Selecting books for a book group can be challenging -- there are so many titles to choose from and only so many months in a year. To help narrow the field, many book clubs use the calendar as a selection tool -- choosing an African-American author for February and Black History Month or an Irish author for March and St. Patrick's Day. As fall approaches, book clubs who use this method -- and are open to exploring genre fiction -- should consider choosing a horror novel for October and Halloween.
Like science fiction, westerns, and other genres I've explored in this series, horror seems, at first glance, out of step with what most book clubs tend to select. However, if we understand the underlying appeal of horror, we can move beyond genre stereotypes -- and any potential hesitation to select genre fiction -- and move toward encouraging book clubs to expand their horizons. After all, horror fiction has been engaging and enthralling readers for more than a century -- a fact worthy of discussion itself.
What is the enduring appeal of horror? As Becky Spratford explains in Horror at the Service Desk, "The central appeal of horror is the feeling it generates. More than any other type of literature, the horror novel's ultimate objective is to scare by manipulating the reader's emotions." When we read horror, we can confront, explore, and understand our fears from the safety of our reading chair. And when a book club reads a horror novel together, they can collectively confront, explore, and understand both their individual fears and those of society.
Horror authors have addressed societal fears since the earliest days -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein looks at society's fear of modernity and technology. Modern authors continue to do so -- recent takes on the vampire story such as The Passage and The Strain explore societal fears of disease and pandemics, both natural and man-made.
While book clubs might discuss what a horror novel says about the time and culture it reflects, they can also talk about their individual fears, sharing how they felt when reading the book, what about it they found scary, or perhaps -- to make the conversation a bit lighter -- what they would do if the zombies came or how they would survive a night in a haunted house.
While book clubs may be intrigued by considering horror fiction, they may well not want too much of the bloody stuff.
Here are few selections that are light on blood and gore yet heavy on great writing and engaging themes to spark good discussions:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Many book clubs work classics into their regular rotation and Dracula is a great choice as both a literary classic and a horror novel. The vampire is such a familiar figure that going back to the book that started it all is an interesting endeavor. Book groups might consider what effect the epistolary format has on the story or how the women -- Lucy and Mina -- function in the story or what comment the author might be making about religion and science and modernity. They might also discuss why the vampire is such an enduring character and how it has changed over the years, from Anne Rice's Lestat to Stephanie Meyer's Edward Cullen.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Stephen King called the opening lines of The Haunting of Hill House some of the finest in the English language. Beyond fine writing, the rest of the book provides much for book groups to enjoy and discuss. The story follows four characters as they spend a weekend in a notoriously haunted house, trying to understand its secrets. Book group discussion might focus on the two very different women in the novel or how the haunted house functions as a metaphor or whether or not the house is actually haunted or a figment of the unreliable narrator's mind. However, the most intriguing question may be this -- why does a book with hardly any blood, gore, or graphic violence scare the pants off so many readers?
Different Seasons by Stephen King
No list of great horror fiction would be complete without something from the modern master of the genre. However, selecting one of his books for this list is difficult because many of them are very, very scary and many are very, very long. Different Seasons has a more dramatic and less terrifying feel, although there are a few dead bodies in it. It is also comprised of four novellas, so a book group might choose to read just one or two and discuss. Also, three of the four novellas have been made into movies -- most notably Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption -- which makes good fodder for a book club discussion.
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Like Shirley Jackson, Stephen King also admires the work of Ira Levin, whose works many know through their film adaptations, including The Stepford Wives, Sliver, A Kiss Before Dying, and his most famous work, Rosemary's Baby. While many may have seen the movie, perhaps fewer book clubbers will have read the book -- which has been hailed by critics as "perfectly crafted" and a "modern masterpiece." Book clubs will want to discuss the naïve young housewife, her ambitious actor husband, and of course, the evil that lurks in the apartment next door -- as well as how the novel reflects the time it was published (1967) and why this story was so terrifying (and popular) then and now.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Vampires, haunted houses, the occult -- what's missing from this list? ZOMBIES. Forget the mega-blockbuster with Brad Pitt and an endless stream of CGI zombies pouring over that wall. Max Brook's novel takes the familiar idea of the zombie apocalypse and brilliantly presents it in a framework of multiple accounts from various characters. This author uses the oral history format to comment on isolationism, corruption, science, and politics -- all things that book clubs will want to ring in on as well.
This article is part of a series inside NoveList and NoveList Plus on finding great genre choices for book clubs. To find this article, search UI444333.
Susan Brown took her first library job to earn beer money while in college. After several years in academic and government libraries, she finally found her true calling behind the reference and reader's advisory desk at a public library. She has an M.L.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked at libraries in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kansas. She is currently the Director at Chapel Hill Public Library in Chapel Hill NC and is passionate about readers' services, social media, and marketing and merchandising for public libraries Susan blogs about practical marketing for public libraries at 658.8 -- Practical Marketing for Public Libraries.