Chilling books you have to read this month

James Walton

Just in time for Halloween, we dance with the macabre for October’s frightening fiction…

Elevation

by Stephen King (Hodder, £14.99)

It might seem odd to suggest that Stephen King is underrated. After all, his sales are best measured in the gazillions, and his books have been adapted into more films than any other living writer’s. Yet he’s often dismissed by literary types as a “mere” story-teller, even though his fiction bristles with imaginative ideas and extremely good, if unshowy writing—two qualities firmly on display once again in Elevation.

The main character, Scott Carey, is mysteriously losing weight fast, without his body shape changing. As in Groundhog Day, the cause of such peculiar goings-on remains unexplained—but their effect is increasingly benevolent, as Scott learns to appreciate the people around him, including the lesbian neighbours he once feuded with.

Given King’s opposition to Donald Trump, it’s hard not to read Elevation as a plea for a kindlier America. Luckily, the book never forces the issue. Instead, it concentrates on maintaining a perfect balance between a touching, realistic portrait of a growing friendship on the one hand, and the intriguingly strange weight-loss story on the other—until they reach a climax that’s both melancholy and triumphant.

 

Melmoth

by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99)

In theory, Melmoth should be the perfect follow-up to Sarah Perry’s huge 2016 hit, The Essex Serpent. There’s the same is-it-or-isn’t-it approach to the supernatural, the same unashamed relish for the Gothic—but this time with a much broader sweep, and even bigger moral questions to ponder. So why is the result somewhere between disappointing and slightly irritating? Well, for one thing Perry’s writing style doesn’t so much address her readers directly as rather boss them about: “If you kneel (be very careful, very quiet) you’ll see beneath her bed a cardboard box.” More importantly, though, the central myth doesn’t quite work.

The eponymous Melmoth is a woman condemned to eternally roam the world looking for people who’ve committed terrible acts and inviting them to join her in her wanderings (or something). Admittedly, this leads to several powerful scenes, from Mary Tudor’s persecutions to the Armenian massacres of 1915. The trouble is that the book struggles—at times almost embarrassingly hard, but ultimately in vain—to find a convincing way of making them hang together.