Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, Homesick For Another World, presents a series of people who are each alienated and disconnected in their own ways. Each of them are desperate for some kind of connection with the world or with another person. The ways they go about forging these connections, however, are weird and damaging and dark.
Only one word comes to mind at first: Grim. Grim grim grim. After that comes bleak, I guess. But there’s also dark humor and a sense of compassion. The weird, unfulfilled, and misguided characters in these stories aren’t being mocked or gawked at. Instead, they’re simply presented with all their flaws and desires, with a concise style.
Moshfegh has a real talent for delving into the darkness and coming up with something human. These stories aren’t always easy to read, but they’re compelling in their strangeness and in their insight. Each one has an ending or an image or an idea that will sit with you for days.
I loved Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, and you can read my post about it here. What I said about that book applies to this collection, too: “This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.”
The Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio. One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler. The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl. Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing. As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.
Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.
The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid. Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing. There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome. There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.
It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers. But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes. Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.” So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now. Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.
For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone. I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak. Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good. Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.
2015 was a tough reading year for me, in terms of favorite books. In years past I’ve always had a few stand-outs, books I loved and devoured and then went off in search of more like them. This year, not so much.
The sole honor in that category goes to Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which I discovered and adored this past year. French rekindled my love of Crime fiction, and I’ve been gravitating more and more toward that genre after spending quite a long time in Horror and Thriller/Suspense. So the first in the series, In The Woods, is at the tip-top of my favorite reads list.
This past year has been tough in terms of getting out of my reading comfort zone as well. Thanks to the lovely nonfiction reading group I belong to, I’ve been guaranteed to read at least one nonfiction title a month for the past year and a half. I’m still really slow about it, though. For some reason I never tear through nonfiction as I do a novel, despite the fact that we’ve read some great ones in that group. You can check out our reading list here. Though I loved them all, I starred my particular favorites.
All that said, here’s the pretty short list of my faves from 2015. These aren’t necessarily books published in the past year, just ones I read. Clicking on the title will take you to the blog post I wrote about the book. Enjoy!
Marie’s Favorite Books of 2015
Tune in next time for the post where I’ll admit defeat on the Reading Challenge. Happy reading!
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.
Horror Month 2015 brings us yet another installment of Marie’s Favorite Scary Books! It’s an official franchise now! Maybe someday Marie’s Favorite Scary Books, Part IV: Scary Book Massacre will be a name spoken in the same breath as Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Bride of Chucky.
One can hope.
Here are my favorite scary reads from the past year!
Marie’s Favorite Scary Books Part IV: Scary Book Massacre
The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
Antiques valuer Catherine is sent to the Red House to catalog the collection of World War I veteran M.H. Mason, a taxidermist known for his dioramas of preserved rats enacting battle scenes from the Great War. Soon she finds there’s a darkness still lurking in the house, a mysterious secret that Catherine is drawn into and unable to avoid uncovering. A stifling and dark atmosphere, a pervasive sense of dread, and horrifying images that leap from the page make this a book to read strictly in the daytime. You can find the blog post about it here.
A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan
A real estate agent keeps the keys to every house he’s ever sold, and makes himself a frequent visitor in the now-occupied homes. Sometimes when the residents are there, never realizing they have company. It’s a creepy set-up with an unbalanced narrator, an understated horror offering.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
When Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it. In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her. Tons of references to the horror genre (especially Shirley Jackson!), a wonderful narrator, and truly scary scenes, this is one of the most compelling scary books I read in 2015.
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
These pieces have been collected under the umbrella of being unsettling (hence the title). Each tale wrongfoots you in a different sort of way. There’s darkness, there’s humor, there’s deep understanding and wisdom. His characters feel timeless. There’s an ease to his style, and he can work in so many mediums and different styles that it’s amazing all this work comes from one imagination. For a lighter not-so-horrific read this Halloween, give this collection a try. You can read more here.
The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
Like The Winter People, McMahon’s newest novel has full-on supernatural elements. It’s a monster story, but also a story about sisters, friendship, and growing up.
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
I’ve recently rekindled my relationship with Shirley Jackson, and it’s been wonderful to enjoy all over again how creepy and menacing and atmospheric some of her pieces are. This collection is classic and contains some of my favorite dark pieces.
Have a horrific time with these!
So I’m only just slightly behind the times. At least I got to Mr. Mercedes eventually, just in time for the second in the planned trilogy to arrive on shelves (Finders Keepers hit the street last week).
Bill Hodges is a retired detective considering suicide when the novel opens. He spends his days watching bad TV, eating too much, and playing with the idea of putting a gun in his mouth. One day, Hodges receives a letter that snaps him back–it’s a missive from a mass killer styled “Mr. Mercedes,” who killed eight people when he drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd.
The Mr. Mercedes case had belonged to Hodges before he retired, and he never solved it. Now he’s determined to do so, before Mr. Mercedes can kill again–as Hodges is certain that he will.
Mr. Mercedes is a cinematic and suspenseful crime novel. It’s also an engaging examination of an aging man who thought he was finished being given a renewed sense of purpose. And it’s also a creepy, morbidly fascinating examination of the background and creation of a killer.
This novel has a lot of cross-genre appeal. Horror fans, particularly those who enjoy human horror, will find a lot to like in Brady’s storyline, as well as the well-placed gore. Crime fans will probably respond to the well-constructed cat-and-mouse game as Hodges hunts for Mr. Mercedes. Suspense and thriller fans might appreciate the slow, encompassing build that comes together with ever-increasing pace and urgency.
The one genre group I’m not positive about is straight-up mystery fans, oddly enough. One note I kept finding online was that King himself calls this a “hard-boiled” detective novel. I’m not entirely sure that it is.
You feel the looming threat because you know what Brady is up to, but this world isn’t bleak. There aren’t mean streets. As ever with Stephen King, the streets are regular (if depressed) streets, which makes the horrible things that happen so much scarier and so much more imaginable. Hodges is a nice man, a smart guy who clearly was a crackerjack detective, yearning for a sense of purpose and people to be there for. All through the story he gives off an avuncular sort of vibe. Perhaps it was my reading, but I never got “gritty” or “world-weary” or “streetwise” from this guy. This story is a battle between good and evil (another King hallmark), and never once do you doubt what side Hodges is on.
Your mileage may vary, but I think you might be a little disappointed if you go into this book hoping for a traditional hard-boiled story. You also know the entire time whodunit, and the suspense comes not from a puzzle but from seeing how the criminal will be foiled. Stephen King also is never one to leave his universe entirely at rest and at peace, so you won’t find any traditional justice being served here.
All that said, this is a compelling read with twisted yet appealing characters, a creepy tone, and enough crazy that even citizens of Derry might arch an eyebrow. If you like King’s work and haven’t tried this one yet, or if you want some crime that’s dark and twisty but very readable, definitely pick it up.
Once upon a time I recall saying here on the blog that I’m not a Neil Gaiman fangirl. I’m still not, at least not in the squeeing “refer to him as ‘Neil’ as if we’ve been pals forever” way. After finishing Trigger Warning, though, I’ll go ahead and admit I’m a little in love with him.
As a writer! As a writer. Or maybe not. I don’t know, it’s the kind of author-love where the line is weirdly blurred. I think that’s why Gaiman is such a talented author–it really feels as if each of his pieces has something deeply personal in it, that he’s showing you something about himself and what’s important to him. Or maybe about yourself, and what’s important to you.
I’m mostly telling you this to explain why this drive-by book suggestion is mostly fawning. I’m wearing love goggles. And typing with love mittens.
Gaiman’s work is fantastic in all senses of the word. There’s such simplicity and beauty in his prose. Gaiman gets to the heart of what it is to be a human being, and retells old tales with such understanding and depth. He gets at the meat. There’s darkness, there’s humor, there’s deep understanding and wisdom. His characters feel timeless. There’s an ease to his style, and he can work in so many mediums and different styles that it’s amazing all this work comes from one imagination.
Imagination. There’s the key word. Gaiman is all about imagination.
These pieces have been collected under the umbrella of being unsettling (hence the title). Each tale wrongfoots you in a different sort of way. The introduction to this collection is instructive as well–Gaiman explains each of the pieces, their background and influences and what he was trying to achieve. It’s a glimpse into his process and his concerns. Reading the introduction after I finished the stories was what tipped me over into full-on author crush.
Well, there we have it. Trigger Warning might just have made me a fangirl. Give it a try if you’re a fan of Gaiman’s work already, or if you enjoy fantastical, dark short stories with some sci-fi and poetry and fairy tales thrown in for good measure. If you want more of the same kind of thing after finishing this collection, may I suggest Nocturnes by John Connolly. You might also want to try Terry Pratchett’s work, if you haven’t already. Gaiman also has plenty more where this came from.
Welcome to the alternate reality of Chew, where chicken is banned and the Food & Drug Administration is all-powerful. Meet Tony Chu, our hero, who is a cibopath: he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. Which makes him a fantastic detective–as long as he’s okay with, you know, nibbling on a severed finger or two so that he can get an impression of whodunit.
I did a post about Katy Towell and her amazing work last week, and I finished her novel, Skary Childrin and the Carousel of Sorrow a few days ago. I loved it just as much as her animations. If you’re a Lemony Snicket and/or Tim Burton fan, you might like it, too.
The story is about three oddball children who are mercilessly picked on by their peers. They live in the spooky, otherworldly town of Widowsbury, where many bad things can (and do) happen on a regular basis. Like a mysterious carousel suddenly appearing in the woods just outside town. Followed by the arrival of a stranger who sets up a candy stand. And then, people begin disappearing. It’s up to the three girls, bound together by their other-ness, to save the town from the dark secrets of the carousel.
Like Towell’s other work, this story is creepy and dark, with plenty of genuinely frightening and gory moments. Towell’s black and white sketches add a great dimension, but her prose definitely paints a scary enough picture on its own. There’s also an element of melancholy here which works beautifully–it’s a story about powerlessness and rejection and human darkness, and how we cope (or not) with those dark realities.
Enjoy your last full reading day before Halloween!
A couple of years ago I put together a list of my go-to scary books. You can find it here.
Now, after nearly two years of reading novel after novel about haunted houses, monsters, psychopaths, vampires, and grim grinning ghosts, I have some new favorites to add to the list.
This time, I think the sequel is just as good as the first one. If not better. It’s the…um…uh…Scream 2 of suggested creepy reads?
Not all of these are straight-up horror novels. Actually, I’d say only two of them are–The Caretaker of Lorne Field and N0S4A2. The rest are suspenseful, creepy, dark, sometimes disturbing…but not quite horror. I’ve reviewed a couple of them for the blog–if you click the title it will take you to the relevant post. The others link to the book’s Shelfari page. Enjoy!
Marie’s Favorite Scary Books, Part II: The Bloodening
The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman
Jack Durkin is the ninth generation of Durkins who have weeded Lorne Field for nearly 300 years. Though he and his wife Lydia are miserable and would like nothing more than to leave, Jack must wait until his son has come of age to tend the field on his own. It’s an important job–if the field is left untended, a horrific monster called an Aukowie will grow-a monster capable of taking over the entirety of America in just two weeks. Of course, Jack is probably just crazy. Probably.
Rotters by Daniel Kraus
When Joey Crouch’s mother dies in a tragic accident, he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known. His father is a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets. At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him, but once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating.
I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.
The Asylum by John Harwood
Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.”
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive, cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova — a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.
Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country. Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.” Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.