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Toby Barlow Reveals His Ultimate Evil Darlings

BabayagaHalloween... as they say, it must be the season of the witch. And Toby Barlow, author of one of our Best of the Month picks from decidedly unspooky August (and one of my personal faves of this past year), Babayaga, knows a little something about that. Though as much a dark comedy, a love story, and a spy thriller as anything else, Barlow's genre-defying Babayaga is chock full of curse-spouting ancient crones--named as it is for the mangled witches in Slavic folklore.

We asked Barlow about the other end of the spectrum: about what books had spooked him as a reader and left him spellbound. It should have been no surprise that he'd add a delightful twist to his response.

BarlowLooking through the various lists of great suspense books, I'm surprised at how few women there are to be found. To me, female authors have always had had a much greater sense of what is disturbing and wrong in this world. There are good strong men writing about the dark stuff, guys like Charlie Houston, Max Brooks or, I suppose, Stephen King. But to me men mostly shock while women truly haunt. Four of the most frightening authors I know of were women, and while the following list may seem terribly obvious to many, in my opinion they still aren't mentioned nearly enough and, just like our evening prayers, these are names that should be recited over and over again. They are my dark angels. Even thinking about their work now sends the chills creeping.

Patricia Highsmith Pick any novel by Patricia Highsmith
One of the truest things I've ever heard about literature was Jeanette Winterson's great quote from her mother (who was, by Ms. Jeanette's account, quite a horror in her own right) "The trouble with a book is you never know what's in it until it's too late." This is certainly true of Highsmith's work. Here was a woman with such a cold perspective on things that she manages the fine feat of making the reader fear the author. What is she going to do now? My god, does this woman have no limits? Oh where are the lessons, the morality, the nice, tidy ending? At least Dostoyevsky had his existentialist heroes pay for their sins; with Highsmith you crack the spine knowing that any devilish thing can happen.
And Then There Were None And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I came across this when I was young and, for many reasons, was beyond frightened by it. Who knew sweet Agatha Christie could be such a serious horror? She put aside the quirky Hercule Poirot and the quaint Miss Marple for this dark, hero-less tale of people being picked off, one by one, on some distant island. The fact that all the people are guilty of one crime or another doesn't really help alleviate the sense of very bad things happening to people who can do nothing about it. Christie's tone is -- as always -- simple, proper, and efficient, but that only makes it more effective. She planted seeds of fear that stay with me to this day. The double edged combination of justice and horror clearly struck a strong note, because it's Christie's most successful novel, actually according to one source it's the best selling "mystery" of all time. But it's not a mystery. It's horror.
Rebecca Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The most psychological frightening novel I ever came across. The character Mrs. Danvers is HAL the computer, Darth Vader, and the classic Grimm's evil stepmother all rolled into one very dark creature. Seriously, without being gory or gross, the book's as scary as the movie Alien. This is a novel that ultimately unfolds into a different genre, one that's more procedural than horror, but the lurking evil remains there throughout, looming, nesting, nibbling at our guts. The novel plays skillfully with the sense of entering, shyly, tentatively, into a completely unwelcoming world and it remains one of the best books of the last one hundred years.
Interview with the Vampire Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Okay, yes, this one is mentioned a lot. And I feel a little bad for even including it, seems kind of like saying "Oh, you're interested in God? Have you ever heard of The Bible?" But this is still mandatory reading, and not only for the crazy adventures of ol' Louis & Lestat but because the novel succeeds at drawing a tense thread between the very real gothic spookiness of New Orleans, Paris and San Francisco. It's also rife with original twists of horror, the most notable being the introduction of Claudia, the prepubescent vampire. That's the sort of thing you come across and say "Geez, ew, why'd she do that? Ugh. Yikes." But you keep turning the pages. You gotta turn the page.
Ayn Rand Ayn Rand
Finally, the most frightening novelist of all time was probably Ayn Rand, because she actually made monsters come to life; awful, demented demons we are still all plagued with today. But then that's another story to tell.

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