Horror is the Loneliest Place by Dan Coxon

A college student sits alone. Their housemates are away for Christmas, and a storm howls beyond the walls, the branches of a tree tap-tap-tapping against the window. The wind drops for a moment, and in the pause they hear a creak on the stairs, a footfall where there should be none. Their breath catches in their throat.

The woodsman nails a plank across the window to his hut, making sure to hammer those tacks all the way in. He knows the closest settlement is eleven miles away, but in his racing heart he fears there’s someone – something – closer than that. And it wants him dead.

In the basement of a New York townhouse, a six-year-old boy cowers as he hears the monsters scratching at the door, their nails splintering the wood like ice picks. He remembers the sight of his parents upstairs, their blood smeared across the walls. In that moment, he knows no one is coming.

Isolation has always been part of the horror genre. It’s there in the desolate Arctic outposts, the ships adrift in the cold of space, the lonely cabin in the woods. Even Jaws – that most horror of non-horror films – pits man against beast in a tiny boat, far from the comfort of the shore. Let’s face it: being alone is scary. Doubly so when there are zombies scrabbling at your window.

When I first started pulling together the stories in Isolation: The Horror Anthology, these genre tropes were foremost in my thoughts. Approaching some of the most exciting names in horror – Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, Angela Slatter, Laird Barron, Tim Lebbon, Nina Allan – for their isolation stories, I was expecting to see all this and more. Desolate outposts, lone survivors, abandoned castles… the playbook of isolation tropes stretches to multiple volumes.

While we were working on the anthology, however, the word came to mean something else. We were expecting the Covid-19 outbreak to be bad, but I don’t think many of us foresaw just how long it would last, or the damage it would wreak on our communities and our society as a whole. The wounds are deep, and the scars are still healing.

That word – isolation – suddenly carried an even greater resonance. As I was writing my introduction to the anthology, my entire family came down with Covid. Suddenly we were ‘self-isolating’, unable to leave our home in case we spread the virus, restricted to a handful of rooms and whatever food we could get delivered to our door.

I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly social person (I’m a writer and editor – they’re hardly outgoing professions) but I was shocked to discover how much I missed the little interactions that make up our daily lives. A walk into town to buy vegetables from the market, a trip to the library to renew books – these are hardly high-profile social events, but without them I felt cast adrift, starved of a sense of community and desperate for even the slightest human communication.

I was isolated in every sense of the word – and it was terrifying.

This won’t be news to many of you. The Covid-19 pandemic was a global experience unlike any other in our lifetime, and thousands of people went through similar feelings on a daily basis. For many, loneliness became the defining emotion of the pandemic.

What was interesting was that this new understanding bled through into the stories I was receiving. There are several pandemic stories in Isolation: The Horror Anthology – Marian Womack’s in particular is closely tied to the Covid-19 experience, while Owl Goingback’s riffs upon the lessons we

learned – but there are also stories that expand upon the standard horror tropes and find isolation in unexpected places. There’s the isolation felt by someone in an abusive relationship, the isolation of those who feel different and unwelcome in society – the list goes on and on.

And with that discovery came a realisation: isolation is an intrinsic part of the horror experience. We can point to the cabins and the outposts and the ruins and the spaceships beyond society’s little circle of light, but our fear of being alone runs much deeper than that. How many horror stories end with one person left standing, battling for their life with their back against the wall? How many show us the terror of being alone in the dark, with no one to turn to for help?

Horror and isolation go hand-in-hand, and always have done. Because while the twenty stories in Isolation show the full range of the horror genre, from the psychological to the bloody, they all have one thought in common: it’s terrifying being alone.


Isolation is out now and you can check out the SF Book Review at https://sfbook.com/isolation.htm