Defeating monsters is what horror fiction does best. By creating stories about the beasts that terrify us — demons and tyrants, killers and bullies and ghosts — horror writers lead us into imaginary battles with evil so intimate and powerful that we emerge better prepared to fight real ones.
For Black horror writers, this act of imagination is also an act of resistance and self-preservation. Tananarive Due, in her essay “Black Horror Rising,” discusses the role of racial trauma in horror fiction, writing that “horror can help us allegorize racial monsters to help us to confront true-life fears.” She uses, by way of example, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” in which the ghost of a murdered girl embodies the unspeakable pain Black people suffered under white enslavement. “Horror’s visceral nature,” Due writes, “makes it a perfect genre for such a story.” Indeed, it is a perfect genre for our current moment, one that offers a narrative architecture strong enough to hold the weight of America’s traumatic past, stories entertaining enough to keep our attention, and conflicts that allow us to confront our demons and defeat them.
One Black writer using the horror genre to its full potential is the award-winning P. Djèlí Clark, whose new novella, RING SHOUT (Tordotcom, 181 pp., $19.99), is a fantastical, brutal and thrilling triumph of the imagination. The book’s cover art says it all: A white hood, its eyeholes ringed with teeth, stands blood-spattered as two Black hands rise in a movement that frames and threatens to unmask what is lurking beneath. The hood, of course, is the well-known garb of the Ku Klux Klan, and the hands refer to the power of a group of Black women resistants led by Maryse Boudreaux, “a foulmouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter.”
The story opens in 1922 in Macon, Ga., at a Fourth of July parade filled with Klan members. D. W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation” has unleashed a dark force across America. The Ku Kluxes, as they are called, have been conjured from another dimension, crossed over from somewhere else, which explains their hateful nature and their tendency to infect others: “Like an infection or a parasite … it starts growing until it’s powerful enough to turn the person Ku Klux.” When the infection meets hate, it leaves behind “one-white demons who don’t remember they was men.”
Clark’s combination of historical and political reimagining is cathartic, exhilarating and fresh, casting a narrative spell as enchanting as HBO’s adaptation of “Watchmen.” It is the kind of reimagining of history that puts the act of storytelling, and the art of the horror genre, at the forefront of literary and political life.
The very definition of monstrosity — who is monstrous and who is not — underlies Maria Dahvana Headley’s brilliant feminist translation of the Old English epic BEOWULF (MCD/FSG, 140 pp., paper, $15). Around 1,000 years ago, an unknown author put down “3,182 lines of alliterative wildness, a sequence of monsters and would-be heroes” set in a “fantastical version of Denmark in the fifth to early sixth century and the land of the Geats, in present-day Sweden.” Beowulf sails to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, and defeats the monster Grendel, who has plagued the king’s halls.
“Beowulf” is an ancient tale of men battling monsters, but Headley (whose love affair with the text began with her contemporary adaptation, the 2018 novel “The Mere Wife”) has made it wholly modern, with language as piercing and relevant as Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album “DAMN.” With scintillating inversions and her use of contemporary idiom — the poem begins with the word “Bro!” and Queen Wealhtheow is “hashtag: blessed” — Headley asks one to consider not only present conflicts in light of those of the past, but also the line between human and inhuman, power and powerlessness, and the very nature of moral transformation, the “suspicion that at any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch.”
The women of “Beowulf” have often been sidelined. Not so here. A haunting section of the poem is the story of Hildeburh, sung during Beowulf’s first feast at Heorot by Healgamen, Hrothgar’s poet. Hildeburh loses her son and brother in battle and, “savaged by sorrow,” burns their bodies on a funeral pyre. The theme of a mother’s agony over the loss of a child is later expanded by Grendel’s mother, but Hildeburh’s pain is no less vivid:
“She raised her voice in mourning, keening for her kin
as the pyre was lit. Smoke smothered her song, darkness
made of skin and bone. These men who’d been tended
by those who loved them were carcasses now,
heads melted, wounds running, reopened
for flame-ravens. Fire comes from the same
family as famine. It can feast, unfulfilled, forever.”
Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary series began in 2008 with “Generation Loss,” a startling and addictive novel that introduced a protagonist fueled by drugs and post-punk irreverence. The series continues with the fourth Cass Neary novel, THE BOOK OF LAMPS AND BANNERS (Mulholland, 344 pp., $27), in which Cass becomes embroiled in a crime in London: A book dealer is murdered, a rare book — a lost manuscript rumored to have been written by Aristotle for his student Alexander the Great called “The Book of Lamps and Banners” — is stolen, and the Swedish millionaire who bought it goes missing. The book has a history of causing trouble; it has “left more bodies than the Maltese Falcon.” It also happens to be bound in human skin, a practice known as anthropodermic bibliopegy.
The book, which “could change everything we know about ancient history,” creates an exciting hunt for Cass and her old flame, Quinn. Along the way, Cass burns through neo-Nazis, a bag of crank, a has-been singer from the 1980s turned villain and so many substances that it makes one fear she won’t make it to Book 5.
I hope she does. Cass Neary is a remarkable heroine. As with Sherlock Holmes, her power lies in the act of seeing what ordinary people cannot, only where Holmes brings clues to light, Neary is content to linger in the dark. Her eye catches the liminal spaces between clarity and shadow so well I found myself rereading passages for the beauty of her way of seeing. Here is Cass upon finding a flock of sheep: “Half a dozen boulders stood in the pasture. Then one of the boulders moved, and another, until all had turned to stare at me. Not boulders but sheep, five black ewes and a black ram with an imposing set of curled horns. They seemed not to blink, each of their eerie amber eyes slashed by a horizontal black pupil. … I focused the lens until the viewfinder held nothing but a single iris, its flattened pupil a portal into an unknowable darkness.”
The darkness lingering in Cass’s psyche is the true mystery of this series. The question isn’t ever if Cass will solve the crime, but if she can overcome her own demons.
Like Hand’s Cass Neary novels, Stuart Turton’s THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER (Sourcebooks Landmark, 463 pp., $26.99) lies between genres — it is a mystery with an occult MacGuffin, a demonic symbol that bodes ill for a group of travelers aboard a United East India Company galleon. Traveling from Batavia to Amsterdam in 1634, the infamous detective Samuel Pipps, known as the Sparrow, a man with a legendary mind and a “fragile beauty,” is brought aboard the ship in manacles, accompanied by his Watson-like partner, Arent Hayes, a large, sweet-natured man known as the Bear. This team sets out to uncover a mystery: A devil by the name of Old Tom is hiding on the ship, and he must be found.
“The Devil and the Dark Water,” like Turton’s first novel, “The 7½ Deaths of Eleanor Hardcastle,” is compulsively readable, slightly over the top and more interested in the mysteries of character and mise-en-scène than the rigors of plot. The horror elements are entertaining rather than terrifying, perfect for readers who like a little occult with their mystery but dare not get entangled in anything too scary. While there were times when I felt the novel unfolded a bit too slowly — it is 463 pages, and could easily have been shorter — Pipps and Hayes are such charming company that I was happy to travel with them for the extended journey.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is TINY NIGHTMARES (Catapult, 289 pp., paper, $16.95), a collection of short horror stories that entertain and frighten in the time it takes to boil water for tea. It brings together established horror writers — Samantha Hunt and Brian Evenson among them — with those who have published only a story or two, and the result is thrilling in its variety. With so many authors, it is inevitably diverse, the stories representing a wide range of horror, everything from the speculative to the political, the playful to the eerie to the visceral and terrifying. The editors, Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, chose stories that deliver a huge emotional impact, their power directly inverse to their word count.
Some of my favorites were the eerie “Parakeets,” by Kevin Brockmeier, in which a cage of birds begin to speak in voices not their own, and the creepy “We’ve Been in Enough Places to Know,” by Corey Farrenkopf, which mixes social inequity with cryptozoology when a group of squatters encounters a “creature living in the basement … gurgling at all hours.” Helen McClory’s spooky “Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-66” is a tale of a museum docent who sees ghosts in paintings, the eponymous Gabriel Metsu in particular. Like Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the story captures the terror of replication — the frightening possibility that a copy might prove as powerful as the original. Or even more so.
Mannequins, like statues and haunted dolls, terrify not because of their monstrous features, but the opposite: They are scarily perfect. With a placid, vacuous expression and an icy indifference to the suffering of the living, a mannequin demonstrates that human feeling is in itself irrelevant. Theirs is the horror of chill perfection, and in their presence one experiences the unsettling sensation of being undone by a simulation.
In NIGHT OF THE MANNEQUINS (Tordotcom, 135 pp., paper, $13.99), Stephen Graham Jones taps into these elements to explore the disruptions of growing up. A group of high school friends discover Manny, “a naked white mannequin” like a “giant Ken doll,” their sophomore year near a creek. All that year, Manny is passed around among them and then forgotten. When their senior year arrives, the narrator decides to “bring him back for this perfect prank” as a way of “honoring the kids we’d been.” The result is not what he expected, and makes for a horror novella that is both weird and uncanny by turns. Suffused with questions about the nature of change and friendship, “Night of the Mannequins” is a fairy tale of impermanence showcasing Graham Jones’s signature style of smart, irreverent horror.
A darker look at mannequins is found in Junji Ito’s graphic adaptation of Edogawa Ranpo’s story “An Unearthly Love.” A wife overhears her husband making love to his mistress in an attic and, returning later, she discovers “a cold, lifeless doll. The sheer verisimilitude of it was such that it made me gasp and shudder.” Her revenge on the mannequin is absolute, as is everything in this insanely scary collection of graphic stories, VENUS IN THE BLIND SPOT (Viz Media, 272 pp., $22.99). The book showcases some of Ito’s most loved shorter pieces, such as the visually arresting “Billions Alone,” in which the discovery of two corpses “firmly sewn together” with fishing line opens into a national mystery as more and more bodies are discovered tethered together. I particularly liked another Ranpo adaptation, “The Human Chair,” about “an ugly furniture maker who was carried away by a violent passion” and “hid himself inside of a chair he had built and gave himself over to the pleasures of his perversion.” “Edogawa Ranpo” is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, and the pen name of Taro Hirai (1894-1965).
The 1964 French novel THE TENANT (Valancourt, 176 pp., $15.99), by Roland Topor, was adapted into a horror film by Roman Polanski in 1976 — eight years after his iconic “Rosemary’s Baby” — and then largely forgotten; it’s just been reissued with a new introduction by R. B. Russell. Translated by Francis Price, the novel follows the disenfranchised and arguably sociopathic Monsieur Trelkovsky as he moves into an apartment in Paris, and is quickly ostracized by his neighbors. The central dilemma Trelkovsky faces is one of erasure: He desperately wants to find a home, but he can’t find his place. He was forced from his former apartment, and thinks: “Others would come into it … and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next he would have vanished.”
Menacing neighbors is a subject Topor knew intimately. During World War II, his father was imprisoned in a camp in Pithiviers, and escaped before he could be sent to Auschwitz. Topor’s French landlady turned on the family, took their possessions and tried to inform the government of his father’s whereabouts. After the war, they sued her for their possessions and returned to their former apartment, where they remained, paying rent to the woman who had betrayed them.
In his introduction, Russell writes that “The Tenant” is “not so much a book about becoming an outsider. … It is about the absurdity of that society we all crave to be a part of.” While Topor, who was also a visual artist, is most often thought of as a surrealist, “The Tenant” is naturalistic, its portrait of predatory neighbors plausible in a way that demands one consider the banality of our tormentors: Even that mundane guy down the hall with bad breath and a comb-over is capable of evil.