We’ve been talking about horror on Mondays here, and this week, I thought I’d take this idea somewhere just a little bit different. Instead of talking about the traditional horror novel, I thought I’d highlight a handful of titles that are haunting for a different reason: it’s unclear what’s real and what’s not. They’re novels that tiptoe the line of real and not real. There’s something slightly off about them.
It’s that psychological taunting that, I think, is scarier than traditional horror. With a standard horror novel, much can be explained via some outside force; but a psychologically haunting novel forces the reader to question not only the story but to question themselves. The ultimate question becomes whether the book is about the character or if it’s about the reader.
Lark by Tracey Porter is the story of Lark, a 16-year-old who’d been kidnapped from her home and left to die in a snowy forest. Her two best friends, Eve and Nyetta, find themselves haunted by her death; Eve feels somehow responsible for it, while Nyetta feels responsible for freeing Lark’s soul from limbo.
This short book is one that I’ve thought a lot more about than I thought I would. I finished it quickly and while I got it, it didn’t haunt me as much as I wished it would. Until, now months later, I’ve found myself wondering if my interpretation of the novel has been wrong. In reading reviews of this novel, I’ve found people use the words “fantasy” and “paranormal” to describe it; not once in my reading experience did I feel this. Lark, to me, was grounded in the contemporary world. While Lark speaks as a ghost and while there are elements of the fantastic in this story, so much within the book, particularly within Nyetta’s drive to “free” Lark, was completely within our world. For me as a reader, this story was about Nyetta and Eve’s mental struggle to cope with the loss of their friend. The stages were quite classic: both girls felt that in order to grieve properly, they needed to accept responsibility for what happened. In the end, the symbolic closure sealed this story as more real than fantastic for me.
Though the story itself didn’t completely work for me (I wanted a lot more heft to it, given how much commentary there is within it about the symbolic power of women and bodies and loss), when I went back through reviews and saw how many people talked about the ghosts in the novel, it left me much more haunted. Had I read the story completely wrong? Was I the crazy one? That’s when I realized this book did precisely what it needed to do: it left me questioning. The goal was less about the story itself and more about making the reader wonder about their own thought processes. If, months after finishing, I was wondering about my own interpretation, then the book had taken on a story far greater than the one it told. Lark begs for a second reading.
Tighter by Adele Griffin follows 17-year-old Jamie as she takes a summer job on a removed New England island as a full-time babysitter. When she arrives, she quickly learns about the death of a young couple, and she’s hell bent on figuring out why they died. The further she goes into uncovering their stories, the more Jamie realizes she looks like the dead girl and the more she senses she can talk to the ghosts of the couple. Jamie becomes more and more entrenched in their stories and as she does, the more she becomes twisted within her own thoughts and her own understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.
Like Lark, Griffin’s story is short and twisted. The plot is tight and leaves the reader questioning right along with Jamie. Is she onto something? Is she uncovering a great ghost story? Or is Jamie herself becoming mentally unhinged at every turn of events?
Although I saw the ending coming from a mile away, this is the kind of book that will leave many haunted. This book is a revisioning of Henry James’s classic The Turn of the Screw, and while I’ve never read the original tale, the story itself tread some familiar psychological territory. But again, what I find completely fascinating about the book is less the story and more the reactions other readers have had to it. In reading reviews of this one, it’s clear that there’s a divide between reading this as a straight up ghost story and reading it as a psychological thriller. Unlike Lark, though, I find it hard to buy this as a ghost story with the ending as it stands; however, Griffin is successful in executing a story that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and gets to the readers themselves. It’s much less about Jamie and much more about whoever is reading.
Wonderland by Joanna Nadin has sort of slipped under the radar this year, and it surprises me because what this novel does is precisely what a couple of other books this year do (and yes, if you click those links, that’ll be a downright spoiler to the book, so consider yourself warned). An interesting trend to note, to say the least. Nadin’s novel, though, does so without sacrificing the writing itself, and in fact, the writing may itself aid in building the deceiving world of the story.
Jude aches to get out of her small town and make her way to London, where she’ll go to school at the prestigious Lab and make a name for herself. But she lacks a lot of willpower to do so, partially because of the loss of her mother and partially because she’s so alone. Living with her dad isn’t helping, either, as he’s been in mourning for a long time.
Lucky for Jude, though, her best friend Stella wanders back into her life one day; Stella’d never been the most stable or reliable of friends, but her return makes Jude more happy than she could have imagined. The problem is that Stella is wild — she does things she shouldn’t. She’s reckless and uninhibited, and often, she drags an unwilling Judge into scenarios in which she’d otherwise never involve herself. The truth is, Jude loves the attention that she gets when Stella’s around. But can Stella take her power over Jude too far?
I called the ending of Wonderland at page 4 or 5, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying how Nadin got there. The story left me questioning my thoughts much more than other variations of this story have, simply because the language wrapped me up within it. More than that, though, Nadin threw in enough twists and turns, and made it seem like my predictions were maybe too simple and straightforward. Even though the story wrapped up as I suspected it would, I didn’t end up feeling disappointed. Instead, I wanted to go back to page one and start again. There were strings of other stories within Jude’s that begged for more attention, and I suspect a second reading would still leave some of the questions I had unanswered (which is not a bad thing). A good story can leave some strings unanswered and have that be more than satisfactory.
We’ve already talked about Nova Ren Suma’s fantastic young adult debut Imaginary Girls here. As much as I adored this book and thought it achieved something huge, I knew it was a winner when I came back to it and reread it. Not only did I reread this one, but I reread all 350 pages in one sitting. This time, it was a completely different and much more psychologically haunting story than the first time.
Where the first time I read the story I thought it wrapped up a little cleanly (and bought the idea that indeed, Ruby was a crazy character without much more than that), the second read left me much more tormented as a reader. Was I wrong the first time? Did Ruby indeed exist at all? Was Chloe really the one begging for help the entire time? As I read, I picked up many subtleties I didn’t catch upon the first time; specifically, I found myself enraptured by the dropping of gray hairs throughout the story. These left me further questioning who or what I believed. I had to believe Chloe because she was telling the story. But the more I read, the further I had to separate myself from that idea. There were gray hairs throughout the book, and it was the deceptive and gorgeous writing that cast a sheen over me as a reader. Maybe I’d misread Chloe. Maybe I’d misread Ruby. Maybe I’d misread the entire story.
I didn’t walk away with any more answers on the second read. I walked away with more questions, and they were much less about the plot and story and much more about me as a reader. How was I making my interpretations? What inside the story was something I grasped onto and pulled conclusions from? If I read this again, would I see something else entirely? Perhaps the biggest question it left me with was how many ways can we as readers see inside a story? For me, this was one of the rare novels that made me see something so many different ways and not just that, but it left me okay and maybe even satisfied with that because I had to be. Suma’s novel is the definition of a psychologically thrilling story, though I’m more apt to label this novel as fantasy than the others above (magical realism, to be precise).
While I love a good horror novel and a good dark Gothic tome, for me, the best kinds of scary are those which push the boundaries of reality and fantasy. Those which straddle the definitions are the scariest because they can’t easily be defined. More than that, though, these stories make the reader question their own comprehension of both and question their own sense of understanding. I live for a challenge, and the more a story can challenge me to think about how I think and interpret, the more likely it is to stick with me, whether the story itself is successful or not. True horror is walking away with more questions about myself after reading a book than answers.
Have you read anything along these lines? I’d love to find something as tormenting as any of the titles above.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).