Horror Is at Its Most Extreme on the Page

Books that you don’t read so much as survive…

In a previous article, I’ve discussed the genre of what I like to call “classy exploitation.” That is to say, movies that, on paper, seem like nothing more than straightforward exploitation pieces in that they seem to use their characters’ suffering for the audience’s entertainment. Movies that fall under the “classy exploitation” banner, though, transcend their subject matter and become legitimate works of really dark fiction. They become disturbing, dreadful stories about the lengths people will go for one reason or another.

This leads me to extreme horror. This is a variation on classy exploitation, but it goes straight for the jugular. It unashamedly tackles subject matter that would be taboo in any other piece. Oftentimes, these go even further than exploitation, and despite some extremely gory films having been released in the past few years (2013’s Evil Dead and the New Zealand-based Deathgasm instantly leap to mind), by far the most extreme stories I’ve come across yet have been on the page. These aren’t books you read so much as survive; you feel like you’ve been through a unique kind of hell right along with the characters and come out a changed person.

Suffice it to say, folks, I’m going to be discussing some dark stuff in this article. I won’t be detailing the worst acts in these books, but there’s still bound to be something that churns your stomach. You’ve been warned.

Survivor by J.F. Gonzales

Book cover for Survivor by Gonzalez, depicting hand tied down with duct tape and with pinky finger severed and bloody shears on table.

Far from being some kind of literary take on the reality TV show, Survivor follows Lisa and her husband whose romantic getaway is interrupted by some guy in a van calling the cops on them and using that situation to kidnap Lisa. It turns out that a small group of people have been following her for a while and have targeted her as the star of their next snuff film. She has to figure out how to survive against the sadistic man known only as Animal, who has several films under his belt.

You know you’re in for a doozy when the opening of a novel begins with a teenage lesbian’s eye being sucked from her socket by the object of her affection. This is described in great detail and, if nothing else, it at least warns people who might think they’re in for a straightforward thriller that they should turn around and leave. Survivor is gut-churning from the get-go, and it goes into great detail about the various types of snuff films Animal has participated in. At one point there’s a discussion of a time he cut a hole in someone’s rib cage and proceeded to have intercourse with it.

What’s arguably even worse, though, is what’s left off the page. At a little less than halfway into the book, Lisa makes a deal with the film’s crew and star for her life: she knows where they can find a homeless mother and baby that can take Lisa’s place. Thankfully, what’s done to them is mostly left to the imagination, but the aftermath is described, with the room being filled with torn up chunks of their bodies and fluids and blood just everywhere. It’s more than a little sickening.

To me, the places this book goes is a big part of why horror novels can be so much more extreme than any movie (unless what I hear about August Underground is to be believed). At the end of the day, it’s all words on a page, and the reader filling in the blanks. Apparently, this book has been optioned a few times for a film adaptation, and I shudder to think of what kind of movie it would be. I suspect that it would have to cut out a lot of the book’s nastier bits or leave them mostly off-screen in order to earn anything less than an NC-17 rating in America. But then you take away much of the story’s teeth. Animal is such a vile, despicable antagonist, as are several other characters that show up later on, that even if you only leave in the scenes of violence against him, it would be pushing the limits of an R rating.

From a pure story perspective, I take some issue with Survivor, particularly with the way certain characters are developed and the execution of the epilogue, which turns the novel into something resembling a soap opera. It’s horribly out of place in something so extreme, and the development required to make it feel earned or as emotional as intended isn’t done for the characters involved. Still, this book has been burned into my brain and is an interesting take on the idea of how far someone will go to save their own skin.

The Roger Huntington Saga by Ryan C. Thomas

Book cover for The Summer I Died by Ryan Thomas, depicting forest in sunset and man holding bloody axe.

This book series follows, you guessed it, a young man named Roger Huntington. In the first and best novel in this series, The Summer I Died, he is about to go away to college and spends his final summer with his best friend Tooth, a foul-mouthed, probably homophobic guy that manages to somehow sleep around a lot. The first half of the book establishes their situation and characters as flawed young men before it takes a dark, dark turn when they come across The Skinny Man chasing a woman through the woods. It happens while the two of them are firing off Tooth’s Dad’s gun, and the two of them are quickly captured and subject to torture you can’t even imagine.

This first book is among the best coming of age horror stories I’ve read. It effectively captures the aimlessness of young adulthood before bringing the horror in seemingly at random. It harkens back to what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so good—it’s about how, sometimes, bad things just seem to happen with little rhyme or reason. The entire second half of the novel is an excruciating exercise in pushing the limits of torture porn as The Skinny Man plays sadistic games with the characters. Things get even worse when Roger’s sister is brought in.

Once again, there have been on-again, off-again rumors of a possible film adaptation of this novel, and once again I wonder how it could possibly contain even half of the acts depicted in this book and not get an NC-17 rating. It is extreme in every sense, and its sequels only up the ante and the body count, as well. The second novel, Born to Bleed sees Roger move to California while trying to make sense of his life before running foul of a group of cannibals, with too many awful scenes to describe and one, in particular, detailing someone being eaten alive for about five pages. As someone who loves horror, this scene made my gut turn.

The final book, Scars of the Broken, sees Roger head to Berlin to track down a simply vicious killer that broadcasts all of the awful things he does to his victims. This one leaves the door wide open for even more sequels and acts like a strange, sometimes darkly humorous serial killer thriller. This last part is what impresses me most about the series—each book seems to change what type of story it is. The first was an extreme coming of age torture porn story, the second is borderline action-horror, and the third is a vicious serial killer thriller that, yes, still manages to upset the stomach. It’s a unique feature, one that isn’t seen terribly often in horror mystery novels, and it has me excited for what the potential fourth novel could bring.

This is perhaps the most overtly problematic entry on this list. Roger himself isn’t 100% likable, with him constantly pining after the female characters in any of the books, and Tooth uses slurs that leave a bad taste in the mouth—but to me, that’s a part of the series’ aesthetic. The events of the first book leave Roger so traumatized that he struggles to grow as a person despite the decisions and acts of bravery he performs. Roger is such an interesting character to read about because the reader gets to see his growth from survivor to violent avenging angel, and his flaws stand out all the more.

Then again, it’s also a part of a series that includes a very detailed description of someone ripping another person’s jaw off with their bare hands, so to me, flawed characters come with the territory.

Joyride by Jack KetchumCover of Jack Ketchum's Joyride depicting winter highway with blood splattered on pavement.

I decided not to talk about Ketchum’s masterpiece The Girl Next Door because we already have a really great article about it on the site here. Joyride is, to me, one of Ketchum’s more underappreciated works. It follows Carole and Lee, two people in an extramarital affair since Carole’s husband is an abusive bastard. The two of them follow through on a plan to kill him but are witnessed by Wayne, a man who is one bad event away from becoming a mass murderer. He takes the two of them hostage and goes on a killing spree in order to understand why they did what they did.

It’s an extremely schlocky premise, but like most of his work, Ketchum executes it with a cold, unflinching eye and a level of realism that makes the violence legitimately upsetting. And similar to Survivor, most of the worst violent acts are merely stated for what they are rather than described in detail, which is arguably worse. Particularly during the novel’s climactic scene, which sees Wayne going on a rampage through his neighborhood in one of the most upsetting finales to a horror novel I’ve read. Ketchum takes no prisoners and forces the reader to stare abhorrent violence in the face.

Also, like much of his work, there’s a dark sexual edge to everything that makes it that much more disturbing. Wayne is aroused by violence, leading to some extremely uncomfortable scenes near the end. In the hands of a lesser author, this sexual element would come across as extremely sleazy, but here it feels like a natural extension of Wayne’s obsession with violence and hurting others (at least in this novel, nothing actually comes of the scene in question, thankfully).

It touches on Ketchum’s thesis of his body of work, which is that the male ego is an extremely scary and dangerous thing. His best works like The Lost and Stranglehold touch on this as well, and that’s because it’s a natural exaggeration of reality in a lot of cases. It’s sad to say, but it’s true. Of all the books on this list, I could imagine it being made into a very, very hard R rated film, but that doesn’t mean the sheer, overwhelming force that is Wayne doesn’t shock and disturb.

The extreme horror genre is surprisingly active, with several more authors I still need to check out such as Poppy Z. Brite, Wrath James White, and Matt Shaw. I’ve heard good things about all of them. Regardless, this is just a taste of some of the dark and extreme works of fiction hiding in the far corners of the world. It’s decidedly not for everyone; even ignoring the insane amounts of violence usually present in novels like these, the characters, including protagonists, can often be described as problematic and deeply flawed. Personally, I don’t mind characters with such attributes as long as it serves a purpose, and in the case of these novels, it does. Despite the fact that none of these are very long (each book in the Roger Huntington saga can be knocked out in a day or two tops), I often take a while to read multiple books in the genre in a row because there’s only so much awful violence one can take before a strong shower involving steel wool is required.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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