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Stuart Turton on His Top Terrible Journeys in Fiction

Posted on 3rd May 2021 by Mark Skinner

With his bestselling debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton demonstrated his proficiency in spinning a tale laden with unexpected twists and turns. His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, ups the ante even further on labyrinthine storytelling and page-turning unpredictability. Centred on a 17th-century voyage from hell (possibly quite literally), the novel features fugitive detectives, stalking demons and a twice-dead leper to name but a few of the weird an wonderful creations, and in this exclusive piece, Stuart reveals his favourite books with similarly disastrous journeys.      

I was a travel journalist before I became an author. The dirty secret of travel journalism is that it’s better if everything goes wrong on a trip because your story will be more interesting at the end of it. 

Even now, the only trips I really remember are the ones where the boat went kaput in a storm, I was chased by a panther, or that time a dolphin tried to kill me. In every case, I told myself I was quitting the stupid job and going home, only to find myself back in a dark jungle three weeks later – hoping and fearing that something terrible would happen so I’d have a story to tell. 

It’s no surprise I’m drawn to novels about journeys from hell. Not just uncomfortable train trips, but those books were the very act of moving forward seems to tighten the noose around the character’s neck. Here, in no particular order, are my four favourites. 

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey was my introduction to terrible journey books. I got it in a pack of simplified classics when I was young, and spent a long time enjoying the pictures before I got around to the words. In a nutshell, Odysseus fights in the Trojan war for ten years, then tries to go home. 

Ten years later, he actually gets there. I can sympathise, I’ve driven on the M25. 

Along the way, Odysseus watches his crew get eaten, watches them get turned into pigs, has a fling with the witch who did the pig-ifying, annoys the gods, refuses to listen to some women singing, then finally gets home to find a bunch of drunk blokes trying to marry his long-suffering wife, who just wants to be left alone to sew a massive tapestry. 

It’s an utterly terrible journey, but Odysseus is rude to literally everybody he meets along the way, so maybe he deserves it. It’s difficult to say.  

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An unquestionable cornerstone of Western literature, Homer’s epic on Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan war and his wife Penelope’s faithful guardianship of their kingdom remains one of the greatest stories of courage, loyalty and survival ever told.
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The Long Walk by Stephen King

I’ve always preferred Stephen King’s short stories to his longer books, and 'The Long Walk' is my absolute favourite. It’s about a bunch of teenage boys who have to walk without rest. If they fall below 4mph, they get a warning. If they receive three warnings they get shot by the military who are following along in cars. The last one standing wins a prize of their choosing and some money. That’s it. That’s the plot. 

Along the way, the walkers make friends, and enemies. You learn a little about the world beyond the walk, though not too much, and you truly begin to feel for the protagonist and his friends – as they fray under the physical and psychological toll of the competition.

It’s just a brilliant piece of suspense, and character work. And it’s based on a lot of people walking a lot, which makes me thing Stephen King lost a bet, or something.   

The short story 'The Long Walk' can be found in Stephen King's Collection The Bachman Books. 

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A trio of tales written by King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, these slices of prescient, page-turning speculative fiction demonstrate the great storyteller’s boundless imagination and versatility.
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English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

English Passengers ruined me for every other book for about a year, which makes this simultaneously the best and worst novel on this list. The reason for this accolade is that it does everything I want books to do: the writing is beautiful; the characters have shattered-glass edges, and are drawn entirely in grey; and the plot comes at you like a meteor shower. It’s structurally brave. It’s controlled. It’s unexpected. And, it’s got a ship that might as well be called The HMS This is Probably Going to Go Terribly. 

It starts like this: in 1856 a smuggler gets in trouble with port authorities, and is forced to take on a bunch of passengers to pay his bills. They’re on an expedition to find the Garden of Eden, which they think is located in Australia. These passengers are – uniformly – awful people, obsessed with eugenics, race, and the very terrible version of god very terrible people always seem to idolise. Off they go to Australia on a boat crewed by people who hate them. 

It’s somehow very funny, while being very tense, which is impressive considering how hard it is to laugh through clenched teeth. 

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Told through entirely convincing multiple narrators on a voyage to a Tasmanian Garden of Eden, English Passengers is a thoroughly absorbing and scabrously funny evocation of the high seas and low morals of Victorian ideologues.
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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

I’ll admit, I’m stretching the idea of “bad trip” here, but this is the book that showed me it’s entirely possible to root your characters in a chair and still send them on a journey.

Fear and Loathing sends Raoul Duke – a very thinly disguised Hunter S. Thompson – and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo – an even more thinly disguised Oscar Zeta Acosta – to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 500 motorcycle race on behalf of a magazine. 

What they do instead are vast quantities of drugs, while lamenting modern capitalism and the death of the American dream.

I’m not sure it’s a good book, but I’m not sure that matters much. It’s very fun in five-minute bursts, and very tiring after that. It’s occasionally well written and occasionally meandering. I’ve met as many people who adore it, as despise it. This alone makes it worth a read, I reckon.

Also, they keep getting high and having visions of anthropomorphic desert animals, which isn’t something you get in literature very often, and completely alters your future readings of The Amber Spyglass

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Controversial and crazed, Thompson’s barnstorming road trip across LA is the ultimate gonzo mind-bender, flush with addled hallucinogenic humour and demented vignettes.
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