This original essay by Andrew Pyper coincides with the release of his new book, The Residence, published by Simon & Schuster (a ViacomCBS company).
History is made up of facts, but there’s invariably also gaps in its narrative. Even the most well-documented events leave questions behind. When a horror novelist takes on a re-telling of historical events, these spaces can be filled with unsettling subtexts, paranormal intrusions and twisted psychological motivations. The challenge (as I have recently learned in writing a ghost story set in the White House based on true events) is to balance the facts with the fiction in a way that renders the result believable on its own terms.
In these seven novels, the truth is presented as playing different roles, from vague “inspiration” to the claim of a straight testimony of reality. Each of them is all the more fascinating—and scary—for its connection to history.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
A family moves into a haunted house and encounters swarming flies, sickening odors and a red-eyed pig, among other things the real estate agent failed to disclose. What set this blockbuster apart from all the other fiction mining this similar horror vein for previous decades was the claim of being “A True Story” on the cover. Was it actually true? It hardly matters. After the millions of copies it’s sold, the story is now elevated to the heights of lasting myth—whether it really happened or not.
Communion by Whitley Strieber
Initially hard to swallow (what are the chances of a real-life horror author being visited by extraterrestrials over the course of years?), Communion builds not only in its credibility as it goes along, but also extends its reach. This is an abduction story that finds its way to the Big Questions of consciousness and offers possibilities that are impossible not to ponder.
The Bell Witch by John F.D. Taff
One of the most lasting—and frightening—accounts of poltergeist activity in America is the Bell Witch of early 1800’s Tennessee. Taff’s novel brings a moral bearing to the facts that at once modernizes the tale and lends it tragic weight.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
The Franklin Expedition of the 1840s was doomed by the get-go. The two ships that set off from England in search of the Northwest Passage instead found a winter frozen in arctic ice, starvation, madness, cannibalism and death. Simmons takes this grim material and adds a supernatural threat to the natural and inter-personal that feels inevitable.
House of Darkness House of Light by Andrea Perron
The story that inspired The Conjuring is a much quieter—and much slower—memoir by Andrea Perron, who recalls at length her strange early life in a haunted farmhouse. What the book lacks in thrills and pace it makes up for with authenticity and the bittersweet nostalgia that comes with having lived through remarkable experiences.
The Hunger Alma Katsu
The Donner Party’s historical narrative is well known: a caravan of wagons traveling west through get stuck in a frigid winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains and (once again!) cannibalism ensues. But where The Terror situates its imagined horror as an external being, Katsu cleverly moves the horror inside the minds—and bodies—of her characters to chilling effect.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
The most famous novel of possession (and the cinematic masterpiece that followed) was inspired by a 1949 incident of demonic visitation on a young Maryland boy that found its way into the back pages of newspapers. When Blatty read these stories as a student at Georgetown he started on the long journey of shaping its bare bones facts into a dramatic and sustained contest between good and evil. The Exorcist is perhaps horror fiction’s greatest example of a novel not just exploiting a cultural practice (spiritual exorcism) but wholly re-defining it. Today, there is no imagining demonic possession without passing through Blatty’s book—even if the truth behind the fiction was made of much quieter events.
Andrew Pyper is the internationally bestselling author of The Residence, a haunted house novel about the White House based on true events relating to the Franklin Pierce Administration (1853-1857). Visit AndrewPyper.com and follow him on Twitter @AndrewPyper.