A non-expert’s suggestions for books that are fun to read/reread whenever you want the chills.
✝✝ 1 ✝✝
Steven Millhauser, We Others: New & Selected Stories
This is one of my favorite books, as lucid and eerie as a diorama; as Jonathan Lethem says, Millhauser’s style is “coolly feverish, drawing equally on Nabokovian rapture, Borgesian enigma and the plain-spoken white-picket-fence wistfulness of Sherwood Anderson.” We Others covers a lot of territory—futurist nightmare, teenage romance with a Bataille-esque hint of sexual horror, Victorian inventors, Escherian funhouses, small-town disappearances and mysteries—but throughout, it’s consistently enchanted, and remarkably kind. Here’s a bit from the titular ghost story:
We do not like to speak, we others. We inhabit silence as we inhabit darkness—naturally. Even among ourselves, what takes place is a species of silent speech—but more of that later. At the moment I felt a dreary need to answer her. “What I want,” I said, and stopped. It was the first time I’d heard myself speak. I heard what sounded like a voice at a great distance—a faint, thin, rippling voice, a voice blown by the wind.
“It’s all right,” she then said. “Everything’s going to be all right.” And i was grateful to her for those words, for she had felt my trouble; and I was angry at her for those words, for nothing was ever going to be all right.
✝✝ 2 ✝✝
Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories from Wayside School
Sometimes I think that no better books have ever been written than the Wayside School books, which depict that blandly cruel Brechtian funhouse of an institution, in which kids fall out of windows, are punished by being turned into apples, and wind up in basements, interrogated by bald men and asked to choose between “freedom” or “safety.” All three books consist of 30 loosely linked stories that operate on the same insane logic: the 19th chapter is always about the 19th floor (a nightmarish limbo controlled by Mrs. Zarves, who may not exist), the 17th chapter runs backwards, and Mrs. Jewls silently racks up names on the DISCIPLINE list.
✝✝ 3 ✝✝
Kelly Link, Magic For Beginners
Kelly Link is so good at slipstream, genre-adjacent fiction that remains wholly “literary” in its tight and delicate attention to shape, structure and style. This collection contains “Stone Animals,” the story that first turned me onto her after I read it in 2005’s extraordinarily good Best American Short Stories; it’s about a couple who moves from the city to a country dreamhouse and then begins, slowly, to dissociate. They detach at odd moments, swim through time. One by one, their possessions seem to become “haunted,” and then so do they, and then there’s something really off with the fauna:
Liz and she are drinking paint. “Have some more paint,” Catherine says. “Do you want sugar?”
“Yes, lots,” Liz says. “What color are you going to paint the rabbits?”
Catherine passes her the sugar. She hasn’t even thought about the rabbits, except which rabbits does Liz mean, the stone rabbits or the real rabbits? How do you make them hold still?
At the end, from Catherine’s husband:
His wife is going to have a baby any day now. His daughter will stop walking in her sleep. His son isn’t haunted. The moon shines down and paints the world a color he’s never seen before. Oh, Catherine, wait till you see this. Shining lawn, shining rabbits, shining world. The rabbits are out on the lawn. They’ve been waiting for him, all this time, they’ve been waiting.
✝✝ 4 ✝✝
Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead
This is a book about a limitless, shifting shadow-city for the dead, where ten billion people try to enact an eerily normal society (they open bakeries, work in banks, announce prayers from their mosques, drive taxis while constantly redrawing their maps). Slowly we realize that the city’s actually for the dead who are still remembered on Earth, and that some mysterious global epidemic is making the city’s demographics shift accordingly. (“The entire population of a small Pacific island appeared in the city on a bright windy afternoon, congregated on the top level of a parking garage, and were gone by the end of the day.”) Brockmeier’s got this plain, phenomenally visual style:
The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries. For a while, the water had carried her weight, she said, and she lay on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her—tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn’t know why. She filled like a lead sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.
That’s from Brief History‘s first chapter, which was published at the New Yorker and is available in full here.
✝✝ 5 ✝✝
Megan Abbott, Dare Me
Cheerleader noir! Of these recommendations, this one’s the page-turner; it’s a murder mystery with a Sleigh Bells/Lana Del Rey aesthetic and a series of twists that genuinely surprised me (admittedly, not the sharpest reader) at the end. From the first chapter, in which the cheerleaders meet their magnetic, mysterious new coach:
There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync. Look at how my eyes shutter open and closed.
[…] Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick our hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators?
✝✝ 6 ✝✝
Lois Duncan, Stranger With My Face
Lois Duncan’s daughter was murdered in real life, in 1989 (edited to say more accurately that this was after she’d already published dozens of books about girls in danger: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Daughters of Eve and Summer of Fear were all written in the ’70s), and the book Who Killed My Daughter? is the nonfiction recounting of Duncan’s attempt to solve the case, which still remains a mystery.
Eight years before the murder, Duncan wrote Stranger With My Face, which is the creepiest one of hers that I ever read: this one’s about a girl named Laurie who finds out she’s got a doppelganger, who turns out to be her twin Lia, a revelation that forces Laurie’s mom to admit that she was adopted, and that the other twin, even as an infant, was repellently cold. It turns out that Lia’s in a mental hospital for murder, using telepathy (or “astral projection”) to hurt the people around Laurie, and eventually possessing Laurie’s body herself. And if this description doesn’t make you shiver, try the cover.
✝✝ 7 ✝✝
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
The cold horror of hegemony, totally absent of quick thrills! But Coetzee’s pale, disturbing allegory makes power seem even more terrible. “Nothing is worse than what we can imagine,” says the magistrate, our protagonist in this strange, atemporal universe, suffused with a sort of monochrome realism, a bit of Beckett and a structure of bones and blood.
One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.
✝✝ 8 ✝✝
Franz Kafka, Complete Stories
No one can make you feel crazy quite like Kafka, who writes with that dizzying brutality, that all-encompassing alienation. From “The Penal Colony,” a story about an elaborate execution device that leads the condemned from torture to ecstasy to death:
The script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval of, on an average, twelve hours… Can you follow it? The harrow is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing… But how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour! Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription… You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one’s eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds.
✝✝ 9 ✝✝
Madeleine L’Engle, The Young Unicorns
This may be my favorite L’Engle. Loosely an Austin family story, this one’s got blind pianist prodigy Emily Gregory as a protagonist, a gang called the Alphabats, a genie, an evil bishop, and an underworld beneath the ominous Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where L’Engle herself was writer-in-residence for years). In the tunnels under the city, the boys in the Alphabats line up to have lasers shot into their brains (an invention of Dr. Austin’s gone wrong) and feel like they’re in heaven; Emily tries to get to the bottom of it, but she’s blind, and it’s dark, and everyone’s always got another secret. L’Engle’s perennial dark undercurrent just blooms into something really singular here; it’s a New York City story, with something perverse and redeemable lurking on every corner.
✝✝ 10 ✝✝
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories
Feminist, revisionist, deeply sensual Gothic fairytale fiction: what’s not to love? Carter, as she says, draws the “latent content from the traditional stories and use[s] it as the beginnings of new stories,” and her language is rich and glittering and wild. From the end of “In the Company of Wolves,” Carter’s story after Little Red Riding Hood:
Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave the kiss she owed him.
What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamor of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.
✝✝ 11 ✝✝
Ovid, Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries translation)
A strange pick, totally, but this book is full of strangeness, and cruelty that’s mythic and indivisible. In the first few pages, Apollo, “too young a god to waste his time in coaxing,” chases the nymph Daphne:
Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
Or wait a minute: be a little curious
Just who it is you charm. I am no shepherd,
No mountain-dweller, I am not a ploughboy,
Uncouth and stinking of cattle. You foolish girl,
You don’t know who it is you run away from,
That must be why you run.
That, right there, is creepy. And then there is of course the constant grotesquerie of Ovid’s transformations, which are permanent in a very non-Halloween way; Daphne, of course, turns into a tree, with her hair as leaves, her arms as branches, “everything gone except her grace.”
✝✝ 12 ✝✝
Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories
Roald Dahl had a lot of darkness underpinning his whimsy; this shows up to varying degrees in his non-Wonka children’s books (how mournful was Danny? How barely reined in, The BFG?) and even more in his adult short stories (see “Man From the South,” the tale of a party trick involving amputation). Dahl didn’t write this collection, we should note, and the 14 ghost stories he compiled here (Edith Wharton’s is great, and so is Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes”) are more subtle than you might expect from the editor’s history. But I read this book ten years ago and still think about it, and here’s a bit from an A.M. Burrage story in it, called “Playmates”:
“Children!” he whispered. “Children!”
He closed his eyes and stretched out his hands. Still they were shy and held aloof, but he fancied that they came a little nearer.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I’m only a very lonely man. Be near me after Monica is gone.”
He paused, waiting. Then as he turned away he was aware of little caressing hands upon his arm. He looked around at once, but the time had not yet come for him to see. He saw only the barred window, the shadows on either wall, and the flag of moonlight.
So, my fellow witches, what have I missed? Any recommendations?
Photo via Josh Hawley/flickr