8 New Horror Novels to Read This Summer – The New York Times
It may be hot outside, but these novels — from Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” to Catriona Ward’s “Sundial” — cast a shivery chill.
The imagination of Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a thing of wonder, restless and romantic, fearless in the face of genre, embracing the polarities of storytelling — the sleek and the bizarre, wild passions and deep hatreds — with cool equanimity. THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU (Del Rey, 306 pp., $28, to be published July 19), her eighth novel, reimagines H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in the Yucatán Peninsula. Set amid the complex tensions of the Caste War, when “the native Maya people of the peninsula rose against the Mexican, European-descended and mixed population,” the novel immerses readers in the rich world of 19th-century Mexico, exploring colonialism and resistance in a compulsively readable story of a woman’s coming-of-age.
Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist, experiments on animals. “I mean to fashion animals into something different, to carve them into new shapes. To make the pig walk upright or the dog speak a variety of words,” he explains. His hybrids, as he calls them, are “a miracle or a curse made flesh” one never knows for sure. There is one with eyes “golden and huge” and “razor-thin teeth, like the maw of an eel.” Others have snouts and rounded ears, resembling in coloration and features the jaguarundi,” or “black spots and streaks of an ocelot.”
Dr. Moreau’s daughter, Carlota, lives among these bizarre life-forms, mistress of a house with “walls behind walls and more walls.” It’s an apt metaphor for the reality of Carlota’s life — she is isolated, motherless, surrounded by barriers. Born with a rare blood condition, she has been turned into one of her father’s experiments, kept alive by regular injections that include “unique elements found in the jaguar.” While Carlota has endured “a black cloud of suffering,” the true nature of her father’s work is the ultimate betrayal. The visceral horror of what Carlota has endured, combined with Moreno-Garcia’s pacing and drama, makes for a mesmerizing horror novel.
Beatriz, the newlywed heroine of Isabel Cañas’s bewitching debut, THE HACIENDA (Berkley, 345 pp., $27), arrives at Hacienda San Isidro, a vast estate in the Valley of Apan, believing she’s found home. Her father was murdered after the revolution, and her mother opposed her marriage to Rodolfo, the rich and powerful scion of the Solórzano family, but Beatriz believes that a “hacienda like this was freedom.” That she doesn’t love her husband is the devil’s bargain she’s struck.
And what a bargain it is. The hacienda is filled with voices of the dead. Only Andres, a young “mestizo priest,” knows how to tame it. Sent into the priesthood to mask his powers, he is “a fractured creature, stretched between darkness and light.”
As Beatriz comes to learn “the different tastes” of terror of the hacienda, she and Andres band together to fight the house. It is not an easy feat. In one of the most frightening scenes I’ve read in years, they exorcise the house with an incantation, calling “the resurrected lord of smoke and night, guardian of witches and nahuales” to help them.
“The Hacienda” is a supernatural Gothic romance in the vein of “Rebecca” and “Wuthering Heights,” and like its predecessors, a furious woman is at the bottom of the trouble: María Catalina, Rodolfo’s first wife. “Her essence was the sickness, and the house was festering, rotting with her from the inside out.” Beatriz doesn’t have a chance at happiness.
While the novel sometimes spills over into melodrama, Cañas’s talent elevates Beatriz’s struggle to a thing of uncanny, chilling beauty. Hauntings, exorcisms, incantations, forbidden love — “The Hacienda” transports one to a world where love triumphs over demons.
In Paraic O’Donnell’s darkly gorgeous novel of intrigue and secrets, THE MAKER OF SWANS (Tin House, 362 pp., $27.95), a child named Clara possesses a magical gift. Each morning, she sets “down the stories that sometimes crowd her thoughts,” a ritual that turns the imaginary into reality, making “it so only by setting down the words.”
Clara is not alone in her abilities. Mr. Crowe, her benefactor, has a similar gift, and is part of a covenant of shadowy figures formed to protect and codify it. When Mr. Crowe uses his sacred knowledge to kill a man, a “cardinal misuse” of magic, Eustace, Mr. Crowe’s dedicated butler — a man who had learned to “see things coming” — steps in to stop the worst from happening.
“The Maker of Swans” asserts the alchemical power of language. O’Donnell’s prose is lyric, almost Nabokovian in its ability to encompass the cerebral and the sensual at once. Descriptions of Clara’s gift are particularly haunting. Here she is in the act of creating a swan: “She can see fine details now, like the tissue of flaws at the core of an ice cube. For a while, it swells slowly, increasing itself in small surges. Then it branches and ramifies, taking on a spreading symmetry. And there is a pattern. It is becoming something.”
While Clara is the maker of swans, Eustace is the hero of the story; his past, his motivations, his great passions and sorrows drive the novel forward. The other characters, while deeply intriguing, remain shadowy. We never fully understand Mr. Crowe’s magic, and even Clara, “a rare and lucent treasure”whose gifts are described at length, isn’t fully formed. Eustace, standing in service to the inexplicable, emerges as the emotional heart of the novel. Speaking of Mr. Crowe’s powers, Eustace says, “We forget the magnitude, sometimes, of that miracle.” And yet it is Eustace, with his deeply human flaws, who is unforgettable.
Catriona Ward’s SUNDIAL (Tor Nightfire, 292 pp., $26.99) opens as a family implodes. Rob and her husband, Irving, a narcissistic sociopath of the first order, live in a hell of contempt and abuse, each on a mission to hurt the other. Irving is a chronic philanderer whose latest lover is Rob’s only friend. When their 12-year-old daughter, Callie — a child “full of silent fury” who kills, dissects, then collects the bones of the neighborhood animals — turns on her younger sister, Rob takes Callie to her childhood home, Sundial, where she reveals her shocking past.
The sundial “for which the house and the land were named” sits in a cairn of rock in the Mojave Desert, a reminder of time’s fragility and permanence. Created by Falcon, the man who raised Rob and her sister Jack, it is a sacred object, one that makes them “part of this place, the earth and the passage of time. Here at the sundial we become a meeting point between these things.”
What happened to Rob at Sundial is something so depraved as to defy the imagination. “When people say something is unthinkable,” Rob says, “what they usually mean is that they don’t want to think it. They are resistant to an idea. But that is not what unthinkable means. I understand that, now. It means to be confronted with a thought so vast, dark and monstrous that it will not fit into any known shapes in your mind.”
Ward coaxes Rob’s gruesome past open like a toxic flower. Indeed, Ward is willing to go to places so dark, so dismal — the repeated abuse of children and the torture of animals — that it borders on sadism. And yet at its core, “Sundial” is about resilience. Rob, no matter how damaged, remakes her life. And that, in itself, is an unthinkable feat.
One of the most original vampire novels in ages, Claire Kohda’s WOMAN, EATING (HarperVia, 233 pp., $26.99) follows Lydia, a British, Japanese and Malaysian vampire struggling to survive. She’s recently placed her mother — the vampire who turned her — in a care facility, and now, on her own for the first time, she must learn how to feed herself. It’s not easy in London, where pig blood, her go-to meal, is scarce.
Lydia is hungry. Very hungry. Her appetite drives her to think about food, speculate about eating and consume all variety of food porn: YouTube videos of people eating, food-related Instagram hashtags, an episode of “Chef’s Table.” Her days are a voyeuristic peep show of human gastronomy. She finds these videos “soothing” but is also revolted by human consumption.
It’s no wonder. Being both human and demonic creates endless conflict. When she finds herself attracted to a human named Ben, for example, she wants to eat him as much as she wants to kiss him. Her hunger is eternal, unsolvable, making Lydia a dynamic vessel for our own questions about food, desire and mortality.
Kohda has given Lydia a host of great vampire qualities, such as excellent night vision and an ability to experience the entire life of a creature by drinking its blood. But it’s Kohda’s exploration of Lydia’s inner world, the pain and longing she feels as an outsider, that makes “Woman, Eating” such a delicious novel.
Riley Sager’s sixth novel, THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE (Dutton, 349 pp., $27, to be published June 21), begins in familiar territory. A bereaved alcoholic woman, spying on her glamorous neighbors, sees something that makes her suspect the husband has killed his wife, and falls into an obsessive, intoxicated investigative frenzy. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is, sharing a premise with the 2018 best seller “The Woman in the Window” (a novel inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Window”). Sager’s novel has a nearly identical setup, down to the hunky neighbor. For about half of this briskly paced horror-thriller, he sticks with the formula. Until he doesn’t. Then things get weird.
Casey Fletcher is a 36-year-old actress whose husband recently drowned at their summer place on Lake Greene. The house across the lake — “an angular monstrosity” that is “almost entirely covered in glass” — is owned by the Royces: Tom, a billionaire whose money is caught up in his app, Mixer, and Katherine, a supermodel who quit walking the runway to “eat pizza” and focus on philanthropy.
After Casey saves Katherine from drowning one morning, she becomes interested in the goings-on across the lake. When Katherine disappears, she’s sure Tom is responsible and starts to investigate, glass of bourbon in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. Soon Boone, a sexy ex-cop in A.A. with “lots of muscles,” joins her, and the dynamic is set.
At the center of the story lies a great horror premise: The lake itself might be haunted. One night over wine, Casey’s neighbor tells her that the lake, according to native stories, has the power to capture a human soul and “those trapped souls could overtake the souls of the living.” Three local women have gone missing in the past few years. Is it the lake? Or is there a serial killer on the loose?
Structured between Casey’s perspectives “Now” and “Before,” the story line is kinked with surprises. There are jaw-dropping twists and startling revelations about Casey and her husband that are so wild, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew what happened. As it turns out, Casey knows much more than she’s letting on about what has been occurring at Lake Greene, which poses the biggest problem of the novel: When I finally saw the full picture, Casey’s story fell apart, leaving me feeling manipulated not by her but by the author. Intricate, jack-in-the-box surprises only work if they stay true to the character, and Sager sacrifices Casey on the altar of plot with disastrous results.
Alma Katsu is known for her riveting supernatural historical horror, most notably “The Hunger” and “The Deep.” She returns with THE FERVOR (Putnam, 307 pp., $27), a novel set during World War II, when U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were interred in camps. A mysterious explosion, and its cover-up, unites a panoply of characters: a minister who lost his family; a reporter trying to uncover the truth; a Japanese woman, Meiko Briggs; and her daughter Aiko.
Of this chorus, Meiko is the most interesting. Born in Japan and married to an American pilot, she and her daughter are being held at Camp Minidoka in Idaho. Meiko’s father, the ingenious Wasaburo Oishi, took her to a remote “cursed” island as a child, where the “fiercest Kami” gods lived and the tiny, transparent jorogumo spider laid its eggs. Her past is tied to the present-day mystery. When a ghostly woman in a kyokatabira — a white kimono worn by the dead — appears to numerous characters at the camp, it is a warning that the past is not dead.
The jorogumo are wildly creepy, skin-crawling creatures, and Japanese culture and mythology create a rich and believable supernatural presence. It is when Katsu transports readers to the world of Japanese demons, and the Oishi family’s role in their arrival in America, that this novel is strongest.
And yet much of it focuses on less interesting characters and plot devices — secret military programs, F.B.I. agents, a government cover-up, a journalist’s hunt for answers. I found myself skimming chapters to find Meiko, wanting to understand her father’s secret discovery in 1927 and how it’s tied to what happens in America in 1944. While everything is explained in a quick info-dump in the last few chapters, Meiko doesn’t get the space she deserves. Less than half of the novel is told from her perspective, a bit of structural engineering that prevents her from being the heroine she might’ve been.
An explanation for this authorial choice comes at the end, when the Oishi family secrets are revealed. Meiko explains that she needs others to explain what happened: “They were white. They would be listened to. No one would listen to her.” Meiko believes that “for the rest of her life she would fade into the background like a spring flower in summer.” While this was certainly true back then, one wishes that it weren’t so now.
Jennifer McMahon’s THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL (Scout Press, 338 pp., $27.99) centers on the enigmatic Gran, a chain-smoking, gin-making psychiatrist who is “famous for helping patients others couldn’t help” at her clinic, the Hillside Inn, in Fayeville, Vt. Gran is the guardian of her two grandchildren, Violet (Vi) and Eric, who have an idyllic life at the inn. But when another child, Iris, also known as “Patient S,” joins the family, things change.
Gran, as Vi discovers, has a Frankenstein-like ambition, one that leaves lasting damage. Indeed, the adult Violet, who has changed her name, is still grappling with what happened when she finds herself hunting down a serial killer known as “the monster.” While the premise is intriguing, the storytelling is convoluted and overwrought, making for a deeply frustrating read. The novel is a mishmash of texts with so many point-of-view shifts as to leave one dizzy. Readers wade through a nonfiction account of what happened at the inn written in 1980 by a journalist; a third-person account focused on a 13-year-old Vi; the first-person story of Lizzy Shelley (Violet’s new name) in 2019; excerpts from a scrapbook Vi, Eric and Iris wrote as kids in the 1970s; a few elliptical first-person appearances by the monster and alluring notes to Vi written by the monster. Maybe there were more. I lost track.
Such narrative polyphony can create tension and complication in a novel, but here it deflates the action. Just when suspense builds, another perspective arrives to reveal exactly what’s going on. Ultimately, the novel topples under the weight of too many voices, crushing the most terrifying and alluring element of the story — the Promethean hubris of a mad scientist — under its weight.
Danielle Trussoni reviews gothic and horror fiction for The Times. She is the author of five books; her next novel, “The Puzzle Master,” will be published in 2023.