We’re getting to the time of year where Halloween preparations are in full swing. At the library, the horror movies fly off the shelves like vampire bats, and readers creep through the stacks looking for scary stories. Big names like Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz are perennially popular, but there are some hidden gems lurking on the shelves waiting to leap out at unsuspecting readers.
A haunted house is creepy; a haunted house at the end of a long-abandoned road in rural Kansas is terrifying. “Kill Creek” by Scott Thomas begins with an invitation sent to horror author Sam McGarver, whose career has been derailed by writer’s block: spend Halloween night at the notorious Finch house as part of an interview/publicity stunt, receive a large sum of money in return.
It’s an offer that’s tough to decline, and when Sam arrives, he learns that he’ll be in the company of three other prominent horror authors: T.C. Moore, whose edgy gorefests push horror to the extreme; Daniel Slaughter, who writes Christian-influenced horror-lite books for tweens and teens; and Sebastian Cole, an elderly master of the genre. Their host, Wainwright, is known for stunts and gimmicks, and this is no exception.
The Finch house is just as creepy as the authors anticipate, and Wainwright has primed their imaginations by sharing stories about the history of the house and the disturbing story of its previous occupants, the Finch sisters. The interview is watched by millions, and the authors retreat to their bedrooms to sleep. But sleep is evasive, and their dreams are disturbing, leading to a night of terror.
After the night at the Finch house, Sam begins writing so obsessively that he forgets to eat or sleep. He soon finds out that the other authors are having the same experience. The sinister powers of the house have invaded their lives, and the only way to break the curse is to return to Kill Creek and destroy the Finch house, confronting their personal demons in the process.
“Kill Creek” is terrifying on a number of levels — as a traditional haunted house story, as a survival story and as a testament to how the stories we tell ourselves can be far more terrifying than reality.
An isolated setting is also key to Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “Hex,” a disturbing story set in Black Spring, a small town in upstate New York. Black Spring has an eerie secret: it’s haunted by a 400-year old witch who makes random appearances around town. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, adding to her macabre appearance.
Oddly, the residents of Black Spring are used to their creepy neighbor — they even have an app to track her whereabouts. The shared experience of living with the Black Rock Witch makes for a tight-knit community, so when a wealthy family tries to move in, the residents do everything they can to keep it from happening, because once you move in to Black Spring ... you can never leave.
Order is disturbed when a group of teenage boys videotape themselves disrupting the witch’s movements around town, sharing the videos online — a practice that has been forbidden by the town elders. When their initial video attracts attention, their pranks involving the witch become more extreme, and their transgressions unleash terror across the community, which devolves into horrifying and brutal chaos.
“Hex” is an extraordinarily dark book. It’s gory, it’s gruesome and it’s deeply unsettling. While there are occasional glimpses of humor — such as the townspeople finding ways to hide the witch during their annual fall festival — this isn’t a book with a redemptive ending where good triumphs over evil. “Hex” isn’t for the faint of heart, but readers looking for a book that will leave them too creeped out to sleep will find it here.
Grady Hendrix is a master of pop culture-influenced horror. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books, his first novel, “Horrorstor,” is my favorite. Strange things have been happening at the Cleveland outlet of Orsk, an “all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag.” Furniture that was in pristine condition at closing has been destroyed overnight. Carefully-staged accessories have been yanked from the walls. It’s not the curated image that Orsk wants to show to their customers, and someone needs to get to the bottom of the situation.
Corporate go-getter Basil, slacker Amy and perpetually cheery cashier Ruth Anne will spend the night in the store to keep an eye on things. Co-workers Trinity and Matt join the crew as “paranormal investigators.” As the night goes on, things get very, very weird.
It turns out that this particular branch of the Orsk superstore was built on the site of the Cuyahoga Panopticon, a 19th-century prison led by a warden who believed in rehabilitating criminals via mind control — similar to the tactics used at Orsk to get people to spend more money.
As the Orsk retail team delves more deeply into the situation, the similarities become undeniable, and their world of flat-packed modern pseudo-Scandinavian furniture becomes a bizarre torture chamber.
One of the hallmarks of Hendrix’s books is clever design, and “Horrorstor” is designed like an IKEA catalog, complete with furniture descriptions (which grow stranger as the book progresses), a store map and excerpts from the Orsk employee handbook. The combination of satirical commentary on corporate culture, paranormal activity and relatable characters will appeal to readers of all tastes — even those who don’t usually enjoy horror stories.