I live on a rainy peninsular at the edge of Europe. In winter the beaches are bleak, battered by wild storms and overlooked by strange clifftop houses. It’s Daphne Du Maurier country, and you only have to look at the local paper to see that all sorts of things go on round here. Forget the summer when it’s all about swimming in the sea and boats and barbecues: I love it in winter, when the crowds go home and you can walk around the streets noticing that people often leave their curtains open and switch their lights on.
What’s happening in those slices of lit-up room? Anything could be going on.
This is the season for horror. I don’t think anything is more thrilling than being safely indoors (ideally in front of a roaring fire, but under a blanket near a radiator will do) and immersing yourself in terror. Humans have always been drawn to seek out horror stories: reading, writing and watching horror is an entirely rational response to the world. By the end of a book or movie the crisis will be over in some way, and the danger will have passed: this applies, of course, to much fiction, but when the stakes are at their highest, the catharsis is all the more wonderful. As GK Chesterton wrote, ‘Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.’ And winter horror reminds you that spring will come.
It’s not about escaping from reality so much as heightening it and pushing it as far as it will go. It’s about taking real life things (school bullies; alcohol; fear of being alone), pushing them to the extreme, and seeing what might happen. Not only that, but here in rainy Cornwall there is absolutely nothing I love more in the winter than a horror book set in the snow.
Here are five favorites.
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
I don’t think snowy horror gets better than Michelle Paver’s masterful fictional account of a 1937 winter in Svalbard, deep in the Arctic. This book is written in the form of diary entries from Jack, who is at a low point in London when he is invited to join an expedition to Svalbard as radio operator. He joins in spite of his misgivings, and they set off north, eventually ignoring local advice and setting up camp at remote Gruhuken on the island of Spitsbergen. As the polar winter descends and four months of absolute darkness set in, various events compel Jack’s companions to abandon the mission, leaving him entirely alone . . . or is he? The real terror of being alone in the dark, cut off by snow and ice, and with a hostile presence lurking, left me breathless. This book is terrifying. I went to Svalbard on my honeymoon last year partly because of it.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Blood looks incredible against snow. This vampire story is set in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm, in the winter, and the aesthetics are amazing. Oskar is horrifically bullied at school. He makes friends with a girl who lives in the next apartment, though oddly he can only meet her outside after dark. Of course, as he finds out, there is a reason for that. This book is utterly gripping, and mixes the reality of life in a recently constructed Swedish suburb (settings include the lackluster playground, municipal swimming pool, a local Chinese restaurant) with vampiric horror in a darkly funny way, with a vivid ensemble cast. Without any spoilers, let’s just say Oskar’s bullies get their comeuppance.
The Shining by Stephen King
It’s impossible to think about winter horror and not include this. Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance move to the remote Overlook Hotel for the winter, as caretakers, and over the course of the next few months Jack, a recovering alcoholic, spirals into murderous insanity.
For me the most tense parts of this book are the opportunities for the family to leave the Overlook before snowfall cuts them off completely. I know they are going to stay, but every time, I still hope that they might get out.
Although the hotel is nominally the malevolent force in this story, for me it all comes down to Jack Torrance as, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, he unravels from within. To quote the book: “Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.” A tour de force.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This novella, written in 1898, is a classic ghost story whose joy (if that’s the right word) is in its claustrophobia and ambiguity. It is not a snow-bound book, but the insularity of life in the Bly Manor meant that this year’s Covid lockdowns put it straight back into my head. I love an unreliable narrator, and this book is filtered through two of of them, as a man called Douglas relates the story of an unnamed governess, who takes a job at Bly looking after two apparently angelic children on behalf of their uncle, whose only stipulation is that he must never be contacted. Miles, the little boy, arrives home from boarding school having been expelled for unknown reasons. Flora, the girl, has an ‘extraordinary charm’, but the governess becomes entirely besotted with Miles. When she starts to see the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessell, two previous employees, things begin to spiral. Are the ghosts there? Is the governess to be trusted? There are different ways of interpreting this story, and all of them are very, very creepy.
The White Road by Sarah Lotz
This opens with gut-wrenching scenes as Simon, by his own admission a loser, pays a strange man to guide him through closed caves in Wales so he can take photos, for his website, of the bodies of earlier adventurers who died down there. When Simon is the only one to make it out alive he becomes notorious and needs to do something even bigger to capitalize on his fame. Off he goes to Mount Everest, ‘the highest graveyard in the world’, lying about his climbing experience to get him to a place where he can film the corpses on the mountainside.
In a separate strand set twelve years earlier, Juliet is attempting the first unassisted solo Everest summit by a woman, when she feels she is being stalked by a ‘third man’. Juliet’s and Simon’s experiences collide on the frozen mountain where the air is thin and help is very hard to come by, and the results are very scary and very, very cold.
Evie Green is a pseudonym for a British author who has written professionally for her entire adult life. She lives by the sea in England with her husband, children, and guinea pigs, and loves writing in the very early morning, fueled by coffee.