Over the years I’ve been deep diving into horror fiction written by authors outside of our American borders. What I love and what’s important about reading horror fiction from other countries and cultures is the opportunity to experience fear outside of our usual expectations for horror. Horror as a genre is birthed from our surroundings, our individual cultures, spiritual beliefs, our political environment, and our determination to survive. Reading the genre from cultures that vary from our own gives us insight into the tribulations that bring us together. If that’s a challenge you’re up for, my recommendation as you dive into these books is to ask yourself not how each story “scared” you – because horror actually isn’t always about scares – but how they unnerved you, disturbed you, how each book might have upset you, made you uncomfortable. Because horror has the ability to provoke all of those feelings and therein lies the beauty of diversifying your reading of the genre.
“When they listened to the stories about Annelise’s White God, they all got scared and went home with the sensation that someone or something was stalking them, that a divine and monstrous power might reveal itself to them at night, in the early hours, and that none of them would be able to close their eyes to protect themselves.”
If you are a reader who loves disturbing symbolic imagery and writing that is both beautiful and vicious, this might be for you.
Jawbone follows a clique of wealthy, bored, teenage girls who spend a lot of their free time after school hanging out in an abandoned building, telling each other scary stories and testing the group's durability with dangerous dares—punching each other in the stomach, strangling one another until unconscious--ya know, normal teen girl stuff. The leader of this clique is Annelise and she is a fearsome creature to behold. A lover of cosmic horror and “creepypastas”, Annelise invents what she calls the White God—"white" representing an unsoiled canvas, the possibility of corruption, a fathomless fear— and she gets her friends to “play along” in her strange rituals of worship (again…just your everyday teen girl stuff). There is also another story happening with Annelise’s best friend Fernanda, who has been kidnapped and being held captive by their literature teacher, Miss Clara.
Author Monica Ojeda weaves a very raw, dark tapestry of themes: female sexuality, girlhood, mother/daughter relationships, religion, purity, and adolescence. Some readers may be turned off by the lyrical writing and sparse dialogue, but fans of cosmic horror references, leisurely paced psychological horror, and very dark themes will drink and savor Jawbone like a rich wine.
“He kept his eyes wide open, seized with a great terror. He thought he would vomit when the ghostly faces began to appear, a thousand decapitated heads turning around them faster and faster, they too monotonously reciting an unknown poem.”
As someone who has fallen in love with short stories over several years, these beautiful anthologies are a real treat. From evil faeries to creepy landlords, from spiritualistic seances to superstitions, The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories Vol. 1-2 are an assemblage of chilling tales from nearly every continent on the globe, translated from a variety of languages, and packaged in stunning book covers.
What I personally found so cool about Valancourt Press as far as these anthologies are concerned, was their mission to focus solely on horror from non-English speaking countries, stories usually only enjoyed by their local audiences and yet to be introduced to readers such as myself. They really searched the hidden crevices of the globe in order to find these horror gems that varied in style and culture.
Some stories will be utterly nightmare inducing such as Icelandic writer Steinar Bragi’s The Bell or Maltese writer Anton Grasso’s The Ant. Other stories will simply live rent-free in your troubled mind for years to come like Hungarian author Attila Vere’s The Time Remaining or Mexican author Bernardo Esquinca' s Señor Ligotti. Whether you’re a fan of international horror or brand new to the terrifying tales that lie beyond your own borders, you’re gonna wanna check out these fantastic anthologies.
“When Oghi first awoke in the hospital, he couldn’t bear the thought of visitors. He didn’t want anyone to witness his wreck of a face, the moans that only emerged from his throat with great effort, his petrified tree of a body. It angered him to be in this plight while they weren’t. And yet, the idea that no one might come made him even more anxious.”
If you’re a lover of psychological horror and unreliable narrators, Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a claustrophobic, unsettling narrative about a man who wakes from a coma after a car crash to discover his wife did not survive the accident and his mother-in-law is his only caretaker. Paralyzed from the neck down, jaw damaged, and bedridden, the protagonist miserably reflects on the past while growing anxious at the fact that the sole person responsible for his well being is an elderly woman in need of care herself. As the story progresses, the reader and the protagonist both start to become wary of the mother-in-law as she is often seen digging a very large hole in the backyard without explanation. The book takes on a sinister feel as the chapters fly by.
I’m a sucker for books that remind me of Stephen King’s Misery, books where the plot involves a hostage at the mercy of their caretaker. The complete loss of control, bodily autonomy, and human dignity are very prevalent themes in The Hole and things any person would find terrifying or even relatable. While the fear in the book is very subtle–no blood or gore or ghosts hiding under the bed–the author succeeds in building dread. Readers who enjoyed Kang Han’s The Vegetarian will take a liking to this book!
If you like the idea of horror turned into unsettling art, I highly recommend reading literally ANYTHING by Japanese graphic novelist Junji Ito. If you can get your hands on just one of his many horror stories–he’s experiencing a renaissance of popularity here in the States and therefore his books are usually always checked out–you’ll be struck with vivid and terrifying illustrations that bring these stories to life.
One of my favorites, Remina, is about the discovery of a new planet that has crossed over from its universe into our own through a wormhole. The scientist who discovers this planet announces to the media that he’s decided to name it after his beautiful daughter. But it’s then noticed that this planet is hungrily devouring all the other planets in our solar system and heading straight for Earth. In their fear and panic, the people of Japan believe the young girl the planet is named for is to blame and go on a literal witch hunt in the hopes that sacrificing her will prevent the planet from dooming mankind.
The story is absolute chaos in the best way and the images are as brilliant as they are disturbing. But Remina just scratches the surface of Junji Ito’s macabre genius and he’s sure to trigger all of your worst nightmares with his other works.
"They say: this mountain is mine; I rose above everything and everybody...But the inherent danger is that it becomes like cocaine. You constantly want more. Each next summit has to be higher still, more beautiful, more challenging. Each successful climb enhances the illusion that you are becoming invincible. But that's the thing. You're not invincible in the mountains. In the mountains, you're Icarus, flying closer and closer to the sun. And we all know how that ended...And you will also find out what it's like to fall. To fall...and fall...and fall...and fall."
Translated from Dutch, this book had one of the creepiest openings I've ever read, one of those terrifying moments where you probably shouldn't read it alone at night. From there we are catapulted into a strange and haunting story told from multiple perspectives, the main ones being Nick Grever--a thrill seeking mountain climber who ascends a cursed mountain with a friend and is recovered alone, with his face smashed in, and very much changed--and Sam Avery--Nick's devoted boyfriend who is determined to solve the strange mystery of what happened to Nick on his treacherous mountain climb. The other perspectives are from relatives, medical staff, and village locals who claim that what Nick brought back with him is dark and seems to spread like a contagion when you get too close.
This book is part scary, part odd, part.....romantic (?)...and parts of it will feel very folkloric. Each chapter is named for a horror novel (which I personally loved) and there are also many references/contrasts to Greek mythology. I recommend this book if you were a previous fan of Olde Heuvelt's HEX, or if you're a lover of slow-simmering horror novels with queer protagonists and intricate plots.
There are of course many more translated/international horror novels to be explored within the LPL catalog and I’ve even mentioned a few in previous blog posts such as Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh referenced here, and Gregoire Courtois’s very brutal novella The Laws of the Skies referenced here. Be sure to give those a look and feel free to check out some of the “Honorable Mentions'' below:
-Christina James is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.