We're all kindred (evil) spirits here, so I feel like I can be up-front and honest with you: I have an addiction to the most disgusting, disturbing horror stories ever committed to print. I think it all started when the so-called "splatterpunk" fiction movement of the late '80s was all the rage, when out of morbid curiosity I picked up a copy of the Splatterpunks short story compilation. I was revolted, horrified, totally creeped out... and madly in love. (I even got the contributing authors to autograph my copy.) Sure, I've got all the classics of horror literature lining my shelves, and re-read them often, but like a junk-food junkie, I have to satisfy that midnight craving for the nasty stuff.
Below the fold, I've listed thirteen of the most influential titles (single books or series) in the world of extreme horror fiction. There's hundreds more, but I picked some of my favorites to get you started. Look 'em over and you might just get the craving yourself... wait, did I just try to talk you into sharing my habit? Hell, I wouldn't make a very good guest speaker at Gore-a-holics Anonymous....
Clive Barker – Books of Blood
No one can consider themselves a connoisseur of extreme horror if they don't have this six-volume short story collection on their bookshelf (or wherever you keep your most important stuff). Published in the early '80s, Barker's first high-profile works set a bar for explicit horror writing that even today very few authors are willing – or able – to reach. While Stephen King was creating stories of supernatural horror invading the lives of ordinary folks, Barker's first tales use supernatural creatures and forces, even gods and devils, as a means of exposing the dark secrets those "normal" people keep hidden inside, and he often depicts the most gruesome monstrosities as sympathetic figures. The Books of Blood continue to win over new generations of fans, due in part to some interesting screen adaptations – particularly Candyman, the finest filming of Barker's work, adapted from the short story "The Forbidden."
Richard Laymon – The "Beast House" Series
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to read the literary equivalent of a slasher movie, Laymon is definitely your go-to guy. He got off to an early start in 1980 with The Cellar – the first entry in a trilogy of novels focusing on the notorious "Beast House," the site of a bizarre series of rape-murders allegedly perpetrated by a sex-mad monster. The house becomes a popular tourist attraction, and in the finest slasher movie tradition, stupid teenagers keep daring each other to sneak in there after hours. Before his death in 2001, Laymon wrote more than thirty novels and dozens of short stories, but he never achieved success in the US, despite once having a contract with a major publisher, who finally freaked out as his writing got more and more perverse. If you're too squeamish for this kind of material, you may want to check out Laymon's award-winning novel The Traveling Vampire Show, one of the best coming-of-age novels in the horror genre.
Jack Ketchum – The Girl Next Door
Along with the cannibal tale Off Season, this unbelievably grim novel is a prime example of Ketchum's ruthless, uncompromising vision. Thanks to an excellent film adaptation in 2007, the book has seen a major revival, but those who wrote the movie off as so-called "torture porn" will change their minds when they crack open the source material. Based on actual events, this is a gritty, graphic true-crime tale that exposes the black core of madness lurking beneath the plastic innocence of early '60s suburban living. The only thing more terrifying than discovering how a mother could encourage the repeated torture and molestation of her own daughter, is Ketchum's coldly logical explanation of why she did it... and why just about anyone could sink to the same level under similar circumstances. That's why it's so terrifying. As you can probably imagine, this is not a fun read. But it's one of the most frightening books ever written, so it goes on my list.
Poppy Z. Brite – Exquisite Corpse
One of the most familiar names in extreme horror during the '90s (and one of the first prominent female authors in a male-dominated subgenre), Brite was quickly embraced by the emerging goth community for her kinky, death-obsessed themes. Those concepts were never better represented than in this 1997 novel about two men who meet and fall in love over their shared interests: mass murder, cannibalism and necrophilia. Brite's graphic, unflinching and surreal prose makes this book almost impossible to put down, even as the reader is confronted with one atrocity after another. Brite is also passionate about her home town of New Orleans, and the sights and sounds (and, uh... other sensations) of the French Quarter and the dark mysteries of the bayou permeate every page.
Rex Miller – The "Chaingang" Series
Miller is often overlooked as a horror author, because his books tend to be grouped in the crime and suspense genres. But you won't think of anything but horror when you read his 1987 novel Slob. While it's basically a gritty detective thriller, the real difference is in the depiction of the detective's target: a five-hundred pound serial killer named Dan Bukowski, better known by the nickname "Chaingang." Where did he get that handle, you ask? From the thirty-pound length of iron chain that serves as his weapon of choice. But he does a lot more than just bash in skulls; Chaingang fancies himself a "family man." You'll just have to read it to find out what that means... Slob's cult following led Miller to write four sequels, though they were set in a different canon than the first.
Kathe Koja – Skin
One of the more intellectual and socially focused authors on this list, Koja was incorrectly slapped with the "splatterpunk" label back in the early '90s, mainly because of this book, which explores the mindsets behind body modification and underground performance art. Running parallel in many ways to Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse (only not as gory), the story involves two women who bond over their shared desire to push art to the absolute limit... and beyond. Since one works with metal and the other is a body-modifying performance artist, you can probably imagine where this story is going. This is probably the least bloody book on this list, but Koja's unsettling depiction of her characters' obsessions makes it one of the most dangerous.
John Skipp & Craig Spector – The Light at the End
Just as goth kids were beginning to obsess over the depressed and romantic vampires of Anne Rice, the writing team of Skipp & Spector dropped this bloody bomb about a brutal bloodsucker haunting the subterranean shadows of New York City. Responsible for a rash of horrific subway murders, the vamp is depicted as both a soulless monster and a victim of demonic control, and the band of misfits who hunt him are straight out of an underground comic. If you dig the '80s horror vibe, you'll feel right at home here: the authors' depiction of NYC in the mid-'80s feels like a surreal blend of Maniac and The Warriors. Maybe not as gory now as it seemed back in '85, this one is tough enough to put the "punk" in spatterpunk.
Edward Lee – The Bighead
When it comes to hardcore gore and repulsive characters, Lee is one of the reigning masters. Some of his early works – many of which never saw major publication – would probably qualify as the first wave of "Bizarro" fiction, a genre noted for throwing out most of the rules of storytelling in a quest to blow the reader's mind. Lee does this frequently, but The Bighead carries it to such a hideously depraved extreme that you have to put the book down just to make sure your chair isn't morphing into a sentient turd with eyeballs. This dude loves telling stories about maniacal inbred backwoods crazies, and this book has some of his most memorable... and by memorable, I mean they commit an act so disgusting I can't even tell you what letter it begins with. If you're interested in Lee's work, you might want to start with his later material and work your way up to this one.
Guy N. Smith – The "Crabs" Series
This British pulp horror icon has only one goal: to make you feel icky. No subtext, no social commentary, nothing to get in the way of big nasty monsters tearing people's heads off. Smith's cult following is mainly due to this series of six novels about crabs the size of SUVs swarming the earth and steadily driving humanity to extinction. The series began in 1976 with Night of the Crabs, and it continued all the way through the '80s. A lot of "serious" horror readers consider Smith a complete hack, but let's face it – it takes mad skills to get scares out of a monster that has to come at you sideways. Anyhow, Smith's writing is really no cheesier than EC horror comics, and it's just as entertaining. For pure scary, gory fun, these books would make an excellent summer beach read... wait a minute, what the hell am I saying? AAAAAHHHHH!!! CRABS!!!
Wrath James White – Succulent Prey
White is one of a few authors who know how to find that strange balance between complex characters and gut-punching horror, all on the same page. It's a very rare thing to put the reader in the shoes of a protagonist who is sexually obsessed with devouring people alive during sex... and it's even more difficult to make him sympathetic. Not that you'll come to admire him (his behavior is way too repulsive), but his motives are driven by a psychotic form of sexual addiction, which he believes is inherited from a brute who abducted and tortured him as a child. When I met the author at a convention, he was discussing the link between violence and eroticism in horror, and after reading this book I discovered just how far he pushes that connection. Well-written as it may be, this book is a tough read... if the thought of a human being impaled and roasted alive is hard to stomach, imagine that the victim is also sexually aroused by the act. Still with me?
John Shirley – Wetbones
When John Shirley first stepped up his gore game, we knew he'd make all-star: this collection of interlocking storylines reads like a pulp crime novel as interpreted by H.P. Lovecraft and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The multiple plots revolve around a mysterious desert location known as the Doublekey Ranch, and the mind-controlling practices of a demonic race known as the Akishra... but that's only one level of this chaotic but uncomfortably realistic world; there's another even more dangerous monster lurking in here, and its name is Addiction. It's not subtext, either: addiction and its savage grip on the human mind is a huge plot device, much like in Frank Henenlotter's gooey drug-abuse allegory Brain Damage. The writing is sometimes a little rough around the edges, but there's a certain badass groove to it that makes it memorable.
Monica J. O'Rourke – Suffer the Flesh
One of the new generation of extreme horror writers, O'Rourke is best known for this perverse satire of body-consciousness and our culture's obsession with how the ideal woman should look. But don't expect a dry thesis on the subject – this book will make your stomach churn in horror. The heroine, self-conscious about being overweight, is approached by a strange woman in a bookstore, and before the evening is over finds herself imprisoned in a high-security facility where the staff enforce a diet plan so strict that only a fraction of the "guests" survive the ordeal. Imagine Stephen King's short story "Quitters, Inc." written by the Marquis De Sade at the peak of perversion, and you'll get some idea of what ordeals our protagonist is forced to endure. O'Rourke gets straight to the nasty stuff, and just when you think it can't get any more twisted, she hits you in the junk with a sledgehammer.
Shaun Hutson – Slugs
This last entry has the distinction of making two FEARnet lists in one month, thanks to the absurd, awful and hilariously fun film adaptation by Juan Piquer Simon (Pieces). Hutson is another British author with a cult following, mostly for his early novels like this one, as well as Spawn and Erebus. This one's my favorite of his books, and it might as well be subtitled You'll Never Sit on the Toilet Again. Why? I'll explain: let's say giant carnivorous slugs were breeding in the city sewers, and suddenly began infiltrating people's homes through the plumbing and drain pipes. Now let's say you had to spend some quality time on the crapper. If your butt-cheeks suddenly tightened like a vise when you read that, then you know the kind of reaction Hutson is trying to wrench out of you with this book. Like all the others on this list, read it if you dare... and watch your ass!