Among this season’s horror releases, twinned themes emerge. On one side, the oppressive atmosphere of a childhood home and the secrets it holds; on the other, the ambiguity of liminal spaces and the unease of isolation. PW spoke with editors about the fear of the unknown, whether it’s a mysterious box in the attic or a disturbing noise over a distant hill.
The final frontier
Alma Katsu set her latest horror novel, The Fervor, in a remote Japanese internment camp in rural Idaho during WWII, where a mysterious contagion—maybe a virus, maybe something supernatural—gives officials a plausible front to keep Japanese Americans imprisoned and out of sight. Katsu and her husband each have a Japanese parent, and her husband’s family was interned, says Sally Kim, senior v-p and publisher at Putnam, which is releasing the book in April.
“The book was conceived during the Trump years, when anti-Asian hate was on the rise and we were debating about refugees, who we take in and how,” Kim explains. “Who, we asked, is an American?” PW’s review praised the novel’s “meticulous and compassionate portraiture, placed against the backdrop of what evils humans do to one another.”
A future climate-change-destroyed West holds supernatural dangers in Jo Kaplan’s When the Night Bells Ring, which CamCat will release in October. Two women motorcycle from an empty California through the desert in search of water, aiming to get to New York, which is said to still support life. En route they find the diary of a 19th-century settler, who wrote of phantom creatures haunting what’s now a ghost town. As they shelter in the abandoned silver mine’s caved-in tunnels, the women realize they’re not alone.
“The wide plain of the West is too dangerous for them to stay in; the sun is scorching down, there’s no shade. And in the mine, darkness and claustrophobia,” says CamCat editorial director Helga Schier. During both time periods, “the frontier is hostile, and human beings have to struggle to survive. Do you save yourself in extreme situations or work together?”
Old Country, written by siblings Matt and Harrison Query, follows a couple who leave their urban lives to purchase their first home, a remote house on a sprawling property in Utah’s Teton Valley. “It’s a take on the haunted house archetype,” says Wes Miller, executive editor at Grand Central, which is releasing the book in July. “Isolation has become such a big feature of everyone’s lives in the last couple of years, and present-day anxieties are fueling some of the interest in stories about how scary it might be to feel alone in the dark.” The book, which originated as a novella Matt wrote in the “nosleep” subreddit, has been optioned by Netflix.
In other novels, the Mexico-U.S. border marks not only a political division but also an ever-thinning line between the earthly and supernatural worlds. Rudy Ruiz’s Valley of Shadows (Sept.) takes place in a border town in 1880s West Texas, on a family ranch similar to the one where Ruiz was raised, says Rick Bleiweiss, who acquired the book for Blackstone Publishing. Children are going missing, and an Aztec curse may be responsible.
“The U.S.-Mexico border has seen a lot—wars, disappearances, drug cult killings,” Bleiweiss says. “It lends itself to the possibility that strange things can happen there.” Though the author “tries to portray the ways people can achieve peace, order, and harmony at the border,” he adds, “cultural differences can create a powder keg of conflict.”
Gabino Iglesias’s The Devil Takes You Home centers on Mario, a desperate father trying to make ends meet. After losing his job as an underpaid call center phone rep, he takes a gig as a hitman to pay the bills for his daughter’s cancer treatment, only to face down literal monsters in the tunnels built by Mexican drug cartels.
“Texas is the borderland of culture and politics in America,” says Josh Kendall, editorial director at Mulholland, which is publishing the book in August. “Shifts in one direction or the other cause such anxiety in the rest of the country.” Mario, he notes, “is at the razor’s edge of threat and of risk in an environment with the access to violence and to guns, and no healthcare at his job, even though he has a PhD from the University of Texas. It’s a book about the geographic border, the border of human risk, the border of the psyche.”
Where the heart isn’t
For Katrina Monroe, author of They Drown Our Daughters (Poisoned Pen, July), coming home means reckoning with identity and belonging. “I go back to Minnesota every year for my sister’s birthday,” she says, “and it feels stranger every time. The more time passes, the more a place becomes other. The less you know a place, the less you know yourself, the more frightened you are.” (See our q&a with Monroe). Her forthcoming novel is one of several in which characters returning home must come to terms with not only the people they left behind, but with themselves.
The title character in Nat Cassidy’s Mary (Tor Nightfire, July) is a middle-aged woman who moves home after she loses her job, hoping to rediscover herself—and maybe escape the troubling voices in her head. “She’s trying to figure herself out, but society is gaslighting her,” says Jennifer Gunnels, Cassidy’s editor. “The message is: these things are happening to you because of menopause.” The voices in Mary’s head are getting louder, and she starts to think there may be a less corporeal explanation at work. “She finds some unexpected things about herself, embraces them, and ends up completely transforming herself,” Gunnels explains. “It’s about discovering something terrifying within.”
Other homecomings reveal disturbing family history. In Darcy Coates’s Gallows Hill, a September publication from Poisoned Pen, Margot returns to the family vineyard after her parents’ sudden death. She has only vague memories of the Gallows Hill Winery, which she hasn’t seen since she was sent away without explanation at a young age. The property once held a prison yard, and the ghosts of executed prisoners are rumored to haunt the grounds.
“Violence or trauma sends an impact through the generations,” says Mary Altman, senior editor at Poisoned Pen. “It leaves its mark on both the people and the land.”
The protagonist of Mercedes M. Yardley’s Darling (Black Spot, Aug.), Cherry LaRouche, inherits her childhood home after her mother’s death and reluctantly heads back to Darling, La., with her kids in tow. Soon after, they begin to hear strange noises inside the house and a mysterious figure clambering around on the roof. Children have started disappearing, and suddenly Cherry’s daughter is gone. “There’s a claustrophobic, small-town feel, a sense of cultishness,” says Monique Snyman, an independent editor who worked on the book. But the true terror, she adds, is within: “The book is about the fear and tribulation that come with motherhood.”
To Miriam Weinberg, senior editor at Tor Books, such domestic dread is a hallmark of horror, which may “explore the feeling of returning to a place where you felt unsafe, or to a place where you once felt safe and no longer do.” She edited Sarah Gailey’s Just Like Home (July), in which Vera, who left home years earlier after her father was arrested as a serial killer, receives a request from her estranged mother to return to where the literal bodies were buried. Someone has been leaving notes around the house that, impossibly, are in her father’s handwriting.
“She goes back to a place she no longer recognizes,” Weinberg says. “The duality is critical: Do you remember it right? Was it as safe or as scary as you thought it was? When you come back you have to reckon with both the memory of your younger self and the disappointment of your current self.”
It’s that unearthing of the past, whether mystery or misery, that sparks visceral fear. “Returning to the childhood home is going home to what you think you know, but all has changed,” says CamCat’s Schier. “Horror novels are acknowledging that we fear what’s unknown.”
Liz Scheier’s debut, the memoir Never Simple, was published by Holt on March 1.
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