Sarah Perry’s sophomore novel may be a gothic tale about fear, but the writing itself is absolutely fearless. Uniting several different stories that cross time and place by cataloging them as proof in a surreal monster investigation, Perry dissects the idea of guilt in ways both sweeping and intimate. In a narrative style that pulls the reader (at times uncomfortably) close, the story allows us to discover and dread along with our protagonist. Unnerving, at times devastating, at times funny, and always honest, this is a modern, cursed gothic story told with a wildfire level of passion, even as it masquerades beneath British restraint.
The Grace Year is powered by plot. This is a delightfully twisty and genuinely frightening plot for a YA title, and that makes it a rapid, careening ride. The character development and motivation is definitely a little more on the two-dimensional side, but for the younger reader who is looking for a thrill, this novel will deliver with its high-voltage mix of survival narrative, romance, mean girl comeuppance, and minor gore. This book would make a great stepping stone to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Ben Percy’s defining stylistic claim to fame is a refusal to separate literary fiction and genre fiction. For him, they are one and the same, and that comes through prominently in this dark collection. All the narrative tug of a well-creased pulp paperback, all the art of prize-winning literary prose (which, by the way, much of it is). My favorite stories in this collection were “The Cold Boy,” “Writs of Possesion,” “Mud Man,” and the shattering final novella “The Uncharted.” Each of these channels a gruesome or supernatural element to reflect the mundane-but-pressing anxieties of life that we’ve all confronted. That’s the fuel Percy uses to make his stories truly scary.
Terrifying and visceral, The Need makes looming monsters out of our most primal and mundane thoughts. It explores the endless exhaustion and elation of parenthood, while also using anxiety as its plot’s rocket fuel. I loved the uneasy ambiguity permeating each page. Phillips is a wizard of language whose novel here is the narrative equivalent of smashing a vase on the floor. Bam!
The Water Cure is a parable that defies pinning down in terms of its historical and geographical setting, certainly intentionally so. It is a violent tale with sparse and evocative prose, and it bristles with rage at the harm that women have absorbed throughout Western history. Taking that gigantic, cascading multi-generational hurt and distilling it into two precise individual voices is Mackintosh’s immense achievement in this frightening and propulsive read.
I was not prepared for everything that I got out of Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake. It’s a genre-defying YA title, mostly realistic but somehow also mostly fantasy, a little sci-fi, a lot mystery, and just an extremely interesting ride. Pessl takes the concept of a time loop anomaly and applies it to a group of wealthy, privileged college kids who all have something to hide. When they get trapped together in a recurring day inside a kind of half-alive limbo with a ticking clock, all manner of possibilities provide themselves. It’s a thrilling and satisfyingly fun read. The plot is admirably complex, and will delight fans of unpredictable stories with larger than life characters. In other words, this book is like the hippest game of Clue ever played.
I Am Still Alive is an incredible YA pick for the reader who loves tense action and adventure. The novel fits in the tradition of other classic survival writers like Jack London and Gary Paulsen, but with a whole new, fiercer twist. The 16-year-old heroine–who becomes stranded in the far northern Canadian wilderness on her own–is complicated and realistic, both naive and badass in believable ways. The things she has to learn and push through to try to survive evoke very visceral reactions. I was gasping! Marshall is absolutely brutal when it comes to envisioning the scenarios that can and do happen when humans are pitted against the physical and emotional trauma of survival situations. My heart was both broken and strengthened by the end. If you’re looking for a riveting read to tear through in a couple days, this is it.
Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published true crime account takes us deep into the noxious labyrinth of one man’s unthinkable evildoings, and her own insatiable desire to hold him accountable for them. McNamara presents the sickening details about the Golden State Killer’s chilling reign of terror over central California in the 1970s and 1980s, but does so without being exploitative of the victims–rather, her tone prioritizes telling the truth: These things happened, and this man is responsible. Beyond the chilling facts of the GSK’s crimes, though, the truly fascinating part of this narrative is Michelle’s own unflagging, compulsive drive to use technology, wade through long-dormant paper trails, and unite citizen and police investigators to bring him into the light. Her dedication to solving this case was remarkable, and though she died before she could see him fall, she played a key role in helping unite and inform the people who did. Rest in peace, Michelle–They got him.
Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It is where Southern Gothic meets millennial anxiety, and it’s a match made in the depths of hell. Of course, that’s exactly the point of this wholly disturbing psychological thrill ride. Jemc plays so intelligently with the fear that preys on coincidence and misperception–is that stain getting larger? Does anyone else hear that faint humming sound? Was that shadow I saw for a split second actually real, or just my imagination? When we can’t trust our own judgment, our minds can start to unravel, and Jemc builds that sense of disease so slowly that the reader almost doesn’t realize it before it’s too late. One of the delicious torments of this novel is the uncertainty that permeates every moment, which Jemc balances with indelible images of haunting that will make you hug a pillow for dear life as you read. Read it as an allegory of a dishonest marriage or just a good old-fashioned haunted house story. Either way, it’s creepily, deeply enjoyable.