Silver and Steel: Six Horror Books Featuring Elderly Protagonists - Tor Nightfire

Silver and Steel: Six Horror Books Featuring Elderly Protagonists

Horror tends to focus on the young. Slasher movies tend to focus on groups of teenagers and twenty-somethings, a significant number of horror protagonists are in their thirties and forties, grappling with mid-life issues, but there isn’t a huge focus on the over-50 crowd. In fact, when elderly characters appear in horror, they’re so frequently the villains or keepers of monsters that there’s even a trope for it. But older heroes in horror should be a thing to celebrate, not a relative rarity. After all, if someone’s lived that long, they’ve seen and done much more than the average horror protagonist. Chances are, they’re tenacious and made of sterner stuff, too. To that end, here are six books featuring protagonists who, while approaching the end of their stories, are far from done with life.

Ghost Story, Peter Straub

Straub’s gothic-horror epic of guilt and regret centers around a single question asked by four old men: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” This question is what drives the members of the Chowder Society, a group whose nightly meetings consist of expensive drinks and utterly chilling ghost stories. But these stories aren’t as fictional as the Chowder Society would like, and slowly they form a web of death and mysterious events through the decades, centered around two enigmatic women, an “accidental” death, and a number of suicides. Straub keeps the blame ambiguous between the Chowder Society and the ancient spirit targeting them, instead focusing on the old men whose pasts finally catch up to them, and the damage their sins cause until they finally reckon with their guilt. 

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The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, Hannah Lillith Assadi

In an absolutely gorgeous Southern gothic tale, Elle Ranier moves to Lyra, a small island off the coast of Georgia sometime in 1941. Lyra is legendary for a strange blue light in the ocean, and the treasure it’s rumored to lead to. But fifty years later, as Elle’s thoughts and memories are devoured by Alzheimer’s, she finds herself constantly switching between past and present, memory and reality, left with more questions and gaps in what she knows than she has answers for. There is a mystery at play, one surrounding what happened between Elle, her husband Simon, and their search for the blue light in the ocean, but the true horror is much more mundane. The depiction of Elle’s fading memory is utterly terrifying, with pleasant sounds turning into a violent cacophony and an in-depth internal monologue about her losing her grip on the present. 

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Earthworm Gods, Brian Keene

One day, it starts raining and doesn’t stop. The air becomes damp, the National Guard has to evacuate everyone to the mountain ranges due to flooding, and the constant overcast skies cause people to go insane and start assassinating meteorologists. Then, forty days later, Teddy sees an earthworm the size of a dog devour a bird on his front lawn. This is only the start for Teddy and his best friend Carl, two elderly West Virginians trying their hardest to live on their land despite apocalyptic rainstorms and the warnings of the local conspiracy theorist. Soon they’re dealing with giant worms, government helicopters, and Teddy’s dangerously unhinged neighbor, Earl. While the premise might sound like a ’50s B movie, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security–the worms are gruesome, the violence is visceral, there are weird biblical and cosmic horror allusions everywhere, and as twisted as Keene’s story of giant earthworms can get, the characters feel real enough that it’s genuinely worrying when they meet their doom. 

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The Caretaker of Lorne Field, Dave Zeltserman

Jack Durkin is the ninth Caretaker, last in a line stretching back three centuries, who defend the world from carnivorous plants known as Aukowies. Every day, he has to go out and tend the field, making sure that the devious weeds he pulls can’t grow and lay waste to everything around him. Jack’s ailing and wants nothing more to retire, but he has to keep up until his firstborn son is of age and ready to become the next Caretaker, all the while fighting with a variety of town officials, opportunistic businessmen, and suspicious police who wonder what Jack’s really doing in the field. The premise might be a little absurd, but in Zeltserman’s hands, it turns into a deeply affecting American tragedy, a man whose job is essential but whose social position is beyond obsolete, keeping a weird tension and pathos until the eventual gory finale.

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 Bone Harvest, James Brogden

In the small communal farming village of Briar Hill, Dennie’s best friend Sarah dismembers her abusive husband and buries him in their small farming plot. Twelve years later, three new people move in, planning to farm the same allotment where the grisly murder took place. But the newcomers seem strange, whether it’s the hulking “brother” Dennie sees eating dirt in the plot one night, the magnetic pull the strangers have over the local villagers, the crops flourishing out of season, the way her dog Viggo goes absolutely nuts around them, or the strange visions she has of her former neighbors that only start after the trio move in. It turns out the visitors have much more on their mind than heritage vegetables and above-regulation shed sizes, and Dennie must fight against her own Alzheimer’s disease and an ancient cult practicing human sacrifice to save her loved ones. Bone Harvest is excellent folk horror, but the way Dennie’s point of view blends past and present and the unnerving ways the trauma of losing her husband to illness and her best friend to prison make the emotional stakes of the story far more wrenching.

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The Man on the Ceiling, Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem

An absolute classic of fantasy-horror, the Tems’ look at their family and their everyday fears and issues is bizarre, unnerving, and deeply affecting. Told in alternating vignettes between Melanie and Steve, the book tackles the loss of loved ones, the insecurities of watching your children grow up, sleep paralysis, anxiety, illness, and a whole host of other mundane issues in a magical-realist style. There are talking dogs, astral-projecting family members, cities that rearrange themselves, ghosts, and the central monster, a shadowy snake-person that slides across the ceiling while tormenting Steve and Melanie with the worries they face in their lives. The emotions hit hard, the surreal visuals and odd dreamlike feel of the book create a unique tone, and altogether, it’s a portrait of a family and of growing older that you’re not likely to forget. 

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4 thoughts on “Silver and Steel: Six Horror Books Featuring Elderly Protagonists

    1. I was trying to go specifically for full books. I know that technically Earthworm Gods is a fix-up, but Bubba Ho-Tep is collected in The Best of Joe R. Lansdale (and rightfully effing so, because it’s fantastic), so I left it off.

      That isn’t to say it isn’t amazing, but also, I try to stick to specific guidelines.

  1. I think I’m one of the few people who really loves David Searcy’s “Ordinary Horror,” an oddly surreal book about an oldster in the suburbs. He plants some “gopherbane” plants to protect his roses, and weird stuff starts happening — but is it actually weird and apocalyptic, or is he just getting confused in his old age…?

  2. It is beautiful when authors treat senior protagonists with respect. My first encounter of this within the genre was Stephen King’s “Insomnia.” Thanks for these reading recommendations!

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