One of the best things about horror is that it’s intimate. No matter whether it’s set in a small town or a simple motel room, you can still feel all the scares the authors want you to. The more someplace is cut off from the outside world, the better, too. It’s more intense, and pushing people into charged situations in tight spaces tends to raise the emotional stakes faster. There’s even a name for such stories, “closed-circle” horror, or “closed-loop” horror, referring to how the main action (barring flashbacks and such) is confined to one space with very little influence from the outside–the literary equivalent of a bottle episode. While it’s a rich field, to be sure, and one where it’s relatively difficult to play favorites, we’ve provided a starter selection of six closed-circle horror novels to at least give you an idea of what the genre looks like.
House of Stairs, William Sleator
William Sleator might have written for a younger audience, but that in no way diminishes the horror of his works. In this stark dystopian horror novel, five teenagers are kidnapped and put into a strange, dark, seemingly infinite space filled with staircases, with the only other features being a food pellet dispenser with flashing lights, and a large waterfall basin used for drinking and cleaning. At first their predicament just seems odd, with the five getting to know each other and exploring their strange surroundings, but as the food pellet dispenser gets stingier with its bounty and seems to demand crueler acts from the five prisoners, they turn to nastier and nastier means to make sure they’re fed. House of Stairs plays out like a leaner, meaner Lord of the Flies, with order quickly decaying into a pitched battle between the in-group and the out-group and in some cases unprintable acts of cruelty. At the very least, you may never look at a traffic light the same way again.
Reprieve, James Han Mattson
On a cold Nebraska night, four people make it to the end of the Quigley House, a combination extreme immersive horror experience and escape room. If they can make it to the sixth room and find all the red envelopes within, they get a significant cash prize. Unfortunately for them, an intruder breaks into that final room and turns a ghoulish challenge into a deadly standoff. The book jumps backward and forward in time, beginning with witness statements from the incident and showing how the four contestants ended up in that fateful room before showing how psychological pressure from within and forces from without caused the deadly confrontation. In the process, it becomes a work about horror itself, what the genre can mean on a personal level, and what it can mean to marginalized people in America. Despite these heavy themes, the book’s steady and methodical approach towards its central event make for a gripping and suspenseful read, showing the aftermath of the incident and slowly building to the standoff.
Severance Package, Duane Swierczynski
One morning, seven employees of a financial analysis firm are told that their company was actually a front for a covert intelligence group and will now be shut down. Their choices are either to drink a poisoned mimosa and pass peacefully, or be executed by a gunshot to the head. The elevators are wired to blow, the stairwells are rigged with sarin gas, and one of the seven might actually be an agent for a rival organization, throwing the office into violent chaos. Swierczynski sets up the action fast, opening with a kill scene and quickly introducing the participants in short point-of-view chapters before running full-tilt into the premise in a ruthlessly funny combination of office politics and murder as the workplace’s party guy runs face-first into a gas trap. Severance Package might be light on tension, but it’s a thrilling adrenaline rush once it gets going, the hairpin turns the plot takes executed with precision, a finely tuned mix of gore, humor, and horror colliding in one compact package.
Battle Royale, Koushun Takami
One of the books to popularize both game-horror and closed-circle horror as subgenres, Battle Royale begins with a high school class being kidnapped to a remote island where the government has randomly chosen them for a game. Each student is given supplies, a map, and a random weapon. They are then told that they have to kill one student every twenty-four hours, or the explosive collars around their necks will detonate, killing all of them. Last student standing wins. To add to the “fun,” the number of “safe zones” where the students won’t spontaneously explode shrinks every day, pushing them closer together. What follows is a dark, savage social satire, touching on everything from social dynamics between teenagers to older generations fearing youth. It’s a methodical, propulsive work full of brutal violence and truly monstrous villains, but it’s easy to see why this is such a classic that it’s spawned numerous adaptations.
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
An unusual case because the closed circle is in fact a closed time loop, Deaths follows our narrator as he is bounced from one point of view to the next, trying to find a way to save Evelyn Hardcastle from dying. Every day, he wakes up as a new guest of Blackheath Manor, ready to see things from a new angle, and hopefully break the cycle. The idea of a gothic horror murder mystery time loop is already enticing enough, but what makes Deaths go the extra mile is the sense of disorientation that happens each time Adrian, the narrator, is dropped into a new scenario. It also helps hammer home the sense of urgency–each time, he has to hit the ground running and figure out more of the mystery. While there’s definitely a sense of the familiar to the book, the disorienting atmosphere and insane premise do a lot to change things up.
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
While not necessarily considered a horror novel by today’s standards, Christie’s gothic tale of a group of ten strangers invited to an island hideaway only to be bumped off one by one can be seen as one of the earliest examples of slasher fiction. It has a serial murderer with an insane motive bumping off his victims, an isolated setting that allows for psychological clashes and intense character discussions as the body count piles up, and even casts some doubt on who the killer might actually be. It also comes in with a group of relatively unsympathetic characters ripe for getting murdered. While it might be dated, it’s still an interesting look at the roots of a genre, and a gripping read from a masterful writer of suspense.