I adore the haunting feelings that remain after a novel explores the deep layers of all of the memory and baggage we bring to our experiences and interactions. What we traditionally call “ghost stories” can often deliver this feeling with the greatest ease, but my favorites are generally filled with more metaphorical ghosts: fear, grief, paranoia, uncertainty. The books on this list are all stories that ushered me through the process of investigating what it is that unsettles us most and why.
1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman
The only thing I love more than a full-size haunted house is a haunted dollhouse and this novella features both. A little girl is given a dollhouse that is completely closed, unable to be played with. The inhabitants inside are out of her reach and she resigns herself to being a passive witness, a decision that bears serious consequences when she happens upon a lifesize version of the house in a dreamy wood later on. If you loved House of Leaves and want a snapshot take on hidden space and inexplicable dimensions, then this is the story for you.
2. The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
In much of van den Berg’s work, I find both an exploration of loss and a pursuit of something unattainable. I believe this novel to be the pinnacle of that deepening inquiry of the way those two quests overlap and inform each other. Grief blurs the lines between reality.
3. John by Annie Baker
This is a little bit of a cheat because it’s actually a play, but it has everything I love in a novel. You don’t need to see this script produced to get the full sense of the atmosphere Baker builds though. It’s all there in the impeccable writing. A couple arrives to an inn for vacation in Gettysburg where ghosts threaten from all sides: past loves, unresolved tensions, unexplained noises, off-limit spaces, unspoken presence abound. And somehow, even as the interactions unnerve you, they also present remarkable moments of humor.
4. Guestbook by Leanne Shapton
Some might say this is a book of stories, but if the title is taken literally, what I see here is a document of ghosts finding ways to leave their mark. Shapton’s talent for activating images in the service of narrative is breathtaking. I’ve enjoyed her previous works’ ability to show the growth and dissolution of a relationship through the objects left behind (Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry), and a woman’s insecurities through drawings of a lover’s former partners (Was She Pretty?), but this proves the most exciting of her projects in the variety of presentations and effects, and the way they somehow combine to form an intuitive anthology of the incomprehensible.
5. Come Closer by Sara Gran
My love of ghost stories doesn’t usually wander into the realm of demonic possession, but I think about this book constantly. Imagine if Regan from The Exorcist or Rhoda from The Bad Seed had put off the evil energies until later in their lives, when they had the agency to do even more harm. In this way, Come Closer poses new formulations of age-old questions of self-awareness and responsibility. Chilling.
6. A Light No More by Robert Kloss
Robert Kloss is making up his own rules as a writer and it is a thrilling thing to watch. In all of his novels he explores the latter half of the 19th century in such a way that it appears he’s creating the world whole cloth. I appreciate the way his work, especially this book, plays with the way speculation and possibility and strangeness had more room to function in the time before the internet or even widely accessible reference books or reliable modern science. History records itself in people’s memories instead of on pages, and it’s all the more active and haunting here because of it.
7. The Hunger by Alma Katsu
The famous story of the Donner Party’s desperate attempt to survive by resorting to cannibalism turned supernatural with the suggestion of curses and creatures stalking the party at a quickly shrinking distance. Katsu excels at exploring the risk and horror of pursuing one’s greed and attempting to outrun one’s past by looking at the larger narrative of where these people began and what brought them to their end.
8. In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt
As a longtime lover of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, I find in this book the permission to enter into the complex female perspective denied us in that classic. This book is half fairy tale, half nightmare quest through colonial New England. If you’re a fan of the Robert Eggers film The Witch or deep diving on the Salem witch trials, this will do it for you.
9. Tracks by Louise Erdrich
I’ve reread this book so many times, and find something new with each visitation, but the scene in which the character Fleur gives birth, and the spirit of a bear appears to both threaten and empower her is one of the most powerful ghostly scenes of any book I’ve read. Add to that the fact that, in adulthood, Fleur decides to escape the violence of the men in her town by moving back into the house haunted by the ghosts of the rest of her family who died there, and the rich backdrop of a haunted community begins to take shape.
10. Ghosts by Cesar Aira
I was skeptical of this book about a construction worker’s family living a makeshift existence onsite until the very end, but the ending of this book is the reason I try to finish every book I start – in case of the rare occurrence of an ending snapping the beginning of the book into arresting focus. It’s not that the bulk of this book isn’t entertaining. It artfully builds suspense throughout, but, having not read Aira before, I wasn’t sure if he could pull off such a build up without feeling cheap or disappointing. This book, though, finds the perfect resolution while still remaining haunting, dispelling all my fears.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/Monica Silva.
One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though – high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation “writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation”? – the magazine’s list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping.
To be sure, it’s hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We’ve been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, “to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.” And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we’ve decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch.
The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker’s editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There’s also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy Senna, Paul LaFarge…). It’s nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40” list.
Calvin Baker’s three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past.
Jesse Ball’s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that’s somehow both minimalist and maximalist – Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008.
Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it’s worth, Bachelder’s remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace.
Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we’re told, working on another.
Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award.
Judy Budnitz is one of America’s great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back.
Joshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing.
Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S….or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people’s year-end lists.
Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography.
Sheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker’s. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She’s since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts.
Samantha Hunt’s most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney’s.
Porochista Khakpour’s debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same.
Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1.
Victor LaValle’s third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher’s Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall.
Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005.
Joe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan.
Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture.
Salvador Plascencia’s memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney’s Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he’s working on now, but we look forward to it.
Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL’s Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here.
Anya Ulinich’s debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She’s got a great story called “Mr. Spinach” floating around out there somewhere…hopefully part of a collection?
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton: I’ve seen the future of books, and it has nothing to do with Amazon. Well, let me back up a little. 2009, as far as books are concerned, may go down as the Year of the Kindle. Good, bad, or otherwise, they were everywhere. I don‘t use a Kindle and haven‘t quite made my mind up about them. But over the past year I‘ve made a point to talk to everyone I see using one. And aside from Nicholson Baker, who curiously prefers reading on his iPod touch, I would say that over 90% of the responses I got were positive, ebullient even. The guy on the plane to Nashville loved reading his Vince Flynn novels on a Kindle. The girl at the sandwich shop was electronically advancing through the Stephenie Meyer books at breakneck speed. But there was one book I read this year that I could never imagine reading on a Kindle. Written, or perhaps I should say designed as an auction catalog, this slim volume from Leanne Shapton made me question the meaning of narrative and how stories are told. I heard recently that it‘s being adapted for the silver screen. Honestly, I have no idea how that will work. But I do know that I’ll be there when it opens.
X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier: I was a couple of months past my 11th birthday when I first heard Nirvana. Singles was far from my favorite movie, partly because I didn’t get it, but mostly because it wasn’t very good. And a couple of years later when Reality Bites was encouraging less showers, I was much more interested in films and music that frankly I’m still too ashamed to admit. Let’s just say one rhymes with Boyz II Men. Okay, it was Boyz II Men. My point? I was a little bit too young to really take part in the real Generation X experience. And to tell the truth, I always felt that I’d missed out on something. On the whole I’m not really into putting labels on generations, but if I were, I’m not sure that “Generation X” was even proper name to begin with (damn you, Douglas Coupland). I think “Late Bloomers” might be more appropriate. And that gives me hope for the future.
Bronze Medal (3-way-tie)
Hand To Mouth by Paul Auster: The best book I’ve ever read on why we write.
Snark by David Denby: Funny. True. Usually both at the same time.
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon: Going into this one I hoped it would suck. No one should be this good in every format.