Conflict and uncertainty are what keep our minds alert and actively reassessing and recalibrating our opinions. For this reason, I love books that haunt and harrow with confronting ideas and uncomfortable points of view—books that make me feel just a little unsafe.
So with Halloween coming up, I thought I’d share a few of the stories that have really rattled my cage this year. They’re not necessarily scary or spooky, but they have left me, in some way, disturbed.
What recent reads have left you unnerved? Let me know in the comments! (I am always, always hunting for recommendations.)
The Natural Way of Things
by Charlotte Wood
Yolanda and Verla wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves on a rundown sheep station in the middle of the Australian outback. Their clothes are gone. Their phones are missing. They don’t know why they’ve been brought to this place.
They’re not alone. Ten young women are being held captive on the station—’Hardings International: Dignity and Respect in a Safe Environment’, they learn from the inscription printed on their dinner bowls. They are all strangers, yet they’ve seen each other before—they’re infamous, women made scapegoats in ugly sex crimes.
The have their heads shaved, and are forced to dress in coarse, old fashioned tunics and bonnets that blinker their vision. They spend their days building a road across the station beneath the sweltering mid-summer sun and sleep locked in the shearers’ quarters—cramped, filthy cubbies not fit for dogs. They are marched around the station in a pack, clipped together by leashes, and are kept in line by hired guards: Nancy, Teddy and alpha-thug Boncer.
The station is surrounded by a high electric fence that draws its power from a hidden source; escape is impossible. But when then lights go out in the main house and food supplies begin to dwindle, it becomes clear that the girls’ captors are also prisoners and, little by little, the balance of power begins to shift.
The Natural Way of Things is brutal, violent, gothic. Wood’s prose is vivid, flecked with gore, and she draws on the sublime terror of the Australian outback to make her reader sweat and squirm as she pulls them into her increasingly primal, animal world.
Gold Fame Citrus
by Claire Vaye Watkins
Wind and drought have made a wasteland of the American south-west. The Amargosa, an uncharted dune sea, moves glacier-like across the landscape, the rocks at its base crushing towns, filling canyons and levelling mountains. The West has reverted to the wild place it was before people came seeking gold, fame, citrus. Most people have been evacuated to the northern and eastern states, but a scattered few—the Mojavs—remain. Drifters. Dreamers. Criminals without a clean ID to secure their passage across the border. Lost souls who feel the tug of the Amargosa’s sublime energy.
Luz and Ray are among the hold outs, an ex-model and a soldier gone AWOL living on ration cola and $200 cans of blueberries in a starlet’s mansion. They keep their desires small until towheaded baby Ig toddles into their life and with pleading eyes demands: ‘More, more, more … Mama, I’ve got so much want in me.’ Like the pioneers before them—the prospectors, runaways, Hollywood hopefuls, immigrants, crims and con artists, the unlikely family leave burned out LA and venture into the sunbaked heart of the wild, wild west, risking death in search of a better life.
Gold Fame Citrus is a sweeping, sublime story of faith, fortune and divine madness that ventures deep into the Gothic underbelly of the American Dream.
by Marisha Pessl
Ashley Cordova, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of reclusive filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, is found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in New York City. The police call it a suicide, but disgraced investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, thinks the truth is far more sinister. Joined by Hopper (a small-time drug dealer and childhood friend of Ashley’s) and Nora (a wannabe actress and one of the last people to speak with Ashley), McGrath decides to investigate. However, nothing could prepare him (or the reader) for just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes. What follows is an unnerving descent into a Gothic underworld presided over by the monstrous Other, the unseen puppet master: Cordova.
Cordova is the twenty-first century’s answer to the vampire—more myth than man—figuratively feeding off his actors, plumbing the hidden depths of their experience and draining them of their most vivid emotions and memories to make films that are polarising—exercises in extreme beauty and terror that shock the viewer into a heightened state of being. in Cordova’s own words they are: ‘sovereign, deadly, perfect’. No one who comes in contact with Cordova can resist him, and everyone who meets him walks away irrevocably altered. But no one has seen Cordova in years. He gave his last interview to Rolling Stone in 1977 and is now believed to reside at The Peak—a vast rural estate, complete with sound stages, that he supposedly never leaves. Most of his actors won’t speak about working with him, and those that do soon disappear. His most loyal and obsessive fans, the Cordovites, meet on the Blackboards—a protected forum on a hidden internet—to dissect his films and post evidence of possible sightings of the director and his family.
Needless to say, the space around Cordova is filled with rumours: that he’s dead; that he never existed and the genius behind his films is his long-time assistant; that he’s an occultist; a sex fiend; that he loved Ashley; that they were estranged; that he is quietly manipulating McGrath’s investigation, drawing him away from his loved ones, isolating him; that he is entirely ignorant of the case mounting against him; and that ‘there is something he does to the children’. He is our greatest fear—the unknowable answer to the question most are too afraid to ask.
Night Film is a sinister Gothic thriller for readers who like something a little out of the ordinary.
by Emily St. John Mandel
The night the world ends, Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. A paramedic-in-training rushes up from the audience to perform CPR while Kirsten, a child actor playing a ghostly apparition of young Cordelia, watches from behind a pillar. Within a month everyone else present at the Elgin Theatre will be dead.
Twenty years earlier, Leander’s first wife, Miranda, sits up late after a dinner party coming to terms with the end of her marriage and working on Doctor Eleven, a series of graphic novels about a physicist living on a damaged space station that once resembled a scaled down Earth.
Twenty years later, Kirsten, still in her Titania costume, flees from a cult town into the forest with the Travelling Symphony—a knife at her belt and two tattered Doctor Eleven comics in her backpack—to begin the long journey to the rumoured Museum of Civilisation.
The Eye of the Sheep
by Sofie Laguna
The Eye of the Sheep is the story of Jimmy Flick, a young boy with special needs growing up in a family on the verge of falling apart in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. His dad works at the nearby refinery scraping rust from the pipes and drinking himself to violence on Friday nights, while his mother suffers severe asthma, her airways clogged with dust. Jimmy’s only friend is his elder brother, Robby, but Robby is growing up fast and soon there isn’t room for him and his dad under the same roof.
The world has always seemed strange to Jimmy, full of situations just beyond his grasp, but when the flame at the end of the refinery pipe in the empty field behind the Flicks’ house at Nineteen Emu gutters, even the routines and domestic machinery he relies on begin breaking down, one by one.
Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Eye of the Sheep is a story of broken systems: rusty pipes, clogged airways, failed communications, relationships turned rotten and government departments under strain. Obsessed with instruction manuals, Jimmy is certain he can put all the pieces back together if only he can figure out the connections between them.
The Eye of the Sheep is available through Kobo.
In a Dark, Dark Wood
by Ruth Ware
A group of old school friends reunite for a hen weekend at a remote country house deep in the woods. But what should be a fun few days of dirty games and drinking takes a turn for the sinister when secrets from the past begin to surface.
When Nora wakes up in hospital on Sunday morning, she can’t remember what happened at the party. But someone is dead and what at first appears to have been an accident begins to look increasingly like murder, and everyone, even Nora, has a motive. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a claustrophobic and chilling read, compelling the reader on with steadily mounting tension.
In a Dark, Dark Wood is a smart and chilling debut thriller brimming with suspense.
The Light That Gets Lost
by Natasha Carthew
Hiding in a cupboard among his family’s winter coats, seven-year-old Trey witnesses the murder of his parents and near-murder of his brother: ‘A house fallen silent with three shots, four just about.’
Eight years later, the demon inside Trey is driving him towards revenge. He knows that the man who sent his parents to an early grave and his brother to a nursing home is a man of the cloth and works at Camp Kernow—a work farm for delinquent youths. Trey has committed a crime to earn a place in the camp, determined that ‘This was the place where things were about to rewind to the point of wrong and settle back right.’
The Light That Gets Lost is a thinking reader’s dystopia: a story of innocence lost too soon; of revenge, corruption and power; of systems that prioritise money over people, but also a story of friendship and loyalty.
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