10 Horror Books That Prove War is Hell

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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.

The cover of the book Frankenstein in BaghdadFrankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi

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 cover of the book Blood CrimeBlood Crime

Sebastia Alzamora

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.

 

The cover of the book She Said DestroyShe Said Destroy

Nadia Bulkin

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.

 

The cover of the book KokoKoko

Peter Straub

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 cover of the book The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous GeographiesThe Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies

John Langan

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.

 

The cover of the book DeathlessDeathless

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.

 

The cover of the book Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red BaronAnno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron

Kim Newman

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.

 

The cover of the book Black Mad WheelBlack Mad Wheel

Josh Malerman

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.

 

The cover of the book When the World WoundsWhen 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 cover of the book The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us AllThe Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

Laird Barron

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.

So You Want to Read Literary Horror: Here’s Where to Start

Horror, as a genre, has a tendency to get a bit of a bad rap outside of its rather ardent fan base, despite the fact that more than a few literary icons made their bones on the backs of some truly spine-tingling tales (Ray Bradbury, anyone?). There has long been a strong relationship between literary fiction and the horror genre – the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde can attest to that. While violence and gore and things that more traditionally go bump in the night certainly have their place, so too do well-crafted sentences and deeper philosophical underpinnings. Over the last decade or so, there has somewhat quietly been a resurgence in literary horror as immensely talented writers pick up the genre trappings of horror, tear them apart and fuse them back together into wholly original and truly unsettling creations. Writers like China Mieville, Brian Evenson, and Jeff VanderMeer are following the footsteps of Bradbury, Peter Straub, and Shirley Jackson and creating some stunningly imaginative and extraordinarily unsettling prose. Here are a few of our (relatively) recent favorites.

The cover of the book House of LeavesHouse of Leaves

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI

If you haven’t read House of Leaves, go grab a copy now. We’re happy to wait, it’s just that good. I’m pretty confident saying this literary head-spinner is unlike any other novel you’ve read. Part epistolary novel, part haunted house thriller, with a bit of weird fiction thrown in for good measure – House of Leaves is a difficult book to pin down or describe. It’s a narrative as twisting (literally) and expansive as the house it chronicles.

 

The cover of the book White is for WitchingWhite is for Witching

HELEN OYEYEMI

The fairy tale form is built on a dark undercurrent that, in many ways, is the perfect foundation for horror. That’s something that Helen Oyeyemi illustrates with terrifying brilliance in White is for Witching. The story centers on the Silver family, specifically the four generations of Silver women who have lived in the family home. When her mother passes, Lily, the latest in the family line, begins experiencing strange ailments and soon the Silver house itself begins to manifest malevolent intent. It is at once a dread-inducing mystery and powerful examination of race and family legacy.

 

The cover of the book The Library at Mount CharThe Library at Mount Char

SCOTT HAWKINS

Literary horror is at its best when writers play with readers’ expectations to create something that is at once familiar enough but also wildly original. Scott Hawkins draws from a wide range of influences for The Library at Mount Char – there are hints of Gaiman, a bit of Lovecraft, a little King. Hawkins takes inspiration before proceeding to tear it all to shreds and glue the pieces back together into something truly original, grotesque, and oddly beautiful.

 

The cover of the book A Head Full of GhostsA Head Full of Ghosts

PAUL TREMBLAY

A Head Full of Ghosts owes a nod to The Haunting of Hill House and The Exorcist for its slow-burn, constantly-shifting narrative. The novel centers on a suburban New England family coming to grips with a fourteen year old daughter who’s suddenly showing signs of schizophrenia – or so they hope. What follows is a novel that riffs on unreliable narration, reality TV, and familial tragedies in ways that are both unexpected and truly unsettling.

 

The cover of the book The Little StrangerThe Little Stranger

SARAH WATERS

With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters reinvigorated Gothic fiction in a way that would’ve made Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe proud. Part haunted house horror, part unreliable narration, and part social critique, The Little Stranger is a deeply unsettling descent into madness and dread within the walls of a crumbling Georgian Mansion where a malevolent presence may or may not be lurking.

 

The cover of the book Mr. ShiversMr. Shivers

ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT

Mr. Shivers reads like the literary love child of China Mieville and John Steinbeck. It’s The Grapes of Wrath by way of Lovecraft. Bennett’s tale of a father on the trail of the possibly otherworldly killer who murdered his daughter is a slow-burn piece of dread-fueled Americana. Robert Jackson Bennett has quietly positioned himself as one of the more talented voices in the New Weird genre, and Mr. Shivers remains among his best work.

 

The cover of the book The HikeThe Hike

DREW MAGARY

Weird fiction and literary horror have long been comfortable bedfellows, and novels don’t get much weirder than Drew Magary’s The Hike. In this tale of a hike in rural Pennsylvania gone terribly wrong, Magary manages to infuse his pop culture references and classic folklore tropes with a nearly suffocating sense of existential dread.

 

The cover of the book DarkansasDarkansas

JARRET MIDDLETON

Jarret Middleton’s Darkansas is a novel that begins as an examination of familial strife and quickly progresses to one of preternatural dangers lurking just beyond the page and a century-old curse at its center. The story centers on itinerant musician who is his family’s black sheep. Unfortunately, any hope of reconciliation may have been doomed decades before he was born. It’s a dark, twisting page-turner with hints of Southern gothic lurking around the corners of its horror tinged sense of dread and juxtaposes its gritty reality against a mounting sense of surrealistic terror.

 

The cover of the book ThreatsThreats

AMELIA GRAY

“CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL.” Imagine you’ve just lost your spouse and you suddenly begin finding messages like those above hidden throughout your home: that’s the disturbing premise for Amelia Gray’s wholly unnerving examination of death, grief, and memory. The novel follows David, a man attempting to unravel the mystery of his wife’s death against his increasingly unreliable recollections and a world that no longer makes sense.

 

The cover of the book A Collapse of HorsesA Collapse of Horses

BRIAN EVENSON

Brian Evenson is the sort of writer who simply knows how to get under a reader’s skin. A Collapse of Horses is a short story collection that grapples with some big existential questions on reality and perception while simultaneously veering into the sort of grotesquerie that will leave you haunted long after you finish the last tale.

Genre Friday – Rampant Technology Horror

Toaster

Like this except, you know, evil.

It’s late, the wind is howling outside, you’re all alone in the house… and then your computer comes to life with malevolent intelligence and takes over all your appliances. Next thing you know your chased screaming from your home with sinister kitchen appliances and a surprisingly angry vacuum cleaner close on your heels only to find your lawn mower and snow blower waiting to ambush you in the front yard. Through the creative and unrestrained use of a shovel and framing hammer (thank goodness the simple tools haven’t turned against you) and running, lots of running, you manage to barely survive the night.

We’ve all been there.

Rampant Technology Horror (aka “The machines are alive and killing everyone!”) is a small but memorable horror subgenre dealing with exactly what it sounds like – technology and machines that have either taken on a life of their own or are being controlled by some mysterious outside force and subsequently turned on their erstwhile masters. It all exploits the fear that man has gone too far and dared too much, creating machines and technology that we can no longer understand (who knows how an iPad works? *crickets*), let alone control. The best (read most ridiculous and therefore entertaining) of the subgenre, in my humble opinion, comes from the late 70s to early 90s when it was all evil automobiles (see Stephen King’s film Maximum Overdrive, based on his short story Trucks) and horrifying home appliances (again, Stephen King provides an example with his story The Mangle about a violent washing machine). Once the digital age was upon us and computers became a household item though they stole the limelight and it all became frighteningly plausible.