Psychological

Unsettling Chapters: A Study in Emerald

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, has to be one of the most adapted pieces of modern literature. Nearly every Holmes’ reboot begins with an updated take on this classic tale, which speaks to the brilliance of Doyle’s writing.

It’s a timeless tale of murder, deceit and the prototypical damaged investigators: the PTSD-stricken Watson and the mentally disquieted Holmes (pick your diagnoses: autism, OCD, bipolar, etc.).

For my money, the greatest adaptation of this story is “A Study in Emerald,” which appears in Shadows Over Baker Street, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

Penned by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” imagines the tale in a post-Lovecraftian landscape, 700 years following the epic struggle between humans and the Great Old Ones.

It shouldn’t come as a shock as to who won that inter-dimensional war, but the nature of the post-war dystopia might. As will the unexpected deviations from the original.

Is it truly unsettling? Not in the same way as most of the books we’ve previously discussed. But it is a bold venture by a gifted author, and the greatest mingling of two of my favorite mythos.

This story also appears in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, along with other favorites like “October in the Chair,” “Bitter Grounds” and “Strange Little Girls.”

For Halloween, Gaiman is offering a free audio book through All Hallows Read. It’s a program that promotes literacy by encouraging people to give someone a book for Halloween. Now through Oct. 31, in partnership with Audible.com, Gaiman is offering a free audio story of his, “Click-Clack the Rattle Bag.” Get yours at www.audible.com/ScareUs.

Unsettling Chapters: King Apocalypse

In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s obvious that Eliot never read any Stephen King!

King has destroyed the world many times over, and by many different means (plague, cars, cell phones, even exploding meth labs), and each time it is most certainly with a bang. My personal favorites are The Stand and The Mist, but there’s something for everyone on his buffet of world-ending visions.

Any longtime reader of King’s knows that his strength is character development. His end-of-days narratives are so strong not because of the impending doom but for how his characters respond to it.

For example, The Stand is horrific when Captain Trips decimates the globe, but heroic when its survivors stand up to Randall Flagg. The Mist enthralls with the interpersonal conflicts that emerge within the grocery store. I’m not afraid of fog-shrouded aliens, but I’m terrified of religious extremism in closed quarters.

Another favorite trick of King’s is what I call the extrapolated horror. “Trucks,” the short story that inspired the film Maximum Overdrive, focuses first on the ordeal of the survivors holed up in the diner. In many ways, the story is quite silly (a semi-trailer apocalypse!), but where it haunts the reader is its ending: The moment when you realize that all the horror that has come before is merely the opening act for something far, far worse.

This is a small sampling of King’s apocalyptic works:

The Stand

The Mist

Under the Dome (sort of)

“Night Surf” (prelude to The Stand)

King has also penned his fair share of dystopian literature:

“The Long Walk”

“The Running Man”

“The Children of the Corn”

With more than 100 novels, stories and screenplays to his name, King’s bookshelf is long. Pull one or two down from the shelves this Halloween. Believe me, the end of days never sounded so good.

Unsettling Chapters: Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” Is there a better opening line in literature?

Most importantly, this sentence establishes the tone that defines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Considered to be the first modern novel, there is no other work that as deftly captures the anxiety of despair and inadequacy.

Our narrator, the Underground Man, guides us through a dark and unpleasant world, recounting his drab civil servant’s life and the many insults that have shaped his misanthropy. Through this, he unearths the philosophy of the underground. It is a grim, but honest view, and with no connection to the surface world, the Underground Man simmers in his despair.

Actually, I’m not sure “simmer” is a strong enough word. The Underground Man doesn’t experience pain so much as he consumes it. He recalls past injustices when there is no fresh ones to sustain him. Misery exudes from his pores, his breath, his clothes, and rather than opening a window, he basks in the stench of his humiliation.

But his ordeal has only begun.

We come to section two, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” in which the true horror is set in motion. Here, we get more action and less confession. Following a series of insults, the Underground Man encounters a young prostitute, Liza, and for a time, redemption—and through redemption, meaning—seems possible.

Inevitably, though, you remember that you’re reading Dostoyevsky, and things become even darker than they were before. Watching the Underground Man abase himself is one thing. Watching him do it to another is harder to bear.

But of course, this is necessary to Dostoyevsky’s theme. Denigration is a team sport, and it relies on the consent of both victim and aggressor. That’s why, sadly, in the cycle of abuse, victims become abusers. We need Liza in the story to serve as witness to the Underground Man’s suffering. We need her to offer him redemption, or else he remains only a victim (which would be neither believable nor compelling). Ultimately, he is a conspirator in the surface world that has forced him underground.

And with true Dostoyevsky flair, Liza reminds us that there is no bottom. We meet the Underground Man, and we believe him to be the nadir of humanity. And then he meets Liza. We can only imagine what other characters are waiting offstage, unseen, but their suffering no less palpable.

So, this book may not be everyone’s mug of Russian Caravan, but it should still make your to-read list (especially if you’re a fan of unsettling literature). Notes from Underground is a link to the past, as it shows us that modern anxieties aren’t so new. It’s a classic work of existential philosophy. And artists and analysts alike should read this as a guidebook to the darkest shadows of the subconscious.

Notes from Underground is available as a free ebook through Project Gutenbeg.

Unsettling Chapters: House of Leaves

We are all familiar with the parameters of dream logic—the mental space where things are out of place or time but follow an alternative, interior logic. You know, like you’re catering a dinner for all your ex-girlfriends in a gothic castle, and for some reason Dog the Bounty Hunter is pitching you a show about vigilante sea lions. You wake up and wonder: “Why did that make sense?”

It’s a fun diversion that is, unfortunately, difficult to replicate in waking consciousness. But you can come close by reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a 2000 horror novel that is more of an entity than a book.

Designed with multiple fonts and colors, footnotes within footnotes and text running backward, forward, upside down, even spiraling, the physical layout of the text manipulates the novel’s pacing and creates a somewhat interactive experience.

It’s probably as close as we’ve come to reading with 3-D glasses.

The narrative is equally layered and complex, and academics have taken multiple stabs at this book. I would guess it’s had the most scholarly treatments of any horror novel since Frankenstein. Therefore, I won’t even attempt to offer an academic account, as I don’t have anything particularly profound to say on that front (and would bore myself to tears in the process).

What I can speak to is the effect Danielewski creates by inviting the reader into a story that they can’t quite trust. We have multiple unreliable narrators; the ever-shifting dimensions of a house; drug-impaired testimony; unverifiable videotapes; and the ravings of a half-mad blind man. (He also borrows the Lovecraftian theme of geometry-induced madness, not to mention a mysterious tome.)

Can we trust what we see and read? Hell no. And that’s why House of Leaves is so unnerving.

I think of it as a literary haunted house. Every October, people line up outside strip malls, warehouses and amusement parks to navigate dark, disorienting hallways. They know they won’t be harmed, but will experience the thrill of uncertainty.

The same with House of Leaves. It elicits a visceral reaction in a way few other books can. We’re aware of what Danielewski is doing. When we need to rotate the book to read the text, we know it’s to recreate the impossible geometry of the staircase. When there is one word of text on a page, it’s to replicate the cavernous quality of the basement and to force us to read slower.

But we’re affected just the same, as when we’re knowingly manipulated inside a haunted house.

House of Leaves is not a quick read. It is an experience. If you started reading it today, I don’t know that you could finish it by Halloween. But I feel confident in saying that you’re not supposed to read it that quick. This is a book to be absorbed. It should age along with you.

Read correctly, you will internalize the disorientation. You will want to measure the length of every hallway in your house to find inconsistencies. To make sure, every day, that the dimensions of your world haven’t changed while you were sleeping.

Because in Danielewski’s world, they do change. Sometimes they’ll shift right under your feet, and they might even swallow you whole.

Unsettling Chapters: All the Names

As I’ve expressed in previous posts, loss of one’s identity is one of the more unsettling outcomes a story can provide. With life such a fleeting thing, rarely does one’s name live far beyond their years.

Fair enough. To be lost to the ages is understandable, but for some, the worst fate is to be forgotten in your own time. It’s a unique flavor of despair, born of an imbalance between social needs and social disconnect.

Nowhere is this curious space more poignantly explored than in José Saramago’s All the Names.

This book was published a year before Saramago, best known for the novel Blindness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. All the Names is worthy of such honors.

The protagonist, one Senhor José, works in a nameless city (a stand-in for Lisbon in Saramago’s native Portugal) as a low-level clerk. Similar to Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Saramago presents us with a character caught in the gears of a drab, oppressive machine of unknown origin and inexplicable intent. He works for the Central Registry, which tracks the births, marriages and deaths of all citizens. Every life is reduced to an index card bearing these dates. The job of the Central Registry is to create, update and file each card.

“We all know that, however long old people may last, their hour will always come. Not a day passes without the clerks’ having to take down files from the shelves of the living in order to carry them to the shelves at the rear…”

José, who actually lives at the Registry building, makes nightly sojourns within its stacks. He hopes to escape his “bureaucratic alienation” by searching for meaning among the necropolis of index cards. Then one day, he finds something else. He becomes fixated on the card of an anonymous woman, and begins a clumsy search for her throughout the city.

Of course, what he’s really doing is working through an existential crisis. Or some other anxiety. The archives in the Central Registry are so large that clerks have become lost in their labyrinth. The metaphor is apt for José’s anxious mind. One bad thought, and then another. Disaster lurks eternal.

It’s unsettling to think that, in the end, we’ll be little more than forgotten statistics. The same goes for everyone we love and care for. We will all be forgotten. Time will make sure of that. What’s worse, though, is to feel societal mechanisms imposing anonymity while we’re still alive. To become a living ghost.

What makes All the Names successful, as with all existentialist writings, is that the answers seem more like questions. So, what is life if but a few dates typed onto an index card? Is there meaning or merely statistical data? Like Albert Camus, Saramago reminds us that the answer isn’t important—or even attainable. The meaning lies in the pursuit of, well, meaning.

Saramago empowers us with his narrative. He reminds us that in the face of mortality, victory is not an outcome. Victory is the fight itself. It is Senhor José taking those first bold steps into the archives, dwarfed by mountains of faceless information, to turn an index card back into a person.

I’m reminded of a favorite line from Camus’ The Plague: “And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”

Indeed.

Unsettling Chapters: Madness

For me, the most unsettling type of literature deals with mental illness or cognitive degeneration. Internal threats are always more terrifying than those coming from outside. Self-inflicted wounds cut the deepest, and loss of cognitive faculties is perhaps worse than death.

That’s why many of the books we’ve discussed, thus far, have concerned mental illness. And it’s a topic that has fascinated many great writers. Today, I’ll look at works from three legendary authors—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol and Lu Xun—that are each unsettling in their own way.

First, Tolstoy’s “The Notes of a Madman,” his short story based on a real-life panic attack he experienced in 1869.

What I find interesting about Tolstoy’s story is that mental illness is not a major theme, and he’s not making a grand statement about either insanity or the health care industry. Rather, his story is describing what we today know as depression and dissociation. It’s interesting to read a work that presages what we consider to be a modern malaise.

It’s also interesting to consider how the story would read if written today, with therapeutic language in common usage. As this story predates the official advent of psychotherapy, Tolstoy uses more everyday expressions to describe his panic attack: “At last we came up to a small house with a post beside it. The house was white, but appeared terribly melancholy to me, so much so that I was even filled with dread.”

This feeling of dread results in a dissociative moment, and ends with a suffocating awareness of death—not the narrator’s impending death, but the fact of life’s cessation. “A cold shudder ran down my back… I saw and felt the approach of death, and at the same time I felt that it ought not to exist.”

He traces this feeling back to his childhood, in which a similar fear overtook him when he was told stories of Jesus and his suffering. We now know that early childhood traumas establish patterns and plant seeds of self that often bloom as we approach middle age (the narrator is 35).

It’s easy to think of our modern anxieties as unique to our time or our culture, and yet this story reads like a contemporary work (horse-drawn carriage and candle lighting aside). In this way, and not necessarily by intention, Tolstoy reveals the universality of anxiety, depression and dissociative episodes.

Tolstoy’s brilliance is his ability to deliver his account as a first-person narrative. True, impaired characters tend to be unreliable narrators, but what is gained with this POV is the personal detail of the panic attack, which is vivid and horrifying. Tolstoy reminds us that self-awareness is common in these types of episodes, which is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this story—not that we experience madness, but that we are fully aware of what’s happening.

Gogol took a farcical approach in his story, “The Diary of a Madman.” This is a first-person account of a Russian civil servant, Poprishchin, who winds up in an asylum.

Told in diary format, Gogol is able to develop conflict, desire and even self-description—a tricky proposition with an unreliable narrator.

Poprishchin is a low-ranking clerk who feels looked-down upon by his superiors and fails to project the same superiority over his subordinates. He is a man relegated to performing menial tasks with no sense of purpose or respect, and certainly not social status.

Here, Gogol taps into a human universal: The need for self-actualization. A sense of purpose, a belief that our work, no matter how undesirable, has a bigger meaning.

In lieu of that, Poprishchin would settle for a meaningful romantic relationship. But he’s past 40, and he pines for his boss’s beautiful, young daughter, with whom he stands no chance of notice. Eventually, Poprishchin spirals out of control. He believes he is privy to a conversation between two dogs (and that they are corresponding via letters and making fun of him). He stalks his boss’s daughter, an act which seems perfectly reasonable to him. And he is so troubled by the absence of a king in Spain that he convinces himself that he is the king of Spain. He asks, “How can a throne be vacant?… A state cannot be without a king.”

Finally, there is Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary.”

The misconception some people have is that mental illness is simply a break from the commonly agreed-upon narrative of reality. But people dealing with mental distress are also living within a personal narrative that is every bit rooted in common sense and, more importantly, cause and effect as ours. What may seem disjointed to the group may seem perfectly linear to the individual.

The challenge is capturing that experience in fiction. Lu Xun employs two common devices, both of which, while effective when this story was published a century ago, would be difficult to get away with in modern literature. He starts with the voice of reason: a man introduces the diary of a friend who suffered from paranoid delusions, ostensibly for the purpose of medical research. Then we receive the voice of the narrator through a series of diary entries.

What I like about Lu Xun’s approach is that he puts us in the mind of the mentally distressed. Xun’s narrator begins with a common anxiety that others are looking at him strange, perhaps joking about him in the street and planning to harm him. Some local children laugh when they see him, and he deduces that they must have been instructed to do so from their parents.

Then, he overhears a story about a nearby village where cannibalism is still practiced. This manifests as an obsessive fear of being eaten, and soon he believes that the children, his brother and the whole of the town intend to kill him and eat his flesh. This escalates into more dire theories.

When we write about the mentally ill, there is tendency to reduce them to the “other.” Going first-person, seeing through their eyes, offers some insight, but is still limited if we meet them in what we perceive to be a static state of being (e.g. sane vs. insane). But following the narrator’s descent illuminates the insidious nature of mental illness and distress. Lu Xun does a great job of capturing that in this classic tale.

And there are certainly others we could discuss, perhaps in future installments. But for now, these are three classic takes on mental illness that have much to offer to the conversation of madness in literature.

Unsettling Chapters: The Church of Dead Girls

Frequent readers have probably noticed a pattern among the entries of Unsettling Chapters. That is, the overt theme of a story is more often a sleight of hand. Put another way: The thing is not really about the thing.

Lovecraft’s Old Ones are a manifestation of his insecurities. McEwan’s transgressions are a front for the anxiety of individuality in the face of rigid and arbitrary social mores. Murakami’s gore portrays mental disturbances rather than literal scenes.

And so it goes with Stephen Dobyns’ 1997 mystery, The Church of Dead Girls.

As with Birdman, Mo Hayder’s debut discussed on Oct. 5, the ghoul in this novel uses human corpses as an artistic medium. But while The Church of Dead Girls offers terror and thrills, it also has high-minded literary aspirations.

The thing is not really about the thing.

This is less a whodunit and more a sociological work. What are the fears and biases of small-town folk? What prejudices are lurking in the shadows? A rash of murders and missing teenagers brings them all to the surface. Things get ugly.

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” ugly.

Once threatened, the townsfolk begin pointing fingers in every possible direction. This compelling arc makes for a fascinating read. And gruesomely detailed horrors make this a must-read for Halloween.

Speaking of fingers, whatever happened to those missing left hands?

Read the book and you’ll understand.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: H.P. Lovecraft

Now, to one of my all-time favorites, H.P. Lovecraft.

The Wizard of Weird is one of the most puzzling figures in literature (no small feat) and a most peculiar phenomenon. Hardly read in his lifetime, his stories have since inspired movies, music, video and board games and countless writers.

The reclusive author of the Cthulhu Mythos is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life Lovecraft Mythos distilled from his letters, essays and fan speculation.

From this end of the millennium, he appears as a man out of time, which perhaps accounts for the skilled depictions of isolation and despair in his work. A troubled life, an early death—these are the makings of a horror legend.

For the HPL initiate, the place to start is The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. This collection of 16 of his best-known stories proves his staying power. My favorite is “The Outsider,” a dark epic of self-discovery. This story speaks to me as few stories can, and I believe this is Lovecraft at his most earnest.

“Pickman’s Model” and “The Picture in the House” explore the intersection of art and madness. For HPL, this crossroad manifests in the form of weird fiction, but I can’t help but wonder at his deeper intentions in these stories.

Likewise, “The Music of Erich Zann,” one of the finest pieces of horror fiction I’ve ever read. In a forgotten section of, presumably, Paris, a young student rents a room beneath a master violist. The man performs strange melodies at all hours of the night, and when the narrator learns of their origin… well, the story takes a classic Lovecraftian turn, but with more subtlety and greater effect. From a craft perspective, this is one of his best works.

From a reader’s perspective as well.

And I’ve got to touch on “The Rats in the Walls,” as great a depiction of psychosis and inherited guilt ever written. Be warned: It’s usually easy enough to overlook some of Lovecraft’s subtle racism, but it sits front and center in this story, which makes it tougher to swallow. If you can stomach that, you’ll enjoy this thoroughly gut-churning tale.

Then, of course, there are the mega-hits: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” There’s not much I can really add to the discussion of these classics, other than to chuckle (and sometimes cringe) at Lovecraft’s story titles. He had a penchant for the noun-prepositional phrase structure favored by the pulps (“The Colour Out of Space,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Thing on the Doorstep”) or a variation thereof (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”).

The greatest thing to happen to Lovecraft fans in recent years is the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, a thoughtful and well-produced audio chronology of his work. They started in 2009, discussing one story at a time (one episode for shorter works, multiple episodes for longer ones), and came to the end of his oeuvre earlier this year. They offer all kinds of goodies for Miskatonic alumni, including professional readings, old episodes and original works.

Best of all, though Lovecraft has been gone 75 years, his mythos live on. There are numerous collections of Lovecraft-inspired fiction, such as Future Lovecraft and Shadows Over Baker Street (an HPL/Sherlock Holmes mash-up). Writers such as Michael Chabon, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have all contributed to the ongoing mythos.

And there is a new crop of writers adding to the legacy all the time. I highly recommend checking out the Lovecraft eZine, which publishes great artwork, weird fiction and weekly Web updates and video chats.

As a wise man once said, “That is not dead which can eternal lie.”

Unsettling Chapters: Maynard

There are many ways to unsettle the reader. There is shock, revulsion, introspect, subversion. But don’t forget subtlety. After all, I would imagine the slow constriction of the noose is the more terrifying than the drop.

Toward that end, three key elements of great horror are atmosphere, dissonance and distress. All three are manipulated to great effect in Mary Stewart Atwell’s short story, “Maynard,” which ran in the Alaska Quarterly Review and was honored in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

There is elusiveness in this piece that sets the reader on edge. The story is presented in a segmented style, and the core mysteries at the beginning remain mysteries at the end. There is such a tangle of loose threads that the story is unsettling to the reader long after the final words have been read.

Specifically, it is the narrator’s murky backstory that fuels the tension. She is on the run from someone who, as far as we can tell, was holding her against her will. He will find her, though, she is certain, but will we ever learn the full nature of her distress?

This is the foundation on which Atwell builds a dark, disturbing portrait of a troubled woman on the run. One of the building blocks she uses to great effect is atmosphere. Set in the rural south, Atwell colors her world with the imagery of backwoods America, a working-class dystopia of failure where methamphetamine and lawlessness run rampant. Into this world enters the narrator—whose name may or may not be Ashley.

She has three secrets she must keep hidden: her history, her whereabouts, the child to which she is about to give birth. The latter tweaks the reader’s anxiety like a shot of bathtub meth. The narrator is unequipped to care for the child, but what is she to do? She would reveal too much of herself if she put it up for adoption, so she disposes of the baby, which sets in motion the events that lead to her final confrontation.

Finally, there is the dissonance that makes the story so unsettling. The reader is unable to connect all the loose threads, and there are missing links in the chain of events that we are compelled to reconcile.

In the end, that reconciliation must come from the reader’s own mind. I discussed this story with a fellow reader long after reading, and have thought about it often since then. There are hints at great horror in this story, which is more powerful than if we knew every gruesome detail of our narrator’s story.

It lends a haunting quality that resonates through amazing lines like: “‘Ashley,’ he said. ‘Please. Don’t do this.’ But Ashley is not my name.”

Stories like this earned Atwell a deal for a full-length. Her debut novel, Wild Girls, was published on Oct. 16.

Unsettling Chapters: The Wasp Factory

Welcome to The Wasp Factory, where by the age of 16 Frank Cauldhame has already killed three children, including his younger brother. These days the teenager passes his time killing animals on the tiny British island he shares with his father.

Other favorite activities? Long walks on the beach, going to punk-rock shows with his drunken dwarf buddy, Jamie, and gathering wasps in his elaborately engineered torture chamber.

This 1984 debut from Scottish writer Iain Banks stirred up a mess of controversy when it was initially released, and remains a dark and twisted read nearly a quarter century later.

Another great example of effective first-person POV, the narrator’s tale disorients and disturbs. No doubt, this is one of the greatest works of transgressive fiction I’ve ever read.

Like most works of suspense, the terror comes from what may happen rather than what actually happens. In this case, the novel’s tension — and greatest literary device — is Frank’s sadistic older brother, Eric.

Throughout the book, Eric, who has just escaped from a mental hospital, calls his younger brother from pay phones, each time closer to home, each time more psychotic, threatening to kill Frank upon his return. It’s a classic example of the shadow figure. We have a serial killer narrator, and he’s not even the craziest member of the cast!

Or is he…? The tension builds to a violent climax with a shocking twist that reframes the entire story. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.