In contrast to an earlier list about subtle horror story collections, these ten books tend toward more explicit content. Many involve graphic violence, sexuality, and gore, while others make their bones by dealing with deeply troubling themes. Just as with my list of my favorite “extreme” horror movies, you can certainly find collections gorier and more amoral than those on this list. But these stories often wander into the darkest places, and unlike some of the more gore-centered fictions out there, these ones are usually anchored by complex and interesting characters.
Many of these authors were influenced by or influential in the so-called “Splatterpunk” movement, one that aimed to radically increase the sex and violence quotient in horror fiction. And you can certainly expect to see more graphic content in these collections than in those I covered in that earlier list. But these authors have more to show you than mutilation and monsters. Lurking beneath their stories is a vision of the worst things human beings can be and do, but there’s transcendence here, as well as awe.
First Love, Last Rites (1975)
Even though he’d published several books by then and had already won the Booker Award for his Amsterdam, Ian McEwan rose to international literary fame for his 2001 novel Atonement. While his latest novels have explored science fiction, mystery, and realist drama, his earliest work was much darker, often being described as Gothic. In this first book, McEwan presents a series of dark, queasily erotic, and often quite disturbing stories.
This isn’t splatterpunk by any stretch of the imagination, as McEwan doesn’t generally go in for vividly described gore, but he works his way through tales about sexual assault, incest, and erotically-motivated murder. The fact that he brings a poetic and stylish touch to these stories makes them all the darker, as does his general refusal to pass direct moral judgment on the twisted characters on whom he focuses. If you enjoy this collection, then also check out In Between the Sheets and his novel The Cement Garden.
Books of Blood (1984)
Filmmaker (Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and The Lord of Illusions), novelist (The Hellbound Heart, The Damnation Game, Imajica, and Mister B. Gone), and painter Cliver Barker burst onto the horror scene with this massive collection of 30 short stories. It is a rare thing, establishing your writing career on short stories, but the breadth of styles and sheer inventiveness on display here more than justified the attention the series got. While Barker occasionally plays with old genre tropes like werewolves and ghosts, he most often introduces readers to visions they’ve never seen before, with a special emphasis on body-horror and original monsters. Probably the most media-successful of these works is The Forbidden, which was adapted in 1992 as Candyman.
What unites most of the stories and was the focus of most praise and criticism of Books of Blood, however, is Barker’s willingness to go to extremes in his descriptions of both violence and sexuality. Bodies are carved up, mutated, and turned into sites of bizarre eroticism throughout this collection. Barker’s example (as well as his financial success) triggered what soon came to be known as the “Splatterpunk” movement, in which authors fearlessly, eagerly, explored hitherto forbidden (or at least heavily discouraged) topics and scenarios.
What so many of his imitators missed, though, were the layers of psychological and even spiritual meaning his stories were pregnant with, as well as his subversive, radical takes on the issues his stories brushed up against. These stories may shock you, even now, but there’s more to them than a simplistic gore factor. I think the story “In the Hills, the Cities” is one of the most powerful examples I’ve read of a horror story working on multiple levels at once, managing to combine politics, psychological trauma, and visionary body horror deftly.
Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin
Note: the author formerly known as Poppy Z. Brite now identifies as a man and writes under the name Billy Martin. This collection, however, is still only published under the name Brite, so I will be referring to him accordingly. Brite’s collection takes some of the extremity opened up by Clive Barker, Joe Lansdale, and others, and adds a healthy helping of Southern Gothic atmosphere, resulting in a decadent set of stories. Psychic powers, the occult, zombies, psychopaths and more make appearances in Wormwood, and Brite certainly isn’t afraid to portray rather gory and explicitly-described violence.
What stuck with me, though, above and beyond the New Orleans Grand Guignol, is Brite’s lush writing style. He learned a lot from Ramsey Campbell about more subtle terrors (as did Barker), so even in the midst of more graphic stories there are nuances that disturb on an almost subconscious level. Be warned, though: there’s plenty of rot, mutilation, and murder in these tales to justify including Brite among the Splatterpunk-affiliated authors.
Of special interest to many modern readers will be Brite’s interest in portraying a range of queer characters, from the heroic to the villainous. Barker (himself gay) included similar characters and situations in some of the Books of Blood stories, but Brite was one of the first major horror authors to center queer identities and portray their relationships with the curiosity and seriousness usually afforded their straight peers.
Altmann’s Tongue (1994)
Evenson is one of the more versatile writers working within or alongside the genre. He co-wrote the novelization of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem with Zombie (under the pseudonym B. K. Evenson), his stories are often singled out for praise by critics who wouldn’t otherwise touch genre fiction, and Altmann’s Tongue, I feel safe saying, is the only collection of horror/horror-adjacent fiction blurbed by the postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Evenson’s range is wide, and these early stories go a long way to demonstrating that.
These tales veer from tricksy Borgesian detective stories to gory looks into the lives of psychopaths and obsessives. Although some of these stories share characters and situations, what unites them is less a metaphysical mythos and more a concern for examining characters in extreme circumstances. That, and an almost undefinable interest in tracking how we make meaning out of the chaos of life. And in Evenson’s stories, there is plenty of chaos to be had. The violence here can be brutal and prolonged (these stories are not for those who can’t stomach scenes of animal suffering), and it is made even more disturbing by its lack of “sensical” reasons for happening.
Evenson’s world is a truly dark one and that he accomplishes this without reaching for easy horrific tropes is especially impressive. His work is particularly recommended for those who enjoy painful, nightmarish, and thought-provoking fiction.
Chuck Palahniuk of course made a name for himself with his Fight Club, as well as the novels that quickly followed it. These are books about weirdos and bizarre corners of culture most people will never even hear of, all told in a mordant voice inclined towards thematic repetition and stylistic tricks (as well as trick endings). With his Lullaby, though, Palahniuk blatantly stepped across the line from “transgressive literary fiction,” a category often given grudging respect by critics, and into full-blown horror. Not that he dropped any of the narrative peculiarities he’d already become known for.
Haunted is, strictly speaking, a novel made up of short stories and not just a collection. The framing story is about a cast of around a dozen aspiring authors who agree to attend a writer’s retreat in which they will be locked inside a theater and given bare bones accommodations, supposedly as a means to help them develop their talents more deeply. As they settle in, though, and begin telling their stories, we begin realizing these are some seriously warped, even dangerous people. How many of their often violent stories are merely a product of their imaginations, and how many are confessions?
As with all of Palahniuk’s work, these stories are laced with pitch black comedy and strange set-ups, and as with the rest of his work, your mileage will vary. I found them by turns funny, grotesque, and yes, haunting. The story “Guts” is easily the most famous of this collection, and if you can read that story without getting sick (either of the content or of his singular style), you’ll likely enjoy the rest of the book.
The Lost District (2006)
Joel Lane died at 50, relatively young, a career broken mid-stream and a loss to the world of dark fantasy and horror. These stories in particular are a rare thing, sharp and strange and unique. Lane’s leading lights were clearly Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell, a pair of influences visible in both the sheer weirdness of what happens in the stories, the ways a relatively normal situation can turn into an inexplicable nightmare, and in his care for suggestive language that hints at worse beyond what we can see.
But Lane’s world is grittier than those shown in most of Aickman and Campbell’s stories, a grimy and decaying urban cityscape filled with addicts and the mad. Before the supernatural even has a chance to work on the lives of his characters one has the feeling that they’re already screwed. Screwed by the financial systems which have left them in the lurch, screwed by non-existent mental care, and screwed by their own dark desires. And then the unreal breaks in on their lives: chunks of the city that seem to go missing, unsettling noises from apartment neighbors, inhuman addictions.
“Grim” would be the appropriate word for Lane’s stories, twisted and melancholy and often hopeless. That most of the stories are only a few pages makes them easier to absorb than if they’d gone on at length, and many of them read like prose-poems. If you like a bit of an emotional challenge and are fascinated by the lives of outsiders and the desperate, all told in a poetic style, then this book is for you.
We Live Inside You (2011)
Jeremy Robert Johnson
Jeremy Robert Johnson’s fiction has been praised by many of the other authors on this list, and it only takes a story or two to see why. These are visceral, extreme tales that are perfect for those who love body horror and monsters. Johnson is often associated with the “Bizarro” sub-genre, one that focuses on deliberately outlandish plots and outrageous elements. But while Johnson is happy to throw sentient parasites and men wearing suits made of living cockroaches at us, his work gets at something more meaningful than Bizarro stuff often does. His style is also more arresting.
This is the literary equivalent of bands like the Dead Kennedys who use both rage and humor to get across their message. I think of his work in general and this collection in particular as a late flowering of splatterpunk, proof that extreme and even ridiculously gory material can be wedded to good writing and thematic seriousness.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013)
If H. P. Lovecraft had outgrown his noxious racism, learned to see women as full human beings, and then boned up on his noir and pulp fiction, he may have become a writer like Laird Barron. Barron’s primary stomping grounds are those of cosmic horror, but his characters and the reasons they’ve come into contact with otherworldly tend to differ significantly from those of other authors in the sub-genre. Instead of cracked aesthetes, scientists, or doomed occult nerds, the stories in this collection feature hit-men, bootleggers, and even a spy or two. Impressively, this addition of an “action-adventure” vibe does nothing to spoil the terrors that spill out of his dark universe.
Barron’s protagonists may often be men and women of violence, professional killers and thugs, but the powers from beyond always lurking behind the scenes in his stories often still prove more than they can handle. These stories tend to move fast and have great, quippy dialogue, and his cosmic inventions haunt me. I also enjoy how Barron uses tough-guy tropes while simultaneously engaging in a progressive critique of these characters and situations, all without sinking into preachiness. Except violence. Expect a grim and all-but nihilistic view of the world. And expect to be left with disturbing questions that linger even as his stories come to a close.
After the People Lights Have Gone Off (2014)
Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones is becoming well-known for his horror novels, particularly The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw, but his short stories should get more attention as well. The stories in this collection (as well as in The Ones That Got Away) usually take place in the most mundane settings, movie theaters, book clubs, and tattoo parlors. They revolve around characters who only seem typical before we see their secret darkness through cracks in their first-person narrations.
While Jones doesn’t often go in for extended descriptions of gore, his stories go places you don’t expect them to, places you’d rather not go. He, much like Stephen King, isn’t afraid to break your heart, nor will he hesitate to end a story in the most troubling ways. His stories don’t tend toward nihilism, as Jones clearly has a big heart and retains some hope for the world, but that makes it all the more upsetting when one of his characters makes a terrible decision and they or others must pay the price for it.
One of the signal virtues of Jones’s fictions is his obviously bone-deep knowledge of and affection for the horror genre and its tropes. Because he’s seen and read so much (allusions to the greats of the genre pop up like Easter eggs in these stories), when he does tackle a hidebound horror convention like werewolves or haunted houses, you can rest assured he is going to put a spin on it you haven’t seen before. And all of this is capped off by his sinuous and poetic style, a voice that adds much to already disturbing and unique stories.
Junji Ito, manga writer extraordinaire and creator of both Tomie and Uzumaki may be at his best in his short stories. He knows how to draw you into a situation that often immediately turns bizarre, and then watch as his characters haplessly try coping with the strange fates to which they are doomed. Here, a weird mental plague hits Japan that turns people into living statues, two kids come across a haunted house attraction that’s horrifying in all the wrong ways, and a delicious nectar turns its consumers into targets for a supernatural menace.
Smashed also includes stories that involve Souichi, a malicious middle-schooler who tries (and usually fails) to use supernatural means to get what he wants. While his work doesn’t go to some of the extremes you can find in graphic-novel horror (I’m thinking of the gruesome Crossed series, here), they usually involve some pretty gnarly bodily transformations. And no one is safe in these tales, so if you are averse to stories that don’t hesitate to kill kids or animals, this may be a bit too much for you.
Ito’s stories often feel like urban legends you hadn’t heard of yet, like they’d been out there waiting in the ether before he captured them. There are many collections of his stories, by the way, with a few repeating titles, but you should be safe buying these most recent volumes as well as the Museum of Terror series.
SEE ALSO: The Throne of Bones