Spooky reading recommendations from the editors at Guernica on the things that terrify us: from Edith Wharton's ghosts to rotting elevator salmon.
Image from Wikimedia Commons via Dvortygirl
Instead of mini candy bars, we’re filling your trick-or-treating bags with scary reading recommendations. Hey, it beats raisins. Happy Halloween.
“Up And Then Down” by Nick Paumgarten
I belong to the camp that finds the hiding-in-plain-sight variation of scary more terrifying than some of our more ghoulish nightmares. That’s why Nick Paumgarten’s 2008 story in The New Yorker about elevators remains one of the scariest things I’ve read. The interweaving narrative, which recounts the experience of a man who was trapped in an elevator in New York’s McGraw Hill building for 41 hours, is completely compelling: an extremely detailed and well-told breakdown of a common cosmopolitan fear. Reading this story is one of the best ways to both incite and conquer that fear—you become fascinated with it.
—Jillian Kumagai, Editorial Intern, Guernica Daily
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton
Ghost stories might seem a little bit quaint these days, given the everyday terrors of the world we live in, but sometimes, shutting everything off and sitting quietly with spooky tales set in once-grand old houses with locked doors and danger or madness looming just around every corner is just the thing. A Wharton ghost “prefers the silent hours, when the wireless has ceased to jazz.” All of the complex emotions that Wharton writes about so beautifully in her novels are here, but they are pared down to fit inside the simple scary tale; here are fear, sadness, love, and loss, rendered into ghosts and a creeping fear of the unknown. And so this Halloween, I’ll plan on facing our modern fear of disconnecting, and will power-down to sit in spine-tingly silence with these moody, stylish stories about good old-fashioned ghosts. “If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done it’s job and done it well,” Wharton says in the preface to this collection, and she’s done just that.
—Lisa Lucas, Publisher
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Night Film is a novel, yes, but when you’re immersed in its dark tide it feels like much more than that. Deeply sinister from the beginning, Night Film follows disgraced reporter Scott McGrath as he investigates the sudden suicide of 24-year-old Ashley Cordova, daughter of famously reclusive and disturbing filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. The novel has a decidedly cinematic quality to it, creepy and rife with shadowy corners. Throughout it Pessl makes use of fake documents—from police and missing persons reports to a Rolling Stone interview—and gives us the plot of Cordova’s films. Night Film turns into a kind of riveting rabbit hole, winding it’s way through New York City and Ashley’s last few weeks on Earth. What you take from it at the end is up to you—which is, I think, the point.
—Janet Matthews, Editorial Intern
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
In 1993 Octavia Butler prophesied a world, a country, a city (LA) frighteningly close the nightmare we almost live in now. Between the story’s polarized, specialized violence over resource depletion; its face-painted, drug-induced and economic chaos/class-based pyromania and paranoia; gated communities spilling on foot, terrified, in gun-wielding cliques onto the 101; and searing observations on three great American specters: race, class, religion, Butler’s vision was better—clearer—more frightening at an axis parallel with current reality than really any of her sci-fi peers.
This is not a ghost story. Herein lies rape and forced family disbanding; violent distrust. Death. Death sometimes more complete than could be imagined by the seemingly comfortable. Also emergent life. In other of her books there are electric collars for captured communities controlled by belts worn by brutal reeducators, shape shifters and mindreaders once emotionally ruined now transitioned and connected through centuries and across continents in a pattern interlocked.
But the best part is, in addition to her spare and captivating prose, the solutions—the hope seeded in young Lauren Olamina through her ascension to the stars—the “breaks” as Butler schools in this video can also be part of our reality here.
—Kaye Cain-Nielsen, Special Issues Editor
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa
“It’s always warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal,” begins the teenage narrator of the first novella in Ogawa’s collection. She is speaking of the eponymous diving pool, but the engulfment is real. From the first line, you are surrounded by a quiet, imperceptible dread, which only increases over the course of each slim story, pulling the reader along in a series of gestures and conclusions that take place according to a semi-magical, internal logic. Ogawa requires you to suspend your disbelief, or assumes that you didn’t have any to begin with: her characters move in an uneasy, dreamlike space. Their actions range from the mundane to the horrific—from penning diary entries to torture itself—gaining momentum and finally breaking the surface of her fiction in startlingly visceral ways. A quiet horror emerges from each story: subtle, psychological. It remains with you for days. Read The Diving Pool. Read it alone. Not in the dark. Somewhere warm.
—Larissa Pham, Editorial Intern
Private Empire by Steve Coll
Steve Coll’s massive, carefully reported, mild-mannered biography of Exxon Mobil is by far the most frightening book I’ve read recently. Coll is even-handed, and not bent on making the company out to be monstrous. But in cooly detailing the extent of its global influence, Coll does reveal the company to be a monster—in sheer size, if not in gruesomeness. It is basically an independent nation, operating in many parts of the world with greater power than the US government and with its own agenda. Understanding the degree to which this company and its peers can influence not just the environment but the political structures of the world we live in is one level of scary. Reflecting on the ways its existence is tied up with and enabled by the ways I live/travel/purchase/light-my-home/eat/etc. is positively chilling.
—Rachel Riederer, Editor, Guernica Daily
See Through: Stories by Nelly Reifler
“When I was a girl, I got a baby doll whose eyes closed when she lay down. I was scared for her, and pulled out her tiny plastic eyelids, so she could always see. Her eyes were blue, transparent, frozen. I would sit her on the bed across from me and we would look at each other in silence.”
In Nelly Reifler’s twisted anthology, babies infantilize their mothers, auditors make Big Mistakes with sharp red pencils and Pavel the squirrel’s diary reveals just how badly he wants to be a rat. With every story the young protagonists disprove further the baby-bottom-tenderness of childhood, monsters lurk not just in closets but splayed across ceilings, and you begin the next story with an already pounding heart, turn the pages with already goose-pimpled arms.
“He does not want to have any contact with children. He is always sure they will nail him in some way, say something true and mean that he does not want to hear.”
—Aditi Sriram, Editorial Assistant, Guernica Daily