You know what’s harder than starting a blog? Finding the gumption to come back to it after unintentionally abandoning it for five months.
Still, it’s been bugging me for a while now that I haven’t gushed about the following books, because they’re all wonderful and it seems a disservice to the authors to keep that wonderfulness to myself. So without further ado:
The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne M. Valente
I read a lot of speculative fiction, but it had been a long, long time since I read something that transported me away to strange and awesome wonders like these. Even now I have a hard time explaining how it felt to read these books — “like magic” seems too trite, but it’s also true. Grimm’s Fairy tales (the weird, dark ones) meet The Thousand and One Nights and run into feminism on the way to some of the most bizarre and interesting settings I have ever encountered. The characters are complex, the prose is stunning, and the worldbuilding is endlessly deep — it seems like there must be hundreds of other stories we don’t get to hear that do exist somehow, as if this is just the tip of a massive, magical iceberg.
I’m dissolving into mindless gushing here, perhaps, but seriously, look into this book if you like folklore, fairy tales, weird fantasy, literary fantasy, or mind-blowing fiction in general.
In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods is more literary than many literary novels, and flies with the pace of a thriller, even (or perhaps especially) when detailing the ever-evolving relationship between Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox. Major and minor characters alike shine with little telling details that make them seem real — thus making their troubles seem real too. I don’t read many mysteries at all, but this one sucked me in from the start. By the end, well, let’s just say I read the last 200 pages all in one day.
Highly recommended if you like literary fiction, mysteries, psychological thrillers, and other dark, thought-provoking stuff.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
This is the second book I’ve read that I would call truly frightening (the first being The Shining, a far more terrifying novel that kept me up at night the second time I read it). It’s a psychological drama with a haunted house twist — and what a house. It’s not that there’s a ghost wandering the halls; no, it’s that the halls themselves are malevolent and dark. The halls themselves speak and groan and try to reach Eleanor, the main character. And Eleanor is not a reliable narrator. She lies often, even to herself, to cover up the truths she can’t face. She lies so often and we are so trapped in her psyche that it’s hard to keep track of what’s really happening, what might really be motivating her fellow housemates. And that warped reality is as terrifying in its own way as the many bumps in the night.
Read it if you like literary horror and haunted houses in particular. Also read The Shining if you haven’t already — just not alone, not at night, and definitely not in a spooky old building.
Horns by Joe Hill
I had previously read Heart-Shaped Box, which I enjoyed but didn’t love, so I was surprised by how drawn into Horns I was — so drawn in that, again, I spent much of a recent Saturday reading the last 180 pages. Inevitably, I found myself comparing it to a Stephen King novel:* Everyman finds himself on the receiving end of a terrible Evil that he must fight off but not without getting nice and bloody first. (Yeah, it’s kind of gory.) But Horns is also delightfully different — more tightly-plotted than a King novel, with fewer voices (only two narrating characters) and more deeply personal stakes. Ig is a great main character, not without flaws but not so flawed you can’t root for him the whole way, and the villain is compelling and disgusting and everything you want a villain to be. The book is almost a character portrait of these two, and also twists around our usual cultural view of good and evil. Is the devil really such a bad guy?
Recommended if you like horror, psychological suspense, and Stephen King novels.
*This is inevitable because Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.
So there you have it: Four dark but wonderful reads. I didn’t actually set out to make a list of really dark literary genre fiction to recommend — these were just the books that came to mind as being fantastic recent reads. I almost feel I need to add a caveat or explanation: I’m a nice person, I’m a happy person, I read John Greene and Jenny Lawson and, uh, Charles Dickens. But I did listen to the Shutter Island soundtrack while reading The Haunting of Hill House, just to make sure I’d be terrified, so maybe, just maybe, there is something a little wrong with me…