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"Fear as the binding vein": literary horror from around the world

By Yeji Y. Ham • March 10, 2024Recommended Reading

Yeji Y. Ham, author of The Invisible Hotel, talks us through her favourite literary horror novels.

A dissonance within the ordinary, an interruption in the mundane, literary horror awakens our deep-seated fears. Fear, the language of horror, often finds expression in the strange, eerie, supernatural, and psychological terrains. Works by Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and H.P. Lovecraft, for example, speak to the exploration of those shadowy realms—extending even to the far beyond.

In my journey through literary horrors, I have come to realize that fear knows no bounds. Its reach is terrifyingly pervasive and expansive, as it resides within each one of us, lurking in the shadows of our hearts. It manifests in unexpected ways that defy the confines of our imagination and rational understanding.

Raw and visceral, the list below showcases my favourite and latest discoveries from Argentina to Japan, Italy to Canada—with fear as the binding vein. In each narrative, fear, a universal language, intertwines us into the fabric of shared human experience. Every page is saturated with terror, urging us to confront our inner shadows and unravel the complexities of our hearts.

Blindness by Jose Saramago 

A mysterious epidemic of sudden blindness sweeps through an unnamed city, plunging society into chaos. Initially intrigued by this premise, it was Saramago’s distinct choice of writing style that truly gripped me. Mirroring the disorientation felt by the blind characters, the book immerses readers in a claustrophobic atmosphere, emphasizing the terror of the unknown. As we journey through this obscured world, Saramago beckons us to confront the terror of blindness, where the whispers of unknown and unseen voices become our only guide.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin  

Reading this book felt like a fever dream itself, dancing between reality and nightmare—where you find yourself asking, what is truly real? Set against the eerie landscape of the Argentina countryside, Schweblin weaves a suspenseful tale of the bond between a mother and a child. The story follows Amanda, a young woman on her deathbed in a rural hospital clinic. Beside her is a mysterious child named David, who, curiously, isn’t her son. Structured in a dialogue format between the two, the narrative unravels the strange events surrounding Amanda’s daughter’s illness. With each page turn, a palpable sense of unease, anxiety, and paranoia intensifies.

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Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

My introduction to Yoko Ogawa’s dream-like literary landscape, this book quickly became one of my favourites. Renowned for her nuanced exploration of human emotions and psychology, Ogawa navigates themes of revenge, love, and haunting echoes of the past, unveiling unpredictable manifestations of vengeance. From a strawberry shortcake to an abandoned post office to strangely-shaped carrots, Ogawa turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, seamlessly blending the poetic and macabre. For those new to Yoko Ogawa’s works, this collection would be a good introduction.

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Comemadre by Roque Larraquy

An unsettling exploration of science, art, and the macabre, this novella blends dark humour with visceral horror. Opening in the 1907 sanatorium of Buenos Aires, where disturbing medical experiments involving decapitated heads take centre stage, the narrative then shifts to the 2009 contemporary art scene. These two timelines intertwine to expose the depth of the human condition. Disturbing and thought-provoking, Larraquy probes the ethical implications of pushing boundaries in both scientific and artistic pursuits. Between smiles and laughter, a lingering sense of dread will leave you shuddering.

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The Bone Mother by David Demchuk

Written by David Demchuk, a Canadian author of Ukrainian descent, The Bone Mother breathes life into Eastern European folklore. Through a series of interconnected short narratives, readers are introduced to a host of mythological creatures from Ukrainian and Romanian folklore—strigoi, rusalka, Baba Yaga, and other unknown and terrifying beings. These entities unite to weave a tale of horror and mystery, with the ominous presence of the Night Police looming. The intertwining of real-life war elements with mythical terrors amplifies the horror, making this book a chilling exploration of the supernatural intersecting with human experiences.

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We Spread by Iain Reid

Something isn’t quite right—this unsettling undercurrent defines Canadian author Reid’s writing. Here, in this hypnotic tale of aging and memory, we follow Penny, an elderly artist and widow, who, after a strange accident at home, relocates to Six Cedars Residence. Learning she and her deceased partner had arranged for such provision, she struggles to recall any prior discussions. Within the residence, a disorienting descent unfolds—fading memories, a loss of bodily control, or perhaps, something more ominous. If you enjoyed Reid’s, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, you’ll find this book equally gripping—imbued with atmosphere, the uncanny, and lingering questions. For those unfamiliar with Reid’s works, I highly recommend exploring both.

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The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio de Maria

My recent find and an instant favourite, this book is considered a cult classic in Italy. It follows an unnamed narrator who decides to investigate a phenomenon that occurred in Turin, known as “The Twenty Days.” This period is marked by a city-wide insomnia, during which residents collectively endured a shared nightmare of dread and paranoia—culminating in nightly massacres. This book stands as a haunting masterpiece, taking the readers through the city consumed by mass fear and prompting reflection on the repercussions of shared nightmares.◼︎

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YEJI Y. HAM is a Korean Canadian writer. She received her BA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia and MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. At Brown, she taught fiction workshops and completed a short story collection titled Doraesol. A part of the collection was awarded the Frances Mason Harris’ 26 Prizes in Fiction. She hopes that through writing, the stories of the voiceless and the forgotten would be brought out into the world.

The Invisible Hotel by Yeji Y. Ham

A work of literary horror in the gothic tradition, The Invisible Hotel is a startling, speculative tale of political and ideological adolescence in the long afterlife of the Korean War.

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