Talking Scared is one of the newer nonfiction Horror podcasts out there, but it has quickly emerged as one of the best for you, the library worker. Why? Because host Neil McRobert uses each episode to have a conversation with the author of a current, popular Horror book. While in conversation, McRobert breaks down the appeal and themes of the book with the author there. He gets to the heart of why someone would want to read this book without any spoilers. You don't have to read these books if you listen to this weekly podcast. McRobert does the work for you, so that you can hand out these books with confidence to their best reader.
Click here for a list of episodes. You will notice immediately that most of these titles are the same ones I have reviewed for LJ or Booklist. He is discussing the titles you need to know about.
Tomorrow, I will have a longer list of Nonfiction Horror Podcasts that I recommend you use as a resource to educate yourself and help readers, but I didn't just invite McRobert because of his podcast. He is also an academic, with a PhD in Gothic Literature. As someone who has spent years studying Horror and as a fan, I felt like his perspective and love of Horror was important to share with you.
And as you will see below, I was correct.
Why I love horror – Neil McRobert
I have always had a macabre mind. Tell me your holiday plans and I’ll picture a plane crash. A noise in the night? I assume ghosts, killers, then rats – in that specific order.
It would shock nobody, then, if I were to say that horror is baked into my bones. After all, not only did I study the genre for more years than my mind or finances could really handle, I also devote days of each week to reading, researching and interviewing guests for the podcast. My friends know me as the person who knows horror and most of my family think I’m anything from mystifyingly odd to downright worrying.
So, yeah, I’m the horror guy. The man who revels in the darkest things imaginable.
Except… I’m not.
Whoah, hold your headless horsemen. There is no need to rescind my goth credentials. I do love horror. Of course I do. From my earliest reading I’ve been drawn to the shadowy side of the page. When Enid Blyton sent her children out on adventures, it was always the midnight coves and the single gaslit window in the ruined tower that caught my attention. Between the ages of eight and twelve I read every Point Horror book available, forever enshrining R.L. Stine as a true king of the genre. At eleven I devoured James Herbert’s The Rats just as gleefully as the titular rodents devoured that poor baby. And the horror films… oh the sweetly sick, gloriously irresponsible era that was the early 90s, when video stores laid out their wares like trinkets in some old Arabian tale. Pick one, and you may be forever changed, for better, or worse – you could not know in advance. Even now, nearly 30 years after seeing Tina torn apart by invisible hands in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, I can still feel the flutter of a long-subdued panic in my stomach.
My life, and my various neuroses, have been shaped by confrontations with horror; each key moment bouncing me onwards in a zigging and zagging course, reeling in fear but rushing headlong toward the next impact. A pinball game of terror and anxiety and distress … that I just keep playing!
But, looking back now, I can see that it was never the actual horror that did it for me. It has never been the blood, or the pain, or the misery, or even the monsters that keep me coming back to the table and feeding in my coins. No, my love for the genre – I have come to realise – is based on something else. Something that is rare, and getting rarer. And to fully explain what it is and why I love it, I need to talk about three people who taught it to me.
The first, unsurprisingly, is Stephen King. Don’t roll your eyes; I know it’s a cliché and I know that the wealth of attention given to King has perhaps stymied the careers of other writers, and I know that he spins his wheels on occasion, and there’s that great Family Guy joke about how he could write about a scary lamp if he wanted to. I know, I know, I know. But nonetheless, he remains the great chronicler of dark modernity; the poet laureate of a haunted America. Those who love his books do so with a fervent, childlike adoration that will brook no criticism. Those who don’t make complaints of style and pacing and naivety, and they sound, quite frankly, like idiots (yes, I’m in the first camp.)
King’s strength isn’t in style or structure. Neither, in the end, is it in horror.
He has created a pantheon of pop-culture monsters all of his own, but each of them is only a different mask pulled over the same chaos. It’s the thing that stands against the darkness that matters. Call it goodness, or heroism or, using King’s own lexicon, The White or Gan. In King’s novels and in all the other horror that I love, it’s what moves me, to tears as often as shivers.
Take IT for example. My favourite book. Most people remember it for Pennywise, the child-killing clown. Not me, and not, I suspect, many of the other people who have taken it into their hearts. For me, IT is no more about a clown than Jaws is about a shark. It’s about bravery and friendship and loyalty and, yes, despite all the darkness held within, it’s about joy.
And love, always love.
Now, you may say, if you want all that stuff, go read a romance. But all that stuff only works for me when the stakes are high enough to prompt a scream. Some naval-gazing narcissus can write about sex in the ruins of late capitalism, or a dying marriage in the postmillennial suburbia, but are you going to try to convince me that is a story? Compared to Roland’s search for the tower, or Bill Denbourough’s race against the devil, or Lisey in the twilit land of Boo’ya Moon?
Widen the net and it still applies. Whether it’s Paul Tremblay and the heartbreak of A Cabin at the End of the World, or the restrained sadness that haunts Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, or any number of other great books by great authors, the horror hits hardest when it’s up against its own opposite.
It’s not all fantasy though. The horror that I love can be found in the most mundane places. Which brings me to my second inspiration. It’s an odd one this, horror fans, you won’t have guessed it.
I was sixteen when I first heard The Boss and there is no other moment that I can so singularly distinguish as a turning point in my life. There are windows of time – maybe years, maybe days, or maybe just the single perfect hour – when you hear a song and it changes you. I heard ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘The River’ and beneath the drums and Clarence’s yowling sax I could feel the sadness. “Is a dream a lie, if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
What’s this got to do with horror, you may ask. Well Springsteen’s music became the secondary bedrock for my understanding of American horror. It’s the other side of King’s coin, where all the same rottenness and brutality is exposed, but freed of its ghostly hues. Springsteen’s stories (because they are stories) are deeply Gothic and they inspire me and scare me all once. Desperate men, lonely women, working on a dream that may be always a lie. But again, there is such heart to them, shoring up against the night.
And then there is the third person. That one is simple. My dad.
He wouldn’t understand it in these terms but my dad is a great lover of stories. We have always bonded over them. My earliest memories are of sitting around our kitchen table (an ugly piece of garden furniture we’d repurposed) talking about myths and legends and monsters. I knew about bigfoot before I went to school. It was my dad who informed me (with a childlike glint in his eye) that there are reports of dinosaurs deep in the Congo. He told me the story of Sawney Bean with relish when I was far too young, and eagerly watched The Hills Have Eyes decades later when I explained it was based on the same tale.
In short, my dad told me stories that tended towards the haunted and the horrific, wonderfully, inappropriately so.
In each of those stories there was someone or something fighting back. The underdog, up against some hideous minotaur or whatever beast is currently slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Horror presents that Goliath battle better than any other genre.
As grandiose as all this sounds, I’ll puncture it with mine and my dad’s favourite moment in horror. At the end of Dog Soldiers Private Spoon is facing certain death at the mouth of a werewolf. He looks the beast in the face and dies with some of cinema’s most immortal last words.
“I hope I give you the shits!”
Cue audience laughter. But there is something more there too, a quiet, understated bravery that all of my favourite horror stories evoke. Through all the years since, in all my own fear and worry, it’s an example that has kept me going.
That’s what I love about horror, in the end – that it puts people to the test. It rarely leaves them undamaged or without scars, but in the final pages of the books I love, there they are. In Bruce’s words “they reach for their moment and try to make an honest stand.” In King’s, “The place where you made that stand never mattered. Only that you were there...and still on your feet.”
My dad agrees. He told me so in stories.