As well as making becoming a household name for his work as a writer and actor in comedy shows such as The Fast Show, Charlie Higson has had a parallel and these days just as stellar career as a writer. After winning acclaim for early, blackly comic crime novels including his debut King of the Ants (1992) and Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen (1996), he moved on to writing for children in 2005 with the Young Bond series. These books have now sold more than 1m copies in the UK alone, and have been translated into 24 different languages.
The Enemy, published last year, marked a new departure for Higson into horror writing for teenagers, with a tale of teenagers defending themselves against a zombified adult world. The first in a series, it was this week shortlisted for the Booktrust teenage prize, with volume two, The Dead, due out next week.
“What constitutes a horror book? A black and red cover? A primary objective to scare the shit out of the reader? A plug from Stephen King on the back? Most of the books on my list would probably be categorised in other genres first, but then – is Alien a sci-fi film or a horror film, or both? Is Wuthering Heights a ghost story? Is Jane Eyre the mother of all psycho-in-the-attic stories? And Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is in many ways a haunted house story. I might well have put it in here if I’d ever actually read it.
“You can have a lot of fun mixing genres up. Personally I’m not the world’s biggest fan of pure horror novels – ghosts and demons and man-eating slugs leave me slightly unmoved. With no belief in the supernatural, supernatural stories usually have little effect on me. Of the big horror names only Stephen King, with his concentration on character, really works for me. I’ve enjoyed other horror writers but wouldn’t put them in any top 10 lists. HP Lovecraft, for instance, is fun but his books aren’t exactly scary. I’m not going to lose any sleep over the possibility of Cthulhu and the ancient gods crossing over into our domain.
“And there are other glaring omissions from my list. Why no Dracula or Frankenstein or Edgar Allan Poe I hear you cry. It’s sacrilege to leave them out of a horror list, I know. But Poe only really wrote a couple of scary horror stories (The Tell Tale Heart is brilliant) and I find Dracula and Frankenstein rather heavy going and 19th century. Of course they’re where it all began as far as the undead are concerned and must be read, I’m just not sure that they still have the power to frighten us. And, let’s face it, that’s what a horror book should do.
“I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of frightening people. I like the idea of disturbing my readers, giving them sleepless nights and stamping images in their imaginations that will stay there for a very long time. That way they will always remember your book, and after all, us novelists are like Dracula, all we want is immortality. The first two of my adult novels (King Of The Ants and Happy Now) could easily be categorised as horror books and my new series for younger readers, The Enemy, is most definitely horror as it concerns kids vs adult zombies, but it is also an action adventure series, which seems to be my default mode. I’m always open to suggestions, though, so if anyone wants to champion some pure horror books that I absolutely must read, then fire away. I’m all severed ears.”
1. The Watcher by Charles Maclean (out of print but Amazon and Abebooks have copies)
An extraordinary book, unlike anything else I’ve ever read, which had a big effect on me when I first read it. The narrator, Martin Gregory, starts out by telling us that he was perfectly normal and happy and that there was no reason for the terrible thing he has done … The sense of impending horror is enormous, and the book, like the narrator, soon spirals into madness. We have to try and work out what is really going on as we see everything through Gregory’s distorted perspective. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that everyone around him is in very great danger.
2. The Shining by Stephen King
You can’t have a horror list without having Stephen King in there somewhere. It’s the law. But the thing is, when he was at his peak his books were brilliant (he hasn’t quite been able to sustain it – you can’t help but start repeating yourself if you write as many books as he has). Engrossing, tragic and, yes, frightening, which you can’t always say about horror books. He’s a great writer and for me the greatest horror writer. If you’ve only seen the film of The Shining then read the book – it’s better (first half of the film amazing, second a bit silly).
3. The Drive-In by Joe R Lansdale
The Drive In, by Texan titan Joe R Lansdale is a great, knowingly trashy nod to the 50s and 60s craze for teen drive-in schlock sci-fi/horror flicks. A bunch of kids at an all-night horror showing at their local drive-in get mysteriously trapped there by some malign force and begin to behave like ants under a glass. Surviving on junk food and fizzy drinks they go crazy and set up a savage and weird alterative society full of great characters like the Popcorn King. Book Two spins off into yet wilder shores.
4. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
A hugely influential horror book, written in 1957. The last human survivor in a Californian suburb ventures forth every day with a supply of stakes to try and wipe out the vampires that have taken over. Matheson was great at mixing horror and science fiction, and rooting the fantastical in everyday reality. This book is a brilliant study in loneliness and obsession, and when the story twists towards the end Matheson very cleverly makes us question all that has gone before.
5. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
There has been a lot of fuss recently about the film of this book. But the book – which is every bit as extreme and upsetting as the film – has been around since as long ago as 1952. Amazing how you can get away with so much more in books without people really noticing. “Oh, it’s a book, it must be good for you.” Well, this book is certainly not good for you. I remember reading it and thinking – should I be reading this, should anyone read this? It is a horrific trip inside the mind of a cold-blooded psychopathic sadist, who is nevertheless good company and at times unnervingly funny. Not in a flip, post-Tarantino way; this is very disturbing and upsetting stuff. There is never any question as to where Thompson stands – the narrator is a monster. We watch his destructive relations unfold and discover the reasons for his condition from the reading equivalent of “behind the sofa”. Unlike a lot of modern writers who go into this area in a sort of gleefully voyeuristic adolescent way that is entirely fake (stand up Brett Easton Ellis). Jim Thompson lived the life. He understood these people and fought many demons of his own. He is my favourite author by a long chalk, and this is an extraordinary book, but it’s also certainly one of the most extreme (and extremely upsetting) things I’ve ever read.
6. Pan Books Of Horror
If any horror collections can be described as seminal it is these. When I was a teenager they were everywhere. Passed around from hand to hand, they had a forbidden, naughty allure, like video nasties. With their classy but trashy covers the stories they contained were gory, nasty, sometimes sexy, often badly written, sometimes brilliant. The collections were a mix of old classics and more modern material, increasingly the latter as the supply of classics ran dry. You’d find Stephen King alongside Algernon Blackwood and some blood-soaked fillers from writers you’d never heard of before and never hear would again. A superfan is currently working with Pan to get the series relaunched, starting with a facsimile reprint of volume one later in the year. Look out for it. And check out his website.
7. Uncle Montague’s Tales Of Terror by Chris Priestley
This one’s for the kids. Written in an accessible, cod Victorian style it has a neat framing device. Edgar goes to stay with his uncle in the woods who proceeds to tell him a series of terrifying stories – all the while hinting at some dark secrets of his own. Rest assured, the stories, which all feature a child in some way, are genuinely scary and unsettling and really do get under your skin. They certainly frightened my 10-year-old when I read them to him.
8. The Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris
Is this crime or horror? It certainly has a classic horror set up – basically it’s Beauty And The Beast. A naïve and innocent, yet ultimately resilient, young girl enters the monster’s lair and he falls in love with her. Then together they sort put each other’s problems. The secondary villain – Buffalo Bill – is certainly a monster from a horror story, making clothes out if his victims’ skin and keeping his latest victim in a pit. The film played like a horror film, and Anthony Hopkins certainly seemed to think he was in one. The book, as usual, is even better than the film. It’s weird and engrossing and seductive and scary with some nice gothic touches. A great, great read.
9. Ghost stories by MR James
Apologies to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, but of the old classics I’ve gone for James. And not really for the original stories but just so I can bang on about Jonathan Miller’s extraordinary BBC film of “Whistle And I’ll Come To You”. MR James was the king of the unsettling ghost story where not very much happens and it’s all about atmosphere and dread. Miller’s film still has the power to be very, very disturbing. Give yourself a treat and buy it. There are other James BBC adaptations you should look out for as well (A Warning to the Curious is another favourite), they used to show them at Christmas in the good old days, and all still work.
10. Don’t Look Now/The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
All right, I’ll admit it, I’m cheating a bit here. I don’t think these 2 stories actually appear together in a Du Maurier collection except on audiobook. And like MR James, my interest in du Maurier is primarily in the films made of her stories (nearly all of her output was filmed – she was the Stephen King of her day). I couldn’t leave her out because to have come up with the story for not one but two all-time classic horror films is a feat to be applauded. And as Don’t Look Now is my favourite horror film I had to get a mention of it in here somewhere. The original stories are still good reads and its fascinating to see how two great directors teased complete films out of them.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/08/charlie-higson-top-10-horror-books