Michael Stoll: Read these … if you dare!

Published 6:30 am Saturday, October 31, 2020

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I have a confession… I’m a horror junkie. There are few things I like better than a good horror movie. As an avid reader, my library features an extensive collection of horror novels and short stories; classics such as Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as more modern writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Bentley Little, among others.

So for this Halloween, here are five of my favorite horror novels (so far).

5. The Damnation Game – Clive Barker

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Published in 1985, “The Damnation Game” follows the character of Marty Strauss, an ex-convict who finds himself employed as a bodyguard to Joseph Whitehead, a wealthy eccentric. Strauss’ job requires him to protect Whitehead from Mamoulian, a strange, devilish man who has the ability to raise the dead with whom Whitehead made a pact during the latter years of World War II. As Mamoulian seeks his revenge in a series of escalating terrifying supernatural events, Strauss is caught in the middle and begins to wonder if his employer deserves his punishment.

Clive Barker is arguably one of the most eloquent horror writers in print today. His novels and stories are as atmospherically dark as the best works of Poe and Lovecraft and his descriptive abilities are second to none. You know you’re reading about death and decay, but you can’t help but read on. This is why the grotesque, Faustian-like “The Damnation Game” is a true modern horror masterpiece.

4. Misery – Stephen King

I would be remiss if I left the Master of Modern Horror off this list. King’s 1987 novel “Misery” tells the story of Paul Sheldon, author of the popular “Misery Chastain” novels, who finds himself in the care of Annie Wilkes, his self-proclaimed “number one fan,” at her home after a car accident. When Wilkes learns that Sheldon’s most recent “Misery” novel killed off the title character, she demands he write a new novel to bring Misery back. As the increasingly violent Wilkes repeatedly victimizes the injured Sheldon, he realizes that she has no intention of ever letting him leave.

While King is known for such classics as “The Shining,” “It,” and “Pet Sematary,” “Misery” foregoes the supernatural elements and adopts a plausible, psychological horror approach that elevates the fear factor. King initially wanted to release “Misery” under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, but by time the book was published, it had already been revealed that he was Bachman.

Fans of the 1990 Rob Reiner film of the same name, starring James Caan as Paul Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, probably remember the infamous hobbling scene, which is much more graphic and disturbing in the book.

3. The Troop – Nick Cutter

Published in 2014, “The Troop” follows the story of five teenage scouts and their scoutmaster who are on a weekend outing on remote Falstaff Island. One night, a sickly, emaciated stranger arrives via a stolen boat with an insatiable appetite. The culprit for his condition: a highly contagious parasite that manipulates its host into eating non-stop while devouring it from the inside. Unbeknownst to them, the military has tracked the stranger to the island and quarantined it off, leaving them trapped.

And the parasite may not be their only problem.

A word of warning – this novel is not for those with a weak stomach. Graphic description aside, this novel is more than just a gross-out scare. Nick Cutter (pseudonym for author Craig Davidson) provides an intriguing (one might even say somewhat satirical) perspective on the lengths people will go to for improving their image, as well as how anything can become much more dangerous when in the wrong hands.

How did I get that from a horror novel involving a killer parasite? You’ll just have to read it to find out.

2. Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

Aging rocker Judas Coyne is a collector of all things dark and morbid. One day he purchases something that fits in with his macabre collection: a funeral suit worn by a deceased man, delivered in a heart-shaped box. But it isn’t the suit that interests him, rather that the suit is haunted by the spirit of the man who wore it. Unbeknownst to Coyne, the ghost is connected to his past and is out for revenge.

While his father may be the Modern Master of Horror, Joe Hill (short for Joseph Hillström King) is an accomplished horror writer in his own right, as is evident by his 2007 novel debut “Heart-Shaped Box.” As I read it, I couldn’t help but see a parallel between the story’s box and dybbuk boxes – wine boxes that, according to Jewish lore, are haunted by malevolent spirits. Rock ‘n’ roll fans will also appreciate the references in the book, such as the protagonist’s dogs being named Bon and Angus.

Interesting side note: Fans of the 1982 George Romero and Stephen King film “Creepshow” might recognize a nine-year-old Hill as Billy Hopkins, the horror comic-loving, voodoo doll-wielding kid at the beginning and end of the film.

1. Intercepts – T.J. Payne

In a top secret government facility in West Virginia, human experiments are conducted on “antennas” – individuals who have been subjected to sensory deprivation to the point of madness. They remain in darkness with little to no sense of awareness until they are “tuned” for the purposes of intercepting information on high profile government targets. The facility’s director, Joe Gerhard, truly believes the work is worthwhile… that is until one of the antennas fights back by targeting Gerhard’s weakness – his 16-year-old daughter Riley.

Published in 2019, “Intercepts” touches a nerve when it comes to the ethical question of government activities, both known and unknown. It is the CIA’s MK Ultra Project meets the Russian Sleep Experiment. The book takes many turns with an excellent twist ending. I absolutely could not put this one down.