Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Nine books that are really horror even though that’s not where they’re shelved

At tor.com, this post: 9 Terrifying tales you won’t find in the horror section.

This post caught my eye because it includes The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell.

Wow, I immediately thought. So true. 

Stubby the Rocket says: 

The Sparrow and its sequel are solidly sci-fi—there’s space travel, first contact, relativity-based shenanigans—but there is also a palpable sense of horror throughout the book. The novel begins with the knowledge that something went terribly wrong with the first human mission to the newly discovered planet Rakhat, and the book unspools through a relentless account of hope, cultural misunderstanding, and tragedy.

That’s all very well, that stuff about relentless tragedy, but let me be a little more clear than Stubby: These books contain the worst situation I have ever seen described in any novel ever, SFF or otherwise. The only challenge could come from novels detailing Nazi atrocities. 

In some ways this is a very good duology. I don’t believe in the alien species, plural, for technical reasons rather than literary reasons. I mean: I disagree with Russell about the evolution of intelligence and I would be prepared to argue that she has made very serious mistakes in her conception of this topic. From a literary standpoint, I have no such objection. She had to design her world like that to make the story work. Which it does, in a totally horrifying way.

Also, that woman can write really snappy dialogue.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

I’ve also read The Road.  Yep, it’s pretty horrifying all right. I would say it is redeemed to a certain extent by the very last bit of the story. On the other hand, I don’t believe I kept it. If it’s still on my shelves, I should give it away, because I doubt very much I would ever want to re-read it. 

Also, of course, there’s the punctuation, or lack thereof. I vote for this being a rather effective storytelling device in this particular case, but I would not like to read many books written this way, and I can absolutely see readers throwing the book across the room on the grounds that it is absolutely unreadable.

The others from this post, I haven’t read. The only one that sounds like I might like it is Never Let Me Go.  If any of you have read this, what did you think of it? Thumbs up, thumbs down, would you recommend it?

Now, I can’t help but feel that a list of nine books is lacking a certain something. Let’s all help Stubby the Rocket complete this list by adding a tenth book, because lists of nine? What the heck is that about? Running out of time before your column is due is no excuse.

So, another book that is not customarily shelves in horror, but absolutely is horrifying: What would you all pick?

My choice:

10: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Unlike the others on Stubby’s list, I may well read this again, eventually. Also, I gave a copy of it to the English instructor who was teaching YA Literature last year. I think it’s fantastic — and remember how I said only the Nazis could complete with Mary Doria Russell’s scenario? Well, they can, and did, and this is the most readable book I can think of that shows that.

So that’s my pick for the 10th spot on this list.

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6 Comments Nine books that are really horror even though that’s not where they’re shelved

  1. Matthew

    The Sparrow affected me so deeply that I wasn’t able to read or watch anything with any kind of violence for weeks!

  2. Rachel

    Matthew, very understandable. I probably read nothing but comfort books for a year. Also, I have another book of Russell’s on my TBR pile that I have never had the nerve to read. Did you go on to read Children of God? It makes the terrible situation from Sparrow sort of more tolerable.

  3. SarahZ

    My 3 yr old’s favorite movie right now is Coraline. That book is beloved by kids, but too scary for some adults I know.

  4. Elaine T

    I started The Sparrow but DNF. I walled it before even getting to the planet. I don’t remember why exactly, just have a memory of increasing irritation. Did give Russell another chance when she came out with something else, but DNF, also.

    i read Rose and it didn’t strike me as horrific. Dunno why but have a guess that since I went through a period of reading nonfiction about the Holocaust, that was far more horrific than the fiction could be.

  5. Rachel

    Elaine, I found the dialogue in The Sparrow to be too snappy, in the sense that it is not believable that people could really be that consistently witty. Also, I think the characters are all pretty one-dimensional; I think Russell wrote them that way on purpose in order to keep the focus on the moral situations she was mostly interested in. Maybe one of those features turned you off. (Or of course maybe it was something else.)

    For me, fiction about the Holocaust brings into high relief the things I knew, or kind of knew, happened. In some ways the lack of obvious demonic influence makes a story like Rose Under Fire more horrifying to me rather than less.

  6. Matthew

    No, I haven’t read the sequel yet, though I’ve had it on my kindle since I finished The Sparrow years ago. I guess I’m just waiting for things to feel safe enough to risk it. ;). It’s good to know that it makes things more tolerable, though!

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