The Atlantic

Finding the Emotional Truth in Horror Writing

The novelist Victor LaValle on how dark material hits hardest when it’s balanced out with wonder
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


Victor LaValle wants to scare you, let’s be clear. His books tend to feature characters in extreme, terrifying situations—stalked by a fanged monster (The Devil in Silver), caught up in a sinister cult (Big Machine), watching a world-ending storm build off the coast of New York (The Ballad of Black Tom). But as much as he borrows from the horror genre, LaValle probably owes more to the fairy tales of Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Angela Carter—stories that feature brutality and inspire dread, but are nonetheless suffused with a sense of magic and possibility. In a conversation for this series, LaValle explained what a novella by the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe taught him about writing horror: Dark material hits hardest when it’s balanced out with wonder, and ballasted by serious ethical concerns.

In its very first line, LaValle’s new novel, The Changeling—which borrows its title (and little else) from a novel Oe published in 2000—explicitly calls itself a fairy tale. But what at first seems a whimsical story about the way lonely city people find each other soon becomes a modern fable about the anxieties of parenthood. Apollo, a rare books dealer, starts to notice his wife behaving strangely. In the novel’s pivotal scene, she restrains Apollo, murders

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