In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the character Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” a comment on the millennia of repressive traditions and cultural traumas hanging over his head. And looking into that dark backward to which Prospero refers in The Tempest reveals a catalogue of horrors indeed. We are, all of us, struggling still with unresolved (and worse, unknown) wounds we’ve inherited. A great historical horror novel can take these nightmares and squeeze not only a frightening good time out of them but can also shed new light on them.
But historical horror is a tricky thing to pull off. Not only does an author need to get at least some color and detail of their chosen historical period right, they have to find ways of drawing their readers into sympathy and engagement with characters for whom the world is a very different thing. Good for us, though, that some terrors are timeless. The following historical horror novels not only entertain, but also speak slyly about the eras in which they are set, not to mention our own. Every novel but one has some element of the supernatural, and all deal with nightmares that played a role in making us who we are, some of which haunt us still.
The Keep (1981)
F. Paul Wilson
It’s 1941, the middle of World War II, and a group of Nazi soldiers headquartered in an ancient Romanian castle are under attack. One by one, a mysterious force is violently murdering them. Desperate to understand what’s killing his men, the Nazi Sturmbannfuhrer has an old Jewish professor and his daughter brought to the keep. The secrets Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda uncover will reveal an older and far more dangerous war that’s been taking place for thousands of years.
The novel complicates your sympathies in some ways, pitting the very real fascist threat against a malevolent supernatural foe. The Keep isn’t heavy on historical details (though from what I can tell, Wilson gets the facts right), but is instead a fast-paced and gloomy horror-adventure novel. It’s the first in a six-book series, though The Keep can be quite enjoyably read on its own. The director Michael Mann made a film adaptation starring Ian McKellan, Gabriel Byrne, and Jürgen Prochnow in 1983 which suffered from copious studio interference, but it is visually impressive and always fun seeing this caliber of acting in a monster movie.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, 88 churches (and tens of thousands of homes) had been destroyed, leading Parliament to commission the construction of several dozen new or rebuilt houses of worship, all overseen by the architect Sir Christopher Wren. In Hawksmoor, Wren’s assistant Nicholas Dyer is hard at work on this project, but the rationalist Wren has little idea Dyer has a dark plan of his own. Meanwhile, in the 20th century, Detective Nicholas Hawksmoor is drawn into a series of serial killings taking place in or around Dyer’s churches. What’s the connection between these events separated by 300 years? And will Hawksmoor solve this riddle before something worse happens?
Ackroyd is one of the great historians of Britain, and the chapters set in the early 18th century are not only thoroughly researched, they’re also written in a style appropriate to the era, making the events in the novel feel all the more plausible. Hawksmoor was unique when it was first released, especially in its mixture of horror and historical settings, as well as the way it moves back and forth between the two time periods, a technique now much more familiar to audiences than it was in the eighties. Ackroyd not only tells a disturbing supernatural tale, he also takes you on a journey through the darker parts of British history, including a memorable trip to the infamous mental asylum Bedlam.
Blood Meridian (1985)
Cormac McCarthy was known for years primarily for his romantic novel All the Pretty Little Horses, as well as its two sequels. Then, The Road and No Country for Old Men not only massively increased his readership but were also turned into successful films. I’d bet good money, though, that his long-term literary reputation will rest on this novel. Blood Meridian is a grim, bloody, and merciless story about a terribly true series of events in American history. During the mid and later 19th century, both the U. S. and Mexican governments (as well as some settler colonies) paid roving gangs of outlaws to butcher as many Native Americans as possible, often asking for scalps of the victims as proof.
Blood Meridian follows one of these gangs, a group of degenerate sociopaths and psychopaths who carve their way across the Southwest. Leading these men is Judge Holden, a seven-foot tall and completely hairless monster with the erudition of Hannibal Lecter but with none of his other redeeming qualities. One of the greatest literary villains ever created, Holden is so skilled at so many things and knows far too much about the history of this land to be the human being he pretends to be. The novel follows a young man known only as the Kid as he gets involved with, and later tries pulling away from, these killers.
This novel is not for the faint of heart nor for those who wish to retain some rosy-tinted view of the past. Men, women, children, babies, animals: everyone falls before Holden’s gang, often murdered in gruesome ways. McCarthy’s novel is told in a rich prose reminiscent of Herman Melville and William Faulkner, and that mixture of high style and horrific content creates an effect I’ve seldom seen in any other work of fiction. If you can stomach the violence and appreciate the novel’s dark Biblical voice, don’t be surprised if Blood Meridian quickly rises to becoming one of your favorite works of literature. Check out his novel Child of God too for more Faulknerian psychological horror.
Beloved is easily the most studied, recommended, and assigned book in this list, and it’s easy to see why. Recognized as a landmark in American literature, it’s also an effective and multilayered story about a haunting. Toni Morrison’s novel takes place in the 1870’s, only a decade after the freeing of Black American slaves. Sethe, now living in Cincinnati with her daughter Denver, once made a break for freedom from Sweet Home, the plantation where she was enslaved. What happened next continues to haunt her, years after being released from bondage. In fact, it seems to be haunting Denver too, as their home is inhabited by an unseen and possibly angry force. When a man with whom Sethe was enslaved reenters her life, Sethe’s poltergeist seems to fade away, but a new visitor named Beloved brings a different level of chaos to all of their lives.
Beloved, much like Blood Meridian, is a richly told inheritor of the best of American Modernism, adding stream-of-consciousness and hallucinatory sequences to that tradition of quasi-Biblical style. But don’t let these literary terms scare you off: it’s also a disturbing and engrossing novel of the supernatural with an ambiguity I’d compare to the works of Robert Aickman and Peter Straub.
The Accursed (2013)
Joyce Carol Oates
The bulkiest novel on this list (coming in at over 600 pages), The Accursed is an epic story of class, privilege, politics, racism, misogyny, and the supernatural set within the confines of Princeton and its nearby towns. MW van Dyck II is a modern historian investigating weird events that coalesced around the University and drew in several prominent figures of the time, most especially the college’s president Woodrow Wilson, soon to be Commander-in-Chief of the Unites States. “The Curse” is what they called it, the weird deaths and disappearances, the inhuman apparitions, the bride who ran away with a stranger on her wedding day. While van Dyck struggles to fit these events into a rational framework, it soon becomes clear an unnatural force lurks behind them all.
The Accursed is a wild ride, switching between realistic drama and outrageous Gothic supernaturalism without warning. Oates’s obviously well-researched novel draws in not only Wilson, but also Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Teddy Roosevelt, and other real figures of the time. These aren’t a bunch of flattering cameos: these men and women are portrayed as complex human beings with a host of ideas and beliefs, both progressive and revoltingly bigoted. I loved how the novel’s fantastic horrors run parallel to or comment on the very real nightmares Oates unearths from American history.
The Shining Girls (2013)
It’s the 1930’s, and Harper Curtis is just another drifter trying to weather the Depression. After a violent conflict, though, he takes refuge in a decrepit old house in Chicago, a house filled with mementoes of young women as well as a corpse. What Curtis is about to discover is that this grimy building has somehow become unstuck in time, and he can leave it into different future eras. The catch? It seems the house demands sacrifices for Curtis’s use of it, sacrifices he’s more than happy to make. Now, as he stalks women across the twentieth century, a resourceful would-be victim is going to fight back.
The Shining Girls, by South African writer Lauren Beukes, is a humdinger of a thriller, skipping across the decades and through the lives of several bright young women. Beukes puts far more literary emphasis on Curtis’s targets than on him, highlighting the ways in which victims are often given short shrift in serial killer mysteries. If you like timey-wimey paradox stories as well as psychopath thrillers, you couldn’t do better than checking this one out.
The Zone of Interest (2014)
Of all the novels on this list, The Zone of Interest is definitely the odd one out. It is a more or less realistic story set within a fictional concentration camp. Not only does Martin Amis’s novel not contain the slightest hint of the supernatural, it isn’t out to terrify the reader, per se. In fact, Amis got some (in my opinion unjustified) criticism for mixing humor and romance into this topic. But while he shows these aspects of human experience still took place even in the darkest of settings, neither does he flinch from showing the ugliest and cruelest of violence perpetrated against the victims of the Nazi’s madness. It’s that aspect, the horrors of the Holocaust as well as the pseudo-intellectual concepts that drove regular human beings to resort to these evils, that (for me at least) earns his novel a place on this list of historical horror novels.
The Zone of Interest takes place almost entirely in the concentration camp Kat Zet as well as its surrounding locales. Amis follows three narrative threads, all of which are distinguished by unique styles. Angelus Thomsen is the closest we come to a protagonist, a young Nazi officer who has fallen in love with the camp commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll. Thomsen is also slowly coming to see the evil of the Nazi project. We also are exposed to the journals of Paul Doll, that commandant. A cruel and closeminded bigot, Doll is also an idiot of Wodehousian proportions, a vapid and vainglorious man who can’t see how empty he and his movement are. There’s humor here, in that Amis masterfully shows just how empty-headed and pretentious Nazi beliefs were, but it’s also terrifying seeing just how easily people can be won over by disgusting ideas.
Finally, and most horrifically, we follow Szmul Zacharias, a Jewish Sonderkommando. The latter were concentration camp victims who were enticed and/or threatened into helping with the sorting and killing of their fellow inmates. Szmul’s world is a hellish one, marked by trauma and guilt and a building sense of internal deadness, and if you can read his account without feeling horror, then I don’t know what to say.
The Fisherman (2016)
What happens after we die? Will we be reunited with our lost loved ones? What if there was neither a Heaven nor a Hell nor any of the other realms human beings believe in? What if the truth was much worse than we can imagine? The Fisherman is a powerful example of supernatural historical fiction, a novel that unites grounded era-appropriate details with visionary horror. It’s also a series of nested stories, tales within tales within tales, and while this might be confusing for some readers, I think it adds an eeriness to the novel while also resonating with its themes. This is, after all, a story about how stories drive people, sometimes driving them right into their destruction.
In the late twentieth century, coworkers and fellow widowers Abe and Dan bond over their losses as well as an interest in fishing. Dan has found a new place for them to practice their hobby, a secluded spot in the Catskills known as “Dutchman’s Creek.” Before the friends can reach the creek, though, a man in a local diner insists on telling them the disturbing history of the place. His story takes up more than half of the novel and begins before the Civil War. It’s a tale of grief, desperation, cosmic horror, and ruinous over-reaching. And it’s a story that’ll change the course of Abe and Dan’s lives, bringing a revelation so terrible it would drive anyone mad. Also, check out Langan’s short fiction.
The Hunger (2018)
In the winter of 1846-47, a wagon train of people headed for California found themselves snowbound in the inhospitable Sierra Nevada mountain range. Poor guidance, mismanaged supplies, and internal divisions made this situation even worse, and by the time rescuers extracted them, the 87 members of the Donner Party had been reduced to 48. Infamously, some of the migrants had resorted to cannibalizing their dead, and the expedition became a dark legend in American history.
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu fleshes out several of the members of the party as they make their way westward. As we get to know them and their intertwined histories, we also see the groundwork for tragedy being laid down. And Katsu’s Donner Party has worse than starvation to worry about, something that becomes plainer with every mutilated body they find. The Hunger builds up to a climax that’s more ambiguous than many would like to see, but I think it matches the fuzziness of legends, as well as the disturbing questions we know we’ll never be able to answer.
Mexican Gothic (2020)
Noemí Taboada is a vivacious socialite living it up in 1950’s Mexico City. Buttressed by her father’s wealth, as well as the education he’s provided for her, Noemí has set her sights on higher aspirations than a society marriage and a life of indolence. Her plans, though, both educational and social, come to a screeching halt when her father asks her to travel to the remote village of El Triunfo. In a massive home named High Place that overlooks the village lives Noemí’s cousin Catalina, who has recently married into the Doyle family. The Doyle’s have ruled over the local mining industry forever, but unlike the Taboada’s are complete recluses.
The reason for Noemí’s visit is a panicked letter Catalina sent the Tabaoda’s in which she claims her husband is planning on killing her. The truth, however, is far darker than simple murder. Mexican Gothic knowingly plays with and subverts old Gothic tropes while giving them a modern spin. Noemí, far from the delicate damsel in distress that featured in many 19th century novels, is an intelligent and resourceful heroine. And the evil at the heart of High Place is more formidable than a skulking monk or a chain-rattling ghost, with roots in both real historical cruelties and visionary supernatural horror.
SEE ALSO: The Terror, Dark Matter, From Hell, Flicker, Zeroville, The Ballad of Black Tom, The Monk, The Master and Margarita, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, The Twenty Days of Turin, Child of God, The Little Stranger