Horror literature is often known for big fat novels, epics like Stephen King’s It, Mark Danielewski’s seemingly never-ending House of Leaves, and a good number of the other classics that came out in the 80’s and 90’s. Scary fiction, though, is often at its best when it’s quick and too-the-point, launching readers into creepiness before they’ve had a chance to get their bearings in an imaginary world. The following ten novels don’t mess around, moving through a lot of story at a blistering pace or exploring a single compact storyline in less than 200 pages. Most of these, I read in a single sitting. If you’re looking for something relatively brief yet still impactful, I recommend grabbing one of them.
Ken Greenhall, who wrote just a handful of slim horror novels in the 1970’s under the pseudonym Jessica Hamilton, is quickly rising in the world of cult horror fiction, largely to the efforts of author Grady Hendrix in his wonderfully illustrated Paperbacks From Hell. Elizabeth is a truly disturbing tale about Elizabeth Cuttner, a fourteen-year-old girl who has begun seeing the image of a woman named Francis in her mirror. Francis is eager to teach Elizabeth occult powers, powers the young girl begins using for some of the darkest purposes imaginable. Elizabeth tells her own story in a narrative voice simultaneously ironic and cold as bone. She’s no innocent, as we soon discover, but then neither are some of the adults in her life. Is she really developing magical powers or is she cracking up? I’ll give an ambiguous warning here: though it’s not gory, this book does touch on some profoundly uncomfortable sexual and psychological topics.
The Hellbound Heart (1986)
Just a few years after publishing this extended novella, author Clive Barker made his directorial debut by turning it into the first and best Hellraiser movie. The novel (as well as the film, which is mostly faithful to it) is about a degenerate pleasure-seeker named Frank Cotton who, in his search for ever-more varied and extreme sensations, discovers a puzzle box known as the Lemarchand Configuration. Anyone who solves this puzzle summons beings from another dimension who promise to give them the ultimate pleasures.
Unfortunately for Frank, the upper limits of pleasure dovetail with the most extreme tortures, and after these beings appear, they drag him away to their dimension for an eternity of sadomasochistic experiences. Shortly thereafter, Frank’s brother and his wife Julia, who had had a brief but memorable affair with Frank years before, inherit the house from which he disappeared. Soon, lovelorn Julia finds traces of Frank still exist in the house and decides to bring him back to life. This is Grand Guignol in a sharp, visionary, and highly literate form.
The Fifth Child (1988)
British-Rhodesian author Doris Lessing, who would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, penned this novel about a family ruined by an unnatural addition to it. David and Harriet Lovatt are conservative, middle-class folks who’ve grown the sort of large and boisterous family they’ve always dreamt of. Lots of love and contentment and all that jazz. Then came Ben, their fifth child. After a torturous pregnancy, he comes out physically deformed, looking like some sort of genetic throwback.
That would have been alright (even if the Lovatt’s are the sort of people who would’ve considered this shameful), but as he grows up, Ben begins showing signs that his mind and emotions are just as misshapen as his body. Soon, these placid parents find themselves forced into deciding whether its better to give their child up or risk him destroying every bit of their carefully constructed domestic bliss. This is kind of a realistic version of The Omen or The Bad Seed, but Lessing is playing a more subtle game, satirizing reactionary stances on society and the family.
The Axman Cometh (1989)
Unlike the other books in this list, The Axman Cometh doesn’t just offer the possibility of reading it in a single setting: it practically demands it. Farris, a horror novelist who was most popular in the 1980’s, writes a foreword in which he asks you to read it straight through. Shannon, the protagonist of this pulpy little novel, was the only survivor of her family when the titular Axman butchered them all one night years ago. In the present, she finds herself in a powerless elevator, convinced someone is in there with her. The novel slides between that plotline and her memories of the night of the massacre as we gradually learn what really happened. What starts off as a realistic if lurid thriller eventually evolves into a hallucinatory mindfuck. That may be a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I think you’ll enjoy this novel if you know it isn’t going where you might think it’s going.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993)
Some people might argue this is less a horror novel than a dark social satire, but it gets pretty ghastly pretty quick. In fact, the book begins with our main character, Pete Robinson, is planning the drawing-and-quartering of his town’s mayor with four vehicles. The mayor kind of has it coming in that he launched a few missiles into the town’s Botanical Gardens, but Pete still thinks there may a better way of handling these situations and decides to run for the position that’s about to be so bloodily vacated. This novel is nuts, involving absurd home defense traps that kill unwary neighbors, people-hunting in the local park, and Pete’s wife, who may be turning into an extinct fish. This is funny and politically-pointed suburban surrealism and I devoured it in just a few hours.
Don’t mistake Ryu Murakami for the more audience-friendly magical realist Haruki Murakami. Ruy’s work is far darker and crueler to its audience. This quick novel served as the basis of Takashi Miike’s audacious, lyrical, and horrifying film of the same name. It’s about Aoyama, a widower who has been grieving his wife’s death of cancer for too long. After his son tells him he needs a new wife, Aoyama and his friend Yoshikawa come up with a creepy plan to hold auditions for a fake movie, auditions that will actually be intended to help the man fill the role of his wife. Soon enough, he meets a gorgeous and shy young woman named Yamasaki Asami, someone who perfectly fits his desire for a demure yet fetching spouse. Yamasaki, however, has her own ideas about love and they aren’t quite as old-fashioned as Aoyama assumes.
You Should Have Left (2016)
Recently adapted into a decent creepy movie starring Kevin Bacon, this German novella concerns an unnamed narrator, his wife, and his young daughter from a previous marriage. This family rents a large house in the boonies in which the narrator plans on writing the screenplay for a sequel to a hit movie he wrote. Alas, his writing time is significantly interrupted by nightmares and strange observations he makes of the house’s architecture. Is it larger on the inside than on the outside? Why are the house’s mirrors acting up, failing to show his reflection? Is he going mad or is the house a trap of some sort? The book is told in the form of his diary, and it moves at such a quick pace it’ll be over long before you want it to be. Check out the movie too.
Mapping the Interior (2017)
Stephen Graham Jones
Prolific and poetic horror author Stephen Graham Jones creates, in Mapping the Interior, a story about the haunting effects of loss, both private and cultural. In this short novel, we follow a Native American twelve-year-old boy, Junior, who lives with his mother and mentally disabled brother in a house he soon discovers may be harboring secrets. One night, Junior sees what might be his father’s ghost, a phantom dressed in full Blackfeet ceremonial regalia. Junior starts investigating both his family’s past and his house’s features, all the while trying to protect his younger brother from the bullies at their school.
What follows is an often heartbreaking exploration of race, class, grief, and unnatural architecture, one written in a unique, lyrical narrative voice. It can be easily read in one sitting, but it begs for a slower, more attentive reread as well. And if you enjoy this, I think you’ll love the author’s novel The Only Good Indians, one that combines similar themes with both monster-story and slasher elements.
Such Small Hands (2017)
Marina is seven years old when both her parents die in an accident and she is sent away to an orphanage. There, she finds the other girls suspicious of her and soon this distrust turns into abuse. When she invents a new game for them all to play every night, a game that taps into both their burgeoning maternal instincts as well as their more sadistic impulses, she gains some control over the situation. This control, however, may come at a steep price. Barba’s tiny novel (only 83 pages) manages to create a little world of its own, alternating between chapters from Marina’s POV and those of the other girls, a collective “we” in which we get some idea of what they see in her that they find so objectionable. Barba does an excellent job mimicking the surreal, simultaneously cruel and tender ways children often think of each other.
By the time it reaches its inevitable climax, this little book may have reopened scars you haven’t thought of since you were a child, particularly if you were one of the odd ones. This book is unsparing in its examination of children, tearing right through the haze of sentimentality through which we often wish to see them. It is comparable to Grégoire Courtois’s miniature nightmare of a novel, The Laws of the Skies and if one of these doesn’t put you off, you’ll probably enjoy (if that’s the right word) the other.
My Sister, the Serial Killer
In this, Oyinkan Braithewaite’s debut novel, we meet Korede, a nurse living in Nigeria who must deal with the actions of her younger sister Ayoola. As the novel begins, Ayoola, the prettier, more charming of the sisters, has just finished killing another man, the third in a very short period of time. Ayoola claims to have good reasons for her killings, though her sister only half-believes them. Ayoola also expects Korede to help her cover up these murders, depending on her for everything from cleaning up the bloody mess to helping fake these men’s continued existence through the use of social media. Korede is torn about her participation, but what else can she do? Just vent her frustration to a comatose patient, apparently. Things go from bad to terrible when Ayoola meets some of Korede’s co-workers and the older sister is forced to make some unfortunate choices. This novel is a breeze to read, and despite its dark topic, is pretty funny.