Other Genres – September 2008
September 29, 2008
Fall is my favorite time of year, it brings nicer weather, football, and Halloween. To help get you ready for October, here are a few spooky non-urban fantasy reads. These are horror and suspense novels that are more supernatural or psychological than gore-packed.
- The Bad Seed, by William March
Christine Penmark is a young mother whose little girl, Rhoda, seems to be the perfect daughter. When tragedy strikes the school picnic, Rhoda’s reaction to the death of a classmate makes Christine doubt that she’s the innocent little girl that she appears to be. When Christine starts to examine Rhoda with a critical eye, she sees some disturbing things – a greedy streak, a lack of empathy, and a growing talent for deception. These questions about her daughter lead Christine to examine her own past, meanwhile Rhoda gets more and more desperate to protect her secret. Then Christine has to decide how far she’ll go to protect Rhoda from the world, and to protect the world from Rhoda.
In the decades since The Bad Seed was published, the creepy kid has become a well-worn horror stereotype. But Rhoda Penmark is the original and still one of the best examples. Rhoda’s acts are shocking because of her age, but her motives and justifications are just as chilling. The book examines the depressing idea that an average child raised in a loving home could still turn out cold-hearted and wrong. The plot is suspenseful and many of the side characters are really well done, but what really makes this a great book is the conflicted relationship between mother and daughter. Christine loves Rhoda, but she fears what the girl will be capable of in the future.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Jackson is best known for her short story “The Lottery” and for The Haunting of Hill House (which was made into one great movie and one crummy remake). Those are fantastic and you should read them too, but I thought I’d chose something that was a little less well known.
The Blackwood family was once well-respected in their small town, but its few surviving members now seclude themselves behind the crumbling walls of their estate. Constance is the only Blackwood who leaves the property, dealing with the stares and whispers of the townfolk during her occasional trips for supplies. Her sister Merricat has little sense of the real world, she’s retreated behind an elaborate system of rituals and charms that she insists keep the family safe. Their Uncle Julian is constantly fixated on each small detail about the night that the rest of the Blackwoods died. The infamous poisoning may have been officially declared an accident, but no one in town believed that version of the story.
When a distant cousin arrives, he disrupts both the family’s routine and Merricat’s protections. The Blackwoods must face both the truth behind the poisoning and the intrusion of outsiders into their carefully-balanced world.
- Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin
Yeah, you may have seen the movie or one of its many imitators. But, just like with most adaptations, the book is better. (My notable exceptions to this rule, for the record, are Last of the Mohicans and Dexter Darkly Dreaming.)
Rosemary Woodhouse is a young wife who was looking forward to starting a family. When she learns that she’s going to have a child, she and her husband are thrilled. Their nosy new neighbors are unusually interested in her health and the progress of her pregnancy. Rosemary’s happiness turns into fear and paranoia after a series of disturbing events make her suspect a plot regarding her baby. The story takes an everyday situation like pregnancy and uses that as the basis for a tense supernatural thriller.
- Tales of H.P Lovecraft, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
I’ll tell you right away that Lovecraft is one of those love-him-or-hate-him authors. He has a very dense style that I like because it contributes to the atmosphere of his stories, but some readers are understandably put off by it. But everyone should at least give him a shot, for the sake of his influence on the genre if for no other reason.
Lovecraft’s stories take place in a world where terrible mysteries lurk just beyond everyday life. Even the briefest chance encounter with the unexplainable can lead a person to madness. This collection is probably one of the better introductions to his work. It includes some of his more famous stories, including “Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror.” It’s also got some of my personal favorites, a creepy sci-fi tale called “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which is about a town full of monsters.
If you enjoy this one and decide to read more of Lovecraft’s work, make sure to check out some reviews of the various collections available. His name or references to his Cthulhu mythos are often used on things that he didn’t write, from tribute anthologies to terrible “collaborations” that happened when some of his peers edited and added to story fragments that he left behind. The former manage to be occasionally tolerable, though I don’t believe that any decent author is at their best when they’re imitating another’s world or style. I tend to think that the latter should be avoided completely.
It’s only now that I realize that all of these are older books and stories. But that makes sense, they used to do the chilling suspense thing much better.