If art imitates life, horror fiction is a great mimic, predicting and exploring the frightening and surreal realities of the contemporary world. Exhibit A: Zoje Stage’s mind-bending, trippy second novel, WONDERLAND (Mulholland, 358 pp., $28). It begins with the most realistic of desires: more living space. Orla, a retired ballet dancer, and Shaw, an artist, leave New York City for a house upstate, their two young children in tow. Shaw has his own studio; the kids won’t have to share a room.
While the house is everything they hoped for, and the landscape is breathtaking, Orla begins to understand that they have stepped into a threatening environment, one that is “responding to their thoughts, desires, fears.” Shaw taps into this energy, and his paintings become disturbing.
“Maybe we … asked for this. Somehow. By mistake,” Orla says, and indeed, the question of responsibility for the nightmare lingers, as does the line between reality and imagination. As the family fights this “powerful and desperate entity,” one begins to feel, like Orla, the predatory power of nature, its ability to take what it needs to survive.
The surreal is also at the heart of MEXICAN GOTHIC (Del Rey, 301 pp., $27), Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s stylish and edgy new horror novel. While the book draws inspiration from Gothic classics like “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” — there is a spunky female protagonist and an ancient house filled with disturbing secrets — its archly intelligent tone and insightful writing make “Mexican Gothic” an original escape to an eerie world.
In 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, is sent by her father to help her cousin, Catalina Doyle, whose impetuous marriage has landed her in High Place, a moldering mansion perched in the “steep and abrupt landscape” of El Triunfo.
Noemí, who prefers parties and fashionable dresses to the staid Anglophile Doyle family, finds her cousin much changed. While the family doctor claims Catalina suffers from tuberculosis, she doesn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Indeed, she claims that the walls tell her secrets, a dreamy delusion Noemí soon comes to experience firsthand. In her attempts to help Catalina, Noemí is pulled into a frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart.
Kathleen Jennings’s FLYAWAY (Tor.com, 175 pp., $19.99), reads like a fairy tale, one in which everything is slightly off-kilter. Bettina Scott, who lives with her odd, controlling mother, is at the center of a number of family mysteries in her village of Runagate, a place where you’ll find “roses planted in wire-fenced gardens on the buried corpses of roadside kangaroos.” Jennings’s sentences are startling, requiring one to look close, then step away; just as a Gaudí construction — the Sagrada Família, for example — demands one take in a small accretion of details to best appreciate the vast complexity. It can feel claustrophobic at times, but entering this world is worth the discomfort: Jennings has written an unforgettable tale, as beautiful as it is thorny.
Don’t look now, but the sequel to “Bird Box” — the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman that was adapted into a film starring Sandra Bullock — is here. Malorie and her children survived their first encounter with the creatures — amorphous beings who cause madness to all who see them — by taking refuge in a school for the blind.
In MALORIE (Del Rey, 300 pp., $28), 12 years have passed and now the rules have changed: The creatures can harm by touch so that even the blind are undone. In this fast-paced, frightening narrative, Malorie discovers information about fellow survivors, and hits the road with her children, searching for something of “the old world” to hold onto.
George A. Romero, whose film “Night of the Living Dead” defined the modern zombie, left his novel THE LIVING DEAD (Tor Books, 654 pp., $27.99) unfinished when he died in 2017. Daniel Kraus, the co-author of “The Shape of Water,” stepped in and completed the book, giving Romero fans a final experience of his particular vision of a zombie apocalypse. And what an apocalypse it is! Panoramic and sweeping, “The Living Dead” is a smorgasbord of the undead, a book that will give even the most ardent zombie lovers their fix.
The story begins with one infection, and expands to show characters as they struggle through the contagion. Comparisons can be made to the current pandemic, but that is no surprise: Like so many horror writers, Romero saw it coming.