Bright Days, Dark Fiction: 5 Horror Reads for Summer

Is this summer too hot for you? Have you grown weary of sunshine and the monotony of green leaves and whatever ubiquitous pop song that is that’s drifting from the open windows of passing cars? Do you resent the fact that the term “beach reads” means books that are frivolous, light, and somehow more fun than quality novels about werewolves, societal collapse, and suicide?

Here is a collection of five books perfect for the kind of person who enjoys being chilled, who’s counting down the days until Halloween. But don’t worry, none are too gloomy. Why, some even have sun-baked California hills and sweeping desert vistas as a backdrop for sexy scorpion-women and homicidal cult leaders.

The Night Marchers, Daniel Braum

Another review roundup, another season filled with single-author story collections. Horror continues to make a big impact in short bursts and this debut collection from Braum is well-suited to scare up some new readers. Braum has a knack for describing the indescribable in extraordinarily accessible language. No mean feat when one is relating stories of extra-dimensional creatures and ancient, pissed-off gods. The plight of the underrepresented features prominently in a number of stories, like the title story (conquered gods of Hawaii,) “The Ghost Dance” (Native American spirits,) and “The Green Man of Punta Cabre” (ancient gods of Guatemala). The last story in particular was full of pathos as a missionary struggles to understand the true gods of his flock, and the ugly exploitation they suffer at the hands of civil war and invading corporation’s greed.

In truth, Braum’s characters often stood out to me more than the plots themselves, particularly with regards to the stories originally published in Cemetery Dance. There was a distinct on-the-nose tone in those stories that seemed less apparent in stories published elsewhere, or later in Braum’s career. My favorites were the desert horror of “The Moon and the Mesa” and the final story, one original to this collection, “The Sphinx of Cropsey Avenue.” A melancholy surrealist piece about riddles, misfortune, and familial duty finds a man, his fortune-telling girlfriend, and her son all linked as a found family, inextricably connected to a larger universal mystery steeped in ambivalence. It left me, overall, with a favorable impression of The Night Marchers and for Braum’s honed talent.

Note: The print edition of The Night Marchers also includes an additional, enjoyable story about a young girl at a sinister tailgating party. I’d pick that printing.

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The Girls, Emma Cline

Why am I including a bestselling literary novel with absolutely no genre element in this roundup? Because it was probably the most harrowing and exquisitely-written book I’ll read this year and it’d be a shame if fans of dark fiction dismissed it out of hand because hipster celebs like Lena Dunham are raving about it. A middle-aged introverted woman named Evie looks back on the most pivotal time of her life—San Francisco, 1969. At fourteen, Evie is already aware of the easy hypocrisy of adults and the intolerable safety of her suburban childhood sphere. Craving something more, she immediately crosses orbits with a group of rebellious girls who are “sleek and thoughtless like sharks breaching the water.” Infatuated with the raven-haired queen bee Suzanne, Evie is pulled into a coming of age story that ends, as we know right from the start, in a notorious blood-soaked night that will challenge Evie’s idea of herself forever.

A fictionalized retelling of the Tate-LaBianca murders from the perspective of Charles Manson’s (here thinly-veiled as a failed singer named Russell) infamous teen “girls” provides a compelling hook. I feel that many readers drawn to the darker leanings in pop culture will recognize in Evie something of themselves and may or may not have contemplated what culpability means. We know girls like this—Evie who is insecure and “just learning how to be looked at” by men and Suzanne who is compelled to push every boundary, like a tongue prodding a sore tooth. So much more than Mean Girls-via-Manson, Cline’s prose is flat-out stunning, with observations that feel like a knife’s twist. Yet I would have loved to have seen more exploration of why other people joined Russell’s cult and why Cline, as the New York Times recently observed, glossed over the uglier aspects of the Family’s ingrained racism and misogyny. But Russell is incidental; it’s Suzanne who really mesmerizes Evie. What would Evie do for love? The answer, as you can guess, is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.

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I Am Providence, Nick Mamatas

In a season overflowing with Lovecraft-related anthologies (The Mammoth Book of CthulhuAutumn Cthulhu, John Shirley’s Lovecraft Alive! collection, etc.) there’s still enough room for this slim novel that brings a considerable bit of humor to the One True Mythos. Colleen Danzig is a newbie author attending the Summer Tentacular convention in Providence for the first time. She’s far out of her depth in a hotel full of “[a] veritable ‘Who’s that?’ of horror.” (Probably one of my favorite lines of dialogue in some time.) She becomes even more put-out when her roommate, an annoying, unpopular writer named Panossian, turns up with his face peeled off and his copy of a rare Lovecraft book bound in human flesh gone missing.

The central murder mystery is enjoyable enough, but secondary to the laugh-out-loud skewering of convention culture, complete with mansplaining panelists, petty writer feuds in the dealer’s room, and the distinct odor of unwashed socially awkward nerds living in close proximity for a weekend celebrating their favorite (admittedly racist, overwrought) author. Mamatas doesn’t treat Lovecraft like a sacred cow and the ugly aspects of his worldview don’t get glossed over. Subverting Lovecraft is newly popular—see: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. But here it’s also used as a vehicle to look at the genre community’s own complicity in casual racism and sexism. It’s not done without some considerable love, too.

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Singing with All My Skin and Bone, Sunny Moraine

Sunny Moraine is another author whose debut collection was released earlier this summer. Their fiction has appeared in ShimmerNightmare, and Lightspeed, which originally published “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow,” a pointed retelling of The Little Mermaid that was reprinted in The Year’s Best Weird Volume 2. Sharp is an apt descriptor for Moraine’s prose, too, showcased here in nineteen cleverly-crafted stories of dark, dark fantasy and science fiction.

“The line between truth and story is so thin,” Baba Yaga tells a miner carrying more than secrets from his old country in “Across the Seam.” Singing With All My Skin and Bone is a catalogue of small, sometimes terrible, sometimes transcendent, truths couched in ambitious genre-hopping fiction. While not every experiment succeeded for me—I wasn’t as emotionally invested in stories about fucking a drone or being liquid—I loved the flare of anger running through so many of these tales, the injustice in worlds like and not like our own, the prison of mortality. Moraine has a fantastic ear for a story’s rhythm, knowing how to hypnotize with their distinctive voice.

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Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt

Wehunt has been writing for a number of years, but I hadn’t been aware of him until a strong story (“A Discrete Music”) in the recent Shirley Jackson Award-winning Aickman’s Heirs anthology. This, Wehunt’s first collection, was getting some considerable buzz online at the time of release, so I was happy to take a chance on it and happier still to find the praise wasn’t too hyperbolic. Wehunt’s fiction straddles the line between straight-up horror and the murkier territory of the Weird with considerable skill.

Found within the pages are people tormented by ghosts, by texts that breed madness (“Onanon”,) and mountains of blood and shadow (“Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness.”) The title story is a nail-biter about a trucker facing off against a creeping nothingness threatening to engulf him, and the ache and buzz of that uncertain dark fate hums in one’s brain long after the story’s finished. Loss is a prominent theme, from the suicide survivor in the very bleak “The Inconsolable” to the falling girls in “Your Share Will Be Deducted From Paradise.” This is a wonderful collection of distinctly North American terrors, a map of a country filled with grieving, confused, flawed psyches not to be missed.

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Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Tor.com


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