Phil Sloman is a writer of dark fiction. His novella Becoming David was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Society Best Newcomer award in 2017. His short stories can be found throughout various anthologies.
In the humdrum of everyday life, Phil lives with an understanding wife and a trio of vagrant cats who tolerate their human slaves. There are no bodies buried beneath the patio as far as he is aware.
What horrors make Phil Sloman uncomfortable?
When the opportunity arose to compile a list of ten things related to horror I pondered what might offer something a little different. I didn’t want to do a top ten as I always find those subjective and my own top ten horror books, films, etc will vary given the time of day, the direction of the wind and the willingness of my ageing brain cells to play ball. So I thought about what I’ve been reading over the past few years and how this has been influencing my own writing. In doing so it struck me I quite like what I shall dub uncomfortable horror.
Now uncomfortable horror is a suitably ambiguous title that it gives me room to squeeze in a couple of books which may or may not meet its loose requirements. That’s fine. Lists are a way to share great books with people and their defined theme is merely a way to bring those of a similar ilk together. So my definition for uncomfortable horror is those books which make you feel a slight shift to the left when you read them, something which causes your brain to feel grimy and as if it would do wonders to scratch the dirt away in large clumps with your fingernails. It can include blood and guts and sex and violence but more often than not these are physical props residing in the background, mere aides to the psychological perversion being drip fed through the skill of the writer and the effectiveness of their prose.
So I offer up ten books for consideration, each with its own unique way to distort your moral and mental wellbeing, often with a protagonist who will subvert the world around them, and perhaps some of those on offer may even fuel a lunatic-like obsession which will require comforting words come the end. Sit down, enjoy and don’t feel too awkward afterwards.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The chances are you will have seen this book in a hundred and one other lists. The reason is this is simply an astoundingly well written book (as is pretty much anything else written by Shirley Jackson). I first came across We Have Always Lived in the Castle about six or seven years ago when I was part of the Scrolls podcast on Geek Syndicate. My initial impression was that I had been submerged in something so oppressive that I needed a sit down to recover.
Mary Kate (Merricat) Blackwood is eighteen years old and lives with her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian on their family estate. The rest of the immediate family is dead, killed when arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl; something Constance was suspected and acquitted of. Isolated from the rest of the village, the Blackwood’s lead a secluded existence until cousin Charles appears and the truth is eventually revealed.
The tale is driven by Merricat and her outlook on the world. We are drawn into her sphere of reality, her perceptions of right and wrong and normality. It is an oppressive world but one which sucks you into its eager maw. This is a must read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Ritual by David Pinner
There are no likeable characters in this book. None at all. Plus the style of the writing is jarring and awkward at times creating its own discomfort. And I bloody love it.
Let’s get past the key issue which crops up when people discuss Ritual. Did it influence The Wicker Man or did The Wicker Man influence it? There are some who will get in to a long defence of either perspective. Personally I don’t care. The stories are pretty much the same although the ending is significantly different.
Now that’s done let’s continue. The story. Set in rural Cornwall in the village of Thorn, police officer David Hanlin arrives to investigate the death of eight year old Dian Spark. He is met by obstruction and suspicion throughout the tale as he narrows down his suspects until we reach the book’s culmination which completely took me by surprise.
Folk horror, psychological trickery and sexual seduction all blur into a one to give a cult classic.
Netsuke by Rikki Ducornet
This wouldn’t necessarily fall into most people’s definition of horror yet, as with Ritual, there are no likeable characters to be found. Everyone is flawed.
This is a book about power. The power of a psychoanalyst over his patients and his wife Akiko as he compartmentalises all aspects of his life. He seduces both patients and strangers with the same ferocity, driven by his own desires and own sense of superiority.
Our protagonist delights in the subtle psychological torment of his wife, leaving clues to his infidelities in his speech and conversation while still needing her to be part of his life. His own desires and need to push boundaries slowly unravel as aspects of his life move beyond his control.
Throughout, Ducornet’s prose is exquisite and weaves a carefully constructed tale of power and deceit.
I must give thanks to Georgina Bruce, BFS Award winning writer, for introducing me to this. She has good taste in literature and is a damned fine writer to boot; go check out her writing.
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
Quentin P wants to create a Zombie. A sex slave of sorts. He is a man child protected by his parents and given the freedom to live out his life with his predilections masked from society.
On a high level Zombie tells us the tale of a serial killer and sexual predator finding and killing men until he can create his perfect puppet. But it is far more than that.
Zombie is told from Quentin’s point of view and plants us firmly in the mind of this dangerous psychopath. While the book is brutal at times the real terror and discomfort comes from Oates’ purposefully simplistic portrayal of a man chasing his base desires with no thought for anyone else’s needs other than his own. Victims mount up but these are simply failed experiments in Quentin’s quest for a love object he can control.
This is another tale of power, dominance and yet this one is tinged with a dangerous naivety. Uncomfortable reading but essential.
Unger House Radicals by Chris Kelso
This is a book which will have you considering it long after you have put it down. It will push your boundaries and have you questioning society and possibly your own outlook on life.
Young filmmaker Vincent meets up with serial killer Brandon and give birth to the Ultra Realism Movement; a cinematic, artistic and philosophical movement. Their approach is brutal and Kelso’s writing is unflinching in describing the depravities they undertake. It would be simple to say this is why this book makes the list but that is not what I see as the discomfort afforded by Unger House Radicals.
There is a mirror being held up to our current and future world, challenging the reader while structuring a narrative of violence, cults and fractured psyches.
Unger House Radicals is a book unlike any other you will read. The writing is dark yet exquisite, exploring uncomfortable horrors of mankind in a compelling, unique way. Not one for the faint hearted.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
As with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Wasp Factory is one of those books which appears on a hundred plus lists and with good cause.
“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons than I disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.’
The Wasp Factory brings us into the dark and broken world of sixteen year old Frank. Set on a Scottish island we find secrets and anger and bitterness and boredom and symbolism. Frank spends his time building dams, maintaining his weapons and undertaking bizarre rituals on the island. His brother Eric escapes from a mental hospital and endeavours to return to his brother and father.
While the book itself has strong content in respect to animal torture, sacrifice and the murder of minors the real discomfort comes from the relationship between Frank and his father and the effect this has had in Frank’s development and general demeanour. There is a whole world of psychological damage simmering beneath the surface.
The final reveal will be well known by many but I will not discuss it for those knew to the story. Suffice to say, when you sit down to consider the implications it will haunt you for days.
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
This book became an obsession for me. I have never had a book grab me so completely, on the periphery of my thoughts travelling to work, with friends and in my dreams.
Johnny Truant, tattoo parlour employee, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive blind man found dead in his apartment. The notebook tales the annotated story of the Navidsons and as they move into their new family home. Will Navidson, father, husband and photojournalist, discovers the house they live in is shifting, closets become mile long corridors where people become lost and monsters reside.
Yet House of Leaves is also about Johnny Truant as much as it is about the Navidsons and their house. What is real in Johnny’s life and what is imagined?
The style of the book is almost journalistic in approach yet the narrative is laid out in ever more bizarre and inventive ways with the need to rotate the book to read the words or mysteries being explored in the footnotes and appendices within its covers. It is like a wonderful Rubik’s cube of a story which has been presented for you to resolve.
I considered whether to include House of Leaves in this list and then thought I would regret not doing so. While it may not fully fit my loose definition of uncomfortable horror, the overriding theme of this book is one of inescapable obsession.
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr Ripley, that’s a thriller, right? What’s it doing on a horror list? Well, I thought I would throw in a curve ball plus it is here with good cause!
The Sunday Times said of The Talented Mr Ripley that it is ‘As haunting and harrowing a study of a schizophrenic murderer as paper will bear.” I think that’s a pretty decent summation.
Tom Ripley is a twenty-five year old living from week to week with little to no means. He is propositioned by Herbert Greenleaf to visit his son Dickie Greenleaf in Italy and persuade him to return to the family business. Encouraged by financial incentive, Tom heads to Italy where he infiltrates himself into Dickie’s life and that of Dickie’s friend Marge.
Ripley sees a chance for riches which leads to murder and deceit and a slow mental breakdown. We see a world unravel and a man become more desperate as he seeks to cover his tracks in the most elaborate way possible.
Highsmith has the gift of making you empathise with the charming, yet reprehensible and vile, Ripley as his own nihilism and narcissism seek to destroy his world and that of those around him.
Possibly a loose fit into the grouping of uncomfortable horror when viewed purely on the face value, yet the underlying griminess of Tom Ripley and his ability to inveigle his way into the lives of others for his own personal gain makes this a worthy addition.
Miss Homicide Plays the Flute by Brendan Connell
Obsession, death and the grotesqueries of life are the overriding themes of this offering from Brendan Connell. It is a curious tale, set in Western Europe mixing the violence of the assassin’s trade with the banality of precisely detailed lists which break up the narrative.
Serena Plievier is a flautist and assassin. Serena is hired, through a third party, to travel to Italy to kill twenty year old Pier at the request of his younger brother Glauco. But that is almost immaterial. At times Miss Homicide Plays the Flute reads as an historical account of the fine arts and music of years long gone yet there is a passion which seeps through the carefully chosen words that keeps the reader’s attention.
Each character is beautifully presented and each is one wonderfully flawed with idiosyncrasies drawn to highlight their stark ugliness. Connell explores the perverse with relish and humour, using Serena as a catalyst to bring out the worst in his players and let us revel in their tawdriness.
Miss Homicide Plays the Flute is a rare creature, a mixture between storytelling and the creation of a work of art. Connell manages to pull it off, and do so very well. Not for the casual reader, the story flits between narrative, action and the exploration of ideas, this is a book to make you think and to draw you into a world where everything is most definitely a little off kilter.
The Waking That Kills by Stephen Gregory
I picked this book up on a whim in Waterstones one day and I am glad I did.
The Waking That Kills is a descent into madness for the residents of Chalke House, both old and new. The story is related to us by Christopher Beale returning to England from Borneo and what we get is a mixture of heat of the jungle and the heat of the English countryside in summer as we venture to Chalke House, home to Juliet and Lawrence Lundy. Christopher is there to home school the adolescent Lawrence, a youth with unaddressed personality traits. What we get is a claustrophobic menacing tale as the relationships develop and assertion of power begins.
The way Gregory uses language throughout is compelling and builds an atmosphere which is as much the star of the piece as the main characters. Very much recommended to those who like darker writing which is more about place than action.
So there you go, my list of 10. Hopefully there is something within for you to enjoy if enjoy is the right word! I would love to hear of any suggestions you have of books to include so feel free to get in touch.
Phil Sloman’s Amazon author page can be found here