Satanic Summer: Horror Fiction for Hot Days
Horror is typically associated with autumn, when the days turn shorter, the air grows brisk, trees lose their leaves, and jack-o’-lanterns take their place on every doorstep. But there’s plenty of horror that’ll keep you awake through the sweltering nights. Here are eight short stories and seven novels perfect for the summer.
Note: With the short stories, I've included links to a collection/anthology containing that story to make them easier to track down.
If the world were just, Karl Edward Wagner would be widely recognized as one of horror fiction’s greatest writers. But before Centipede Press released a two volume set of his collected short fiction last year, the majority of his work had been out of print for ages. Wagner, who died prematurely at 48, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the setting of “Where the Summer Ends.” We’re exposed to a dying town where kudzu grass has taken over and whole neighborhoods of condemned houses are occupied by transients, winos, and worse. Sweltering days give way to summer lightning storms. People and their pets occasionally turn up dead in the fields of kudzu, their skin peeled away as if by small blades. The town is slowly marching toward the grave, but there’s still a college, where Jon Mercer and his roommate (and possibly girlfriend), Linda, attend classes. Mercer is an amateur antiques collector who spends much of his time drinking with Gradie, an eccentric alcoholic who sells antiques. Although Mercer’s initial motive for hanging out with Gradie is to get a better price on a mahogany mantel that he’s been coveting, Mercer soon grows to care deeply about the old man. That’s where the horror begins.
Claustrophobic, foreboding, and yet fully grounded in the humanity of its characters, “Where the Summer Ends” is one of the best monster stories of all time. It’s a must-read, and a perfect way to kick off the summer.
This is the classic, often-told story of an American tourist on an international vacation from hell. It captures the disorienting feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, and also the disappointment that can result from the discrepancy between the expectation and reality of a foreign place. Also, sometimes those warnings in guidebooks are there for a reason. I won’t tell you what Scott Lindsay finds in the Red City, or whether he escapes or not, but I guarantee that the horrifying conclusion will make you smile – even as it creeps you out.
If you can find a used copy of Dark Forces (edited by Kirby McCauley), you’ll score both “Lindsay and the Red City Blues” and “Where the Summer Ends” in the same book.
“The Wendigo” holds the honor of being one of the few short stories to ever genuinely frighten me. It’s about some dudes on a camping trip and the scary-ass titular monster. I don’t know what did it. I had read all of Blackwood’s other famous stories and they were good, but I never got goosebumps or anything. Then I read “The Wendigo,” and man, it was a different beast. Perhaps when I reread it someday, I’ll feel embarrassed for having ever been scared and will only think that a wendigo sounds like something you’d order at Taco Bell. Truthfully, I think I’ll likely be just as scared the next time around.
Leonard and Farto (“fart lighting champion of Mud Creek”) could have gone to the drive-in to catch Night of the Living Dead. Instead, they find themselves the unwilling victims in a horror show far more real than any movie. There are a million and one stories by Lansdale that could go on this list, but “Night They Missed the Horror Show” takes the ticket because it’s twenty-five years old – as old as I am – and still bursts with so much shock and energy, it’s like Lansdale is in the room with you, pacing back and forth, telling you how it all went down. Man, that’s storytelling.
“The Summer People” is kind of like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, only with an endearing old couple instead of a depressed chick whose face you want to stab. Okay, so maybe it’s not anything like Melancholia, except for a seething, inexplicable sense of apocalypse threaded throughout. When retired New Yorkers Mr. and Mrs. Allison decide to stay in their summer home past Labor Day one year, they discover the countryside town where they spend the warmer months does not welcome summer people year-round.
You’ve read “Guts,” right? I’m 95 percent certain that if you’re reading this article, you’ve read “Guts.” Everybody’s read “Guts.” If you haven’t read it, go read it. If you’ve already read it, then you most likely have strong opinions about it one way or another, and nothing I say could persuade you otherwise.
A porno film crew awakes in the middle of the ocean. None of them have any idea how they ended up there. Then things get really weird.
Maybe this one’s not technically a horror story, but it’s most certainly horrific. It’s also set in my hometown – Bakersfield, California – and in a way that drives it a little bit closer to home for me.
This is the story of two brothers, alienated from one another by age, attitude, and emotional disconnect. Their car has broken down, stranding them in the armpit of California until it can be fixed. Instead of tossing in a psycho killer or some other form of monster, the tale elicits horror out of heartbreak, demonstrating that a person doesn’t need to wield a knife or transform into an otherworldly creature to become a monster in the eyes of someone else.
Bonus points for the uplifting ending. Trust me, it’ll spare you from being that guy at the beach bonfire who, when asked why he’s bummed out, admits “Oh, I just read this short story…” Because it’s summer, and nobody’s gonna want your Debbie Downer ass around if all you want to do is talk about depressing literature when you’re at the beach.
The prologue of The Summer Job is one the best and scariest openings to a horror novel I’ve ever read. If you’re like me and you fear losing control of social situations in a way that prevents you from protecting your loved ones, then I bet it’ll resonate with you, too. The rest of the novel is equally great. It’s a little like Jack Ketchum’s Offseason, if you replace the cannibalistic savages with a satanic cult, but I feel so strongly about The Summer Job that I’ll go out on a limb and say that I believe it’s better than Offseason. I really do.
Another of Keene’s novels, Ghoul, had earned a spot on this list, but I can’t resist Earthworm Gods. When I start missing the rain late in the summer, it’s a comfort to read about a world where it never stops raining, especially when gigantic worms rise up from the flooded earth to destroy civilization. Seriously.
If you’ve ever quit smoking (or chewing), you’ll sympathize with Teddy, an old man trapped in his West Virginia mountaintop home, suffering nicotine withdrawals as the floodwaters rise. His narrative keeps things grounded even as the monstrous action kicks into high gear. And you know what’s best? The giant worms are only the tip of the iceberg here. Keene could have called it good with a flooded world and giant worms, but he really went the extra mile with this one. It’s what makes Earthworm Gods one of the best pulp horror novels of the last decade.
Disclosure: I haven’t read this one, but when I put out a few calls for best summer horror novels on Facebook, Summer of Night was the overwhelming favorite, so I guess if you’re looking to read the best summer horror novel, this might be your best bet. Here’s the full synopsis:
“It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising. Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once idyllic town. Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood—against an arcane abomination who owns the night...”
Harry Crews is like the South’s answer to Hubert Selby Jr. A Feast of Snakes is his novel about an annual rattlesnake roundup in Mystic, Georgia. It’s an unflinching, gritty novel about the people for whom the rattlesnake roundup is a major cultural event. If you’re a fan of Selby, Charles Bukowski, or Dennis Cooper and haven’t yet read Harry Crews, then say hello to your new favorite author.
It’s Jaws. You love it. You need it. End of conversation.
I’ll be straight up with you: If you haven’t read a Crabs novel, you haven’t lived. This series about giant crabs killing people is one of the best things to happen to literature since the printing press. It’s for Jaws perverts, psychopaths, and people who sniff glue. I realize by recommending this, I am unwittingly placing myself in that category, but who cares? THEY’RE KILLER GIANT CRABS! When it comes to uninhibited schlock, Guy N. Smith stands alone, and you need to read him. Right now.
The novel that gave this list its name, Satanic Summer is a horror comedy by bizarro/absurdist author Andersen Prunty. It’s lighter and less bleak than most of his work, which makes it fairly excellent beach reading material. The novel follows Doug, an eighteen-year-old from Kentucky, and some eccentric side characters as they search for answers to the string of mysterious deaths plaguing their small town. If you want a fun, fast read, then you can’t go wrong with Satanic Summer.
No list is ever complete, so shout out and let me know what's missing. What are your favorite horror stories of summer?
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