Children of the Corn (1984)

Movie – When I think of horror movies, I picture monsters, deformed killers out for revenge (Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers…), and those awful moments where you know somebody’s going to jump and freak the living daylights out of you.  Of course, there’s the occasional demonic force taking over a doll, a child, or a loving mother too.  Yet I feel the film Children of the Corn is in a category all its own.

A nice young couple finds themselves lost and stranded in a rural, seemingly abandoned town.  But then they hit a child with their car, who they appear to have killed.  Of course.  However, as it happens they are not responsible for his death. And as it goes in horror films, they find it necessary to load the body in their car and find the nearest policeman to explain what happened.  (This is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where picking up a terrified suicidal stranger ends up backfiring big time).  The couple soon discovers that they are being hunted by the only residents of the town–children.  As they uncover the mystery of what happened to all the adults, the couple must fight to survive the worst road trip of their lives.  Creepy and filled with evil children, this cult classic is one everyone should watch at least once.

Watching this film as a child, my eldest brother assured me I wouldn’t be scared because instead of monsters, the villains of this film are children.  Because I was also a child, there was nothing to fear.  Luckily, it was actually the vast fields of corn where the children hunted their prey that really freaked me out.  I shivered in fear at the thought of being lost in an endless maze of tall corn stalks, with no hope of escape.

If you want a good scare this Halloween without the special effects and CGI monsters, check out this film, and be forever terrified of corn mazes, and possibly children.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Book – Dr. Faraday is a respectable country physician, but he keeps his childhood a secret – his mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall, home of the ancient and established Ayres family. And now that the new maid of the household is his patient, he’s even more reluctant to let it be known where he came from. But the Ayreses – widowed Mrs. Ayres, her spinster daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick – have much more to worry about than their friend the doctor’s history. Strange things are happening at Hundreds Hall, things that are putting a strain on the well-being of the family. Dr. Faraday is convinced that it’s only the effects of living in an old and decrepit house, but the family is sure there’s something more sinister going on.

The Little Stranger takes its time getting where it’s going; this is no fast-paced thriller. Rather, you have plenty of time to get to know Dr. Faraday, Mrs. Ayres, Caroline, Roddy, and Hundreds Hall itself. It’s the kind of haunted house story where you’re never quite sure who’s right and what’s really happening – although it helps to remember that the narrator, Dr. Farraday, has his own biases that may be getting in his way and ours. This is the perfect novel for a cup of tea and a gloomy October afternoon.

The Thirteen by Susie Moloney

3e6e15b726eca635462760f5f2479687Book – Paula hasn’t been back to Haven Woods, the idyllic suburb where she grew up, since she was sixteen. That summer she found out she was pregnant, her boyfriend died in a terrible accident, her father died in a car crash, and her mother sent her away, so in spite of the good memories she’s got plenty of reasons not to come home. Until one day she gets a call from her mother’s old friend Izzy, saying Paula’s mom is in the hospital and won’t she please come see her. Paula and her fifteen-year-old daughter Rowan don’t have much of a life in the city, so it’s not like they’re giving up much to go live in Haven Woods until Paula’s mom is back on her feet. But Haven Woods has more going on than Paula ever suspected, and Izzy has her own reasons for wanting Paula – and Rowan – to stay forever.

This book was just a lot of fun to read. Although nominally a horror novel, Moloney doesn’t mess around with making you guess at what’s going on – plenty of scenes from Izzy’s point of view at the beginning of the novel clue you in right away that these are bad, old-fashioned Devil-worshiping witches that Paula’s going up against, ignorant though she is. Aside from the supernatural elements, though, The Thirteen is also a story about the powerful bonds between women – mothers, daughters, friends – and the ways you can never entirely escape your own childhood. Like Moloney’s other novels, including her haunted-house story The Dwelling, I think this would make a great movie.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

Revival by Stephen King

revivalBook – King’s most recent novel has been hailed as a return to classic form, closer to a real horror novel than he’s written in a while. If you go into it looking for that, you might be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. The story follows two men, narrator Jamie Morton and the man he refers to as his “fifth business,” the catalyst to all the really important events of his life, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Charlie (as he prefers to be called) is fascinated by “special electricity” all his life, but his interest takes a darker turn when his wife and son are killed in a car crash. After that – well, a horror novel called Revival with a lightning bolt on the cover does evoke a certain famous Doctor F., after all.

Revival isn’t as focused as the classic King novel it most evokes, Pet Sematary, and dealing as it does with similar themes and ideas, it suffers by the comparison. Where the plot meanders, though, the characters pick up the slack, and a few genuinely creepy moments (Jamie’s birthday-party nightmare sticks in the mind) carry you through rapidly to the end. The ending is, at least, classic Stephen King – sprawling, grotesque, and a little out of left field.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

ghostsBook – I didn’t love every story in this collection, but I loved the collection as a whole. There’s an art to putting together a short story collection, and most collections just don’t quite make it. 20th Century Ghosts flows smoothly from one story to the next, sometimes featuring a kind of free-association logic that’s downright humorous in effect. A mention of Kafka in the end of “Pop Art” ties into “And You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a story about a boy who wakes up one morning having turned into a giant insect, and the Biblical overtones in that story give you completely the wrong impression of “Abraham’s Boys” until you finally learn the good doctor’s surname. It’s a little thing, a fun trick, but I enjoyed it.

I’m having a hard time picking a favorite story, to be honest. The opener, “Best New Horror,” is a fairly predictable sort of “but it was all really true!” story about a horror writer and an editor, but the self-awareness of the story raises it to a new level. “The Black Phone” is a terrific anti-serial-killer story (as opposed to all the stories in which the serial killer is the star of the show), “The Cape” features a very convincing creeper of the sort you’d hate to meet on a dark sidewalk but probably already have, and “Voluntary Committal” is both the scariest and the most heartwarming story in the book (and won a well-deserved World Fantasy Award).

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

houseBookHouse of Leaves is the scariest book I have ever read. It’s not gory or gross or even immediately frightening – there are no monsters or demons or serial killers. It’s just completely terrifying.

The story takes place in several layers. Johnny Truant is our primary narrator, telling us about this manuscript he was helping his neighbor Zampano write. Then there’s the film Zampano is writing about, a documentary made by world-famous photographer Will Navidson about the house he and his family have moved into. At first the house seems perfectly normal, and then one day they discover a hallway doesn’t seem right. They double-check the blueprints, they measure the house inside and out with a laser sight, and there’s no way around it – the house is three-quarters of an inch larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

And then it gets bigger.

I think it’s the different levels of narrative that make House of Leaves so effectively terrifying. In trying to figure out whether or not the film is real in Johnny’s world, you start to forget that Johnny’s world isn’t necessarily your own, and everything seems to bleed together around the edges. House of Leaves isn’t the kind of book you can read all at once and get it over with; even if you could get through it in one sitting, it’ll haunt you later.

Hater by David Moody

haterBook – David Moody’s Hater isn’t really a zombie novel, but it’s got a lot of similar trappings: friends and strangers turning on one another, individual survival becoming much more important than the trappings of modern life. It’s firmly in the “survival horror” genre, of which zombie novels are only the most popular form. The point of a survival horror story has nothing to do with what the monster is or why it’s dangerous, only whether or not the main characters are going to survive.

Moody’s concept is original and interesting. Instead of turning into zombies, people just become murderously violent, for no reason at all. We eventually find out that the “Haters,” as they’ve been dubbed by the media, aren’t driven by hate at all but by fear – a sudden, crippling fear that they’re going to be attacked and they have to defend themselves first. “Haters” can’t deal with normal people, but when they get into a group of their own they’re perfectly fine, because they know they’re among their own kind. It makes more sense than zombies, to be perfectly honest, and has the added benefit that the Haters are intelligent and can be interesting point of view characters.

I can’t uncritically recommend Hater. I thought the writing was stilted and the characters predictable. If you are looking for something to indulge a survival horror buzz, though – for instance, if you’re going into withdrawl from The Walking DeadHater will keep it going for you.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

otherBook – I came across this book through’s Summer of Sleaze, a series of reviews of old horror novels, where the writers refer to Tryon’s work as “a third of our horror roots,” along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. I’d never heard of Tryon before, so I was intrigued. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I’d say my expectations were set unfairly low – after all, the review series is called “Summer of Sleaze.” There’s nothing sleazy about The Other. A little purple, maybe, but not sleazy.

Holland Perry is not a nice little boy. In fact, he’s downright sinister, pulling pranks that are more vicious than funny. (We find out on page three that he killed an old woman’s pet cat.) His twin, Niles, is a much friendlier young man, but he makes plenty of excuses for Holland’s increasingly outrageous behavior. This is a slow-building novel; we spend lots of time with the characters where nothing particularly awful happens, until quite suddenly it does. And although The Other was billed as horror when it came out, it’s much less supernatural than the other evil-child stories of its day. In fact, I’d call it a psychological thriller instead, with as much in common with Gone Girl or The Dinner as with more traditional horror novels.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

3Book – On one fateful day, four planes fall out of the sky. Among the four crashes there are only three survivors, all of them children. It’s this fact – along with a rambling recording made by one of the passengers in the last moments of her life – that spawn conspiracy theories, widespread paranoia, and eventually a massive doomsday cult with connections in the highest levels of politics. What really happened on Black Friday? And could the doomsayers be right?

The Three is a book inside a book: most of the story is the fictional non-fiction account written by Elspeth, an investigative journalist, of the aftermath of Black Friday and the cults that rose up in its wake. In the end, we switch back to Elspeth’s point of view as she decides to follow up on what happened after the end of her book. I thought that some of the characters’ voices tended to blend together, but the overall pace of the narrative kept pulling me through the book anyway. I stayed up late to finish it, which turned out to be a mistake – this book has one seriously creepy ending.