"What's The Story?"
A roundup of fiction recommendations
By Gwen Cooper
“Scarier than Coronavirus” Edition
Have predictions of an apocalyptic fall/flu season/sure-to be-contested presidential election—not to mention a rampaging, incurable pandemic that shows no signs of abating—left you feeling a bit on edge? Fear no longer! This selection of titles that dip deep into the uncanny valley will remind you that no matter how terrifying things may seem now, they could always be much, much scarier.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson – This foundational classic of the modern haunted-house genre isn’t just scary; it’s SO scary. [How scary is it?] This book is so scary that it gave Stephen King nightmares. (True story!) It’s so scary that—hand to God, and much to my husband’s dismay—I had to sleep with the lights on for a week after I finished reading it. Of course, like any truly great haunted-house tale, Hill House is ultimately a shrewd and insightful psychological portrait of a character on the edge—in this case a shy and somewhat cloistered young woman named Eleanor, who’s staying in the house with five strangers brought together by a paranormal investigator to determine whether local rumors of poltergeists in the home are true. Eleanor—oppressed broadly by the misogynistic conventions of mid-century America and specifically by a bullying older sister and her husband—is initially exhilarated by the freedom and friendship she finds in her new surroundings, now that she’s out from under her family’s overbearing thumb. But, as Eleanor’s grasp of reality and conditions in Hill House itself both begin to fray, the question becomes: Is a haunted Hill House the cause of Eleanor’s unraveling, or is it vice versa?
White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi – Some of you may remember my having written about Helen Oyeyemi in an earlier edition of “What’s the Story?” This 2009 novel, Oyeyemi’s third published before her 30th birthday, centers on a pair of teenaged twins and their widowed dad who live in Dover, England in a haunted house/B&B across the street from a cemetery filled with unmarked graves. Also, the haunted house is racist, which we know because it narrates part of the novel itself—providing us along with the way with unsettling details about the twins’ mom’s death years ago. Miriam, the female twin, struggles with an eating disorder known as pica (pronounced PIE-kah), which causes her to eat chalk, dirt, and the like. Some of the novel’s key themes—among them that England itself may be a haunted house of sorts, constitutionally inhospitable to immigrants—come into play when a Yoruba housekeeper comes to live with the family (much to the house’s dismay), while Miriam heads off to Oxford and a friendship with her Nigerian roommate (Oyeyemi is herself a Nigerian-born Oxford graduate). I won’t say that this is Oyeyemi’s most successful novel, but it’s thought provoking, original, and spine-tinglingly eerie—and what more could an intelligent reader hope for in a ghost story?
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Yoko Ogawa – Chances are you’ve heard some buzz around Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police—in part about a dystopian police state (and therefore currently zeitgeist-y)—that was published in Japan in the early ‘90s and recently (finally!) translated into English. It’s an extraordinary and moving novel, and well worth checking out, but my favorite Ogawa is still the first book of hers I ever read. Revenge is a collection of eerie short tales—about a “torture museum” (where yesteryear’s torture devices are displayed for contemporary crowds’ amusement), a woman whose heart is on the outside of her body, another woman who grows carrots in the shape of human hands, a disappearing and reappearing hamster, and more—that seem independent at first, but end up fitting into each other in startling and fascinating ways. This is more of a “shiver up your spine” than a “wide awake in terror” kind of book, and its relatively short length (my copy’s only about 160 pages) pretty much guarantees you’ll want to give it a reread it so you can check out the connections and overlaps you missed the first time around.
The Birds and Other Stories, Daphne du Maurier – The acclaimed author of the latter-day gothic masterpiece Rebecca had an equal command of the short-story form, and counted no less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock among her legions of admirers. If you’ve been meaning to get around to reading the short story upon which he based his 1963 film The Birds, you’ll find it in this reissue from the same year (originally published in the ‘50s as The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Several Long Stories). There’s a lot to love in this collection, but for my money the real standout is the title story of the original publication. “The Apple Tree” tells the tale of an unhappily married man whose wife dies, and who shortly thereafter finds a long-barren apple tree in his yard slowly surging back to life—as if to spite him as his wife always did. There’s a long and grand horror-story tradition involving the malevolence of supposedly inanimate or non-sentient things (dolls, cars, monkey’s appendages, et cetera), and this tale fits into that tradition snugly. And that’s before you even get to “The Birds,” or the story about the alluring cinema usherette who leads a shy young mechanic to the local cemetery where a disturbing truth is revealed, or the isolated mountaintop community where young women are led and then never heard from again, along a grab bag of additional spooky delights.
The Green Man, Kingsley Amis – Part middle-aged comedy, part haunted-house tale, The Green Man just may be the funniest novel that ever makes you shiver with dread. Amis cheerfully mixes up genres here as easily as shuffling a deck of cards, recounting five days in the life of British countryside innkeeper Maurice Allington, owner and proprietor of the possibly haunted Green Man, which dates back to the 14th Century. Allington is simultaneously attempting to overcome his alcoholism and hypochondria, make sense of what may or may not be disturbances caused by the restless spirit of a 17th Century scholar named Thomas Underhill (murderer and former denizen of the Green Man), and—on the day of his father’s funeral, no less—persuade his attractive neighbor to engage in a threesome with him and his wife. There’s no shortage of bumbling subplots, well-drawn character sketches, or alcohol-fueled musings on middle-age and its discontents. In other words, and despite its horror trappings, it’s all veddy, veddy Kingsley Amis.
Gwen Cooper is the New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and My Life in a Cat House, among numerous other cat-centric titles. Check out a full list of Gwen's titles on her Amazon.com author page.