There is a power in quiet horror novels.
September 15 is the anniversary of the death of author Charles L. Grant, who most will agree was the best-selling modern-day master of quiet horror novels. A rigorous talent, a legend to many of us, Grant had hundreds of books, novels, short stories and anthologies published and won three World Fantasy Awards and two Nebula Awards. Grant wholeheartedly believed in the atmospheric quiet horror story as a serious fiction form. Descriptions of Grant’s riveting prose and pace are phrases like lulls you into the dark, subtle thrills, literary prowess, creates a luring suspense. Well-crafted, horror fiction is an art. Read a Grant story and you’ll see why.
Because we remember the loss of this treasured author (and because I admire the craft of quiet horror novels, love to read them and write them), it seems appropriate to revisit this enduring genre for September.
Horror is defined as painful and intense fear, something that horrifies. So when you think of reading a horror novel or story, what do you desire? Horror that is raw, explicit, and loud like pulp slasher shock? That would be the assault of splatterpunk. How about all-powerful monsters? Super-intelligent aliens? Sexy vampires that no one can resist? Are you curious about a shuttered gray house with a man skulking on the front porch, eyes searching every child who walks by? What a shudder that story might bring. Or maybe you love the Lovecraftian style with demigods from ages past like Cthulhu, written in deep prose and pessimistic themes. Psychological horror is a grabber, especially if you’re battling demonic possession, the ultimate evil challenge.
Stephen King is well known for saying that horror arouses our “phobic pressure points.” And maybe it’s true that triggering these fears becomes very personal for horror fans, provoking a response from the physical to the emotional to the psychological.
When did society decide that reading tales of the supernatural and terror would be entertaining? Maybe it’s the fight or flight response we still crave. Maybe reading horror is a catharsis. One of the very first horror novels was The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole in 1764. Then we quickly move into the Gothic horror era with Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Henry James and you know the rest of them, all the way to Grant, King, Koontz, and Rice.
But let’s get back to the power in quiet horror. What is it exactly? Quiet horror stories do not feed you blunt visceral violence: no gore-is-more philosophy; no bloody slasher meisters, no cheap thrills. Quiet horror hits a high key when it stimulates the intellect (sometimes even to the point of being a tad cerebral). It evokes dark emotions and conjures imagery, artistically hitting your fear buttons, teasing you with clues, and employing the suggestive-then-cut-away Hitchcockian style of suspense. Delicious!
And often, this quiet darkness will hold a message that is not only cleverly hidden but also symbolic. That “Ah-ha” moment is one we all love to experience.
Look at the success of John Harwood’s chilling The Séance; Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black; Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s enduring short story The Yellow Wallpaper. If you’ve ever read W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, you can experience this understated but powerful dark message of regret.
Charles Grant said in an interview that the most powerful books are the ones who force the reader to use the imagination. He saw the reader’s imagination as a highly effective tool. If we look to Lovecraft about horror, he advised writers never to state a specific horror element when it can be suggested. So, are writers who spell out every bloody and violent detail cheating readers from creating their own pleasurable visualizations?
In Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator says that he worked hastily and in silence to cut off the head, arms and legs of his victim. He uses the word “blood” only once …
There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all!
Any reader with half an imagination can see the blood inside that tub and imagine the dismembered parts with a ghastly effect. Maybe Strunk & White are right when they said, “It is seldom advisable to tell all.”
When you read horror, do the words on the page manipulate your thinking or stimulate your imagination? How deep is your well?
A search on Amazon.com for quiet horror novels offers four of Grant’s novels:
The Sound of Midnight
The Last Call of Mourning
Search Barnes & Noble and you’ll find more traditional titles like Northanger Abby by Jane Austin, The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
Amazon lists these as their top FIVE selling quiet horror novels:
In the Night Room, Peter Straub
The Fall of Never, Ronald Damien Malfi
The Snowman’s Children, Glen Hirshberg
Nightmare House, Douglas Clegg
Atmosphere, Michael Laimo
Of course there’s lots more quiet horror out there, but it’s not so easy to identify these novels. Right now on the New York Times best sellers list, two novels that fit quiet horror are Night Film by Marisha Pessi (pitched as occult horror, literary thriller, and mystery thriller) and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Sometimes these authors are known as dark fantasy authors. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, Arthur Machen, Elizabeth Massie.
My favorite authors of quiet horror are the classic masters: Nathaniel Hawthorne, M.R. James, Poe, Henry James and too many more to list here. I loved The Dead Zone by Stephen King. What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson, The Grave by Charles L. Grant, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper, Seduction by M.J. Rose.
So, what horror stories spark your imagination? Is there a horror novel that has awakened your heart and soul?
I leave you with one last thought …
“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” Arthur Conan Doyle
Whether you are a reader, author, publishing pro, or literary hound, I invite you to post your thoughts here. Are you a fan of Charles Grant? Do you prefer splatterpunk or bizarro and tell us why. What is your favorite horror novel? I see this post as a running commentary about horror—quiet or loud, gothic, splatterpunk, dark fantasy, supernatural, ghosts, mystery, fabulist, Lovecraftian, satanic, or bizarro.
If you are new to this blog, I am a novelist and short story writer, living in New York, posting classic Tales of Terror every week, most of which are quiet horror, supernatural, and lots of ghost stories because … I am a haunted writer. Not only do I believe in ghosts, but I’ve got one sitting next to me right now. He’s a writer, of course, about ghosts and witches—and he is my mentor. The number seven has particular significance to his greatest known work. If you know this house in Salem, Massachusetts pictured below, you know this author.
You can view my novels, Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural and The Dazzling Darkness in the above tabs on this site, but I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically suggest you experience the novels of Charles L. Grant and the other fine authors mentioned here if you really want to walk on the dark side with the best of literary artists.
Here are a few worthy web sites in your search for horror and the supernatural.