Horror and sci-fi are two genres that have a lot of cross-over potential, and some of the best work in either genre combines elements of both. For example, Alien still stands up as both one of the best science fiction films and one of the best horror films of all time. With that in mind, I am about to recommend five science fiction novels that any horror fan would enjoy.
The Last Legends of Earth by A. A. Attanasio (1989)
This book is a strange one even by science fiction standards. The plot takes place over hundreds of years and involves epic wars, strange planets, time travel and bizarre aliens. It is with the latter that this novel’s horror appeal lies. The villains of Attanasio’s novel are the Zōtl, small spider-like creatures which feed on a chemical that is produced by the brains of sentient creatures when they are in pain. They capture humans and keep them as cattle, and torture us for their own nourishment.
Not only is the idea of the Zōtl pretty scary but they are completely alien to us. Communication with them is almost impossible and thus we cannot reason or plead with them. Like the creature inAlien, the horror comes from the unbridgeable gap between different species. When communication breaks down, only violence can exist. This idea is at the root of many of science fiction’s scariest villains, from Pitch Black to Starship Troopers.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)
Hyperion is an accomplished science fiction novel and a must-read for any serious fan of the genre. The story follows six strangers on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a murderous alien god. Along the way, each character recounts the story of what brought them to the pilgrimage. The book reads like a series of interlinked novellas which span different genres. The Soldier’s Tale is an action adventure, whereas the Detective's Tale is a mystery thriller. Two of the tales were among the scariest horror stories that I have ever read.
The Priest's Tale follows a disgraced Catholic priest who escapes to the planet Hyperion to study a lost tribe. Whilst he lives with them he slowly realises how the world Hyperion has changed them monstrously. Simmons’s elegant prose and fantastic ability to create mood makes the slow realisation of the dangerous situation that the priest is in more frightening.
The Scholar's Tale combines both horror and tragedy to create a powerful and terrifying story. It is told by an academic whose daughter, Rachel, whist studying the world Hyperion was exposed to an alien device which causes her to age backwards. Simmons renders in heart breaking detail Rachel's regression (physically and mentally) into a child.
Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989)
This is a novel which I love and have talked about before, but I cannot recommend it enough. Sheri S. Tepper also writes horror and mysteries alongside science fiction, and all three genres are contained in Grass. The novel is set in a distant future where humanity is being wiped out by an incurable disease. Only the planet Grass is unaffected, and so it is here that Westriding-Yrarier family are sent to discover its secret. What they find is a closed community of former aristocrats who are under the control of the Hippae, who are native to Grass. The Hippae appear to be animals at first, but their true intelligence and murderous hatred quickly becomes apparent.
What is scary about Grass is the idea of being trapped in a small community where horrible events are taking place which everyone is either oblivious to or too terrified to mention. Tepper uses her skills as a mystery writer to create tension through a closed community harbouring a dark secret. She also uses her skill as a horror writer to develop the Hippae as horrendous monsters.
The slow revelation of how dangerous the Hippae are and the psychic hold they possess over humans builds tension which leads to an explosive conclusion. However, the real strength of Grass as horror comes from the sense of being trapped among ordinary people who have a sinister secret, much like The Wicker Man or Rosemary’s Baby.
Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks (2010)
Some works of horror rely on gory or shocking images to create tension – John Carpenter’s The Thing is a good example of this. Banks is a master of the sprawling space opera and has a knack for the disturbing. His debut literary novel The Wasp Factory turned heads, and a few stomachs with a particularly disgusting revelation.
Of all his science fiction novels, Surface Detail is the one which most lends itself to the horror genre. The novel charts a simulated (and then actual) conflict between future human and alien civilizations over the morality of virtual hells. Several of Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels involve a virtual reality to which a person’s mind can be sent in the event of their death. Some civilizations judge the dead and then consign them to a virtual hell or heaven.
One part of the novel follows Chay, who has become trapped in a virtual hell, and charts the torment (both physical and psychological) which she experiences. Banks’s visceral imagination summons up wheels of blood, monstrous demons and a vast war in hell - the only purposes of which are to inflict more suffering. Banks has a brilliant imagination not only for science fiction concepts but also for the gruesome and disturbing. In this novel he combines both, and the result is both gripping and gory.
The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig (2013)
This is not strictly science fiction but is an urban fantasy, and quite scary so it deserves to be on this list. The Blue Blazes sets the bar of urban fantasy high by combining it with the gangster genre. The book starts by following a group of New York gangsters during a mob power struggle. Violence is an everyday part of their world and this book does not flinch from describing the violence in gory detail.
The book slowly reveals the wider supernatural fantasy world it is set in, this New York is built above a subterranean world of goblins, golems, ghosts, demons and strange powders that can alter the user. The book morphs from a gangster drama into an epic struggle against the subterranean gods and the monsters who worship them. Wendig blends violence with strong characters as easily as he blends the crime and fantasy story aches.
Gangsters work well in horror stories where the horror is mainly the result of violence, and by combing the crime story with urban fantasy more varied violence is possible – not just the violence of human conflicts, but also that of supernatural predators. There are many works of horror which put violence front and centre (pretty much any film by Takashi Miike comes to mind), but The Blue Blazes manages to draw on the crime and fantasy genres as a source of violent horror.
Those are my science fiction recommendations for horror fans. Do you have any others to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.