The Moorlands Are Alive With The Sounds Of Terror: TPM’s Gothic And Horror Reading Recommendations | Talking Points Memo

Let me just say right off the bat, I don’t do scary. I have a very vivid memory from when I was a child, hanging out with some friends and the beloved 80’s film, Predator was on TV. I was so uncomfortable that I physically turned my back away from the TV screen instead of watching some alien creature with night vision duke it out with Arnold Swartzenager in the middle of the jungle. My tolerance hasn’t changed much since then — if you want me to watch a horror movie with you, expect me to talk idly through the entire thing to avoid focusing on the gore happening on screen. I know, I am the perfect person to take to the movies.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I hate horror lit and films, but I was recently reminded of a book and film that I would call gothic even though it may not precisely fit the category.
I’m thinking of “The Shipping News”. It has a back story of a weird family that gets banished for their crimes against shipping.

Thanks for this, Team TPM! Those are fine recommendations. I’m reading “Mexican Gothic” right now. It’s not terribly weighty, but man, is it fun. It’s the dark-and-stormy-night version of a breezy summer beach read.

But there’s another corner of current horror fiction whose sociopolitical substance may hold particular appeal for TPM readers. It’s not so much a literary movement as zeitgeist, I think. I call it “Revisionist Lovecraft.” Lovecraft is the horror genre’s most important writer after Poe. He was also a despicable racist, misogynist, and all-around asshole. Not to mention a pretty crappy writer.

In recent years multiple authors have tried to reconcile Lovecraft’s influence and awfulness. You’ve probably heard of the best known example: Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country,” now an HBO hit. White author Ruff had a stroke of genius, superimposing Lovecraftian cosmology and the brutal reality of “Green Book”-era racism. it’s a great read — but to be honest, the TV show takes the ideas to a deeper psychological levels, à la Jordan Peele. If forced to choose, go with the TV version.

“Black Tom” by Black author Victor LaValle is practically a companion piece. LaValle retells Lovecraft’s most racist story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” from the POV of HPL’s Black antagonist. The author defly balances his love of the genre with his anger at its racist tropes. (You’ll hear a lot more about LaValle — both his “Black Tom” and “The Changling” are in development for TV.)

I can recommend two other novels inspired by Lovecraft while kicking against the prick, though they don’t focus on racism. Both are steeped in the pulp genre, but boast profound literary merit.

Stephen King blurbed Shaun Hamill’s “A Cosmology of Monsters” this way: "If John Irving ever wrote a horror novel, it would be something like this.” The dude is so right! It’s a psychologically complex, multi-generational family drama that happens to include horror elements. Truth is, it’s closer to literary fiction than horror. Beautiful stuff.

Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 “Southern Reach Trilogy” is another work of literary horror, with an emphasis on the first word. (Its first section, “Annihilation,” became an imaginative if emotionally distant film in 2018.) It’s not explicitly Lovecraftian, but it trades in similar notions of “horror so alien and unknowable that it can’t be described, though I’ll try.” It’s distinguished by compelling three-dimensional characters and masterful prose —two decidedly non-Lovecraftian qualities!

VanderMeer’s brand-new novel is “A Peculiar Peril,” the first installment in a trilogy of “young adult” novels. But it’s only for exceptionally smart, literary. and subversive YA’s, or adults with a YA attitude. VanderMeer replaces the dark understatement of “Southern Reach” with zany cosmic chaos. Think “hilariously deconstructed Narnia/Hogwarts/Golden Compass by way of Lewis Carroll.” (The wordplay is over the frickin’ top.) On VanderMeer’s alternative Earth, historical figures such as Napoleon, Aleister Crowley, Arthur Rimbaud, Charlemagne, Franz Kafka, and Alfred Kubin duke it out for world domination. The necessity of referring to Wikipedia several times per chapter is just part of the fun. Recommended for smart smart-asses of all ages.

Nothing makes me want to plow ahead into a set of recommendations for horror reading (must be the SPOOOOKY season) like being told at the top that the person throwing the list together doesn’t “do scary.” Break out the goosebumps.

I’ll put in a good word for Barbara Hambly’s earlier works, which are much infused by horror themes and significantly more adult-oriented than one would expect for science fantasy. Adult as in complex characters who don’t usually get what they want. Specifically, for the horror element borrowing ones, Dragonsbane (IMO her best standalone book), and the Darwath trilogy.

Dragonsbane is definitely her best standalone, yeah, and one of my favorite ‘heroic fantasy’ novels.

(And to anyone who’s read the other Winterlands books… I repeat: Dragonsbane is a standalone. It’s like Highlander: There was only one, dammit.)