Review Corner: Horrific Books That Aren’t Horror – Recommendations from Leo X. Robertson

by Leo X. Robertson

I’m not a big fan of sharing. I don’t post about what I’m reading while reading it anymore, so I feel like I’m reading it alone. And if a book is super popular, I have to wait to read it so as not to discover it at the same time as everyone else.

Yes, this is silly. But it’s also a pretty good way of obtaining competitive advantage as a writer when it comes to the material you choose to absorb.

It can get tricky when applying Robertson’s Sabotage to popular genres like horror, though, because the top authors are never unpopular for long enough for me to forget that someone else is always reading them. But you need not look within the horror genre if you’re looking for a horrific read.

So here are some books that will poke at your soul with a sharp stick!

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Saunders is hailed as one of the world’s best living short story writers. Any one of his collections is worth your time, but I’ve picked Tenth of December because it surely contains his darkest stories. (You’ll need a big glass of whisky and a window to stare out of after “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”)

These stories toe the lines of moral ambiguity, inviting the reader to consider their own complicity in harmful systems. No matter whom he presents as the hero or villain, everyone’s position is understandable, even if not necessarily defensible.

Saunders often takes aim at capitalism—bu it is always presented as a system that is far bigger than the humans embedded in it, as something that we may have made but that we can’t control. This is seemingly the most compassionate and terrifying way of looking at it.

 

 

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

 

Roupenian is the author of the viral short story “Cat Person”, an undoubtedly horrific tale about the perils of dating.

Roupenian’s debut collection is filled with even more examples of everyday sadism, the book itself named after the typical assertion of a delusional abuser—and perhaps aimed squarely at the reader.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Wallace is one of the literariest literary writers to have ever lengthily pontificated—but there are genre thrills aplenty in this top ten list of his favourite books.

Plus, he taught a course on literary analysis, the syllabus of which was exclusively cheap, mass-market paperbacks.

He’s not unfairly known for impenetrable, wordy prose—but much of “Hideous Men” uses the conventions of genre fiction to inspire new levels of dread.

Dreadful still, for sure, is how much his deeply insecure, highly manipulative and abusive characters might be based on him. An unfortunate source for these stories’ unrivalled psychological depth.

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

Sure, Shriver has been BEE-ing herself in public recently, which is embarrassing. Bret Easton Ellis-ing, a verb I just made up, means “acting like an edgelord to get attention.” But Shriver’s latest work always has my attention anyway.

I didn’t know you could let anyone know you thought the way she does. But good writers don’t look for permission now or forgiveness later. The responsibility might even be to find the unsayable and say it. This should never be “something art used to do back in the day”; it’s perhaps one definition of how art helps us achieve the catharsis we so badly need from it.

So Much for That takes aim at America’s merciless healthcare system. Each chapter opens with the amount of money left in the protagonist’s bank account, and we watch it gradually deplete as he pays for his wife’s medical treatments for her cancer.

The only book I’ve ever put down because I couldn’t handle its fury. But I’m glad that, when I was back in the mood for it, I picked it up again and read it to the end. And I’ll do it again someday!

The Collected Plays by Sarah Kane

I was scrolling through “best plays ever” on Goodreads and discovered Sarah Kane’s “Blasted.” Reviews promised gratuitous violence and spoke of mass outrage when the play was first performed, so naturally I wanted to know everything about it.

I’m glad I hadn’t heard of it before, as I got to experience it outside of those preconceptions. The play takes place in a hotel room “so expensive it could be anywhere in the world”, and ends—well, perhaps anywhere in the world, when the hotel room is blasted open with a mortar shell and a war rages across the country. But the play’s entire scope is conveyed in just one setting and with three characters: a man and woman with a strange and complex relationship, and later on a soldier in the war. It’s just as violent and outrageous as promised, but not at all without purpose.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards, and instantly bought Kane’s collected plays.

I’m at a loss for how to describe “Blasted” or the rest of them—which is fine, because I found a clip of one of Kane’s friends saying he didn’t completely understand what some of them were about either. Regardless, “Blasted” alone I’ve read three times already, and I discover something new each time. It’s amazing how many messages she packs into her plays.

I live in hope of discovering who my next Sarah Kane is.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

I’ve saved the most dreadful for last.

If you ever doubted that life was a matter of perspective, here is how to turn an objectively decent life—“The American Dream”, even—into a literal living hell.

In hypnotic prose, Heller draws you into the world of Bob Slocum, on the outside an everyman with a family and decent-paying job, but truly contemptible on the inside.

The novel seems to ask if someone can be completely written off based on their internal monologue. It’s unclear precisely how much of Slocum’s perception of himself and the world permeates the reality around him. At least until the end. For most of the book, the title seems to be some sort of joke, because absolutely nothing is happening: it’s just a guy describing his work, his family and exactly how they and everything around him fills him with the worst emotions possible. When something does happen, it’s clear that Slocum is sabotaging more than himself and that his internal environment has leaked.

This is the secret (but not-so-secretly better) precursor to American Psycho and to everything Joshua Ferris ever wrote.

I hope you enjoy these horrific non-horror picks!

-Leo


About the Author

Leo X. Robertson is a Scottish process engineer and writer, currently living in Stavanger, Norway. He has work published by or forthcoming with Flame Tree Press, Pulp Literature, Helios Quarterly and others. His latest novella, “Jesus of Scumburg”, is out now with NihilismRevised. Find him on Twitter @Leoxwrite or check out his website, leoxrobertson.wordpress.com