Scary Books for October

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The month of Halloween is a perfect time to indulge in some literary chills and thrills. The best scary stories do more than just shock and disgust; they inspire fear through the atmosphere they create, the what-ifs they pose, or the twisted psychological dynamics at play. With these criteria in mind, I've compiled a short list of scary books on my radar. The first three are ones I've read and highly recommend, and the others I've added to my ever-expanding reading list. 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This murder mystery is set during Medieval times in an Italian monastery, where two visiting monks are investigating a strange series of gruesome deaths. As part of their search, they sneak into the labyrinthine secret passageways of an old library and must crack a series of textual puzzles to solve the crime. The book is heavy on theology and philosophy, which is at times dense (I resorted to Wikipedia), but if you're willing to take on the challenge, you'll find yourself immersed in the world of the monastery and the investigations that unfold. 

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Truth is sometimes stranger, and scarier, than fiction. Ronson proves this point in his journalistic investigation into the world of psychopaths. As he profiles psychopaths and the researchers who study them, the true stories he tells are terrifying (and occasionally, hilarious). I reviewed this book here

In the Woods by Tana French

A duo of Irish detectives, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, investigate the death of a young girl found in the woods near an archaeological site. As details emerge, Ryan notices striking parallels between this case and a traumatic incident from his childhood. You may find the end emotionally distressing, but not because of the crime itself. This is the first book in the Dublin Squad series, so if you like it, there's more where it came from.

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this book is actually a work of creative nonfiction about the crimes, trial, and eventual execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. The 1,000-page magnum opus explores many of the people closest to Gilmore, including his ex-girlfriend and "true love" Nicole Baker. Gilmore is famous for refusing to appeal his death sentence and vocalizing his desire to be executed. Check out Joan Didion's review here

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

This tome is a cult favorite, and I'm so excited to read it that I already went out and bought a copy. Some readers say this is one of the most unsettling books they've ever read. The plot is apparently difficult to summarize, but I've gleaned that it's about a house that's bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. It's considered both a work of horror and a love story. It is also an "ergodic" work, meaning that the reader has to work to construct meaning by putting together various fragments and storylines. 

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

The novel begins when the Detroit police discover a gruesome body hidden in a tunnel. As lead detective Gabriella Versado becomes entrenched in the case, she fails to notice that her daughter, high school student Layla, has engaged in a risky online flirtation with a pedophile. The glowing NPR review of this book is what makes me want to read it. 

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser

Millhauser is a Pulitzer and Story Prize winner, and in this collection of short stories, he weaves together myths and fairy tales with small town characters caught in unsettling situations. For instance, the premise of one story, based on the myth of Narcissus, is that a man becomes obsessed with a special mirror polish that reveals a superior reflection of himself when applied to any mirror. 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Again, I try to avoid books that derive their horror from shock and disgust. Reviews assure me that Geek Love doesn't just do that, but out of all the books on the list, it sounds like possibly the most shocking and disgusting of them all. It's about a family-run traveling carnival that is struggling to make a living when the parents devise a terrible idea: they will turn their family into a freak show by altering their children's genes. What ensues is sibling rivalry and the creation of a particularly disturbing cult. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Blackwood sisters and their uncle are the sole survivors of a mysterious poisoning that left the rest of their family dead. The village suspects Constance, the older sister who cooked for the family on the night they died. The novel begins:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

A film adaptation of this novel is coming to theaters next year, so now's the time to read it!

Please share your scary book recommendations! Recommendations for scary movies, podcasts, etc. are also very welcome.

Book Review: Missing, Presumed

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and the time is nigh for page-turners that will keep us from going into premature hibernation. Missing, Presumed by Sadie Steiner is one I recommend for those of you who like a dose of literary character development with your fictional tales of mystery, murder, and mayhem. 

At the start of the novel, Detective Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire police is lamenting her latest disastrous date when she receives an alert about a missing female. Edith Hind, a beautiful postgraduate student and the beloved daughter of the Royal Family's surgeon, has disappeared from her home, leaving behind her phone, keys, shoes, and coat. A broken wineglass and a trail of blood suggest that Edith was taken against her will, and that the crucial window of time to save her is closing. As the police interview Edith's family, boyfriend, and closest cohorts, secrets emerge about her complicated love life, which the tabloids quickly proliferate with little respect for anyone's privacy. When the body of a young man is found in a nearby river, connections to Edith's disappearance seem tentative but impossible to ignore.

The dogged single female detective, or dogged single female protagonist who becomes deeply invested in solving a crime, has become a popular character type in fictional mysteries (see TV series like Prime SuspectThe Fall, or Marcella). Manon occupies this role somewhat unwillingly. While she presents herself as brazenly independent, she at times feels painfully lonely; she is cynical but persistent in her attempts to find companionship. As Manon navigates two unpredictable worlds, one of crime and the other of online dating, she exposes the gulf between how we present ourselves and how we actually feel. This split between interior and exterior distresses Edith's best friend, who faces the scrutiny of the public eye into her personal affairs. It is also the reality of Miriam, Edith's mother, as her experience of grief and hopelessness isolates her from her husband and friends. When certain characters fail to reveal their interior motivations, we feel Manon's frustration.

We are not how we appear. Mysteries play upon this truth to a somewhat extreme degree. All of us are selective in how we present ourselves to others; our lives are messier than the facades we construct. In Missing, Presumed, and especially for the novel's female characters, this public/private division is both a burden and, at times, a necessity that should be honored. In a genre in which the ultimate goal is to know everything, the interior lives of others will always be, to some extent, unknowable. 

“Hug Me”: A Love Story for All

In a hilarious interview, the late Maurice Sendak describes his work as a children's book author: "I don't write for children. I write." Perhaps this philosophy explains why some picture books maintain a certain appeal for those of us who have outgrown kid-lit. This appeal is not just nostalgia, as I learned when I was charmed by Simona Ciraolo's Hug Me, published last year. 

In playful colored-pencil illustrations, Hug Me tells the story of Felipe, a small cactus who wants nothing more than a hug. Unfortunately, his cacti relations strongly discourage hugs, which don't mix well with their prickly dispositions. When an attempt at a hug turns disastrous, Felipe begins a search for love, friendship and the elusive embrace. The immediate aesthetic elements of this book win over adult readers: a smiling succulent, an art style that would work well on boutique stationery. But the central difficulties that Felipe faces -- not fitting in with one's tribe, resorting to loneliness -- are ones that many of us can relate to regardless of our age. 

Though love wins in the end of Hug Me, the world this book portrays is rather hostile. Felipe runs away from his insensitive family after accidentally "injuring" an anthropomorphic (and terrifying) balloon. This has apparently alarmed some readers, who believe that children's books shouldn't portray such a depressing world. But worse things have happened in adorable children's classics -- Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail after being nearly skinned alive by a tyrannical owl, and then there's that Maurice Sendak book in which goblins snatch a baby from her bed. Hug Me has an honest and optimistic message: while love may not be all around us, there is love in the world, and it's worth seeking.

Uncertain Ground: Haruki Murakami's “After the Quake”

Right now, the big news (albeit old news) is that a huge earthquake will strike the Pacific Northwest. It's just a matter of when -- we are currently living in the indefinite period of time before the quake. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, a slender collection of short stories set after the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, which displaced over 300,000 people. One of the questions that this book asks is the same one that fuels my own anxieties: how do we live well in a world where very few things are certain? 

 

In After the Quake, the earthquake functions as the stories' backdrop rather than their epicenter. What affects and unites the characters are personal, metaphysical upheavals: rifts in their ties to others that leave them feeling disconnected, rootless and empty. The first story, "UFO in Kushiro," begins when a woman who is fixated on the television coverage of the earthquake abruptly abandons her husband Komura. In her farewell letter, she writes: "living with you is like living with a chunk of air." Komura faces the emotional aftershocks of his wife's sudden departure when he travels to another city to deliver a mysterious package for a friend. In "Thailand," a disenchanted doctor on vacation secretly wishes that her ex-husband, now in Kobe, has died in the earthquake. Her faith in rationality and justice is incompatible with the wrongs the world has inflicted upon her. But our entire foundation is unstable, as her tour guide observes: 

"Strange and mysterious things, though, aren't they--earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being 'down to earth' or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that isn't true." 

The most surreal story in the collection is the penultimate "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," which begins when a lonely bank officer named Katagiri returns home to discover a six-foot-tall, anthropomorphic frog in his kitchen. While making tea and quoting Nietzsche, Frog requests Katagiri's help in saving Tokyo from destruction. A giant worm lives underground, Frog explains, and Worm's pent-up hatred will cause another earthquake if it is not stopped. In "Super-Frog," our disbelief is stretched, suspended and snapped back into place until the boundary between dream and reality is difficult to ascertain. For instance, after Frog and Katagiri discuss corruption within the bank where Katagiri works, we (like Katagiri) have almost adjusted to the "new normal" of human-amphibian conversations when this happens: 

"With a big smile on his face, Frog stood up. Then, flattening himself like a dried squid, he slipped out through the gap at the side of the closed door, leaving Katagiri all alone. The two teacups on the kitchen table were the only indication that Frog had ever been in Katagiri's apartment."

The ensuing events are comical, affecting, and disturbing. Katagiri finds meaning and purpose in his encounter with Frog, who insists upon his realness ("I am not a product of your imagination"), only to realize that the entire encounter may have been a dream. Through dreams, premonitions, and stories within stories, Murakami examines the role of the imagination in the search for identity and meaning. In one story, a dream is prescribed as the cure for a stony heart; in another, a nightmare expresses a painter's fear of being trapped. On his deathbed, one character tells another: "This life is nothing but a short, painful dream." The imagination terrifies, delights, heals, and fills the voids in the characters' lives, offering a counterpoint to reality that seems equally significant.

Fittingly, the final story "Honey Pie" opens with one imagination comforting another. Junpei, a hesitant, introverted writer, tells bedtime stories to his friend Sayoko's daughter, who has nightmares about a monster called the Earthquake Man. We soon learn that Sayoko has separated from Junpei's best friend, giving Junpei his long-awaited second chance to declare his decade-long love for Sayoko. In "Honey Pie," a broken relationship and years of biding time offer a possibility of rewriting one's role in the world. The last paragraph of the story (and the book) is stunning. 

Though each story is self-contained and the last two are my favorite, I'd recommend reading them in order. The stories and their characters reveal prismatic reflections of one another; recurring motifs like bears, boxes, shadows and stones contribute to the stories' quiet cohesion. I also feel that as the stories progress, it is increasingly easier to occupy the same headspace as the characters. Komura's surge of emotion at the end of the first story takes us by surprise. In the final story, we follow Junpei's emotional compass as it points in an ever-clearer direction, despite the catastrophic uncertainty of the times. 

 Have you read After the Quake or anything by Murakami? Please share your thoughts and recommendations! 

On Sneak-Reading: Dear Sugar

From time to time, I sneak-read self-help books. This genre is full of promises to transform us: prescriptions for success based on personality types, "scientifically substantiated" manifestos on what to eat, ten ways to unlock an intangible force within you. At heart, I share a fundamental belief with this multibillion dollar industry: books can change us. But the ones that claim explicitly to do so are often sanctimonious, formulaic, and questionable. If you, like me, feel like this about the genre of self-help, you might be familiar with sneak-reading, and probably its cousin snark-reading. 

This past week, I sneak-read (snuck-read?) Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of letters that Strayed wrote for her online advice column "Dear Sugar." It's the perfect book to fill brief gaps in a busy schedule - a letter here, a letter there, just one more before bedtime. The letters are from men and women, young and old, writing about deeply personal insecurities, uncertainties: loss and love in many permutations. Although an advice column is a form of self-help, the epistolary form guards against the sort of generalizations endemic to this genre. Strayed a.k.a Sugar gives anecdotal advice, tailored to a particular reader's problems and striking different chords in different people amongst her wider readership. The letters often deal with overcoming crisis, a subject that also motivates her acclaimed memoir Wild (currently in my to-read pile). Despite using terms of endearment like "darling" and "honey bun," Sugar sugarcoats sparingly, unreserved in pointing out our arrogance, flawed logic, or misguided priorities. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, and humility is one of the most powerful forces to emerge from them. In one of the early letters, Strayed quotes Flannery O'Connor's observation that "The first product of self-knowledge is humility." From her letters, it seems that the first product of humility is empathy. 

Sneak-reading is a product of pride. We don't want to be associated with self-help, a genre that so often peddles literary snake oil. We don't want to need "advice on love and life" because that makes us sound like we're broken and need fixing. But Strayed's goal isn't to fix anything: she comforts, confesses, reasons, accepts, and encourages us all to do the same. The letters to Sugar represent a breadth of hardships, most of which I have not experienced, but Strayed's responses often create a lump in my throat, that feeling of making someone else's emotions my own. 

About halfway through Tiny Beautiful Things, my sneak-reading gave way to rather public proclamations of love for this bookI plan to give it to friends with a big fat inscription inside that says "READ THIS please." I'd give one to all of you if I could.