Well, here we go, fresh into another year — largely confined to our homes. Wherever you’ve been weathering this pandemic, it’s likely that you’re tired of the place you’re in. I am. I hate everything now, even the things I like.
But we still can travel — through books. So we’re starting a new series to explore these wide and weird United States through horror books set in each and every state (as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.).
We’ll march from sea to shining sea in alphabetical order, which means this first installment features one book set in each state from Alabama to Georgia. Stay tuned for the rest.
Blackwater, Michael McDowell
McDowell’s six-volume Blackwater saga is set in tiny Perdido, Alabama, where over the course of 50 years or so, you become familiar with the wealthy Caskey family. Befitting its origins as a serialized paperback original, the Blackwater books are pulpy, supernatural Southern Gothic yarns that arc into a generational family epic. There is some room for improvement on how the Blackwater books handle racial prejudice, but for stories about the South written by a white man in the ‘80s, things could be far, far worse.
Swift to Chase, Laird Barron
Barron often mines his Alaskan past for horror potential, and his fourth short story collection is no exception. These 12 Alaska-set stories (most of which were previously published as standalones) are strangely interconnected in unusual ways; it’s almost like a cosmic horror version of a mosaic novel like Yōko Ogawa’s Revenge. Weird, gritty, and unafraid to go in absolutely any direction, the selections here make up a horror feast.
The Revelation, Bentley Little
Little is a prolific horror writer, churning out just about one book per year over the last three decades. This one, his first, is set in Randall, Arizona, the standard small town that is just rife with strange happenings. This book is utterly bizarre, stuffed full with all manner of apocalyptic horror tropes, including, of course, the traveling preacher extolling the End Times. Also, I’m not exactly sure how to phrase it, but a content warning does seem necessary for some plot developments with pregnancy and fetuses.
The Boatman’s Daughter, Andy Davidson
The alphabet of the United States means you’ll be rewarded with much Southern Gothic here in the early states. There’s a dreamy (and nightmarish) magic that hangs like a miasma over the Arkansas bayou that Miranda Crabtree traverses. To eke out a living, she smuggles drugs up and down the river, but the criminals she works for are far from the most sordid or terrifying forces that dog this stretch of water. All manner of things strange and grotesque haunt this place, and Miranda’s past and present.
The Hunger, Alma Katsu
The Donner-Reed Party does not need extra oomph to be horrifying. But as is her custom, Katsu finds a way to ratchet up the terror in the Sierra Nevada mountains by introducing new supernatural enemies. Most of us are familiar with the grisly fate of these settlers trapped by treacherous conditions and undone by starvation, but The Hunger asks us to imagine an evil presence lurking behind the party every step of the way.
The Shining, Stephen King
So maybe it’s the obvious pick, but it’s obvious for a reason: it’s good. The King classic is also a perfect winter read, with the snowy environs of the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains. I doubt you need me to sell you on the story or inform you of the particular travails of the Torrance family. But if your only experience with The Shining is Jack Nicholson going to town with that chainsaw, give the original story — with its oft-imitated take on the haunted house — a shot.
Harvest Home, Thomas Tryon
Folk horror, thy name is Cornwall Coombe. In this ‘70s classic, the Constantine family leaves the big city to move that Connecticut hamlet, charmed by its quaint commitment to traditional agrarian life. But the “old ways” have their dark side, as we all know and the Constantines discover. Something more sinister lurks underneath the town’s idyllic surface, something to do with the “Harvest Home” ritual. If Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is your horror speed, pick this one up.
Hawkes Harbor, S.E. Hinton
The author of The Outsiders wrote a horror novel? Indeed, dear reader, indeed. Far from the Tulsa, Oklahoma, streets of Hinton’s best-known work, Hawkes Harbor plants its story in a seaside Delaware town. There are some serious Dark Shadows overtones to this story of orphaned Jamie Sommers who finds an unusual benefactor in the mysterious Grenville Hawkes. The vampirishness here, though, is more subdued and far less goofy in tone.
Ghost Summer, Tananarive Due
This short story collection is split into four sections, covering a wide range of horror tropes and types. But the first section contains three stories set in Gracetown, Florida, which is one of those small towns in horror novels that you should neither visit nor live in. You know the type — one of those towns where you don’t ask too many questions, because if you do, you end up seeing ghosts or swimming in the wrong haunted lake. No two stories manage to be exactly alike, but there is a perfect swampy spookiness that pervades each.
Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark
This darkly funny novella is one of the latest examples of the growing movement to reclaim from Lovecraftian horror from Lovecraft’s own racism. Here, early 20th-century American racism is given literal monstrous form, with a Ku Klux Klan made up of and controlled by various Eldritch horrors and true sorcery wielded by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. It’s wildly satisfying (even if it feels tragically timely) to watch Maryse Boudreaux and her compatriots wield (also literal) Black Girl Magic to combat these terrors.
Looking for more? Our next group of states is coming soon, so stay tuned!