Hark, for it is the night on which we don our most terrifying garb and roam the streets in search of victims – I mean candy. We all love horror stories, especially on Halloween, but after a while they get stale. You can only watch so many survivor girls escape the sex-hating slasher so many times, and even the most classic works lose their luster after the twentieth read. Fortunately, horror is an evolving genre, and new authors are constantly pushing the envelope to scare you silly.
This story is Lizzy Borden vs Cthulhu. If you’re not familiar with Lizzy Borden, her claim to infamy comes from a highly publicized murder trial in 1892. She was accused of killing her parents with an axe and eventually acquitted despite the evidence against her. Many felt she got away with murder. After the trial, Lizzy stayed in a town where everyone believed she was a murderer, caring for her tuberculosis-ridden sister, Emma.
Maplecroft takes the premise that Lizzy did kill her father and stepmother, because they were changing into something else. She destroyed the monsters her parents had become, but not before the poison they spread infected her sister, damaging Emma’s lungs forever. The story begins with Lizzy and Emma working as a tag team. Lizzy fights the monsters that crawl out of the sea at night, while Emma performs experiments on their remains, trying to understand what’s happening in their town.
Author Cherie Priest uses historical oddities from the Borden trial as a cover for the supernatural horror. In real life, Lizzy Borden suspiciously burned one of her dresses during the trial, though no one who had seen the dress beforehand recalled any blood. In the book, Lizzy burns the dress because it was contaminated by the otherworldly blood of the monsters she fought. Court records showed that Mr. and Mrs. Borden had become very ill before they died. Priest writes that their symptoms come from finding an uncanny collection of sea glass fragments, every shard washed smooth by the waves.
The book is written in epistolary format. Each chapter is framed as an entry from a character’s journal. This allows Lizzy, Emma, and the other characters to describe their dysfunctional relationships in ways that couldn’t be done through dialogue and would seem cumbersome in traditional narration. In fact, the Borden sisters’ relationship is pivotal to the novel, as their love for each other is battered by the unique stress of cosmic horrors on their doorstep.
Unfortunately, epistolary format does have drawbacks. It’s difficult to imagine characters describing every swing and block of a fight scene. It also means that the character must survive whatever problem they face in a given scene, or else they couldn’t be writing down their experience.*
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or just enjoy an updated telling of Lovecraftian tales, this book is for you. It is well researched, the characters tug at your heartstrings, and it ditches the overwrought purple prose that sometimes infected Lovecraft’s writing.* Read this book, or the things that come from the deep will win. Just kidding, they’ll win anyway.
This time we have an actual tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, as told by venerable Alan Moore. In a move to combat the more harmful elements of Lovecraft’s work, the story follows a gay jewish reporter as he investigates strange instances of the occult throughout New England. This comic series isn’t finished yet, but it’s proven very interesting so far.
Robert Black is a former reporter for the New York Herald, doing research for his book on American occultism. The books have a lot of build up, and Robert’s encounters with the supernatural have so far been kept to a minimum. Instead of coming face to face with the mythos, he interviews people who have. Many of his subjects will be recognizable to fans of Lovecraft’s most well known stories. He speaks to the Boggs family, an obvious stand-in for the Marshes of Innsmouth fame. He interviews a man who witnessed the original run of The King in Yellow.* The list goes on.
Through Black’s travels, an unexpected thread emerges: discrimination within the mythos world. Speaking to a rural family of Yog-Sothoth worshippers,* Black learns that other mythos practitioners shun them for their lower class background. He gets a similar story from the Boggs. This mirrors the alienation Black faces for his religion and from any who suspect his sexuality.
This was honestly not what I expected from a Cthulhu Mythos story, and I’m eager to see where it goes. So far, the only problem is that each book has a long textual account from Black at the end. The font on these accounts is difficult to read, and I worry about missing vital plot details. Even so, the story has been engaging and high quality.
The zombies rose, but society didn’t fall. We had way too many guns for that. Instead, humans adapted, learned to live with the undead. Most towns and cities were reclaimed, but some were too remote, and we left them to the horde. Because the virus is latent in the bloodstream of all large mammals, the undead will never be completely gone. Anyone who dies with their brain intact raises with a hunger for flesh.* This is the world of Feed.
The first book in a trilogy, Feed occurs decades after the first rising, when zombies have become a fact of life. Anti-undead precautions are part of every child’s education. Daredevils film themselves provoking the walking corpses in order to bring in sweet, sweet clicks. Most importantly, politicians argue about who has the strongest “tough on zombie” record. These debates are familiar to the modern reader. Simply replace “zombie” with “terrorist” and you know what to expect.
Feed takes place in the context of a hotly contested presidential election. The characters are investigative reporters, covering their favored candidate’s campaign for an online news site. They report on live campaign events that most people are afraid to attend, lest they be attacked by zombies on the way home. With the United States’ real life election cycle screeching into gear, what better way to cheer yourself up than to imagine the debates interrupted by undead hordes?
The treatment of zombies is refreshing because they act more like a contagion than an enemy army. While being bitten is one way to turn, coming into contact with an undead’s bodily fluids will also get the job done. It’s even possible to breathe in the active virus, if it’s present in high enough quantities. The danger doesn’t end when the last shambler is put down. Any outbreak site must be decontaminated by the CDC, a process that can take weeks, months, or even years.
Paranoia is the book’s strong suit. People are constantly tested for signs of active infection, because one can never be too careful. Anyone who lurches home after too many drinks could be mistaken for a zombie and shot dead. Freedoms and joys we take for granted are given up in the name of safety. No one wants to swim at the beach when zombies might wash up, or go out to eat when undead could be on the menu. Even owning large pets is unheard of for all but the most foolish, as any mammal over forty pounds can fall victim to the virus.
The book stumbles in its evil conspiracy villains, whose actions are often contradictory. The constant praising of bloggers gets tiresome as well. They are spoken of like media gods on earth, and it comes across as silly more often than not.* Even so, the characters are solidly developed, and the innovative approach to zombies overcomes the book’s flaws. Pick it up if you like the undead but want something new.*
We’ve all read plenty of haunted house stories, where the crumbling old manor is possessed by a malevolent force that wants to murder the protagonists. If you like creepy buildings but want something outside the standard mold, Locke and Key is for you.
After a family tragedy, the Locke family moves back into Keyhouse, the old family estate in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. The dilapidated mansion is full of locked doors, and the keys to open them each carry a unique ability. One opens the top of your head to let others peer inside. Another sets your spirit free from your body, so you can experience life from a ghost’s eye view.
Despite the town’s name, this is not a Lovecraftian story. It is deeply personal, rooted in the emotional foibles of its characters. The villain is all too human, with wants and desires we can understand, even as we fear them. The story follows each character’s emotional arc as they struggle with loss and the difficulty of being a teenager in a new town. It’s character-driven horror at its finest.
Each character must deal with horrors both supernatural and mundane. At night they face shadows that come alive, ready to rip them apart. In the daylight, they’re confronted with the banal evil of small town homophobia.
No character’s issues are resolved quickly. One deals with her trauma by spiraling into alcoholism. Another uses magic to literally remove her ability to be frightened or sad. I won’t spoil how that turns out. Suffice to say, it’s gripping.
The only criticism I have so far is a whiff of transphobia off the main villain. His magical projection sometimes presents feminine, and he’s among the least macho looking of the male characters. Those elements of his character are never directly vilified, but representation matters. It wouldn’t be an issue if he wasn’t the only one with those traits.
Also called Area X, this is a trilogy that can be read in one go. The premise is that some remote stretch of United States coastline* has… changed. Everything’s still there, of course. The town, the old lighthouse, all where it’s supposed to be. But isn’t quite right. The people who lived there are gone without a trace. The buildings are crumbling to ruin. There’s a tunnel where none existed before, and some who see it insist it’s a tower instead.
An obscure government agency called the Southern Reach sends expeditions over a special border into this Area X. They use no names; it feeds on names. Eleven previous expeditions have gone in. Some haven’t returned. Others have come back wrong. Now it’s the 12th’s turn. The Psychologist leads. The Surveyor provides muscle. The Anthropologist searches for pattern or purpose. The Biologist takes samples, studying Area X, knowing that something is studying her as well.
The Southern Reach is a seamless blend of cosmic horror, personal horror, and government conspiracy paranoia. Its characters are thoroughly developed, even without names. It has plots within mysteries within enigmas. It builds to an existential climax that calls everything the character knows into question.
When characters aren’t dealing with the strange geography of Area X, they’re wondering who they can trust in the Southern Reach. Can they even trust themselves? Expedition members have come back changed, their minds altered in subtle ways. And it all works. Most stories this complicated are crushed under their own weight, but the Southern Reach stands strong.
Almost everything strange has an answer sooner or later. The few that don’t are even better. Author Jeff Vandermeer proves without a doubt that he knows what’s going on in the book, so anything left unexplained is fodder for speculation, rather than a frustrating omission.*
Now you have plenty of innovative horror to occupy your time. But there’s more to it than just curling up with a scary book! Reading good stories is fun for its own sake, but it’s also important for the aspiring writers among us. No one should write in a vacuum. You’ll be inspired in your own work, and you’ll see what a polished, professional piece looks like. Being a writer isn’t easy, but this part of it is certainly fun.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.