Daisy Johnson on the Marvels of Uncanny Fiction
Drawing from mythology and fairy tales in her 2019 Booker-nominated Everything Under and rooting her new novel Sisters in psychological horror, Daisy Johnson is no stranger to the revelatory power of the uncanny and inexplicable in exploring the darker sides of human experience.
Johnson shares with us five of her favourite books that pull the reader into lawless, subtly reality-bending worlds.
I have always loved reading books where all is not quite what it seems. Doubles, sentient houses, animals behaving strangely, monsters, the uncanny, illnesses, the end of the world. From magical realism to horror my favourite read is one set in a world which is a little, but not entirely, like ours. Here are five books which unnerved and delighted me in equal measure.
The Need by Helen Phillips
Molly works at a fossil quarry, excavating the earth and uncovering objects which seem normal to begin with but on closer inspection are not quite right. Her husband is away and Molly is awake in the night caring for her two small children, desperate for sleep and for help. Her days are glassy with sleep deprivation and Phillip’s writing takes on a hallucinatory quality, the sentences very sharp and beautiful. One night someone impossible comes to the house and begins inserting themselves into Molly’s life in a way she is powerless to control. As the book progresses we begin to wonder: has this stranger come from the earth?
Muscle by Alan Trotter
From the start of Trotter’s debut novel it is clear not all is what it seems. Most intriguingly there is a character named only _____ who, along with Box, inhabits a noir world of extreme violence and shady back rooms. It is an underworld and as the novel continues the reader descends further and further until not only the characters but logic – and excitingly – time itself begins to break down. This is a book that seemed to me like a series of Russian dolls which open out and out and out until it is impossible to tell which level of reality or possibility we are in. Trotter is an incredibly inventive writer and a very exciting space to watch.
Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
The opening story in Her Body And Other Parties, The Husband Stitch, was a hot party, social media discussion topic when it first came out and for good reason. A retelling of a fairy story The Husband Stitch narrates the entirety of a relationship, from first fumbles in the forest, to having a child, to eventual breakdown. It is startling and very sharp, the sort of story you can return to again and again. The ending comes is so startling and shocking and darkly beautiful it stuns you. The rest of the collection is no less brilliant. From a long central, fragmentary story which reimagines every episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, with many uncanny and haunting twists; to the end of the world told through sexual encounters, Machado excels like no one else in the destruction of genre boundaries, dark humour, and the body in all its forms and with all of its desires made large. Her latest book, In the Dream House, is a truly astounding account of Machado’s experiences in an abusive relationship, told in fragments and fairy tales and ghostly moments. Machado is certainly the place now, and in the future, to go for the unexpected.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
A friend first recommended Kelly Link’s short stories to me and after I read one it was an endless love affair. This is my favourite of her collections. About these stories Sarah Water’s writes, ‘They are not so much small fictions as windows onto entire worlds.’ This is such an adept description. To read a Kelly Link collection is to discover a world, the stories are each bright, separate gems, but they are also connected by people who have two shadows or portals into other universes. This is a world a little like ours – people go to work, argue with their families, tell ghost stories – but these stories are about somewhere somehow brighter than the place we live. In my favourite story, Light, a woman works in a warehouse caring for people who have mysteriously fallen asleep and a storm carries away almost the entire street. In another brilliant story two identical space ships fly through space, the crew on one telling ghost stories which are brought to life around them.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
This is one of those books I picked up for the brilliant quotes on the cover (George Saunders, Roxanne Gay) and which I was so glad I did. In many ways Friday Black is an enormously relevant book for our times, exploring racism and consumerism, it is a confronting read about the way we treat other people. It is very much a book about what it means to live as a black person in the US – and elsewhere – today, and it is also an enormously clever short story collection which plays with genre tropes and violence we often take for granted. Particularly striking stories include Zimmer Land, in which visitors are welcomed into a virtual reality where they can kill actors of colour, and Friday Black, which puts an entirely new spin on the horrors of black Friday.
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