Ten Wonderfully Horror(ific) and Sci-fi(tastic) Summer Audiobook Reads

I love a good scary audiobook during the summer; there’s nothing better than the juxtaposition of being terrified by while listening to vampires slowly sucking the life force from their neighbors whilst gazing at Lake Michigan on a baking hot day in the sand.  Or maybe walking through Loyola’s Lakeshore Campus, watching the influx of baby bunnies and as the suspense grows, baby bunnies transform into lifeless, soulless beings hellbent on eating your brains.

What makes each of these qualify is a.) being a good piece of fiction, and b.) an amazing narrator. The perfectly chosen narrator enhances the experience of the novel by enabling you to slip into an almost dreamlike state where you’re completely immersed in the story.*

A Vision of Fire (The Earthend Saga, #1) by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin (2014)

Yes, that Gillian Anderson, and she reads it, too!  Given her magnificent acting chops, it’s no surprise that her narration skills are top-notch.  A Vision of Fire is the first in the trilogy about the compelling and multilayered protagonist, psychologist Caitlin O’Hara and the sudden onset of possession-like symptoms in a number of teens from across the globe.  There’s a part in the book that was so scary that when I pressed stop and turned off the lights, I laid there unable to sleep, completely terrified.  The series weaves together present, ancient history, other dimensions and lots of suspense, especially during the final book in the series.  And again, Gillian Anderson.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)

Cataloged as non-fiction in your local library (yes, this is cataloged as a true story), The Amityville Horror documents an actual demonic case study (take it or leave it) detailing first-hand interviews with haunted husband and wife George and Kathleen Lutz in their newly acquired Long Island home.  The listen is so captivating because it taps into every human’s universal fear-what exactly is lurking in the basement, in the dark.  And I’m not talking about the horror of finding your dad’s old Penthouse magazines “hidden” in some old box in plain view.

The Hatching (The Hatching, #1) by Ezekiel Boone (2016)

I mean come on, ancient spiders from Peru that swarm and devour a person whole within mere seconds?  How can you not?!  The Hatching is fun, silly, scary, creepy, gross, a complete arachnophobe’s delight and best of all, it’s a solid story that seamlessly draws you into the character’s lives and makes you want to read more.  Luckily for us, #2 of The Hatching Series, Skitter, was published in 2017 and George Newbern’s buttery voice floats us through each title with not too much pomp but just enough inflection to really settle you into the world of killer spiders and female presidents.  Oh yeah, there’s  a female president.  It must be sci-fi.

The Passage (The Passage Trilogy, #1) by Justin Cronin (2010)

The Passage is the epitome of nail-biting suspense.   This present-day tale quickly turns post-apocalyptic with the unchecked bombardment of vampires and military deceit.  Cronin successfully rips your heart out by the end as he delves so completely into the souls of the protagonists.  It’s a lengthier audiobook but every word is necessary to capture and carry on this thoroughly intense journey in a world that could be your own.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (2017)

Oh, the soothing and clipped flatness of John Darnielle’s voice is music to my Midwestern ears. Darnielle is a stellar narrator, adding the emphasis that he first heard in his head while writing the novel.  He’s also one of the few narrators that doesn’t add inflection for varying characters and somehow it works just perfectly.  In a nutshell, Universal Harvester begins with one of our main characters working in a video store during the 1990s and hesitatingly investigates the strange occurrence of several videos being returned containing suspicious, somewhat macabre imagery.  One immediately recalls the film The Ring, though as the parts of the story progress we become entangled in series of interlacing stories that wait until the conclusion to disentangle.  Darnielle crates a slow, spreading suspense that at times shocks but is never gratuitous or banal. 

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)

Neverwhere is wonderful.  Period.  I listened to the audio seven years ago and I still think about it constantly as Gaiman’s otherworld descriptions mixed with his spot on pauses and inflections create a near-perfect audiobook (near-perfect because I never wanted it to stop).  Taking place in London, the lead character, milquetoast protagonist Richard Mayhew is propelled into a Guillermo del Toro-esque Troll Market type of other yet parallel world.  Neverwhere is such a perfect example of how the science fiction genre encompasses such an incredibly large pool of subgenres, in this case the creation of a curious, colorful and enthralling alternate reality that fills the reader with complete wonder.  When you finish Neverwhere, American Gods is your next read (prepared to be blown away, of course, on audio).

Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987)

There’s nothing more blissful than operating through your usual day, whether riding the bus or walking down the block and being so immersed in a complete state of otherworldliness.  That’s what you get when you listen to the Tommyknockers.   In typical King style, he creates and painstakingly fleshes out every fiber of his characters’ beings: their habits, their looks, their communities, every little crumb you’d want (and sometimes not want) to know about the people in his books.  The benefit to this method is that you become intimately involved with the story though the downside is that when strange beings begin to take over the souls of the townspeople, you ache for their well-being.  This is a book that conjures such intense feelings within you that they often surface without warning years later.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Easily my favorite book of 2014, Station Eleven is completely original and one of the most lyrical books I’ve ever read.  It’s beautifully written, the story is solid and by the end you realize that you can trust Mandel as an author.  She’s got you.  Though she inserts familiar themes to the post-apocalyptic genre: humanity killing viruses, rebuilding society, cults, good vs. evil, et al, she manages to keep it all very low-key, your interest is constantly peaked but she never raises your blood pressure to dangerous levels.  By doing this, she commands the respect of her audience by never pulling cheap shots by evoking strong emotions not accomplished by the writing, but by triggering themes, which is often done in many science fiction and horror novels and films. Other motifs include memory, family, love, childhood, and a traveling band of Shakespearean actors, because like cockroaches, Shakespeare will live forever.

Infected (Infected Series, #1) by Scott Sigler (2008)

To quote season three of Twin Peaks, these audiobooks are the most, “wonderfulhorrible…of my life.”  Easily a readalike to the Hatching Series, Sigler constructs a world of psycho, mindless killers that contract their ill fate.  Another virus/disease themed novel, except what it does to humans is hilariously gross and shocking.  I’d recommend Infected as a chaser to a serious non-fiction title, or some Russian literature!  The “horrible” part of this equation is that Sigler narrates the titles.  Normally the author is preferable for the aforementioned reasons except here he LOVES to speak in other voices for various characters and oftentimes sounds absurd, may it be a bad Chinese accent or one that’s overly feminized.  Oddly enough the voices fall into their own groove given that the content is often sometimes manic and unbelievable in and of itself.  Sigler is also aware that his reading can be comically awful and both he and his audience eventually accept this.

99 Coffins (Vampire Tales Series, sometimes known as Laura Caxton Series, #2) by David Wellington (2007)

99 Coffins is the second in the Vampire Tales Series and though you don’t necessarily need to read them in order, I highly recommend the entire series, especially on audio if possible due to great veteran narrator Bernadette Dunne.  This installment follows state trooper Laura Caxton as she hunts a resurrected platoon of Civil War soldiers turned vampires.  Like several of the aforementioned novels, this series is enjoyable and light (we’re not reading Toni Morrison, here) but manages to have more guts and solid storytelling than most New York Times best-selling fiction.  It takes itself seriously enough to know that the writer cares about the characters, and respects your time as a reader while keeping it fun.  The only unfortunate piece of the puzzle here are that the book covers are misleading and aggressive, suggesting an audience consisting of a more hardcore cult horror ilk that may be likely to turn away a reader with a penchant towards historical fiction and strong female lead.  Ignore the covers, stay for the stories.

*Let’s all note that this list is mostly a white dudes club, and that white dudes are ruling the horror audiobook game currently.  Nonetheless, they chill the blood and disrupt he dreams all the same.

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A Year of Unknown Books: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Wolf in White Van WolfinWhiteVan
by John Darnielle
Book #11, reading during September, 2015

When Wolf in White Van first came out, my cousin Ethan recommended it to me as he is an avid music fan and WiWV was written by John Darnielle of the band The Mountain Goats.  I believe that I resisted it for so long because the face value description describes the story of a game creator, but like so many books, what the publishers choose to put on the jacket fails to capture the depth of the novel as a whole.

When asked to describe the book to my spouse, it reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and the film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke.  Especially as a librarian, you have about 15 seconds to encapsulate the essence of a novel before losing their attention.  At the outset you can only think to say that Station Eleven is a about a post-apocalyptic world and then watch the interest immediately fade.  It is however, not about the apocalypse but so, so much more.  Re: The Wrestler, one of my favorite films of all time, I cannot even guess how many times people have said, “I don’t like wrestling,” to which I immediately reply, “it’s not about wrestling!”  This book is of the like.  I could say, it’s about a role playing game creator who shot his face off, but it’s not about that.  Like the above two, WiWV is about the descriptions, the writing style, and the feeling that it leaves you with days after you’ve finished.

WiWV took a little bit of time to get into; I didn’t know where it was going, and it took me a while to become accustomed to the internal monologue style of the most of the novel.  In a nutshell, the book starts with current day, and the narrator, Sean, who is left with a mangled face from an interaction with a gun, recalls the steps leading to the beginning of the book.  This non-linear style is subtle, and for me the real charm of the book is in the small details, Sean’s observations about his life.  Author Darnielle also gives us just enough suspense in small droplets so that you’re curious enough to turn the page, but not so that your stomach is left in anxious knots.

This book is technically an “adult” book, but I can see why a lot of people (the American Library Association to name one organization) would recommend it for teens as well, though I’d say probably for more of an advanced reader.  Teen gods may strike me dead, but I am a teen librarian and don’t love teen literature as an adult reader.  I think it has its place for teens, but as an adult, I’m past it, so I appreciated that Darnielle writes about high school in way that isn’t clunky and melodramatic, but links me to the characters by recollections of my own teenage years.  Sean’s recollections of his high school years are carbon copies to many of ours: depression, smoking, the need to fold in on oneself, especially in the presence of parents, music as release and discovery, and the sometimes realization that organized religion and those in positions of authority are flawed.

Halfway through the novel, I had no idea where the book was taking me but it builds from Sean having a seemingly “normal” life to his eventual incident with the gun, sprinkled with his life as a disfigured being, leaning in and out of his alternate universe game, the Trace Italian.  I pondered if we were going to be given a final ah-ha! detailing what happened: did the gun go off accidentally, or was it a suicide attempt?  Or was Darnielle going to do that very hip and often aggravating thing where we are given nothing, forcing the reader to utilize their own glass half empty/half full proclivities.  Luckily for me, who thought that Mickey Rourke lived at the end of the film and drove off into the sunset with Marisa Tomei, it was somewhere in the middle.

Without the recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have read Wolf in White Van solely based on its description, but in the end, wound up really appreciating it for being exactly the opposite of what it seemed to be.  I’ll also add that I oscillated between reading the novel and listening to the audio, read by author Darnielle himself, and it was fantastic.  Darnielle expresses such vulnerability and honesty from the point of view of the main character that you feel like the Sean is speaking directly to you.  Thanks, Ethan.  It was a great recommendation.