Horror is personal. Not just in the way someone’s personal fears inform their tastes in horror, or even exploring those fears in their writing (which is why Big Steve King writes so often about spiders), but in that everyone’s journeys to the dark side, and our tastes, what we seek out, are all incredibly personal. So it stands to reason that authors will explore this, and explore horror, through their own personal relationships with fear as well. In the following six books, you’ll find film criticism essays, explorations of folklore, and a deeply personal touch that could only come through a relationship with horror. While the stories within might not always be pleasant, they are personal, true, and are all excellent reads borne from a very, very personal place.
Blue Light of the Screen, Claire Cronin
One part Danse Macabre, one part Nightmare Movies, and one part Sea Monkeys: A Memory Book, Cronin’s memoir-cum-horror critique follows the author as she works backwards and forwards through her relationship with horror fiction, being both haunted by it and enthralled by it. As she works through her memories, she ends each section with a brief capsule description of a horror movie that fits with the general tone of the section, and weaves in both investigations of horror and personal anecdotes that slowly build a theme.
Better still, the book flips backwards and forwards in an associative pattern much like actual memories, layering its tangents and beats to create a more complete picture. The effect is incredibly eerie, the kind of lingering atmosphere one might find in a proper ghost story, or in a dark hallway when someone accidentally leaves the TV on an empty channel one night, somehow enthralling and unnerving at the same time, and is probably one of the most accessible works of horror criticism out there.
The Man on the Ceiling, Melanie Rasnic Tem and Steve Tem
The Tems’ novel, expanded from a short novella told in alternating chapters, is somewhat of an odd one. Beginning with the sinister sight of a shadow person sliding across the ceiling, it continues recounting the Tem family’s various highs, lows, and fears through a kind of magical-realist lens, with things like memory loss appearing as places and people literally vanishing from existence, encounters with ghosts and shadowy serpentine ceiling-demons augmenting the fear of death, the fear of life being swallowed up piece by piece by the man on the ceiling, and psychic conversations with those who aren’t there.
It’s a beautiful novel, even if it gets sad and occasionally frightening, and serves as a messy family portrait by two writers baring their fears and insecurities in a way that makes them relatable, terrifying, touching, and most of all true.
In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s never been one to do things in a straightforward way, and her memoir about an abusive relationship is no different. In quick vignettes similar to Exercises in Style, she lays out the story of the relationship, her feelings about it, the darkening undercurrents of it, and the way her history informs her current relationship. Along the way, Machado manages to tie the story of her relationship into a larger work involving folklore, discussions of time travel, the idea of home as both safe space and prison, gender, and numerous other areas, using it to discuss both larger ideas and using those larger ideas to better contextualize what has happened to her.
It’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, as the wrenching events on the page and the sinister subtext of the abusive partner (here referred to as “the woman from the dream house”) that explodes into text in an almost brutal fashion are deeply uncomfortable. But the unusual structure of the book and Machado’s talent for creating images and moments (hair dye swirling down the drain, thunder that sounds like a gunshot, The Woman saying something and sounding like she’s not talking to anyone in the room) make In The Dream House an experience that will haunt you, but will also grant you more understanding of how people hurt, and how they hurt others.
Ghostland, Edward Parnell
A strange book that serves as a travelogue, a crash course in gothic fiction history, a book about odd encounters with the spiritual, and a personal memoir, Ghostland is kind of an absolute trip. While it might not have the creeping liminal feel of Blue Light of the Screen, it’s a rather close readalike, with Parnell beginning by describing the ghost fiction of his youth, moving forward through such classics as M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
Between the snapshots of the English countryside, the in-depth exploration of England’s history with ghost fiction (already a rich vein), and the way Parnell slowly brings in his family by describing their personal connection to the books, Ghostland is an interesting (if melancholy) read, a book that manages to match the tone of the gothic horrors it discusses as it takes readers on a walking and driving tour through its dark paths. It’s a fascinating and heartfelt love letter to a ghost fascination I’m sure most of this site’s readers can identify with, and if you’ve ever felt yourself getting nostalgic for scary stories, this is one to look up.
Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, Leila Taylor
Taylor’s investigation into the American Gothic’s deep ties to Black history begins with her own brush with Goth as she was growing up in Detroit and the clash of identity she felt as a Black Goth. But that’s merely a jumping-off point for a history of American horror and its relationship to the horrifying and atrocity-riddled history we know all too well, dissecting authors and tropes with ease and a practiced critical eye.
As Taylor tracks the various strains of American gothic–the fear borne of anxiety and guilt found in Poe and Morrison, the recurring motifs that hearken back to slavery, or how the “Indian burial ground” trope sticks around because this country is literally built on the bodies of the oppressed and slaughtered–she weaves in her own personal anecdotes, and how all of this impacts her own identity and the current political climate. It’s an exhaustive, extensive work, one that ensures the reader can’t disengage, can’t disentangle the various threads Taylor’s woven together, and an important work about horror and culture that should resonate for years to come.
Be Scared of Everything, Peter Counter
On his website Everything is Scary, Peter Counter writes thoughtful and heartfelt essays on horror in all its various forms, combining criticism, horrific images, some very deep dives into history and culture, and his own very personal touch. The result is authoritative, enthusiastic, and insightful commentary on all the things that terrify us, and equally important, why they terrify us.
Be Scared of Everything is a collection of his writings, covering his family’s relationship with his mother’s Ouija board, the legacy of Lovecraft, essays on his personal relationship with trauma and horror, misanthropy in cosmic horror, and numerous other topics. Counter’s memoir-focused work is the clear standout here, though, his essays unflinching and accessible, his voice ringing out when he talks about his family and his personal life. The collection as a whole is an excellent way to get acquainted with an incredible voice in horror, one who manages to be keen, well-read, conscientious, and heartfelt all at once.