Scarier than fiction: 5 books of real-life horror

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In this roundup of books to read for Halloween, revel on the depths of horror that have always plagued humankind.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Horror is the only genre that’s named after an emotion,” the writer Karl R. De Mesa notes in his essay collection “Report From the Abyss.” “Horror is the attempt to keep us from forgetting sensation, to enshrine all that intensity in memory before the wind blows it away.”

What’s most interesting about this realization, though, is that its emphasis on the exigency of holding on to the consciousness of things that would otherwise pass out of remembrance, however terrible they may be, is less significant in the horror genre per se than in the kind of literature that tells of all-too-real horrors. More to the point, such horrors become of greater gravity for their having been perpetrated not by ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, but by that most monstrous of all monsters and most ravenous of all ravagers: man. As the sage advice goes, “Sa tao ka dapat matakot, hindi sa multo.

In lieu of the usual Halloween reading list that includes tales of the supernatural and the weird, here are five nonfiction books that relate accounts of haunting experiences that stem from the corporeal rather than the spectral — stories of man-made horrors undoubtedly more unsettling for their being firmly based in truth.


“Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup

A free-born African American New Yorker, Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He would not regain his personal liberty until over a decade later — and even then he would come out as one of the more fortunate ones. His life during his 12-year bondage in the Deep South’s so-called peculiar institution is recorded in his memoir, the aptly, if sadly, titled “Twelve Years a Slave” (adapted into the Academy Award-winning film of the same name). As told to and edited by the writer and politician David Wilson, Northup’s is considered one of the best slave narratives, not least because of its remarkable eloquence and sanguineness even at points when it must describe acts of abominable cruelty. This is the extraordinary odyssey of a black man — nay, a human being — which, well over a century on, in an age of precarious race relations, still resonates with both meaning and warning.

Available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.

“Hiroshima” by John Hersey

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bombing  on the eponymous Japanese city on Aug. 6, 1945: a wealthy doctor, a Methodist pastor, a widowed seamstress, a German Catholic priest, a young surgeon, and a factory clerk. A triumph of New Journalism in its use of storytelling techniques usually attributed to fiction, “Hiroshima” takes readers on a harrowing journey of suffering and survival, beginning with the noiseless flash and blinding light of the bomb explosion at 15 minutes past 8 in the morning of that fateful day, all the way through the slight promise of revival amid chaos and sickness with the sprouting, months later, of panic grass and feverfew on the parched ground zero. It’s a testament to the sheer substance of “Hiroshima” that it all but occupied the entire Aug. 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker in its initial publication and that it has been made available in various book forms since.

Available online in its entirety on The New Yorker.


“Night” by Elie Wiesel

Going on living as a survivor of the extreme atrocity that is the Holocaust is one thing. It’s quite another to write about it, for the stark reason that language too often proves inadequate in conveying the incredible inhumanity of that singular event. No wonder the late Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize awardee Elie Wiesel, who was freed in 1945 following his incarceration in the Nazi Party’s Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, stayed silent on the matter for all of a decade. When he finally broke his vow of silence, it was with the publication of his memoir “Night.” Although it has a page count of just over a hundred, “Night” stands as a powerful document of loss, a paralyzing account of Wiesel’s loss of family, innocence, and faith. But mercifully not of memory, or else the world would have been deprived of an influential voice to admonish it against its tendency to endanger the future by repeating mistakes of the past.

Available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.

“Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick

In 2013, the novelist Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Three years earlier, the journalist Barbara Demick won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for “Nothing to Envy.” Both deal with issues of personal identity and political propaganda in North Korea. But of the two, “Nothing to Envy” paints a grimmer picture of life in the notoriously closed country. Subtitled “Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” it is essentially a nonfiction novel based on interviews with more than a hundred North Korean defectors. Chronic starvation and widespread corruption, it reveals, are just a couple of the hardships shared by the residents of the country’s occasional Potemkin villages. But given its deliberate isolation, North Korea is home to citizens who carry on regardless, thinking that theirs is the best country in the world, headed by a leader without equal. As it happens, the book’s title is taken from a popular local children’s song called “We Have Nothing to Envy in This World.”

Available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.


“Reportage on Crime” by Quijano de Manila

In “Reportage on Crime,” Quijano de Manila, the journalist alter ego of the Philippine National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, narrates a series of, as the book’s subtitle states, “horror happenings that hit the headlines.” (For good measure, in keeping with the work’s trappings of terror, the number of supposedly sinister stories within would likely make a triskaidekaphobe cower in fear: 13.) Much less somber and much more readable than Truman Capote’s masterpiece of not-entirely-true crime, “In Cold Blood,” this anthology of police beat stories from the 1960s teems with character and atmosphere. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the collection’s opener, “The House on Zapote Street,” the story of a father’s murderous jealousy toward his daughter’s husband that became the basis of the 1981 psychological drama film “Kisapmata.” For more true-to-life horror stories from Quijano de Manila, see his “Reportage on Politics” and “Reportage on the Marcoses.”

Available in National Book Store and Powerbooks.