The first proper horror novel I read was Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. By “proper horror novel”, I mean (a) one dealing with supernatural horror (because I’m not interested in serial killer novels, they’re just thrillers), (b) one with a modern-day setting (which isn’t to say I don’t like supernatural tales set in other eras, because I do — M R James’s Edwardian England, or Arthur Machen’s fin-de-siecle London, for instance — but really I like horror to be set in something as like the day-to-day world I know as possible) and (c) one that sets out to scare me stupid. Salem’s Lot did that in bucketfulls. (IT, the first King novel I bought when it came out, was far scarier, but the ending was a bit naff.)
After Salem’s Lot, I went to a local bookshop to find something with a British setting, and found, in the secondhand section, about half a shelf of Ramsey Campbell novels. I proceeded to devour them. (Not literally. That would have got me thrown out of the shop.) I mean, I just read one after the other. I think I got through The Nameless in about three days. Campbell is (rightly) thought of as on the more literary end of the horror scale, but some of his novels are nevertheless real page-turners. The Influence (which, alongside The House on Nazareth Hill and The Grin of the Dark makes up my three favourite Campbell novels, not to mention being three of my favourite reads of all time) is, I’d say, the best in terms of page-turning.
And from there, there was no turning back. Clive Barker (the big name in horror at the time, though I haven’t read anything by him for a while), Shirley Jackson (whose The Haunting of Hill House was the scariest book I’d ever read — and a recent re-reading has proved it still is), oodles of Weird Tales authors (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, whose Our Lady of Darkness is the most perfect novel from the old school), Theodore Roszack’s Flicker, T E D Klein’s Dark Gods, and nowadays Thomas Ligotti. My most recent discovery is Dan Simmons — The Terror and Drood are both terrific stuff (and completely give the lie to (b) above, because both take place in a historical setting). Plus of course films like Ring, Hellraiser, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Wicker Man, Dagon… So much stuff I might have missed if I’d never started reading horror.
I don’t quite know what switched me from avoiding the stuff like the plague to suddenly reading it. It’s all too easy to get into cod psychologising about the need to confront the darker recesses of one’s mind, but actually I really do think that’s what I needed, and got from, and no doubt still get, from horror fiction. It’s still in my dreams. Giger’s Alien, and the occasional horde of zombies, make the odd nocturnal appearance, but they’re no longer nightmares as such, just dreams. Perhaps that’s what horror fiction has done for me. If so, it’s certainly good enough!
Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to the World Horror Convention for a long weekend of the stuff, something I think my five-year old self who opened this series of blog posts on Me & Horror would just be aghast at. “Why seek it out?” he’d say. “I’ve had enough!”
Well, just in case, this is the book I’m taking to read while I’m there: