Book Club Nominees

6 Memoirs That Are Scarier Than Fiction

by @The_Left_Reverend, curator of HOWLS Book Club nominees for July’s “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction (Horrifying Memoirs)” category

So often we turn to fiction to find the stories that unsettle, disturb, and terrify. The sad reality is that real life has a plethora of horrors that can unnerve even the most avid horror readers. This week’s category invites you to explore the real experiences of those who have dealt with true horror firsthand.

Driving With Dead People by Monica Holloway

Small wonder that, at nine years old, Monica Holloway develops a fascination with the local funeral home. With a father who drives his Ford pickup with a Kodak movie camera sitting shotgun just in case he sees an accident, and whose home movies feature more footage of disasters than of his children, Monica is primed to become a morbid child.

Yet in spite of her father’s bouts of violence and abuse, her mother’s selfishness and prim denial, and her siblings’ personal battles and betrayals, Monica never succumbs to despair. Instead, she forges her own way, thriving at school and becoming fast friends with Julie Kilner, whose father is the town mortician.


She and Julie prefer the casket showroom, where they take turns lying in their favorite coffins, to the parks and grassy backyards in her hometown of Elk Grove, Ohio. In time, Monica and Julie get a job driving the company hearse to pick up bodies at the airport, yet even Monica’s growing independence can’t protect her from her parents’ irresponsibility, and from the feeling that she simply does not deserve to be safe. Little does she know, as she finally strikes out on her own, that her parents’ biggest betrayal has yet to be revealed.

Throughout this remarkable memoir of her dysfunctional, eccentric, and wholly unforgettable family, Monica Holloway’s prose shines with humor, clear-eyed grace, and an uncommon sense of resilience. Driving with Dead People is an extraordinary real-life tale with a wonderfully observant and resourceful heroine. (StoryGraph)

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I have always found the death industry fascinating so hearing from someone who grew up entrenched in her own morbid curiosity spoke to me.

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The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

When The World in Flames begins, in 1970, Jerry Walker is six years old. His consciousness revolves around being a member of a church whose beliefs he finds not only confusing but terrifying. Composed of a hodgepodge of requirements and restrictions (including a prohibition against doctors and hospitals), the underpinning tenet of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that its members were divinely chosen and all others would soon perish in rivers of flames.

The substantial membership was ruled by fear, intimidation, and threats. Anyone who dared leave the church would endure hardship for the remainder of this life and eternal suffering in the next. The next life, according to Armstrong, would arrive in 1975, three years after the start of the Great Tribulation. Jerry would be eleven years old.


Jerry’s parents were particularly vulnerable to the promise of relief from the world’s hardships. When they joined the church, in 1960, they were living in a two-room apartment in a dangerous Chicago housing project with the first four of their seven children, and, most significantly, they both were blind, having lost their sight to childhood accidents. They took comfort in the belief that they had been chosen for a special afterlife, even if it meant following a religion with a white supremacist ideology and dutifully sending tithes to Armstrong, whose church boasted more than 100,000 members and more than $80 million in annual revenues at its height.

When the prophecy of the 1972 Great Tribulation does not materialize, Jerry is considerably less disappointed than relieved. When the 1975 end-time prophecy also fails, he finally begins to question his faith and imagine the possibility of choosing a destiny of his own.
(StoryGraph)

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As someone who lives and works in the religious world I find extreme right-wing Christian movements to be absolutely terrifying. The way these beliefs are creeping into mainstream religious movements makes my skin crawl. Cults take these beliefs to the farthest extremes. These movements are causing irreparable harm to our world. The first step in pushing back is to hear the stories of survivors who have made it out.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon

Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God by Claire Cronin

A creative-critical memoir of the author’s obsession with the horror genre, Blue Light of the Screen embeds its criticism of horror within a larger personal story of growing up in a devoutly Catholic family, overcoming suicidal depression, uncovering intergenerational trauma, and encountering real and imagined ghosts. 

As Cronin writes, she positions herself as a protagonist who is haunted by what she watches and reads, like an antiquarian in an M.R. James ghost story whose sense of reality unravels through her study of arcane texts and cursed archives. In this way, Blue Light of the Screen tells the story of the author’s conversion from skepticism to faith in the supernatural. 

Part memoir, part ghost story, and part critical theory, Blue Light of the Screen is not just a book about horror, but a work of horror itself. (StoryGraph)

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My first thought when I read the summary of this book was, “ONE OF US!”

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung’s family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.

Harrowing yet hopeful, Loung’s powerful story is an unforgettable account of a family shaken and shattered, yet miraculously sustained by courage and love in the face of unspeakable brutality. (StoryGraph)

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There are a number of memoirs that reflect the experiences of those who have survived the horrors of war, war crimes, and genocide. I didn’t want to overload the list with these stories for fear of encouraging war crime rubbernecking. That being said, hearing the voices of survivors, bearing witness to their experiences, and learning how to recognize and fight back against ongoing acts of violence in our world is also important work.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad, and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman, Machado struggles to make sense of how what happened to her shaped the person she was becoming.

And it’s that struggle that gives the book its original structure: each chapter is driven by its own narrative trope–the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman–through which Machado holds the events up to the light and examines them from different angles. She looks back at her religious adolescence, unpacks the stereotype of lesbian relationships as safe and utopian, and widens the view with essayistic explorations of the history and reality of abuse in queer relationships.

Machado’s dire narrative is leavened with her characteristic wit, playfulness, and openness to inquiry. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek, and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction. The result is a wrenching, riveting book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be. (StoryGraph)

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Healthy relationships require work and can still, at times, be hard. The pain of an abusive relationship goes far beyond what many of us can imagine. Machado bravely offers her experience giving us an insight into this pain and telling a story which tells those who have been in similarly abusive relationships that they are not alone.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

My Lobotomy: A Memoir by Howard Dully & Charles Fleming

At twelve, Howard Dully was guilty of the same crimes as other boys his age: he was moody and messy, rambunctious with his brothers, contrary just to prove a point, and perpetually at odds with his parents. Yet somehow, this normal boy became one of the youngest people on whom Dr. Walter Freeman performed his barbaric transorbital—or ice pick—lobotomy.

Abandoned by his family within a year of the surgery, Howard spent his teen years in mental institutions, his twenties in jail, and his thirties in a bottle. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that Howard began to pull his life together. But even as he began to live the “normal” life he had been denied, Howard struggled with one question: Why?

There were only three people who would know the truth: Freeman, the man who performed the procedure; Lou, his cold and demanding stepmother who brought Howard to the doctor’s attention; and his father, Rodney. Of the three, only Rodney, the man who hadn’t intervened on his son’s behalf, was still living. Time was running out. Stable and happy for the first time in decades, Howard began to search for answers.

Through his research, Howard met other lobotomy patients and their families, talked with one of Freeman’s sons about his father’s controversial life’s work, and confronted Rodney about his complicity. And, in the archive where the doctor’s files are stored, he finally came face to face with the truth.

Revealing what happened to a child no one—not his father, not the medical community, not the state—was willing to protect, My Lobotomy exposes a shameful chapter in the history of the treatment of mental illness. Yet, ultimately, this is a powerful and moving chronicle of the life of one man. Without reticence, Howard Dully shares the story of a painfully dysfunctional childhood, a misspent youth, his struggle to claim the life that was taken from him, and his redemption. (StoryGraph)

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What could be worse than losing one’s sense of self at the hands of a doctor following the parent’s wishes. In the history of medicine lobotomies reflect a time of real-life body horror which left a trail of human casualties along the way.

Bookshop* | StoryGraph | Goodreads | Amazon 

And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. Discussion starts on July 24, and you can read along by joining the Discord!

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

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