Jobs From Hell: Five Works Of Horror About The Horror Of Work

One of the most important questions for any horror novel is its protagonist’s motivation––why do they stick around when the going gets ghostly or gruesome? The potential answers are near-infinite in variety; love, duty, curiosity, and good old denial are all classics. 

But one motivation is often overlooked, despite being the reason for how most of us spend most of our waking hours. Sometimes, dealing with the supernatural is less horrifying than the possibility of losing your job, especially in today’s economy.

It’s one thing if you’re a ghost hunter, or a priest who does exorcisms, or a werewolf cop––someone who might arguably have taken the job knowing what they’re getting into. What about the rest of us working stiffs? Here are five great books about people whose jobs unexpectedly turned out to be from Hell:

The Nightly Disease, Max Booth III

Is there anything worse than second shift?  The answer turns out to be yes for Isaac, hotel night auditor and the main character (you wouldn’t exactly say hero) of this novel. Sleep deprivation and misanthropy drive him into a web of disasters than run from the mundane (clogged toilets) to the real and deadly (criminal conspiracy) to the surreal, but maybe no less deadly (owls?). There’s a streak of humor in this twisty novel as dark as the Texas night outside the hotel, and as full of hidden talons. 

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“The Visible Filth,” Nathan Ballingrud

Being a good bartender is about so much more than serving drinks. You keep the peace, you hear people’s woes, you entertain. And, once in a while, you find a lost phone and try to return it to its owner. This is where things go wrong for Will, who works behind the bar at a New Orleans dive. The cell phone he picks up after a vicious brawl in his establishment shows him a video that can’t be unseen. A video that will change him and the people around him in ways they can’t predict until it’s too late. This novella is haunting; body horror and mind horror, too.

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 The Bone Key, Sarah Monette

Unlike Isaac and Will, Kyle Murchison Booth is more suited to non-customer-facing roles. He’s morbidly introverted and anxious, and it’s hard to imagine him in any job other than the one he has: museum archivist. But as anyone who has read their M. R. James knows, dealing in antiquities is a first-class way to end up haunted. It doesn’t help that Booth has a supernatural heritage of his own, but his job causes the bulk of the trouble. This collection of linked short stories is ideal for fans of classic ghost fiction.

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 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Rock star is a career with a lot of potential downsides, as aging rock stars are among the first to tell you. The former members of British folk act Windhollow Faire know all about it––the surviving members, that is. Decades ago they went to a decaying rural manor house to work on their second album, and not all of them came back. Now they’re being interviewed about that time and trying to piece together what happened. The weirdness here is subtle but no less disturbing for that.

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The Route Of Ice And Salt, José Luis Zárate

You can’t exactly walk off the job when you’re at sea, but even if he could, the unnamed protagonist of The Route Of Ice And Salt probably wouldn’t. The captain of a merchant vessel, his job is his life and he both loves and fears his men. But there’s a lot more to fear on this particular voyage, because the ship is the Demeter and the cargo is fifty crates full of Transylvanian soil. Read my earlier review of this Mexican vampire classic to find out more.

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One thought on “Jobs From Hell: Five Works Of Horror About The Horror Of Work

  1. Good to see the Monette mentioned. It’s an entertaining and sometimes funny story collection. You could also have mentioned the somewhat extreme, MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE, a collection from Thomas Ligotti.

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