Recently, a new friend asked me what type of book I like. Any reader who flatters themselves with the word ‘eclectic’ will know that this is a question that can strike fear into the heart.
In the end, though, I came up with an answer of sorts: my favourite books broadly fall into three categories. Category one: fat Victorian novels with interweaving, inter-generational plotlines spanning several decades, often revolving around the gradually unravelling psychology of one character. The more hundreds of pages, the better (think Elliot’s Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – with honorary mentions to modern behemoths like The Luminaries and Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy).
Category two: dreamy mid-century novels about rich people, generally with a romantic, nostalgic sensibility (Rebecca, I Capture the Castle, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, as well as Eva Ibbotson’s 1980s pastiche romances). Note: I believe that Jilly Cooper’s raunchy ‘Rutshire’ doorstoppers neatly bridge categories one and two, which is probably why I like them so much.
And category three: short, unsettling books. Often these books contain no supernatural elements, their creepiness derived from a quiet, persistent sense that something is rotten deep within. I’m talking obsession, neglect, manipulation, decay, self-loathing, cruelty, dependency, denial, naivety, unreliable narrators and shocking crimes with unlikely perpetrators, all set against either a shivering outdoor backdrop or a gloomy caricature of modern working life.
The best of this genre are self-assured little books sitting comfortably under 300 pages. In the run up to Halloween, I thought I’d introduce you to a few of them.
Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss (2018), 149 pages
Delightfully short but rich and atmospheric in spades. In the eerie setting of a lonely corner of the Northumberland moors in summertime, a small band of characters gather at an Iron Age re-enactment camp. Among them is the teenage Sylvie and her controlling, volatile father. Moss does an excellent job of portraying Sylvie’s naïve, sheltered outlook that causes her to idolise her father and excuses his sins. Tensions rise as the sun beats down on the moorland setting and Sylvie’s emotional and intellectual horizons are expanded by the students at the camp… while her father’s enthusiasm for historical realism grows ever more threatening.
Though a little ham-fisted in its message of male cruelty and female awakening, this short novel drew me in and held me captive until its genuinely disturbing final scene.
The New Me, Halle Butler (2019), 191 pages
One of the best books I have read in the past couple of years; one I return to again and again. I must be somewhat masochistic because I have a habit of leafing through this book on Sunday evenings. Sunday evening is the absolutely worst time to read this book, for it tells the tale of Millie, the thirty-year-old ‘eternal temp’ who struggles to retain a job, form close relationships with friends, or break her cycle of self-loathing and defeatism. This stasis is juxtaposed painfully against Millie’s hopes for how much better life could be – and how much better she could be – if only she were given a little more good-will from others, if only a more stable income could enable her to achieve the moderately enjoyable life she dreams of.
This book sucks you in, inviting you to take great dirty gulps of ennui and misery. It is torture porn for the quarter-life crisis, its ending a totally bleak prophecy of Millie’s future that will leave you desolate.
The Children of Dynmouth, William Trevor (1976), 195 pages
The boy would stand in court-rooms with his smile. He would sit in the drab offices of social workers. He would be incarcerated in the cells of different gaols. By looking at him now you could sense that future, and his eyes reminded you that he had not asked to be born. What crime would it be? What greater vengeance would he take? The child was right when she said it was people like that who did terrible things.
Set in a windswept, sleepy, forgotten English coastal town, The Children of Dynmouth is haunted by Timothy, a lonely teenager who walks the town’s streets, spying on his neighbours and taking sadistic pleasure in causing them embarrassment and discomfort. He lurks on every page, unsettling the reader in equal measure. It is an unnerving tale of a lingering malevolent presence – of staring eyes that never blink.
Homer and Langley, E. L. Doctorow (2009), 208 pages
A dramatic retelling and enrichment of the real-life legend of the Collyer brothers, history’s most famous hoarders. Told through the gentle, naïve, beguiling voice of the blind younger brother Homer, this tale of growing social isolation is simple and haunting.
The ever-more-cluttered house acts as a delicious metaphor for the gathering memories and emotional baggage of the passing years, as the brothers become more and more suspicious, isolated and inter-dependent. Like most of the books on this list, it has a thrilling, disturbing final page. For a full dissection of its brilliance, you can read my review.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020), 245 pages
Undoubtedly the best book I have read this year. I think of Piranesi as a perfectly polished, exquisitely cut little gemstone, sparkling in the dark. The rich, pathetic voice of the narrator speaks with enchanting naivety from the pages, drawing the reader close – while the world he inhabits is dark, unique and strange.
Best savoured with no prior knowledge of what the story is about, Piranesi defies genre. With themes of isolation, manipulation and innocence lost, the novel is a stellar example of the unreliable narrator and the gradual reveal of information.
Piranesi joins 1984 and Animal Farm as one of the only books my boyfriend – who like many people struggles to dedicate time to reading – simply couldn’t put down and finished in a matter of hours. It’s just that good.
Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015), 260 pages
A Christmas tale like no other, Eileen forces the reader into the unwelcoming wintry setting of a boys’ prison in the week before Christmas. As in The New Me, we are stuck in the unpleasant head of a female protagonist wading through a gluttonous pit of self-loathing. Moshfegh focuses particularly on Eileen’s acute awareness and disgust with her physical body. This miserable emotion is sticky enough to leave a residue on the reader long after the last page is turned.
But unlike The New Me, Eileen’s stasis shatters with the arrival of the glamourous Rebecca, who predictably becomes an object of obsession. The plot gathers pace as Eileen becomes implicated in a disturbing crime, which bursts onto the page in one of the most genuinely shocking twists I have ever read.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk (2009), 266 pages
Chilling is the word for the last book on this list, set in a remote rural Polish village. The mind that the reader is invited to inhabit – that of a lonely, eccentric older lady – is a confusing but charming jumble. Her pre-occupations include a love of animals, astrology and the translation in Polish of William Blake’s poetry.
Through her eyes, we watch the plot unfold: one-by-one, members of a local hunting club are discovered dead in unusual circumstances, often with animals nearby. Our narrator becomes convinced that animals are exacting their revenge upon these hunters… but why will no one listen to her?
As yet another successful example of an unreliable narrator, this story is the equivalent of making one’s way slowly down a country lane on a cold, dark winter’s night, with only the narrator’s shaky hand in yours and a torch to light the way. Page-by-page, horrors and marvels are revealed in bright, unsettling bursts, keeping the reader constantly unsure of the underlying pattern beneath it all. The perfect book to curl up with on Halloween night.
If you read and enjoy any of these books, please let me know and if you are able, buy me a coffee to say thanks. Thank you!