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10 Terrifying 21st Century Novels

Why not take a walk with us, past the KEEP OUT sign and underneath the velvet rope, to the forbidden section of the library, where the evil books dwell…

Literary Hub

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Who among us doesn’t want to be at least a little frightened now and then, especially when Halloween comes around?

If haunted houses are your forte, why not descend into the unheimlich labyrinth that is Mark Z. Danielewski’s turn of the millennium matryoshka tale of madness and obsession, House of Leaves.

Perhaps you prefer your horror domestic, realist, and peopled by evil children, in which case Lionel Shriver’s queasy novel of motherhood gone wrong, We Need to Talk About Kevin, will be more your speed.

Or maybe you’re looking for something with more of a fantastical bent; say, a dark, socially-conscious modern-day fairytale? If so, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling—the story of a devoted father’s confrontation with otherworldly evil after his family is torn apart—has you covered.

Whatever your literary poison, we got spine-tingling contemporary novels for you; so why not take a walk with us, past the KEEP OUT sign and underneath the velvet rope, to the forbidden section of the library, where the evil books dwell…

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

Danielewski’s mind-bending experimental work of ergodic literature, a story within a story within a story zeroing in on young family that discovers their new house is bigger on the inside then it is on the outside and is forced to face the terrifying consequences of that impossibility.

House of Leaves [is] the first major experimental novel of the new millennium. And it’s a monster…like David Foster Wallace channeling H.P. Lovecraft for a literary counterpart to The Blair Witch Project … Navidson’s documentary concerns a strange house in rural Virginia into which he moves with his family. All is well at first, but small spatial displacements soon occur … The accounts of the exploration of this dark abyss are hair-raising, and the physical impossibility of it all only deepens the metaphysical dread felt by the characters … Danielewski’s achievement lies in taking some staples of horror fiction—the haunted house, the mysterious manuscript that casts a spell on its hapless reader—and using his impressive erudition to recover the mythological and psychological origins of horror, and then enlisting the full array of avant-garde literary techniques to reinvigorate a genre long abandoned to hacks.”

–Steven Moore (The Washington Post)

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)

In a novel of motherhood gone awry, Lionel Shriver approaches the tragedy of a high-school massacre from the point of view of the killer’s mother. In letters written to the boy’s father, mother Eva probes the upbringing of this more-than-difficult child.

Kevin’s not only a killer, and a chillingly creative one, but he’s joined the exhausting litany of troubled white boys taking out their angst on innocent peers; he’s the grisly topic of nightly talk shows … While Shriver attacks the phenomenon with unflagging gusto (she heavily researched the real-life school murders of the late 1990s), she isn’t preoccupied with figuring out what motivates these young men, nor does she ruminate on how a vapid American society creates adolescent monsters. Thank God for that—what we get instead is a much more interesting, thoughtful, and surprisingly credible, thriller … Eva, in her scathingly honest and often witty recollections of her relationship with Franklin, her agonized decision to give up a life of traveling for motherhood, and her painful years with (the truly hideous and apathetic) Kevin, faces the question head on: Am I responsible for what my child has done?

–Suzy Hansen (Salon)

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007)

Aging death-metal rock legend Judas Coyne is a collector of the macabre, but nothing he possesses is as unique or as dreadful as his latest purchase off the Internet: a one-of-a-kind curiosity that arrives at his door in a black heart-shaped box…a musty dead man’s suit still inhabited by the spirit of its late owner. 

“…a wild, mesmerizing, perversely witty tale of horror. In a book much too smart to sound like the work of a neophyte, he builds character invitingly and plants an otherworldly surprise around every corner. It would be much easier to compare Mr. Hill’s work to Stephen King’s if Stephen King were not his actual father. Heart-Shaped Box, which takes its title from a Nirvana song, is a Valentine from hell … Though it has the potential to fall back on tricks and pyrotechnics, Heart-Shaped Box is firmly rooted in real-world concerns. Mr. Hill elicits honest empathy for Jude, who turned his stage persona into a nightmare version of his fears and must now figure out what strength he has left for legitimate battles. This dynamic is both frightening and funny, and the book weaves together those two threads in clever ways.”

–Janet Maslin (The New York Times)

The Terror by Dan Simmons (2007)

A horror novel based on the true story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1840 expedition in the Arctic. While Franklin and his crew are plagued by starvation and illness, and forced to contend with mutiny and cannibalism, they are stalked across the bleak Arctic landscape by a monster.

Dan Simmons’ new novel may be the best thing he’s ever written: a deeply absorbing story that combines awe-inspiring myth, grinding horror and historically accurate adventure … Simmons’ skill goes beyond making readers feel his characters’ pain and accept their heroic fortitude. He introduces into this harsh, beautiful milieu a monster born of the elements, yet more cunning than any natural creature … Told from multiple perspectives, The Terror answers many questions arising from the loss of the historical Franklin Expedition, inventing satisfactory explanations of its fate where the real details long ago were lost to history. It examines other questions along the way: the nature of evil and how to confront it; the nature of courage and how to find it.”

–Nisi Shawl (The Seattle Times)

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)

A gothic ghost story set in a crumbling English mansion in the 1940s, in which a young visiting doctor comes to realize that that something is very wrong with the house.

Sarah Waters’s masterly novel is a perverse hymn to decay, to the corrosive power of class resentment as well as the damage wrought by war. Hundreds Hall is crawling with blights and moulds, crumbling from subsidence and water damage … The reader of Affinity will know that Waters is creepily conversant with ways to scare us. The reader of Fingersmith will know how deftly she handles a plot twist. The Little Stranger is a more controlled and composed novel than her last book, the widely admired The Night Watch, which was set during the second world war. Here she deploys the vigour and cunning one finds in Margaret Atwood’s fiction. She has the same narrative ease and expansiveness, and the same knack of twisting the tension tighter and tighter within an individual scene … Waters manages the conclusion of her book with consummate, quiet skill. It is gripping, confident, unnerving and supremely entertaining.

–Hilary Mantel (The Guardian)

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi (2009)

This mystical novel weaves a tale of four generations of women and the house in Dover, England, they’ve inhabited—a vengeful, Gothic edifice that has always rejected strangers

There is much more than maternal haunting in this mesmeric exploration of alienation and loss. Miranda’s precarious sanity drifts through months of therapy. Her immersion in myths of self-consuming witchery draws out a potent theme of possession, sustenance and self-harm that straddles a porous border between the corporeal and spirit worlds … Oyeyemi’s languid cadences are more burnished, her sinuous ideas more firmly embedded in the fabric of this disturbing and intricate novel. The dark tones of Poe in her haunting have also the elasticity of Haruki Murakami’s surreal mental landscapes. White is for Witching has the subtle occlusions of her previous two works with a tenacious undertow, drawing the reader into its deeper currents.”

–James Urquhart (The Independent)

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013)

“…a very good specimen of the quintessential King blend. According to Vladimir Nabokov, Salvador Dalí was ‘really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood.’ But actually there were triplets: the third one is Stephen King. The Rockwell small-town rocking chair, the old-fashioned house with the welcome mat, the genial family doctor, the grandfather clock: there they are, depicted in all their lifelike, apparently cozy detail. Both Rockwell and King know such details intimately, right down to the brand names. But there’s something very, very wrong. The rocking chair is coming to get you. The family doctor is greenish in hue and has been dead for some time. The house is haunted, and the welcome mat is alive with things. And, pace Dalí, the clock is melting … Wild ectoplasmic partly decayed vampire horses would not tear from me the story of what happens next, but let me assure you King is a pro: by the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves, and you will be looking askance at the people in the supermarket line, because if they turn around they might have metallic eyes. King’s inventiveness and skill show no signs of slacking: Doctor Sleep has all the virtues of his best work.

–Margaret Atwood (The New York Times Book Review)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (2017)

A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.

“No previous book, at least, has filled me with unease the way Fever Dream did … Schweblin sustains both conversations while narrowing them toward a single question: the mysterious horror of the worms. Intertwined, these two dialogues form a shadow of an explanation—one that runs on nightmare logic, inexorable but elusive, and always just barely out of reach … In Fever Dream, every body is a shell for another voice, another presence. The reader begins to feel as if she is Amanda, tethered to a conversation that thrums with malevolence but which provides the only alternative to the void. Eventually, I began to mistrust every word—not because of the potential dishonesty of the characters, and not because the artifice in Schweblin’s conceit was becoming unwieldy. Rather, I sensed that something terrible was happening just out of sight … the genius of Fever Dream is less in what it says than in how Schweblin says it, with a design at once so enigmatic and so disciplined that the book feels as if it belongs to a new literary genre altogether.

–Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru (2017)

A ghost story, a murder mystery, a meditation on race and cultural appropriation, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music. White Tears focuses on two white, twenty-something New Yorkers obsessed with tracking down rare recordings.

“White Tears is a supernatural mystery, a horror story, and ultimately a tale of black Americans’ historical exploitation by white profiteers … The book is moody, threatening, and profoundly dark; Kunzru’s prose has a Delilloesque density, constructing settings and atmospheres so charged and vivid they seem to envelop the reader in a miasma of mise-en-scène. Carter and Seth’s work, and the idealistic gloss they layer over a creeping sense of historical guilt, receives no artistically optimistic reading from Kunzru … White Tearsisn’t exactly a re-centering of black experience, but a collapsing of the white hero mythology that often guides American movies, books and TV shows that nominally address black culture. It zeroes in on an impulse that yearns to be pure, uncompromising and compensatory, finding the nasty worm of entitlement and exploitation that’s burrowed at the heart … At every turn, Kunzru’s words concoct a dreamlike world where the past isn’t dead, nor even past, and the boundaries of reality flicker at the margins. For a nation seduced by a fantasy of white appropriation, maybe a horror story of white appropriation is exactly what we need.”

–Claire Fallon (The Huffington Post)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (2017)

A melding of horror, fantasy, and social consciousness realism. A dark, modern-day fairy tale about a devoted father’s confrontation with otherworldly evil after his family is torn apart.

What makes this novel so effective is its ability to use genre tropes in a way that doesn’t neglect (or mischaracterize) the race or class or everyday experiences of its protagonists … In addition to invigorating the naturalist novel by infusing it with horror, LaValle introduces contemporary phone and app technology into his increasingly strange story. That’s been done before…But The Changeling digs deeper, providing subtle commentary about larger issues of computer security, access, and privacy … Nobody is better at combining daily struggles and the supernatural than LaValle, and in helping us understand the convergences between the 99 percent and the things that go bump in the night. In such a city, fairy-tale endings no longer work. But even if there is no happily ever after here, we can still find a fugitive joy. LaValle’s respect for love and the domestic provides a nice counterpoint to the darkness that threatens to overwhelm these characters, without lessening the threat at the story’s heart.”

–Brian Evenson (Bookforum)

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published October 30, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.