Sometimes Horror just isn’t what you want. Sometimes you just want dark and unsettling, without jump scares or guts or monsters. Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest, Eileen, might just fit the bill for you this Halloween.
Eileen is the story of a young woman who works in the office of a boys’ prison in the early 1960’s. It’s the week before Christmas in a tiny New England town, and by the time the holiday rolls around Eileen will have disappeared. She’s narrating from a point in the future, where she’s changed her name and taken on a new persona. But clearly the past is still very much with her.
Eileen is distinctly unlikeable, but she’s such a well-developed character with such a distinct voice, filled with so much violence and desperation, that she’s compelling anyway. This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting. You can perhaps find a bit of pity for Eileen, trapped by her time and place and position.
The whole world of the story is dark and cold, the pre-Christmas New England snows a perfect backdrop. The one bright spot that appears is when Eileen has the opportunity to make a friend in the new prison psychologist, Rebecca. It could be the break she’s been waiting for. But you quickly learn that in this book, the world’s not that kind.
If you’ve watched the brilliant television series American Horror Story (currently in its fifth year), you’ll know what I mean when I say that, in terms of oppressive atmosphere, compelling but deeply flawed characters, this book reminded me of “Asylum,” the anthology’s second setting/story arc. Eileen in my imagination had the same color palette, the same dingy surroundings, the same dark shadows. What’s lurking in the dark may not be the same, but the set-pieces sure felt similar.
This also counts as 26 Books to Read in 2015: #6! an author I’ve never read before.