As a writer, I know I’m on the right path when I feel afraid to sit down to work every day; and as a reader, I’m most drawn to stories that confront the terrors, as well as the beauties, of being human. Horror and its handmaidens—fear, disgust, revulsion, dread, panic—are great teachers; by daring us to look away, they invite us to look closer. If you want to know what sickens a society, investigate its most disturbing art; the answers, usually, are there.
None of the following titles would be classified as horror in your local bookstore, because horror itself is not the point of these narratives; rather, their power to disturb is the result of their unflinching insistence on exposing the horror (which in daily life is treated as mundane, if it is treated any way at all)—of life, sex, and love under patriarchy. Representing work from Japan, Canada, Argentina, France, Austria, England, and the U.S., speaking from the 1930s to today, these 10 women writers are just a handful of storytellers whose work has kept me up at night, wondering about my own relationship to the fantastic horrors they depict.
1. The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
“She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” So begins Comyns’s harrowing tale about Alice, the daughter of a highly disturbed vet, who discovers a secret power she will eventually use against those who seek to humiliate her. Alice’s voice, speaking to the reader with an eerie calm, belies a lifetime of suppressed rage; and her ability to recognize the animal nature in everyone around her is a reminder that the bestial need not be a symbol of debasement, but of a source of power and solidarity. The Vet’s Daughter reminds us that the man who thinks he’s superior to all Others—animal and otherwise—is often the most dangerous animal of all.
2. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is an awfully funny and disturbing story about a woman intent on destroying herself by convincing a man to murder her: but first, she has some errands to run. Viciously degrading everyone who stands in the path of her desire, whether it’s a hapless clerk in a department store or her fellow passengers on an airplane flying her to her ultimate rendezvous, Lise is repulsively unlikable. Likewise, Spark’s prose provokes extreme discomfort; everything is pushed to a grotesquely sensuous hysteria; colors clash, sounds scream, and emotions run the most exaggerated highs and lows, making Lise’s longing for annihilation seem both terrible and logical at the same time, a cancerous response to the objectification and erotic limitations placed on the female body.
3. The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé (translated by Rhonda Mullins)
A brief, impressionistic novel recalling the narrator’s father’s memories of his work patching up the dead, this slim book is made up of just as much white space as actual text, and it is in these gaps between scenes of extraordinarily vivid evocations of deaths that the experience of The Embalmer begs the question: How, in the face of certain death, do we make sense of life? In what ways does our suffering connect to the experiences of our families, friends, neighbors, and strangers? And what is the nature of work, artistic and otherwise? The deaths described, whether freakish or mundane, do justice to the pathos of all loss, giving the reader a singular experience of her own mortality. Timeless, plotless, disjointed, there is just the slimmest sense of a cohesive narrative connecting the second-hand tales, as fragmented, and fragile, as life itself.
4. My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan Stump)
Two schoolteachers in a small-town French community slowly become, for reasons unknown, intolerable to their neighbors; abandoning her husband, who seems to be rotting from the inside out, strange physical ailments and unexplained transformations force Nadia to seek refuge at her son’s ominous mountaintop estate, while something inside her belly grows and grows. More gothic than Dracula in mood, and ten times as terrifying, this is a novel whose horror—physical and atmospheric, precise yet inexplicable—feels timeless; it could have been written at any moment in the past two hundred years. A nightmare of a book that raises plenty of questions about community, class, and motherhood, but offers no answers.
5. House of Mist by María Luisa Bombal
A dreamy ghost story about a woman who marries a heartless husband, reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, this haunting, disorienting story is like a body wrapped in endless layers of gauze; you know there’s something solid at the core, but you can never quite touch it. As Helga, first an orphan and then a lonely bride, tries to make sense of life on a fog-enshrouded estate in the woods, cruelly but subtlely bullied and taunted by Daniel, fantasy and reality become hopelessly—or, perhaps, hopefully—blurred; by the end of the novel one feels that the fantasies Helga indulges in aren’t about escapism, but truly about escape; for a woman trapped in a world where her body is never absolutely her own, the only way out is through the imagining of a new world, where she is the teller of her own tale. House of Mist is often described as an early example of magical realism, and I agree that term works beautifully here; this is a novel that proves that sometimes the best way to depict the real is by way of magic.
6. Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono (translated by Lucy North)
Family curses, dangerous obsessions, and sexual violence saturate this collection of startling imaginative stories. In the title piece, a childless woman who despises little girls becomes obsessed with the desire to dress little boys in beautiful, expensive clothes; in “Theater,” a wife estranged from her husband develops a dark attachment to a cruel hunchback and his beautiful, masochistic wife; and in “Snow,” a family tragedy drives an unwanted daughter to fulfill a deadly wish. What is most remarkable about Kono’s work is how she treats taboo subject matter; without sensationalism or surprise, and never with the aim to shock, but rather to gently instruct us in all the ways in which shame can destroy, and desire liberate. Creepy, sympathetic, and strange, these masterful stories unsettle, comfort, and devastate in equal measure.
7. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
Written in 1947, this noir masterpiece is narrated by a chillingly rational psychopath who stalks Los Angeles in search of young, single women. Hughes resists the sensational, keeping the violence mostly off-stage; instead, what makes Hughes’s novel so compelling and so disturbing is its focus on the mundanity of her killer’s life and motives; many readers will recognize the toxic masculinity seething beneath the surface of a charming, intelligent man who, feeling the world has not given him what he is owed, unleashes his rage on the bodies of women. It’s fast-paced, beautifully written, and almost suffocatingly dark in tone, and yet In a Lonely Place manages to resist cynicism, embracing instead a message of empowerment at its climax, refusing to glorify violence at the expense of its female characters—a truly radical stance that ennobles the murder-mystery genre.
8. The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop (translated by Don Bapst)
A genteel, mild-mannered antiques dealer details his romantic and sexual obsessions with the corpses he digs up—and the result is less disgusting and more emotional than one might expect a (fictional) necrophiliac’s diary to be. A stunning example of how the most precise, unflinching descriptions of horrific acts can push a reader beyond terror into the realm of understanding, sympathy, and, even, tenderness, revealing, through its examination of a particular perversion, the perversion of all desires born of loneliness. A troubling, exquisite gem of a book that has been unnerving European audiences since its publication in 1972.
9. Greed by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Martin Chalmers)
This nearly plotless novel, about a girl who is drowned by a policeman in rural Austria, takes a typical murder mystery/detective story and turns it viciously inside out; there is no mystery, and the protagonist of the story is not the victim or those seeking justice for her, but the polluted lake in which she dies. Jelinek describes the toxic body of water with an intensity of sensual detail that is both ravishing and sickening, as if the lake itself was the body of a beautiful murdered girl. A relentlessly bleak examination of patriarchy, bourgeois values, and violence against women, it is also an elegy for the natural world, polluted by the metaphorical murderer’s indifference to all Others, human and otherwise: This is horror with an uncompromising moral vision.
10. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Smart, socially isolated teenager Silvie and her family join a class of archaeology students in the woods to re-enact the lives of a pre-industrial tribe. As the males of the group split off from the women, engaged in more and more violent and mysterious pursuits at the base of the Ghost Wall, Silvie wonders if her father’s worldview—that psychological and physical violence must necessarily be inscribed not only on female bodies, but all bodies of nature—is her only inheritance. The tense realism of Moss’s prose, juxtaposed with the increasingly mythical movement of the text, begs the reader to question the ways in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves, and others, in the name of preserving male supremacy. A potent, exquisitely written reminder of how effectively a horror story can expose and reflect contemporary social concerns.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/Christian Widell.
Readers would be well advised to don a Hazmat suit before wading into the thrilling, pestilential world of French writer Gabrielle Wittkop. In a jungle, one is confronted with the “effluvia of rotting carcasses or the fetid exhalation of orchids and carnivorous plants;” in a Baltimore tavern the face of an old sailor “being eaten away like a pumpkin by phthisis;” in the New York City sewers the “eternal fungus of putrefaction” and the “sweet slime of the deep darkness;” and in Venice “baskets and pails are overflowing with filth…snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life.” These are only some of the fleurs du mal that blossom in Murder Most Serene (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) and Exemplary Departures (translated by Annette David), two works recently published in gorgeous editions by Wakefield Press. Wittkop’s only other novel to appear in English, The Necrophiliac, supplies some choice mephitic bits as well.
Wittkop was born in Nantes in 1920 and home-schooled by her father, devouring the books in his extensive library. In her translator’s postscript, David charts Wittkop’s literary influences from her early immersion with Marquis de Sade and other Enlightenment writers through her lifelong fascination with the “decadent romantisme noir” of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Comte de Lautrémont, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of one of her stories, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, about whom she wrote a biography. While living in Paris during the Occupation, she harbored and then married a deserter from the German Army, the bisexual Justus Franz Wittkop. Both Wittkop and her husband would commit suicide in their 80s, he while suffering from Parkinson’s and she after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer in 2002.
Wittkop is best known for The Necrophiliac, the narrator of which is an antiques dealer, a “situation almost ideal” for his off-hours pursuits: digging up freshly buried bodies, secreting them back to his Paris apartment and keeping them there, sometimes for weeks. Amid lurid, loving descriptions of his disinterred guests — he rhapsodizes over his “boyfriends with anuses glacial as mint, my exquisite mistresses with grey marble bellies” — there are occasionally moments of dark levity. Upon being propositioned by a prepossessing young man, he politely rejects him while thinking to himself, “I would love your eyes sunken in, your lips silenced, your sex frozen, if only you were dead; unfortunately, you have the bad taste to be alive.”
The Necrophiliac is ultimately about the intoxication and isolation of genuine connoisseurship. “The dead,” the narrator tells us, “are full of the unexpected,” a knowledge, and pleasure, he is condemned to savor alone while hiding from a “hostile world” that sees him as a monster. Of course he is a monster of sorts, but Wittkop succeeds, remarkably, in illustrating the perversely empathetic (“All these sexes under the earth, does anyone ever think of them?”) and elevating quality of the necrophiliac’s depredations:
The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy. For nothing is as flawless as a corpse, and it becomes more and more so as time passes, until the final purity of this large ivory doll with its mute smile and its perpetually spread legs that is in each one of us.
The devotion to his sordid obsession reveals, to him at least, a seldom glimpsed purity.
As both translators note in their accompanying essays to these new releases, and as should be evident from the The Necrophiliac’s subject, death and decay are two of Wittkop’s idées fixes. Take a representative description of a tree in a rainforest from the story “Mr. T.’s Last Secret” in Exemplary Departures:
Insect humors travel through the veins of the bark; liquefied, the reptile is reborn in the fetid pulp of fungus; the feather becomes leaf; the flower changes into a scale; eggs and soft roe burst into living myriads; death embraces resurrection, the two of them twinned like day and night
Passages like these adequately communicate her Eros-and-Thanatos aesthetic, and Wittkop’s prose usually glimmers as her subjects decompose. However, her decadent style is not without its flaws. Of a casino in Monte Carlo, she writes:
Like the vulva of some huge primeval hussy but also the secret charm of a Ganymede at its zenith, it gapes before the onrush, at the exact moment when the act is consumed in the triumphant erection of porphyry columns, so thick that they look as though about to burst, in the gold decorations reflected in the mirror where the chandeliers’ infinite galaxies explode, and in the simultaneous ejaculation of the innumerous thrusting palms, eternally soaring, as far the eye can see, toward the nudity of the ceilings.
Wittkop is not finished, still having to explore the “sphincter of the circular banquettes,” the “titanic birth labors announc[ing] themselves on the lips of the drapes,” and the spacious bathroom, “sanctuary for excrements.” (God knows how she would have allegorized the furnace room.) It is hard to defend such delirious imagery except to say that at least when she’s bad, she’s very bad. Contrast this architecture porn with an enticing, restrained, and more representative passage from another story, this one describing the spiraling staircase of a donjon that is
Unspeakably inviting, promising enchanted glimpses as it coiled itself despite the angular bones of its planks, forming a kind of sirens’ tail. It was, in short, as staircases admittedly are, destined to all kinds of betrayal.
Wittkop comes alive when she injects an element of sardonic sadism into her observations, the sense that there is enjoyment to be had at watching the dissolution (natural or violent) of a body. Her intense focus on the death throes of her protagonists, and on the post-mortem decomposition of their corpses, could be interpreted as a curious quest for self-knowledge. “But why this obstinate dwelling over a corpse’s pluck?” the narrator of Murder Most Serene asks after exhaustively describing a poisoned woman’s “spectacular final agony” and her autopsy. She provides the answer herself: “Simply because it is there inside us all, day and night.” Wittkop frames her macabre voyeurism in the tradition of the ancient injunction inscribed on the Delphic temple: Know thyself.
Set in 18th-century Venice, Murder Most Serene is a novella concerning the not-so-gentle art of poisoning. Over the course of 30 years, a Venetian nobleman and bibliomaniac, Count Lanzi, witnesses each of his four wives perish — his “conjugal monomania” unflagging despite their particularly gruesome deaths. Count Lanzi is too busy wandering in his library, a “boustrophedonic labyrinth” wherein he indulges his “blind, vehement, irrational passion” for books to look too deeply into the matter. Poison is usually involved, or suspected in each case; when one of the curtailed marriages produces a deformed child, the unfortunate offspring is dispatched with less finesse.
The short work begins with a theatrical nod, Wittkop likening herself to a “bunraku master” who “controls his puppets’ movements” to the audience’s, and his own, delight: “I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator.” The action itself commences on a stagey note, with an exasperated Count Lanzi complaining, “Can a man not read without being constantly disturbed?” When the interruption turns out to be an announcement that yet another one of his wives has died, he responds “Again?!” This sounds like a Wildean quip: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness. And indeed, the “strange, cruel drama” to come is accompanied by a laugh track of sorts, the peals of mirthless, diabolical laughter of a decadent society in the throes of “misrule:” “It is almost always Carnival, that endemic epidemic.” The case of the murdered wives concludes in 1797 just as Napoléon Bonaparte comes into the city with cleansing wrath that will abruptly put a stop to the Most Serene Republic’s cackling: “We cannot always be laughing…” read the novella’s last lines.
The mystery is largely an excuse for Wittkop to present the unfortunate spouses in their “spectacular final agon[ies]” and immerse us in the “flamboyant misrule” of Venice, “city of appalling gravity, where even the corpses weigh more heavily than elsewhere.” At one point, after pausing to describe how an old lecher places pornographic drawings between the pages of the missals in a church, the narrator dismisses it as “of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.” On the contrary, the entire novella revolves around such “anecdotal interest,” lurid, impressionistic snapshots of a gossipy, shadowy world.
Murder Most Serene, in other words, is mostly local color, concerned with effects rather than causes. This explains the scant attention paid to interiority and the lavish attention paid to the aesthetics of how certain poisons, “painterly magicians,” act on the human visage:
Their effects are played out in color: suddenly, we see a sky-blue iris turn the rich purple of the abattoir; a camellia complexion takes on a tint of bluish mauve, coral-pink lips turn to coral-black, which is infinitely more precious, as everyone knows.
Note the touch of the aesthete’s snobbery. As with precious jewelry, so with poison: refinement is king.
If Murder Most Serene Wittkop revels in the corruption of a society approaching a crisis (“the time of the Atreidae is come…”), Exemplary Departures casts an icy gaze on individual reckonings with death. The five titular “exemplary departures” are as follows: A shady American intelligence officer-cum-antiquarian disappears into a Malaysian jungle without a trace; a young Scottish girl on vacation in the Rhineland starves to death after being trapped atop a dilapidated castle tower, where she had gone to sketch the countryside; a delirious Edgar Allen Poe, “haunted by angels,” breathes his last in Baltimore’s Washington Hospital; a feckless shoe salesman drifts into homelessness and is beaten to death in a New York City sewer; and hermaphroditic twins — noble, sensual, completely absorbed in themselves — cavort in pre-Revolutionary Paris as seemingly immortal deities. Only at the moment of their grisly death are they bestowed a “fragile and derisory crown of a brief humanity.”
As Wittkop notes about one of these “departures,” it represents “a situation characterized by misunderstanding and revelation.” “Exemplary” is therefore used somewhat ironically, as the stories are neither models of noble deaths nor cautionary tales. These five stories are tragedies stripped of pathos, clinical examinations of creatures governed by a “conditioned determinism,” and moving inextricably, and heedlessly, toward their fates: “It is while blindly dancing the Dance of Death that we make our way toward our downfall.”
Again, a rire diabolique is usually audible in the background, a derisory chorus here comprised of monkeys, rats, crows, and grotesque statues. Straightforward Oedipal drama and fairy-tale villainy reign. The tales are less psychological than physiological; how a character thinks matters less than how a body moves, or perishes. Wittkop is an anatomizing narrator. “Idalia on the Tower” begins by zooming in on Idalia’s foot, the “slender low-arched foot with rosy nails cut straight and bluish skin the color of thin milk” that will eventually slip on the rotten stairs of the castle tower and leave her stranded: “Here we have what, moved by muscles, nerves, a very complex and dynamic mechanism, would cause the determining event, the very slow and painful death…” Later, Wittkop will redirect her anatomical gaze to the stranded, starving girl’s contracting “maxillary muscles,” her convulsing neck (“opisthotonus”) and various internal injuries so severe that the once supple body has “metamorphosed into a machine.” The “dynamic mechanism” highlighted in the story’s opening has begun to malfunction.
In “Claude and Hippolyte,” Wittkop’s anatomical gaze is primarily erotic, focusing on the twins of “unrestrained narcissism” who couple in front of mirrors, the better to revel in the “reflection of their strange genitalia…a hortus deliciosus…unfolded on the cold glass.” The more the merrier.
Finally, we have the opening of “A Descent,” which mercilessly dissects its protagonist in a piece of body shaming par excellence:
Seymour M. Kenneth had a slight paunch. Not much, in fact, a small deposit of fat evenly distributed over the flabby musculature of his abdomen, a pad just visible when Seymour was naked, but only then, an adiposity giving way to the pressure of a finger that would sink in no deeper than a few millimeters, in short, a concession. Had one been given the task to examine it…this paunch might have represented an avowal rather than a failure or a deficiency. One might have seen in it the symbol of a formless destiny, a propensity, to spinelessness. It wasn’t the elastic balloon of a cheerful, desperate person who eats his way to ruin, but the slowly accumulated burden of omissions, of wear and tear, of self-neglect, a pitiful gravidity that, so utterly unwarranted, would never reach its term, because nothing, not even failure, could be properly fulfilled in Seymour M. Kenneth’s life.
In fact, the hapless character does properly fulfill his lifelong, if not particularly ambitious, dream, which is to return to the womb. Our last view of him alive is in the tunnels below Grand Central Station, laying “curled up…a silent embryo,” his paunch morphing into either a fetus’s or mother’s stomach: “Spongy now, his belly was swelling up, spherical.”
I wrote earlier of Wittkop’s sardonic sadism, which is omnipresent but most evident in Exemplary Departure’s finest story, “Idalia on the Tower.” Consider how Wittkop describes how an exhausted Idalia, the girl trapped in her tower, repeatedly fails to build a stone plinth on which to stand and attract help. Rest assured, Wittkop informs us, the length and intensity of the girl’s struggles will make for an entertaining show:
In spite of its repetitions the spectacle is not as monotonous as one might fear. It is possible to see in it the delicate leitmotif of a choreographed figure and find much delight in observing Miss Dubb’s gestures. A certain duration of this pleasure can also be expected, seventeen being the age of great battles when one, even though deprived of both water and food, does not die quietly like a lamp that goes out for lack of fuel.
Elsewhere, Wittkop pauses a long description of a feast the starving girl has hallucinated with the following parenthetical: “You may have noticed the pleasure I have in presenting all this foodstuff for Miss Dubb, but who doesn’t like to present beautiful things?” That would be icy enough, but then Wittkop coolly resumes her mouthwatering inventory once again. This commitment to finding aesthetic pleasure in suffering is accompanied by a view of the universe as an indifferent, amoral universe in which divine retribution is illusory: “The eye that watches Cain is pure fiction.”
“There is purity each time that a new threshold is crossed,” Wittkop writes in The Necrophiliac. The great threshold, of course, is between life and death, and the best deaths, at least according to Wittkop’s morbidly decadent philosophy, are stage-managed. In that same work, she describes the final moments of Gaius Petronius Arbiter, author of The Satyricon, who, upon being accused of treason, chose to have his veins opened in a bathtub rather than contest the charges. His exemplary departure is narrated thusly:
Surrounded by his concubines and his Greek slaves slipping their tongues into his mouth and caressing his hair…He heard their tender words pull back towards another planet because he himself was about to leave the earth…He sensed nothingness invade the network of his veins…while the dancers stuck their vulvas to his body like barnacles onto a ship and the fingers of these ephebi explored his secret parts. Floating into his bath as if into the maternal liquid, Gaius Petronius Arbiter sensed his life escaping him as sweetly as it had once come to him. That’s how death should be.
No objections here.