Amelia Gray's wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.
Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.
1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates - A novella based on the life and crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer. It jumps into a creepily precise first person, an expert frame for the violence to come. And it does, bearing descriptions of corpsifying and sawing heads open without a bit of sentiment for the individuals attached. Oates is at her ribald, manic best here, employing her insatiable curiosity towards the psychotic mind. The resulting work is gorier than a slow-motion freeway pileup, with equal glory.
2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn - A couple works obsessively to breed their personal freak show in the first pages of this book, perhaps the definitive novel about circus freaks and circus freak-related cults. (This was extra-shocking to my teenage self, who first picked the book up looking for a story about computers.) It’s brilliant sustained voice is Dunn’s real achievement, and the viscera and creeps round it out nicely. People have been trying to rip this book off since 1989.
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy - Thinking back I imagine every scene taking place in the pitch black, figures chained or roiling in the background, human and animal figures screaming. The book’s sentences group about their paragraphs like a band of feral cats munching on corpses. They raise the hairs on your arms. The running story is a post-apocalyptic march alternating terror and gloom in pursuit of the sea for some reason. Finishing it threw me into such a delicious depression, I started reading it again right away.
4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - A cautionary tale against aimless ambition will necessarily be dark. This one is also flavored with the tang of longing and failed love and contained in the sad dregs of a waspy marriage. You can write death and guts all day long, but you’re going to have a hard time getting darker than the sad, earnest Laurel Players failing their way through The Petrified Forest in front of everyone they love.
5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish - This book of dark drawings opens with a handwritten remark from the writer: "My primary goal in producing this book is to meet people with similar interests." It’s such a plaintive and sincere sentiment as to cast the inked portraits of starved women and genitals and violence of the subsequent pages, giving the book the feeling that it was scraped out of the gutter in front of the visitor's entrance of a maximum security prison. J.A. Tyler put it best when he called it a “sketchbook drawn through a poetic gloryhole.”
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison - Opening with a house full of a dead baby’s venom and her mother trading sex for the dignity of a name on a headstone, this book is a dark and devoted portrait of the presence of loss in those left behind. The way Morrison works with color to show the melancholy, danger, and release inherent to living through and living on is genius in itself, and the colors themselves work as a stylistic counterpoint to the tone of the book.
7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting - Twenty-six-year-old Celeste is a sexy, smart teacher married to a handsome football captain type. She’s also an unrepentant and repeated sex offender, seducing and raping her teenage students. The story of her sexual obsessions offer up a cringing response to the gendered imbalance of sexual assault. Nutting’s work is meticulous and relentless and funny, a sharp satire of romance writing with a side of death.
8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey - A travel narrative of a woman who buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand without telling her husband or family. This one might be otherwise titled Eat, Pray, Stare Into the Abyss. Lacey’s subtle, self-aware prose presents a woman slowly unraveling into herself. Reading it gives one the feeling of moving through a crowded party while almost fully anesthetized.
9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain - A little darkness is good for children, particularly those who don't know that wishes are always the first step towards disaster. One girl’s wish for her crush to put down roots in her town ends with him becoming a tree, who informs her out of spite that he only flirted to sell her more things. It’s the kind of book that digs into your subconscious and informs your nightmares and romantic decisions for the rest of your life.
10. Bird by Noy Holland - Bird and her lover traveled the country in her memory accompanied by thoughts of a dead dog and the throbbing of an impacted tooth. In the present day she raises two children, walking them to the park as the weight of her past life twins into her memory. Headstrong and heartsick, with a feeling like drawing one’s heart across a lemon zester, Holland’s prose pushes through the darkness with her usual control and power.