I grew up with a mom who loved horror books and movies. Our bookcase was full of Clive Barker and Stephen King and every anthology she could get her hands on. We would make regular trips to the used bookstore so she would never run out of scary material. She could watch even the most terrifying horror movie alone in the dark. When I was about 11 years old, I read Stephen King’s short story collection, “Night Shift,” and couldn’t sleep until I was 35. So the apple can fall pretty far from the tree.
I have, though, come up with some guidelines to help fellow scaredy-cats who are determined to read horror. Obviously, never read it before bed. Read reviews — they are usually not specific enough to elicit detailed nightmares but can give you an indication of what to expect if you have certain triggers.
The big secret to reading horror as a wimp is to put some distance (metaphorically) between the reader and the story. For somebody like my mom, that distance occurs naturally (“There’s no reason to be scared. It’s not real, Melissa” *eye roll*). For me, detachment from the narrative takes a little work.
One big way to detach is to read books with a narrative frame. If there is a narrator telling you the story, you can be pretty sure at least somebody survives the events in the book. Two of the most famous horror stories of all time are framed as epistolary (a story told through letters and diary entries) novels – “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” Modern epistolary books — which nowadays can contain emails, videos, interviews, newspapers – include “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” by Max Brooks and “The Night Visitor,” by Lucy Atkins.
Some authors combine horror with humor to blunt the scare. David Wong, author of “John Dies at the End” and “This Book Is Full of Spiders,” writes surrealist and grotesque horror that manages to make you cringe and laugh simultaneously. Drew Magary’s “The Postmortal” and “The Hike” are psychological horror novels with perfectly-flawed and sardonic protagonists.
Lastly, you can read books in the genre confusing known as “literary horror.” These are books that combine horror with the seriousness and formality of literature – beautiful writing, emphasis on character, and complex ideas. This doesn’t necessarily dilute the horror element, but it does provide just enough distance to make it bearable for me, a wimp. I’m just going to list a bunch of books, but trust me, they are worth reading: “Zone One” by Colson Whitehead, “Slade House,” by David Mitchell, “The Haunting of Hill House,” by Shirley Jackson, “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison and “A Head Full of Ghosts,” by Paul Tremblay.
Oh, and that Stephen King guy is actually pretty good.