I didn’t really consider myself a horror reader until I was well into adulthood. I read scary books, of course - I devoured John Bellairs and definitely tried to read The Stand when I was way too young for it, but I didn’t seek out the genre, preferring to pick up books that spoke to me on an individual level. We all come into our own tastes in different ways - for me, working in publishing in my early 20s, I found myself drawn more and more to the weird books, the transgressive stories, the stuff that kept me up at night. After that I made a conscious choice to lean into it and really immerse myself in the genre, and, a few years later, here we are.
In general, this newsletter will be dedicated to either single books or lists around a theme. but for our first installment I wanted to give you a sense of what I like. There’s no rhyme or reason to these selections beyond their status as some of my all-time favorites. Enjoy:
Bird Box by Josh Malerman | Nightmare Scale: 8.5/10
Look, the movie was… fine. It was fine! But it wasn’t a horror movie. Medium is key here: there’s a resonance between the experience of reading a narrative (as opposed to viewing it) and the main storytelling mechanism in this book. The gist of the plot is that there’s something out there, and if you see it, you will go insane, and you will hurt yourself and the people around you. The resulting tension between the innate need to look around you, to see your surroundings, and the knowledge that doing so could be deadly is absolutely delicious, and what makes it work on the page is that you never find out what the creatures (for lack of a better word) look like, or what they want. Characters spend great swaths of the book blindfolded, unsure of their surroundings - and the reader, who’s locked into their point of view, experiences that heightened, heart-pounding blindness too.
It’s near-impossible to do that on screen, unfortunately. It’s not that I think the book is unfilmable - I think a director with a stronger vision and a willingness to take some formal risks could have done something really interesting with it - but in conventional filmmaking, the viewer is at a remove. You’re not inside the character’s head, seeing things (or not, as the case may be) through their eyes; you’re standing a few feet away, looking at them, and their surroundings, and any eldritch terrors that happen to be sneaking up on them. The blindfold becomes a piece of costuming rather than a constraint.
But regardless, the novel is one of the most viscerally frightening reading experiences I’ve ever had. It’s under 300 pages, incredibly fast-paced, and doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. It’s the book I still think about in the dark in the middle of the night. It’s brilliant.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead | Nightmare Scale: 7/10
I’m a zombie apologist (zombpologist?). I will read pretty much any novel sight unseen if you tell me it’s got zombies in it. I’m a weenie about horror movies, but I’ll make an exception for zombies. Hell, I have recurring stress dreams about two subjects: ex-boyfriends, and zombies. But I didn’t really think zombies could surprise me anymore, until I read Zone One. There was a lot of silly genre vs. ~literary fiction~ chatter about this book when it was released, which I won’t get into, but what’s undeniably true is that Whitehead is a near-unparalleled writer (just ask the Pulitzer committee). In Zone One, America has survived the zombie apocalypse, albeit after suffering heavy losses and the near-destruction of the country. Mark Spitz (not his real name), our unreliable and heavily-traumatized protagonist, is part of a military force tasked with clearing the remaining zombies (some feral, some inert and seemingly harmless) out of Manhattan, block by block, building by building. We flash back and forth between the present and the past, between reconstruction and the height of the fight for survival.
There’s morbid humor here - Mark Spitz thinks he’s walked in on his parents having sex before realizing his undead mother is, uh, consuming his father, and the descriptions of the post-apocalyptic government’s propaganda machine are full-blown satire - but there’s also deep, visceral terror. The sequence I haven’t been able to shake nearly a decade later is one in which the reconstruction team is sent on a survey mission into the subway tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and find themselves facing down a horde. (That I read this scene while on the subway is neither here nor there, I’m sure.) This is the rare book that’s somehow even scarier to New Yorkers.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson | Nightmare Scale: 7/10
This book falls firmly into the category of “media you think won’t scare you because you know so much about it, but surprises you with how pants-shittingly terrifying it is,” a category I mentally codified when I watched The Shining for the first time, mostly through my fingers. When it comes to Jackson’s indelible novel, you’ve seen one of the several adaptations of varying quality and faithfulness to the text and think the book couldn’t possibly be scarier, or you think it can’t really be that frightening because it’s a classic.
Friends, you are so wrong.
This is a ghost story, but it’s also a psychological examination of an unmoored, isolated, possibly closeted woman who agrees to spend the summer in a haunted house along with a team of supernatural researchers and volunteers. Jackson is a master both on the micro and macro levels here, and she brings exquisite balance and tension to that age-old question: is it a haunting or mental instability?
It’s a genre-defining novel that still manages to terrify sixty years after its initial publication. I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.
Meg by Steve Alten | Nightmare Scale: 6/10
This book is ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s pulpy, campy, and idiotic, and I loved every second of it.
Sharks were my biggest fear when I was a child, to the point that I didn’t like to be in swimming pools by myself for fear of what might be beneath me (I know, but apparently it’s a thing). So naturally, I was also fascinated by them - I watched Jaws a couple dozen times and read every book on sharks I could get my hands on. While the fear has mostly abated, the fascination hasn’t. My bookshelf is full of fiction and non-fiction about sharks. And this deeply dumb, fun book is my favorite out of all of them.
God knows I love Jason Statham, but this is another case where the best thing I can say about the movie adaptation is that it was fine. My biggest qualm was that for a movie about a prehistoric monster shark wreaking havoc in the Pacific, it was, literally and creatively, pretty bloodless. The book, on the other hand, is INCREDIBLY GORY. I mean, it opens with a megalodon just absolutely going to town on a T-Rex! Alten writes freewheeling, queasy, voyeuristic elegies to the plumes of blood and scattered dismembered limbs that absolutely litter this plot. Gore on the page doesn’t generally bother me, but there were parts of this book where I needed to look up and take a couple breaths. I’m generally going to try to avoid spoilers in this newsletter, but I medically need to tell you about the ending of this book because it is SO bonkers: *SPOILERS* Jonas, our hero, drives a submersible into the megalodon’s mouth, crawls his way out into its stomach, where he’s surrounded by the dismembered corpses of all his friends, and cuts its heart out from the inside with a fossilized megalodon tooth. *end spoilers*
I mean, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s beautiful. How do you even begin to come up with an idea like that? You just don’t get that kind of chef’s-kiss perfection in realistic fiction.
This is where I’ll be putting odds and ends, interesting things I read or watched that don’t quite fit with the rest of the newsletter.
A Perfectly Normal Interview with Carmen Maria Machado Where Everything Is Fine [Electric Lit]: Carmen Maria Machado wrote the preface for a new edition of Carmilla, that classic work of vampire fiction and lesbian subtext, and then gave this interview to Electric Lit, which I’m not going to spoil for you, but you need to read the whole thing and you need to read it right now.
Shirley Jackson’s Sublime First Paragraph in ‘Hill House,’ Annotated [Medium]: If my thoughts on Shirley Jackson piqued your interest, you’ll love this deep analysis of the book’s iconic first paragraph from Twitter’s favorite copy editor, Ben Dreyer.
A note about affiliate links: you’ll notice those book titles above link out to IndieBound, with a Jump Scares affiliate code appended. If you see something you like in this newsletter and use that link to buy the book either directly from IndieBound or from your local indie bookstore, I’ll make a little bit of cash. This lets me offer the newsletter for free. So why am I not linking to Amazon? I’ll probably write a full post about it at some point, but it’s primarily a moral issue. IndieBound has more on this.