Admit it: Like frequently reanimated corpses, the horror genre can get fragrant from time to time. Stories are recycled endlessly with familiar creatures put to work chasing familiar victims in familiar settings that can be swept together in just a few thematic categories.
As we approach Halloween, the creepiest time of year, you’re on the hunt for something fresh and new in a genre that can and should be our most illuminating, right? We have a few suggestions:
“Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff (HarperCollins): The horror genre offers its best practitioners the easy opportunity to tell stories within stories, wrap monsters in metaphor and expose truths that do more than give us chills.
Such is the case with Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country,” a book so satisfying there’s no need to tune into HBO’s critically acclaimed adaptation (though we hear it’s pretty great).
“Lovecraft Country” is told through the eyes of Atticus Turner, a Black man and Korean War veteran, and his family and friends. Atticus’ genealogy makes him a target of a dark-magic cabal, but it turns out there are more terrifying horrors in the world in which we live.
Unfolding over eight related but disconnected stories (that feel very much like television episodes, come to think of it), “Lovecraft Country” chills us with real-life scares and lays bare our literary obsession with the author H.P. Lovecraft, the incredibly popular (and extremely racist) horror author. From the overt intimidation tactics of the Jim Crow era to the equally effective civil laws that have kept Black, Indigenous and people of color from fully participating in the American dream, Ruff tells frightening stories that would be terrifying without a single supernatural element.
“Apple and Knife” by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein (Brow): “Apple and Knife” is acclaimed Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha’s first English publication, and its intensely personal short stories will leave you with bite marks and bruises.
A work of subversive feminist horror inspired by myths and folklore, the claustrophobic stories here are inhabited by desperate people and have a suffocating feel. Their fears originate in both everyday life and the foreboding sense that there’s no escape from predators who hide in both the light and the dark in a country where few are safe — especially women and other vulnerable communities.
They’re harried by cursed sea queens and stalked by menstruation hags on one side and preyed upon by a ruling class that’s been warped and perverted by wealth and power on the other. In Paramaditha’s hands, we’re not clear which is worse, or that there’s any difference at all.
“The Library at Mount Char” by Scott Hawkins (Crown): Scott Hawkins dropped one heck of a debut in 2015 with “The Library at Mount Char.” In it, he builds a visceral, crazy-quilt world that feels wholly original and leaves you with sensory impressions like the fetid smell of rotting flesh.
It’s the story of a group of 12 children who are orphaned in a strange accident that destroys their suburban neighborhood and leaves them in the care of a mysterious and unsparing figure known as Father.
Turns out Father has gathered all the knowledge in the universe over the past 60,000 years or so as he made a cosmic power grab, and he’s teaching it to his damaged children piecemeal. Some learn the art of healing or war or death, others the art of language or communicating with animals.
As you can imagine, things go awry.
“Bitter Root” by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene (Image): Sometimes a work of art feels imbued with a living spirit, lifting the mind and the heart in a way that most of us creative types wish we could mimic. “Bitter Root” is this kind of book.
Written by Portland’s David F. Walker and Chuck Brown with art by Sanford Greene, the 2020 Eisner Award winner for best continuing comic book series has been collected into two graphic novels that crackle with energy and cool. They tell the story of the Sangeryes, a feuding but fierce family of monster hunters who are standing between the world and its doom.
Set during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, “Bitter Root” introduces us to the Sangerye family as a new kind of monster appears on the scene. The creatures feed on the sadness, fear and anger experienced by the Black community, and finding a cure for their malady increases the tension within the family and the world of monster hunting at large.
The many divisions in “Bitter Root” resemble the divisions we face today, and we find ourselves wondering — just as we do here in the real world — if the forces of good will be able to unite in the face of this clear and present evil.
Like “Lovecraft Country,” “Bitter Root” seems headed to a screen of some kind with “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler attached. Read it now, so you can look cool when it comes out.
“NOS4A2” by Joe Hill (William Morrow): For a while there, Joe Hill didn’t want us to know he is Stephen King’s son. That was certainly understandable, considering the modern horror master’s long shadow.
Chances are we would have figured it out eventually, given Hill’s very King-like world-building abilities, endless inventiveness and prolific nature.
“NOS4A2” finalized Hill’s quest for reputational independence. It followed the well-received novels “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Horns” and inspired a show that recently wrapped a two-season run on AMC. He’s also the writer behind the “Locke & Key” comic book that launched the hit Netflix show of the same name, and he currently has his own Hill House Comics horror imprint at DC Comics.
Hill has a gift for laying out tantalizing breadcrumbs. In “NOS4A2,” we follow the trail of Charlie Manx, a creepy old man who uses his creepy old car to shepherd children to the creepy old town of Christmasland. Needless to say, it is creepy.