Truth is only sometimes stranger than fiction, but truth is almost always more horrifying, unless you’re lobotomized, or attend too many raves. One element separating fictional horror and horrifying nonfiction is guiltless entertainment; you can enjoy Stephen King or Jo Nesbo, or even Gone Girl, but you can’t necessarily say you enjoyed Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood (although don’t underestimate Capote’s ability to intend that title as a sly joke on his readers.)
Another element separating horror fiction and nonfiction, for the most part: Order. W.H. Auden once posited that readers enjoy mystery novels because their plots reorder disorder, which goes to the core of life’s desires. With a few brave exceptions – The Wicker Man (1973) comes to mind – Auden’s plot point is true of most horror films and horror fiction.
With scary nonfiction, that often isn’t the case. Readers of potentially horrifying nonfiction need to prepare themselves for a lack of resolution. Then why even go there? To learn about something. But, more importantly, to learn about something that scares the shit out of you. Maybe a baby case of PTSD gets you off your complacent ass. That’s my excuse.
Here’s seven that made me turn on all the lights in my home:
1) Spillover – David Quammen (2012)
In Spillover, Quammen not only predicts the 2015 Ebola outbreak, he predicts it down to the disease, outbreak locus, and scale, and how it plays out. Haunts me to this day. He also predicts Zika, although not by name, in that no “new” disease is truly new, but simply lurking somewhere, waiting for human overpopulation to exacerbate wilderness destruction, animal epidemics, and world hunger to the point where they can finally find us. Especially chilling: A virus with a 100% death rate leaves no hosts alive, so we’re left fearing those that leave only people enough alive to spread in time before all people die. Meaning Ebola is about 83% successful and therefore child’s play when compared to amoebic encephalitis, or MERS if it mutates. It’s not “if.” It’s “when.”
What begins as an investigation into the disappearance of a British woman working as a social club hostess in Japan explodes into a nausea-inducing exposure of a judicial and law enforcement breakdown that leads to the continued freedom of Joji Obara, the worst serial rapist in Japanese history, if not world history. How do we know Obara did it? He filmed each rape. How did he get away with it? Expecting him to confess as most criminals do in Japan, Japanese system didn’t bother with due diligence. When Obara didn’t confess, they were lost. I had to take a few showers when I finished this.
3) Toms River – Dan Fagin (2013)
I can’t count how many times as a New Jersey kid, while investigating pockets of suburban forest, I happened upon outcroppings of leaning oil drums, or bright yellow creeks, or burning piles of chemical-smelling garbage. Fagin’s primary investigatory project is the notorious cancer cluster in Toms River NJ from the late seventies to early nineties and whether Ciba-Geigy, rampant illegal dumping, or a combination of both lead to toxic waste in the town water table. Fagin is thorough like a demon, tracing the chemical origins and poisonings of coal tar dye from the 19th century onward, unsparing of company or government officials who let it happen, even now. He also compares to Love Canal and other disasters. In Ohio in the 1950s, working for Ciba-Geigy meant bladder cancer. Chem business model: poison a town? Move. Merge. Change name.
4) Lost Girls – Robert Kolker (2013)
Serial killers are like Donald Trump: They’re less interesting than the reasons why so many people are interested in them. But Kolker turns the serial killer book on its head by being about the killings, the voiceless victims (almost all sex workers), the remote Long Island south shore locale, and the frightening fact that this killer (of many names, like Unsub, the Gilgo beach Killer, etc) hasn’t been caught despite multiple recovered bodies. A book like this lives on in readers’ memories, too, in that you’ll read about subsequent discoveries and potential new murders in nearby areas.
This might solve the identity of the Zodiac killer. It’s scant on concrete evidence, but there’s been no legitimate refutation from law enforcement, and crackpots haven’t provided anything solid, otherwise. A private father of one (Stewart), living a quiet, respectable life as an engineer and a divorced father of one, in his mid-forties begins looking for his birth parents. He finds his mother with little trouble and, despite her reticence on the subject, delves into his birth father’s history. At first, it seems his father (Earl Van Best, Jr.; check out his photo, to the right of this text, matched with Zodiac’s police sketch) was a bright ne’er-do-well, an adult eloping with a pregnant teen. And then, working backwards with facts only his birth father’s family would know, Stewart begins to slowly see, over twelve years of research, and with genuine horror, that his father life’s intersected with the Zodiac case far too often. Circumstantial evidence abounds: Family photos match police sketches; his education and career put him in every murder locale. Whether there’s concrete evidence is debate-able (spoiler alert: Stewart finds his father’s name in Zodiac’s coded letters), but the fact that Stewart didn’t set out looking for Zodiac and found him, as well as some of the other links he uncovers, will make your hair stand on end.
I couldn’t finish it, and that’s not a criticism – it’s an endorsement of the depth of detail Seierstad employs to clarify the reality behind Anders Brevik’s cowardly massacre of 75 children in Norway. I have children of my own, and when it was clear, after the first half, that she had begun to recreate the events of the hours of the massacre, I knew I couldn’t make it any further. I slept a full night maybe a few days later.
Again: children of my own. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s legend was printed, but the truth was worse. Merritt provides riveting and detailed analysis of the sordid hotel party that lead to starlet Virginia Rappe’s assault and eventual, days-long death. Arbuckle, who was the silent era’s semi-equivalent of a young Woody Allen (before their falls), wasn’t alone in the assault, possibly, and it’s all the more chilling. His ensuing trials rivaled OJ Simpson’s. And like Simpson, Arbuckle probably did it, too.