By Eric Bilach
The following piece appeared in the October 2019 edition of The Campus.
In preparation for Halloween and all the scares commonly associated with the ghastly holiday, I decided to revisit four horror novels and review each of them. Coincidentally, these books are all critically regarded as literary staples of their respective time periods, which allows us to trace the evolution of the horror genre from its early roots to modern day. Below, I have shared my brief, candid thoughts on each of the books, along with a rating out of five. This list could be helpful in determining which horror classics may be worth picking up this October, and which may be better off left on the bookshelf until next year.
Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
The eerie genesis of all vampire fantasy. While more recent installments in vampire literature continue to diminish the genre into a mere subcategory of paranormal romance, Dracula prevails as one of the most sinister and profound works in all of horror fiction. Its epistolary format allows for some of the most unique and intimate character building and voicing that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Conversely, Stoker’s wanton use of “over-description” works to impede plot progression in many crucial sections of the narrative (however, I can forgive this style given that it seems conventional in most Victorian-era literature). Shortcomings aside, I laud Dracula as a revolutionary and macabre tale of “good-versus-evil” that has often been imitated, but never duplicated.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (1959)
Subdued, ominous, and utterly brilliant. Shirley Jackson is, without question, the queen of Gothic fiction writing, and The Haunting of Hill House stands as her crowning achievement. A novel of this magnitude deserves far more acclaim than the title of “greatest haunted-house story ever written” because even that is trivializing its merit. In fact, I would contend that The Haunting of Hill House belongs in the conversation for “greatest horror story ever written,” alongside the likes of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. Jackson’s wit and knack for cinematic suspense perfectly complements her analysis of the present themes of fear, isolation, unrequited love, and the tricky bonds they all share. Read this masterpiece for yourself—my meager words cannot do it justice enough.
The Shining, Stephen King (1977)
An underwhelming horror “classic” that is better off remembered for its 1980 film adaptation. As is the case with most of King’s material that I have read, The Shining suffers tremendously from its bloated page length, which ultimately serves to drag the story’s suspense down into unprecedented levels of banality. Perhaps this novel’s most “horrifying” quality is King’s tendency to telegraph the events of its climax openly and without discretion—there are very few surprises to be had, if any. However, that is not to say this book is entirely rotten. Conceptually, it is pretty fantastic, and has laid the groundwork for one of the greatest horror flicks ever produced. Still, while the literary fanatic in me may habitually subscribe to the philosophy of “the book was better than the movie,” I cannot grant The Shining that same distinction.
The Hunger, Alma Katsu (2018)
Despite my checkered relationship with his writing, there is no doubt that Stephen King has an incredible eye for spotting horror fiction of high quality—and Alma Katsu’s The Hunger proves to be no exception. Commended by King as “deeply, deeply disturbing” and “hard to put down,” Katsu’s fourth novel is a brooding, yet equally ambitious, approach to historical fiction storytelling. On the surface, The Hunger may not boast the most original of premises—in essence, it is a supernatural take on the infamous Donner Party episode. At its core, however, lies a twisted tale of survival and fate amidst the cruel conditions of nature. With tension so palpable it could be its own character, and suspense aplenty, this novel is a must-read for any horror fiction fan in search of gripping, poignant work from a relatively new author of the genre.