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.
Winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants is a daring look at the power of imagination. Bhuvaneswar, a practicing psychiatrist on the East Coast, has created intricate characters who fight back against narratives that limit their existence, natural circumstances or human-made, from birth and death and disease to racism, classicism, and sexism, shuffling together ancient fables with realistic contemporary fiction and a dystopia with robots. (She’d also been previously kind to include my book in her list of novels to read on the way to a political protest.) I was excited and nervous about meeting Bhuvaneswar over email to talk about her debut collection.
The Millions: Let’s start off by talking about writers who have been a major influence. I saw in an interview that you mentioned Jesmyn Ward. Can you tell us why and which other writers and books had a lasting impact on you?
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I loved A Small Revolution, so I’ll mention that first—psychologically gripping, real, and an important part of the larger canon on books about revolution. I like to think that in its own way, my book is also about revolution, about subversion, and I would say that there is likely a set of books, large and somewhat shifting but definite, that led me to be a writer, period, because of their astute and surprising way of depicting awareness, rebellion, determination. These are human qualities I truly believe in. So that has led me to a lot of very different books—from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to Sapphire’s Push (both of which I wrote about here). While these are very different books, they relate specifically to the collection in that I am not just writing about “survivorship” as a sort of condition, but as a form of internal resolution. As one decision or series of decisions. As a form of self-determination, often at great and unexpected cost. I think without consciously deciding it, several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (before the Netflix series, but then also, thrillingly, during its rise), Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and individual stories, like “The Children Stay” (which is completely astonishing, an Alice Munro story mostly inside the head of a modern Anna Karenina-like character).
In terms of how much I’ve gained from Jesmyn Ward’s work, I think more than anything her quiet confidence and determination are a complete inspiration for women writers of color who have to cling to the belief that “anybody will care” about the characters we write about, dream about. Will anybody care about, for example, an Indian immigrant who becomes a spoken word poet, or (even more of a question) a retired, cranky man so choked with grief at being separated from his son that he is rageful and perhaps unforgivable to the daughter he lives with who has a disability? Does anybody care about these lives—a black woman psychoanalyst wealthy enough to be envied by others; a Korean-American lady doctor-slash-workaholic? So far the answer has been a resounding “yes” in nearly all cases—but I believe that would not be as true without the model of the thrilling success of Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. She and others have opened doors for the stories of overlooked, ordinary people of color to be told and celebrated and sung.
TM: I felt that kind of confidence come through in your stories too, beginning with a narrator who whispers to her unborn child to the roar of the girls in captivity near the end of the book. How did you come up with the arrangement of this collection?
CB: One of my favorite short story writers, Maile Meloy (whose work I recommend reading here, especially; “Madame Lazarus” may be my favorite story of hers, ever) said once in an interview how she just sort of played with the order of the stories on the “back of a napkin” the way you’d shuffle a song playlist.
I think it was exactly like that. I was pushed up against a deadline, reading at AWP 2018 and having a blast generally, and I came back late one night and sat there shaping a response to the editor asking me to delineate the order, and this is just sort of what came out. I am incredibly grateful, as well, that our publisher and editor in chief at Dzanc, Michelle Dotter, really “went with” a lot of what I proposed as my instinctive responses to her questions. She had a lot of trust in me to shape the edits that in retrospect is so wonderful, really.
You try for the standard things—to vary POV, not have three stories told in the first person back to back. But I think as with a song list, there is a dreamy, playing quality and hopefully the main thing is that people enjoy it. To that end as well, I am thrilled to note that on the release date for White Dancing Elephants, Large Hearted Boy, that blog that posts “song playlists,” is going to post one I put together with the wonderful editor, David Gutkowski, and I guarantee—I KNOW—people will enjoy it.
TM: In your essay about being a writer and a psychiatrist, you say, “I write as a self-defining activity, without judging if what I write is any good. I write because I have seen people whose ability to write was taken away by illness. I write because I am mortal, and know it.” Tell us more about that because I feel it speaks so much to your characters in your stories too, about being keenly aware of their mortality.
CB: The daily routine of being a doctor in contemporary practice fundamentally changes your relationship to the physical act of writing. I mean, we just have to write SO MUCH. And all of it has to be written with a certain kind of care, because the medical record belongs to the patient, and so while there is a certain amount of productive “thinking out loud,” aimed at helping the medical professionals reading the record diagnose and treat various conditions, ultimately there can’t be anything in the medical record that doesn’t directly serve the patient. We have to be honest but at the same time as tactful as we can. It’s a constant goal we keep in mind.
So there’s this high wire you become accustomed to—writing a lot (thousands of words a day) but at the same time, writing with care and writing where there is so much at stake. And more than anything I think that has affected me as a writer. It helped make writing something I could own. Versus the publicly acclaimed and fraught and competitive position of “writer”—where, like, you read about Gary Shteyngart getting taken to a warehouse to sign thousands of his books, or you read about Terrance Hayes being “number two!” on the global list of contemporary poetry books selling on Amazon now, or whatever. I don’t know about all that. But I know that when I sit down at my desk, I can write, and as long as that’s true, I’m grateful. I have what I need.
TM: You explore the very edges of boundaries, particularly between life and death over and over in these stories—a woman grieving the loss of a child, kidnapping and sexual assault, sexual abuse by a parent, suffering from cancer, and connected to these the idea of switching places, roles—therapist and patient—playing constantly with societal expectations often with those with less power asserting themselves powerfully. I’m curious about your thoughts about the #MeToo movement?
CB: Mainly I have a few fragmentary thoughts to offer here (hoping of course that the shards will illuminate a little bit—that whole concept of “synecdoche” that I feel like I learned about from reading Forster but don’t even remember exactly how. Howards End, perhaps?).
First, the notion of “edges of boundaries”—I’m very influenced by the concept of “liminality,” from religious studies, which I first encountered when studying the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s really brilliant translations of medieval Hindu poetry. In these poems, mostly written by men but also by a few women, every definition was shifting and changing. Gender, sexuality, location, faith—all fluid, as fluid as language. I am interested in this fluidity as a source of resilience, and often I’m drawn to characters who don’t yet see the positive aspects of change, who deeply fear it.
Second, the responsibility of women to other women. I guess I still believe in an idea of “sisterhood,” but rather than prescribe it to anyone, I try to remember and celebrate those moments when women have shown me that solidarity. Whether in small ways—like sharing advice about how to care for a newborn—or other ways, like the woman administrator at my undergrad college, who actively encouraged me and other female students to come forward about a particularly egregious harasser.
I do feel like the way we find a path forward through the #MeToo movement is by remembering a common humanity. This is one reason I love the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, because it illustrates how utterly inadequate that type of label is for many of these experiences. Yes, you don’t literally lose a limb from being harassed. But you lose some part of your dignity and you end up having to fight to get that back. It is that bad, to suffer violence, especially when you’re in a space, as a working professional or student or any kind of occupational role, where you should just be allowed to perform, period, and not be given that extra burden, the extra barrier. I do think that #MeToo experiences constitute a form of resistance by the status quo, against the entry of women in equal numbers, and with equal or greater power, into professional and educational and financial spaces (including the entertainment industry) where male dominance had been the norm. Harassment is a way of making us uncomfortable. The movement is saying: We won’t stand for it. Amen.