Six Spooky Novels to Haunt Your Daydreams

My and Blake Collier’s Favorite Horror Reads

Ian Olson / 10.24.22

It’s the most wonderful time of the year once more, and the two of us are honor-bound to commend whatsoever things are dreadful, whatsoever things are of frightening report, and all the rest. (In peace. Bwahahaha!) This time around, we each offer three novels for your Spooky Season enjoyment with creepy commentary to get you in the spirit. Not, to be clear, the three novels that scare us most, but three each that exemplify what horror can be and do.

First up is myself (Ian Olson) with some introductory throat-clearing:

The type of fiction that for me most poignantly communicates the experience and stakes of being a Christian is horror. Great art tells a truth — not the truth: that’s too big, too multivalent — that allows us to perceive that the world is, indeed, broken, deadly even. In perceiving this truth, we can find solace, or perhaps the satisfaction of our experience being corroborated. For there is beauty in the testimony that this is so, even when that thing is unpleasant or painful.

I’m not saying that only horror reveals the living death of this present the world: only that horror does it best. Because the unease I know is evoked most pungently, most beautifully, in horror fiction. It is the horror genre that mirrors the fear that most intimately stalks my existence and tempts me to keep myself alive by running like a big, wounded animal regardless of who’s in the way, of the death drive that compels me to undermine my own best efforts and to seek my extinction. 

What we want to offer, then, are six novels which exemplify that pathos, examples of what horror can offer to readers looking for more than cheap thrills.

The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan explores the aftermath of disenchantment, but in a cautionary manner that carries a resonance of Jason Josephson Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment more than Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Here, wonder is displaced by drab industrialization and workaday concerns, but the focus of his lament is not for an imagined, glorious era of Christendom ascendant. Instead, it is the pagan world which gave way to the disenchanting gospel of Jesus Christ

Here a scientist — not a particularly mad one, you would think, until you can recognize the scientistic norm itself as utterly bats in the belfry mad — surgically performs an experiment upon a woman’s brain in order to permit her to see beyond the confines of mundane experience, to partake of what he asserts the ancients called “seeing the great god Pan.” The result, however, isn’t the reemergence of a world of magical possibility but the incursion of a profoundly anti-human entity, loose within the apogee of modernity. The Great God Pan recognizes the doom the “enlightened” world of the late nineteenth century was swiftly moving towards in its clamor to disown its past. A past, Machen notes, that is always at right angles to our present.

Our Lady of Darkness, by Fritz Leiber

My second selection moves us forward roughly three quarters of a century to explore a world supposedly emptied of nonhuman forces. Taking the melancholy of the modern city as its point of departure, its tone is primarily mournful. The protagonist, a recently widowed, alcoholic novelist, seeks revival through that decidedly modern invention: “spirituality.” 

His interest in the occult leads him to discover an arcane text, Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities by a Thibaut de Castries. Megapolisomancy claims to describe the occult forces that take shape within and are nurtured by the architecture of modern cities. “Paramental entities” develop within these structures many of us take for granted as we go about our daily lives, unaware of how the world is just as weird as it ever was.

Bound with de Castries’ arcane text is a journal of classic horror writer Clark Ashton Smith, a metafictional hat tip to H. P. Lovecraft’s literary circle and the commerce between the primary world and the fictional ones they wrote. The metafiction continues as Our Lady of Darkness itself replicates on the page the author’s struggles coping with the death of his wife and the twilight of his literary output. The reader, in turn, finds their anxieties preemptively echoed in the protagonist’s sojourn into darkness. He ponders — the protagonist as well as Leiber — “What was the whole literature of supernatural horror but an essay to make death itself exciting?” I do not know if this is true, nor do I know if I would permit myself to say it in polite company even if I knew it was true. The network of questions haunt me, and this is what horror at its finest accomplishes.

Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King

My third pick is the roughly contemporaneous Salem’s Lot. Not because it is noteworthily frightening or accomplished in its prose, but because I would be lying if I didn’t include it. King’s writings have indeed shaped my understanding of and appreciation for this genre. It’s not that King is particularly gifted as a novelist: when his work succeeds, it is often in spite of him. I find that his ideas work best as short stories and tend to suffer when they are drawn out across hundreds of pages. Cujo is a case in point of a concept getting away from him as he fills space with text, much of which is overwrought, contrived, or pointless.

Nevertheless, one of his strongest efforts is Salem’s Lot, which I read when I was in third grade and provided the word “horror” with a substance that felt true to life. Every Autumn, I imagine my town as Salem’s Lot, and I am — let’s get real, not suave author Ben Mears, but young Mark Petrie, “scholar of vampires and monsters,” on the lookout for the tell-tale signs that something spooky is afoot.

Salem’s Lot explores our being-towards-death in ways that ring in sympathy with Our Lady of Darkness. “Understand death?” Mark muses to himself. “Sure. That was when the monsters got you.” Mark can identify something is terribly wrong in ways that adults either cannot or refuse to countenance with an easy faith that shames some of the adult characters. What rings most true to me is the way that an entire community can carry on the tasks of daily living in spite of being dead. Biological life is too often confused for being spiritually alive. “No one pronounced Jerusalem’s Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of previous days, it retained every semblance of life.” That is real life. That, I think, is what I fear most.

The highest compliment that had been paid to me was when I was told that in everything I write I ask, “Are you sleepwalking through life? Are you the living dead?” The best horror, like Rilke’s statue, returns our gaze and says, You must change your life. I think that what frightens most is that we sense that this is true and have no idea how to do so. Grace, for many of us, will be a horror before it is a comfort.


And now, Blake Collier:

Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess

Admittedly, part of my love for this book derives from the 2008 film adaptation made from it. Yet the book and the movie are two completely different beasts. They both focus on the transmission of a rage (or zombie, if you prefer) virus through specific words that characters end up repeating until they are infected. It is quite literally an infection by semantic satiation. As if the elevator pitch for the book isn’t fascinating enough, Burgess’ prose matches the intensity of concept. The sentences are angular and the paragraphs are bent. It sometimes seems like the narrator himself might be infected because of the way the threads of the story morph and diverge seamlessly from page to page. When you read the book, it is not uncommon to feel like you have lost the plot. Which is kind of the point.

The setting, a small unincorporated village in Ontario in the dead of winter, seethes with isolation. The characters which Burgess litters the snowy landscape with seem a little off even before Mrs. French’s cat goes missing. Not off in a Stepford Wives kind of way, but off in a League of Gentlemen kind of way as if everyone is hiding some dark secret and their downfall won’t be that secret, but some odd linguistic violence that is pure externality yet simultaneously doubles as a comment on the breakdown of societal meaning and commonality. What happens when a community dissolves in the midst of the decaying ability to create meaning through language? Quite literally all hell breaks loose. 

And this is why the book has stuck with me. I can’t say that I have fully reckoned with every inch of what takes place within its borders, but it becomes so effectively odd that it can’t help but infect its reader. There is no walking away from this book being unchanged. One can walk away in disgust or utter anger (both of which I can understand), but one cannot walk away from the book without taking some of it with you forever. Burgess’ background is in semiotics, the study of signs and meaning, and his command of this idea within the world of this semiotic virus and its aftermath not only shows the horror of this infection, but the horror of what happens when our ability to communicate with one another is cut off. The final trick is how the ample types of commentary that could be taken from the book end up being more terrifying than the literary virus Burgess creates in the book. 

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

It was bound to happen at some point that Stephen Graham Jones would become a much sought-after horror writer, but what is perhaps deeply troubling is that it took twenty years from his first book, The Fast Red Road, for him to receive the acclaim that he has always deserved. Sure, he comes from my part of the world so I feel some geographic kinship with him, but his writing speaks for itself. His prose is rhythmic and it is not uncommon for people to struggle getting into his books until they get the syncopation of his prose worked out in their heads. Once the rhythm is fixed, however, the story and characters come to life. It is fitting then that The Only Good Indians became his lodestar towards wider recognition and acclaim. The book captures all of his best horror instincts with his best and most incisive socio-cultural commentary.

The book surrounds four childhood friends who grew up on the reservation. Two have left the reservation and two remained into adulthood. The book follows the separate lives largely one after another as some form of crisis comes for each after visions of an elk or herd of elk invade their realities. Yet, these visions step into the real world when the elk spirit Po’noka becomes more human-like and takes the shape of a woman who heads back to the reservation to avenge the death of the elk herd and her calf at the hands of the four friends. The title suggests all of the complexities inherent in life on the rez’, the generational trauma of being a Native American in this country, and the hope of the native peoples in the future generations. Few cultures have such lively and terrifying spiritual beings as the indigenous cultures of the world and Jones does an exceptional job of bringing the scares while drawing an intimate portrait of real hurt and sorrow that weaves its way down through the ages. 

This book (along with his short novella Mapping the Interior) showcase why Jones should be the premiere name in horror. And unlike most of his contemporaries, his prose is beautiful, lyrical, and unlike anything you will read elsewhere.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

While Cormac McCarthy does not write horror, his penchant for nihilism — the central exception being The Road — often excites the existential dread that most people are able to largely ignore. It does not help that he fills his modern westerns with characters that err on the side of magical realism, or at least know things that humans should not actually know. I have not read every one of his books, but the ones I have read have a horror streak an acre wide. Yet my inclusion of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is, to the detriment of this whole list, dependent on one character, Judge Holden.

This one character encompasses everything I find dreadful about the beings in our reality that have some affinity with the void, the nulled things of this world. He claims the destruction of the cosmos is under his direction. Yet his seeming pettiness makes him trifle with mere meanness and murder in the book’s western hellscape. The way McCarthy writes Holden is particularly dreadful in how he apes God’s creative word in its petty antithesis. He destroys with his commands. That, however, is one of the things McCarthy is going for: the mean land births from its loins mean men. Those mean men act as blood-thirsty gods. 

While the novel doesn’t have the trappings or the clichés of horror, its pace and prose scalp the reader’s heart in such ways that a quiver comes to their aching bones and never quite leaves as the last page is turned.


And with that, happy reading and happy Halloween — may grace haunt our every step!

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5 responses to “Six Spooky Novels to Haunt Your Daydreams”

  1. Susi says:

    Great list. I have thoughts on Stephen King. He wrote Cuno and I think Christine and a couple of others at the height of his addiction problems…in his other books, his characterization is mostly brilliant, worthy of study.

  2. David Zahl says:

    What an incredible list! There are no two people i trust more when it comes to this stuff. Gonna watch Pontypool tonight i think.

  3. Jeff McGraw says:

    Stephen King is the modern Mark Twain. His books are endlessly readable. Even Cujo or the Tommyknockers or Christine, while not high-brow “literature” are immensely entertaining. I think it’s about time he’s given respect to match his massive bank account due to the millions of books that he’s sold.

  4. Devon says:

    Love this. I recently started a blog regarding faith, poetry, and fantasy. Finding the gospel in stories is a powerful thing to do. Creating a devotional experience in reading a story. Would love to write for Mocking bird sometime. Have been a steady fan! Love what you all do.

  5. […] through a gospel-inflected love of horror. It’s bugged me for some that both the novel Salem’s Lot and its TV movie adaptation suggest that the crucifix is only useful against the forces of evil […]

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