Being literate is especially important in our current post-truth, post-facts world. And it’s especially significant when you need to take a break from reality, look into the roots of current affairs, or just expand your horizons a little.
Here are six books that fit the bill.
1. The Singing Bone, by Beth Hahn
If you’ve never heard of writer Beth Hahn, that’s about to change. The Singing Bone is a breathtaking accomplishment; the fact that it’s Ms. Hahn’s first novel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The book follows several narrative threads, pitching forward and backwards in time, like a ship sailing on the tumultuous seas of memory. Something happened to a woman named Alice Pearson in the late 1970s, something she thought she’d managed to escape. But we can never truly escape the past; we can only try to live with it as best as we can. Evoking the dark feminist narratives of Gillian Flynn as well as the real-life horrors of Charles Manson’s Family, The Singing Bone refuses to answer all of our questions, forcing us to ruminate on the meaning of what happened and why. Someone please turn this into an Original Netflix series. Thanks in advance.
2. The Terror, by Dan Simmons
I became interested in The Terror when I read on Coming Soon about a planned 2017 AMC series executive produced by Ridley Scott: “The Terror is set in 1847 when an expedition exploring the Northwest Passage is ravaged by monster that picks them off one by one.” With visions of The Thing crowding my thoughts, I checked the book out from the library; at 700+ pages, The Terror is far more expansive in scope. Based on the real-life failed expedition to the Northwest Passage and told from multiple points of view and at different points in time, it takes a bit to acclimate yourself to the narrative, but the payoff is spectacular. The Terror addresses both the human and the inhuman condition in a way that is refreshing and surprisingly poignant. Some members of the AMC series cast have already been announced, including Jared Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Paul Ready, Adam Nagaitis, and Tobias Menzies.
3. The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Here’s another book that inspired an upcoming 2017 series, also executive produced by Ridley Scott, but this time on Fox. The Passage is a true epic, the first in a trilogy of books about a post-apocalyptic world. There’s something akin to The Girl with All the Gifts here, but replace zombified flesh-eaters with vampiric blood-drinkers. The opening chapter is one of the most immediate and gut-wrenching things I’ve ever read. From there the emotional heft is parceled out to what can seem like a dizzying array of characters, but Cronin manages to make each one memorable enough so that you don’t have to keep flipping back and forth to figure out who is who. It makes sense that screen rights to the book were optioned before it was finished; there is a definite cinematic aura to Cronin’s prose and the structure of his set pieces. Retaining the inner voices of the characters will be the key to whether The Passage TV adaptation will succeed or fail.
4. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
When I spotted this paperback at Value Village I figured, “why not?” I had no idea how much of a page-turner it would be, not to mention how much it would actually terrify me. One of Stephen King’s greatest gifts to mainstream horror is his ability to nail the exact feeling of genuine dread that his characters feel; so much so that we feel their fears right along with them. There’s a haunted house, a haunted town, and haunted people… all of which are exploited by an ancient, truly evil entity. Like all of the best (i.e., worst) and most cunning monsters, the one in ‘Salem’s Lot starts manipulating the most vulnerable citizens of the town, in effect gaslighting them until it’s too late for everyone else. Is it a metaphor for the insidiousness of evil? Perhaps. One thing is for sure, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read.
For more on ‘Salem’s Lot, check out “Hell Is For Children: The Unspeakable Horrors of ‘Salem’s Lot” on Everything Is Scary.
5. Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, by Alexandra West
Most hardcore horror fans would point to films like Martyrs, High Tension, or À l’intérieur when asked for examples in the subgenre of “New French Extremity,” but thanks to Ms. West’s exhaustive research, they now have dozens of films to seek out and watch. The book opens with a well-written and quite frankly, fascinating, chapter about French history, setting the stage for the subsequent text. Rather than merely reviewing the films, West arranges them in chapters according to where they fit in the context of that aforementioned history. Furthermore, unlike a lot of what passes for modern film critique, West does not pass judgment, instead allowing the works and the words of the filmmakers to speak for themselves. It’s a vital read for anyone interested in an important and popular, but not well-understood, segment of horror cinema. You can get your own copy via McFarland Books or Amazon.
6. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, edited by Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe
With the embarrassing (and potentially dangerous) debacle known as “Pizzagate” still making headlines, it’s more important than ever to learn from history, lest we repeat the same mistakes. If you grew up in the 1980s, played video games or D&D, listened to heavy metal, or watched horror movies, you remember the Satanic Panic scare, when religious fundamentalists and politicians blamed pop culture’s allegedly Satanic leanings for the ills of society. In some cases this was hilarious (see the chapter on Geraldo Rivera’s 1987 TV special) while in other cases, lives were destroyed (see the chapter on the McMartin trial). It’s fascinating yet frightening to realize how little has changed in the last few decades: people are still gullible and deluded enough to believe that Satanic conspiracies are real. Since trust in the mainstream media has been gutted by far-right extremists, they turn to shadowy, suspect corners of the Internet for “news,” much to the dismay of rational-minded people everywhere.
Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter to this book (“All Hail The Acid King: The Ricky Kasso Cas In Popular Culture”). The 2015 softcover printing sold out but Fab Press has issued a second hardcover pressing that is available to order online.
*Please note: not all of these books are small enough to fit into an actual stocking.