Time is arbitrary! Isn’t that wonderful? Don’t think about it too hard. But with another Leap Day come and gone, it can be tough not to grapple with the slippery nature of measured time. To further bend your brain, here are six dark sci-fi-and horror tales that play with time loops, time travel, and multiverse theory.
All You Need is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka
The wildly underrated Emily Blunt-Tom Cruise time loop action thriller Edge of Tomorrow (rebranded upon its DVD release as Live, Die, Repeat, for some mystifying reason) was based on this manga (seriously, go seek it out if your idea of a fun moviegoing experience is watching Tom Cruise die a couple dozen times). The alien Mimics are waging full-scale war on humanity, who can’t seem to gain a foothold. Keiji, a soldier, dies on the battlefield – and immediately wakes up to live the same day over and over again, dying in various horrible and occasionally embarrassing ways, until he meets a legendary soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Best described as Groundhog Day, but with full-on alien warfare.
The Fold, Peter Clines
This one’s a little bit of a cheat, since it deals with top-secret, bleeding-edge technology that allows people to fold timespace and travel across vast distances with a single step, but I love it too much not to include it. Mike, our protagonist, is brought in to evaluate the project’s safety, and very quickly his eidetic memory tells him that something isn’t right – after trips through the machine, small things shift, behaviors change, and the situation gets stranger and stranger. The first three-quarters of this book read like an engaging, fast-paced sci-fi thriller, but when the horror comes in the final act, it comes fast, fierce, and bloody.
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
The time traveler in Lauren Beukes’ excellent novel is actually a serial killer, a drifter whose attempt to squat in an empty house leads him to the discovery that the house is a sort of elevator through time, one which spits him out in different years across two centuries. He is driven to find women who “shine” with potential and violently extinguish them. When one of his victims survives his horrific attack, she makes it her mission to track him down – but how do you find a murderer who kills across time?
11/22/63, Stephen King
In the back of an old diner in Maine, Jake Epping finds a portal to 1963, and becomes obsessed with stopping the assassination of President Kennedy. Of course, this is far easier said than done, and when an attempt goes wrong, he can reset the timeline again by going back to the diner. Over the course of his attempts, he lives many lives – some violent and short, some long and full of love. But this is a Stephen King novel, of course, so his success will come with costs he never could have anticipated.
“Allochthon,” Livia Llewellyn
In this short story from Llewellyn’s collection Furnace, a dissatisfied Depression-era housewife on a picnic outing with neighbors finds herself thrown back to the beginning of the day over and over as she increasingly comes unhinged from time and sanity. Llewellyn’s stories brim with existential and cosmic dread, and this one is no exception.
The Gone World, Tom Sweterlitsch
NCIS officer Shannon Moss is assigned to investigate the murder of the family of a Navy SEAL who was involved in top-secret time travel missions. Believing that the stress of time travel may have caused the SEAL to kill his own family, Moss undertakes her own travels through time to question those involved – but in doing so, she stumbles upon the Terminus, an ever-advancing future point that those with security clearance believes will be the end of humanity as we know it.
[And, since it was just Leap Day, I’d like to give a special shout-out to Leap Day William, the closest 30 Rock ever got to horror.]