Oct 4, 2008

How to scare yourself this Halloween

Halloween is upon us yet again, and although it really isn't as fun as it used to be - man, parents are so overprotective of their children these days - it's still a good excuse to sit alone in a dark house and scare yourself silly. I thought I'd list up a few of my horror favourites, let you know what scares me. Wish I could put a few Canadian entries on this list, but Canada, for all its northern terrors, doesn't appear to grow horror authors all that well. Maybe it's all the tundra. There was the hope that Muriel Gray could be a contender (her novel The Trickster is quite a nice piece of work), but her output is spotty. And she's actually Scottish.

So, without further ado, the books that scare me again and again.

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker -
First of all, just look at this cover and tell me that's not twisted. I had the book for a week before I happened to glance at it upside-down, and nearly wet myself in fright. And the story's not half-bad either, a sado-masochistic romp through the depraved desires of man and woman, governed by those guardians of pain known as the cenobites. Made famous by Barker's own cinematic adaptation Hellraiser, The Hellbound Heart is deeply warped stuff, bloody, slimy, and unpleasant. When you're done, you might consider renting the movie, or instead go on to Barker's Books of Blood, Cabal, or The Damnation Game, and revel in one of modern literature's true giants of imagination and perversity. Let's hope Barker's long-rumoured follow-up The Scarlet Gospels is a return to form after his lengthy (but admittedly terrific) forays into fantasy.

Hell House by Richard Matheson -
Every Halloween needs a haunted house story, and while some may choose The Shining or The Haunting of Hill House (both vastly worthy of your time), Hell House is my choice for full-bore balls-to-the-wall horror. Other houses may be haunted, but this one is mean. And it doesn't like you. Much like The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House concerns itself with a group of researches studying a supposed 'haunted house' for signs of the paranormal. Unlike The Haunting of Hill House, Matheson adds explicit imagery and shocks, going for ectoplasmic scares instead of subtlety.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons -
Dan Simmons is a monster. He can write absolutely anything and make it work. His science-fiction (epitomized by Hyperion) is spectacular. His mystery novels are first-rate noir. And his horror? Sheesh, Song of Kali is as evil as they come, and his last novel The Terror was, well, bloody terrifying. But Summer of Night is, for my money, the best evocation of childhood nostalgia and terror since Stephen King's IT, maybe even better (but it's hard for me to find fault with IT, I do love it so). This one works the screws so lovingly, so precisely, that when those kids enter that house for the last time, you will not stop reading until the very end. And it's a pretty thick book.

Monster Island by David Wellington, The Rising by Brian Keene, and World War Z by Max Brooks -
All Hallow's Eve is just not the same without a visit from the undead. And I mean the real undead: rotted, bloating corpses who feast on human brains, not these increasingly emo Twilighty vampires who just mope about wanting to be loved, dammit! Thanks a lot for that, Anne Rice. [That said, I've heard nothing but good things about the recent HBO vamps-with-problems series True Blood.] I want scares, and there's nothing scarier than a shambling corpse. All three of these novels deal with zombies in the proper way - no negotiations, no motivations, shoot 'em in the head before they get you first. The Rising takes it's cue from the apocalptic sensitibilites of George Romero's epic, seminal Living Dead film series [but please ignore Diary of the Dead; sheesh, what a blowful waste of film, George, what were you thinking?] - there's no hope, all is lost, and humanity crumbles. Kind of like Jose Saramago's Blindness, but with dead people coming to life in place of loss of sight. Monster Island is more slam-bang, and there's a decided hint of the Resident Evil videogames in its chase scenes and big boss bad guys. World War Z is likely the most realistic attempt ever at documenting a true catastrophe with its corresponding miltary response; as a consequence, it's the best written but least fun of the three. Nevertheless, all three provide copious amounts of gore, and are sure to bring about nightmares.
Runners up: Stephen King's Pet Semetary and Cell. Semetary is King's grisliest, bleakest novel, unrelenting in its utter despair. Plus, it has the undead, but by the tenets on the genre, it's not technically a zombie novel. Cell is definitely zombie-centric, but it falls apart half-way through, and again, they aren't technically zombies in the classic sense. The first half is as gory and suspenseful as anything he's ever written, however.

Stinger by Robert R. McCammon -
Stinger is McCammon's love letter to the monster b-movie. An alien being crashes to Earth, followed soon after by another extra-terrestrial of a far more unpleasant sort, a being able to adapt and alter its form to whatever it chooses. And what it chooses usually results in mass chaos and deaths galore. Echoes of The Thing (the John Carpenter version) are purely intentional; this is a pulpy ode to everything we love about monster movies. The fact that it has not been made into a film is ridiculous, as if there was ever a novel that cried out for a worthy director to adapt it, this is it. I'm thinking James Gunn or Robert Rodriguez to bring out the fun as well as the ooze.

Last Days by Brian Evenson -
Evenson's novel (due out in early 2009) concerns horrors of a different sort; the paranoia and despair that accompanies the feeling of having no idea what is going on. Absolutely bizarre does not begin to describe the plot, as a cop finds himself embroiled in a mysterious cult of amputees who won't tell him what he's expected to do, or how he can expect to extricate himself from their clutches. Needless to say, things get confusing, and bloody. Evenson expertly plays with the tension, resulting in an ending as weird and strangely affecting as any since
I Am Legend (see below). Last Days is best described as a nightmarish co-mingling of Franz Kafka and Clive Barker. David Lynch, a horror director who had never actually directed a horror film, should be tapped to direct the adaptation posthaste.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson -
A two-fer for Matheson! Just realized that I actually had no vampires on this list, and a Halloween without vampires is like peanut butter without jelly, chili without beer, Tim Burton without Johnny Depp, etc. I'll be the first to admit that
Dracula never rocked my boat; I found it dull and uninspired, and the debut movie version (Bela Lugosi) is plain and simple boring. You want great B&W horror from the same time, James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are your bets. Comparing Whale's masterpieces to Tod Browning's achingly poor adaptation is like comparing Hitchcock to Uwe Boll. Ok, that came across as mean. Anyway, I never cared for the initial bloodsucker, but his reputation lives on, and at least (for me) some superlative offshoots resulted from Stoker's snoozefest. Legend is the best, a fast, gritty, and surprisingly poignant apocalyptic tale of the last human on Earth, beset on all sides by vampires galore. And while the Will Smith movie had its moments, it blew it by the end. This is a story crying out for a lean, low-budget, Night of the Living Dead esthetic, not, I repeat, not big-budget bombast.
'Salem's Lot. Stephen King's best pure horror story. These are vampires as they were meant to be; monsters, pure and simple.

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