Five of My Favorite Non-Horror Novels

A while back, I rattled off a list of five of my favorite horror novels of all time. But because no one should restrict their literary diet to any one genre (not even someone as tunnel-visioned as yours truly) today I thought I’d recommend five of my favorite non-horror novels of all time.

mdMoby-Dick: or, The Whale

by Herman Melville

I almost didn’t want to include Moby-Dick on this list because, just like Frankenstein last time, this is one of those books whose status as a towering classic is such that it feels a bit silly to “recommend” it. Recommending Moby-Dick is like recommending food or shelter or oxygen. Nonetheless, if I’m going to be listing my own personal favorite novels of all time, I can’t avoid including it.

It was in high school that I first read Herman Melville’s timeless tale of a vengeance-crazed captain hunting down the titular white whale. I had no interest, really, only giving it a shot because it was one of the titles on a required reading list I was given for English class, and because I found a battered copy for pocket change at a thrift shop. Of course, my English teacher never actually tested the class or asked us to write any papers proving we had read any of books from that list, but my effort wasn’t for naught. In spite of myself, and completely independent of its iconic reputation, I fell in love with Melville’s masterpiece. It’s not hard to see why, with its epic action, character-driven narrative, vivid language, and ambitious integration of both Christian mythology and Shakespearean dramatics. Much like with Frankenstein, though, what captivates me most to this day is Moby-Dick’s thematic resonance, that multi-layered depth which lends itself to academic study and perpetual reinterpretation. It ensures that, no matter how ingrained in pop culture the images of Ahab and Ishmael and that monstrous whale might be, Melville’s book endures. Always relevant, never hackneyed, this one’s a “classic” in the truest sense.

451Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

Look at that, a Ray Bradbury book made my previous list, and another one is making this list. It speaks to Bradbury’s range, consistency, and ability that he produced not just one but two prime examples of what I would consider some of the best novels ever written. And in two different genres to boot! Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 may not technically qualify as a horror novel, but as a reader it has much the same effect on me. Being a very, very vocal advocate for my beloved horror genre, I often get asked what the scariest book I’ve ever read is. Without any hesitation, my go-to answer has always been Bradbury’s tale of a future society in which censorship is official policy and government-employed “firemen” burn books by the thousands.

See, vampires and werewolves don’t really scare me. You know what does? Apathy. Illiteracy. Anti-intellectualism. I’m scared of the status quo. I’m scared of a system designed specifically to deny marginalized people a voice. I’m scared of cultural infantilization, of uniformity and nationalism and political correctness. I’m scared of forces that suppress diversity and creativity, forces that uphold an obsolete establishment to the detriment of growth and progress. I’m scared of those who are willing to neither learn from the past nor contribute to the coming future. I’m scared of someone else deciding what I should or shouldn’t see, read, think, and say. More than anything, I’m scared of how, with each day, the society of Fahrenheit 451 feels less like a fictional dystopia and more like an emerging reality.

sadeJustine; or The Misfortunes of Virtue

&

Juliette; or Vice Amply Rewarded

by the Marquis de Sade

What’s this? Two for the price of one? Oh yes, if I mention one of these books I certainly can’t omit the other. With this duo, the Marquis de Sade gave birth to a pair of twins, sister novels that are the yin to each other’s yang, sparring partners who continuously pose and answer questions to and from one another. In doing so, they deliver something that is itself greater than the sum of its parts. First, there’s Justine, the titular protagonist a naive and uncompromising idealist whose pride and sense of moral superiority offer little protection from the perverse cruelties of the real world. Juliette’s, meanwhile, embraces the idea that humankind is just another animal, and an imperfect one at that. A libertine who indulges all of her appetites, no matter how extreme, she ultimately finds a life of fulfillment and peace.

Similar to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, and Pauline Reage’s Story of O, Sade’s salacious sisters are dark, debauched, boundary-pushing works, driven as much by philosophy as by sexuality. Together they perfectly embody the Sadean school of thought. Their characters are less living people and more exaggerated metaphors, anthropomorphic symbols fashioned to explore such controversial topics as man’s state of nature, the blurry dividing line between sex and violence, and the hypocrisy of socially acceptable morality. Not at all for squeamish readers, Justine and Juliette may be cruel, nihilistic, blasphemous screeds of unabashed pornography, but they are also astoundingly ahead of their time, precursors of a sort to the later works of Frederick Nietzsche and Thomas Ligotti. Even so, what’s wrong with a little porn and nihilism anyway, right?

flatFlatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

by Edwin A. Abbott

I often credit horror giant H.P. Lovecraft for opening my eyes to the possibility of worlds beyond human understanding, but the truth is that Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland had just as much an impact on me, although through a slightly more circuitous route. Before I ever read Flatland itself, and long before I read Lovecraft at all, I grew up reading superhero comics. I also grew up broke, so my childhood funny-book collection was a patchwork of whatever off-brand back issues I could find for cheap. That’s how I chanced upon a somewhat obscure series called 1963, an Alan Moore project published by Image in the early 90s that parodied Silver Age capes-and-tights books. One of the issues featured a Green Lantern-esque hero fighting a villain he could only barely perceive, a villain who hailed from a higher dimension. In the resulting adventure, Moore subtly name-dropped Abbott’s book, and my imagination was blown wide open.

When I finally discovered Flatland myself years later, I found a high-concept corker set in a two-dimensional space occupied by sentient geometric shapes. The protagonist? A literal square, one whose entire understanding of reality is challenged when he is visited by a sphere from three-dimensional space. Though originally intended as a satire of social class hierarchies (and, sure, it still works well in that regard), Flatland’s most remarkable contribution is the way it encourages readers to seriously consider the probability of worlds beyond humanity’s own limited perceptions. After all, if a two-dimensional being would be oblivious to the existence of a third dimension, doesn’t it follow that a three-dimensional being would be oblivious to a fourth dimension, or a fifth, or a sixth, and so on? Keep in mind that Flatland was published in 1884, more than 30 years before Albert Einstein put forth his theory of relativity. Today, the idea that there is more to reality than the five physical senses and three or four dimensions that mankind perceives has become central to not only my own fiction writing, but to my very philosophy of life. And while Moore may have first planted the seed in my head, and Lovecraft later helped it bloom, it is ultimately Abbott that laid the groundwork before anyone else.

Five of My Favorite Horror Novels

Hello again, Internet. Since we’re still getting to know each other (this is after all, my first blog entry aside from that flimsy getting-to-know-you introduction I posted yesterday), I thought, hey, what better way for you to figure out what kind of wanna-be writer you’re dealing with than for said wanna-be to gush on and on about some of his own favorite books.

Originally I was going to do “My Top 10 Favorite Horror Novels.” But then it became “My Top 20 Favorite Horror Novels.” Then “My Top 30 Favorite Horror Novels.” You get the picture. There are so many amazing works of fiction that have influenced and inspired me over the years, its hard to narrow it down to just a few and not feel tortured by the countless others relegated to the nebulous domain of “honorable mentions.”

So why stop at just one blog post? How about a whole series of them? Starting with this installment, every once in a while I’ll bring this blog to a screeching halt and ignore everything else going on in the world, just so I can get my fanboy on.

I figured it’d be best to do this in increments of five, for the sake of brevity. Below you’ll find, in no particular order, Five of My Favorite Horror Novels. I’d like to emphasize the fact that these are all personal favorites. They’re not my votes for the most important horror novels of all time. They’re not even all books I’d necessarily argue as being technically the “best” horror novels of all time (whatever that means). These are just, plainly and simply, my favorites.

frnknstnFrankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus

by Mary Shelley

I wish that I could start this list out with a pick that’s a bit more original, a bit less obviously classic. But, c’mon, it’s Frankenstein! Almost two centuries of adaptations, parodies, and general indoctrination into the fabric of pop culture has not diminished the power of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece whatsoever. It can be easy to forget that in a world where the first images that come to people’s minds upon hearing the book’s title include the face of Boris Karloff or boxes of breakfast cereal, but actually pick the novel up and start flipping through its pages, and all those false idols will fade away in the brooding, electric, gothic thunderstorm that ensues.

The premise alone is not just revolutionary, but still relevant to this day (possibly even more so). It fuses together themes of mortality and morality, issues of science and spirituality, questions of life and death, and fears inherent in both parenthood and childhood. Every interpretation peels back another layer, only to reveal still more unexplored depths beneath. Take it as a critique of human hubris. Or as a warning against scientific progress without responsible application. Or as a forward-thinking feminist take-down of institutional misogyny. View it through a psychoanalytical lens, a philosophical one, a theological one, or even a political one. It holds up no matter how you look at it. And, best of all, it holds up just as strongly when viewed with no lens at all. At the end of the day, Frankenstein is the very essence of a damn good story.

amrcnAmerican Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

At first, American Psycho seems like little more than a test of your patience. The narrator, a Wall Street banker named Patrick Bateman, drones on at great length and with meticulous detail about the mundane consumerism of his life. Entire pages are spent describing, down to the most infinitesimal piece of minutiae, everything from his wardrobe to his exercise routine to his stereo system. Soon, though, the book becomes a test of your stomach when you realize that Bateman is also a serial killer, and one who spends just as much time and effort describing the minutiae of the grotesque, soul-crushing acts of violence he deals out to a never-ending conga-line of innocent, undeserving victims.

So extreme it faced censorship all over the world and had to be sold shrink-wrapped in cellophane to keep oblivious shoppers from accidentally reading the obscenities within, American Psycho is horror at its most ugly but also satire at its most biting, painting a take-no-prisoners portrait of the sick black heart of corporate capitalism. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited masterpiece that offers little respite from the in-your-face atrocities it depicts and even less answers for the damning social and psychological questions it raises. Not for the faint of heart, weak of stomach, or dim of wit.

dqoukThe Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

by H.P. Lovecraft

Some will argue that The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is more fantasy than horror, but I bristle at the idea of mapping even the tiniest corner of H.P. Lovecraft’s sprawling, inhospitable universe as dwelling anywhere but squarely in the realm of the horrific. Yes, that goes even for his wondrous Dreamlands, through which the slumbering Randolph Carter treks in search of a mysterious city he believes waits beyond the wall of sleep. As awe-inspiring as the Dreamlands are, they are equally terrifying, a surreal place of fearsome monsters and alien landscapes, polluted by the influence of the crawling chaos himself, Nyarlathotep, the thousand-faced avatar of the Old Ones.

While Dream-Quest is something of a rarity in the Lovecraftian library, with its refreshingly upbeat ending, the story’s message does not contradict the bleakness of the rest of the author’s oeuvre. In truth, it complements it perfectly, furthering the goal of inspiring readers to rethink their preconceived notions on the nature of material reality. In the end, part and parcel of dreams are nightmares. And, to my mind, no imagination has ever proven as capable of crafting both dreams and nightmares as stark, chilling, and mind-expanding as Lovecraft’s.

hHorns

by Joe Hill

Confession time: After struggling with self-doubt and guilt over “wasting” my time on as impractical a pursuit as writing fiction, Horns was the book that finally made me snap out of it. Horns was the book that made me say “Dammit, I want to do this.” Horns was the book that made me a writer again. With this book, Joe Hill, son of the modern horror lit’s blue-collar champion, Stephen King, tells the story of a broken pariah of a man who wakes up after an especially blasphemous drunken bender with a pair of, you guessed it, horns sprouting from his head. When people see them, they can’t help but confess their deepest, darkest secrets to him. It’s an effect that will come in handy as our protagonist tries to uncover what really happened on the night his girlfriend was murdered.

Horns is many things. A character-driven, non-linear supernatural mystery. A Kafkaesque meditation on the nature of religion, identity, love, family, truth, and deception (both of others and oneself). Most of all, though, Horns is one of the most effective, emotionally resonant novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading in my lifetime, leading to more than a few moments where I had to bury my face even deeper in its pages so that other people couldn’t see how misty my eyes were getting over a li’l ol’ book. Yes, I cried. I cried like an itty bitty baby. And you know what? You will too.

swSomething Wicked This Way Comes

by Ray Bradbury

Few writers have so perfect a mastery over not just language but also symbolism and storytelling itself as Ray Bradbury. All of these aptitudes operate at absolute peak levels in his carnival-horror juggernaut Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a coming-of-age story in the grandest sense, one that understands that none of us ever really stop growing and changing, that we are always in some way “coming of age.” If you’re young, you can relate to the book’s child protagonists, Will and Jim, who are entranced by the traveling circus that rolls into town and the tattooed man, Mr. Dark, who offers them entrance into a magical new world, brimming with the kind of fun and adventure fresh young minds crave, a world very unlike the humdrum of their daily lives. If you’re older, you may see yourself in characters like Miss Foley or Mr. Crosetti, adults with unfulfilled dreams, worried that their best years are behind them and perpetually aware of the ceaseless march of time.

Though at its heart Something Wicked is essentially “just” an epic extrapolation of the classic deal-with-a-devil narrative, Bradbury uses the basic concept to explore a wide range of human fears and desires with unflinching honesty, from past regrets and second chances to the rigors of age and a nostalgia for youth. Bradbury shows us fear and desire, adolescence and adulthood, friends and enemies. He shows us good and evil, love and hate, terror and wonder. And he shows what all these things have in common. That is, each of these pairs constitutes two sides of the same coin. A study in duality, Something Wicked explores these binaries by throwing the coin in the air and letting it spin so that the image blurs and both sides seem to be one and the same. The challenge is not to see which side lands face-up, but to determine whether we can even tell the difference between them.