As I sat down to write, an image arose in my thoughts—Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 horror film, Halloween. Curtis’s character, Laurie Strode, is out on the street banging on the doors of neighbors’ houses, screaming for help. The children she is protecting have run screaming down the street. People who might otherwise be able to help are either not at home, or they are suspicious of pranksters, or they don’t want to get involved, but there are other people. There are police in Haddonfield, and neighbors, and a hospital. Yes, all of those things prove not very helpful to Laurie Strode, but all of that horror is unfolding in a community. Which is terrifying enough on its own…
But for me, that kind of fear pales in comparison to the terror of isolation—of being alone and far from any assistance when the unimaginable happens, whether that be the brutality of nature, a cruel human enemy, or some malignant evil with its sights set on you. These stories get under my skin, spark my worst imaginings, and inspire me to want to share that fear with readers. I love isolation horror in all mediums, but if you want to feel those same chills, here are thirteen must-reads, spanning 120 years—from classics to newer books that keep the terror alive!
To Build a Fire, Jack London
Many would doubtless argue that this classic story—taught in American schools for generations—is not horror, but I vehemently disagree. If you pitched it as a book or film today, “To Build a Fire” would land squarely within the genre. Or it would if you were referring to the familiar 1908 version of the story, in which an arrogant, nameless protagonist foolishly ignores warnings about the dangers of the Yukon’s icy temperatures. The man wants to join a group of prospectors at their camp and hikes out along a river in temps as cold as seventy-five degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero.
Accompanied by a wild dog, who is far more anxious about the cold than his human companion, the man falls through ice into the river and is forced to build a fire to warm up and dry off. When the fire eventually goes out, he must try to build another, but his efforts are fruitless and he slowly freezes to death, alone in the frozen wilderness, so far from home. In the end, readers learn that he died only a short distance from the camp, never aware that salvation was so near.
It’s a grim, classic tale of human versus nature, a lesson in hubris, and very much a horror story. The original 1902 version is a gentler story, in which the temperatures are not as severe and the protagonist suffers only frostbite before learning his lesson. Much of Jack London’s most famous work takes place in the Yukon, of course, and touches on themes of isolation, but I would not call them horror stories. (I could make an argument, however, the my favorite of London’s novels—The Sea Wolf—is very much an “isolation horror” story.)
At The Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft
Originally written in 1931 but rejected from its intended venue—Weird Tales—due to its length, this seminal Lovecraft tale was eventually serialized in Astounding Stories. Even now, for the average person, Antarctica is steeped in mystery, so it’s easy to imagine how distant and unknowable the continent seemed nearly a century ago when Lovecraft first conceived the tale of geologist William Dyer and his fateful expedition.
The story uses the classic “lone survivor” trope, with Dyer the only one to make it back from a terrifying journey to South Pole. In his attempt to dissuade the members of an upcoming expedition, he tells the story of his own journey, including the discovery of the ruins of an ancient civilization in the mountains of Antarctica, pre-human dark gods from beyond the stars, and a terrible evil that terrified even the denizens of this city. Though the story has never been adapted for film or television, legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has considered it his dream project for many years and still hopes to make it someday.
Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell
Possibly the most influential isolation horror story of all time, Campbell’s novella—first published in the August, 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction—has been adapted often, and imitated almost constantly. The tale focuses on a research team stationed at a remote Antarctic base in the middle of winter, when they are completely cut off from the outside world. In the constant darkness, in weather that will allow neither escape nor rescue, the scientists discover a twenty-million year old alien vessel in the ice. In trying to thaw it out, they accidentally blow it up instead, but manage to salvage what they believe is the corpse of an alien, frozen in ice. When the alien thaws, it turns out to be alive, and driven to kill and consume the men, able to perfectly mimic its victims and take on their memories and mannerisms.
What results is a horror story in which the monster is terrifying, but in which the mystery, paranoia, and suspicion are even more frightening. With no hope of rescue or escape, the knowledge that these men are alone, that they will freeze to death if exposed too long, that they can’t even trust one another, is devastating. It would be difficult to be any further away from the safety of home and still be on the planet Earth. (Which reminds me that, if it had originated as a prose story instead of a film, the 1979 classic Alien would certainly be on this list.)
“Who Goes There?” has, of course, been successfully adapted to film, two versions of which are among my favorite films of all time. Howard Hawks’ 1951 black-and-white The Thing from Another World overcomes a certain level of absurdity by leaning heavily on its isolation horror roots, while John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing—one of the greatest horror films ever made—relies on extraordinary practical effects to create a much more faithful adaptation of Campbell’s original tale. If you’ve only seen one of the films, or even if you’ve never seen either, this is a must-read.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
This slim novel, Jackson’s last, is often considered her masterpiece and centers on a different sort of isolation. Gothic novels and their close relations typically revolve around a strange family or a crumbling mansion estate. The list of early classics in that mold is nearly endless, from Northanger Abbey and The Castle of Otranto to Wuthering Heights and The Turn of the Screw. Such stories feature characters who may not be as distant from potential help as in stories set in more distant and dangerous climates, but who are no less isolated than if they were at the South Pole.
After the murder-by-poison of several family members, the Blackwood sisters—Merricat and Constance—live in their ancestral home with only their ailing uncle. The locals suspect that one of the three is guilty of murder, most likely Constance, who was at the dinner table the night the sugar bowl was full of poison, but who did not eat sugar. The short novel is a gothic mystery more than it is horror, but the horror of isolation, paranoia, suspicion, and murder is soaked into every page, and it stands as testimony that isolation is not always about location—that sometimes we are cut off from humanity by disdain, mistrust, and fear.
The Shining, Stephen King
Many tales of haunted places ratchet up the fear through various types of isolation—social, psychological, geographical—but King’s classic haunted-hotel novel uses all three. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic writer with a history of booze-fueled violence. His wife, Wendy, has no one in whom she can or would confide her worries and fears—about Jack, her marriage, or their son, Danny, whose imaginary friend seems a little too real and whose eerie habit of knowing things he can’t possibly know is something they just don’t talk about. That’s isolation enough for any story, but when Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel and the family is trapped for months, entirely cut off from the rest of the world by snow—in a building haunted by deeply malevolent ghosts—The Shining becomes one of the greatest isolation horror stories of all time. Though King has often expressed his dislike for the Stanley Kubrick-directed film version, its claustrophobia is at least equal to the novel’s.
White, Tim Lebbon
Modern horror master Lebbon has frequently written about post-apocalyptic landscapes, but the British Fantasy Award-winning novella White is the pinnacle of his isolation horror efforts. In a land where society has already crumbled and an unending, unrelenting snow has trapped a handful of survivors in a rambling mansion in Cornwall, tempers flare and conflict rages. No one can agree on what to do next. It isn’t just the snow, however—there are things in the snow, and they are hunting.
The Ruins, Scott Smith
Some refer to a subgenre of horror called “survival horror,” and I believe a huge percentage of works in the genre fall under that umbrella, including Scott Smith’s brilliant and utterly terrifying The Ruins. A quartet of twentysomething American tourists vacationing in Mexico are persuaded to help a young German man who is searching for his missing brother and soon find themselves deep in a remote part of the Yucatan jungle. On a vine-covered hill, they find the abandoned camp they were searching for, and much, much more. The less you know about the novel—or the film, if you go that route—the better.
The Terror, Dan Simmons
In real life, Sir John Franklin’s 1845 seafaring expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Franklin’s expedition became trapped in Arctic ice for years. Many were known to have died, while others vanished on the ice, never to be found. Simmons’ brilliant historical horror novel—and the TV miniseries adaptation—extrapolate from history to bring the crew starvation, cannibalism, paranoia, and worse, but Simmons also adds a monstrous supernatural presence, hunting men who are already trapped by ice and deadly cold, thousands of miles from help of any sort. It would be impossible to talk about isolation horror without referencing Simmons’ masterpiece.
Dark Matter, Michelle Paver
Isolation creeps up on you. Loneliness, paranoia, sorrow, and dread are all emotions that tend to start in small ways and build, so while each day might quite literally be more of the same, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels suffocating, threatening, even malevolent. That’s the beauty of Michelle Paver’s storytelling in Dark Matter. It’s 1937 and young Londoner Jack is in desperate need of paying work, so he accepts a job with an Arctic expedition. It’s meant to be a team, but one by one, the others depart, and soon enough Jack is on his own in a cabin in the frozen north—or is he? There’s nothing like total isolation in frozen climes to get a character feeling haunted, but Jack’s haunted in more ways than one.
Stranded, Bracken MacLeod
One of the hallmarks of great isolation horror is the presence of the unknown and unexplainable. In Stranded, MacLeod pays beautiful homage to the frozen, isolated terror of earlier works, including several of those I’ve already discussed—and he pulls it off beautifully. A crew of complex characters on board the Arctic Promise find themselves icebound and fogbound after an apocalyptic storm pushes them badly off course. Still trapped in ice, when the fog begins to clear, they discover another ship trapped in the distance—and soon learn that the ship itself, and the men on board, are perfect doppelgangers for the Arctic Promise and its crew. Paranoia and bitterness take hold in this bizarre and unsettling mystery.
The Hunger, Alma Katsu
I had the great good fortune to read The Hunger pre-publication. It’s a brilliant novel that combines so many of my favorite things—history, revisionist history, monsters, and isolation. Most people who have heard of the Donner Party know only that they were a group of settlers making their way west through the mountains, that they were trapped in a deadly storm, and that they resorted to cannibalism to survive. That would be isolation horror aplenty, but Katsu makes much more of the story. Katsu delves deeply into the settlers, creating memorable characters, all-too-human peril and betrayal, and then pits them against not only the elements but against a supernatural threat that stalks the party and preys on them, one by one. It’s brilliant and grim, and the knowledge that they will never reach help in time amplifies the terror.
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
A chilling modern gothic that gets deeply beneath the skin, Moreno-Garcia’s breakout hit, Mexican Gothic, echoes the isolation of classics like the above-mentioned We Have Always Lived in the Castle. When glamorous city girl Noemí receives a mysterious plea for help from her newly-married cousin, she travels to the other woman’s isolated home in the Mexican countryside. Far from home or help, surrounded by empty rooms and sinister mystery, Noemi can only rely on herself—if she can trust herself to be reliable. The lovely gothic setup of the novel does not prepare readers for just how deep into weirdness the novel descends, but by then we—like Noemí—are trapped in this story. A different brand of isolation, but there’s no more help here than in stories set in polar climes or deep caves.
All the White Spaces, Ally Wilkes
Following in the footsteps of Lovecraft, Simmons, Campbell, and MacLeod, author Ally Wilkes gives her own unique and contemporary spin to the Antarctic isolation horror story. In the wake of their deaths during the First World War, young Jonathan Morgan grieves for his two older brothers—and sets out to fulfill the dream they all shared, taking part in a nautical expedition to Antarctica. Jonathan’s journey is complicated by grief, his own hero worship for the expedition’s leader, and the fear that his shipmates will discover his secret—that until he fled his family estate, he had lived not as the youngest Morgan brother, but as their sister. Finally free to be the man he’s always yearned to be, Jonathan finds himself lured, like the rest of the crew, to the Antarctic winter shore, by a power he cannot explain—but which wears the faces of their loved ones, and which begins to prey on them, one by one.
There are so many wonderful examples of isolation horror on the bookshelves out there, but consider these thirteen—from classic to contemporary—a taster set to get you started, and to give you some insight into the stories that have inspired so many of my own works over the years. Isolation is one of the building blocks of some of the greatest horror stories ever written, because it’s one of the things we fear the most. So when you’re headed out to the edge of the world… bring a friend!
Road of Bones, Christopher Golden
An American documentarian travels a haunted highway across the frozen tundra of Siberia in New York Times bestselling author Christopher Golden’s Road of Bones, a “tightly wound, atmospheric, and creepy as hell” (Stephen King) supernatural thriller.