I typically like a “cozy” mystery, where most of the killing happens just off-stage. But horror and action novels have continuously increased in intensity — and forensic accuracy — over the years.
So, just in time for a little Halloween reading, here are a few titles that provide lots of tension and suspense … but which aren’t shy about following up with detailed scenes of gore and violence.
By Stephen King
Obviously, no such list would be complete without the master of the macabre. I stumbled across this vampire tale on summer vacation at 14 years of age. Between the scariest book I had ever read and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, I had nightmares every night for a week. King fans can debate what his best is. All I know is which one scared me the most.
By Tom Rob Smith
One of the best detective novels I have read in a long while, less so for the relatively straightforward police procedural and more for the depiction of trying to live inside an insane world — in this case, late-Stalinist Soviet Union.
Leo, the lead character, is investigating a string of gruesome murders of children that he cannot really pursue because the Party line is that such crimes are impossible in the perfect Soviet state. Then the gulag reaches out to Leo’s own family. Grim and unrelenting.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
By Steig Larsson
A good thriller with an unusual protagonist (no, not the middle-aged white male journalist ... we/they are a dime a dozen; I mean Lisbeth Salander, the waiflike but deadly, antisocial young woman with the piercings and tattoos). The whole three-novel series is good, as are the films (I much preferred the original Swedish version). This first book is the best of the lot. Fast-paced, ultraviolent, and tense throughout.
We Are Pirates
By Daniel Handler
Handler is the author behind Lemony Snicket, but this is no clever kids’ book. Fourteen-year-old Gwen wants to be a pirate and pulls together a like-minded group. But once they steal a boat, things spiral quickly out of control. It’s very dark, very violent — and very unpopular with Snicket fans. It reminded me of a modern-day version of Lizzy Borden, the 19th-century murderer who was acquitted because a jury didn’t want to admit that a nice young lady could be so savage.
The Black Dahlia
By James Ellroy
This is a slow-motion disaster of a book: gruesomely violent, obsessively sexualized, yet compelling. Ellroy builds layer after layer into a plot full of betrayals and double-dealers.
The violence is pornographic; the sex is violent, and there’s too much of both. Yet I found myself reading until well after lights-out so I didn’t have to wait until the next day to finish a chapter or the whole book. Disturbing ... if ridiculously well done.
Randal Smathers is director of Rutland Free Library, where all these titles are available. www.rutlandfree.org