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.
The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
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