Mental Floss
RECOMMENDED READING

7 Historical Horror Books to Read, Recommended by Author Alma Katsu

Michele Debczak
Read on for author Alma Katsu's favorite historical horror books.
Read on for author Alma Katsu's favorite historical horror books. / Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images (Alma Katsu) // Zoran Kolundzija, iStock via Getty Images Plus (Book)
facebooktwitterreddit

It's impossible to discuss historical horror fiction today without mentioning author Alma Katsu, whose books often inject supernatural elements into true events that were already dark to begin with. In her 2018 novel The Hunger, the members of the Donner Party are plagued by a mysterious evil in addition to the harsh weather and lack of food that doomed them in real life. Her 2020 follow-up The Deep uses a ghost story to connect the sinkings of the Titanic and Britannic.

Katsu’s upcoming novel The Fervor, set to be published on April 26, 2022, looks at the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II through a similar lens. As anti-Asian sentiments sweep across the nation, an internee and her daughter find themselves grappling with a different type of epidemic of a mystical nature. Though Katsu has written reimagined historical fiction in the past, she tells Mental Floss that she took a slightly different approach to The Fervor.

The Hunger was very close to the history ... Aside from the horror element, it was fairly close to everything I could learn about the characters and staying on the map and the dates and everything,” she says. “Then when I did The Deep, I realized I could really paint myself in a corner, because there are legions of people who spend their whole life studying the Titanic, and there’s no way you’re going to make everybody happy ... I [felt] a little uncomfortable taking big liberties with the lives of real people.”

For The Fervor, she gave herself some flexibility by making the characters in the internment camp wholly fictional. But other elements—like the Idaho camp where the story is set—are very real.

“What happens in the camps, the feelings of the internees—all that is very much based on my understanding from hearing these stories of people who were in the camps, from watching documentaries, from reading things,” she says.

Katsu has been hearing stories of the Japanese-American experience during World War II since long before she began researching her book. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Japan after the war, and her husband’s family was interned. And as a former U.S. senior intelligence analyst, she also saw firsthand how governments use the demonization of “the other” as a political tool. These themes were on Katsu’s mind when she conceived the story, and they haven’t lost relevance.

Amazon

“When [The Fervor] was envisioned, there was this wave of anti-Asian—and still is—hate going across the country. There was all this political manipulation,” she says. “People don’t often think about the historical component of what happens in the present day. We’ve seen this before and I have to hope that if you try to bring that out over and over again, people will understand that this isn’t new. This is a pattern and we have to break these patterns.”

That, she says, is the special power of historical fiction. In addition to exposing readers to a part of American history that often gets just a cursory mention in textbooks, she hopes to draw a clear line from the events of the past to the present day.

“They say that art is the mirror that you hold up to life, right? It helps you understand the truth,” she says. “Like a good professor will explain to you and pull the threads together and show you the bigger picture and really make it resonate with you, I think that’s what fiction can do.”

Fiction can also make you afraid to turn off the lights at night—as is the case with the historical horror novels Katsu recommends below. The Fervor blends these two genres in an upfront way, but other books are subtle with how they mix horror with history, and vice-versa. “I think [there are] more books that you can think of as historical with horror elements than most people are probably aware of,” she says.

Ahead of the release of her latest supernatural spin on historical events, here are Alma Katsu’s favorite books that set a spooky story in the past.

These entries have been edited for clarity.

1. The Terror // Dan Simmons

Amazon

“I heard about it for the first time when I was working on The Hunger, and I deliberately put it aside and didn’t read it until after The Hunger was done. And I was just blown away and thought, ‘Oh my God, what a pitiful attempt I’ve come up with!’ Because that book was just so fabulous. Then I saw the TV series on AMC and they did such a wonderful job with it. So that I think is like the perfect book. And it really sets a high bar because the writing’s so wonderful and the literary sensibilities are so good.”

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Winter People // Jennifer McMahon

Amazon

“This one has a dual timeline. The historical component is from 1908, but it’s told in the more or less present day. It’s the story of a family who is affected by what happened in the past. And it is a really popular book and it got a lot of acclaim, so that is one I think people should check out, especially for the dual timeline aspect.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. Perfume // Patrick Süskind

Amazon

“[Perfume is not] horror in the sense that it’s got a supernatural character, or a bloodthirsty psychopath (although there is a bloodthirsty psychopath in it). It’s set in 18th-century France, and it’s about this man who has this magical sense of smell, and it makes him the celebrity of the day. But he also has a pathological mindset, and the question of the book is sort of about that combination of monster and genius. Does having brilliance turn you into a monster? Or was he one already? So that’s a great book for people to read for that sort of not-obvious answer of history and horror.”

Buy it: Amazon

4. As Meat Loves Salt // Maria McCann

Amazon

“I think [As Meat Loves Salt] came out around the same time as Perfume or maybe a few years afterwards, but it’s sort of the same thing. It’s set in 17th-century England in the middle of the civil war, and the main character is on the brink of madness for a lot of reasons. It’s kind of the same thing: Did the circumstances create the monster or was he always this sort of psychopath that was just waiting for his ability to do wrong? It shows the horror that could exist right next to you and you don’t even know it.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Little Stranger // Sarah Waters

Amazon

“The next book is my favorite horror story. Again, for the same reason: It’s literary first and it’s a ghost story second. I think it’s a fabulous ghost story, and it doesn’t resolve till the very end of the book; then you suddenly understand what’s going on. And she really makes you question what you think a ghost is. The really interesting thing about it—I didn’t know this till years later, and for a while I used to reread this book every year—was that she originally conceived of it just as historical fiction. There was no ghost element to it. And it wasn’t till rewriting that the ghost element wove itself in. It’s a great example kind of showing just how literary horror can actually be.”

Buy it: Amazon

6. Between Two Fires // Christopher Buehlman

Amazon

“The next one I haven’t read, but it’s by a friend of mine: Christopher Buehlman. I’ve heard so many people recommend it and I definitely have to read it. It’s Between Two Fires, and it’s set during the Black Death. A knight finds himself caught between good and evil, and God and the devil. And I’ve just heard so many wonderful things about it I got to think it’s a really good contribution to historical horror. Anything by Christopher Buehlman is really very good.”

Buy it: Amazon

7. Unbury Carol // Josh Malerman

Amazon

“I just love Josh’s work. I admire him so much; he’s such an artist. And this is interesting, because even though you think of it as historical—it’s set in a Western town—it’s actually a completely stylized story. He himself said it was like a twisted take on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. It’s a story about a woman who cannot die, but it’s set in the West. So you have a feeling of history even though it’s a completely fake history.”

Buy it: Amazon

facebooktwitterreddit