Saturday, October 17, 2009

Five Semi-Obscure Horror Novels Worth Your Time This Halloween

A couple days ago, I played with one of those Facebook widgets that let you pick your favorite five things in a certain number of categories. The topic was Great Haunted House Novels and I made five respectable choices: The Shining, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The House Next Door, lost boy lost girl (get the capitalization right, LivingSocial!) and Ghost Story. Later on, though, I started fretting that those are very obvious choices, that anybody fond of horror fiction would already be aware of them.

So, here are five more horror novels – from the 1970s and early '80s -- that can make your Halloween that much creepier. They may, however, take a certain amount of effort to track down. I live in a place blessed with great bookstores and libraries, and few of these selections were readily available in the obvious outlets.

1. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

Set in small-town rural New Hampshire, the novel focuses on John and Mim Moore, farmers struggling to look after their young daughter and John's elderly mother. When new auctioneer Purly Dunsmore comes to town, folks are happy to drag junk out from their cellars, attics and barns and donate them for a sale said to benefit the local police. But as the weeks drift by, Purly and his friends on the force become more demanding in their requests for donations, and soon John and Mim find themselves making sacrifices they truly can't afford.

"The Auctioneer" is Samson's only novel. She died of cancer before the book became a best-seller in paperback. But it's a very accomplished first effort – astute in its understanding of mob dynamics and the lure of conformity. If you've read Stephen King's "Needful Things," you can see Samson's clear influence on him.

I originally read "The Auctioneer" as a high school junior and didn't see anything scary in it at all. Then I re-read it near the end of George W. Bush's seemingly never-ending second term and thought, "Oh, yeah. Now I get it."

2. The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein

When I got out of college and was rummaging around for a career, I thought T.E.D. Klein had the coolest job in the universe as the editor of "Twilight Zone" magazine. I've since learned that years of reading slush pretty much extinguished his enthusiasm for horror fiction, but those are the breaks, I guess. "The Ceremonies" is his only novel, but it's a good one.

An expansion of his novella, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (recently reprinted in the very fine "American Fantastic Tales," edited by Peter Straub), "The Ceremonies" follows academic Jeremy Friers as he leaves New York City for the summer, renting a house in the rural community of Gilead, NY. Friers intends to spend his time preparing for a course on supernatural literature, but he doesn't sense that he's being manipulated by an elderly sorcerer who wishes to facilitate the return to Earth of a vast, ancient and malevolent entity. Also caught in the sorcerer's snare are Friers' virginal girlfriend and his hosts, the deeply religious Poroths.

"The Ceremonies" isn't an easy read. It's overlong, repetitive and the characters are all rather chilly and unpleasant. But Klein nails the sense of dread that can be elicited in the face of raw nature, where human intelligence doesn't mean much of anything. (The book also includes one of the nastiest felines in the genre.) The more you're familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, the more you'll take away from "The Ceremonies."

3. All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By by John Farris

I haven't recently re-read this gonzo Southern gothic by the author of "The Fury," but it certainly made an impression on me. Not very many novels open with a wedding scene in which a good portion of the participants either go insane or are decapitated with a military saber.

"All Heads…" is about the slave trade and a legacy of terror that extends from Africa to the American South in the 1940s. It may be one the best supernatural novels about vodoun ever written, and it almost defies summarization. Maybe it's best to come to it with no expectations, because Farris finishes by up-ending all of them anyway.

As a bonus, the Tor paperback edition features one of my favorite covers, boasting an Ann-Margret lookalike as a bosomy snake-goddess!

4. The Other by Thomas Tryon

Along with ""The Exorcist," Thomas Tryon's "The Other" ranks as one of the most popular horror titles in the period between Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" and Stephen King's "Carrie." It may be the best "freaky twins" novel ever published.

Holland and Niles are born 20 minutes apart, but their temperaments are vastly different. Born with a caul over his face, Niles seems the more empathic of the two, while Holland is more prickly and secretive. Growing up on a Connecticut farm in the mid-1930s, the boys are inseparable, but do they also share dangerous psychic powers? And by the way, who's responsible for the various fatal "accidents" that happen around the homestead? (I'll never forget that baby floating in the wine bottle!)

Tryon was an actor before turning his hand to fiction. (Apparently it was the tyrannical Otto Preminger who provided the last straw that made Tryon dump his Hollywood career.) The neatly plotted "The Other" is a fine debut, and Tryon continued his streak with other well-received novels, including "Harvest Home," which is kind of an Americanized version of "The Wicker Man."

5. Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

Stephen King provided the essay about "Burnt Offerings" in the original "Horror: 100 Best Books," edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. He ranks Marasco's book just below Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" in the "haunted house novel" sweepstakes. That seems a fair assessment.

Eager to get out of the city, the Rolfe family – Ben, Marion, son David and Aunt Elizabeth -- finds a summer rental that seems almost too good to be true. The country house owned by the peculiar Allardyce siblings is a bit run down, but the rate is cheap. Old Mrs. Allardyce lives on the top story, but she's no trouble at all, never venturing from her rooms.

The horror in "Burnt Offerings" is the quiet kind. As the house begins to mysteriously regenerate itself, the Rolfes always have the option of leaving. But even when the worst things happen, they fail to do so. If "The Auctioneer" is a fable about the dangers of letting go of what's valuable, "Burnt Offerings" is a cautionary tale about being imprisoned by what's not essential.

3 comments:

Will Errickson said...

GREAT list! I've read all these and enjoyed some more than others but they are definitely worth remembering today for genre fans. All Heads... and Auctioneer are particular favorites.

J said...

Well done! Thanks for this. Just what I was looking for to build my reading list.

Gino Sorcinelli said...

Awesome reviews and great recommendations. Thank you for this list. I've been meaning to read Burnt Offerings for years and will have to add it to my summer list!