Revisited: “No One Helped”

With the death of Winston Moseley bringing some closure to the sad case of Kitty Genovese, it’s a good time to revisit one of the greatest books written about the episode, No One Helped. Marcia M. Gallo’s account explores the context in which the crime occurred, which fueled the narrative of urban apathy. She follows that thread to the lasting legacy of Genovese, whose murder led to positive change, such as the birth of the 911 system.

We can happily turn the page on Moseley, but Genovese’s story is worth remembering. And Gallo’s wonderful book is worth another read.


“No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy

Marcia M. Gallo

From an early age, I longed for the big city life. Growing up in a sleepy township that didn’t even have sidewalks will do thatNo One Helped to a kid. To dissuade me from fleeing the Rust Belt for bright lights and tall buildings, my parents served up the tale of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman who, in 1964, was famously murdered on a Long Island street while everyone just stood back and watched her die.

It terrified me. In my mind, I envisioned a crowded street, broad daylight, pedestrians having to sidestep this dying stranger as she pleaded with them for help.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine. Though not the best time for New York City, the 1970s and early ’80s was a fruitful period for dystopian cinema set in the metropolis. My impression of the city was shaped entirely by Escape from New York and Fort Apache, the Bronx.

Though the story of a woman left to die on the sidewalk stayed with me, I never actually learned her name until college, when we studied the case in psychology class. Many psychology classes, actually. At the time, the prevailing narrative was still treated as gospel: 38 neighbors watched and did nothing as Winston Moseley assaulted Genovese, left, assaulted her a second time, left, and came back a third time to finish the job.

It’s hard to fathom how this could happen, and of course, it didn’t. At least, not the way it was reported in 1964, and certainly not the way it had been mythologized by the time it reached my ears as a cautionary tale. A more accurate telling was done by Kevin Cook in 2014’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.

The focus of Marcia M. Gallo’s “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy is not so much on the murder as the social incubator in which the narrative of urban apathy was spawned and evolved — and how, by focusing on the witnesses rather than the victim or perpetrator, Genovese “had been flattened out, whitewashed, re-created as an ideal victim in service to the construction of a powerful parable of apathy.”

The biggest omission from Genovese’s story, writes Gallo, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that she was a lesbian. Being young, pretty and white made her the perfect media martyr, so details of her romantic preference would have been inconvenient to the “ideal victim” narrative in 1964. As the story of her murder took on a life of its own, she became a nameless victim of urban decay — more of a plot device than a character in her own horror show.

“No One Helped” is on the shorter side, but Gallo deftly packs in a lot of information — and unpacks five decades of history. The chapters are like linked short stories, exploring in turn the history of Kew Gardens and the racial tensions of the time, the changing media landscape and the marketability of an erroneous New York Times article that fumbled the facts but resonated with “white flight” suburbanites.

As for Genovese, Gallo writes, the article “rhetorically reduced her to the chalk outline left on the sidewalk at a crime scene after a body has been removed.”

About those 38 witnesses? Only four were actually called to testify at the trial, and even fewer were aware that Genovese had been stabbed. The Times failed to mention the fact that Moseley’s initial assault was interrupted by a neighbor’s intervention, and his second assault took place in a darkened back hallway beyond the vantage point of any neighbors.

Gallo writes, “In all of the accounts that have followed in the story’s wake, what has rarely been noted is that there is only one actual eyewitness to Genovese’s death. That person is her killer, Winston Moseley.”

In reclaiming Genovese’s identity, Gallo reveals her personal connection to the case. She does so in a tasteful, informative manner, steering clear of navel gazing and drawing attention instead to the resonating significance of the story.

For all the horror of the Genovese murder, and its aftermath, it also gave birth to the 911 emergency response system and community policing efforts. It furthered the movement to reexamine our societal acceptance of intimate partner violence (some witnesses had dismissed the assault as a “lover’s quarrel”).

And it exposed racial bias in crime reporting. Just two weeks earlier, Moseley had assaulted another woman, murdered her and set her on fire. “Significantly, no photographs of Moseley’s earlier victim, Anna Mae Johnson, a young black woman, ever appeared. Within weeks she would fade from most popular versions of the story, as would her killer,” the author writes.

Most of all, for Gallo, the legacy of the Genovese murder still matters “because it raises the central question of how we engage with those around us, individually and collectively, when they need our help.”

Digging beyond the murder and the myth, Gallo has penned a remarkable portrait of Genovese and her enduring legacy a half-century later. Her murder inspired an entire branch of psychology, but perhaps her lasting impact on social science will be the study of media myth-making. No matter the fables and fallacies that have emerged, the impact of Genovese has endured.

I’ve been on the Long Island Railroad, and at the Kew Gardens stop, it’s impossible not to look down at the nondescript parking lot and the neighboring houses, all crammed together, and wonder how this could have happened.

After 50 years, we know it happened differently than we’ve believed, but the true story of the assault is still as brutal and horrifying, if different, than we imagined. Gallo succeeds in redirecting our attention from the “witnesses” to the victim, who became a footnote to the fable. “No One Helped” restores the individual who existed before the chalk outline.

Review: Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon Sanderson

Legion: Skin Deep

Not long ago, I sang the praises of Sanderson’s novella Legion (https://ensuingchapters.com/2013/01/03/review-legion/), a mystery tale centered around the brilliant, unquiet mind of Stephen Leeds.Legion

Leeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends with benefits (no, not that kind, pervo, though two of his manifestations are going through a difficult breakup in this installment). His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

Consider it a cross between schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and unconscious cognition.

Put simply, like all of us, Leeds can access a limited portion of the information he receives from external stimuli, but he’s also able to access the subconscious bits via imaginary personalities. The result is a skill set unmatched by any other detective in literature. (Leeds isn’t a detective per se, but like fellow troubled genius, Sherlock Holmes, often finds himself consulting on cases).

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

As before, the plotting and character development is astounding. I listened to the audio version, and devoured it in two sittings (it would have only been one were it not for work). Once again, Oliver Wyman’s narration is poetry. He inhabits all of Leeds’ imaginary allies as well as his very real adversaries, shifting seamlessly and convincingly through various genders, races and personalities.

But this is more than a groovy mystery; Sanderson uses Leeds as a launch-pad for theological debate. I believe he handled the religious discussion better in the first Legion story, while in Skin Deep, the tone is didactic. Leeds describes himself as “15 percent atheist,” aggregating the beliefs of his various aspects. This is a clever way of exploring the inner conflict between doubt and faith, illustrating our tenuous grasp of knowledge and belief.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. I never subscribed to the academic taboo on having characters with mental illness (because it’s reductive, or some other scholarly jargon). Leeds cannot be reduced to any one of his aspects, just as his consciousness is more than the sum of his personalities. He is capable of change. We see it both within and between the books.

Perhaps Leeds’ greatest fear is that he will someday be free of his aspects, because I think he’d be lost without them. In his more existential moments, Leeds wonders whether he is simply someone else’s aspect, eliciting that dissociative tingle we’ve all felt at various times.

Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

A Darker Shade of Summer (Fiction)

A round-up of ghost stories, thrillers and dystopian anthologies to darken you summer. (Come back tomorrow for our nonfiction edition.)

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

(Released June 28)

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

In “The Last Train,” a modest theater-goer arrives late to the station, but by good fortune, his train is waiting for him. Once aboard, he realizes his destination is somewhere other than home. Likewise, a young factory apprentice stumbles upon a shop-floor oddity in “The Cleaner”—and realizes that what he first thought to be a hoax or a hazing is in fact a haunting.

Perhaps the stand-out tale of this collection is “The Heinkel,” a WWII yarn about a young boy fascinated with a downed German plane.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills (such as my dad’s coworker losing an arm in the blast furnace) and the spooky kind (my grandfather’s otherworldly encounters at the Westinghouse plant).

When it was my turn to work the factories, I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories. (His first book, Tales from the Toolbox, recounts his industrial experiences.)

My one critique is that there’s not a lot of mystery to these stories. Characters who believe they are having ghostly encounters truly are, and the nature and cause of the hauntings are typically self-evident. But that’s OK. These stories work not through terror or misdirection, but by tapping into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Ominous Realities is the finest indie collection I’ve read in a while. These dystopian tales chill and unsettle, balancing skill, imagination and smarts.

Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Last year, I read Meikle’s novel The Hole, and thought it was enjoyable but flawed. Here, Meikle is in control from the creepy opener in the lab to the grim finale. HPL would love this tale of science gone wrong.

Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

An excellent collection from a hot new publisher. Also be sure to check out their Dark Visions II anthology.

Coming Soon

Mean Streak

Sandra BrownMean Streak

(Release date: Aug. 19)

Mean Streak has all the makings of a classic Sandra Brown thriller: abduction, deception, moral complexity and a revelatory rabbit-hole twist. In her new novel, Dr. Emory Charbonneau disappears, and her husband is the primary suspect. Part crime novel, Mean Streak is also a survival narrative, as Emory awakes in the hands of a violent captor who may be hiding his true identity. I haven’t read this yet, but it sounds reminiscent of Standoff, which was one of her best works.


The Black RoadThe Black Road

Tania Carver

(Release date: Aug. 15)

While the plot may be a little, well, plausibility challenged, advance press offers Mo Hayder levels of gore and depravity (aka horrific awesomeness). Following a mysterious explosion, criminologist Marina Esposito’s husband is in a coma and her young daughter is missing. The abductor forces  Marina to complete a series of depraved tasks in the course of three days or her daughter dies. So, yeah, it may be plot-challenged, but if you’re looking to spice up your summer with some gore, The Black Road just may be a detour worth taking.

Shine On

When civilization was rebuilding following an interking-007national plague, the epicenter of humanity was Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colo. At least that’s how it happened in Stephen King‘s The Stand, an epic tale of apocalypse, atonement and the will to persevere.

So it was fitting that, in the aftermath of the floods that devastated Colorado’s Front Range, particularly Boulder, a crowd of more than 1,200 gathered in Chautauqua on Sept. 26.

But this time it wasn’t to hear from Stu Redman or Mother Abigail. It was to hear from the man himself.

“This is where the first Boulder Free Zone meeting was held, right here in this auditorium,” King said early in his talk before a sell-out crowd.

King, his wife Tabitha and two of their children briefly lived in the city in the mid-’70s, following the publication of King’s second book, ‘Salem’s Lot. He authored two of his most famous novels in the shadow of the Flatirons, The Stand and The Shining.

So it’s only fitting that he returned to Boulder to celebrate the release of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining.

“I wanted to see if my old King Soopers was still there,” King joked, referring to the grocery store in his former South Boulder neighborhood.

It’s still there, as is the Stanley Hotel an hour up the road in Estes Park.

First published in 1977, The Shining was King’s first hardback bestseller. And while most folks are familiar with the Stanley Kubrick interpretation, the film featured a few exterior shots of Boulder and nothing of the Stanley Hotel on which it was based. (The Stanley is now home to ghost tours, Halloween galas and the Stanley Film Festival—and I highly recommend the pilgrimage.)

King recalled fondly his mountain writing studio and the inspiration he felt there.

“It was the greatest writing time of my life,” he said, though he doesn’t recall the specifics of creating the actual books. “I only remember that I was happy. I was engaged. I think most imaginative writing is like that.”

King’s innate talent and creativity was likely aided by a progressive, anything-goes attitude of a college town in the foothills undergoing the growth spurt that transformed it into one of the country’s top-rated cities—an epicenter of technology, education and craft-brewed beer.

“I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker one day, on Broadway, and I got rear-ended,” King said of one of his more interesting Boulder memories. “The hitchhiker ran off, and I got cited.”

A second vehicular mishap provided the inspiration for another King classic. His car broke down in Boulder Canyon, and he was walking into town for assistance. While crossing a bridge, he noticed the clack of his cowboy boots on the wooden planks. He wondered: What might be underneath this bridge listening to his footfalls?

Perhaps a clown—and thus the seed of Pennywise, the supernatural killer in It, was planted.

But the book he was really here to talk about was Doctor Sleep, which hit shelves on Sept. 25.

“People kept asking me whatever happened to Danny Torrence,” he said. “I decided, finally, that I would try to write a sequel.”

He was fascinated, he said, with the cyclical nature of family dysfunction, how children of abusive or alcoholic parents tend to repeat that behavior as adults. So it’s fitting that Danny’s adult life is, well, complicated.

Now in his 40s, Danny is a hospice worker in New Hampshire, where, along with the help of an intuitive cat, he helps suffering patients come to rest. But though the novel begins in New England, it inevitably takes to the road.

And that road could only lead to one place.

“Eventually, he has to go back to Colorado and to Boulder,” King said.

He read excerpts from Danny’s return to the city, which involved a particularly nasty hangover and an over-the-top gross-out gag that will have his most hardened readers choking up.

It is a sequel decades in the making, and a return to one of King’s greatest triumphs. This is a treat for long-time fans, and new ones. During the Q&A, a question came from a fan who started reading King in their youth, and now their kids are reading the books.

“I think it’s nice when people pass the book down from generation to generation,” King said.

But his literary legacy includes more than his books and films. It also includes his offspring. His youngest son, Owen, is the author of Double Feature, and his oldest son is best-selling author Joe Hill. Joe and his dad have collaborated on two novellas and often share ideas when writing their books. For example, they were simultaneously working on Doctor Sleep and Hill’s NOS4A2, and each included a scene in which their characters cross paths.

“In a strange way, it’s almost like writing with another part of myself,” King said of his collaborations with Joe.

Doctor Sleep will certainly bolster the already absurdly rich King oeuvre. It will take readers back to some cherished places, both physical and psychic: Boulder, the Overlook Hotel and one of the finest and most terrifying works of psychological horror ever penned.

And together, we will once again croak our favorite and most-haunted mirrored phrase: RedRum.

Summer Horror Roundup

Though the days still blister, at night there is a welcome chill and the softest whiff of decay. It’s a beautiful smell, and within a few weeks we’ll hit full-on autumn. Though we’re excited about the fall, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss some of the summertime horror we’ve enjoyed throughout the year.

The Hole

William Meikle

Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.The Hole

Ah, to be 23 again.

From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.


A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.

But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.

And so the horror begins…

Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead.


Daniel Brako

Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured intoDoors my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.

I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)

Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.

It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.

It’s our world, slightly askew.

That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.

At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.

Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare.

The Last Whisper in the Dark

Tom Piccirilli

Yes, we have reviewed this book already, but it’s worth repeating. This is a tremendous book by a gifted author. Put this on yourWhisper “must-read” list.

And for anyone who missed the earlier review, here you are:

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliant and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.

Unsettling Chapters: Ian McEwan

This feature is dedicated to dark, existential works that disturb the reader’s foundation. For me, this is atmospheric writing with human monsters rather than otherworldly—that explore the darkness within rather than without.

So who better to feature, of course, than Ian McEwan.

McEwan was an early influence of mine, bringing a smart, lyrical sensibility to stories of depravity and darkness. He’s better known these days for his more subdued novels, but in the early days he was known for producing a twisted brand of literary dysfunction. None so dark as the offerings in his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, in particular its disturbing opening tale, “Homemade.”

It’s a touching tale of sex-crazed adolescence and a boy determined to lose his virginity. Worried he won’t be very good in bed, and that the woman he desires would lose interest, he decides to practice on his younger sister.

OK, those who haven’t read this story might think there should have been a “spoiler alert” before that last part. But what makes this story most disturbing is not the horror of the act of incest and sexual manipulation of a minor. It’s the ease with which McEwan spins the yarn—or rather the ease with which the reader assumes the voice of the narrator.

I have read this story a few times and tried to understand what makes it so troublesome, and I believe it comes down to these five elements:

Strong narration. “Homecoming” is told from the perspective of its “monster,” and this is a great example of the power of first-person narrative. With a third-person POV, it’s easy to dismiss a child rapist as a villain. But, as with much of Poe’s writing, it’s much harder to dismiss the character when you’re inside their head. The brother follows a “logical” thought process, slowly luring the reader deeper into his psychosis.

Passivity. The narrator is not the seeker of forbidden pleasures—at first. It is the narrator’s best friend who introduces him to alcohol, cigarettes, shoplifting, masturbation and, ultimately, the race toward sexual initiation that inspires him to rape his sister. He appears to be a relatively innocent and endearing kid—this is McEwan’s trap.

Normalcy. McEwan is the master at presenting the abnormal as normal, and treating evil as a continuum rather than a separate reality. He walks us through the psychological process of a regular teenager who devolves to the point that he commits incest. What makes the horror so disturbing is that it actually makes sense! (At least in the world the narrator devises.)

Unflinching. To quote Akira Kurosawa: “The role of the artist is to not look away.” McEwan never flinches as he guides us step by step through the seduction of Connie, the sister, first through childhood games and finally through play-acting “Mummies and Daddies.” It’s a very, very difficult read. Expect to do a lot of cringing.

Inevitability. There is no neck-bending reveal in “Homemade.” The narrator declares his intentions nine pages from the end, and the power of the ending is not its surprise but its inevitability. Of course it ended this way. It had to. The worst is that we’re left with no resolution, only the realization that the characters are now stuck in this world where this awful thing happened. Now what?

And isn’t that the way all unsettling fiction ends? Now what? It’s not death that’s scary. It’s the life that follows. It’s the existential anguish that cries, “How can I go on living after this?”

And this is why I’m such a fan of dark fiction. Don’t give me vapid redemption. Give me Sartre. Give me Camus. Give me Dostoyevsky. Give me McEwan. These are authors bold enough to look honestly at the world, to explore its shadowy corners, and rather than redemption, leave us with the burden of irredeemable lives. (Another great example is McEwan’s marvelous Atonement.)

“Homecoming” is one of McEwan’s many forays into incest. There was his debut novel, The Cement Garden, and much of his early work revolves around violation, usually sexual in nature (The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers).

I highly recommend all of McEwan’s early work, but for chills on the back of your neck (and queasiness in the tummy), you can’t go wrong with “Homecoming.”

Unsettling Chapters: Invisible Monsters

A close cousin of horror is transgressive fiction. These are novels, often dark or dystopian, that break cultural taboos for the sake of social commentary and satire. Considered to be a working-class style of literature, classical examples of transgressive literature include the Marquis de Sade, George Bataille, some work by Dostoyevsky and the Beat writers. Contemporary examples include Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh. Currently, the definitive author of transgressive fiction is Chuck Palahniuk.

I have long admired Palahniuk’s writing, both for its satire and transgressive nature, and Invisible Monsters, one of his earliest works, is considered to be among his most disturbing and poignant. It’s an endless buffet of sexual disorientation, body modification, gender dysphoria, self-mutilation, fame-mongering, familial dysfunction, violence and manufactured reality.

But at its core, Invisible Monsters is about identity. Who determines one’s identity? Who defines who or what one is or is not? This can be sexual, biological, superficial. Identity is a personal, subjective thing. It’s also one that manifests physically. For these characters, mutilation is the method of self-expression, either by accident (Brandy), by gender reconstruction surgery (Evie) and by their own hand (the narrator, Shannon).

Palahniuk exaggerates these tropes to the degree that they become fabulistic, and because of that, he had difficulty getting the book published. At the time, Palahniuk was a bit of a mystery. Here’s a book that begins with a spinning shotgun and a room on fire, and it ends with… Well, time is a relative component of Invisible Monsters, so who the hell knows where it ends!

What we’ve learned of Palahniuk in the ensuing years is that his over-the-top approach is a monstrous distortion of our culture. In this way, he teaches us the value of the grotesque in satire. Shannon is a fashion model who intentionally disfigures herself, Brandy a homosexual who uses an accident as pretense for gender reassignment surgery. These are people who tear themselves apart, and the pieces don’t quite fit when put back together again.

In life, the deepest wounds are the ones that are self-inflicted, and it is the characters’ own hand that pours in the salt.

As if the novel wasn’t surreal enough already, this summer Palahniuk released an updated version of Invisible Monsters featuring new and rearranged chapters.

And if that’s not enough to help you reach your disturbance quota, check out his collection of loosely connected stories, Haunted, one of my favorites. Full of splatterpunk thrills, it’s a bloodbath worthy of the Grand Guignol.

His 2008 novel, Snuff, is another ick-inducing read, this time taking on the world of pornography. You can read my review of it here.

Unsettling Chapters: Man in the Dark

Unsettling Chapters is a month-long celebration of dark fiction brought to you by Ensuing Chapters book blog and Transgress digital magazine. Every day through Halloween, we’ll feature reviews, discussions and recommendations of some of the most frightening books ever printed. Check back or subscribe to our feed for your daily dose of darkness.

One of my all-time favorite records is Shotgun Messiah’s Violent New Breed, a dystopic industrial-metal assault that is as much manifesto as music. What you hear within its tracks is the sound of your inner demons clawing their way out through your throat.

That’s also how I would describe the writing of Paul Auster, best known for existentialist works such as The Invention of Solitude, Travels in the Scriptorium and The New York Trilogy. These grim tomes remind us that it is not the dark we are afraid of, but rather being left alone inside our own heads, which run riot in the small hours of night.

Which brings us to 2008’s Man in the Dark.

In this short novel, aging writer August Brill struggles with insomnia and attempts to lull himself to sleep by creating a story about a man named Owen Brick. It’s a dystopian tale of senseless war and a fractured America, which provides an alternate history to 9/11. The narrative of Man in the Dark shifts between Brill’s nocturnal counterfactuals and the despair of his waking existence. Recently widowed, he shares a house with his daughter and granddaughter (also recently widowed, in a manner of speaking).

The despair deepens as the source of the familial insomnia is revealed.

Despite being written in the first-person, Man in the Dark has the texture of a third-person narrative. Auster balances the two narratives (the waking and the counterfactual) along with interactions with other family members that expand plot points and keep us engaged in the story without focusing on the singular event driving this piece.

And of course, the fictional narrative within the narrative allows Brill to reveal insights into his life without the bias or sentimentality of confession. He uses Owen Brick as a stand-in for his own life.

When the climax comes, it feels inevitable. Auster achieves this result not with a clever twist (although there is an affecting shock at the end) but through the groundwork he lays throughout the novel. He transforms a simple first-person narrative into something more complex and complete, much as a reader would expect from a multi-character, third-person POV.

Most important for our purposes, Auster has penned a haunting work that reminds us that there is only one thing to fear in the dark—our own mind.

I recommend that you devour this book with Violent New Breed playing in the background.

And let those inner demons do their worst.

Unsettling Chapters: Marabou Stork Nightmares

Unsettling Chapters is a month-long celebration of dark fiction brought to you by Ensuing Chapters book blog and Transgress digital magazine. Every day through Halloween, we’ll feature reviews, discussions and recommendations of some of the most frightening books ever printed. Check back or subscribe to our feed for your daily dose of darkness.

For all the horror film and literature I consume, people sometimes assume that I scare easy. Well, not so much. Horror has its visceral thrills, but for me, it’s more of an aesthetic experience. I enjoy the atmosphere more than the scares, and find humor in the most gruesome onscreen butchering. In general, I’m a tough nut to disturb.

Which brings us to Marabou Stork Nightmares.

Don’t consider this a recommendation. Consider this a challenge.

This novel has the distinction of being the only book that has kept me up at nights as an adult. The reader survives this book as much as they enjoy it. Be warned, this is a tense work of psychological brutality that forces you to confront human nature. It’s a case study of devolutionary psychopathology, of working class nihilism and the addictive lure of violence. And a stellar piece of literature you’ll never forget.

Of course, Irvine Welsh is best known for his debut novel, Trainspotting. Marabou Stork is his second full-length, first published in 1995. The story is narrated by Roy Strang, a comatose soccer hooligan with a troubled past. We experience the story from inside Strang’s head, which creates a narrative as compelling as it is disjointed. He oscillates through multiple levels of consciousness, which are represented visually with different fonts that run forward, back and sometimes up the page. This textual manipulation further immerses the reader in the nightmare.

When closest to death, Strang endures wild hallucinations centered on a safari in which he is hunting the marabou stork, a vicious scavenger that will eat other animals alive. Strang’s life story weaves throughout this psychedelic and troubling narrative, until the fractured shards of his memory come back together.

I once lent Marabou Stork Nightmares to a friend, an addict who was well-acquainted with the back alleys of hell, and he returned it two days later. He’d finished the book in less than 40 hours, in part because it was so good that he couldn’t stop reading—and in part because he was too troubled to sleep.

Any book that elicits this type of visceral response is a must-read for Halloween.

Welsh has also written a number of horrific short stories, most of which appear in his stellar collection The Acid House. Recommended stories include, “The Shooter,” “Eurotrash” and the delightful “Snuff.”

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.