Writing horror fiction that revolves around war can be a difficult task. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling a story centered around warfare itself, situated on its edges, or examining its aftermath: when you’re dealing with real events that have taken countless lives and affected even more, finding the right way to show awareness of the human cost of these events is crucial.
When done well, the addition of horrific elements into stories of warfare can accentuate certain themes, and can magnify the most chilling aspects of war. Here’s a look at ten works of fiction that add a dose of the supernatural into real-life horrors, creating something that blends the visceral power of history with the terror of the uncanny.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
As its title suggests, Ahmed Saadawi’s novel is set in the city of Baghdad. The year is 2005: American troops occupy the city, suicide bombings punctuate the landscape, and the abuses of the Baathist regime still haunt the memories of many. Into this landscape steps an ominous figure: a man created from the bodies of the dead, who seeks revenge on those who murdered the people whose limbs and organs now comprise him. As he replaces bits of himself, though, his quest for revenge grows murkier, leading the narrative into a complex and haunting place.
The Spanish Civil War has been the backdrop for many tales of the supernatural: Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed films “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” both come to mind. Sebastià Alzamora’s novel Blood Crime sets up a morally tense situation from the outset, with different factions circling one another in a besieged town. The presence of a vampire lurking in the shadows ups the tension further, as the narrative moves from the surrealism of war to something akin to a nightmare.
She Said Destroy
The aftereffects of war and political unrest abound in the stories contained in Nadia Bulkin’s collection She Said Destroy. Key among them is “Intertropical Convergence Zone,” which draws its inspiration from the thirty-plus years when Hajji Suharto was President of Indonesia. The political crackdowns and repression that characterized his regime are, in this story, turned into something more surreal and ominous — and yet the weight of history gives it an increased power as well.
Some of Peter Straub’s most unnerving fiction takes readers far into the uncanny; others focus on a more human variety of monster. In Koko, the aftermath of the Vietnam War provides the backdrop for a harrowing story of memory and murder. Its central characters are a group of American veterans, reunited by the horrific actions taken by someone with whom they served. What emerges is a winding tale of shifting identities and secret histories, an unsettling novel with a sprawling scope.
The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies
The title story of this collection from John Langan blends a host of elements: a story of several friends being stalked by a sinister supernatural figure, with a science-fictional spin on a familiar figure from horror literature thrown in. The fact that this story centers around a group of veterans with PTSD, and that it thematically lines up with its larger themes of perception and violence, gives it an even greater weight.
Catherynne M. Valenti
There’s no shortage of conflict when looking at the history of Russia in the 20th century. In her novel Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente gives this history a supernatural spin, incorporating elements of Russian folklore that accentuate the sinister aspects of totalitarianism under Stalin. Think omnipresent ever-watching beings, immortal entities making sinister bargains, and the moral bargains ordinary people make in order to survive. Here, the presence of the otherworldly is far from escapist.
Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron
The Bloody Red Baron is one of several novels by Kim Newman set in an alternate timeline blending history from the 19th century onward with characters from the literature of the period. (The title of the first of these, Anno Dracula, might give you a sense of who’s at the center of this.) The Bloody Red Baron reimagines the First World War, leaving the very human horrors in place but adding in a layer of disquieting supernatural menace.
Black Mad Wheel
The middle of the 20th century found the United States military involved in a number of actions overseas, from combat to covert operations. The novel Black Mad Wheel involves a small group of musicians summoned by the military to investigate a strange sound in the desert. What ensues is an unsettling story about the nature of time and the unanticipated perils of conflict.
When the World Wounds
Kiini Ibura Salaam
Conflicts abound in the stories found within Kiini Ibura Salaam’s collection When the World Wounds, from tales of aliens clashing with the rules of their society to a surreal account of post-Katrina New Orleans. Among the most gripping works in the collection is “Hemmie’s Calenture,” about a woman who escapes from slavery only to find herself caught up in a long-running supernatural conflict set against the backdrop of the War of 1812. Here, questions of power and the human cost of warfare remain in the forefront of the narrative.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
Laird Barron’s forays into horror rarely shy away from the phantasmagorical or the ominous, but he simultaneously never loses sight of the human scale at which these works play out. That blend of psychological veracity and imaginative terrors makes for deeply compelling reading. The protagonist of the story “The Men From Porlock” has seen unspeakable things in Europe during the First World War; after returning back to the United States, he finds himself witnessing uncanny echoes of that time and glimpses of the impossible.