Season of the Witch: 5 Horror Reads for Fall

Fall comes at you pretty fast. If you don’t stop and smell the pumpkin spice, you could miss it…

Summer’s end is always a bit of a downer, but for some of us, falling leaves and harvest moons herald the most wonderful time of the year. Autumn is usually seen as the perfect time for new horror releases. Whether that’s actually true or just an outdated marketing ploy is arguable; I read excellent horror year-round. Still, I’d rather be inundated with good books than gourd-infused lattes, or, Cthulhu forgive, Christmas sales.

This fall sees a grab-bag of debut fiction, anxiety-inducing anthologies, and a love letter to horror that, actually, were you an enterprising and early bookworm, would make a pretty perfect gift for the horror fan on your list, be it for Halloween or some other, less fun holiday.

 

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

Skewing more towards New Weird than horror, “skewed” is certainly another way to describe the narrators of thirteen wildly different tales of (mostly) wildly different women. There is a woman who can unstitch her skin to reveal a sewing machine underneath, a mermaid, a spider’s wife. There are also women who work in dystopian factories to support their Men (always capital-M) and women who transform into wolves and eat their own young, reminiscent of other Canadian fantasists Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood; Grudova’s women share that defiant feminism.

David Lynch, too, is a natural comparison, for Grudova’s most notable skill is sustaining a macabre dream logic of domestic life teeming with corruption, deformity, and the illogical. This juxtaposition strands out best in “The Mouse Queen,” which centers on a young mother obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology and mourning the father of her twins, who abandoned her to a tense and lonely fate. This collection of uncanny stories mixes the grotesque with the mundane to largely, extraordinary effect, though the surrealism may not be for everyone.

 

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix

What an infectious joy Hendrix (Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism) brings to his debut nonfiction title. I wish I loved anything as much as Grady Hendrix loves homicidal crabs. The 70s and 80s were the height of the horror paperback. From now-extinct chain bookstores that were once in every shopping mall across America to the spinner racks at rural supermarkets, there was a horror novel for every demographic and Hendrix attempts to outline them all. Are you a hippie-hating conservative? Try some Satanic cult titles. New parents? There’s a whole genre of demon children novels. There is also a whole subcategory of books claiming to be the next The Exorcist, The Others, and/or Rosemary’s Baby.

Hilarious and informative, Hendrix shines a light on the frankly fucking bonkers stories that once sold millions of volumes yet now would be impossible to ever sell to an agent. While he delivers his copious knowledge with humor, there’s an obvious love and respect and sometimes unexpected poignancy upon closer examination of the authors of these books — some actually very good, but now forgotten. See: the almost-star of Ken Greenhall. Thanks, Silence of the Lambs. I enjoyed the final chapter looking at my own personal gateway to horror, Dell’s incredible, defunct punk rock horror line Abyss, publisher of Melanie Tem, Poppy Z. Brite, and Kathe Koja. Damn, I’d forgotten how much Abyss’ logo on a book’s spine meant to me when I was fifteen.

Quirk’s books are known for their beautiful production and Paperbacks from Hell is in vivid color (mostly red) throughout, showcasing the amazing collection of artists — many female in a male-dominated industry. It’s a gorgeous, lurid deep-dive into horror’s heyday and a must-read for any self-respecting horror fan.

 

The Best of Richard Matheson by Richard Matheson

If you’re in the mood for something a bit more classic this season, Penguin has released a new collection of Richard Matheson short stories curated by Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Changeling.) LaValle, who is as engaging in his academic criticism as he is in his fiction, writes a foreword that instead of just regurgitating biographical facts or obligatory praise, contains an original, creepy-as-hell story from LaValle’s childhood that exemplifies Matheson’s signature motifs of the monstrous hiding in plain sight.

But the praise is still there, as “[Matheson’s] influence exists even for those who have never read him.” You may not have read Matheson before, but you’ve seen Matheson before, whether it was William Shatner –or John Lithgow — screaming about a monster on the wing of an airplane on The Twilight Zone or Will Smith as the last non-vampire on Earth in I Am Legend or a psychic Kevin Bacon solving a murder in Stir of Echoes. Matheson is perhaps only rivaled by Stephen King when it comes to adaptations. Still, LaValle specifically included stories that aren’t as frequently anthologized, though even the one he rightly calls “straight up disturbing” was a Masters of Horror episode called “Dance of the Dead”, starring Robert Englund and directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper. Matheson is a master of horror, but moreso a master of incisive prose and skill.

 

Looming Low Volume 1 ed. by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

I frequently review anthologies because horror and Weird fiction are genres that are often best-sustained in shorter works. (Though I’m craving more novel-length works of late.) Looming Low is the first in a proposed original series of curated Weird tales from Dim Shores, not unlike Undertow’s stellar Shadows & Tall Trees anthologies. There are many familiar names contained within, but editors Steele and Cowan have cast a wide net for what Weird means to them. While I appreciated how they kept the introduction and foreword short and let the stories speak for themselves, I also would have enjoyed a closer look at the editorial process, as the editors of Undertow’s other anthology series, The Year’s Best Weird, do.

There were great contributions, from Michael Wehunt’s poignant and disturbing “In Canada,” Craig Lawrence Gidney’s dating app thriller “Mirror App” and a dark, long meditation on infectious ambient music in “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun,” but my favorite stories were all written by women. Livia Llewllyn always makes me happy, even when she scares the shit out of me by combining the darkest nihilism with the unapologetically erotic. Nadia Bulkin’s biting, infuriating revenge story, “Live Through This” is sure to make it into someone’s “Year’s Best” anthology, as should Gemma Files’ SF closer “Distant Dark Places.” There are also original shorts from Anya Martin, Kristi DeMeester (Beneath,) and A.C. Wise. With 26 stories, Looming Low looms large in variety and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Volume 2.

 

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

British author Tade Thompson (Rosewater) brings his background in medicine, psychiatry, and social anthropology to the season’s most buzzed-about novella. Molly Southbourne has a rare “hemophilia:” every time she bleeds, she creates a doppelganger of herself. These “mollys” have been a part of Molly’s life since she was born and, as she ages, the mollys become increasingly homicidal towards her, thus perpetuating the bloodshed. And there is a lot of bloodshed on both sides of an endless struggle for survival at a very human cost. How does a young girl who has been killing, dismembering, and burning copies of herself confront her own personal identity?

The exploration of that question forms the heart of the story. From practical concerns — how does Molly deal with papercuts and the beyond special horror of menstruation? — to the effects her condition has on her parents’ relationship, Molly’s murderous creations keep her literally getting in her own way as she struggles for independence. It’s a fascinating existential conflict that grows increasingly more disturbing and Cronenberg-ian as Molly goes to college, starts a relationship with an anatomy professor, and circles closer to the secret of her origin. This kinetic read explores a more literal notion of self-harm with a relentless terror that lingers well beyond the last red drop of blood. I read a lot of scary stories, but this is the second Tor.com Publishing novella to give me heart-pounding nightmares, which is to say I can’t recommend The Murders of Molly Southbourne enough.

 

Weird Whispers:

  • NecronomiCon Providence 2017 was a fantastic success and easily one of the best convention experiences I’ve ever had. There were panels and tracks for Lovecraft purists (I didn’t attend those panels,) Lovecraft revisionists, straight up horror, and lots and lots of Weird Fiction that went thankfully well beyond the “What is Weird?” tedium. Combine all of that with a really cool film program and roster of speakers, a fun dealer’s room, and a lot of great readings, and I was a happy fangirl — even when I had to wake up for a brilliant 9 a.m. panel on werewolves with Stephen Graham Jones and Sonya Taaffe. (My To Be Read list grew three times longer after that hour.) If anything, there were almost too many panels and I had to make tough choices between attending readings or spotlight discussions about major authors like Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. Still, it’s a good problem to have. I also enjoyed the goth music and costumes of The Eldrich Ball and my first Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast, officiated by Cody Goodfellow, who managed to keep the mood festive while delivering a scathing anti-racist sermon a week after the Charlottesville protests.
  • Scott Nicolay‘s The Outer Dark podcast from NecronomiCon is up, for those who want a sample of some of the great talk about genre. This special panel includes Peter Straub.
  • While not falling at all under the banner of Weird West or horror, I do think fans of dark, post-modern Westerns in the vein of Blood Meridian will enjoy In The Distance from Hernan Diaz, author of the acclaimed Borges, Between History and Eternity. A young Swedish immigrant looks for his brother across the American West, encountering crooks, religious fanatics, and grifters, to sometimes violent ends. The prose is surreal and wondrous, especially in its evocation of a landscape that exists more in allegory than historical fact.
  • Concord Free Press as a great omnibus coming soon, Another Way to Fall, which collects two dark novellas from Brian Evenson and Paul Tremblay. Concord Free Press also has a really cool business model: the publish free books, only asking that when you get it, you donate what you would have spent on the book to a charity, then you tell them about it. Their catalog includes A Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard, and titles from Scott Philips and Jenny Slate. We can all use some altruism in 2017.

Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, film, and TV, including HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing, Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Den of Geek, and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

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