Culture

5 Cinematic Horror Novels to Take You Through Fall

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Halloween is a really big deal these days. It seems like it wasn’t so long ago that the Halloween “season” consisted of a week of extra candy at the local supermarket, a ramshackle haunted house in the church basement (“oooh … these grapes feel like eyeballs!”), and a couple of public domain horror movies on a UHF station. Fast-forward to the present and it’s a true season: Supermarkets set up Halloween sections in early September, costume shops colonize retail space all over town, haunted attractions compete for eyeballs on every billboard, and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is nearly washed away in a deluge of Halloween programming. To all of this we say “Amen”! Any holiday built on a foundation of candy, horror stories, and letting your freak flag fly deserves to metastasize.

We agree that October is great for horror movies – but then what about November? The combination of colder nights, bare trees, and candy-induced lethargy creates the perfect atmosphere for curling up with an eldritch tome -- that is, the horror novel. We don’t want to leave movies behind altogether, though, so we’ve pulled together five books in which the worlds of horror and film collide.

Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas
In this 1994 novel, a young man engages in an obsessive pursuit of any information regarding a cult film known as “Throat Sprockets.” Exposure to the film causes him to develop an erotic fixation on women’s throats, a pathology that spreads to the rest of society as the film’s notoriety grows, ultimately with catastrophic results.

Tim Lucas – founder and editor of the genre cinephile’s bible, Video Watchdog – clearly understands the true obsessive’s fear of hounding a fixation down a psychological rabbit hole. He teases this fear into something operatic and uses it to create an indelible nightmare.

The Drive-In: A “B” Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas by Joe R. Lansdale
TV personality/drive-in aficionado Joe Bob Briggs had a special rating he reserved for only the finest exploitation films: “anyone can die at any time.” If Joe R. Landsdale’s novel didn’t already have a terrific subtitle, that could serve just fine. Four friends decide to attend the world’s largest drive-in all-night horror movie marathon. Shortly after their arrival, a comet streaks by the theater and everyone finds themselves trapped inside the facility, suspended in some forbidding void. What ensues is a fuel-injected Lord of the Flies with nachos, Twizzlers, and a demonic entity named the Popcorn King. It’s a novel that reads like a dozen disreputable horror films happening at the same time. There are – of course – two sequels.

Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
While he has never dominated bestseller lists like King or Koontz, Ramsey Campbell spent more than forty years cementing a legacy as one of the great horror writers of his generation. His thirty novels and dozens of short stories display a remarkable consistency of vision and quality. Any of them would serve as a good starting point, but the one that best aligns with our interests today is Ancient Images. In the novel, film researcher Sandy Allan is investigating the death of a colleague and its connection to a long-suppressed film co-starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Her search leads her to the isolated town of Redfield, where secrets abound, as do things that go bump in the night. Campbell, who started his career writing stories in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, imbues the Redfield sequences with an atmosphere reminiscent of the master’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth.” The book as a whole is a perfect example of Campbell’s signature aesthetic, which, much like a Karloff/Lugosi film, eschews cheap scares and gore for ominous shadow and the power of suggestion.

Flicker by Theodore Roszak
The early 1960s: UCLA film student Jonathan Gates is spending entirely too much time at rundown repertory cinema The Classic. He develops a fascination with the work of German émigré director Max Castle, who disappeared in 1941. As he builds a reputation as a film scholar and as the leading expert on Castle’s oeuvre, Gates discovers that the object of his obsession had an enormous influence on the Hollywood of his day, even collaborating with Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane” and his ill-fated adaptation of “Heart of Darkness.” He also learns that Castle had discovered techniques that allowed him to conceal alternate messages and narratives in his films and was likely using said techniques to indoctrinate audiences in the philosophy of the Orphans of the Storm, the apocalyptic religious cult to which Castle swore fealty.

Theodore Roszak’s novel may seem to bear more of the outward trappings of a mystery or thriller, but the implications for the characters are horrific enough to chill anyone’s blood. More importantly, the book’s focus on Castle’s subliminal techniques injects a sliver of fear into the act of submission central to all filmgoing. We enter a dark room to willingly sit in thrall to waves of light and sound. The idea of having our trust violated when we are at our most open and receptive is the stuff of horror.

 A Graveyard for Lunatics by Ray Bradbury
Nearly everything the late, lamented Ray Bradbury penned seemed to have the sighing of a fall wind and the skitter of fallen leaves on pavement hovering around the margins. This novel, which opens with the protagonist discovering a body en route to a graveyard rendezvous one Halloween midnight is no exception. The protagonist is a gloss on Bradbury himself and much of the novel’s background is informed by the time he spent working on several films in the stumbling remnants of the studio system in the early 1950s. Other characters function as stand-ins for legendary stop motion animator – and lifelong Bradbury friend – Ray Harryhausen, director Fritz Lang, and brilliant cinematographer James Wong Howe. The narrative is structured like a classic mystery, but it’s awash in Bradbury’s affection for monster movies and all the trappings of classic horror. Think of it as a literary digestif, designed to gently sooth the palate after the horror recommended above and ease you into a long winter nap.

Tell us: What’s your favorite cinematically focused creepy novel?