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Literary Horror Books

recommended by Sue Rainsford

Redder Days by Sue Rainsford

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Redder Days
by Sue Rainsford

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The most unnerving and disturbing novels are often those books that leave room for interpretation and uncertainty. Here, the acclaimed Irish novelist Sue Rainsford selects five frightening works of literary horror, by authors who are masters of the unsettling implication—because nothing is quite so scary as what you dream up to fill the voids.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Redder Days by Sue Rainsford

out in paperback

Redder Days
by Sue Rainsford

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Your fiction embraces the menacing, the frightening, and the uncanny. Might you talk a bit about the strangelands of literary fiction—a subgenre of books we might dub ‘literary horror’?

People often describe my writing as being inflected with horror, or written in a magic-realist vein. But I never sit down and think: okay, I’m going to write a piece of horror, or: okay, I’m going to write magic realism. There’s no authorial agenda like that in place at the start, in terms of genre. But I am really interested in fiction that produces that strangeness. So, I’ll have a premise or setting or character or situation in place to start with, and slowly those bare bones of the story will produce that strangeness. It sort of simmers to the surface.

And I’m interested in work that operates in this way, because it leaves huge room for things like ambivalence and ambiguity. With a sensation like the uncanny, there’s no single resolved truth at the end of a piece of fiction. But there might be multiple possible truths, or concurrent truths. A very porous open-endedness.

“Can any piece of fiction live up to the quality of what you dreamed up to fill the voids?”

I’m drawn to fiction that behaves like this as both a reader and a writer: fiction that makes you question your reality by destabilising or undercutting what you thought you knew. Rather than, say, a novel or short story that tells you where it sits in the world and what you should think about it—and perhaps yourself by extension.

There’s a term that I like: “fictions of estrangement”. It sums up, for me, this oblique approach—of fiction functioning as an inquiry or a pursuit of knowledge, of new sensations, or new questions.

That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. And I find these kinds of books are great reading experiences, because they are challenging and disconcerting but also quite compulsive. They really tune you up, emotionally. Can we turn to your first literary horror book recommendation? This is Father of Lies by Brian Evenson. It’s set within a religious community.

I first heard Brian Evenson speak on the Tin House podcast Between the Covers. I was really drawn to the book, because in the interview it was presented as being based on, or adjacent to, the Mormon faith.

There’s a biographical element here: Evenson wrote a book of short stories called Altmann’s Tongue, which came out in 1994, when he was teaching at Brigham Young University in Utah—which is sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints—and one of the students complained about the contents of this short story collection. Altmann’s Tongue is quite sexual and graphic, and very violent. Brian Evenson was let know that he had to stop writing in this way if he wanted to continue teaching, and I think it was heavily suggested he would be excommunicated. In any case, he went into voluntary excommunication.

Then he wrote this book, Father of Lies, which touches on institutional abuse and personal evil—and the personal evils that are upheld by institutions. Samuel Delaney has an amazing introduction in the Coffee House Press edition of the book, in which he describes it as “patriarchal horror fiction”—so, this idea of horror growing out of gendered power, or the horror that occurs when men are given power simply because they’re men. As you know, here in Ireland, we have a very particular history with institutional abuse where religion is concerned. So I was interested in the idea of this writer delving so deeply and unapologetically into scenarios in which children, women, are being abused in this horrific way. As is often the way, while the events depicted are often unbearable for many of us to even consider, there’s a release that comes when something that has been systematically concealed is given representative space. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘catharsis’, but maybe something more ontological that can reverberate emotionally.

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Evenson is such a gentle, eloquent speaker. Not that we should all be embodying our work. God forbid. But I was so struck by how unapologetically horrific some of the content is, and how spare the language is as well. There’s a lyric quality too, which made it stand out to me.

Again, there’s this sense of intellectual pursuit underpinning it, and a kind of refutation—a pushing back through fiction. I’ve read quite a bit by Evenson, but Father of Lies stands out to me because it also has a blurring of the horrific. It risks pornography, in some ways, to get to the heart of what’s happening. Fernanda Melchor has talked about that in relation to Hurricane Season. That book takes on huge, systemic misogyny and femicide, and she took the risk of being gratuitous and pornographic in her depictions of sexual violence in order to get across the heart. This is something else I’m drawn to as a writer: how do you work with material that’s so volatile it challenges your expectations of the form, and you can’t always tell you when you’ve gone too far. There’s so much at risk, and so much to be gained.

There’s an aspect of formal experimentalism. But I’ve seen this book described as a “page turner”—it’s an unusual combination, but perhaps that hybridity is what defines literary horror.

In interviews, he’s spoken about Joycean modernism versus Kafka-esque modernism; with Joyce the experimentation is very verbose, it’s right there on the page and wants to show itself. Whereas with Kafka it’s about bareness, sparseness, and what gets left out, what you’re not seeing.

So, yes, reading it for the first time it does strike you as a page turner in many ways. It’s almost like a slow car crash—you can’t look away. The ending feels so inevitable, and you’re complicit by looking, by partaking in this gaze. But then on the second pass you see various traits that accumulate into an experimental flavour, like arriving late and leaving early in every scene, a narrative composed of offstage moments as well as what we actually see.

Did you read Olga Ravn’s The Employees? It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize last year, and I felt the same about that. It takes the form of a log of interviews with workers on a spaceship after some ominous, unspecified event. It seems the pages have fallen out at some point and been stuffed back in, out of order. There’s a lot of missing information. But it’s that incompleteness that makes the book so ominous and electrifying.

I love that. And deflection as well—things that are peripherally gathered. The investment we have in scenarios that we’ve imagined, irrespective of whether or not they’re accurate. Can any piece of fiction live up to the quality of what you dreamed up to fill the voids? Fiction that calls on the reader in this way really lingers.

Let’s talk about the next book on your literary horror list: Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. Schweblin is an Argentinian writer. This was translated into English by Megan McDowell in 2017. Why do you recommend it?

What I love about this book is the register. At the start, it is the register that makes it inherently uncanny, unhinging, destabilising. You realise slowly that it’s a conversation between two people—a dying woman and a boy who are talking in a hospital. So from the woman’s slow deathbed, if you like. While she’s coming in and out of consciousness and negotiating various levels of reality and hallucination, but he’s trying to get her to tell him a story that his mother told her. He’s pressing her to speak, and she doesn’t always want to speak. You also realise that there’s been a very troubling event that has led to the woman being on her deathbed.

With another writer, this could be so convoluted, and Samanta Schweblin has talked about how it took several drafts to get it right. Again, it’s a short book. The meat and the bones of the novel all takes place within this conversation. The dynamic is a little off: he’s not sufficiently respectful, or his voice seems older than his body. That’s when you realise that he’s had experiences that a young boy shouldn’t have had, and it’s given him a kind of sinister gravitas.

It starts with the conversation. Inside that, you have the story. In the story, the protagonist and her daughter leave Buenos Aires to go to their rural holiday home. And in this rural landscape, you have very palpable concerns around GM crops and fertilisers being used in the soybean fields, and they’re poisoning the landscape and water. Then you have this folkloric element: this healer, who lives on the outskirts of the town. She’s a matter-of-fact presence, even though her powers are supernatural. There are no questions around the veracity of her power: any children who drink the poisoned water and have to go to this woman to be healed. That’s how the two strands—realist and supernatural—overlap.

“As I writer, I read it and think: how did she do that?”

She heals them through this process called transmigration, which is something Samanta Schweblin invented, but everything else is very much from the real world, from Argentina. Even this kind of folkloric healer is very much present in the rural landscape in real life.

Again, Fernanda Melchor has talked about this, in relation to Mexico. There are so many people there who are off the grid, where medical health systems are concerned. So these healers are like GPs, in that they’re an accessible source of care.

None of this is a huge plot spoiler, in terms of the book, because the energy with which it unfolds is as compelling as the content itself. And every time you think you’ve landed on something it gets pulled out from under you. Every voice contains another voice, everyone is haunted by an event or a person. It’s a short book but it sustains that eeriness and uncanniness to incredible effect. As I writer, I read it and think: how did she do that? Then I try to break it down. It’s hugely worthwhile.

A great recommendation, thank you. Next up we have the first of a couple of short story collections: I Am the Brother of XX by the Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Gini Alhadeff.

My dad gave me this book for Christmas a couple of years ago. I’d never heard of her. There’s a couple of reasons for why she’s a little more obscure. She can be very evasive in interviews, where her biography is concerned. She writes exclusively in Italian, so we don’t have access to all of her books in translation. She has an amazing book of essays, a tiny book called Three Possible Lives, and the fiction is also quite brief—I think sometimes that can be harder to pitch.
But it falls into this category of literary horror for me because of this sense of destabilisation and uncertainty that she produces very deftly and quickly. I love how her books operate with no moral code; it’s like a universe stripped of morality. And this effect is achieved just by relaying how people engage with each other, or with themselves.

One of my favourite stories from I Am the Brother of XX is ‘The Aviary’. It’s about a husband and wife who are going through the husband’s deceased mother’s house—as you do, when someone has passed away—and you get the sense that the mother was very hard on the daughter-in-law, who in turn had a very problematic, incestuous relationship with her own mother. In terms of meat for a story, this in itself feels like enough. But then—in the already loaded, charged space of his deceased mother’s house—the husband gets her to reenact the incest that her own mother subjected her to.

At the start of the story, it seems that the horrific element is this mother-in-law, who was emotionally brutal towards the daughter-in-law. But then you realise: no, it was the mother-in-law who was holding the son in check. The horror is the vacuum her death has left behind: a clearing the son can now fill with his own brand of emotional violence. Then you get the title of the story, ‘The Aviary’. She’s trapped in this structure.

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Then there’s a story called ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’. Again, very short, just a couple of pages. In it, the speaker is looking at a portrait of a woman in white gloves clutching a crucifix. All of their psychology becomes condensed into this gesture of the clutched cross. There’s an amazing line: ‘She grips to excess, and maybe the cross itself will drive her to squeeze it till it bleeds like a pomegranate fruit.’ Then the person leaves the museum, but is still carrying this image with them, and you get a sense of how they have been altered by this encounter.

Again, there’s this idea of ‘arrive late, leave early’. These are intense bursts, these short stories. There’s no right or wrong. Only ambivalence. You’re left to the discomfort that produces. You have to sit with it and let it linger. Oh, they’re so good.

I was struck by what you said about the image staying with the narrator. As with the missing information we spoke about earlier, I wonder if a lot of the power of horror is in these hanging images—the unspoken implication.

Where images are concerned, the experience of them changes with the experience you accrue around them. In an MFA course, you might be taught this idea of ‘repeat, repeat, evolve’. A hamfisted version might go something like this: at the start of a horror movie, there’s a pair of scissors on the kitchen counter; in the middle of the movie, those scissors are used to cut the stems on a bouquet of roses; at the end of the movie, they are used to stab someone in the neck. That experience for the viewer is very different to if someone just pulled the scissors out of the cupboard at the last minute. They’ve already become subconsciously invested through subtly instilled acts of recognition.

So there’s a lot you can load onto an image—especially something like a crucifix, which comes to us already rife with religious connotations, things that people literally clutch and cling to for comfort. It’s easy to underestimate your reader, and to kill something with description. Hilary Mantel always says to trust your reader. Which is something I do way too much of in early drafts, in that I’m far too vague. But I do think there’s a lot to be said for suggesting something, letting it sit, and picking up the threads as you go rather than divulging everything in one pre-digested lump.

Some people would say that makes a piece of fiction frustrating. Others would say that makes it challenging. Other people would say it makes it inquisitive. There are all these different expectations of fiction where the unspoken is concerned.

There’s that truism in writing: show, don’t tell. Less so in nonfiction, I think, where clarity and concision is often necessary—although there’s art in finding a balance between the showing and the telling. But in fiction, and particularly in poetry, that sense of putting it together yourself as a reader is very important.

It gives you space. While I was doing my MFA at Bennington, I was reading some hugely astute and erudite memoirs. I thought, my god, they are so resolved. What is the point of me reading these, if there’s no point at which you can slip in and wonder at? It’s impressive because it’s so polished, but I like a bit of that porous quality, where you leaving room for other interpretations, even if it’s only fleeting.

I admire those novelists that say, ‘once a book has left my desk, my opinion is only as valid as the next person’s, it’s all a matter of interpretation.’ But I’m not sure I could let go quite so fully.

A few people have said things about Follow Me to Ground, in particular, that I disagreed with because I felt the book was being used to serve pre-existing arguments and feminisms. Of course sometimes a reader will just misremember things, and there’s no harm in that, it’s a form of interpretation in some ways. And then there’s kinds of rewriting where authorial agency is partly handed over to the reader—like with Julio Cortázar’s work, which is quite conceptual with thought experiments are incorporated into the reading process. That’s something I could never envisage doing myself.

Let’s move on your next literary horror book recommendation: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. This is a book I love. For those who haven’t read it, could you talk us through the book and what marks Machado’s writing out?

One of these stories, ‘The Husband Stitch’, really launched her into public consciousness. Suddenly everyone was talking about her. What I love about that story, and what solidified her role in this contemporary Gothic vein, is that its very melodious, very seductive. It opens with a set of instructions for how you should imagine each character’s voice. The story subverts tropes and gender norms from fairytales and myths. But it does that in a way that is just so sensual, and that sensuality becomes increasingly troubling the longer you’re in the story.

Again, you’re complicit in what happens to this woman from the outset because you just cannot look away. Essentially, the story follows a woman who wears a green ribbon around her neck. She lives her life, and marries, has a very fulfilling sexual life with her husband. Likewise she has a fulfilling maternal experience, and gives birth to a son. But the whole time her husband is saying: what’s with the ribbon around your neck? Eventually, she says, okay, fine, take it off. And he takes it off, and her head comes off.

“I like a bit of that porous quality, where you leaving room for other interpretations”

I love the texture of the prose, and how it’s structured as a story. But I also love that the title comes from this real, disturbing medical trend where, in repairing the tears that so frequently occur during a vaginal birth, the doctor would sew up the vagina with an extra, unnecessary stitch so it would be tighter than before. The idea that penetrative sex would now be more pleasurable for the husband. I remember reading the story and the context around it, and thinking My god, the brutality of that: the systemic misogyny, and how that impulse was facilitated by the body of medicine. All of that is captured in this image of one small stitch in a woman’s genitals: an act of what should have been one of care and repair becoming an act of betrayal. And, although a woman can of course be simultaneously maternal and carnal, the husband stitch forcefully transitions the female body from this vulnerable, maternal moment back into its supposedly primary carnal function.

Of course, the protagonist’s voice is not fully conscious of the violence that’s happening to her. She’s not really parsing it. I think that gives a good overview.

There are a number of other stories in this book, and a novella at the end, Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU, which is formed from a series of fictional episode synopses from the hit show.

I remember when I lived in New York by myself for a summer when I was 21, and I saw Law & Order Special Victims Unit for the first time, and I thought: oh my god, there’s an entire series of this? And yes, there’s season upon season upon season of these heinous sex crimes, all handled in these 20- to 30-minute episodes.

Machado has explained that she was drawn to that form for a couple of reasons. One is that there’s something deceptively therapeutic about the idea that you have these white knights, so dedicated to sex crime. Because, as we know, sex crimes are often not handled with same diligence, or finesse, or care, that homicide or other serious crimes might be. Then there’s this sense of justice: people are prosecuted, you see that, and it’s over. As a viewer, you have this cathartic loop. So I was interested in her drawing on that as a form, but drawing it out to its logical conclusions.

Because of course, dealing with this quantity of sex crimes, with this frequency, that would bear down on a person. An investigator would have to be taking such good care of themselves, in psychological terms. In the story, the constant exposure to all manner of violation results in all sorts of strange hauntings—terrible images of ghosts, girls without eyes… I loved how she subverted the form without making a mockery of it. She’s actually taking it quite seriously, not discounting the catharsis it might offer. She’s not saying, ‘we shouldn’t be looking at true crime, we shouldn’t’ be looking at gratuitous TV shows of a sexual nature.’ She’s just questioning their role in popular culture, and seeing what they can provide in a literary fiction space, which I think is very cool.

Agreed. This book won the Shirley Jackson Award, which recognises “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” And that also brings us rather neatly to our final book, which is Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. I was pleased to see this book on your list, but also intrigued because The Haunting of Hill House is her most obvious literary horror book.

I’m interested in it from a research point of view. I’m curious about the role it served for Jackson herself, because it comes after ‘The Lottery’, but before The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

We’ve been touching on the role of the porous and sometimes shaggy novel. What I like about this book, from the perspective of horror, is that it starts off with a sinister act of what seems quite clearly to be sexual assault in the garden of her family home with a family friend, and then she goes to university—an all-women’s college in northeast America, which conjures up Bennington College, where Shirley Jackson lived for a spell while her husband Stanley Hyman was teaching there. The experiences that unfold are horrific, because of the psychological precarity of Natalie that’s been alluded to at the outset. They are horrific because of who she is; the events which inflect her world view.

I think it was Sartre who spoke about existentialism in terms of not being properly born, or not having fully come into the world (and Beckett heard him say this, and identified strongly). Similarly, because Natalie has not been fully nurtured by her parents, she is someone who cannot cope with external reality, or the friction of external reality against her interior reality. Her inner life consists of this untended friction and the slow breakage it causes. I love all the symbolism around the tarot the book incorporates—the lady of the hangman. Natalie’s last name is Waite, which I think is a reference to Arthur E Waite, who wrote a guide to the tarot in the early 19th century, a popular layman’s book.
And—not to rush to the end—but it culminates in all these strange experiences, in which you’re not sure what’s real and isn’t real. The end totally shifts register. You have to consider the book as a whole to grapple with the ending, which is one of the reasons the book was hugely critiqued at the time.

Critics just did not know what was happening. Her biographer, Ruth Franklin, has offered that the uncertainty of Natalie’s perception bled into uncertainty around her character, which made it difficult for the reader to access. But I think she does a typically sensational job with atmosphere, and what it was like to be a woman at that time—the 1940s, coming into the 1950s, when there was a huge flux in gender roles following the upheaval of the second world war. It was a time when we saw a surge in multiple personality disorders in women because of the conflicting societal roles that were then coming to the fore, the deep schisms that appeared within women who could not fathom who they were now supposed to be. I think she captures that deep, deep anxiety and uncertainty that’s inherently gendered so well.
Also, it’s a campus novel. That really appeals to me as well. The strange shift that can happen when people are confined to a condensed geographic location. I love Shirley Jackson’s later novels too, but I have huge affection for Hangsaman.

We ran an interview on Shirley Jackson’s best books quite recently, and I asked our interviewee whether she thought Jackson was an unusually disturbed person, or if it was just that her stories were disturbing. I wonder if I might ask that of you too—of yourself. If you are interested in writing of menace, or even in reading of it, does that speak to something in our personalities?

I think it does mean something, but I don’t know if it means one is more disturbed than another. I think some of us are more interested in a genre like horror because of what’s already inflected our world view. I mean, I’m always surprised by what other people find horrific, or scary, or unhinged in my writing. With Follow Me to Ground, there was quite a gendered response—women would say, ‘I loved your book, I loved that Ada was so uncompromising’; men would say, ‘great book, very scary.’ We have this female character who is pursuing her desires in a violent way: women read it as liberating, men as threatening. To be very reductive. So I think some people see things as horrific that others see as matter of fact.

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Carmen Maria Machado said it better: that being a woman is inherently uncanny because your experiences are questioned as a matter of course. So I do think it’s just about one’s orientation, and the world one has seen and experienced. That sets you up to have a higher or lower tolerance, or to see things through a certain prism.

But I do think different writers are drawn to different aspects of human psychology when they are deciding what to write about. Some of us are drawn to the realm of pathology and trauma, because of what it tells us about human experience. Not necessarily because one has a great love for violence or the obscene, but because of how humans interact in those situations, what’s being brought within our field of cognition. Again, what are you being made to question? What might you come away knowing that you didn’t know before?

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Sue Rainsford

Sue Rainsford

Sue Rainsford is an Irish novelist and arts writer living in Dublin, and the author of two novels; Follow Me To Ground and Redder Days.Sue's work has been nominated for the New York Radio Festival Awards, the Republic of Consciousness Award and The Desmond Elliott Prize, and she is a recipient of the VAI/DCC Art Writing Award, the Arts Council Literature Bursary Award, the Kate O'Brien Award and a MacDowell Fellowship. She has been awarded residencies by the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Maynooth University, and commissions include BBC Radio 4 and RTÉ Radio 1. Sue is currently Writer in Residence at UCD's School of English, Drama & Film.

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Sue Rainsford

Sue Rainsford

Sue Rainsford is an Irish novelist and arts writer living in Dublin, and the author of two novels; Follow Me To Ground and Redder Days.Sue's work has been nominated for the New York Radio Festival Awards, the Republic of Consciousness Award and The Desmond Elliott Prize, and she is a recipient of the VAI/DCC Art Writing Award, the Arts Council Literature Bursary Award, the Kate O'Brien Award and a MacDowell Fellowship. She has been awarded residencies by the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Maynooth University, and commissions include BBC Radio 4 and RTÉ Radio 1. Sue is currently Writer in Residence at UCD's School of English, Drama & Film.