Essential October Reads: Robert Dunbar

It’s become an annual tradition here in October Country to share my Essential October Reads, those works that best capture the essence of the Halloween season for me. This year I’ve asked some of my favorite authors to share their own Essential October Reads with us.

Today we hear from Robert Dunbar, author of the classic novel The Pines and its sequel, The Shore, among many other books and short stories.

Halloween is the climax of an eldritch season, and more than any other book I can think of Something Wicked This Way Comes captures that atmosphere, the sheer essence of autumn. Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit Ray Bradbury’s masterwork with the Literary Horror group I moderate on Goodreads … and found it strangely moving to experience that novel in tandem with the group. So many years had elapsed since I’d read it. Imagine finding an old photo of the first boy you fell in love with. There he is – forever wild and handsome, despite the passage of decades. You might not remember the passion or the tenderness. You may have long since forgotten all the negative aspects – the jealousy, the fights, his mother – but this sudden glimpse becomes a knife in your heart.

Pain can be a good thing. It means you haven’t turned to stone.

Over the years, so many writers I admire have told me that Bradbury’s classic was the book that taught them to love the darkness. Yes. Exactly. It meant a lot to me to encounter his intoxicating language again and to remember how I got drunk on it as a kid, how it set my imagination on fire.

Still, there was a not-so-wonderful facet this time. Admittedly, the Literary Horror group has close to 2,000 members. Nevertheless, I was shocked by the number of people who complained about Bradbury’s prose style being “difficult.” This? Difficult? I have to wonder what such folks would make of Joyce’s Ulysses or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, you know, something actually difficult.

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
~ Ray Bradbury

But I mustn’t dwell on that. So many members of the group reveled in the text. Many of these readers were quite young and discovering Bradbury of the first time, and I felt privileged to be the one guiding them through it. There are only so many first times in life.

Every so often, things get to you. The profoundly moronic individuals who glut the genre (and the naked politicking that has so come to define it) can leave you wondering why you ever got involved in the first place. Then something like this reminds you.

Way back, there was love.

Robert Dunbar is the author of several classic horror novels. His latest releases include Wood and the collection Martyrs & Monsters.

More Essential October Reads

Review: ‘Martyrs & Monsters’ by Robert Dunbar

Robert Dunbar wants to scare you, but not in that Boo!-from-behind-a-door kinda way. He’s not looking for quick shocks, and he’s not going to be satisfied if you squeal in fright in one minute and then laugh with relief in the next.

Dunbar, you see, is one of those guys that likes to scar you while he scares you.

Many in the world of genre fiction have appreciated Dunbar’s talent for quite some time. His novel The Pines is considered by many to be a horror classic, and its follow-up The Shore has been just as well received. In between his full-length works, he has developed a habit of popping up in magazines and markets big and small, thrilling readers with something unique and dreadful each time. Many of his standout pieces are collected here in Martyrs & Monsters, a 2009 collection by Darkhart Press.

It’s not that the subject matter of Dunbar’s stories is all that unique. In these pages you’ll find creatures, emotions and situations familiar to anyone who reads horror. It’s the way Dunbar transforms these things through carefully crafted phrases and an oddly bent perspective that makes it all feel fresh. Yes, for example, we’ve all read vampire stories, but most don’t have monsters (and victims) as sad and affecting as those found in “Gray Soil” and its companion, “Red Soil”.

“The Folly” puts us on an island with an odd and isolated family slowly being picked off by a legendary, unseen creature. The house is shaped like an alligator, the creature is a cunning hunter and the family, for the most part, is nowhere near its match.

“Explanations”, another favorite of mine, looks at a man so removed from life that his only connections and influences are those made through movies. When his regression becomes so complete that it drives the only two people close to him away (and towards one another), he reacts in a way learned from a classic piece of cinema – and as soon as Dunbar reveals the title of that film, you’ll have a good idea of the way things were resolved.

There are stories in Martyrs & Monsters that I really connected with, and a few that I simply didn’t connect with at all. In some cases, the characters were just too cold and distant to be brought to life even by Dunbar’s skilled hand. That the occasional weak story isn’t strong enough to collapse the entire collection demonstrates just how good the good stories are. This collection is an achievement Dunbar should be proud of – a group of stories that burrow deep and continue to bring the dread long after you’ve moved what you thought was a safe distance away.