NPR released their ‘100 Favorite Horror Stories‘ from their Summer Readers Poll last week and I naturally have a few comments and new books to get excited about! The results, judged by novelists Stephen Graham Jones, Ruthanna Emrys, Tananarive Due and Grady Hendrix, were chosen from 7000 entries by NPR readers and carefully curated down to a list of 100. Unsurprisingly, 1023 of the 7000 entries were stories written by Stephen King — as to be expected. So to avoid having a list of just King’s works, the judges have allowed an author to only appear a maximum of two times on the list: once for a novel and once for a short story or novella, which has resulted in a wonderfully diverse list of horror stories.
So I wanted to chat a bit about the list, about the horror genre, and some of the books I have now added on my TBR because of it. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, so let me know what you think of NPR’s 100 Favorite Horror Stories in the comments!
What is Horror Literature?: A Case for the Handmaid’s Tale
What can and cannot be considered horror? This is an interesting question that is often spawned from these types of genre-specific lists. Does all horror have to fit in a neat little box, or are we willing to welcome books from other genres into the horror-sphere?
After reading through this list it is obvious that the genre of horror is fairly wide open, as it should be. Traditional horror novels like The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, The Shining by Stephen King, and Dracula by Bram Stoker rely on supernatural elements that often define what a horror novel is expected to look like. However, what makes horror so wonderful is that it goes so much deeper than that. Horror has never just been about ghosts and monsters because ultimately, there is a hell of a lot more to our deep-rooted, primal fears than something that likely doesn’t exist. Even the three previously mentioned books have more to them than ‘things that go bump in the night’. The Exorcist, while a story about a little girl possessed by a demon, begins with an archaeological dig in Iraq that unearths an ancient Assyrian statue of a demigod that ultimately brings this ‘evil’ being back to America, highlighting fears and prejudices of unknown cultures and places. The Shining features many ghosts but at the heart of the novel is the story of an alcoholic father battling his own, non-supernatural inner demons. And Dracula, the classic vampire novel, can also be seen as a fear of the unknown, especially unknown cultures and places during the time it was written (among countless other interpretations). Horror tells us not only what humans fear, but the author’s views on the world around them. For instance, it doesn’t take a PhD in English Lit to read a story by H.P. Lovecraft and come to the conclusion that he was kind of extremely racist. Horror stories can often be looked at as a form of social commentary within their historical context. And this is what makes the possibilities of the genre endless.
When reading through NPR’s list it might come as a bit of a shock that Margarate Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was included among the top 100 horror stories. While not a novel one would find in the ‘horror section’ of a bookstore, I personally think The Handmaid’s Tale has a very important role on this list. In many cases, reality is more terrifying than fiction and people are scarier and much more threatening than anything supernatural. On NPR’s list, The Handmaid’s Tale was appropriately placed under the category ‘Hell is Other People: Real World Horrors’ alongside Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding; books that might not be thought of as traditional ‘horror’, but certainly have a place on a list of horror stories. I don’t think horror novels need to make us check under our beds and sleep with the light on to frighten us. The Handmaid’s Tale forces us to consider women’s rights and how easily we could head in a direction of Atwood’s dystopia where women are seen as nothing but vessels to carry children. Female oppression is real, its current, and it continues to be a massive problem around the world. The Handmaid’s Tale is a ‘worst-case-scenario’ that’s just realistic enough to make you look at current events differently. There are no ghosts, no aliens, and no monsters, but as the list accurately states, ‘hell is other people’ and it’s the humans in The Handmaid’s Tale that prove to be more horrifying than any Lovecraftian abomination. So does The Handmaid’s Tale deserve to be on a list of 100 best horror stories? Absolutely. And I think it’s important that a story with these types of themes is recognised as frightening enough to be included on such a list.
Stephen King’s ‘The Body’
Having said all that. There was a story on this list that I simply do not agree with. Stephen King has written countless terrifying short stories and novellas that have completely horrified me and thousands and thousands of other readers. But for some reason, the judges chose to include his coming of age story The Body from the collection Different Seasons. Both The Body and its film adaption Stand by Me are obvious classics, but I was completely mystified that it was chosen over all of King’s short stories and novellas. The judges argued that because the story involved a corpse and the ‘horrors of growing up’ that it’s somehow King’s most valuable contribution to his vast short story horror legacy. The article rightfully discusses King’s ability to write effectively within many different genres, which The Body is certainly a good example of. Horror is obviously subjective and, like The Handmaid’s Tale, can cause some debate. But when it comes to an author known internationally for his horror stories, why choose one of his non-horror stories simply because there is a corpse and bullies? This decision seemed a bit lazy and there was no real justification for it. As I discussed above, I’m more than happy to see non-traditional ‘horror’ stories included on this list, but unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t see any reason why The Body was chosen over any of the other stories in King’s numerous short story collections.
If I was to nominate any of King’s short stories or novellas as his absolute best horror story it would without a doubt be Apt Pupil from Different Seasons, the same collection as The Body. Apt Pupil, easily one of King’s most powerful and disturbing novellas, follows a young boy named Todd and his growing obsession with his neighbour who he comes to realise is a former SS officer in hiding. After discovering his neighbour’s secret, Todd essentially threatens to turn him into the authorities unless he tells him in extreme detail the horrors that occurred at the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. I don’t often have to take a mental break from reading, but Apt Pupil was just so upsetting that it took me longer to get through than the other stories in this collection. It showcases not only King’s incredible storytelling but his ability to turn a child into one of the most horrifying villains I’ve ever read. Apt Pupil is also a great example of King writing a horror story without relying on the supernatural themes he’s most famous for. The Body is an incredible story, but when it comes to the ‘King of Horror’ I feel showcasing The Body as his best horror novella isn’t doing his other short stories and novellas proper justice. If you disagree with me please let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
New Books Added to my TBR (Thanks, NPR!)
Despite the eyebrow-raising inclusion of The Body, there were dozens of books on the list that I am so excited to read and I have thrown with gumption onto my TBR list. So for the sake of keeping this post under 10,000 words, I’m going to quickly highlight the top 5 books that really jumped out at me from NPR’s list.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018)
View on Goodreads.
Partially based on the true story of the Donner Party, a wagon train of American pioneers who went missing in the mid-nineteenth century, The Hunger promises a supernatural twist to the party’s factual cannibalistic end. I love creepy twists on true stories, so The Hunger sounds like it will be a lot of fun.
The Fisherman by John Langan (2016)
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Two widowed fishermen hunt down Dutchman’s Creek, a mysterious unmapped cove, looking for the perfect fishing spot. Some users on Goodreads have shelved The Fisherman under ‘weird fiction’, so I can only imagine the two men discover more than they bargained for.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi (2009)
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A haunted bed and breakfast on the cliffs of Dover housing a family suffering a great loss. Has a ring of melancholy romance to it, don’t you think? From reading reviews this book sounds like an interesting cross between a fairy tale and a gothic novel. Reviewers seem to either love it or hate it, which makes me eager to throw my opinion into the mix.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files (2015)
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A former Canadian film history teacher puts her own life, and the lives of her family members, in danger after investigating the early (and haunted) films of a lost 20th-century filmmaker. I’m excited to read this as the author and story are both Canadian based. And I’m naturally a sucker for a good Canadian ghost story.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Ann Vandermeer and Jeff VanDermeer (2010)
View on Goodreads.
And this is only the beginning. I seriously recommend reading through the article on NPR’s website. The entire list is super diverse and will give you horror reading fuel for at least the next few years.
What do you think?
Whenever I see a list of books in one of my favourite genres I suddenly feel very overwhelmed by how many amazing books there are out there. I feel like I’ve read so much, but seeing 100 of what is believed to be among the best horror stories ever written makes me realise just how little I’ve actually read and how many books are left to explore.
So what do you think of NPR’s ‘100 Favorite Horror Stories‘? Do you agree or disagree with any entries on their list? Any books you wish were featured? Do you think The Body and The Handmaid’s Tale deserve a spot on the list? Let me know in the comments!