6 Terrifying Tales of Troubled Artists

Art can be cathartic. It can open doorways into parts of ourselves we don’t often engage with, be a safe space to explore ideas we wouldn’t normally think of, or just be a way to engage with the world or with the images in our head in a more creative venue. It can even be useful in critiquing a genre or art form, or showing some insight into what goes into the creative process. It should be no surprise that horror has a wealth of such titles, covering everything from haunted paintings and mad painters to haunted podcasters and mad sculptors and everything in between. But since horror about writers and horror about filmmakers would elicit their very own (and very long) lists, we’ve decided to focus with our six horror books about artists in the other disciplines, showing that it’s not just film and literature that can bring the terror when they want to. 

Such a Pretty Smile, Kristi DeMeester

DeMeester excels at horrifying images and uncomfortable situations (that one scene with the teeth jars in “A Song For Wounded Mouthsstill makes me squirm) and Such a Pretty Smile brings that to the fore with the story of Lila and her mother Caroline, both living in the shadow of a monstrous serial killer called the Cur who savagely attacks young women, biting them.

Caroline’s past connection to a similar series of murders left her a traumatized wreck who works through her pain by creating dark sculptures of mutilated women and sharp-toothed men, and by being hyperprotective of Lila. Lila’s attempts to have a normal life are uncomfortable enough, but knowing that her issues and struggles are borne of mental illness and trauma, that as the book takes its spirals into darkness it’s causing further and further negative effects, provides a shockingly realistic depiction of trauma and provides the book with another, deeper layer of disturbance.

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Drawing Blood, Poppy Z. Brite

When he was young, Trevor’s father was a renowned underground comic book artist. But all that changed after his family came to rest in the town of Missing Mile, NC. After a long battle with disintegrating mental health, Robert McGee finally bludgeons his family to death and hangs himself, leaving only Trevor alive. As an adult, Trevor, now a comic book artist himself, returns to the scene of his family’s brutal murder on the twentieth anniversary. Hooking up with a club owner named Kinsey and a computer hacker named Zach, Trevor delves into the mysteries behind his father’s violent crime, only to discover that the rental house might have a mind of its own, and his father’s fictional world of “Birdland” might be a little more real than anyone thinks. Brite strikes an excellent tone with lush, lavish descriptions playing against the surreal hauntings and upsetting amounts of danger, and quirky, colorful cast, making this one a unique look at trauma, creation, and mental illness. 

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Skin, Kathe Koja

As much a mood piece as a novel, Skin comes on weird and stays in a very specific groove. Told in a surrealistic style that conveys flashes of images and flips between past and present as needed for the story it tells, Skin sketches the partnership between Tess, a metal sculptor, and Bibi, a dancer with a body-mod fixation. The two form a performance art troupe (performance artists being, of course, the second most disturbing kind of artist after conceptual) known as the Surgeons of the Demolition, and they set the art world ablaze until a tragic and violent event sends them both spiraling into their own obsessions.

Skin is more about striking images, of the mood of a scene and the inner thoughts of characters than more “conventional” plotting, but somehow that doesn’t make it any less disturbing, with Tess’s metal sculpting sounding almost like visceral disembowelment and the narrative lingering uncomfortably on bodies and their various functions in ways that sound familiar but wholly alien. Skin might not be conventional, but it’s still every bit a fascinating, hypnotic horror novel. 

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Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

In order to break out of a creative rut and get some distance from the death of their former singer, the English psych-folk band Windhollow Faire decides to record their next album at a crumbling country manor named Wylding Hall. Wylding Hall, the resulting album, becomes Windhollow Faire’s magnum opus, but leaves the band irreparably shaken and scarred by what happened. Years later, a documentary team seeks out the band members and their manager to discover the truth behind Wylding Hall‘s troubled production.

Playing out like a folk horror-influenced riff on Please Kill Me, where each unreliable narrator has their own distinct voice, Hand’s book clearly understands both the unique strain of English folk horror and exactly how troubled production on albums can get, especially when isolated. As Wylding Hall‘s narrators ramp up to what horrible thing happened at the manor, it feels real enough to unsettle, just authentic enough to make you wonder. 

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Diary, Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk has always been an odd writer, and his stab at folk and gothic horror is no less odd. Misty Wilmot is writing a coma diary for her husband, Peter. Peter was found in his car, the victim of an attempted suicide. As Peter lies in a hospital bed, strange things start happening to Misty and her family. People who contracted Peter to work on their houses keep calling up to ask about missing rooms, only to discover them hidden and scrawled with ominous messages about murders. Misty finds out newer and more hidden things about her husband and in-laws. A terrorist group in her island community is attacking mainlanders. Dead people keep popping up alive. And Misty, a former artist, starts painting again, only to find she might be the reincarnated spirit of other artists from Waytansea Island.

Palahniuk’s twisted sense of humor adds an interesting class-warfare aspect to the usual conspiracies and rituals of the genre, and as Misty fights to maintain her own agency, the class stratification and cynical sense of humor just make everything all the more disturbing.

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Shockadelica, Jon O’Bergh

Two horror podcasters–drag performer Kendall and artist Jenna–think they’ve stumbled on to their next episode when their neighbor hears strange noises in her apartment. Investigating their building’s history as a potential haunted site, Kendall and Jenna stumble on a number of unusual characters and situations, including witches, hauntings, recurring nightmares, and a musician called “The Bone Man.” As they find themselves confronted by both the supernatural and their everyday struggles, they have to unravel the bizarre conspiracy around them before it’s too late.

But really, that’s just an excuse to hang out with a variety of weird and quirky characters throughout the book, and that is by no means a bad thing. O’Bergh gets you invested in the strange lives played out inside Kendall and Jenna’s apartment building, and the podcast transcripts sprinkled throughout only flesh out the cast and the main duo all the more. It moves at just the right pace, it’s wildly entertaining, and most of all, it’s fun.  

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