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Nonfiction for Horror Readers

by Audrey Barbakoff

*This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of RA News.*

The room is dark. Something creaks behind you. Was it just the house settling, or were those footsteps? And what just moved in the corner of your eye?

Readers who delight in a racing heart and a chill up their spine do not have to be limited to haunting the horror section. Give them a Halloween treat by bringing them to the nonfiction shelves, where truth can be more frightening than fiction.

Terrifying true tales have much to offer the fear aficionado. First and foremost, horror readers are seeking an emotional experience. "The central appeal of horror is the feeling it generates," writes Becky Siegel Spratford in The Readers' Advisory Guide to Horror, Second Edition. "There is no question that the tone and mood of a horror book are the most important appeal factors for horror readers." Real-world stories set against a similarly dark and sinister atmosphere have the power to engage these readers as strongly as fiction.

Horror is also unique from other highly atmospheric fiction in the way it goes about generating that emotion. Readers' Advisory expert Joyce Saricks agrees that horror "demand[s] an emotional reaction from readers: true fear," but then specifies that such fear must be "generated by the unknown." In horror novels, evil is terrifying because it is fundamentally irrational. It cannot be explained away, and it just might be sneaking up behind you as you so innocently turn the page.

Many works of nonfiction also confront the terrifying unknown. Some books delve into the ultimately unfathomable minds of killers, sociopaths, and criminals. (Many books of this type are also true crime. For an introduction to that topic, read Lock Your Doors, Don't Talk to Strangers, and Other True Crime Advice by Mike Nilsson.) Others put their readers face-to-face with an amoral universe which inflicts disaster on the innocent. Often they tackle historical events both eerie and unexplained.

These darkly atmospheric true-life tales of the unknown will keep a horror reader company upon a midnight dreary. 

My Friend Dahmer: A Graphic Novel by Derf Backderf
ISBN: 9781419702167
Backderf steps away from his long-running comic strip to reveal a chilling story from his past: serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was his classmate. Watching the strange child become an isolated teen who succumbs to insanity and violence is deeply disturbing. However, it is the banal evil of apathetic adults and bullying adolescents that truly elevate the story to what Booklist calls "quietly horrifying."   
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel Brown
ISBN: 9780061348105
In 1846, 21 year-old Sarah Graves headed west with the ill-fated Donner Party.  Graves survived – by eating her own family.  Despite Brown's excellent research and his efforts to humanize the survivors, the gory horror of this story is inescapable. Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read is a classic story of cannibalism and escape which also deserves a mention here.
The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic by Wade Davis 
ISBN: 9780684839295
Mindless slaves raised from the dead might sound like the stuff of horror novels, but ethnobotanist Wade Davis claims to have observed them firsthand. As he studied the plants used in Vodoun rituals, Davis found himself drawn into a secret culture of Haitian magic and mystery. 
Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
ISBN: 9781452112749
Nine Russian college students disappeared during a hiking trip in 1959. Weeks later, their frozen bodies were found far from the campsite, shoeless, and covered with strange injuries. Eichar delves into the mysterious and eerie details as he tries to piece together what befell the victims. 
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
ISBN: 9780307718969
As Hurricane Katrina raged, thousands of people sought safety at Memorial Hospital. Instead, they found terror. Lifesaving machines failed, communication was cut off, and the temperature soared. Exhausted doctors and nurses toiled without electricity, running water, or any hope of rescue. When the chaos ended, 45 people had died. Were their deaths unavoidable, or were they intentionally overdosed? Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting during Katrina.
Murderous Minds: Exploring the Criminal Psychopathic Brain: Neurological Imaging and the Manifestation of Evil by Dean A. Haycock
ISBN: 9781605984988
Could the next Dylan Klebod, Jared Loughner, or Adam Lanza be your neighbor? Your child? You? Neurobiologist Haycock uses current and historical case studies to help readers see into the minds of violent psychopaths. 
Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King
ISBN: 9780307452894
Charming physician Marcel Petiot tortured, killed, and dismembered dozens of people he had promised to hide from the Nazis. The man is a chilling enigma, and his story is paced like a suspense novel. Readers who enjoy this may also like The Killer of little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr.
The Lady and her Monsters: a Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo
ISBN: 9780062025814
This is a double treat for horror fans, as it is both about a horror novel and horrifying itself. The story of Mary Shelley's life is brilliant and bizarre, and her studies of the more grotesque pursuits of surgeons and anatomists deliciously macabre. The grim, ghastly, and ghoulish can be relished as much here as in Frankenstein itself.   
Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account by Miklos Nyiszli
ISBN: 9781559702027
A prisoner at Auschwitz, Dr. Nyiszli was kept alive so that he could use his medical training to assist Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," in his human experimentation. This eyewitness account of some of the most horrifying atrocities of the Holocaust is a deeply disturbing but worthwhile read. 
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
ISBN: 0385495226
The Hot Zone is an outright petrifying retelling of an outbreak of 90% fatal Ebola in the 1980s Washington D.C. suburbs. Despite many attempts, no book captures the horror of contagion like this classic. Readers who love this may want to follow it up with the less dramatic but very alarming Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. 
Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army & other Diabolical Insects by Amy Stewart, etchings and drawings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs
ISBN: 9781565129603
Scared of spiders? The eight-legged visitors in your bedroom will seem like cuddly companions after meeting the Death-Watch Beetle, the African Bat-Bug, and the Giant Centipede.  These pests, classified under headings like "horrible," "dangerous," and "painful," will make readers want to hide in their beds – after shaking out the sheets very, very well. 


Why do we fear the denizens of horror novels: ghosts, monsters, and malevolent entities? We are terrified of their irrational amorality. They unexpectedly and catastrophically attack normal people who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because we do not fully understand them, we rarely defeat them and only sometimes escape them.

The real world is plagued by monsters of the same description. Pandemic diseases are our zombies, serial killers our evil spirits, disaster zones our haunted houses. Nonfiction books can confront us with a universe we cannot control or even predict, where bad things happen to good people, where a barely-understood evil can descend on anyone at any moment.

Even the most spine-tingling horror novel will have to work hard to compete with that.

Works Cited

Nilsson, Mike. "Lock Your Doors, Don't Talk to Strangers, and Other True Crime Advice." RA News (May 2014). NoveList. Web. 29 July 2014.

Saricks, Joyce. "At Leisure: Reconsidering the Horror Genre." The Booklist 107.22 (2011): 19. ProQuest. Web. 29 July 2014.

Spratford, Becky S. Readers' Advisory Guide to Horror. American Library Association, 2012. Print.


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Audrey Barbakoff is the Adult Services Manager at Kitsap Regional Library, and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker.