It’s the time of the year for jack-o’-lanterns, bonfires, trick-or-treating, and costume parties! In celebration of Halloween, some of Kansas State University’s faculty suggest books that frighten and books that brighten (not all of our recommendations are scary).
Elizabeth Dodd on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011)
We’re losing daylight fast. The weeks around the autumn equinox the light bleeds most quickly from the world—between 2 and 3 minutes a day during September and October, here in Kansas. And I am reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, the zombie-apocalypse novel where the sea of the dead upstage global warming. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well. Fortunately, when we’ll be reading the novel in my “Literature of the Anthropocene” seminar in Spring 2018, the days will be getting longer and brighter…if we get there, of course.
Charlotte Hyde on Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties (2017)
After a strange woman comes to town, the women who fall asleep aren’t waking up and are found wrapped in cocoons. The remaining women try to stay awake for as long as possible, in hopes of a cure. Attention turns to the strange woman, who is the only one who can go to sleep and still wake up. As is typical of King, the novel contains supernatural elements, but the horror is most evident in the parallels to current events and the evil nature of some human beings.
Charlotte Hyde on Adam Nevill’s No One Gets Out Alive (2015)
A broke, young woman, desperate to get back on her feet, rents an apartment from a somewhat suspect landlord. The price is right, but the cost is high. She starts to hear what sounds like a woman being abused in the room down the hall. In this novel, Nevill, an emerging horror writer from the UK, takes the classic haunted house story and turns it on its head. It’s creepy, uncomfortable, and, at times, bizarrely empowering.
Abby Knoblauch on Julianna Baggott’s Pure trilogy (2012-2014)
After the detonations, those who survive are marked forever – scarred not only by the burns themselves, but forever fused to whatever, or whomever, they were touching when the bombs went off. A fan wheezing in an old man’s throat; a doll’s face now part of a young girl’s hand, plastic eyes opening and closing as she moves; and the brothers, one riding piggyback on the other? You can only imagine. This is the post-apocalyptic world of Julianna Baggott’s Pure trilogy, and it turns out, that’s only the beginning.
Anne Longmuir on Robert Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter: A Tale” (1791)
If you’d like to return to Hallowe’en’s Celtic roots (Samhain, anyone?) this year, you could do worse that turn to Robert Burns’s mock-heroic masterpiece, “Tam O’Shanter: A Tale.” Recounting the adventures of the foolhardy Tam, Burns’s poem centers on a drunken Scotsman, who ignores his wife’s “sage advices” and — as a consequence — accidentally finds himself witnessing a raucous churchyard gathering of witches and warlocks on his way home from the pub. Burns’s poem expertly blends Scots dialect and standard English to produce a comic tale that muses playfully on the dangers of drink, “cutty sarks” (short skirts), and the relationship of men and women.
Wendy Matlock on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400)
Image: Cotton Nero A.x from http://gawain-ms.ca/
After interrupting King Arthur’s merry Yuletide feast, a large green man allows Sir Gawain to behead him with an axe. Blood spurting from his decapitated neck, the green knight snatches up his head, turns its gaze toward the seated nobles, and commands his attacker to find him in a year and a day to receive a reciprocal blow. Thus begins one of the most beloved works of English literature, set during the Christmas season, but perhaps more appropriate for Halloween, not unlike Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Jason Teal on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree (2009)
In this spooky fiction—Irish-born Kiernan is remiss to call it horror, rather than “psychological” or “awe” fiction—the novelist Sarah Crowe escapes to rural Rhode Island to complete her long overdue novel. She has been avoiding writing in the wake of her girlfriend’s passing, and suffering psychological and physical seizures of grief. She takes residence at a dilapidated farmhouse, hoping isolation will give her the time and space to overcome writer’s block and mourn properly. However, secrets of the landscape come to bear a powerful price on her rehabilitation effort. There is a mysterious red oak on the property that haunts her every moment, detailed in an unfinished manuscript by Dr. Charles Harvey, a former parapsychologist with URI obsessed with documenting “the red tree” regional folklore, which Sarah finds in the basement on the first day. The tales uncover striking parallels to her own experiences with the tree—not limited to werewolves, serial killings, and human sacrifice. Told in journals, we spiral alongside Sarah as we read these frantic entries, chasing the mystery of the supernatural while navigating the unreliable approach of the writer seasoned in make-believe.
Naomi Wood on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum (1998), Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005), and John Marks’ Fangland (2007)
Vampires haven’t always been sparkly. According to Franco Moretti’s “Dialectic of Fear” (1982), Bram Stoker’s Dracula is more threatening than the aristocratic model of vampire because he is “a rational entrepreneur who invests his gold to expand his dominion”; he farms people and uses them. He is an embodiment of the monopoly capitalist. The current moment offers opportunity for repudiating undead aristocrats who prey on the less fortunate. So we begin with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the fountainhead. This epistolary novel engages east and west, past and present, wooden stakes and typewriters, satisfyingly blood-curdling and spine-tingling. Fast forward one hundred years, and bite into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld-based Carpe Jugulum (1998), in which self-consciously modern, garlic-resistant vampires threaten to turn the people of Lancre into submissive domestic animals serving their blood-lust. Only the Lancre witches and an Omnian priest stand in their way. If more traditional horror is your bag, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005) offers a satisfyingly bone-chilling opening in an ancient archive. Rooting around in old books can cause uncanny things to awaken. More consciously a tribute to Stoker’s ur-text is John Marks’ Fangland (2007), in which a contemporary journalist, Evangeline Harker, retraces Jonathan Harker’s footsteps and discovers unsettling parallels between vampires and her investigative news show (Marks was a producer for 60 Minutes).