October,and the winds are cooling: Children approach the subject of Halloween costumes with a seriousness few adults give to any and all wardrobe decisions, and television begins to trot out the usual gorefests. Time for that spooky book? Tired of that same old fare of ,say, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King? With all due respect to the aforementioned rulers of dread, there are a lot of other authors out there, and they aren’t usually found in the genre section. This month, I’ll highlight some of these talents, and hopefully, take you to some places you’ve never been before…
Joyce Carol Oates has always been a writer whose words crackle with an offhand and nearly effortless sense of dread. She swims through the waters of dysfunctional family behaviors with a grace that’s eerie and odd to many, but-like a deer in the headlights-you can’t look away. If you have read The Falls or We Were The Mulvaneys, you have experienced this feeling of things unsaid and tragic or terrible truths which have not been faced. But Oates tops them all in Zombie.
Quentin P. is a child of privilege, a product of a supremely dysfunctional family, and a serial killer. Oates doesn’t offer whys or wherefores; she simply presents Quentin: beyond understanding or redemption. This one is a short novel, some say mercifully so. Not for the squeamish.
It was on the long-term encouragements of a friend that I read Stewart O’nan’s A Prayer For The Dying and it’s existential horror left me stunned. It’s principle character, Jacob Hansen, is a survivor of the Civil War who moves to a small mid-western town. Once there, he becomes the town’s sheriff/preacher/undertaker. The town is hit by a diptheria epidemic and closes it’s borders…But what do they do when the town is threatened by an approaching fire? We follow the unraveling of society, faith and sanity itself through the words of Hansen. This is one of the most haunting books I’ve read in years. Which leads me to my next book by O’Nan: The Night Country.
Five teenagers are involved in a car crash on Halloween night. Three die, two survive, one with brain damage. One year later, the ghosts of the three dead teenagers come back, called by anyone who still remember them. This one is creepy in the finest legacy of Shirley Jackson, and relentless in it’s progression. O’Nan has a real skill with understatement; one that allows both A Prayer For The Dying and The Night Country to deliver some real power and impact.