Small towns are naturally horrific—everyone knows your business, there’s always a creepy legend or two and the history of the town encroaches uncomfortably on the present. Authors have been exploiting this for thrills since Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home and the film Wicker Man. Here are some of my favorites to add to this type.
Brendan Duffy’s first novel House of Echoes checks many horror boxes: young family, derelict house, imaginary friend (or is it?). The Tierneys leave Manhattan after losing their jobs and finding their children the victims of bullying. They move to the Swannhaven estate, hoping to transform it into an Inn. Strange things happen... This novel has a very slow, atmospheric build, which I happen to enjoy, but other readers might find tiresome. It’s not the most original story, but I do think it is a well-done gothic tale which some have compared to The Shining. It does share that novel’s remote setting and claustrophobic feel.
S.J. Bolton is primarily regarded as crime writer, but Blood Harvest has enough of a whiff of the supernatural to classify it as horror. Its setting is superbly described: Heptonclough is a remote English village on the moors that maintains some disturbing ancient traditions. The Fletchers’ build a new house, sandwiched between two churches and on the edge of the cemetery. They find their welcome to town is less than warm, and more disturbingly, their two children are convinced they see a woman haunting the cemetery. Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of 10 year old Tom Fletcher, the new vicar who is reopening one of the churches and Evi Oliver, Tom Fletcher’s psychiatrist, this novel keeps a quick pace, in line with Bolton’s crime roots.
If you prefer the fast passed chills of Blood Harvest, to the slow build of House of Echoes, the Niceville trilogy by Carsten Stroud is for you. The tagline of the first novel is, ”Something’s wrong in Niceville..” Niceville is a town in an unnamed Southern state that has more than its share of crazy characters, crime and supernatural events. This first book takes place over the span of 36 hours and introduces dozens of characters and plot lines, from the horrific to the humorous. If you like Nicevile, I recommend getting next titles, Homecoming and The Reckoning, in quick succession, because it is easy to forget the intricacies and characters Stroud lays out. Like Blood Harvest, this may be more of a crime thriller, but it definitely has more than a hint of horror woven in.
Banned Books Week
Banned Books week is an initiative by the American Library Association “to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”1 The Office of Intellectual Freedom of ALA, which sponsors Banned Books week, provides resources to libraries of all types who find items in their collection challenged by community members. Although the week is called “Banned Books Week,” it is really about books that were challenged in certain jurisdictions, most often school districts, rather than books actually banned, for example, by governments.
Every year, titles are challenged for sexually explicit content or for language. While I don’t agree with limiting access to books based on these criteria, I can understand the impulse. The challenges I find most interesting, though, are those that are challenged because they present different worldviews. For example, in 2016, the most commonly challenged books were challenged for having gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender content. Not necessarily that they were sexually explicit, mind you, just that they had content that presented a LGBT worldview.
For example, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, is a graphic novel about a middle school girl and her involvement in the school play as well as her middle school crushes. Two of the characters are gay and share a kiss on stage. This content was deemed “sexually explicit” and challenged at several middle schools. When you think about it, though, it’s not the sexual content; it’s the worldview presented. Some of the challenges made this explicit, challenging it for “having an offensive political viewpoint.” Is acknowledging that there are gay middle schoolers an offensive political viewpoint?
The most challenged book of 2016 was This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Like Drama, it was challenged for having gay characters, not necessarily sexual content. This One Summer won a Caldecott award, which is usually given to books for younger readers, although the age range goes up to 14. The attention given to the book was probably due to the assumption by many readers and librarians that, as a Caldecott winner, it was for younger children. The authors, responded to the challenges by saying:
“We worry about what it means to define certain content, such as LGBTQ content, as being of inappropriate for young readers. Which implicitly defines readers who do relate to this content, who share these experiences, as not normal, when really they are part of the diversity of young people’s lives….The main character of This One Summer, Rose, is often afraid, confused, exposed to things outside of her comfort zone, things she doesn’t completely understand. We believe that is part of growing up. Life is often upsetting. But upsetting things in books are not actually happening in real life, but at a safe distance. You can read about an experience outside of your own, and gain the opportunity to better understand someone who it happens to in reality. You get to experience some of those emotions, without a personal price.”2
I find challenges based on worldview interesting because doesn’t all literature present a different worldview? Isn’t that why we read, to hear someone else’s story? Moby Dick advocates whale killing; Pride and Prejudice presents marriage as a business transaction; Little House on the Prairie says little girls should sit quietly. That’s the worldview presented in those stories, but we read them exactly for that worldview, even when there is an element to it we find offensive. Literature has always been about presenting others’ stories in a way that makes us acknowledge universal human truths or, at least, to appreciate the author’s perspective on universal human truths.
The lesson of Banned Books Week is that we will find something offensive, but in a free society, it is our right and privilege both to be offended and not impose our offense on others, even as they don’t impose them on us.
We all have that book we wish we’d read in school—that classic that somehow didn’t make it on the syllabus that represents a gap in our knowledge of the Western canon. We also have that book we wish hadn’t made it on the syllabus—the book we slogged through, hated every minute of and made us question what redeeming quality it possessed that made it required reading for generations of students.
The cure for both of these is, I’ve found, is reading an adaptation of the classic—no not the Cliff’s notes or graphic novel version! Many classics have modern retellings—either set in modern times or reworked by a modern author—that have the same plot, themes or characters as the original. The fact that an author, removed from the original author in time and country, can take the same basic plot and themes and rework them to speak to a modern audience provides evidence of that quality which makes a classic. Just as most movies aren’t worth being remade, most books aren’t worth reworking.
One way of revisiting a classic is to look at the characters and unfolding events from another character’s perspective. Longbourn by Jo Baker takes place at Longbourn during the events of Pride and Prejudice*, but features none of that beloved work’s characters. Instead, it centers on the lives of the servants of the Bennett family, who are invisible in Austen’s work. There is romance and intrigue belowstairs as well as above, but my favorite aspect of Longbourn is the details of everyday life in Regency England it provides. Austen, of course, didn’t dwell on these, as her audience would have known them and taken them for granted. With the intervening centuries, I find I enjoy having those particulars filled in.
One of my favorite classics is Rebecca** by Daphne DuMaurier. Manderley, the estate set near the forbidding Cornish coast, seems almost a character in its own right. Imagine my surprise then, when Deborah Lawrenson wrote The Lantern, setting the basic plot of Rebecca in the south of France. Don’t imagine the sunny south of France; this is the brooding, off season Provence, not featured in travel brochures, but full of its own culture and history. Lawrenson weaves the perfect Gothic atmosphere in this unlikely setting.
There is currently a series, Hogarth Shakespeare, comprised of modern authors’ takes on Shakespeare plays. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a retelling of The Tempest. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is her take on the Taming of the Shrew. Those are the two our library owns, but there are others and forthcoming ones by Jo Nesbǿ and Gillian Flynn.
*Pride and Prejudice is one of the most reworked classics, having spawned zombie reimaginings, hot encounters between Elizabeth & Darcy, as well as mystery readaptations.
**Other take-offs from Rebecca include Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman, which fleshes out the stories of 4 characters influenced by Rebecca, and Mrs. De Winter by Susan Hill which is a sequel, narrating events that happened after the DeWinter’s leave Manderley.
Travelogues to Places You'll Never Go
As you plan your yearly travels, allow these authors to suggest some places to take off your bucket list. These are all fascinating travelogues---to places you would never want to go!
J. Maarten Troost was an aimless 26 year old when his longtime girlfriend was offered a position at a non-profit on a remote Pacific island. Dreaming of white sands, blue waters and paradise, Troost readily agreed to accompany her to Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, an atoll in the equatorial Pacific. What he found, however, was far from paradise as he recounts in Sex Lives of Cannibals. The low-lying atolls of the Pacific have no fresh water—it must all be shipped in, and the soil is so thin and meagre, most foodstuffs have to be shipped in as well. The teeming local population uses their turquoise lagoon as a toilet—which Troost discovers while swimming! He finds the residents appallingly hedonistic and short sighted and is constantly frustrated by them. After reading this hilarious account of his two years on one of the remotest islands on Earth, you won’t see the Pacific as a paradise anymore!
You’ll never go to North Korea, not just because you don’t want to, but also because they don’t want you to either. Travel writer Wendy Simmons somehow got a rare travel visa to North Korea and recounts her whole adventure in My Holiday in North Korea. She is only shown what the government wants her to see, which results in many surreal encounters—in one memorable day, she visits an amusement park, and after remarking how there are no people in it, they start showing up, in regimented lines. She continually asks awkward questions and tries the patience of her guides. Through it all, however, she manages to learn about the spirit of this subjugated people.
Tony Horwitz’s Baghdad without a Map is over 20 years old and of course, much has happened in the Middle East of his travels since then. It is still a fantastic read, thanks to his ability to engage with ordinary citizens to find out a country’s true culture. Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who reported on the Middle East in the 1980s. When his wife, Geraldine Brooks, is assigned a post in Cairo, he accompanies her and travels throughout Arabia. A Jew and a journalist, he somehow gets local people everywhere he goes to open up to him about their lives and their country. While attending the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral, he hears chants of “Death to America”…to discover later the chanter’s secret dream is to visit Disneyland! Horwitz’s insightful prose brings the contradictions of this region to life.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
International settings? Check
Mysteries to be solved? Check
Absolutely true? Check
These non-fiction titles read like the best international thrillers—although they are also true. These titles exemplify the saying “truth is stranger than fiction.”
The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans by Mark Jacobson begins with a surreal scenario. One of the author’s friends finds an unusual lamp for sale at a yard sale in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. When he asks its jailhouse-tatted seller what is the odd material of the shade, he’s told “It’s made from the skin of Jews.” Apparently a bit of an offbeat character himself, he immediately thinks of his journalist (and Jewish) friend Mark Jacobson, buys the lamp and sends it to him. Born post-World War II, Jacobson grew up on legends of such gruesome artifacts of the Nazis and is in turns intrigued and appalled by the item now in his possession. When DNA testing confirms it really is made of human skin, he embarks on a worldwide journey to discover its provenance and to come to grips with the legacy of cruelty that created it. Along the way he encounters a surprising variety of characters, including Holocaust historians and Holocaust deniers who both deny the very existence of such an object (albeit for very different reasons) in spite of the object sitting on their desks. What makes his investigation so compelling is not the answers he finds, but the varied responses and philosophical conundrums he encounters along the way.
When author Douglas Preston (co-author of the Agent Prendergast series) moved his family to a Tuscan villa, he had no idea of the property’s bloody past. His olive grove was the site of an infamous double murder perpetrated by the serial killer known as the Monster of Florence. The Monster of Florence was active in the Tuscan countryside from the 1960s to the 1980s and has never been caught, although several men have been charged and released. Preston teams up with Mario Spezi an Italian investigative journalist who has spent his life tracking down the killer and has his own theory of who it is. The theory hits too close to some important powerful Italians, however and Preston finds himself the target of a police investigation. Spezi is also charged with impeding the investigation and is accused of being the Monster of Florence himself! Combining the best of true crime, political intrigue and an international setting, you won’t be able to put The Monster of Florence down.
Ali and Nino by Kurban Said is a classic love story that was recently made into a film. Not much was known about its author, however, until New Yorker journalist Tom Reiss found the notebooks of Lev Nussimbaum aka Essad Bey among his former editor’s things. Lev Nussimbaum was born to a Jewish family in Baku right before the Russian Revolution. Escaping with a camel caravan, he ended up in Germany where he reinvented himself as a Muslim prince. Ali and Nino was a bestseller in Nazi Germany and he was asked to pen Mussolini’s biography…until his true identity as a Jew was discovered. Because of his subject’s reinvention of himself and obfuscation of his true origins, Reiss spent years tracking down his subject’s real life. The Orientalist is not an easy read, packed as it is with details, persons and locales, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the life of who must surely be one of history’s greatest characters.
What Should I Read Next?
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