Horror Fiction by Women: An Appendix
During the semester just past, I took a seminar on horror fiction by women. It was a great class by any measure—it was wonderfully well-organized, the professor pushed us in our writing, and my fellow students were sharp as tacks—but the reading list was particularly superlative. We started with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I had never read before. I got exciting new insights into one of my very favorite books ever, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. And I was introduced to the awesome Elizabeth Hand; after I read Generation Loss—an odd and satisfying thriller—I continued through much of her oeuvre. The high point for me was rereading Kathryn Davis’s Hell, a novel that should be on anybody’s list of contemporary American masterpieces. I chose Hell for my final paper, which allowed me to write about food refusal among medieval holy women, Victorian “fasting girls,” and Julie Kristeva. That alone would make me love this book, but it’s also brilliant and funny and creepy and heartbreaking.
Anyhow, as the semester has progressed, I’ve been compiling a kind of shadow syllabus composed of books that complement those we read or bring something new to the mix. This is that list.
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
This book occupies the same space in my mind as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although Barker is not nearly the misanthrope that Shirley Jackson is (few of us are, for which we should be thankful). I haven’t read this book in several years—I found the experience overwhelming, and I am still not sufficiently recovered to attempt it again—but I did write about it when my feel for the story was still fresh, and you can read that review here.
by Hilary Mantel
Mantel has long struck me as an author who does not have the audience she deserves. I realize that this is largely because I am American, rather than British, but I will also note that the latest editions of these two books represent a second attempt to get us to read them. When they were first launched into the American market—along with Fludd—I discovered a new favorite author, and I was lucky enough to interview her at the time (you can read the interview here). I just reread both books, and they lived up to my memory. I imagined the interiors in a completely different way this time—which was pleasantly disorienting—but my sense that Mantel is able to perfectly balance the perfectly nasty with the utterly humane remains intact.
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Having just revisited Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possession, it occurs to me that Mantel is assaying, for a second time, much the same material she addressed in those earlier works. This is not a criticism. Beyond Black is a wondrously funny, moving, chilling work of fiction on its own merits, and Joan Acocella explains why much better than I could.
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
I read this novel soon after giving birth, but I feel confident that the eeriness I felt while reading was enhanced by—rather than generated by—the weirdness of mothering a new person and the attendant sleeplessness. This is a tour de force of postmodern Gothic, which is to say that Egan understands that the Gothic is inherently postmodern, and that the postmodern is inherently Gothic. Or something. I will say that Egan’s grasp of the uncanniness of telecommunications put me in mind of Dracula, and that it’s one of the topics we discussed in this interview.
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
Ghost stories are, by definition, stories about the past refusing to stay in the past. Moss amplifies this dynamic by setting her story on an archaeological dig, the site of a lost Viking settlement. Cold Earth is a remarkably creepy story, and a very strong debut novel.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Spiritualism has, at this late date, become a bit of a punchline—it was already a joke when Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. But Waters understands the very human desire to connect, and that infuses her eerie narrative with pathos. Prepare to be chilled, and prepare to be heartbroken.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
I’ve only read this once, right before it was published, and what I remember is being anxious from start to finish. (NB: Fans of The Secret History seem to uniformly dislike Tartt’s second novel. Consider yourself warned.)
The Observations by Jane Harris
Kind of like if Jane Eyre was a prostitute before she landed at Thornfield.
In the Woods by Tana French
French has a very weird way with the police procedural—and I mean “weird” in pretty much every sense of the word.
My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
I have not been able to bring myself to read Emma Donoghue’s Room largely because I am still recovering from this.
More than You Know by Beth Gutcheon
When the subject is scary stories, I can’t not mention this book. I reviewed it here a few years ago.