Love is a cruel, terrible thing. Horrifying, really. Fiction backs me up on this. Take, for example, the quote I used in my own wedding vows, taken from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman:
“Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.”
As Valentine’s Day nears, it’s the perfect time for a book that opens your chest and opens up your heart — a book that explores the terrible, awful, difficult parts of love and relationships. Read on for novels tinged with horror that delve into the troubled matters of the heart.
The Ghost Bride, Yangsze Choo
Marriage is difficult, even more so when you’re betrothed to a dead man. Historical fiction melds with supernatural folklore (and a dollop of whodunit) in The Ghost Bride, set in colonial Malaya. At its center is the unfortunately titular bride-to-be, Li Lan, whose once comfortable family has fallen on hard times. A visit from the fabulously wealthy Lim family yields a proposition: if Li Lan consents to a spirit marriage with the family’s recently deceased son, Lim Tian Ching, her fortunes will be secured. Hounded by Tian Ching in her dreams, Li Lan eventually finds herself in the land of the dead where she must wrestle with the demons and hungry ghosts of the Chinese afterlife — not to mention a mysterious, alluring stranger.
While the novel explores its supernatural elements in a more literary vein, the recent Netflix adaptation leans more heavily into both the horror and comedy present in its source material.
Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink
Based on the podcast of the same name, Alice Isn’t Dead follows Keisha Taylor as she crisscrosses the United States in her big rig. Keisha’s wife, Alice, vanished while working for the self-same trucking company. Now, she retraces Alice’s steps from the cab of her truck, driving through a surreal landscape and falling ever farther into a shadowy otherworldly conspiracy. Even with this haunted expanse of America as its canvas, the story still manages to feel claustrophobic, drawing you into the head and horror of Keisha, a woman alienated from the life she once lived and loved. There are monsters in this book, but none are quite as startling as the feeling of mourning someone who’s gone but still very much present. (But don’t get me wrong: they’re incredibly creepy.)
Unbury Carol, Josh Malerman
What’s worse than suffering from a condition that sends you into periodic, corpse-like comas? Being married to someone willing to exploit it. That’s the case for Carol in this dark, wild western. Carol’s abusive husband Dwight is one of the few who know about her condition; he decides to capitalize on one of his wife’s spells by burying her alive. Her hope for survival lies in the only other person who knows her secret: her former flame, the outlaw James Moxie. Moxie has tried to put his violent past behind him, but when he learns of Carol’s supposed death, he rides out for rescue on the Trail, stalked by horrors of this world and the next. The Weird West setting is gripping. So too are the characters who populate it, including Carol. She may look dead to the outside world, but she’s very much alive, narrating from a mind trapped in a dark place she calls Howltown.
The Deep, Alma Katsu
Looking to treat yourself instead of someone else this Valentine’s? Pre-order this little beauty from Katsu, who turns her supernaturally inclined eye from The Hunger’s Donner Party to a different tragedy: the sinking of the Titanic. In 1916, Annie Hebbley is summoned from her self-imposed solitary existence at a British asylum to join the crew of the ship Britannic. Annie’s uniquely qualified to work on the ocean liner-turned-hospital ship: she was a crew member on the Titanic. Aboard the Britannic, she encounters a figure from her time on the Titanic, and her memories of that ill-fated voyage tell their own story of ghosts, obsession, romance, and tragedy. Recalling a deadly presence that stalked the decks of the Titanic, the plot itself is plenty eerie, but real-life events and painstakingly researched details give the story its ever-present sense of dread.