Top 13 Best Sci-fi Horror Books

Since Mary Shelley illuminated the literary world with a spark of life returned to dead flesh, horror and science fiction have been frequent bedfellows. Strange ones, by their nature, but also not–the foundations of science fiction are in horror and rarely fully escape any trace of it. However, there are certain books that have more than just traces–these books have large swathes of horror or are outright equally horror as sci-fi. The scariest books after all are the ones that burrow into the brain and stay there long after reading; what could be scarier than those that base themselves in the semi-known, yet oft mysterious world of the scientific? 

While some of these are genre fiction, and others are more literary horror, I have compiled a list of books which fit that bill. They either have multiple scenes that cross into horror throughout, or they share horror as just as much a genre as they do science or speculative fiction! 

The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep is a strange novel, more philosophical and deeply reflective than filled with alien jumpscares or the silent maw of space. It is also very intersectional with the lead being a queer transgender Indigenous woman. 

Set in a future where aliens have taken over earth to create a benevolent (if authoritarian) utopia, wives Trina and Deeba live happily until Deeba decides to use alien technology to relive her life and leave Trina behind in the process. Trina is devastated and through the technology begins exploring the nature of both consciousness and the aliens which they have allowed to control their lives. She decides to destroy the symbiotic Seep which controls them, even as it may mean destroying utopia in her grief.

This novel is a terrifying look into the what ifs not only of an alien future, but at how horror can be found in very human emotions: grief, anger, capitulation, obedience. All of these, as well as social issues such as race, class, and gender, are somewhat explored in the short but incredibly poignant and haunting standalone.

The Between by Ryan Leslie

Nerdy Paul and class clown Jay have been friends since childhood, never fully diverging as adults despite their many differences. When Paul discovers a trapdoor has appeared in his backyard, he is cajoled to enter by Jay. Suddenly, the pair find themselves thrust into the horrifying sci-fi world of their favorite dungeon explorer computer game from the early ’80s. Now stuck in the land of The Between game, the pair find themselves facing off not only against the big bad boss NPCs, but also each other and the demons that haunt their old friendship.

While not the best book on this list by far, it’s a very fun and entertaining read, crafted with far more care than the more successful (though gods know why) Ready Player One franchise of nostalgia bait. The Between injects real horror, genuine interpersonal drama, and creative use of tropes in with its manipulation of audience nostalgia. It does it well, even, and I very much recommend it more than RP1 and RP2, especially for those who like more edge to their sci-fi.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X is a beautiful place reclaimed by nature…or something like nature at least. All but the first expedition has died somehow either during their time in the containment area or soon after. The first book follows the twelfth, all-female expedition crew. As both the nature of Area X and of each crew member is revealed to the team, the journey into the unknown unravels and deals devastating consequences, which are addressed in book two. By book three, a final winter expedition makes its way into the now larger Area X, discovering terrifying truths at the heart of the tainted paradise.

In Lovecraft the terror comes from either the deep or the beyond, but VanderMeer masterfully crafted horror into the natural in a way that’s downright cosmic. It’s a shame the two other books won’t be adapted for film the way the first was.

The Collected Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft

Speak of the devil. While Lovecraft didn’t define the sci-fi/horror combination, he used it to create the genre of cosmic horror. While not all of Lovecraft’s stories are interconnected, the many stories of the Mythos are. They tie together Lovecraft’s stories of unfathomable cosmic deities, their demonic children, and their devilish occult followers and the havoc they wreak through indifferent madness or targeted chaos. While Cthulhu is the most famous of the Mythos gods and beings, there are many to torment and haunt the reader. And if those don’t, surely Lovecraft’s dated and horribly uncomfortable racist views will!

There is also a large expanded universe by many skilled and diverse authors that are very much worthy of investigating. I recommend Victor Lavalle, Cassandra Khaw, Matt Huff, John Hornor Jacobs, and of course, the inimitable Neil Gaiman (links to a free sample of his work).

Read these stories legally and online for free.

The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey

Want a long sci-fi series with lots of amazing horror elements and page lengths that make each novel usable as a weapon? Then Corey’s Expanse series is perfectly suited to your needs. There are far too many books in the series to explain everything, but here’s the rundown: when some ice miners from Saturn and a detective hunting for a missing girl run into each other on an abandoned ship hiding a secret, they must find a narrow path to safety by avoiding the eyes of the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations that hold sway over all aspects of life. 

While the series certainly is sci-fi to the extreme, the elements and tropes of horror are threaded throughout, particularly with body horror–after all the reactions of a human body exposed to the dangers of space can result in torturous consequences. Beyond this, certain characters have personalities that lend themselves to inducing terror without more than a few words. Highly recommend the series for the characters if nothing else.

There is also an excellent, though canceled before concluding, television adaptation.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past Series by Liu Cixin

MILD SPOILERS

We base an awful lot of our existence on certain concepts–scientifically, religiously, philosophically. But what if all of them were wrong? What if they were not only wrong, but purposefully coordinated by outside forces to completely stunt our development?

This is the terrifying premise of the Three Body Problem and its two sequels. This book is hard sci-fi at its finest, incorporating many elements of cosmic terror throughout the books both from the very real Trisolaran species, and the incredible philosophical terror behind the main thesis of the books: what do you do when everything you know is built on orchestrated lies?

The books have some issues regarding sexism. There’s absolutely no way to sugarcoat that, just as there is no way to sugarcoat Lovecraft’s racism. There is one plot point that genuinely made me angry. But I do think these books are great and have a lot of value for fans of these genres who want deep speculation in their sci-fi and horror.

This series is currently in production at Netflix.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Another sci-fi horror which relies heavily on the speculative and philosophical, Solaris uses exploration of an alien planet to explore the intersections of memory and identity. How much of you is memory? The crew of the ship sent to explore Solaris must begin to wrestle with this question as their memories of days past are resurfacing in literal forms. Does anything sinister lurk behind the planet or its intent?

Adapted for film twice, once well by Steven Soderbergh who was reimagining the Russian masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, the story lends itself to slow burn yet intensely heated drama and interpersonal and internal conflict. This is an alien story, yes, but not the explosive alien of Ridley Scott’s franchise–rather this one gets inside both character and reader in profoundly different ways. 

Who Goes There? Or The Thing by John W. Campbell

Originally a short story, The Thing got two film adaptations before the full novel version of the story (called Frozen Hell) was released by the Campbell estate. The novel follows an American crew whose research trip to McMurdo Antarctic Station becomes a shocking, bloodsoaked nightmare when they realize there is a shape-shifting alien hiding in the dog they rescued. As the novel goes on we’re left with questions about autonomy and identity, as well as who we can really trust.

The John Carpenter film is the most well known iteration of the story, which is very valid as it is an utterly incredible classic of both genres it represents. However, it’s very interesting to go back to the original source material to explore parallels and differences from the source material!

Read a free and legal copy from NYU here.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

This one is less on the list due to its own strength and more its overwhelming influence on the genres. As the most famous and one of the first of alien invasion fiction, the story of an English countryside being overtaken by apocalyptic aliens in giant walking machines had been adapted many times over the more than a century old novel.

The most infamous of this is the highly apocryphal tale of Orson Welles’ radio show hoax wherein allegedly thousands of people were convinced the broadcast was due to a real alien invasion. Little proof supports this as more than a gimmick put forth by Welles after the fact, but the story did scare listeners–just in a typical way for a horror show. It was also adapted into a Tom Cruise vehicle picture which wasn’t terrible, and it inspired thousands of books, films, shows, comics, and games about invasion by aliens.

Read it online legally and for free here.

World War Z by Max Brooks

This epistolary novel told in an almost documentary style is, in my opinion, probably the best example of the writing style ever chosen for use in genre fiction. World War Z uses dry, report-like language, interspersed with gripping personal, interview-like chapters in such an effective way that it literally gave me nightmares, dwelling in my brain long long after I first read it. I normally do not like zombie media in the slightest, yet this is so much more than zombie media; it truly is a commentary on the nature of humanity. When I found out this writer of the most terrifying book I’d ever read was the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks I was both stunned and not: both men deeply understand human nature, they just display it in differing ways.

There was a middling action movie that wasn’t outright bad in any way, it just didn’t portray the book. At all. It was highly frustrating as a fan to see the departure even if the movie was a solid effort. Hopefully one day we will get a series that gives us a worthy showing of what this novel has to offer.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

Carrion Comfort is a hell of a book, but its influence on horror cannot be denied. When Saul Laski, a Jewish prisoner of war in the labor camps, escapes the Nazi monsters holding him captive, he begins a decades long journey towards discovering what sets these global atrocities in motion. He discovers a secret cabal of psionic vampires feeding on the suffering of humanity–the book follows him as he tries to upend the order. While it sounds goofy, it is very much an influential horror book. 

Much of The Strain by the phenomenal Guillermo del Toro and Paul Hogan can be traced to Carrion Comfort, as can the concept of fully psionic energy vampires. Since 1989, this book has been terrorizing new readers, giving us all ideas on how the intersections of genre and traditional tropes for storytelling can be stretched.

Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The basis for the films The Village of the Damned (1960, 1994, 2022), Midwich Cuckoos takes place in a small town in which everyone passes out one day simultaneously. When they awake, all of the women of child-bearing age are pregnant and notably further along than they should be. After the scandal and accusations die down, it becomes understood that something supernatural has happened; this is reinforced when the children are born…odd. White hair, piercing eyes, and soon enough, psionic powers define the identities of the Midwich Cuckoo children.

The story is incredibly influential to horror, as the children became iconic progenitors of the “dangerous/scary children” subgenre of horror. It’s also a terrifying commentary on bodily autonomy for women, though few adaptations have fully explored this the way it should be.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

You all knew the progenitor of the genre and one of my favorite books of all time wouldn’t be missing from this list! Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley INVENTED the genre of science fiction and so seamlessly blended it with horror that it is inextricably linked to both genres. The language of the book is strong, with quotes that make my skin feel like an electric shock is running through it or like cold water is rushing down my spine. 

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The resonance of this and so many other moments from the creation are something I will expound upon in later articles, but for now, suffice to say my thoughts and feelings on this book and the various adaptations after it are plentiful. It is the mother of the genre, the intersection of two genres, and so many literary trope concepts that it would beggar belief to list them all. 

Read the full text legally online here.

And with that, my dears, we close another article! I hope you’re enjoying these, and that they give you some ideas. What would some of y’all like to see? Comment below with something you’d like for me to write!

Watching Cronenberg’s The Fly with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

This is a (re)posting of an article I wrote for an entirely different blog, back in 2018. It has been edited for clarity, length, to add images, etc.

The idea for this post came on a whim, as most things do. I was intending to write about trauma, specifically intergenerational trauma and how it affects women. It’s portrayed beautifully and bloodily in Halloween 2018, but it’s something about which only a handful of bloggers have written [at time of writing]. Something about the concept began to frustrate me, however, which I can’t quite put my finger on, and I began to think about trauma as it relates to me personally.

Think of this as a secondary introduction post. Sort of a look into the way my experience as a horror fan is colored, beyond the already very specific lens of other identities. Disability as it relates to existence as a horror fan is…more delicate than people realize.

Disability in horror is something I will address more with time. Photo taken from A Quiet Place, 2018.

When I was a child, I was in a low growth percentile. Small, overly fragile, and horrendous internal problems that my poor parents barely knew how to mitigate. As I grew, I had mysterious growing pains, including–it seemed–in my ribs. I developed asthma, and my weight fluctuated violently between being too much to too little. I was too tall for my age, too skinny for my height (or too big for society, depending), and simultaneously too much and not enough of about a dozen different things.

Eventually I stopped growing.

The growing pains didn’t stop.

It wasn’t until college age, that a doctor entered the room with little fanfare and violently dislocated all of the fingers on my right hand without any sort of warning. He told me derisively to stop crying and that I had a rare disease called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. He left the room without telling me what that was. I was left to read Wikipedia with bouts of random panic.

Silver Bullet, 1985

Years later, a much kinder doctor would explain to me all of my symptoms and how they related to a genetic deformity on my collagen markers. You see, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder, which systematically affects everything in your body with collagen, including your organs. As the years continued, I would have to have surgery to tie my stomach into a knot (my faulty tissue would reverse the surgery a mere three years later), I would be in and out of the ER with dislocated and micro-fractured joints, and my heart would start to rush so much I would pass out cold in the bathroom. There is no cure, there is barely any treatment aside from symptom management, and–despite what some doctors say–it is degenerative in the sense that you only get worse as you age.

As you might imagine, I have a strained relationship with the concept of body horror.

This brings me to David Cronenberg. Cronenberg may not be the progenitor of body horror–that honor would most commonly and likely go to author Franz Kafka–, but he is certainly the director most famous for its portrayal on screen. With films like The Brood, Videodrome, Crimes of Futures Past, and probably most notably, The Fly, it’s no wonder he was given such a venerable title within the horror genre. His films have frightened people for decades, and with good cause.

After all, what is more terrifying than the betrayal of your own body?

The Fly, 1986

I watched the Fly during one of the worst parts of my illness. I recall throwing up at least twice, not out of fear or disgust necessarily, but out of the degenerating path my own body was taking. At the time, my stomach was over-producing so much stomach acid, it was wearing away holes in my esophagus and the lining of my stomach. It was resistant to most medications at the time. I often would compare myself to the Xenomorph Queen in that everytime I would get sick, I’d spit up acid, and I would be throwing up acid at least three times a day. After seeing The Fly, I would say that I was just digesting a bit early and externally.

No one found my gallows humor quite as funny as I did.

I related strongly to the plight of Seth Brundle in the film. Though my body wasn’t changing out of my own jealous hubris, it was changing nonetheless into something I didn’t recognize. That said, I don’t believe Cronenberg necessarily intended for The Fly to be a chronic illness metaphor. A terminal illness metaphor, most definitely; perhaps it was even an unintentional treatise on the horrors and betrayals of aging. However, I doubt it was meant for someone whose illness would keep them alive for an indeterminate amount of time.

The Fly, 1986

Just as Kafka’s metaphor of the cockroach for physical disability could also be read as a metaphor for depression, however, so did my viewing of The Fly. Through no fault of my own had I become freakish and in pain, likely destined to die before reaching a very old age, and having a strong chance of passing the monstrosity I possessed down to any children I may have had had I not learned about my condition’s hereditary nature first.

With that said, my view of body horror is inherently tainted. It’s also, at the same time, painfully intimate. Much like Seth’s transformation into the Brundlefly, talking about it is difficult at the best of times. However, I hope that by writing this post, I have given someone the words to relate to horror in a way they hadn’t realized before.

A History of the Penny Dreadful

How many of us of the millennial age set remember spending weeks saving a few dollars in anticipation of the Scholastic Book Fair in order to buy copies of Goosebumps or Fear Street books? Perhaps, if you were lucky (and had the “cool” parents, or just unobservant ones), you could also sneak a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in your stack for purchase. For those who didn’t grow up with the admitted economic privilege to do such a thing, staying after school to take out the books from the school library was also a common pastime. There was something so alluring about the pulpy pages filled with scary stories of kids fighting back (and sometimes even losing!) against the forces of darkness.

While many of our generation’s parents were swept up in the terror of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, many still also had a simultaneous love of horror. Stephen King’s book sales were still chart topping successes, as were many other contemporaneous authors, and horror films were still raking in audiences especially with movies like Scream becoming a cultural phenomenon.

Televangelists and moral crusaders rang their hands about the dive in moral quality due to horror and crime and occult content and imagery being so readily available. Never in history, they cried, had such filth been available so easily to corrupt the children.

It was bullshit, of course. Just like it was bullshit when generations before said the same, and when generations now say the same, and generations to follow will likely do so, well. Now to be clear, I’m not advocating for kids to actively watch content that might be too mature or legitimately traumatizing or desensitizing to them. What I’m stating, clearly, is that violent media has always always been available to be witnessed by the public, often including kids.

No historical horror embodies the spirit of public, mass market demand (including amongst kids) like the Victorian penny dreadful. These oft-serialized pulp stories were as gruesome, if not moreso, than many modern splatterpunk books!

Increased public literacy in 19th century England, especially in urban areas, led to a prominent boom in popular literature for the masses. While this certainly gave us many novels and stories we now know and love (Dickins and Conan Doyle, immediately come to mind), one of the most popular ways to disseminate written entertainment was through broadsides of 8 to 16 pages, sold for a penny.

Crime broadsheets soon became some of the most popular sellers; printers would send paperboys to public executions with illustrated tales regaling readers of the grisly tragedy leading up to the execution. They often ended in a “doggerel verse”, a rough, uneven verse of poetry that warned the reader to not get trapped in the same moral pitfalls of the soon-to-die criminal.

Publishers soon realized there would be money in printing more than just moral warnings. Illustrated and serialized reprints of early Gothic literature such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Lewis’ The Monk soon began making appearances on street corners, and specialty fiction written specifically for the penny dreadful papers soon followed. Crazed cannibal killers like Sweeney Todd, villainous vampires like Sir Francis Varney, antiheroic highwaymen like Dick Turpin, and urban legend cryptids such as Spring Heeled Jack were all born from the pulp paper pages of the penny dreadful.

Plagiarism in the form of parody was also extremely common. Edward Lloyd’s papers were most infamous for this, with his paying authors to essentially reprint the serials with misspelled titles and only the most minor detail changes. Plagiarism was endemic, and after a failed lawsuit brought to the high courts by legitimate publishing house Chapman and Hall, who published Dickens’ works, it seemed there was little impetus to stop publishers from plagiarism as long as they made no claims to being the originators of the intellectual property (omitting the fact that they didn’t own it, was also not required at the time, leaving the impression up to the reader).

There was public outcry from moral crusaders at the time, of course, that the broadsheets were inspiring an increase in youth murder and suicide, as well as other violent incidences. In particular, the case of matricide committed by Robert and Nattie Coombes of their mother Emily captured national attention, ironically landing the young teen criminals as subjects of the crime stories they loved so much.

“We consider that the Legislature should take some steps to put a stop to the inflammable and shocking literature that is sold, which in our opinion leads to many a dreadful crime being carried out….There can’t be any difference of opinion about that,” stated the record from the coroners’ inquest. The new wave of a literate population of youngsters were hungry for more drama than the stiffly written moral tales they were forced to learn from at school, but as per usual, adults of the time didn’t care for this newfound freedom of the youth (particularly youth from the working class). Like films, television, and video games afterward, the scary tales were an easy target for Victorian moralizing and fear of violent crime, which was being whipped up into a frenzy by the news media (sound familiar, anyone?).

There was also fear from the wealthy that the new wave of literacy in the working class “rabble” might take the tales of adventure and ambition as inspiration for revolution against the oppressor class. This fear is always an undercurrent in the wealthy, but particularly as more power for education and social value is put into the hands of the masses. I could get on a soapbox here (and may in future articles), but for now, we’ll continue on.

However, in contrast to most of the wealthy, the fact that nearly one million penny dreadfuls were selling weekly was a powerful financial motivator for publishers to continue printing them. Publisher Edward Lloyd, a huge influencer of popular culture at the time through the stories and news reporting style he encouraged at his papers, flourished in this time (mostly despite his own many personal foibles), and many papers began to publish more serialized fiction to tap into the market. The famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories were born as Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle began selling his tales to The Strand magazine to fund his novel writing and struggling ophthalmology practice. Authors such as Charles Dickens also continued to have mainstream success as a serialized writer, making the argument against accessible popular literature eleven less convincing. As many penny dreadfuls made their way across the pond to be localized as American dime novels, it seemed the phenomenon was nowhere near stopping.

While some magazines tried to tap into the morality market with jingoistic heroes of high ethical standard, most papers continued to publish for the common man’s market demands. Erotically charged versions of the penny dreadful began making headway, with noted Irish author James Joyce getting his start with such fictionalized “true tales”, that became popular in 20th century Americna publications such as Playboy and Hustler. While there were some decrying the corruption of young male readership, most were more horrified by the possibility that young women had access to buy them.

Overall though, like later media, the “concerned public” linked youth violence to the stories, holding regular inquest juries to determine the effect it had on the corruption of moral good and breakdown of social contract. Suicides were also blamed on the stories, instead of on hopeless working conditions or domestic abuse or potential mental illness. A record into one suicide inquest stated: “Deceased committed suicide whilst in an unsound condition of mind, probably produced by reading novelistic literature of a sensational character.” Despite one man convicted of murder explicitly blaming financial abuse as the reason he murdered his employer in a fit of rage, the judicial members still blamed the man’s possession of penny dreadful as the cause of his low moral character.

Even in the case of the poor Coombes family tragedy, it seemed to be far more than the penny dreadfuls which were blamed–one of the boys had symptoms documented that we now could categorize as migraine headaches and ADHD. Both boys had expressed anger and despair at their mother telling them they would have to leave school to support the family through backbreaking work in the shipyards. Neighbors also alleged that their mother berated and beat the boys’ regularly, and that their mostly absent father was no source of joy to the brothers on his scarce visits either. Yet rather than examine any actual social ills and how they might be relevant in the case, the jury placed the blame on the easiest target.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The history of penny dreadful is reflective of the history of popular media, particularly media targeted for the youth market. History is cyclical, and no better example is quintessential to this than the penny dreadful moral panic. As we continue to see mass moral panic in the public, this time over the specter of “critical race theory” and “grooming” in kid’s media (i.e. any book or show that discusses anything other than the cishet white experience, preferably through a Christian lens of ethics), remember the penny dreadful moral panic and the real motivator behind it: controlling the classes of people that those in power felt shouldn’t “be getting ideas.”

Get ideas. Get all the ideas.

And do something with them.

CITATIONS:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/30/penny-dreadfuls-victorian-equivalent-video-games-kate-summerscale-wicked-boy

Author Dive: John Hornor Jacobs

I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Southern Gods a year back at McKay, Nashville’s largest used media store. The cover design was neat, but it was the blurb that caught my eye.

Lovecraft in the style of Southern gothic? I had to give it a shot.

I don’t regret it one bit either. While it’s not Jacobs’ strongest work in my opinion, the atmosphere, character work, and general vibes of the novel are excellent; the tale of a P.I. tracking down a deadly DJ in the Jim Crow-era South is definitely one that I recommend to those looking to expand out further into the mythos. 

It got me very curious about the other works of the author, who dabbles both in adult and YA fiction–mostly within the genres of horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction. I personally have no issues with adults who enjoy YA, even ones who are older than me, but as a reader, my preference is for adult fiction. Therefore, I’ll be discussing what I’ve read as far as his works for my age group.

Southern Gods is a great starting point for that. What started as a rough draft for the National Novel Writing Month challenge blossomed into a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel nominee in 2011. That fact gives me tons of hope for my own writing, but it also just goes to show that sometimes the writing is just the first step–you have to put in the legwork to get edited and published too! 

The book follows irascible veteran turned private investigator Bull Ingraham as he’s charged with investigating a strange radio personality whose voice and music seem to induce madness. Ramblin’ John Hastur is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for such power, but of course, it’s far worse than just that….

Y’all this book was FUN! The vibes switch depending on the POV character with Alice bringing forth Jacobs’ gothic horror sensibilities, while Bull’s POV is all hard-boiled detective fiction. While the inspiration is so clearly paying loving homage and dedication to the Mythos, Jacobs’ is also bringing more of his own unique twist to the Mythos. As a fan of both Lovecraftian god figures, Ramblin’ John feels not just like Hastur but also Nyarlathotep, a choice which I think was excellent for this novel. The ending is a bit too tropey at points, but it’s also not as nihilistic an ending as most Mythos fiction–which I oddly enjoy a lot about it.

The short story collection Murder Ballads and Other Horrific Tales contains the sequel to Southern Gods, and while it’s very much enjoyable, I’ll admit it’s a touch overshadowed by some of the other stories in the collection. To be clear, I say this as a compliment to how delightfully dark and fun some of the other tales are. As with all collections, some fall a bit shorter than others (sorry, John, very few authors can make me like a ‘dangers of artificial intelligence’ tale), but it’s very much worth checking out–just maybe skip the titular story if you want to read Southern Gods first. “The Children of Yig”, though, is an excellent Mythos short story that combines Jacobs’ love for the mythos with his love of history wonderfully.

The last of Jacobs’ horror works that I’ve experienced is A Lush and Seething Hell, and I do mean I experienced it. A collected duology of two tales just-too-short to be novellas, this work is probably Jacob’s most praised and for damn good reason. It blends the horror of the cosmic with folk horror seamlessly, all the while interweaving Jacobs’ unabashed love and knowledge of history into the pages. Reviews have even compared the writing in it to Nabakov and Faulkner–I definitely see the influence of the latter, as well as O’Connor and Jackson (though with a Southern twist in her case). 

Overall, I cannot recommend enough giving his works of horror fiction a try. They are well-written, atmospheric, and genre-blending in a way that few are. While there is an occasional reliance on more cliche tropes, I can’t say that they take away from the experience of reading his works in any significant way. 

A short article by my standards, but a bit more graphics work went into it. If you’d like to see more dives into authors or even individual books, just let me know in the comments below, or contact me via my Carrd!

Top 13 Giallo Films

Startling sapphire blues, sickly citrine yellows, and raging ruby reds define the gemtone soaked world of the Italian giallo horror film. Add in a mix of Italian classical music blended with high strung electronic music and screeching sound effects and you have a recipe for giallo–the razorwire tense balance of horror and crime thriller that defined the genre.

The name comes from the cheap horror thriller novels at the time, often known for their bright yellow covers (with giallo translating to yellow in Italian). While not all of the giallo films on this list fit squarely into horror in the traditional sense, all of them have a deep sensibility of the genre, particularly with the other the top camp quality of the acting and design. There’s an air of the erotic ever-present to giallo film, even moreso in some ways than the American sexploitation film movement that made movies such as Deep Throat enter the cultural lexicon.

The movies below are all giallo films that define the genre to me personally. As with all of my list articles, I do not rank hierarchically, I only discuss things I have seen, and I fully admit that all of my choices are subjective matters of opinion.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the text is copied from a prior list of the same theme that I wrote for a different blog years ago. All text is original to me, but may have appeared on the web prior under a different pseudonym.

Tenebrae / Unsane (1982)

Tenebrae is a far more subdued film than some of the more action or bloodsoaked examples of the giallo genre, more murder mystery than supernatural romp. The plot sounds almost like a Stephen King novel, and it plays out not dissimilarly to what one would expect from thriller authors like Patricia Cornwell.

An author goes on a book tour of Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, when a series of murders begins. Clearly inspired by the author’s books, he and two detectives must get to the bottom of the film’s main mystery before another life is lost.

Tenebrae, 1982

Tenebrae is one of Argento’s more complex works, dealing with unique themes not deeply explored but definitely present in other aspects of his ouevre: deviancy, sexual repression, voyeurism, and deep-seated trauma. The film is Argento’s critical self-examination after accusations of misogyny after the film Suspira (1977). The film’s major theme of guilt transference–the author blaming himself for being the killer’s inspiration–is perhaps the clearest reflection of this. I would say that despite the murder of women, Tenebrae also has feminist themes, with the killer’s hatred of liberated women being framed as not only evil, but also a symptom of a sick society, not only inhibited but outright diseased by what we now call toxic masculinity. It dares the viewers not to become the voyeur of these murders, but to rather be disgusted as they should, while still tempting the viewer into aligning with the perverted, patriarchal views of both society and the killer.

Tenebrae is a beautiful, psychological horror film that any fan of the genre should see at least once.

Torso (1973)

Torso has a strange dynamic with American horror in that it both borrows from and lends to one of our horror culture’s most long-standing film traditions: God’s prettiest little idiots making the worst possible choices. Though the first half meanders with much of its violence veering well into outright, unsubtle misogyny, the twist ending pays off in a fairly satisfying way that many giallo mysteries don’t conclude with when attempting a twist.

Torso, 1973

Its visuals and writing are unique enough to the sensibilities of director Sergio Martino that the film has significant artistic value, and its influence on the genre of giallo for films that followed cannot be underestimated. Being able to get past the first half is an achievement, but one that’s worth attempting for fans of the genre.

Black Sunday (1960)

My personal favorite of Mario Bava’s films, Black Sunday is also one of his first. Opening on a brilliant shot and imaginative execution scene during the witch hunts of the 1600s, the majority of the film takes place in a small Moldavian province in the 1800s. When the executed witch is accidentally woken from her slumber by a pair of clumsy traveling doctors, she begins a rampage of revenge that should culminate in her finally regaining her body in the form of her great-great-grandniece. Can the handsome young doctor save his newly beloved in time or will she be permanently erased in favor of the evil witch?

Black Sunday, 1960

Both young maiden and old witch are played brilliantly by the preeminent scream queen Barbara Steele. With her unique beauty, she captures the viewer as both characters and all of the men surrounding her become secondary. The only film on this list filmed in black and white, Steele’s dramatic looks are enough color to capture audiences in a way that many of the colorful giallo beauty queens cannot. For any fans of classic horror, Black Sunday is required viewing.

Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)

After a psychic giving a lecture has a strange vision relating to an unidentifiable member of her audience, she becomes the first seen victim of the film’s demented serial killer. When musician Marcus discovers her body, he becomes embroiled with the police in the investigation of the strange, black-gloved figure. As the brilliant but deranged killer begins leaving horrific clues for the police and Marcus, they begin closing in on a suspect. But do they have the right man? Or is the real killer more clever than they know?

Deep Red, 1975

In this film, Argento crafted several unique murders, designed to relate to real-life painful experiences that would be familiar to the audience. “Not everyone knows how it feels to be shot, but everyone knows the feeling of striking oneself into furniture” (Argento, paraphrased). Seen more as a cult classic than a critical success, Argento’s attempts at relatability nonetheless entertain an invested audience, and it’s worth a watch to see one of Argento’s early, transitional films.

Opera (1987)

When the ill-tempered diva playing Lady Macbeth in a daring new production of Macbeth is mysteriously injured outside of the theater, her role goes to her ingenue understudy. Following the tradition of the original Phantom, she is viewed opening night by a strange, looming figure in one of the closed theater boxes. Soon after, the ingenue’s boyfriend is gruesomely murdered. This is an Argento film after all; bright red blood is not only de jour, but necessary. As the body count in the theater rises, the Phantom comes closer to catching his prize. Can ingenue Betty and her manly costar Marco stop the Phantom and escape in time?

Opera, 1987

By far Argento’s most commercially successful film, Opera is a sharp, gory take on a legitimately, psychosexually-obsessed Phantom. It follows the formula of the core story in many important ways, but diverges beautifully in its horror. Whether you’re a fan of the Phantom, or just a fan of giallo, Opera is a fun, nasty little viewing that you should treat yourself to.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

One of Italy’s most popular exports is its fashion, and in Blood and Black Lace, Bava brilliantly combines fashion with fear. When various fashion models working for the same fashion house begin being hunted and killed, it’s up to the police to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

Blood and Black Lace, 1964

The strength of this film is truly in its beautiful costumes and set pieces. Everything about this film is utterly lavish, and seeing it be destroyed in the name of creating this film is horrific enough on its own. One scene involving a pale, dark-haired model in a blood red coat being stalked, is the film’s most iconic moment; it truly brings home the exact feeling the entire movie is trying to create. The film also truly incorporates the mystery and crime-thriller aspects of giallo, letting the audience know exactly how much of a founding father of the genre Bava was.

Suspiria (1977)

Probably one of the most famous giallo films, and certainly the most famous of Argento’s works, Suspiria is one of the most brilliantly made films of all time, let alone this list. The story follows an ingenue arriving at a strange ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. She begins to see strange things on the grounds and in her windows. Soon other girls begin going missing. It’s up to her to get down to the bottom of this supernatural mystery.

Suspiria, 1977

The first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” witchcraft trilogy, Suspiria is a cult classic and a highly influential gem of the horror genre. Its vibrant colors and creative filming techniques give the film a highly unique look that many have imitated, but few successfully. It is bolstered a good deal by its incredible, almost all female cast. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it number 41 on their top 100 list of greatest horror movies of all time, and my only disagreement is that I would put it higher. While the reimagining is also fantastic, it’s a stark departure from the source material, making the original very much worth seeing and letting it stand–or en pointe–on its own.

In The Folds Of The Flesh (1970)

Y’all this movie is wild, I ain’t even gonna try to play with y’all about that. The name alone makes it sound like softcore at minimum and given the inherent eroticism of the genre of giallo, that’s not….entirely inaccurate. Directed by Sergio Bergonzelli, the film flips the usual giallo script by the mystery being the identity of the victim as opposed to the killer. The visuals are colorful and contain many nods to pop art sensibilities, the strength and singularity of In The Folds Of The Flesh is it’s storytelling framing itself in a way apart from other giallo of the time.

In the Folds of the Flesh, 1970

It also wastes no time bogging itself in too much exposition; you absolutely spend every second on a frenetic ride through the plot, which makes the gruesome murder feel urgent as it should–a rarity in a genre that sometimes meanders in odd places. It certainly doesn’t shy away either from showing plenty of naked flesh either, making sure to emphasize the eroticism of its name while never demurring from more gruesome elements either.

Inferno (1980)

The unofficial sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is the second entry in the Three Mothers trilogy. It follows the tale of a woman living in a New York City high rise apartment, who discovers the book “The Three Mothers” in the basement. In the book, she discovers the tale of the three Mothers of Sorrow, and their temples. She begins to suspect that the apartment building she lives in may be the home of one of these Mothers. Begging her brother Marc to come home from Rome, she is overwhelmed by horrible visions of the dark Mother haunting her. As strange deaths begin occurring within the building, it becomes a race against time to stop the Mother before it’s too late.

Inferno, 1980

While not as constantly visually stunning as Suspiria, Inferno has a subtlety to it that I greatly enjoy. Its visually stunning scenes are brilliantly arresting against the stark grayness of the dark apartment high rise. It’s a truly worthy successor to the masterpiece of Suspiria, one that I enjoy greatly. While the third entry into the series, Mother of Tears, isn’t a very good finisher to the brilliant series, it’s definitely important to not forget Inferno after watching it’s more famous sister film.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Directed by Lucio Fulci this is a film that is a bit more challenging than the others in the victimology of the killer. A child killer is on the loose in a small Italian town, and as the case baffles investigators, suspicions and tensions rise, causing the villagers to begin to turn on each other. This darkness is symbolized through a heavy departure from the defining visuals of other giallo films, Fulci’s included; it eschews vibrant colors and slick visuals in favor of more naturalistic color palettes and grittier set pieces.

Don’t Torture a Ducking, 1972

While the killer is fairly obvious upon reveal, Fulci expertly weaves so many convincing red herrings into the story that it’s never overly predictable or stale. One of the perspective characters is truly vile, adding to the unease of the tension crafted by the film. While the finale is…a bit of a misstep that veers into the comedic, it doesn’t entirely ruin what the film built prior.

Demons (1985)

Directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento, Demons is a wickedly fun horror film to watch with a large group of friends. If you’re lucky like me and happen to have a vintage theater near you (in my case, one that specializes in vintage horror films), it’s definitely worth springing for tickets if you happen to see this come up on the marquee.

Demons, 1985

Demons is an 80s, technicolor nightmare. After a large and varied group of people are offered free tickets to a film screening, they crowd the mysterious theater, only to soon discover the horror within. The theater hides a dark secret and the movie-goers soon begin becoming possessed by demons! It becomes a fight against the hoard as one young couple begins battling their way out of the theater by any means necessary.

Girl, what you doing?!

The set design, costuming, and hair of this movie are hilarious. Intentionally so to a degree. The film is so raucously stuck in the 80s that it’s like watching a wonderful time capsule of blood and guts. The film lays it on thick with both the gore and the over-the-top acting. It’s incredibly fun, and it should definitely be watched with company to fully enjoy how amazing it is.

Zombi 2 (1979)

Okay so teeeechnically not a giallo film, but hear me out.

Often referred to as Italy’s unofficial (or rather unlicensed) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 tells the story of a Caribbean island haunted by voodoo-powered zombies. After her missing father’s boat turns up in New York Harbor with nothing but a zombie aboard, a horrified Anna becomes determined to find out what happened to her father. Journeying to the Caribbean with a cadre of companions, she discovers a doctor researching voodoo rituals and zombies in a hospital overrun with strangely ill patients. Once the zombies corner them all in the hospital, it becomes a fight for their lives.

Zombi 2, 1979

Known primarily for its infamous “shark fighting a zombie” scene, Zombi 2 is a fun, campy take on the Dawn of the Dead universe. While not filled with the biting social commentary of the original Romero films, Fulci’s take on the universe is energetic and nasty. Originally censored in several countries, it’s recently gained somewhat of a cult following for its non-stop action horror scenes and the brilliant makeup design of the zombies.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

After the tragic death of their young daughter to an accidental drowning at their English countryside estate, a couple move to Venice for the husband’s work to try to distance themselves from the site of the tragedy. As the wife and the women she meets sense doom on the horizon, the husband and other men of the film try to rationalize away such feminine superstitions, only to be proven drastically wrong by the film’s gruesome and outright strange conclusion.

Don’t Look Now, 1973

One of the most cinematically striking films on this list, Don’t Look Now soaks the viewer more in water imagery than saturated colors; however, the use of water as imagery muttered with bright pops of color (particularly red) serve to make this film all the more stunning. Though it occasionally gets reduced to remembrance for the odd twist ending and the possibly real scene of sexual intimacy between the married-off-screen husband and wife costars, the film has an oddly feminist message regarding believing women, even though the framing is odd to say the least. It’s an amazing film which stands apart from many others of the giallo style, and I highly recommend it to even those who do not typically enjoy the genre.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Black Sabbath (1963)
Phenomena (1985)
Lisa and the Devil (1973)
The Beyond (1981)