin

Blue Light of the Screen is a creative-critical memoir of the author’s lifelong obsession with the horror genre. To that end, the book explores depression, visual culture, trauma, religious belief, and ideas of spectrality. It sits between autobiography and cultural criticism and also contains lists and hand-drawn illustrations of horror movie scenes. Importantly, Blue Light of the Screen is not only a book about horror, it is itself a work of horror. It aims to unsettle readers through its status as a memoir that is also a ghost story. (Goodreads)

I decided to read this book when I saw it recommended alongside other horror-related, genre-bending nonfiction I’ve enjoyed: Darkly by Leila Taylor and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. (Those two have already been discussed or voted on by HOWLS.) Although I don’t share the author’s religious perspective, I found Blue Light of the Screen to be a compelling mix of musings, fragments of poetry, criticism and art — just as ambiguous, referential and potentially divisive as you’d expect from experimental horror.

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Cover of Red X by David Demchuk. Cover shows a red X against a distressed black background.

Red X by David Demchuk

Men are disappearing from Toronto’s gay village. They’re the marginalized, the vulnerable. One by one, stalked and vanished, they leave behind small circles of baffled, frightened friends. Against the shifting backdrop of homophobia throughout the decades, from the HIV/AIDS crisis and riots against raids to gentrification and police brutality, the survivors face inaction from the law and disinterest from society at large. But as the missing grow in number, those left behind begin to realize that whoever or whatever is taking these men has been doing so for longer than is humanly possible. Woven into their stories is David Demchuk’s own personal history, a life lived in fear and in thrall to horror, a passion that boils over into obsession. (Goodreads)

So, this list features both a memoir with elements of horror and a horror novel with elements of memoir. Common wisdom says that an author self-insert is a risky tactic, but in this case it seems like it could drive home the real losses and injustice that underlie the supernatural plot. While Red X is a very recent release, early reviews look promising. Tor Nightfire praises it for being “full of heart and righteous fury.”

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Cover of The Narrator by Michael Cisco. Cover shows an elaborate drawing of individuals in some sort of fantastical or medieval costume surrounding a table. The individuals appear to be wearing masques, such as at a masquerade, or their faces are offset from their bodies. Some of the figured in the image appear to be giants.

The Narrator by Michael Cisco

By turns phantasmagorical and exhilarating (reminiscent one moment of Robbe-Grillet, the next of Artaud, with a tinge of Thomas Ligotti, the imaginative virtuosity of Gene Wolfe or M. John Harrison), The Narrator is like a stark sequence of strong iron bars, brimming with dark ambiance. Combining unmatched craft with masterful storytelling, this is literate fantasy unlike any other, intricate as the most elaborate dream, in which the narrator himself is the most ambiguous thing of all. (Goodreads)

Michael Cisco has established himself as a notable Weird writer with leanings toward metafiction and the surreal, and I’ve seen The Narrator recommended as a good introduction to his work. It follows a student in a strange world conscripted into the army, pulled away from his coursework at the College of Narrators, which is one of the first clues that Cisco isn’t telling a straightforward war story. He noted in an interview that he was inspired in part by the idea of a “fantasy Catch-22.”

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Cover of . Hurricane Season by Fernanda MelchorCover shows an image of an apparent rip down the center of the cover. The plain white text against a black background is offset by the rip. The rip appears to resemble a lightning strike.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

The Witch is dead. And the discovery of her corpse—by a group of children playing near the irrigation canals—propels the whole village into an investigation of how and why this murder occurred. Rumors and suspicions spread. As the novel unfolds in a dazzling linguistic torrent, with each unreliable narrator lingering on new details, new acts of depravity or brutality, Melchor extracts some tiny shred of humanity from these characters that most would write off as utterly irredeemable, forming a lasting portrait of a damned Mexican village. (Goodreads)

Hurricane Season has been on my radar since it was included in the International Booker Prize shortlist. Based on reviews, it’s a grim, nonlinear, powerful novel narrated without respite or paragraph breaks by an array of voices. It would be a good choice if your October tastes lean less toward the spooky and more toward the hard-hitting and gruesome.

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Cover of Subcutanean by Aaron A. Reed. Cover shows the hands of two individuals, their hands intertwined, and a view down a long dark hallway in the background.

Subcutanean by Aaron A. Reed

Insecure college senior Orion loves music, books, and his best friend Niko. When the two of them find a secret basement in their rambling old off-campus house, at first Orion’s thrilled. It’s another secret to share, another adventure to maybe, at last, bring them closer together. But something’s wrong: the basement doesn’t end. Together they must navigate an increasingly dangerous labyrinth that peels back their friendship to raw and angry roots, filled with two-faced doppelgängers, treacherous architecture, and long-buried secrets. (Goodreads)

The blurb may remind you of House of Leaves, but this book takes the infinite house concept in new directions, and its gimmick doesn’t involve footnotes. Instead, the author generates a unique copy of the novel for each customer by swapping in different text options, which actually becomes plot-relevant. Not as literary as the previous options in this list, but I enjoyed the expedition through bland suburban architecture turned uncanny.

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Cover of Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr. Cover shows a silhouette of a woman against some kind of curtain or screen. She is lit from behind by yellow light and appears to be either in some sort of dance pose, or in the throes of some sort of terror.

Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr

Haunt is a tripping-balls Los Angeles noir, where a mysterious dame drags you through a time-warping Bizarro hall of mirrors. She’s the girl of your dreams. Too bad she’s dead. Or is she? In Haunt, “you” are the hapless corporate tool and rock star wannabe turned private Dick. Here, even your most inconsequential choices can make all the difference between a Hollywood ending on the beach and sucking cock for clues. This is genial lowbrow high lit weirdness: the funny, punchy cousin of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a Vonnegut and Salinger paté on a choose-your-own cracker, with a lapdance from Nancy Drew. (Goodreads)

Well, neither experimental fiction nor bizarro horror is known for its respectability. Haunt is influenced by choose-your-own-adventure stories (though not actually structured that way), which appeals to me as someone who occasionally plays interactive fiction in the year 2021. Seems like a bit of a gamble — could be a mess, could be fun.

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And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers chose to read Subcutanean by Aaron A. Reed. Join HOWL Society on Monday, October 25, 2021 to begin discussion!

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

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