Sometimes, horror needs to embrace its weird side. After all, not every nightmare is easily understandable, and some of the best scares come when we don’t have as much background and context, where we don’t know as many of the rules. It’s at that furthest boundary of horror, where things get surreal and even the ideas of narrative can sometimes break down, that the plots get unusual, the nightmare fuel gets a lot less comfortable, and even the most mundane activities possible suddenly become terrifying simply due to the lack of context or reason behind what’s happening. While by no means a complete list, here’s a starter pack of seven surreal offerings for those whose tastes run a little weirder.
In Heaven, Everything is Fine, ed. Cameron Pierce
A murderer’s row of bizarre fiction authors step up to deliver surreal and sometimes horrifying stories all based on the general mood and ideas of that most surreal and horrifying director, David Lynch. The works collected in here offer a series of fascinating views on Lynch’s work and influence, everything from someone writing about how watching a David Lynch movie affects them, to a play script that begins on a flaming stage filled with industrial equipment, and just about all stops in between. It’s certainly a strange collection, to be sure, with an amazing list of talent behind it, but definitely one with some excellent pieces that capture all the surreal horrors and wonders of Lynch and his work.
Standout Stories: “Nightbomb” by Violet Levoit, “Umbilicus Rex” by Chris Kelso, “Teatro Grottesco” by Thomas Ligotti
Skullcrack City, Jeremy Robert Johnson
We’re going to try to keep this one vaguely on the side of printable.
A wild and unnerving ride through a universe of drugs, conspiracies, and monsters, Skullcrack City lobs its readers into the amphetamine-addled head of S.P. Doyle, a bank compliance officer whose life as “a subhuman parasite buried in the flesh of a dark god” drives him to boredom and a series of increasingly poor decisions. This includes his abuse of a high-level drug known as “Hexadrine,” a cranked-up stimulant with some terrifying below-the-belt side effects and a habit of causing Doyle to go full paranoid and grift his own bank. When this uncovers something even darker and more terrifying in the process, the bank gleefully frames Doyle for murder and flings him into a world of interlocking conspiracies, mad science, brain-eating ape monsters, and an eldritch power lying in wait to devour the Earth. The read might be as fast-paced and deranged as its narrator, but Johnson’s chaos has always been focused, a precise barrage that strikes the right chord with its readers and manages to ground the story with a narrator that at times is both pathetic and sympathetic, making it all that more tense as he struggles to escape the web of forces beyond his understanding.
The Body Library, Jeff Noon
Poor Nyquist. In the second of Noon’s bizarre detective novels (the third, a folk horror-infused tale titled Creeping Jenny, comes out later this month), the errant investigator moves to the city of Storyville in the hopes of writing his memoirs, only to be afflicted by writer’s block. While he’s trying to figure out ways to fight through it, he’s mind-wiped and forced to take part in a pulp detective story, dropped in a room with a nearly dead body and put on the trail of a mysterious book known as The Body Library. The horror in this case doesn’t just come from Nyquist’s unusual surroundings and a city entirely obsessed with authors and stories where things are going more and more wrong, but also from the fact that the reader knows Nyquist is being manipulated and forced into the situation, unable to stop himself as he gets strung along by the desires of his mysterious puppetmasters. While not the most overtly horrific book in Noon’s bibliography (that’d be Nymphomation, a cosmic horror story about numbers having sex), the existential implications and shadowy waking nightmare the city morphs into make this one every bit as surreal and scary.
Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, trans. Megan McDowell
A short novel from an amazing surrealist, Fever Dream begins in a rural clinic as a young woman named Amanda lies dying, answering questions from a young boy named David. From the jump, there’s something very off about David and his interrogation about “the worms” that apparently poisoned Amanda and are the reason she’s dying. But things just get more and more terrifying the more the dialogue continues, with each unanswered question (what did the woman in the green house do to David? Why do the doors in the waiting room only open from the outside?) further creating a sinister context for the dialogue as it winds ominously towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s a definite feeling of dread gained from the novel, and the feeling that everything is addressed in relatively abstract, dreamlike terms without answering many of the questions asked only helps the dread to continue lingering even after the close of the story.
PTSD Radio, Masaaki Nakayama
A series of short and interconnected chapters feature horrifying things happening to a variety of people, slowly bringing a central theme into focus with each new vignette, Nakayama’s horror anthology series centers itself around fears and rituals, an angry god who manifests as piles of hair and a shadowy set of hands, and some unnervingly phallic folk horror imagery. PTSD Radio has a sort of story if you’re willing to follow it along, but the disjointed method of telling it and Nakayama’s nightmarish visuals and seeming lack of exposition make for a disorienting experience that seems more like the kind of thing you’d experience just before screaming yourself awake in the middle of the night. Either way, it’s a deeply unnerving experience for the reader as they are confronted with quick-fire horror stories that they then need to piece together, including a woman almost eaten by a train seat, a man tormented by a hair-pulling spirit that attacks any woman near him, and several children who encounter the disgusting and disturbing statue of an old rural god.
Procession of the Dead, Darren Shan
In a city ruled by the shadowy Cardinal and his criminal organization, a young man named Capac Raimi begins working as an insurance agent and shakedown artist in the hopes of rising through the ranks and possibly even taking the enigmatic crime lord’s place. But the more assignments Raimi completes, the more strange things happen throughout the City, like an immortal assassin who can teleport around the city as he pleases, the blind Incan priests who seem to show up whenever anything happens, or the green fog that sweeps the city streets at night, erasing people from the memories of those around them. The way all these odd and fantastical elements feel of a piece turns a pulp detective story about a mysterious mobster and his young protege into something akin to the Coen Brothers and Lost Highway, a nightmarish noir story whose payoff is every bit as bizarre as it promises, even if explaining the mysteries of the City does kind of take some of the punch away. Still, this one is all about the ride more than the destination, and Shan’s dark and occasionally comic mystery delivers that in full.
Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink
A more focused and less episodic companion to the hit podcast, Alice Isn’t Dead follows Keisha, a trucker doing her best to unravel the mystery of why her supposedly dead wife continues popping up seemingly alive and well in a variety of news broadcasts and photographs about large-scale disasters. In the process of driving across the country, she encounters strange funerals, a race of prophets who perceive all time simultaneously, and multiple abominations with their own alien motives. Fink manages to capture the feeling of a long road trip full of liminal spaces perfectly, creepy rest station restaurants, truck stops with an aura of menace, weird small towns that just seem to exist and all. He also imbues his villains with a terrifying air, as the only reason for anything any of them do seems to be because it’s within their nature, not for any grand reason or ultimate plan.