Get ready for a feast of frights, from gaslight romance to cosmic horror. But beware: The eight books get scarier as you read!
The Widow of Rose House
Diana Biller makes no bones about the fact that Edith Wharton—the best American ghost-story writer of them all—inspired every aspect of her debut novel, The Widow of Rose House. Even the (putatively) haunted house at the heart of the story is based on Wharton’s stately mansion. And best of all, Biller mirrors Wharton’s genius for revealing the emotional gold lying beneath the Gilded Age, which motivates the novel’s massive romantic turmoil. After years of abuse by an evil (and now deceased) husband, Alva Webster hopes to make a new start in the fashionable community of Hyde Park, New York. It’s 1875, a liminal moment in American history, when the dawn of the age of electricity coincides with a mania for psychic research. These paradoxical currents merge in the heart of scientist Samuel Moore, who wants to understand nature’s deepest secrets, however much darkness it takes to bring them to light. He asks Alva to let him investigate her troubled house—but the investigation goes much further than that.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Romance takes a contemporary turn in Kate Racculia’s wonderful new novel, set in present-day Boston. The title—Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts —captures both the book’s dynamic spirit and its delightful ambiguity. Does heroine Tuesday Mooney really talk to ghosts? Is the ghost in question her childhood friend Abby, who disappeared when they were both 16, taken one night from the ocean wharf where she and Tuesday used to hang out together? That’s the awful shadow that hangs over Tuesday’s life, the memory that keeps her from true friendship and true love. But fate has other things in store, arriving in the form of an elderly, eccentric billionaire who establishes a treasure hunt in the terms of his will. It turns out that Tuesday is the one person holding all the pieces of the puzzle, which she puts together with her deliciously campy friend Dex, her precocious teenage neighbor Dorry and the secretive Archie Arches, the key to the old man’s riddles and (naturally) the person made in heaven for Tuesday. As it turns out, the treasure hunt is a bid for these characters’ very souls. Abby’s ghost has something to say about it, too—something much more than “Boo!”
The Saturday Night Ghost Club
In our next novel, horror is outdone by hominess. Even the setting of Craig Davidson’s The Saturday Night Ghost Club is too picturesque to be allowed: Niagara Falls in the idyllic 1980s, a place so nostalgically beautiful that nothing bad should happen there (but of course, it does). Jake is a 12-year-old boy who, along with two new summer friends, gets caught up in the magical world of his Uncle Calvin, a lovable kook who not only tells the kids ghost stories but also shows them the ghosts. One hidden card after another appears from Calvin’s sleeve, until only the ace remains—the death card, the one that holds Calvin’s own secret, which even he doesn’t realize. If you like darkness poured out like molasses from a bucket, you’ll love this novel.
Last Ones Left Alive
Sarah Davis-Goff has given us a zombie novel with a Celtic twist. Remember how the folks in Riverdance used to clomp around on stage with their arms held down and motionless? In her debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, it finally makes sense: Those creepy dancers were heralding an apocalypse of the ravenous undead, whose arms have already been bitten off. Irish zombies are called skrake, and our teenage heroine, Orpen, spends her life on a little Irish island hoping never to encounter one. But she, her Mam and their formidable friend Maeve cannot evade the menace forever. Davis-Goff’s painstaking account of the courage and resourcefulness of these three women dominates the first part of the book, but their solitary ordeal preludes a much grander unfolding of female empowerment, in which they must join forces with the banshees, a company of women who set out to defeat the skrake—and other monstrous beings—and give humanity another chance.
YA author Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) makes his adult fiction debut with Imaginary Friend. Assuming its length (720 pages!) doesn’t scare you off before you even crack the cover, I’ll keep my review short, so you can get started. Chbosky’s chutzpah is to reimagine the Christian story of the Madonna and Child as a horror story. Kate Reese (like Alva Webster in The Widow of Rose House) is escaping an abusive man, hoping for a fresh start with her son, Christopher, in a little Pennsylvania town called Mill Grove. But Christopher gets lost in the woods and comes back changed, haunted by a voice in his head that threatens and commands him to do strange things (or else). This “imaginary friend” cannot stay imaginary for long (well, OK, for around 500 pages). The voice’s threats turn into a horrible reality, a battle between good and evil, with Mill Grove as Armageddon.
Benjamin Percy’s awareness of his own craft—the terms of which are generously set forth in Thrill Me, his book of essays on the art of fiction—is apparent throughout his new collection of short stories, Suicide Woods. Each tale is a creaking door, hinging on a high concept or an uncanny hook, nicely derivative of weird masters such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Aickman. In every case, the gears of Percy’s plots make an audible noise, grinding his characters’ bodies and spirits (or both) into inevitable carnage. In these unrelenting tales, it can be taken for granted that the worst will always happen—that suicidal patients will ironically be terrorized and undone by their larger fear of death; that the apparition of a “mud man” in a fellow’s yard will turn his life into, well, mud; that a trip to the forbidding wilderness of Alaska will—naturally—forbid all joy, hope and life. The virtue of this collection lies in its super-refined telling, thanks to Percy’s efforts to break through the barriers between genre fiction and literature, by hell and high water (and ice and mud and whatnot).
Joe Hill’s attitude toward the craft of writing could not be more different from Benjamin Percy’s. Hill eats genre fiction like junk food, chewing up the whole disreputable tradition of horror into a new, unique pulp and spitting it out with massively entertaining mastery. He comes by this skill honestly: I mean, gosh, if your dad is Stephen King and your mom is Tabitha King, you’re as good as doomed (read: saved). For us fans, good fortune is dealt in spades in Full Throttle, Hill’s latest collection of stories. Framing a baker’s dozen of tales are Hill’s beautiful essay of appreciation for his parents at the front and story notes at the back, the kind that horror geeks like me drool over, just because they’re so wonderfully self-indulgent. Best of all are the inclusion of two stories Hill co-authored with his father, whose famous love of motorcycles and road trips gone wrong have corrupted his son just right, making these the best tales in the collection.
A Cosmology of Monsters
The seven books reviewed so far go bobbing for scares, each nibbling at terrors real or imagined, each splendidly diverting in its own way. But Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters bites horror to its core. The most influential horror writer of the 20th century is H.P. Lovecraft, whose works offer a vision of the universe as a place of irredeemable misery and meaninglessness. Our lives are ultimately in the merciless hands (and tentacles) of a pantheon of unimaginably terrifying creatures who inhabit the nether regions of the planet. The only problems are 1) Lovecraft is a notoriously overwrought prose stylist, and 2) he despised people—not just individual persons but everybody, including himself. A magnificent tribute to Lovecraft’s vexing achievement, A Cosmology of Monsters redeems both of the master’s flaws. Hamill’s heart-stopping debut novel features exceptionally graceful language and a set of characters we come to worry about, take delight in, grieve for and love. Saturated with endless wonder and horrific consequences, it’s the story of a family marked for special attention by Lovecraft’s Old Ones. How much loss can a good person endure? Lovecraft never cared to ask the question. Hamill cares very much, all the way to the tragic last act.