The past decade has seen a spike in meta-horror, particularly in film. Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and The Cabin in the Woods all bring a comedic self-referential vibe to a genre known for its tropes. But what about books? Below, find a list of some of the best in meta-horror literature. From classics to contemporary fiction, there is something to haunt everyone. But be warned, reading this list may have consequences…
Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (1895)
“Beware reading this book. You do so at your own peril. To allow your eyes to wander freely over the text could bring disastrous results. Your mind, your personality and your life will be affected in a most dramatic fashion.”
A short-story collection which continuously alludes to The King in Yellow, a play that, when read, drives each reader mad. Although the stories deal with different themes (including horror, Cthulhu mythology and romance – among others) they all hint at the same dark force of the play. The collections greatest strength lies in its mystery and refusal to put the spotlight on that which generates the fear. Lovecraftian and Poe-esque in nature, The King in Yellow is a deserved cult classic.
H. P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon
“If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it.”
No meta-horror list would be complete without the Necronomicon. A fictional textbook of spells and magic, the Necronomicon has found itself haunting the literature of, not only Lovecraft but, other writers too. Although referred to and quoted from in many stories, no description is ever made of this fictional book, and Lovecraft never actually wrote it. Or perhaps it is yet to be found…
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
‘“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. […] And then the nightmares will begin.”
Will Navidson lived in a house on Ash Tree Lane that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But something happened in that house, and Zampano, a reclusive old man, has written all about it. When Zampano dies, Johnny Truant, a part-time tattooist, finds the manuscript which details the events on Ash Tree Lane, and decides to investigate while adding some notes himself. As he journeys further through the notes, he starts becoming paranoid and very strange things begin to happen…
House of Leaves has made it onto the many must-read lists since its publication in 2000 and has become a meta cult classic. Reading the “true life” events on what is referred to as ‘The Navidson Report’ immerses the reader, as we see Truant’s story running alongside in footnotes. Clocking in at 700 pages this is a time-investment but, despite parts feeling dated, one worth making.
Clive Barker, Mister B. Gone (2007)
“Burn this book. Go on. Quickly, while there’s still time! Burn it. Don’t look at another word. Did you hear me? Not. One. More. Word.”
In this 2007 meta-horror, Mister B Gone follows the titular character, Jakobok Botch, a demon born in the darkest depths of hell and, as it transpires, trapped within the pages of the very book itself. Jakobok comes to the surface of earth and arrives in the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg; 15th-century Mainz. Told in the first person, the character of Jakobok constantly breaks the fourth wall by telling the reader to burn the book they are reading, as this will will rid him of his miserable life. The narrative is a mix of Jakobok’s journey, his desire for the reader to destroy the book and end his life, and his threatening the reader with punishment (such as flaying) should they keep reading.
An immersive but slightly repetitive read, Mister B Gone has plenty of Barker’s usual narrative energy.
David Wong, John Dies at the End (2007)
“STOP. You should not have touched this flyer with your bare hands. NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late. They’re watching you. My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours. You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye. The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.”
Paranormal-investigating and demon-exorcising John and Dave are fighting a monster made out of meat (literally, not a metaphor for a human). They then rewind to how this peculiar job came about and we discover the source of their supernatural-seeing abilities lie within a product known as ‘Soy Source’. However, there are entities who are abusing Soy Sauce to destroy our dimension on earth, and John and Dave ensue in battle to save humankind.
Chaotic, explosive, weird and sometimes funny, John Dies at the End isn’t as meta as some of the other books on the list, but just enough to earn its place at the meta-horror table.
Anonymous, The Book With No Name (2006)
“Whatever you do, don`t read the book with no name. An untitled book by an anonymous author brings death to anyone who reads it.”
Detective Miles Jensen, Chief Detective of Supernatural Investigations, charges to Santa Mondega, a lawless town where a ragtag bunch of locals and outsiders are all fighting over a mysterious stone called The Eye of the Moon. There are monks, a fortune-teller, an Elvis-impersonating hitman, and many more, who all have one thing in common: the book with no name. A book that once read kills the reader.
Mixed with plenty of black humour and packed with action, The Book With No Name reads more like a zany action blockbuster than a horror book.
Jason Arnopp, The Last Days of Jack Sparks
“Jack Sparks died while writing this book. It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he’d already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed. Then there was that video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account. Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed – until now.”
Jack Sparks, an obnoxious journalist, is researching the occult for his new book. But he is also amidst a Twitter-storm after inappropriately laughing at a crucial moment during an exorcism. When a thirty-six second video is posted from his channel, he swears it wasn’t him. He starts looking deeper into the video and doesn’t live to tell the tale… but this book does.
With engaging characters and an intriguing plot, The Last Days of Jack Sparks makes for an immersive read. While, again, not supremely meta, it’s certainly worth a whirl.
“I read a book much like the one you’re holding now. And this is what happened to me. Don’t make the same mistake. Please, put it down. Or better yet, throw it away. This is your last warning. Turn the page, and you’re on your own. Actually, that’s not true. Turn the page and he’ll be there, watching you.”
Will Haunt You follows Jesse Wheeler, a recovered alcoholic and retired guitarist, after he has read a book lent to him by his friend. Suddenly Jesse is being followed by a group of people hellbent on destroying his life. Experiencing multiple surreal situations, Jesse must confront the giant mistake he made years ago and the reason he became sober.
In Will Haunt You, the reader is constantly told that something bad will happen to them should they continue to read and finish the book. Although fast-paced and quirky, the book lacks any real sense of meta-reality.