Horror is an international concept.
Every community in every country on every corner of the Earth learns to be scared of something, whether it’s shadow people, swamps, forests, abandoned houses, or even that someone will eventually legislate your death. It’s one of the few things that unifies us as a species–everyone has something they’re scared of. Horror from other countries is something people should read more, too. Not only does it give you an insight into cultures you might not experience otherwise, it can allow for viewpoints outside your own, voices and perspectives not normally heard through the normal channels, and grant access to writing methods and literary traditions outside what might be considered “the norm.”
There’s some amazing horror out there that’s recently been translated into English, so we thought we’d offer a starter selection of nine titles from around the world to start you off right.
China Dream, Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew)
In a surrealistic fever dream reminiscent of Brazil, Ma tells of the breakdown and fall from grace of another Ma, Ma Daode. Tasked with inventing “a new dream for China,” Ma Daode scrambles through a series of public events and political maneuvers, each one more disastrous than the last, as trying to engage with China’s future reminds him of his role in a violent atrocity during the Cultural Revolution. Ma Jian approaches the subject of a corrupt bureaucrat trying to whitewash his country’s horrifying past with a certain grotesque humor and horror, whether it’s the hostesses wearing Red Guard uniforms, the aging couples being pushed through a “golden anniversary ceremony,” or the protagonist visiting a witch for “amnesia soup” to erase his guilt. The resulting bad trip lingers long enough to make its point, but remains brief enough not to revel in the misery of its protagonist.
The Night, Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (translated by Noel Hénandéz Gonzalez and Daniel Hahn)
A series of blackouts rock the city of Caracas, prompting mysterious events, strange dreams, and even stranger conversations between a group of artists, writers, and general eccentrics. Fiction and reality collide, storylines flip between past and present, and each narrator presents their unique perspective on events, whether it’s the writer obsessed with bringing new life to urban gothic novels and detective fiction, the reclusive ad executive frightened by motorcycles, or the curious psychiatrist who occasionally consults on criminal psychology cases.
The book has an offbeat feel to it even when discussing nastier elements of the plot, with a quick wit weaving in and out of its philosophical discussions on serial murder and literary prize winners. Reading this novel feels like hanging around with the wittiest people you know at 2 AM and talking about whatever comes to mind. While the plot might be shaggy in places, it’s well worth spending time with The Night‘s cast of authors and weirdos as the book reveals its bizarre take on life in Caracas.
Goth, Otsuichi (translated by Andrew Cunningham and Jocelyne Allen)
An incredibly grim take on the “teen sleuth” genre, Goth follows two maladjusted Japanese high school students–the sociopathic narrator and a mysterious young woman named Morino–as they investigate serial murderers in their small city, a city that acts as a nexus for horrible killers. But this isn’t a YA version of Criminal Minds. Rather than investigate hoping to bring the serial killers to justice, the two just want to follow their obsessions and meet like-minded people (those like-minded people being the sort who would commit horrible and violent murders).
It’s altogether an odd book, but one that captures the alienation, weirdness, and darkness of being considered “abnormal,” and one with a strong, strange, yet very genuine relationship between its two protagonists. If you can get past the grimness, it’s a weirdly touching read at times, a moody and violent mosaic novel with a sense of empathy and heart.
Echo, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (translated by Moshe Gilula)
Sam’s travel journalist boyfriend Nick goes on a two-person mountaineering expedition to an ominous European mountain. He comes back with his head in pieces, half-awake in a medically induced coma, claiming what happened to him wasn’t an accident. What Nick says is first dismissed as PTSD, but Sam is sure there’s something more to it, especially as people who see under Nick’s bandages tend to run away screaming for reasons other than his horrible disfigurement. Something very strange happened to Nick and his friend Augustin on that mountain, and something very strange and very dangerous has come back with Nick.
Heuvelt shows off an impressive knowledge of gothic fiction, but the true tension and discomfort in the novel come from his certainty that there are worse things than death–the things you and your loved ones have to live through regardless. It’s a refinement from his work in Hex, blending the gothic horror and depictions of awful events with much more emotional intimacy, and that makes it somehow even nastier.
Trolls, Stefan Spjut (translated by Agnes Broome)
A decade after her harrowing confrontation with a horrifying cult leader, Susso Myren lives an isolated existence. But all that changes when Lennart, the cult leader, breaks out of a mental hospital and comes looking for the woman who slipped her grasp. All around, people have unusual encounters with animals, ranging from a squirrel who seems obsessed with Susso to a strange wolf that seems sapient. Slowly, a conflict emerges between the cult, Susso’s family and friends, and the strange shapeshifters of the forest, monstrous creatures able to take the forms of animals to hide among humans.
It’s a book full of twisted violence and dark humor, but Spjut’s greatest strength isn’t how surreal everything is. Instead, it’s the way he depicts trauma and the lasting scars of what happens to the people swept up in tragedy, from the researcher who’s losing his mind due to his memory being edited, to Susso herself as she attempts to rebuild her life far away from Lennart.
Girls Against God, Jenny Hval (translated by Marjam Idriss)
In Norway, a woman researches a film script based on her country’s history with black metal. This in turn unlocks her own memories of black metal, right-wing Christian repression, and connections with her country’s history of folk horror, among other things. The narrator forms a band with several other women wishing to rebel against the oppression they feel, leading them to create their own weird ritual magic, blending art and fiction and the occult.
Against this backdrop is Hval’s own exploration of black metal, Norwegian history, social ills, art, music, the ideas of band as ritual and ritual group, and the links–both hidden and otherwise–between those things. Hval’s work is abstract, flipping back and forth between critical discussion and goth-feminist narrative, but it’s always striking, with the trio of protagonists drowning everyone in “pus porridge” from thousands of junk emails and the narrator writing herself and her bandmates into the past.
Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica (translated by Sarah Moses)
A deadly virus sweeps the world, carried by animals and fatal to humans. Eventually, this renders all animal meat inedible. In response, the government enacts “the transition,” using captive humans as a meat supply, branding the butchered people “special meat.” Marcos, a middleman for a slaughterhouse, is used to his day to day routine in this world, purchasing “heads” and “lots” for his skin-fetishist boss and then making sure they’re delivered to the slaughter.
When he’s given a “first generation pure,” a woman from his least favorite farmer’s private stock, he’s unable to slaughter her for food, instead allowing her to live as a pet, and possibly as more. While the story alone is upsetting enough, the true horror lies in how the book rewires your brain, getting you to think in terms of the dystopia where humans are food simply by changing the words. It detaches you, the way Marcos and everyone else in the story is detached. It’s terrifying, powerful, and intense in a way that few books manage.
I Remember You, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (translated by Philip Roughton)
Three friends go to a nearly deserted town on the coast of Iceland to fix up a house together, partly out of respect for their friend’s deceased husband and his dream of owning the place. While they’re there, strange incidents of vandalism and messages from beyond the grave start appearing in a nearby city, where a doctor is trying to move on from the loss of his son. As ghostly events start happening at the house, the two stories slowly converge, the tension tightening chapter by chapter until eventually all is revealed. I Remember You is a classic kind of ghost story, the kind with mysteries, an old dark house, a mysterious death, and a chilly atmosphere adding just enough foreboding to tie the whole thing together.
The Tenant, Roland Topor (translated by Francis K. Price)
A solid piece of late ’60s Euro-horror, The Tenant is the paranoid tale of Trelkovsky, a young, quiet, and amiable bachelor who moves into an apartment where the previous tenant jumped screaming out the window. Or at least, that’s the way things seem to start. Trelkovsky starts to act in odd ways, beginning with him behaving oddly and inappropriately upon visiting the previous tenant in the hospital and having frequent digressions about sex and the existential nature of moving from one apartment to the other.
The tenants seem strangely hostile, too, telling him to keep the noise down when he has a housewarming party, or the weirdly aggressive way a woman flirts with him. But it’s not clear how reliable Trelkovsky is as a narrator, and how much of the neighbors’ machinations and conspiracies are in his head, offering up an oddly upsetting piece of fiction about the horrors of alienation and living in close proximity with a building full of strangers.