It’s nearly impossible for me to choose five favorite horror novels. I simply can’t name a favorite (except in one case, as you’ll see below). But I can narrow it down a little and compartmentalize my preferences. In that way, even though I’m certain I’m forgetting something, the slight won’t seem too terribly egregious.
I grew up in rural North Carolina, amidst tobacco fields and scuppernong grape orchards, and in the Missouri Ozarks, amidst scorpions and tarantula herds. Living in those areas, I developed an appreciation for the folktales and ghost stories that run rampant among country folk. That upbringing has wormed its way into many of my own stories. With books like Harrow County, from Dark Horse Comics, I’m able to revisit some of my old haunts, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So, since I’m writing stories of country folk, undead witches, and ghostly apparitions, I thought I’d share some of my favorite backwoods horror books. Admittedly, not everything on this list is straight horror. There are examples of Southern Gothic and fantasy to be found on this list. I could have easily listed William Faulkner or Harper Lee or Flannery O’Connor on this list, I suppose. But there is, in the works I’ve included, a healthy dose of the creep factor that would make you think twice before you go “a-wandering out in the holler” late at night.
The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale
Not a horror story necessarily, but full of horrific themes and creepy imagery. This is a crime story and murder mystery set, like many of Lansdale’s stories, in East Texas. During the Great Depression, a group of kids set out to solve a violent murder. That’s my kind of story. But the addition of a local legend, the Goat Man (who is sort of a Boo Radley boogieman figure) makes this yarn something special. Urban legends can be spooky enough to make your skin crawl. But in my experience, those rural legends are all the more terrifying.
This book served as my introduction to Lovecraft. I still have the yellowed, beat up copy I bought at a Waldenbooks in the mid-eighties. This very same copy of the book was stolen from me and then stolen back in a series of misadventures. That alone makes the book special to me, but it fits especially well on this list thanks to two stories: “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Dunwich Horror.” Not only are these my two favorite Lovecraft stories, but they also show a twisted version of country folk and strange rites practiced on hills in the dead of night that is simply spine-tingling. When I first got involved in writing horror and comics, more than one person would come up to me claiming that they had created a sub-genre of “redneck Lovecraft,” to which I would laugh and show them these stories. The “backwoods” element in horror is often used (by those who just don’t get it) as a gimmick. Used correctly, though, it elevates the story and gives it a personality all its own.
The Old Gods Waken by Manly Wade Wellman
Wellman’s Silver John is a kind of country-folk Dr. Strange or John Constantine. Armed with a silver-stringed guitar and a wealth of folksy know-how, John the Balladeer wandered the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, facing druids, ancient deities, and black magic. The Old Gods Waken is the first of the Silver John novels, and it is heavy with country-folk hoodoo and Native American folklore. This is a story that shows how the old world and ancient traditions impact the “modern” backwoods world.
Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors by Robert E. Howard
When I first stumbled across this little purple paperback, I thought I found the Holy Grail. Cthulhu stories! By the guy who wrote Conan and Solomon Kane! The story that earns this book a place on this list, though, is “Pigeons from Hell,” a tale of reanimated corpses, axe murders, and voodoo. Two gentlemen taking refuge in an old plantation house in the dead of night? Sign me up! (To read the story, not to spend the night in a haunted mansion. That never ends well for anyone.)
Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon
This book is not only my favorite “backwoods horror” novel, but my favorite novel—period. Maybe it’s not a straight horror story, but there’s definitely murder and creepy crawlies and strange goings-on aplenty. The backwoods element is there as well, as the story takes place in and around the town of Zephyr, Alabama, during the 1960s. I know that McCammon drew on his own childhood while writing the book, but this books feels like it was written just for me, drawing on events that happened in my own life. It’s a magical story, equal parts chilling, scary, humorous, charming, thought-provoking, and touching. Amidst all the mysterious happenings, the bizarre townsfolk, and the fiendish villains is a tale of growing up and fighting to keep the magic of childhood alive.
This article was originally published in April 2015 as part of our Five Books series.