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  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/08/16 Permalink
    Tags: , Breaking the first rule, , diary, , , haunted, , survivor   

    Chuck Palahniuk’s Novels, Ranked 

    Chuck Palahniuk is a difficult writer to discuss; even among his fans, there’s great disagreement about which of his books are classics and which are less essential.

    A writer in possession of a unique and distinct style, a man unafraid of diving down some pretty dark rabbit holes (there have been reports of fainting spells at his live readings), Palahniuk can be a an acquired taste; often your opinion of his works depends on where you start reading them. Here, then is our own assessment of all of his books, starting with the must-reads and proceeding from there.

    Fight Club
    Some contrarians will downgrade Fight Club simply because it’s the most famous and most accessible book he’s written, thanks largely to the accomplished film adaptation. If you set aside its pop culture cachet (and the indelible image of Brad Pitt’s abs) and look at it simply as a novel full of ideas, it’s easily Palahniuk’s cleanest, sharpest, and most compelling. The idea of disaffected young men forming underground fight clubs to scream out their repressed rage remains perfectly plausible, and the trick the author pulls off with his unreliable narrator is one of his most successful twists. The end result is a book that’s as tight and near-perfect as … well, Brad Pitt’s abs.

    Tender Branson is the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult; Creedists went out into the world and performed domestic tasks for people for free, dedicating their lives to service. When the cult’s compound is raided by the authorities, the cultists commit mass suicide—and for years afterwards, the remaining cultists will periodically reveal themselves and commit suicide to join their predecessors. Eventually, Tender is the last remaining Creedist, and he becomes an absurd celebrity as a result—until it’s revealed that the Creedist suicides might not have been suicides at all. Branson dictates his story into the black box of a crashing 747, as Palahniuk delivers another novel with an absurd but compelling high concept, the pages counting down to disaster.

    The simplicity of this one makes it stand out. A reporter investigating SIDS discovers the existence of a short poem that instantly kills anyone who hears it—or who even has the lines thought at them. The reporter sets off to destroy every copy of the deadly verse, but finds resisting the urge to use its power to kill those who threaten or perhaps simply irritate him nearly impossible, the words pouring out of him before he even knows what he’s doing. If you pause to think about all the people you would have killed today for breaking rules of polite society, it quickly becomes clear how terrifying this idea is—especially because it’s not some distant serial killer doing the evil deeds, but the narrator, making for uncomfortably compelling reading.

    Make Something Up
    Palahniuk is just as good at short fiction as he is at long reads; He works best with a sharp focus, and that’s what short form writing gives him. With stories that delve into squicky areas like child sexuality, teenagers abusing technology to shock themselves into stupors, and the concept of “gay conversion therapy,” Palahniuk explores a strange shared universe where terrible things happen as a matter of course, and where everyone seems to be an expert in something.

    As if recognizing his skill with shorter narratives, Palahniuk pulls off something a lot of novelists have tried at with varying degrees of success—the novel as a collection (or vice versa). A group of aspiring writers take part in a hybrid retreat and reality program, locking themselves in an abandoned theater for three months to write without interruption or distraction. With food supplies limited, one by one the participants decide to make their survival story more compelling by sabotaging things in small ways—ways that slowly combine to turn the experiment into a nightmare. Alternating between the overarching plot and the short stories being written by each participant—including the notorious, faint-inducing “Guts”—Palahniuk’s control of so many distinct voices is breathtaking.

    Invisible Monsters
    While both versions of the author’s debut novel are very good, we’d recommend the slightly rejiggered “remix” edition, as it’s the one Palahniuk wants you to read. Challenging, non-linear, and filled with the sort of gonzo twists that shouldn’t work, this is one book that gets a different reaction from everyone. The story of an attention-obsessed former model obsessed who suffers a disfiguring accident that renders her so ugly she becomes invisible to people—because they don’t like looking at her—it is chaotic and gruesome, but its themes of social invisibility and reinvention are some of the strongest Palahniuk has ever dealt with.

    Med school dropout Victor is one of Palahniuk’s least likable and least sympathetic characters, which makes this a book some folks—even Palahniuk’s fans—avoid. But Victor’s pathetic and horrific existence—one part awful job role-playing at a fake historical village, one part awful con jobs pretending to choke in exchange for free meals, one part trolling sex addiction meetings, and one part his trials with his dying, abusive, senile mother—is given a dream of hope when he thinks he might have found evidence there is good in him despite the dinginess of his life. The story meanders a bit, which is why we put it a bit lower in the top 10, but the prose sings, as Victor emerges as a truly original and unforgettable character trapped in a hell of his own devising—an escapist fantasy world he doesn’t realize is worse than his grim reality.

    Bait: Off-Color Stories for You to Color
    Leave it to Palahniuk to subvert the adult coloring book craze the world experienced a few years ago, but here’s the thing—this isn’t a joke. Palahniuk not only takes great care with the coloring book aspect, offering sincere guides to using watercolors and other tips to make your creative efforts as successful as possible, he also offers up some absolutely terrific short stories to go along with the descriptions. This would be a fine collection even without the extracurricular coloring. With the coloring, it’s a phenomenal effort.

    The premise is either going to hook you or horrify you: a pornographic actress at the tail end of her career decides to guarantee her legacy by breaking the record for most sex acts in a single film. With 600 men waiting their turn, the narration whips between a small number of them with stories to tell, as well as the female producer coordinating everyone’s efforts. Secrets are revealed, agendas are pursued, and Palahniuk examines the strange culture and trivia of the adult film industry with his usual relish. The ending is either brilliant or a bit much—we fall on the brilliant side, which is why it’s in the top 10.

    Adjustment Day
    Palahniuk’s newest is a return to form in some ways—not in the sense of overall quality, but in the jittery, pitch black energy that raged in some of his earlier works. This story of an online revolution that brutally transforms society in ways both unexpected and violent, it has the sharp-edged observation of the writer’s best, combined with a cynical view of human nature (the societies that are born from the explosion of class resentment are horrifyingly comical). Palahniuk gloriously explores the boiling frustration of those at the fringes of society being turned against the 1 percent, and the results are exceedingly gripping, even if some of his funny ideas undermine the tension a bit.

    Palahniuk’s eighth novel doesn’t get as much attention as some of his other works, which is unfortunate, because it’s a beautifully-flawed look at religion, and how stories get twisted in the retelling. Buster Casey lives in an alternate future where the world has been divided into two curfewed groups—Daytimers and Nighttimers. Buster was one of the worst serial killers of all time, and Palahniuk constructs a faux oral history of the man’s disturbed and disturbing life as he rose from sick kid to mass murderer, wherein Buster evolves into an almost godlike figure, his every move legendary, his every crime somehow more than just a bloody expression of mental illness. It’s a deft trick of a novel undermined somewhat by the unnecessary alternate universe aspect; set in a more realistic world, it would be even more powerful.

    Legacy: An Off-Color Novella for You to Color
    Palahniuk’s second stab at an adult coloring book isn’t quite as strong as Bait, in part because it’s a single, novella-length story instead of a collection of shorter works. The story is good: an amoral, bored investment banker named Vincent is informed he’s been left an inheritance that includes, apparently, immortality. Vincent is determined to claim his legacy and live forever, but a group of weird people descend on him seeking to claim eternal life for their own. While interesting and complemented well by the coloring pages, the story lacks the bite you expect from Palahniuk.

    Your mileage will vary with Damned, the story of a 13-year old girl named Madison who commits suicide and finds herself in Hell, described as a relentlessly banal space. Madison, whose famous parents ignored her, is put to work doing things like making telemarketing calls during dinnertime, and finds the afterlife to be like being trapped in an awful mall forever. That’s the point Palahniuk is making, of course—evil is banal—but it results in a curiously toothless story, only great in flashes.

    Stranger Than Fiction
    The essays collected here are a mix of magazine assignments and previously unpublished work. What they prove is that Palahniuk is a great writer, and that his main source of inspiration for his often vitriolic view of the world is the world itself—in short, these 100 percent true stories often read just like his fiction, including the bizarre, the upsetting, and the queasily unexpected. The only reason it’s this low on our list is the fact that some of the subjects just aren’t as interesting as his fiction. Still, there’s plenty to love here—if nothing else, Palahniuk’s prose is effortlessly funny, and he finds nuggets of the fascinating even in the most banal subjects.

    This novel is an outlier in the Palahniuk oeuvre; while some rank it pretty high, we simply can’t go to there. A hackneyed painter suffers from various mystery illnesses unless she’s painting, and everyone encourages her to work more and more, believing her paintings will save the island she lives on. Her contractor husband lies in a coma, and the rooms he remodeled on the mainland start to disappear. Reality distorts and shifts, but Palahniuk is a little out of his usual element, and it shows; the novel starts off strong, with an eerie atmosphere and effortless sense of dread, but the closer the story gets to revealing its secrets, the more ridiculous it all seems.

    Fugitives and Refugees
    Is it fun to read a travel book about Portland, Oregon penned by Palahniuk? Heck yes it is. Does he make Portland sound deliriously interesting and even a little foreboding and edgy? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with the charming enthusiasm Palahniuk brings to the subject of his hometown, nor the deployment of his trademark passion for exhaustive and interesting detail . It’s a must-read if you’re heading to Portland. The problem is, what if you’re not heading to Portland?

    Credit where it’s due: Palahniuk is challenging himself with this one. The premise is solid—a group of children are trained to infiltrate the United States as foreign exchange students so they can execute an act of grand terrorism. The problem is the constrained style, a strangled grammar reflecting the narrator’s worldview that renders even simple sentences difficult to parse. Books shouldn’t be downgraded just because they’re difficult reads, and if you’re a Palahniuk super-fan there’s a darkly funny story and character here to savor—but for less die-hard readers, it feels like a missed opportunity.

    Palahniuk tackles Hollywood with a story told by Hazie Coogan, who cares for a washed-up actress and becomes concerned when a young man seduces her charge—and has already written a memoir about which ends with the actress’ death. Written in the style of old gossip columns and using many of the structures and tropes of old scripts, there’s a lot to like about the narrative and the central character, and Palahniuk never fails to entertain and disturb, often simultaneously. But the plot is a little slight compared to his better works, and while the name-dropping is fascinatingly perverse (you’ll need to Google a lot of people who appear for only a sentence or two) it’s not the most memorable thing he has written.

    Fight Club 2
    Returning to a seminal literary achievement was always going to be a dangerous move, and we sort of wish Palahniuk hadn’t made it, even in the guise of a graphic novel. Set a decade after Tyler Durden was vanquished and kept at bay by pharmaceuticals and therapy, the unnamed narrator of the original—now named Sebastian, in one of many disappointing revelations—can’t satisfy his wife sexually because of the drugs, so she secretly cuts his dose, allowing Tyler to reemerge. Excited yet? By the time Palahniuk appears as himself toward the end to discuss how the story isn’t working, you’ll either see it as genius or desperation.

    Who, exactly, was demanding a sequel to Damned remains a mystery, but teenage snark-machine Madison is back, this time as a ghost banished to purgatory (the big joke is that Earth itself is purgatory), where she haunts her own life and slowly begins to understand that her existence has been shaped and guided by something sinister since the very beginning. Madison winds up shifting the balance of power between heaven and hell, but this one never seems to get off the ground. (There was supposed to be a third installment to the trilogy, but perhaps even in Hell, cooler heads prevailed.)

    Beautiful You
    This novel should work gangbusters: an average girl named Penny finds herself in bed with the world’s greatest lover, a billionaire tech mogul who is working on a new line of pleasure products—which Penny dutifully tests, risking her life as mind-erasing orgasms and sexual comas become common. Penny meets some of his former lovers—all of whom were dumped on day 136 of their affair. The same fate greets Penny on the same day the new line of “personal care” products in released, and men become instantly obsolete as women retreat to their bedrooms for the aforementioned sex comas, etc. There’s a subtlety to this one that is affecting; the problem is, the premise screams out for a good, old-fashioned Palahniuk-ing, leaving us unsatisfied.

    What’s your favorite Chuck Palahniuk novel?

    The post Chuck Palahniuk’s Novels, Ranked appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2017/10/30 Permalink
    Tags: , bentley little, bird box, blindness, , carrion comfort, , , , dathan auerbach, dawn, , exquisite corpose, , ghost story, haunted, hell house, , , , jack ketchum, jose saramago, josh malarian, koji suzuki, lionel shriver, , , , , , penal, , peter straub, poppy z. brite, ramsey campbell, , richard matheson, ring, rosemary’s baby, scott smith, , something wicked this way comes, , the face that must die, the girl next door, , the ruins, the walking, , , we need to talk about kevin,   

    25 of the Most TERRIFYING Horror Books Ever 

    Literature can be a moving, beautiful artistic experience. Skilled writers can bring us face to face with scenarios and emotions we might never encounter in real life, expanding our understanding of both the universe and our fellow man.

    It can also scare the living daylights out of us. Horror novels don’t always get the respect they deserve; just because something is scary doesn’t mean it’s not “literary” or well-crafted art, but if the core purpose of a story is perceived to be “making you soil yourself in fear” for some reason that story won’t get much respect. Of course, a story can be terrifying without necessarily being great art. If your goal is to be so terrified of a book that you put it in the freezer and book a hotel room for a few days, here are twenty-five books that might not necessarily be the best horror novels, but are certainly the scariest.

    Literally Everything Edgar Allan Poe Wrote
    Poe had a knack for infusing everything he wrote with visceral dread. His characters and narrators tend towards the mentally fragile and the insane, people who are haunted by things that might be literal or might be manifestations of their unsound thought processes. Either way, stories like The Tell-Tale Heart or The Cask of Amontillado retain their power to petrify more than a century-and-a-half after their publication because Poe tapped into the fundamental fear we all have that the world and people around us are not what they seem.

    House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
    Put simply, House of Leaves is one of the most frightening books ever written. From a fairly standard horror premise (a house is revealed to be slightly larger on the inside than is strictly possible) Danielewski spins out a dizzying tale involving multiple unreliable narrators, typographic mysteries, and looping footnotes that manage to drag the reader into the story and then make them doubt their own perception of that story. It’s a trick no one else has managed to such dramatic effect, making this novel more of a participatory experience than any other work of literature—which, considering the dark madness at its core, isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.

    Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin
    The film adaptation has supplanted the novel in pop culture, but the novel was a huge hit for Levin—and the film actually sticks to the plot and dialog so closely you really do get a feel for the novel from watching it. The story of a young woman who becomes pregnant after a nightmare gets its terror not from the well-known twist of the baby’s parentage (hint: not her husband), but from the increasing isolation Rosemary experiences as her suspicions about everyone around her grow. So many threads tie into the terror, from the emotional and economic uncertainty of a struggling young couple to the simple fear any mother has for their child, all expertly knotted into a story that will keep you awake at night.

    The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
    When you think about clichés in horror fiction, the haunted house is at the top of the list, an idea done so often it’s frequently an unintentional parody. Shirley Jackson, however, was no ordinary writer, and she takes the concept of the haunted house and perfects it. The Haunting of Hill House is simply the best haunted house story ever written. The scares come not just from the malevolent actions of a house that seems sentient and angry, but from the claustrophobia we experience from the novel’s unreliable narrator, Eleanor, whose descent into madness is slow and excruciating and only begins after we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the seeming relatability of her early persona.

    Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
    The great sage Pat Benatar once sang that hell is for children. Golding’s account of children stranded on an island without supplies or adult supervision is absolutely terrifying for one simple reason: there’s nothing supernatural going on. It’s a story about insufficiently socialized humans descending into savagery because that’s our fundamental nature. You look into the abyss at the center of this novel and the abyss looks back.

    We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
    Another story centered on the terror of children, the horror inherent in this story comes from the fact that the human beings we create eventually become their own people—and possibly strangers to us. Not everyone has a close and loving relationship with their parents, and while the idea that your own kids might grow up to be criminals isn’t pleasant, most people assume they will at least recognize themselves in their kids. But what if you don’t? What if your child—your child—is a blank monster?

    Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
    In the Internet Age it’s pretty easy to fall down a rabbit hole of pop culture obsession, and there are still dark areas of culture that haven’t had a wiki created around them. Pessl’s story about a mysterious underground filmmaker whose movies may or may not contain hints of dark power and horrific events and the journalist who becomes obsessed with him asks the reader how you can be certain there’s a clear line between fact and fiction, then, once that wedge of doubt is established, presents a terrifying fiction to fill that space.

    Ring, by Kōji Suzuki
    The novel that inspired the horror films of the same name, the premise is well-known: anyone who watches a mysterious videotape of creepy images is informed that they will die in seven days—and then they die. The investigation into the tape and how to avoid this grim fate leads to what remains an incredibly shocking backstory involving rape, smallpox, and a forgotten well. Technology has shifted, but the terror never really relied on VHS tapes—it’s the concept that ideas can be deadly, that simply by experiencing something you can be doomed, that’s so horrifying.

    Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach
    Pivoting on the idea that we’re often blinded by the details we can see, making it impossible to see the bigger picture, Auerbach’s debut began life as a series of creepypasta stories on the Internet. The episodic nature of the story is ideal for the effect he achieves; the narrator tells of being a young boy and sending a penpal request attached to a balloon with his classmates, including his best friend Josh. He doesn’t receive a response until nearly a year later, and his life takes a turn for the bizarre shortly afterwards. A series of tragic and strange things happen to him and everyone around him, building a sense of dread that is only increased when the truth is revealed.

    Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons
    Simmons’ novel follows several groups of people who have The Ability, a psychic power that allows them to take control of others from a distance and force them to perform any action. When one of their puppets murders someone, the person with The Ability is invigorated and strengthened. Simmons doesn’t shy away from the implications of this power on history and the future, and the book will destroy any sense of security you have in the world around you, revealed to possibly be simply a worldwide board game for those who can control us all like pawns.

    Pet Sematary, by Stephen King
    Several of King’s books could be on this list, but he frequently blunts the terror of his stories with the richness and humanity of his characterizations and the sprawl of his narratives. Pet Sematary manages to be his most terrifying novel by dint of its simple, devastating concept: a magical cemetery where buried things come back to a sort-of life—but aren’t quite what they once were. From that simple idea King ramps up to a climax that gets under your skin in a fundamental way most horror stories fail to.

    The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum
    Horror often pivots on the corruption or warping of societal norms and rules; once you feel like you can’t rely on the natural social order, literally anything is possible. Ketchum’s disturbing novel about the unimaginable abuse suffered by two sisters when they are forced to live with their mentally unstable aunt and her three savage sons is based on real events, but it’s the central theme of an adult giving official sanction to the atrocities that makes this story so utterly horrifying.

    Blindness, by Jose Saramago
    Helplessness is a key factor in a lot of horror; most people labor under the delusion that they are in charge of their destiny and their lives, and horror is often effective simply by reminding us how little control we actually have. An epidemic of blindness leaves an entire city’s population secluded in a mental institution as society within and without crumbles. The brutality and descent into animalistic madness is all too realistic, and Saramago manages to capture the terrifying confusion and helplessness experienced by people in a society that no longer functions.

    Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
    McCarthy’s entire writing style and technique is terrifying; the man could write a grocery list that leaves the reader dripping with dread. This tale of extreme, ruthless, and pervasive violence in the American west emerges from under a sheen of the unreal to become all too real, and the greatest trick McCarthy manages here is by making the single most terrifying aspect of the story—the main character’s death—the one act of brutality he doesn’t depict, leaving the terrors contained within that scene to our imagination—which is infinitely worse than anything he might have conjured.

    Exquisite Corpse, by Poppy Z. Brite
    Brite’s most famous novel follows two serial killers who initially aim to kill each other but, upon discovering a fellow traveler, instead engage in a spree of horrific sex and murder. The matter-of-fact way the pair concocts a plan to kidnap, torture, and then consume a beautiful gay man named Tran is the sort of stuff that could simply be shocking, but Brite continuously considers the value of existence and what we could all be doing with the time we have left—time we too often imagine to be infinite when, of course, we’re all going to be consumed someday by something.

    Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
    Bradbury’s epic rumination on childhood and adulthood tells the story of a magical circus come to a small town, offering the residents dark gifts they weren’t aware they wanted—most notably the carousel that can change your physical age, making boys who yearn to be adults grow older, and middle-aged men and women who yearn for their lost youth to grow younger. Bradbury knows the worst horror in the world is losing the natural order of your life, and perfectly captures the combination of dread and excitement everyone experiences as they crack the mysteries separating them from adulthood.

    Hell House, by Richard Matheson
    What Matheson taps into in this classic haunted house story is the universal fear that we are already lost, already broken. Hired to investigate the existence of an afterlife by exploring the notoriously haunted Belasco House, a team moves in and slowly succumbs to the influence of the entity within—an entity that only uses their own weaknesses and secret shames against them. Their descent into the depths of horror is too close for comfort as a result—for everyone reading the book knows all too well that they have weaknesses, and secret shames, as well.

    The Face That Must Die, by Ramsey Campbell
    Campbell wrote a number of books that are absolutely terrifying, but this one stands out in the way he forces the reader to completely inhabit the mind of a very sick man, Horridge. As he fixates on an overweight man living in his neighborhood, the reader is forced to see the world consistently through his eyes. Everything is off-beat, everything drips with ominous meaning and horrific intent. Horridge sees the entire world as a horror that must be destroyed, and for a while the reader is carried along on that uncomfortable point of view, leaving them exhausted and terrified.

    Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
    Told in alternating chapters that depict a group of aspiring writers voluntarily secluded in an unusual writer’s retreat and the stories they’re writing, Haunted not only contains one of the most disturbing short stories ever published (“Guts,” which caused several people to faint when Palahniuk read it in public) it’s also a deep dive into madness as the reality-TV obsessed characters start sabotaging their experiment in a quest for fame. The sense of suffocating dread that Palahniuk applies grows so incrementally you don’t notice it until you suddenly realize you’ve been holding your breath for five pages.

    Dawn, by Octavia Butler
    Although technically science fiction, this story of the human race centuries after a devastating apocalypse is straight terror in many ways. Lilith is one of the last surviving humans, awakened on an alien ship. The aliens, three-sexed and many-tentacled, offer Lilith a deal: they will help her repopulated the Earth, but their price is to breed with humanity to gain humanity’s “talent” for cancer (and the creative possibilities it offers) while blunting their self-destructive tendencies. The horror imbued in each page is subtle, but it exerts tremendous mental pressure as you progress through the story.

    The Walking, by Bentley Little
    Far from just another tale of zombies, Little’s story of a man whose father rises from death after a stroke sizzles with a sense of doom long before the reader understands what’s at stake. Discovering that many families are hiding zombie relatives, and have been for some time, private investigator Miles Huerdeen digs into the mystery—and what he finds is easily the scariest stuff about zombies you’ll ever read. If you watch zombie movies and shows and laugh at their shuffling, mindless threat, this book will change your mind.

    The Ruins, by Scott Smith
    Smith’s story is deceptively simple: a group of tourists in Mexico go off in search of an archaeological site where a friend has set up camp; they find a pyramid covered in odd vines, the land around it salted and barren. Once on the pyramid, they discover the dead body of their friend, covered in the vines, and that the nearby villagers have arrived with guns to force them to remain on the pyramid. The vines are one of those simple monsters that seem so easy to defeat at first blush, yet the inexorable doom that descends on the characters slowly, grindingly proves otherwise.

    Bird Box, by Josh Malerman
    Malerman’s intense story of a world that slowly crumbles as people go murderously insane after seeing mysterious creatures—referred to simply as The Problem—is so scary because the reader only has the information that the characters have, and that’s not much. The world collapses and the survivors can only seal themselves off from the outside and try to avoid the worst, leading to a torturous wearing down of hope that leaves the reader defenseless against the horrible images Malerman conjures.

    Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
    A good old-fashioned ghost story is designed to terrify and entertain, and Straub’s breakthrough novel does both. Five old friends gather regularly to trade ghost stories, but when one of them dies mysteriously and the survivors begin to dream of their own deaths, a secret from their past is revealed—and the simple pleasures of a ghost story are explored to their most frightening ends by a master of the form.

    Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    If you don’t think of Beloved as a horror story, you haven’t been paying attention. Morrison’s skill as a writer is in full effect as she draws the reader into what is assuredly one of the saddest and most horrifying stories committed to paper. There’s no more terrifying sequence than the long slide into madness as escaped slave Sethe, convinced the young woman calling herself Beloved is the daughter she murdered in an attempt to keep her safe from slavers come to reclaim them, grows steadily thinner and weaker as she gives everything she has—including food—to Beloved, who grows steadily larger.

    Did we leave off any truly terrifying books? Let us know in the comments.

    The post 25 of the Most TERRIFYING Horror Books Ever appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2015/08/18 Permalink
    Tags: , haunted, ,   

    Space as a Character: The Labyrinth, the Mortgage, and The Forgotten Room 

    In The Forgotten Room, the cracking new thriller from Lincoln Child, the story centers on, well, a forgotten room. Or, more specifically, a room in an old mansion that has been sealed off completely. Called to the huge estate by a Think Tank of scientists to investigate a mysterious death, enigmalogist Jeremy Logan discovers the room, filled with bizarre machines and offering snatches of mysterious, alarming music that set the nerves on edge.

    In other words, it’s the sort of room that would make you pack your things and immediately move out. Of course, Logan sticks it out, risking life and limb (and sanity) to solve the mystery (and it’s well worth solving), but that’s because he’s a fictional character. Real people would get the heck out of there, and get on the phone with their Realtor, insurance agent, and attorney en route to a hotel.

    As inventive a writer as Child is, The Forgotten Room is just the latest in a long and storied line of novels (and short stories) that treat the spaces we inhabit as the villains of the piece. Which, if you think about it, makes sense: the structures we build are supposed to be our ultimate triumph over nature. When they betray us, it upsets our entire concept of how the universe is supposed to work, and that uncanny sense that our place of refuge is trying to kill us has been celebrated in fiction since the beginning of time. (If any Cave Man Fiction survived into the modern age, almost certainly some of it would involve haunted caves.)

    Gimme Shelter

    Shelter is one of our most primal needs. In the modern age, it’s easy to take shelter for granted, right up until a tornado tears the roof off your home, or a hurricane floods your living room—or a simple roof leak forces you to decamp to the guest room in the middle of the night. The psychological power of shelter is so deeply buried we rarely think about it until disaster strikes, and then we tend to rationalize it into terms of money, time, and inconvenience. But at the root of it is a deep fishhook of worry and anxiety, because we know that if our shelter fails us—or, worse, actively betrays us—we’re doomed.

    That’s one reason why stories about spaces trying to kill, undermine, or ruin us are as old as the hills. The Labyrinth of myth, inhabited by the testy and murderous Minotaur, is a story as concerned with the way the spaces we build can turn around and destroy us as anything else.

    That’s the dark side of mankind’s dominance over the world. While we have advanced to a point where we literally bend the materials around us to our will, taking stone and tree (and, in the modern day, plastic, and vinyl, and horrible wretched floral patterns) and turning them in a comfy den lined with bookshelves, we also have the capability to turn those skills to evil. History is littered with examples of structures built not to shelter and protect, but to destroy, from concentration camps to the so-called Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes, a home built specifically so Holmes could commit murder in perfect privacy (detailed expertly by Erik Larson in Devil in the White City).

    There are plenty of examples of structures that simply confound, confuse, and instill a sense of dread, like the Winchester Mystery House, built continuously, in a manner that can only be described as insane, over the course of 35 years in the 19th century, complete with non-functioning bathrooms, stairs that terminate at walls, and windows that look in on interior rooms. Or the Collyer Brothers’ Harlem brownstone, which was itself a conventional home found to be filled with a truly breathtaking amount of hoarded material collected by the eccentric brothers over the course of decades—so much stuff (estimated to total more than 140 tons) that getting in and out of the home (which the increasingly unbalanced brothers had booby-trapped) was nearly impossible. So much stuff, in fact, that the police eventually concluded that one brother was crushed to death by his own hoarded possessions.

    Obviously, humans are aware of the possibility of building things like Murder Castles or Mystery Houses, and the possibility that our shelter can be mis-used or perverted to such an extent that they actually become dangerous to us. When you think about how important shelter is to our survival, the idea that it might be knowingly or unknowingly turned against us is very unsettling. This is why the leaky roof keeps us awake at night. This is why places like the Winchester House fascinate us. And this is why there is such a robust tradition of space and shelter as villain—literally as a character—in our fictions.

    Space as Character

    When structures, homes, or other spaces are presented in fiction as haunted, or somehow perverse, or as psychic sponges that absorb and reflect the emanations of the inhabitants, it gives those inanimate objects will, agency, and even personality. After all, that spare room that is larger than it should be and occasionally has blood dripping down the walls could simply be a force of nature, like a Hellmouth or some fold in the universe allowing Lovecraftian horrors to bleed through, but more often than not there’s purpose behind it. And with purpose comes characterization: when structures turn against the protagonists in a story, those structures become villains.

    In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, this is almost explicit in the way Allen describes the house almost like a person, mentioning the “vacant eye-like windows” before going on to link the decaying state of the house with the state of the residents within it. While the story seems to be one of the insane last scions of a once-great family destroying each other, and then being consumed in the collapse of their house in both the metaphorical and literal sense, it could also be seen as two people destroyed or consumed by the house purposefully—the house being the true monster or villain of the piece.

    After all, our homes, our shelter, affects us. A house riddled with repair problems keeps us up at night and fills us with anxiety. A house filled with black mold in the walls will, in fact, secretly make us ill and kill us, in the end. And a house we can’t really afford, upside-down in the mortgage, will crush us metaphorically—financially. Is it any wonder we’re susceptible to the idea of a structure as an active villain in a story?

    Mark Z. Danielewski takes this idea to the next level in House of Leaves, where the titular house is plainly not just a character, but the monster of the story. Well, okay—it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Danielewski’s novel may be the most difficult book of recent years about which to speak authoritatively, because he takes the concept of “unreliableness” and sprints with it past any prior achievement, making every aspect of the book, up to and including the front- and back-matter, more or less suspect. In short, while the House in House of Leaves is clearly not a good place to live, raise a family, or begin measuring rooms, it’s also completely possible that nothing narrated in the book actually happens, or it all happens but to other people, or somewhere in-between.

    That sense of disorientation doesn’t take away from the fact that the House in House of Leaves is palpably animated, a character. And since none of the terrible, awful things that happen in the book (or seem to happen) would occur without that house, then it is, in some sense, the villain of the piece. Consider the Overlook Hotel in The Shining as an almost perfect example of this: a structure designed to protect and shelter you that actively works against you, twisting your thoughts, misrepresenting reality, and ultimately trapping you instead. That line between protection and imprisonment is the key friction.

    Many other novels have explored this idea, and none as famously, perhaps as Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror, that classic “true story” of the late 1970s most people accept as fiction. While most people remember the over-the-top haunting stuff—the secret Red Room, the way the father slowly transforms physically into a mirror image of the previous owner who murdered his family, the clouds of flies—often overlooked is the way the Amityville House literally teases its inhabitants, acting like a deranged bully. The clearest moment of this—though admittedly played up a lot more in the film version than in the book—is when $1,500 in cash designated to pay wedding expenses (about $6,000 in today’s inflated money) disappears mysteriously, and George Lutz writes some rubber checks to cover it, figuring he’ll find the cash in the house somewhere. That’s a really crappy trick to play on someone, and clearly demonstrates the house isn’t just an empty vessel for demonic shenanigans, but rather the villain of the story. The house is literally hurting its owners in any way it can—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.

    The list of evil spaces goes on. The Forgotten Room falls right in line with this tradition, not only with the rambling old mansion where the action takes place (Professor Jeremy Logan, familiar to fans of Child’s previous novels, is called to the crumbling Rhode Island Great House by Lux, a think-tank that had expelled him years earlier in order to consult on a mysterious murder) but with the Room itself, a space without an entrance (or, if you prefer, without an exit) that behaves in ominous ways, like emanating mysterious and alarmingly discordant music. The space itself isn’t simply a setting. It’s an active agent of the story, revealing information, prompting action, and potentially causing harm. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the reveal as to what’s going on in this hidden room turns out to be (non-spoiler alert: the reveal turns out to be pretty great, but not what you’re expecting). While the mystery endures, the room is a character in the book, because the characters who come in contact with it treat it as such.

    Once you start thinking about how spaces can become characters in and of themselves, driving action, you can see them in plenty of stories. The phenomenon of villainous spaces isn’t found solely in horror novels and speculative fiction stories, for example; every locked-room murder mystery, every riff on the old “the calls are coming from inside the house!” trope, and every story involving hidden spaces, mysterious architecture, or serial killers with secret murder pits in their basements (more than you might imagine) plays off the idea of space as a character that may not necessarily value your health and wellbeing.

    Alternatively, there are the stories where the spaces the characters inhabit aren’t villains, but rather heroic in nature or perhaps depicted as inhumanly neutral. In The Secret Garden, for example, the locked-up garden certainly has everyone’s best interests at heart, imbuing children with health and inspiration while bringing families back together in a metaphor of fertility and growth that cements the garden as the true hero of the story, especially considering how difficult it is to like the main character, Mary, in the beginning.

    Distinctions in Literary Devices

    It’s important to differentiate between a space as a character from simple anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects or animals) and simple pathetic fallacy (attributing human emotions to nature and natural events, such as having it rain morosely when your main character is sad, or having nature comment on the action with a well-timed crack of lightning). Simply describing a structure or space with human-like adjectives, or having the environment of the story react to events and statements with human-level histrionics doesn’t necessarily make your space a character, although if done consistently throughout the story the house or garden or murder pit in the basement can, of course, come to seem like a character to the reader, a sort of inanimate Greek Chorus to the plot.

    But to graduate from a grace note that informs the emotional heft of the story to being an actual character, the space involved must drive that story. It must take actions that force the characters to make decisions. The house cannot be a villain or a hero if all it does is reflect back the emotions of a scene, or offer poetic gilding on the action happening inside it. It must do something in order to become a character, it must display awareness, pick a side, and take action.

    A simple test of this, of course, is a thought experiment: if you remove the space in question, does the story change? Forgetting practicalities such as events happening in specific rooms, the question boils down to whether or not the space itself has taken an action that changes the events of the plot. In House of Leaves, for example, literally nothing would happen if you transported the characters to a different house on page one (not counting the relatively happy and productively long lives the characters would presumably have lived if such an intervention occurred).

    Of course, an argument can be made that in some of these examples—such as House of Leaves—the structure in question is possessed somehow, that an intelligence is inhabiting the house and taking these actions, and that intelligence is the true character. For this to be the case, however, that intelligence or spirit must be demonstrably separate from the house itself. It must be mobile, in the sense that the spirit could inhabit another building, room, or, say, murder pit in the basement. If the hungry spirit and the murder pit are forever linked, there’s no distinction to be made there: a hungry murder pit is a character in the same way its victims are characters, because you can argue that human beings themselves are simply vessels animated by a spirit.

    The Forgotten Room is carrying on a long tradition of creating characters from the architecture the characters inhabit, and it remains an incredibly effective technique because we’ve all had Those Moments: when you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and feel like someone or something is following you down the dark, endless hallway; when you hear a strange noise and wander the place, unable to pinpoint it, and just when you’ve relaxed and dismissed it, just when you’re about to go back to bed, you hear it again; when you start a renovation project to finish your basement and discover a murder pit that begins speaking to your telepathically. You know, typical things. And because we all know that sensation, the technique, when handled well, is always effective.

  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2014/11/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , haunted, , , , , , these books will blow your mind,   

    Four Brain-Bending Doorstoppers that Will Challenge, Intrigue, and Possibly Break You 

    Marisha Pessl's Night FilmIf you’re like me, you spent some variable period of time in your youth thinking you were smart, perhaps even some sort of unrecognized genius. And then you had an encounter with true genius—or the yawning abyss of your own dumbness—and had to issue a retraction. A retraction no one saw, because no one was taking your claims of genius seriously anyway. Perhaps, like me, your brush with true genius came in the form of a book, but not just any book. One of those thick, heavy tomes with a thousand pages of dense, twisty prose that left you humbled, scratching your head, and not entirely sure you “got” it. If you didn’t encounter one of those books, this is your chance: here are four huge books that will hurt your brain—but in a good way.

    Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
    Night Film is an imperfect book, but what it gets right it gets right. The spooky, creepy story of a legendary reclusive filmmaker who may or may not be involved with black magic and/or literally committing terrible crimes for verisimilitude in his films and the disgraced journalist who investigates the death of the filmmaker’s daughter, Night Film pulls off a head-spinning trick by establishing a very real-feeling universe that it then begins to destabilize, until you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. Using a few modern multimedia tricks like reproducing webpages and articles right there on the page, that link out to extra information and images or videos on the web, the whole book slowly warps into an unreliable narrator that still somehow feels grounded in reality. The ending, on the surface, feels surprisingly reasonable—for a moment. Then you realize you don’t actually know if you can trust the words you just read. It’s one of those maddening narratives where you’re certain all the necessary information is right there in the pages, but you can’t seem to solve the puzzle.

    House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
    When it comes to books that have the power to break brains, it begins and ends with House of Leaves. Part haunted house story, part celebration of the unreliable narrator, part brain-destroying puzzle you will never solve, this book is so crammed full of puzzles, wordplay, and downright trickery that endless Internet debates have sprung up around a single word choice. Everything about this book, from the layout on the page to the footnotes that circle back and lead you on a mazelike trip through pages you’ve already read, to the anagrams and mini-riddles that pepper every paragraph, gives the impression that the story itself is just the proverbial iceberg tip—and the roots go down into a deep, dark, place you might regret traveling to. In fact, the debate about what’s real, what’s imagined, and who, exactly, is telling the story in the first place continues to be lively and unlikely to be solved any time soon.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    If you’ve never read Infinite Jest, it’s likely the only thing you know about it is that it’s incredibly long and concerns, to some extent, tennis. While both of these things are true, the book is complex, filled with a huge cast of characters who dip in and out of the narrative, and constructs what is essentially an alternate universe to our own that nevertheless feels absolutely real. While not as formally perverse as House of Leaves, Infinite Jest is a book that has several layers, and on first read you can only hope to understand the surface story, about an “Entertainment” that is so entertaining people starve to death watching it over and over; a tennis prodigy who loses the ability to express himself; and a future where time is subsidized, resulting in things like the Year of Glad, where “Glad” refers to the brand of trash bags. The rest of it is buried in the dense prose, clever plotting, and yards of complex and well-researched footnotes.

    Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
    Even if you haven’t read Haunted, you may have heard about one of the stories it contains: “Guts,” which is so disturbing in its imagery people reportedly walked out of several readings Palahniuk gave before the book published. The story of a writer’s retreat that takes a left turn into horror, there are two tracks to the book: One the tale of the trapped writers, who are locked inside an ancient theater with food and water and other comforts and told they cannot leave until three months have passed—time in which to write their masterpieces—and the other the short stories each writer produces while at the retreat. To say things go sour would imply you’re unfamiliar with Palahniuk’s work, but understanding how it all ties together is something else entirely. In fact, considering that the characters in the book are all obviously self-sabotaging, the best question you can ask after reading this book is simple: Why is it titled Haunted?

    What’s the most mind-bending book you’ve ever read?

  • Ginni Chen 5:00 pm on 2014/08/01 Permalink
    Tags: alvin schwartz, , , , , , haunted, , , , patrick mccabe, scary stories to tell in the dark, , stephen gammell, , the butcher boy, , ,   

    Beat the Summer Heat with 8 Bone-Chilling Books 


    I grew up in Japan, where, in addition to fireworks and temple festivals, it’s a cultural tradition to tell scary stories during the humid summer months. Spooky stories are popular during that time of year for a couple different reasons. First, Japanese Buddhists believe that spirits return to their ancestral home during the month of August, so it’s the prime time to tell ghost stories.

    Secondly, there is a cultural belief that scary stories will both figuratively and literally “chill” you in hot weather. After all, when you’re frightened, the hair on your neck stands on end and chills run up and down your spine. Thus, theoretically, your body’s physiological response to fear effectively cools you off and you don’t feel the heat anymore.

    To test it out, here are 8 bone-chilling books. Give them a read and see if the creeps keep you cool!

    Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy
    By far the most disturbing book I’ve ever read, but also one of the most beautifully written. In a mere 200 pages, McCarthy takes you through one social outcast’s descent into isolation, violence, and depravity in the deep South.

    The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe
    I couldn’t sleep after finishing this ghastly masterpiece about a young Irish boy. It’s narrated from the point of view of Francie Brady, the only child of an unstable mother and a drunken father. Like all young boys he loves comics, candy, and his best friend, Joe. He’s also a monster.

    The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, by Edgar Allan Poe
    Nobody can give you goosebumps like the Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. I get shivers imagining the dungeons in “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” even when it’s a blistering 90 degrees outside.

    In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
    Capote’s nonfiction book is based on his own investigation into the murder of a Kansas family and interviews he conducted with the convicted murderers. There are innumerable true-crime novels out there, but something about Capote’s classic will haunt you long after you finish it.

    Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz
    These stories might be for kids, but mark my words, they’ll make an adult’s hair stand on end, too. I still get the heebie-jeebies from these classic tales, especially when they’re accompanied by Stephen Gammell’s creepy, drippy, oozy illustrations.

    Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
    Though not in the vein of classic ghost stories, Palahniuk’s collection of short stories will nonetheless make your blood curdle. The premise? A bunch of writers think they’re on a retreat, then realize they’ve signed up for something much more sinister. What they do in response is incredibly unnerving, gory, and entertaining. You’ll get pangs of phantom pain alongside the shivers.

    Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
    Shelley’s classic never fails to make me shudder while still pulling on my heartstrings. Frankenstein’s monster has been a ubiquitous and influential character in pop culture, but he’s become increasingly less scary over the years. Go back to the original Frankenstein and get properly frightened, the good ol’ Gothic way.

    The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
    It’s not a ghost story, it’s not a horror story—it’s even written for young adults to read. It’s nonetheless one of the most brutal, ominous books I’ve ever read. So far this reading list has been about murderers and monsters, but I’ve added one cult classic about a band of British schoolboys, stuck alone on an island with a conch shell. Why’s it on this list? If you haven’t already, just read it and see.

    What books have given you the chills?

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