Hallowe'en: The evil read
28th October 2011 - Gary Perry
At this time of year we like to think about the books that scare us. Here at Charing Cross Road, I asked my colleagues to curate a selection of the books that haunt and unsettle them (see the titles below). No restrictions were placed on genre and, as a result, suggestions were intriguingly varied. From Ayn Rand and her potentially terrifying theory of Objectivism in Atlas Shrugged to the transformation of Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis, each title encourages us to consider quite what we mean by horror.
My own selection, Conrad's The Secret Agent, is a case in point. While unlikely to be found in any bookshop's horror department, I have long thought this novel to be part of the same disturbed family as the works of M R James, Poe and Stoker. Its political subject matter, a botched terrorist attack in Greenwich Park, is just as unsettling for us as it was for its earliest readers. Different causes, same violence. However, it is in atmosphere and personal drama that Conrad brings forth the most horror. His London is dangerous, gas-lit, disorientating. The domestic tragedy at its bleak heart is a reminder that home can be the most terrifying of places. Hence the continuing popularity of the haunted house novel.
Ever since I first encountered this novel, three or four years ago, certain images have stuck with me: limbs strewn across a London park, a sister's face frozen with grief and revulsion, the discarded hat of a murdered man. This is another important aspect of a work of horror, the presence of a defining and haunting image. Frankenstein's monster running across the frozen waste, Mr Hyde knocking down a child in the street, the final appearance of Dorian Gray's portrait. Horror exists wherever a character or a scenario continues to unsettle us for years after we have first encountered them. They lurk at the corner of our vision, at the back of our minds, beneath our beds.
I should confess that I am easily frightened and have an imagination that is far too romantic. I avoid black cats. Creaking floorboards make me nervous and I am currently convinced that my boiler is home to several minor devils. Therefore, my definition of horror may be too broad for some. At the very least, it's a reminder that horror crosses genre boundaries and that there is not a single reader amongst us untouched by its withered hand. What books keep you awake at night?
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