One of my favorite ways to replenish the creative well is to saturate my senses with something from the world of dark fantasy or horror. As I stated in my review of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2when a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Heart-Shaped Box is such a story.

The opening chapter, where we learn of Judas Coyne’s macabre collection, reminds me of Poe, with a sense of foreboding invisibly woven into the fabric of each sentence. The atmosphere is tense and eerie, which normally makes me zoom ahead, but my level of awe was so grand I deliberately slowed down to savor the story’s unfolding.

…when Danny Wooten, his personal assistant, told him there was a ghost for sale on the Internet and asked did he want to buy it, Jude didn’t even need to think. It was like going out to eat, hearing the special, and deciding you wanted it without even looking at the menu. Some impulses required no consideration.

The ghost supposedly inhabits the Sunday suit of the dead man and arrives in a heart-shaped box. The item appears harmless enough when it arrives, then Judas’s girlfriend Georgia asks if he’s going to wear it.

His own reaction surprised him. His skin crawled, went rough and strange with gooseflesh. For one moment, the idea struck him as obscene.

From this moment, just like Dorothy, we know we are no longer in Kansas and the curse that has been delivered to Judas Coyne arrives shortly thereafter.

The black mark on you will infect anyone who joins your cause. You will not live, and no one who gives you aid or comfort will live.

What Joe Hill unleashes from here is extraordinary; he holds nothing back as a writer. He thrusts his protagonist into situations without hope, which leads the reader to believe the only way Judas will survive is through some deus ex machina. Yet somehow, Hill’s storytelling drives forward, navigating through the impossible while continuing to up the tension.

We know from the moment of the curse Judas is heading towards his demise but we believe in him. Here’s a perfect example of how Hill manages to push his protagonist through the worst. Even as Judas appears to be giving up, we feel his strength and that gives us hope.

He clenched his teeth and began to scream. He had always known he would go out this way: on fire. He had always known that rage was flammable, dangerous to store under pressure, where he had kept it his whole life.

My inkling of how Hill is able to maintain such powerful forward motion has to do with the character’s inner turmoil. Hill never allows Judas to rehash what the readers already know. Instead, Judas always deals with his confusion in a state of clear and present danger.

The thought was so urgent, so demanding—get in the car and get out of here—that it set his teeth on edge. He resented being made to run. Throwing himself into the car and taking off wasn’t a choice, it was panic. This was followed by another thought, disconcerting and unfounded, yet curiously convincing: the thought that he was being herded, that the dead man wanted him to run. That the dead man was trying to force him away from…from what?

The Heart-Shaped Box is storytelling at its best. The potential of every character, pets included, is mined—their strengths and weaknesses adding to the complexity of the tale and forcing our protagonist to face his secrets and fears. A truly out-of-the-box tale.

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

Six weeks back my book pal—who has only read one Stephen King novel—suggested we read ‘Salem’s Lot and discuss it for our literary edification. I was mildly enthusiastic, but not really. My response surprised me. I’m a fan. One of the four bookshelves in my office is devoted to the books of Stephen King. I have read The Stand three times and have no doubts about revisiting it and the Dark Tower Series at least once more before I passon. Nothing against ‘Salem’s Lot, I’ve read it twice, but I never intended to read it again. What more could those vampires have to say to me? More than I ever believed possible. And how soon did I change my mind about the impact of ‘Salem’s Lot? As soon as I turned to page one.

Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son. 

The line is anchored in truth and echoes with fear; a combination that permeates King’s work. Fear of the truth is an undercurrent in life that perpetuates white lies and keeps secrets. Fear is the foundation of drama and King owns the market.

I’ve come across a lot of people who refuse to read books written by Stephen King because the content is too scary. The scare factor is a given, but it’s not the only ingredient at work. Behind the evil things he unleashes when he opens the closet door or looks under the bed is a ton of humor.

That Weasel, he does love to talk. He’ll open his mouth too wide one day and fall right in. 

And no one twists a phrase into funny better.

But there was more than dullness in the confessional; it was not that by itself that had sickened him or propelled him toward that always widening club, Associated Catholic Priests of the Bottle and Knights of the Cutty Sark.

To handle location as if it were a character is part of good storytelling. To make location, in this case the town or The Lot, a principle point of view character ramps up the tension.

The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep in the wood, as if the souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out. 

The Lot’s hold on every resident allows the reader to sneak peeks at peripheral characters that would otherwise not be given page time. Seeing who’s who and what’s happening around the edges of town is like spilling gasoline over the entire story. All the reader has to do is wait for the first match to spark.

The atmosphere of fear King stirs is glorious. But what I admire most is the way he handles character. Descriptions are never shopping lists of observations. Characters are introduced through an essence of mood.

His face looked sad and old, like the glasses of water they bring you in cheap diners.

He also trusts the moment to establish the dynamics of the relationship and provide a glimpse of the participants’ underbellies.

Eva Miller was in a white terrycloth robe, and her face full of the slow vulnerability of a person still two-fifths asleep. They looked at each other nakedly, and he was thinking: Who’s sick? Who died? 

This underbelly, which is woven with the character’s weaknesses and guilt—in the end—is only a mask. King’s characters are stronger than Superheroes because they do not possess the confidence or the skillset required to do battle. What they do possess is a belief in the goodness or light that coexists with the evil that has infiltrated their world. Not all of his characters survive, but they are willing to approach the inmost cave, as Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, and face the darkness there in.

The exultation had faded away like a bad echo of pride. Terror struck him around the heart like a blow. Not terror for his honor or that his housekeeper might find out about his drinking. It was a terror he had never dreamed of, not even in the tortured days of his adolescence. 

The terror he felt was for his immortal soul. 

When the reader comes upon these moments the tension spikes and they know there is no turning back. So they follow the characters forward knowing that death is as probable as victory.

Another fascinating standard in King’s stories is the simultaneous metamorphosis of children and adults in the same story. To see a child and an adult process the ascent of evil at the same time, but in different ways, helps the reader comprehend the situation on a much deeper level.

The joy of reading ‘Salem’s Lot—for the third time—returned, as I said, right at the beginning and the thrill of the ride never lessened. When I was a mere fifty pages into the story my husband walked into my office. I jumped, screamed and laughed to release the tension that had already taken hold of me. And the more I read, the more my adrenalin pumped like I was watching a thriller on the big screen that made me scramble to sit higher in my seat, while I held my breath and clenched my hands.

What deepened the thrill was my inability to remember the ending. Usually when I reread a book, the upcoming details flood back—not in a bad way—they flow in and upgrade the tension and anticipation. My inability to recall the ending of ‘Salem’s Lot—in fact, at one point I was certain of a different outcome—has increased my admiration for Stephen King’s storytelling. He wraps the reader up so tightly in the moment, our imagination becomes more powerful than memory.

What will the Vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot teach you?

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King

I never considered myself an author fan until I encountered Stephen King. His scare tactics are an adrenalin high, but what keeps me coming back is his dependable unpredictability. Each novel makes me wonder, what will he offer up this time?

Doctor Sleep is a sequel written thirty-six years after the original story involving Dan Torrence. It’s a stand-alone that coaxes you to read The Shining either for the first or second time. If I didn’t have 5 TBR piles I’d happily experience the fright for a third. The Shining was my first SK novel and the one that scared me the most. I never wanted to put it down, but the doings at The Overlook Hotel freaked me out so much I couldn’t even look at the book’s cover once the sun started to set.

Doctor Sleep didn’t paralyze me with fear, but I was equally spooked and riveted, reading it in less than a week. And like each of the books in King’s The Dark Tower series, the sequel to The Shining was worth the wait.

FEAR stands for Fuck Everything And Run.

                                                —old AA saying

AA true-isms are woven throughout Doctor Sleep. The saying above is one of three that kick off the novel. In just seven words King sets the mood, the pace of the novel and keys us into Dan Torrence’s emotional state at the starting block. Unrest is a common denominator for all of King’s main characters. Their unsettled nature keeps our interest peaked.

There came a time when you realized that moving on was pointless. That you took yourself with you wherever you went.

No matter how scared or perplexed his characters, there isn’t a coward among them. They are sharp individuals, aware of risks—death, primary among them—and they’re still willing to engage in battle because, in addition to their bravery, King’s characters are desperate to protect the people they love and fortify the presence of Good in the world.

Dan Torrence, Abra Stone and the True Knot are generations apart, living in different areas of the country. They have their own issues and obstacles to sort through. Their paths don’t need to cross, but we know they will. What we don’t know is how. This is the secret behind King’s yarn-spinning genius. He sets us up, leads us along a path and for a glittering moment we think we know where he’s going, then he slam dunks us somewhere else, in the midst of another fix. His unpredictability keeps us tearing through the pages and makes Doctor Sleep a slump free novel you won’t want to miss.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Remember Bullwinkle’s hat trick?

Hey Rocky. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto. (A rhino appears) Don’t know my own strength.

I love that gag. The moment is unbelievably funny because we know Bullwinkle is a doofus. When the unbelievable proves to be true we’re mesmerized. Our fascination with horror works the same way. When a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Joe Hill is such an author.

Not a horror fan? Get over it. NOS4A2 is so beyond horror-in-a-can, religious non-fiction fans will uncover latent urges to scream, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t go alone. Don’t go in there!” Of course, heroes and heroines never listen, and Hill’s Victoria McQueen may be at the top of Horror’s Daredevil List—another way this particular genre gets ahold of us. Horror makes us confront our fears, acknowledge our cowardice and remember, when we’re broken we discover our true strength.

Readers gravitate to flawed characters and NOS4A2 is riddled with people who know they’ve screwed up their lives and the lives of the people they love. Their self-awareness and their struggle to make amends endear them to us. Horror flicks are full of two-dimensional, stock characters, but none show up under Hill’s deft hand. Every character, even if dispensable, has roots. Whether we like them or hate them, their loss is felt and our investment in the story grows.

In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Joe Hill said, “In some ways, NOS4A2 is my rewrite of It.”

An element of Christine also presents in this haunting tale that explores the healing power and danger of imaginative worlds that can’t possibly exist. But Hill paints them with such assurance, all we can do is widen our suspension of disbelief and follow. Occasionally, we may question the goings on like FBI agent Tabitha Hutter.

I don’t—I can’t—understand this. I’m trying, Vic, but I just can’t make sense of it.

Then seconds later we’re all in. When a story sings, we don’t understand in our heads, only in our hearts—where the world of fiction becomes real.

Take a haunting ride in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.

WHEN DARKNESS LOVES US by Elizabeth Engstrom

Black Leather was my introduction to Elizabeth Engstrom. This erotic thriller had such punch I immediately snatched up all of her books. My excitement doubled when I discovered a reprinting of her first book. 

When Darkness Loves Us contains two novellas: When Darkness Loves Us and Beauty Is…. I devoured the book in 2 days—not because novellas are quicker reads, but because I was riveted. Engstrom’s debut proved what I suspected all along, she is a natural writing master. Her characters are bold. They make choices that shove them into corners and force them to risk more. This risk-taking is why I’m a fan, both as a reader and as an aspiring writer.

Reading Engstrom reminds me to push out of my comfort zone as I write. When I read for pleasure she takes me to worlds I never imagine, then rips away all sense of security. For instance, the novellas in When Darkness Loves Us are signature Engstrom—edgy and dark, but within these disturbing tales she somehow manages to lead the reader to believe there is hope for a happy ending. Then the endings twist and the happiness of the characters is questionable.

My initial reaction to the twists was disappointment—but not for long. The endings are true for each of the character’s situations and fully believable. This is the mark of a fierce risk-taker. And I applaud Engstrom for her commitment to telling the story that needs to be told, rather than writing a version that would please the masses. Elizabeth Engstrom may not be for everyone, but if you crave truth with an edge and twisted surprises she may become your new favorite.

Turn out the lights for When Darkness Loves Us.

(Cautionary note: The copy editing in this reprint is poor, but it doesn’t destroy the read.)

FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Like many children I was afraid of the dark. Ghosts lived under my bed and in my closet. The only way I could fall asleep was to pull the covers over my head. But stories never scared me. At least, not until I read Stephen King’s The Shining.

I was older then and living in an apartment on the thirteenth floor of a dorm in Illinois. I could see cornfields for miles and that summer was jammed full of sunshine. So it was a shocker to discover that as soon as the sun dipped down it was impossible for me to engage in the world of the Overlook Hotel. It took me six weeks to finish the novel. But I was hooked on King.

His characters tap into layers of myself I am oblivious to until he calls them up. This is how he keeps me turning pages book after book. His genius hit an all time high for me in Full Dark, No Starsa collection of four novellas. I’ve never been so frightened over the written word. He spares no detail and refuses to go soft on emotion. The characters within these stories are slammed into their worst nightmare and embrace every second of the terror. King writes without apology and we attach ourselves to his characters’ souls as a result. If you like to be spooked, need inspiration as a writer, or simply want to escape four times over, Full Dark, No Stars will deliver.