Short stories tend to be scarier than novels: their tightness of focus allows them to do away with pesky things like backstory and character development and elaborate setting and offer a blazing unity of effect. A novel’s scare is more a creeping dread, a tension that builds slowly and inexorably and leaves you deeply unsettled even after the book is finished. For me, the most frightening books are not about scary clowns or demons or witchcraft, but those that show the awful things humans are capable of doing to one another.
There are many great writers I could have included, people like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft, whom I simply haven’t. Not because I don’t appreciate them, but because most readers have already found them. Then there are books like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist that I find genuinely terrifying, but less so than the movies based on them. Finally, there are writers like Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado whose short stories I find as terrifying as anything out there, but who primarily work in the story form. With those caveats, here are 10 deeply unsettling novels.
1. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
This 1987 science fiction novel concerns a woman named Lilith who wakes up with no idea where she is or how she got there. As she begins to figure things out, she comes to understand that she’s been taken by the Oankali, aliens who want to blend with humanity as a way of diversifying their species and allowing the remnant of humanity to continue in a less violent (and less human) fashion. What makes this book so effective is you are never sure to what degree Lilith should be considered a collaborator with the enemy. Even Lilith isn’t sure. The moral implications of the novel are immense, and Butler shifts the tension every time you (or Lilith) begin to become comfortable. It builds slowly but inexorably, leaving readers in ethical ambiguity until the end, trapped in the dilemma of not knowing what to think. It’s one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read, partly because of how benign and reasonable the aliens seem as they gently manipulate Lilith.
2. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson
Samson’s sole book is about a New Hampshire farming community called Harlowe and what happens to the community after a mysterious auctioneer named Perly Dinsmore shows up and begins to solicit donations for auction, slowly clearing out first everybody’s castoffs and then all their worldly goods, eventually going to real extremes. A stunning and terrifying picture of developing totalitarianism and people’s unwillingness to stand up against it, The Auctioneer is particularly frightening given our particular political moment.
3. Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Chaon is one of those authors who never disappoints. Dustin, a psychologist, has an off-kilter patient trying to convince him that a series of drownings are the work of a serial killer. As he reluctantly embarks on an amateur investigation, his ability to distinguish the truth becomes more and more vexed. Add to that Rusty, his adopted brother who was imprisoned for years for killing Dustin’s parents and who is just getting out, and Ill Will becomes a complex and beautifully chilling story about damage caused by the stories we tell ourselves so as not to see how things really are.
4. We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson
This first novel is the only book I’ve read recently to give me the same vertiginous sense of fright as Ill Will. It focuses on a struggling actor, identified through most of the book only as “you,” called suddenly to Colombia to play the lead in a low-budget Italian horror film. But everything is going wrong, and the director seems out of his mind: he has no script and seems to be making things up as he goes. Indeed, he wants to blur the boundaries between life and film in a way that might be detrimental to “your” (and perhaps everybody else’s) health. Add to that the filming’s close proximity to guerrillas and drug dealers and things really begin to get ugly.
5. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Though mainly recognized by the literary community—it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—Argentinian writer Schweblin’s Fever Dream is literary horror at its finest. It involves people falling ill for no reason, the partial swapping of bodies, and a slow working through of mysterious past circumstances as the narrator edges closer and closer to death.
6. Dagon by Fred Chappell
First published in 1968, this novel was overlooked in America and would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for the French: once translated, it won the French Academy’s Best Foreign Novel Prize. Poet and novelist Chappell here combines the Lovecraftian weird with the Southern gothic in a way that takes full advantage of both genres. Dagon is the story of Peter Leland, a minister who retreats with his wife to his ancestral home ostensibly to finish a book, but who quickly finds himself obsessed with a strange squatter’s daughter. Once obsessed, Peter begins to dismantle his own life. Chappell’s language is so precise as to be almost abstract, veiling events as much as revealing them—though at the right moments things fall into vivid and painful focus.
7. The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine by Peter Straub
Straub is one of the few writers whose books have made me too frightened to sleep. Lists like these often include his wonderful novel Ghost Story. His novella The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine, published separately and also in Interior Darkness, is the story of a couple traveling down the Amazon on yachts over several shuffled decades, slowly (or serially) coming to a realization of something quite dark going on in the parts of the yacht they can’t see. Enigmatic and deeply disturbing, this is atmospheric horror at its absolute best.
8. Ubo by Steve Rasnic Tem
Better known as a short story writer, Tem is equally strong as a novelist. Ubo is his strangest offering. It’s about Daniel, a man who finds himself trapped in Ubo, a mysterious complex in which giant roach-like creatures experiment on him and his fellow inmates by having them relive and intimately reexperience the past lives of historical killers and dictators. As the inmates struggle to maintain their identities and slowly go mad, they begin to realize that the few things they’ve seen as reliable and stable may not be real after all, including themselves.
9. The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois
A savage little book that reads like a cross between Lord of the Flies and a lost-in-the-woods slasher novel. It’s about a group of six-year-olds who go camping with three adults. As we learn early on, none of them will come back alive. Absurd and vicious, it’s an intense yet ambiguous critique of our love for violence.
10. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
Simmons’s massive novel is about the sort of vampire that feeds on the soul. In Carrion Comfort, an extremely small percentage of people have “the ability,” psychic powers that allow them to manipulate others, feed off their emotions, control their bodies, and redirect whole cultures. At the heart of the novel is Saul Laski, a Holocaust survivor aware of the manipulation but not of its extent, but determined to stop it. Part thriller, part horror novel, Carrion Comfort acknowledges that there are people out there playing by different rules than ordinary folk and gives it a supernatural explanation.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/MontyLov.
“It’s peculiar to me… that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying,” Gloria Beatty says in the third chapter of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” Though the first chapter already reveals that Gloria was shot dead by the novel’s narrator at her request, the line still shocks the reader, like the alarm of a ship that has just hit an iceberg. Even in the Great Depression, this was simply too much.
“The ending of McCoy’s novel is what the average mortal would call bleak. Naturally the bleak-minded readers… swoon with relief when the gunshot has done its work.” So writes Thomas Ligotti of the novel in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his 2011 survey of pessimism, republished this year by Penguin Books. “Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits,” he continues, “for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed.”
As a writer of horror fiction, he eschewed the basic tenets of concrete storytelling in favor of lyrical and atmospheric “weird tales.” Imagine Kafka on Creature Features. “Best-selling horror fiction,” Ligotti said, “[is] like network television. I’m your local cable access station.” It was only recently that this started to change. Concepts from Conspiracy, his only nonfiction book, began to seep into the zeitgeist. “The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, and march hand-in-hand into extinction,” Matthew McConaughey spoke playing miserablist cop Rust Cohle in True Detective. Creator Nic Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence—some claim not enough—on Cohle’s character, whose musings io9 described as “drunken atheistic dorm room philosophy.” But four years removed from the show, and seven from its original publication, Conspiracy can now be judged on its own merits.
And Conspiracy is not a screed but a copiously cited, elegantly argued examination. Consider it the literary equivalent of an offbeat wax museum, the kind found off a blink-or-you-miss-it highway exit, with one proprietor and startlingly uncanny tableaus of human ghastliness. Ligotti, with the wit of a decadent and the eloquence of a funeral organ, guides us confidently through the grimmer corners of intellectual and cultural history. It is gothic nonfiction in the tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, and Montague Summer.
“This is the tragedy,” Ligotti writes. “Consciousness has forced us into a paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.” This is his gloss of what he calls “Zapffe’s paradox.” Peter Wessel Zapffe, a minimally translated Norwegian philosopher, concluded that humanity’s uniquely acute consciousness merely altered it to “the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive,” and so sought to avert its consciousness as a way of surviving. Zapffe is perhaps the most cited author in the entire book—Ligotti strings the ideas of other philosophers, authors, religions, neuroscientists, ethics, and others back to Zapffe’s thesis, and he tests conventional optimism against Zapffe’s ultimate conclusion. “The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better,” Zapffe said. “And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped.”
As Ligotti notes, anti-natalism is not a popular field of study. But Conspiracy falls chronologically between two other recent books: David Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been and Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, published in 2008 and 2014 respectively. While these are more ethical studies, Conspiracy is a bit more multifaceted. Indeed, Ligotti is effectively intertwining two theses. Much of the first half of the book is taken up in bringing the reader up to speed on all the ways people have concluded that “being alive is not all right.” Going forward, Ligotti then shifts to aesthetic matters, and specifically to horror.
Supernatural horror was one of the ways that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.
This passage is a familiar to any committed horror fan and anyone who’s had to listen to them. But Ligotti’s lead-up to it shows that it is no casual truism. He exposits on horror’s themes and its canon with practitioner’s grace. Ligotti describes the uncanny as “a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave.” He lauds Sweeney Todd as a celebration of the human propensity for tragedy: “[Sweeney Todd] is as edifying as any sage when he sings ‘We all deserve to die,’ given that none of us can remake our making.” He contrasts character and supernatural possession in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, in which good characters triumph over an evil intruder, against H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which characters—good or bad—are at the mercy of the same “wall-to-wall nightmare.” “Apart from vulgar mortality,” Ligotti writes, “supernatural literature also centers on the death of sanity, identity, ideals, passions, and hand-me-down conceptions about the universe and everything in it.”
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes the viewing of horror as “reintegration” of confronting a fear and having it excised. He likens it to the “feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” Ligotti’s horror—amoral and pervasive; a feature, not a bug—offers no such thrills, easy outs, or escapism. It is the thing from which to escape, if you can. Lovecraft “strove to the end of his life to do what no horror writer had done before him nor will ever do: lay bare his consciousness in an artifact.” He “existed in a no man’s land of disillusionment” and walled it off with his own “earthbound illusions” of his aristocratic pretensions and virulent racism.
The pessimism Ligotti details may, as he is aware, forever be too bleak to be palatable to most people. Yet the cultural landscape has shifted toward his strand of horror since Conspiracy was first published, preferring pervasive dread to narratively and morally coherent thrills. “Horror films dominated the cultural conversation this year,” goes a New York Times Magazine video feature. “Scary movies had an unusual hold on the collective imagination in 2017. Maybe it’s because reality was pretty horrifying, too.”
“No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. The curse is ours alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural.” Perhaps this is “dorm room philosophy” after all, and perhaps Matthew McConaughey’s voice on the audiobook will be its spoon full of sugar. But as Ligotti shows, this very thought has haunted our species to such an extent that we’ve committed endless imaginative power to just barely comprehend it. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in sum, corrupts Reinhold Niebuhr’s line: “Man’s capacity for paradox makes horror possible. Man’s incapacity to resolve its paradoxes makes horror necessary.”
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017.
Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.”
Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures.
Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.”
Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece.
Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.”
The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise.
Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia:
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.
And oh, I ain’t wastin’ time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.
The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine.
Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.”
If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died.
Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”
Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.”
Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women.
The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken.
Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen.
But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.”
William H. Gass
William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”
My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people.
Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.”
Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order:
John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head.
J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.”
Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters.
Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek.
Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death.
Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury.
Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade.
Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73.
Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”
Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.