Marie’s Reading: “Bitter Orange” by Claire Fuller

91Qzwi5HkMLThere’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller.  In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.  The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go.  The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!

Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England.  That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture.  A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers.  Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.

Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends.  Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances.  And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush.  I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something.  You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.

The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension.  You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details.  It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.

Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich.  She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative.  There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.

If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look!  The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.

–Marie

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“Twin Peaks” Readalikes!

Did I tell you that I recently discovered David Lynch’s Twin Peaks?

Well, I did, and I love it.

Agent-Dale-Cooper-comes-town-investigate-he-whole-lot-character

So when I saw this article today, I immediately thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”  Lincoln Michel over at Vice has put together a great list of books you might want to try if you enjoy Twin Peaks.

Twin Peaks is weird and quirky, but sweet.  It’s scary, but funny.  It’s surreal and out there, but also grounded in small-town dynamics.  The tone is a tough one to capture.  Each of the books Michel picked fits some aspect of the show.  And goodness knows it’s got a plethora of plots, ideas, and characters in the mix, so lots of very different readalikes present themselves.

something-delightfully-off-about-haunting-intro

One of my very favorites, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, is top of the list.  I’d suggest any Shirley Jackson if you enjoy Twin Peaks–her stuff is loaded with the macabre, the supernatural, and the weird, but always grounded in the everyday.  She also had a knack for quirky characters and humor, as well as a slightly foreboding tone underneath it all.

Log-Lady-cares-deeply-about-her-log

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy made the list, as did Duplex by Kathryn Davis and The Shining by Stephen King (all great choices).  I learned about quite a few books I’d never heard of before thanks to Michel’s article, and ones I definitely want to try (surrealist Leonora Carrington’s work, for a start).

Here’s the link to Weird Books You Should Read If You Like Twin PeaksGive it a look, if you’re a David Lynch and/or Twin Peaks fan!

Man-From-Another-Place

–Marie

(and thanks to PopSugar for the gifs!)

 

Marie’s Reading: “Life Among the Savages” by Shirley Jackson

lifeThe woman who brought us The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery, all benchmarks of psychological horror, terror in the domestic, and repression in all its forms, was also extremely funny and wrote charming pieces about her children, like this collection called Life Among the Savages (1953).

No, really!

While it’s true that she pretty much just wrote this kind of “women’s magazine” stuff to pay the bills, it’s a testament to Shirley Jackson’s talent and range that she could write in such different genres.  Though it’s also fascinating to see how similar ideas and themes crop up across her work.  Houses with personality, for one.  A sense of the grotesque and shocking and supernatural in everyday things.  People, particularly girls and women, who are outsiders for whatever reason.  Here, all of the above are played for laughs instead of creeps.

On a personal level, I really identify with Jackson’s anthropormorphization of her household goods.  And her house itself.  Take this section, where she’s talking about moving into her old house in North Bennington, Vermont:

…we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would.  An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly writing table and put a brass inkwell on it.

Houses, especially old ones, are alive, with feelings and energy and preferences.  Jackson gives that idea a sweet, homey spin in her magazine writing.  In her other work, this kind of idea turns into The Haunting of Hill House.

But there are so many funny episodes which Jackson brings such immediacy and life to.  A trip to the department store with a toy-gun-wielding son and a daughter toting around twelve invisible daughters of her own was one of my favorites.  Every anecdote is mined for the best possible mix of day-to-day family insanity, in a house with lots of fierce personalities.   It’s a revealing snapshot of what it was like to be a housewife and mother in the 1940’s and 1950’s, too, right down to the trip to the hospital to have her third child:

“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.

“Name,” I said vaguely.  I remembered, and told her.

“Age?” she asked.  “Sex?  Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me”

Expect to see this one again next Halloween.  Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.

hitchcock

I picked this up on a whim because I’m a sucker for creepy short stories, particularly those from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  There’s a certain quality to mid-century tales of the macabre and grotesque which make them unique.  The matter-of-fact prose, maybe.  The atmosphere of the uncanny and foreboding, but without the Gothic touches.  Or maybe it’s the way they usually present the weird colliding with the everyday.  They’re suspenseful and play with your mind and expectations.

Men Without Bones had a weird Heart of Darkness vibe.  The creepy, icky melancholy of A Death in the Family by Miriam Allen deFord had me freaked out for a day after reading it.  Party Games was just…ugh, man.  Murder, adultery, aliens, evil kids, monsters, dimension-bending cameras that can send you to hell…this collection has a bit of everything.  Including the complete novella Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham.

If you’re after a short story collection to creep you out in small doses, this would be a good one to try.  Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson fans should have a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: Comfort Books

It’s been a rough couple of weeks all around, hasn’t it?   I’ve decided to turn to bibliotherapy to cope.

Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic technique which uses literature to support good mental health.  Bibliotherapists do a sort of readers advisory therapy session with readers, with the goal of providing a suggested reading list which will help the reader through challenging times.   Ceridwen Dovey talked about it over at The New Yorker last summer.

I decided to come up with my own list of books which make me feel better, either by distracting me, making me laugh, or providing some hope. Yours, of course, would probably differ.  There’s always the book mentioned in Dovey’s article, The Novel Cure, if you need some guidance.

Here’s my highly personal list of self-medication titles, which I am taking as needed:

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, especially Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The Huge Book of Hell: A Cartoon Book by Matt Groening

The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, the Death books in particular

Take it easy out there, friends.

 

 

“Audrey’s Door” by Sarah Langan

Sometimes all you want to curl up with is a good old-fashioned haunted house story brimming with creepy imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and a main character who’s not quite all there.  Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan delivers.

audrey's doorAudrey Lucas, an architect with a lot of baggage, is on the hunt for a place to live in New York.  Apartment 14B in the historic Breviary building on the Upper West Side is available at an astonishingly low price.  Even though she thinks it must be too good to be true, Audrey can’t pass up the opportunity to live for cheap in such a unique building–it’s the last standing example of the Chaotic Naturalism school of architecture.  Never mind the fact that just recently a woman murdered all of her children in that same apartment, and then killed herself.  And never mind the fact that Audrey immediately begins to have strange, vivid nightmares, and hears a voice telling her to build a door.

Fans of The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House will find a lot to like in Audrey’s Door.  In fact, Langan gives those works and a few others their due in a note at the beginning of the book.  Gloomy corridors, a protagonist on a downward spiral that’s seemingly impossible to stop, a building with a mind of its own, and when the terrifying insanity ramps up, it ramps up.

Like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, the Breviary is a character, complete with motivations and personality.  It’s such a strong entity that it can’t help but overcome any human beings who come into contact with it.  Langan takes the time and care to give the Breviary’s backstory just as much attention as she does Audrey’s, which works to build the connection between the building and its chosen favorite.

That’s what separates the good haunted house stories from the so-so ones–the good ones make sure the house has a personality and a history, a reason for being the way that it is.  A haunted house doesn’t just have ghosts or ghoulies in it.  A haunted house has an energy, a force, one that turns our cozy idea of hearth and home on its head.  That’s why they’re scary, after all.  You’re supposed to feel safe in your home.  When your home is insane, there’s nowhere to hide.

As much as Langan might owe to haunted house classics, she has a style all her own.  She has a great talent for writing compelling protagonists and for truly disturbing and creepy imagery.  Her writing is very character-driven, and everyone has a strong voice and personality.  Audrey’s descent into madness is a chilling one to witness.  Langan is also darkly funny at times, too, which always makes a welcome counterpoint to the scary.  There are also some very well-placed New York City references and nods, which add a nice sense of place.

If you’re after a cozy, old-fashioned spook house book for Halloween this year, Audrey’s Door might be a good one to try.

–Marie

“A Head Full of Ghosts” by Paul Tremblay

Exorcism and possession story fans, have I got one for you this year.  Let me introduce you to A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
head full of ghostsWhen 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.   And in a third narrative, there’s a horror blogger discussing the TV show and its impact and background.  What really happened to Merry’s sister?  And why is Merry the only one who made it out alive?

I’ll go ahead and say I absolutely loved this, especially the construction.  I love how Tremblay uses the blog narrative to train you to think in horror references, and then how he uses that to set up the reveal at the end.  If you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and if you haven’t, do pick it up either before or after you read this one!) you’ll figure it out, but it’s great either way.  (Sorry. I guess I just sort of spoiled both books with that, but I enjoyed it anyway, and having some idea of what was going to happen didn’t lessen the emotional impact for me at all.)

A reviewer on Goodreads who didn’t like the book used the phrase “warmed over Shirley Jackson.”  I don’t think this is fair.  I’d say Tremblay took the chili that Shirley Jackson made and then made tamale pie with it.  He didn’t just microwave it and slop it down in front of you.  He added and mixed and spiced and topped until, while you can still taste the chili, there’s an entirely new dish.  I’d go so far as to say he even made his own topping from scratch, he didn’t use Jiffy mix.

Anyway, you see what I’m getting at.  Tremblay pays an homage while making the story his own.  And it’s a great story with wonderfully drawn characters, particularly Merry.  Horror, like Romance, is a genre where you have to care about the characters, at least a little.  The best Horror makes you care, so that the terrifying things that happen and the fight against darkness seems to be happening to you personally.  It’s a very visceral experience.  Tremblay succeeds in depicting a family in full break-down, and choosing to narrate through Merry’s eight-year-old eyes makes that storyline even sadder, more confusing, and scarier.  Is it mental illness, or a demon?  Is Merry remembering correctly?  How much did she create in order to make sense of her family falling apart?

It’s also jam-packed with frightening sequences, described in atmospheric, chilling detail.  Possession stories, like The Exorcist, always make a lot out of how scary a human being behaving in unnatural or unusual ways can be.

All three of the voices ring true, the imagery is genuinely creepy, and the story is an affecting mix of scary and melancholy, with enough jumps and twists and unsettling scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat.  A really wonderful blend of horror and psychological suspense, one of the best ones I read this year.

–Marie

P.S.
It’s October, the season to be a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater!  #5 complete, a book published this year.  Boom.

Marie’s Favorite Scary Books, Part IV: Scary Book Massacre

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 MyersFriday the 13th: The Final ChapterAmityville 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

small shadowsThe 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.

pleasure and a callingA 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.

head full of ghostsA 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 WarningTrigger 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.

night sister

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

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!

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #22

Reading Challlenge Item 22: A book with pictures! The new collection of Shirley Jackson’s work has delightful pictures–namely, little stick-figure cartoons drawn by the author.

Let Me Tell You

They're all like this.  Love the hair especially.
One of Jackon’s sketches, found in the linked New Yorker article.  They’re all like this. Love the hair especially.

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer.  She gave us the classic short story The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948.  Jackson also wrote the famous tale of ghosts and madness, The Haunting of Hill House, as well as my personal favorite, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Much of Jackson’s work deals with paranoia and disconnect.  She also loved a good twist or surprise ending.  Jackson’s writings have a Gothic sensibility–dark and uneasy, sometimes dealing with secrets and buried crimes, unsure footing all the way through for the characters and the reader.  The Lottery, about a small-town with a strange ritual, is a bit on the rare side for how shocking it is.  Most of the time, Jackson prefers to go for suggestion, and for creepiness and oddities occurring just outside your field of vision.

Something I learned by reading this collection is that Jackson also had the ability to be hilarious. In addition to her darker and more twisty pieces, she also wrote many articles about her children and being a housewife. Life Among the Savages is a good collection of these.  All the time Jackson was writing, she was also raising four kids and taking care of a huge old farmhouse in Vermont.  Her pieces about family dinners, doing the dishes, and the mystery of who left the hose on the front lawn to freeze are all sweet, very funny, and very entertaining.  Also easy to relate to if you too spend a lot of time washing dishes while drafting stories in your head.

Shirley Jackson with her children
Shirley Jackson with her children in 1956, photographed by Erich Hartmann.

Let Me Tell You also includes a few of Jackson’s lectures about being a writer, and it’s great fun to read about the way she worked and also the way she viewed her fiction.  The glimpse into her process is enlightening–I especially liked the anecdote about how she came up with The Lottery while taking one of her kids on a walk around the neighborhood.  I also really loved how a sense of good-natured intelligence and a cozy sort of weird streak shine through in some of her pieces.

While this might not be the best introduction to Jackson’s work, if you’re already a fan you’ll find a lot to like.  If you are new to her and want to dip in a toe, start with The Lottery and Other Stories.

–Marie