Don't Fence Me In

Four unclassifiable horror novels

It’s August 2020 and we’ve all reached an emotional place where, when someone asks how you are by way of making small talk, you just make an indeterminate noise and laugh darkly and maybe do a flailing thing with your hands. As is probably apparent to you by now, I’ve given up on making this newsletter weekly or even monthly, but I’m not abandoning it - I’ll pop in periodically with some new scares, but I am freeing myself from the burden of writing on any kind of a regular schedule.

I’m still editing for Tor’s Nightfire blog (I’m doing more editing than writing over there at the moment, we have a group of amazing freelancers) – I highly recommend you give everything on the site a look, but I particularly want to draw your attention to this essay from Meghan Ball on the fiasco that was the Retro Hugos best series award this year (as opposed to the fiasco that was… the rest of the Hugos this year) and why it’s time to leave H.P. Lovecraft in the dust:

Okay, onward.

I’ve spent a lot of time in previous installations of this newsletter ruminating on genre definitions and distinctions, which I realize is probably not the most interesting topic in the world to the casual reader, but also it’s my newsletter and I can do what I want.

I can’t find it now, of course, but over the weekend I saw a tweet bouncing around Book Twitter that said, in essence, “publishers tend to shy away from books that have no comp titles, books that aren’t like anything else, but those are the books I want the most.” Without going too far into the weeds about how book sales operate, comp titles are the previously published books an editor or agent thinks are the best points of comparison for a forthcoming title – so, for instance, if you’re an editor trying to make the case for acquiring a psychological thriller about a cop with a faulty memory and some dark secrets, you might comp it to In The Woods by Tana French, The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, and The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter. Comps are meant to be used to position the book for marketers, sales reps, and booksellers, and they often turn into elevator pitches for readers as well (for instance, The Gone World, below, is blurbed as “Inception meets True Detective”).

I understand why it’s harder for publishers to market and sell books that don’t have easy comps, I do. But, much like that mystery tweeter, I find that those unclassifiable books are often the ones that make the biggest impact on me, stories from writers who know the rules, conventions, and tropes more than well enough to break them, dismantle the pieces, and put them back together into something original and awe-inspiring. Here are four genre-breakers that I’ve never really stopped thinking about.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

Arguably my favorite debut novel of the last ten years, The Library at Mount Char is a book I categorically refuse to shut up about. It is, I think, my second most-evangelized book of all time (behind Tana French). I have shoved it into countless hands, spending all my book recommendation capital with friends and family and coworkers and customers and strangers on Twitter and strangers in person. Paradoxically, I’ve been avoiding writing about it in this newsletter because I want so badly to do it justice, but I’ve come to realize there’s no real way to do that – you just have to read it. Inevitably, the folks I’ve foisted it onto come back to me wide-eyed, asking “what else can I read that’s like this?”

The answer, unfortunately, is that there’s nothing else like this book. It’s a tragicomic dark fantasy-horror-thriller story about twelve orphaned children taken in and educated by a cruel, omnipotent godlike figure they call Father, who presides over a library containing all the world’s knowledge and trains each of them in a separate discipline. When Father disappears and the siblings, now adults, are locked out of the library, they find themselves looking for answers. Carolyn, whose discipline is all the universe’s languages (living and dead, spoken and unspoken, human and non-human), knows more than she’s saying about the whole situation, has her own agenda, and knows that she can’t really trust any of her siblings. With the help of an ordinary man named Steve (a sweet guy who’s the human center of the story and exudes big “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!” vibes) and a stable of deeply unlikely allies, Carolyn sets her own plan in motion.

This is a book that’s bigger, darker, weirder, sadder, funnier, and more hopeful than you could possibly expect going into it. Just read it.

CW for this book: rape/sexual assault, torture, animal death

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch | Nightmare Scale: 8/10

After well over a year of seeing people whose opinions I respect talk about this book the way I talk about Mount Char, I finally picked this up last weekend and absolutely devoured it. As I was reading, I found myself experiencing that double-vision you get sometimes when you’re reading something formally daring and perfectly executed: I was enjoying the reading experience immensely while at the same time a separate part of my brain was engrossed in admiring the structure and craft of the book. I kept a note open on my phone of all the other books and movies and shows I saw flashes of, which by the end of the book read like this: “The X-Files meets Event Horizon meets Hyperion meets True Detective S1 meets A Wrinkle in Time meets The Sparrow meets the Reavers from Firefly meets Interstellar.”

Shannon Moss is an NCIS investigator who works on crimes related to the Navy’s ultra-confidential Deep Waters program, which encompasses missions into both Deep Space and Deep Time. Traveling into possible futures (which are entirely dependent on the factors in existence at the moment the trip was made), the Navy has documented the approach of Terminus, the end of the world – a horrifying blight that causes the end of humanity as we understand it, obliterating minds and bodies. And Terminus is getting closer: with each trip into the future, the onset of Terminus is a little bit nearer to our present day. Having lost her leg on a training mission into Terminus as a young agent, Shannon knows firsthand how dangerous it is. When the family of a soldier whose ship was lost on a mission to Deep Waters is brutally slaughtered in their home – the same house where Shannon’s childhood best friend, murdered when they were teenagers, lived – Shannon realizes that everything the Navy knows about the future – and the past – is wrong.

CW for this book: child death/harm (off the page), extremely graphic crime scene descriptions & disturbing imagery, suicide, fingernail stuff

The Devourers by Indra Das | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

In present-day Kolkata, Alok, a solitary academic, is approached by an unsettling stranger who may or may not be a shapeshifter. The stranger has a job for Alok: transcribing a series of scrolls that tell the story of three werewolves, Fenrir, Gévaudan, and Makedon, and a mortal woman, Cyrah, during the reign of the Mughal Empire. The narrative jumps back and forth between these two timelines, documenting Alok’s burgeoning friendship with, and attraction to, the stranger, as well as Cyrah’s unwilling involvement in the world of the shifters. It’s equal parts dark fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, all drenched in blood.

As Malisa Kurtz points out in the LARB, plot is not really the driving force of this novel – rather, the characters and the setting and the relationships are avenues by which to explore questions of violence (sexual, racial, carnal), colonialism, queerness, epistemology, folkloric traditions, and attraction. It’s not an easy novel, and it doesn’t provide easy answers, but Das is a transcendently good writer – his prose practically shimmers – and though this is a debut, it’s a smart one, with enough steel in its spine to let snarly ethical and moral questions stand on their own (and it won the Lambda Award for best SFF/Horror).

CW for this book: rape/sexual assault, gore

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir | Nightmare Scale: 4/10

If you are a human on the internet who pays even the slightest attention to books, I know you’ve already heard many people (myself included) yell at length about this incredible 2019 debut novel. The capsule description is “lesbian necromancers in space,” and that really does tell you in four words that this book is equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance. It’s also a haunted house/locked room mystery/thriller, and a comedy, and I promise you the prose is like nothing else you’ve ever read. Muir is an exquisite writer with the soul of a shitposter who grew up in the fanfic mines, and she writes with a remarkable degree of control over the reader’s emotions. A flashy marriage of high concept and low humor, this is one of the single most memorable reading experiences of my life.

Book 2 in the trilogy, Harrow the Ninth, is on sale as of this month, but be warned – if you’re planning to read Gideon and prefer to remain unspoiled, please read *absolutely nothing* about Harrow.

CW for this book: child harm/death, gore, bones, more bones, so many bones

Further Reading:

  • If you’re interested in learning more about comp titles, there’s some good info for you here and here.

Final Girls:



Hair of the dog: Noir and horror for your kindergartner [Boing Boing]

Nightmare Fuel is a newsletter about scary books and related nonsense. Questions? Comments? Reply to this email, or get at me on Twitter @emilyhughes. If you’re reading this on the web, or someone forwarded this email to you, consider subscribing to have future editions delivered directly to your inbox, sent from the darkness under your bed.

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