My Favourite Horror Novel
I put my hand up for this too quick. See, Gavin’s tweet, whether he realised it or not, was a cunning bait-and-switch and I didn’t fully realise until it was too late and I’d already signed up:
“What was the horror novel that changed your life?
Kendall Reviews is looking for Authors & Publishers to share their reviews of their favourite Horror novels”
So which do I do? The one that changed my life? Or the one that’s my favourite? Like there was just one of either… and like the ones that changed me were necessarily also my favourites. Because the ones that changed me, they’ve been largely superseded by others that I love more. For example:
- Cujo, Stephen King – my first, and probably still my sweetest dose of the good stuff. Purest. Up until that point – I was only twelve years old – I’d been a good boy and obeyed the whole ‘horror is bad for you’ thing. It was a dirty genre. Shameful. But damn, if rabies wasn’t already a core terror for me anyway – the madness, the aggression, the fear of water. Stories my dad had told me about it when I was growing up from his time doing VSO in Zambia in his own youth. And those fucking posters at the ferry ports warning you not to smuggle it into the country:
And there in the horror section, looking at me, daring me, was that book, with that cover. Same as that poster at the ports.
It was only a matter of time, really, before I picked that fucker up. And then one day I did. And that was the day everything changed.
- The Great and Secret Show (the first book of the Art), Clive Barker – so, a few years post-Cujo and I was making pretty solid headway through Stephen King. Pretty sure I’d done a bunch of James Herbert by that point too. Dean Koontz (he was Dean R Koontz back then… don’t know what happened to that ‘R’, but pretty sure the magic disappeared right along with it). But anyway – the rules were formulating. Good and evil. Monsters and heroes. Good didn’t always out, but reality was, by and large, real. With weird shit happening in it. It was starting to feel safe. Known terrain. This was the first time a book went eyeball to eyeball with me and scorched all of that bullshit. Shredded the rules. Unweaved reality. Blew my mind. All. Bets. Off.
Those are the two that pulsate in my mind as life-changers. But they’re not my favourites. They will always hold special places in my heart, but as far as King goes I’m not sure Cujo would even make my top 10 now. Maybe. Sitting here writing about it and remembering it now, I’m keen to go back and see – so don’t hold me to that. But would it beat Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, IT, Misery… Insomnia… The Dark Tower…? Probably not.
And then Barker, and The Great and Secret Show. I’ve gone back to that a few times since and there has been a tangible law of diminishing returns. Weaveworld is tighter. Sacrement is more emotionally impactful. Naked. Beautiful and devastating. And I’ve not gone back to Everville, its sequel, since the first read but I do remember feeling somewhat deflated and left hungry for more. It felt smaller, and it should have been bigger. Maybe I should go back to that one. Writing that now, I’m happy to concede that my own expectations may well have spiked the results. And all of which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be first in line for the concluding volume of that Art trilogy but… just that soft, whispering sadness that it’s not gonna show up. Can we all say a prayer now that it does? (KR: Amen)
So. If the remit for this waffle was life-changers and favourites, and I’m ruling out the real life-changers, what are the favourites? So so many – but if we had to whittle it down to 5 absolute loves, then (in no particular order):
- Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons
- I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
- IT, Stephen King
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy
- The Sandman, Neil Gaiman (and friends)
And already I’m convinced I’ve left something out. But it doesn’t matter. Because that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for the one that most confidently ticks both boxes. The one that really fucking rattled me, changed me, and is a favourite as well (and, just for the record, I only left it out of the five favourites listed above because it’s coming up now – it occupies a space of its own). This is the one which, if someone who ‘didn’t do’ horror said, ‘go on then, prove it, gimme something’, this is the one I’d give them. Because fuckers like that need to be converted… or broken. And this is the only one that will do one or the other. Possibly – ideally – both. I can think of no other:
- Desperation, Stephen King
Man. That book. OK so, first up, it doesn’t pull a single fucking punch. Not once. The first word, the damn title, is ‘Desperation’. Stop and consider that for just a moment. You really want to come in here? Do you have any idea? The very first words in it are cries of alarmed horror as our characters drive past a road sign, out in the desert, with a dead cat – ‘a tiger stripe’ – nailed to it. And it goes downhill from there. It starts fucked, it stays fucked, and it gets exponentially more fucked from there on in. You think Pet Semetary does bleak? That the Creeds have it rough in Ludlow? Tell that to David Carver here in Desperation. The Creeds got off easy.
And that’s the thing. I mentioned rules earlier. You kinda find a comfort zone with storytellers, if you journey along with them long enough, and it can be a lovely thing because it means you can share the lifting with them, and that can add texture. You develop a short-hand and it feels like co-creation. But that can also strip things of surprise. You tend to have a sense of where you’re taking stuff together – to me, to you – and that’s probably true of King more than anyone else because of his sheer ubiquity. He’s in the grain now. We all know him. Some of us love him more than others. And we all have our favourites, our WTFs, and indeed our curve-balls (caveat: this is probably mine). Doesn’t mean he’s any less good, or that if you came to any of his stories as your first (cf: Cujo, above), it won’t getcha. Because it almost certainly will. Just that the more you do… y’know, familiarity and all that…
But Jesus wept, he just goes full tilt in here. Maine and Derry and Castle Rock and the Barrens are nowhere to be seen. ‘You want to go see a dead body?’ – not here you don’t, trust me. Not out here in the desert, out here where the Can-toi watch and wait, and the Can de lach governs the very fabric of reality. Think about it – when does King ever take you out into the desert? Never, that’s when. Or, maybe only when he wants to fuck you up safe in the knowledge that your body never gets found. I can’t think of any other desert stories of his. Children of the Corn comes close, and that was fucked too (if you think I mean the film, go read the short story, then come back). Which isn’t to say he ain’t got some desert stories out there – just that I can’t think of any past this one.
And again, back to the rules. That good and evil, heroes and monsters stuff. It’s all entirely redundant in here. Because this is desperation, not the place, or the novel, but the state of mind. This is the truth beyond the truth. There’s a lot of God in this book. But this God doesn’t give a fuck. Literally. No shits given. It’s just a force that exists. It’s set up in the character’s minds as a counterpoint to the ‘evil’ of Tak, but is it really? No. Not even close. God and Tak, good and evil, out here, out in the desert with the can-tah and can-tak are the same fucking thing. They’re just one energy. Cruel, purposeless, immense. Lovecraftian and other. Not us. Like radiation – this force would just as readily give you cancer as it might cure you of it – spin the wheel asshole, but don’t go thinking it gives a fuck. Because it doesn’t. It just is. So suck it up, kid, your whole family’s dead and you’re not and you think it’s because you prayed, but… whatever floats your boat.
Nothing in here cares. No purpose. No good, no evil. Just power. Raw. Huge. Relentless. But utterly, terrifyingly, brutally disinterested in us. Because for it to be interested in us would be absurd. We are nothing. This is what that truth looks like. This is what it feels like. This, is Desperation. And it’s fucking perfect.
And there’s the other thing with this novel. It’s way outta character for King to be quite this fucking cruel. Relentless. Out of control. He wrote The Regulators at the same time, with characters and themes torn from and echoing this one, and that’s full-blown fucking unhinged – and actually weaker for it, but still: he was clearly on one when he was in here. Unleashed. Almost as if he was fully, gleefully, willfully occupying the God-role over the characters and story that the in-story God-Tak force(s) occupy in the novel. There’s no space between him and that terrible, cold, random, cruel and purposeless entity. And it’s fucking chilling. We trusted you, dammit, how could you do this? What’s wrong with you?!
An analogy for how this one hits, and sticks, occurred to me ahead of writing this. It came in the wake of the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death a few weeks back. And it made me think about artists, and canon and all of that shit. And with Nirvana, everyone thinks Teen Spirit, or maybe All Apologies? Heart Shaped Box? You Know You’re Right? I dunno, but you know what I’m saying, one of those or one not too far distant from them. And it’s much the same with King. There’s those ones. The Shining. The Stand. IT. Salem’s Lot. The big numbers everyone goes to when asked, the ones everyone tries to cover. But are they the ones that are really the most them? I mean what’s the most Nirvana of Nirvana tunes. The one that’s most really, truly, them. Firing on all cylinders, nothing to gain or lose, nothing to prove, just pure fuck it, fuck you, watch this, weep.
On that score, I’d say the most Nirvana of all Nirvana tunes is Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. Trust me. Go listen to it again. Do it now. Do it loud. It’s ragged, and primal, and sounds like an exorcism of demons. Grohl is hammering away like he wants to destroy the world. Kurt is yowling and dripping with loathsome contempt for everything – himself as much as anything else (‘What is wrong with me?!’) – and Krist is sub-sonic rumbling the whole thing along like a train dropping down a cliff-face… it’s unstoppable, ugly, ravaged and ravishing and it simply. Doesn’t. Give. A. Fuck.
Like they remembered for a few short minutes just who it is they were, and just what it is they could do.
And that’s where Desperation sits in King’s canon. It’s that tune. It’s every version and face of him, turned up to 11, and playing like the world is about to burn. It is awesome. Monolithic. And cast out, into the desert, roaming with the can-toi. Watching you. Waiting. Ready. Knowing that you are nothing, that you have always been nothing, and will always be nothing.
Welcome to Desperation.
Born in Ireland and raised on the South Coast of England, Lee has always been a storyteller unburdened by fully formed attachments to any sense of national, class or even social identity. It’s taken a lifetime for him to find his way. Following stints working in record shops and branding companies, chugging and even for a while being a postman, he has recently spent a year as Secret Cinema’s storyteller on both Blade Runner (he has a copper-bottomed theory on whether Deckard is or isn’t a replicant) and Romeo + Juliet, before taking up a post as Writer and Narrative Designer at Connected Places Catapult, the UK government’s leading urban innovation agency. His overwhelming sense of isolation in an over-crowded world is one of the many themes in his debut novel The Truants, alongside child neglect, modern-day poverty, gender identity and the ever-widening gap in social mobility. Oh, and it has vampires too. Kind of. Nasty ones. Currently working on his second novel, Dead Kids, a sequel to The Truants, he still lives on the South Coast of England, but now with his fiancée, 3 kids (with 3 more flown the nest), and pooch. He is happy now – and not so lonesome – something he’s still working on getting used to.
You can find out more about Lee via his official website www.leemarkham.net
You can follow Lee on Twitter @LewisBoom
In a fresh twist on the traditional vampire narrative, The Truants is a startling, noirish tale of immortality, bloodlust and rage.
Following his lover s suicide, the last of the old-ones ancient immortal beings as clever as they are ruthless, and unable to withstand the light of the sun has had enough of this world gone to ruin and decides to end his existence. Yet as he waits for the burning dawn on a bench near a council estate, he is held up at knifepoint by a youth and stabbed. While the old-ones body turns to ashes with the rising sun, his assailant scurries back into the estate s feral underbelly with the knife in his pocket. The old one s blood is still seared into its sharpened blade, and as the knife does its bloody rounds his consciousness is awakened in the citys children from the depths of the afterlife. Determined to die, he must find and destroy the knife to regain control of his soul. But someone is out to stop him…
A sharp and powerful new voice, Lee Markham has written an intelligent, visceral novel which uncovers the fragility and hopelessness of Britain s social underclass and the horror of their everyday lives.