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All Horror Coverage

Some horror novels grab you by the throat and pull you through them, rubbing your face in the uncomfortable, terrifying things that lurk in the dark. Other horror novels can feel more sinister, slowly creeping up on you out of the banality of everyday evil. Two new novels explore these facets of fear to great effect, creating worlds that are both fantastical and terribly real. 

Black Tide

Set along Oregon’s foggy coast, Black Tide by KC Jones is the story of two strangers who are thrust together when the world comes to an end. Beth might be a disaster (even her mother says so), but her latest gig housesitting for wealthy vacationers at least keeps her from living in her car. The night before everything changes, she meets Mike, a film producer with no new projects in sight. In the early morning hours after their champagne-soaked one-night stand, they realize that something is terribly wrong. The power is out, cell phone service is down and the beach is littered with bowling ball-size meteorites that smell as if they have been pulled from a landfill in hell. Soon the unlikely pair learn a horrifying truth: Far from being an isolated incident, the meteor shower was the harbinger of an apocalyptic encounter with creatures from another world. Stranded together on an Oregonian beach, Beth and Mike must rely on each other if they are to have any chance of survival. 

Jones’ debut novel reads like a summer blockbuster stuffed with adrenaline-pumping action scenes and moments of heart-stopping suspense. Jones deftly punctuates long, tense scenes of Mike and Beth trying to avoid notice by the alien creatures with short, intense bursts of them fighting for their lives. Moments of relative calm allow for character exploration, bringing readers into Mike’s and Beth’s minds as they work through their feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Jones lets both characters take turns as first-person narrators, demonstrating the difference in how they see themselves (flawed to the point of worthlessness) and how the other person sees them (flawed but essentially good).

For readers used to tome-size horror novels, the length of Black Tide may be surprising. It’s just over 250 pages, but anything longer would have detracted from the frenetic pacing and torn attention away from Jones’ perfectly simple, extremely frightening premise: two people trapped at the end of the world, desperate to not be eaten by monsters. 

The Fervor

Alma Katsu’s The Fervor casts a wide net. It starts in 1944 during the waning days of World War II. Meiko Briggs is a Japanese immigrant and wife of a white American man. Even though her husband is serving in the U.S. Air Force, she’s still torn from her new home by the American government and forced to live in an internment camp in the remote reaches of Idaho with her daughter, Aiko. When a mysterious illness starts to move through the camp, rage and distrust rise, threatening the fragile corner of relative normalcy Meiko has tried to create for her daughter. 

Meanwhile, mysterious balloons have begun to appear and then explode across the West, leaving a similar illness in their wake. One of these bombs turns a preacher in Bly, Oregon, into a widower, driving him into the arms of hate movements cropping up across the country. A close encounter with another bomb leads a newspaper reporter to crisscross the region looking for answers, but she finds only closed doors and deep distrust. As the illness intensifies in both the camps and the surrounding towns, the sins of the past collide with the present to create an inescapable web of hatred, fear and desperation.

In light of the rash of anti-Asian violence of the 2020s, Katsu’s historical parable about the horrors—and the virulence—of racism and xenophobia feels particularly pressing. The Fervor gives readers a glimpse into one of the darkest moments of American history, and then gives the already-terrifying ethos of that time a new and frightening shape: As the disease spreads from person to person, it is often accompanied by mysterious, possibly supernatural spiders. The image of near-invisible spiders crawling from one person to another, over eyelids, mouths and bodies, is an indelibly creepy illustration of just how pervasive mistrust and prejudice are. 

The terror only grows from there. From visitations from a ghostly woman in a red kimono to midnight car chases through the prairie, The Fervor delivers a punch that’s equal parts psychological horror and jump scare. It will make you want to read into the wee hours of the morning, even though you may question that decision when the shadows start to move.

KC Jones’ apocalyptic debut and Alma Katsu’s latest eerie novel have one thing in common: They will absolutely terrify you.

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s mega-rich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness.

Khaw roots the novella in the perspective of Cat, who along with Phillip and the group’s resident pot-stirrer, Lin, is one of the wedding’s three guests. Cat has recently emerged from six months of self-imposed isolation to treat her depression, the exact details of which are left purposefully vague. Cat thinks this retreat has done her some good, but Khaw does not shy from portraying Cat’s ongoing experience with depression in the form of long, spiraling trains of thought. These mental soliloquies color the entire story with Cat’s internal angst. Her barely controlled depressive energy bleeds through every page, punctured by curt dialogue among the small fellowship of supposed friends. Supposed is the key adjective, as each member of the five-person crew has some sort of sordid history with another member—or two. Their friendships, especially as seen through Cat’s eyes, are flimsy at best. Despite flying across the world to participate in this marriage ceremony, the bonds between them disintegrate as the haunting begins.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Cat’s relative familiarity with Japanese culture (she is Chinese and grew up in Malaysia) means that she is quick to identify certain beings but doesn’t spend unrealistic amounts of time explaining significant details for the audience, a careful balance of clarity and obscurity that will appeal to Japanese horror aficionados and newcomers alike.

Khaw builds horror slowly and evenly. Rather than sporadically appearing to frighten and terrorize the young squad of not-quite-friends, the spirits of the house appear with steadily increasing frequency until they are simply present in every scene. By the novella’s climax, the tension has increased to such an unbearable degree that the final burst of violence is more expected than surprising.

Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale of foolish young adults, all of whom are poorly prepared for the effects their decisions will have on their psyches (and lives).

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold.

In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. Known for the rejection of nearly everything as being sinful, life in a Puritan community could be pretty tough, especially for women. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

Abitha, a young Englishwoman, marries into the Puritan society of Sutton, Connecticut, and finds herself relegated to the fringes of the community, an outsider due to her sharp tongue and headstrong manner. She also brought small charms and potions with her from England, remedies from her mother that would be considered witchcraft in Puritan circles. When her husband is killed in the woods behind her house, Abitha must decide how to live as a widow in a community that seems to be waiting for her to fail.

If only that were all she had to worry about. Deep in the dark of the forest, something ancient, primal and hungry has awoken. Can Abitha survive alone when old Slewfoot comes to her door?

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Slewfoot is creepy, crawly, bloody fun. There are some downright spine-tingling moments that are sure to stick with you long after the last page. From shadows in cornfields, to pits filled with bones, to entrails scattered across deserted roads, author and illustrator Brom wastes no opportunity to turn up the spook factor, whether in prose or in the deliciously creepy paintings that illustrate his tale. However, what’s especially commendable about this horror aesthetic is the wayt the reader’s reaction to it changes over time. As the story progresses, these passages don’t simply shock; they reveal more and more about the universe of the story. Without giving too much away, by the end of the book, you’ll be rooting for blood.

Indeed, Slewfoot’s most compelling theme is its fascination with change. We see it most with Abitha, who is an incredible character. As she grieves, finds confidence in herself and gets drawn into the ancient power of the spirits of the forest, the reader empathizes with that transformation. There’s also a continuing meditation on good and evil, dark and light, life and death. Do monsters think of themselves as monsters? Are there elements of dark and light in all of us?

If you’re looking for a witchy, thrilling ride that also has a philosophical soul, grab a copy of Slewfoot—and don’t put it down until you’ve finished it.

In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

Thiago Alvarez lost his wife, Vera, in a tragic accident. He may also be losing his mind. In powerfully immersive first-person, stream-of-consciousness prose, Gus Moreno’s debut novel provides an inside view of a grief-stricken husband’s worst nightmare that may or may not be his own fault.

This Thing Between Us feels like a fever dream but is written like a one-sided conversation between Thiago and his late wife. Drowning in guilt and incredulity at how everything fell apart in an instant, Thiago tells Vera his troubles, recounting what’s happened since she died and reexamining the tragic events that led to her death. How did their life unravel so quickly? Was their advanced smart speaker really an instrument of torture? The device seems to have had a will of its own—or maybe it was possessed. Or maybe this is all Thiago’s fault—his family’s curse, his destiny. Maybe, he thinks, Vera’s mother was right about him all along.

A few months before Vera’s death, events began innocently enough. Thiago and Vera’s smart speaker (“Itza”) played music without their request, which could’ve been a glitch. Odd packages arrived, even though they hadn’t placed any orders. They heard mysterious sounds in the walls. And then, most portentously, an alarm clock didn’t go off as it should’ve, throwing Thiago and Vera’s schedule into chaos and placing Vera in the exact wrong place at the worst possible time. Now Vera’s gone, and Thiago is lost. And that’s just the beginning.

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There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright. Bodies drop. Violence springs up seemingly out of nowhere. Moreno will drop the sword on anyone or anything at any time. But the most surprising and challenging aspect of This Thing Between Us is that it’s as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying—a novel of domestic conflict and suspense as well as horror. The first-person conversational style forces the reader to adopt Thiago’s perspective, as hallucinatory as it may be, and it’s easy to feel as overwhelmed in grief and confusion as he does.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not Thiago’s horrors involve malevolent possession. What matters, he realizes, is the effect of this haunting: “The point of possession was to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. It was hard to see myself any other way.” The question that dogs Thiago (and readers) is what it will take to be rid of this deeply burrowed discontent.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright, but it’s also as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s novel Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” On its surface, Reprieve is about four ordinary people who venture into a haunted house for the chance of a monetary reward. You could say it’s a story adjacent to The Haunting of Hill House, but even more disturbing. 

Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. A group of participants enters and passes through several “cells” in the old mansion, collecting a number of envelopes in the allotted time and then moving to the next cell. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. It’s all perfectly safe, according to John, the man who runs the haunted house.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

Unlike Hill House, Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it John, or perhaps one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects, if they are indeed special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course?

Local college student Bryan is the leader of this group of contestants. Jaidee, his roommate, is an entitled Thai student who developed a crush on his English teacher, Victor, and followed him all the way to Nebraska. Victor and his fiancée, Jane, round out the foursome. We also meet Kendra, Bryan’s cousin and an avid fan of horror, who works for John. And though he’s not a member of the group, we also learn about Leonard, whose first action toward the woman he’s attracted to is to mow her down (accidentally or on purpose?) with a shopping cart. 

There are many ways to look at a book with so many flavors of madness. It could be a study of the effects of thwarted desire on people who are basically incapable of empathy, which we see in Jaidee and Leonard. John goes out of his way to befriend Kendra, to get her to enlist Bryan to endure a whole lot of trauma for a chance to win what, in the end, isn’t a whole lot of money. After all, there aren’t that many African Americans in Lincoln, and Quigley House needs the press that would follow Brian’s win.

As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. Are we fighting to succeed in a fun house whose rewards aren’t worth the pain? As a study of systems of power at their most perverse, Reprieve is a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s harrowing novel, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.”

What is left when a person dies? Their spirit? The obsessions they had in life? Or are the ghosts that haunt us of our own making, composed of grief and the impulse to somehow hold onto the soul that has been taken from us? Veteran horror writer Ronald Malfi tackles these questions and more in Come With Me, a stunning and heart-clenching novel that represents the best of what both the horror and thriller genres have to offer.

All marriages have their secrets. But before his wife Allison’s death in a Christmas Eve mass shooting, Aaron Decker never contemplated the depths of the secrets held in his. Afterward, the discovery of an unassuming box launches a haunting that is part grief and—perhaps—part otherworldly. Buried within that box is a slip of paper that shakes Aaron to his core: a receipt for a motel in rural North Carolina, paid for in cash, when Allison was supposedly at home alone while Aaron was gone on a business trip.

Mired in grief and tormented by what could either be his own delusional emptiness or the ghost of his dead wife, Aaron is driven to find out what exactly she was up to. His search envelops him in a decadeslong mystery that had consumed Allison prior to her death, testing his own sanity and making him question just how much he actually knew about his wife.

A striking meditation on love, grief and the drive for closure, Malfi’s latest novel is eerie and claustrophobic. Told from Aaron’s first-person perspective, Come With Me captures the unreality of bereavement, the sense that the person you’ve lost is just in the other room and that the world you’re experiencing can’t possibly be real. This feeling is compounded by the novel’s narrative structure. As Aaron begins to unravel the mystery of his wife’s obsession, Come With Me jumps back and forth between his investigation and his memories of Allison, both of which contain clues for Aaron to piece together. Malfi creates a mental landscape that is both easy to empathize with and impossible to take at face value, as the thin line between memory and reality is continually blurred.

A perfect fit for fans of Stephen King and modern true crime classics like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Come With Me both awes and terrifies from beginning to end.

A perfect fit for fans of Stephen King and modern true crime classics like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Come With Me both awes and terrifies from beginning to end.

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