True terror is not otherworldly. In fact, it is a thing far more terrifying (and far more real) than ghouls and spooky spirits. You find it in the most innocuous of places: in history textbooks, small newspaper articles, unreported events. Most of the time, you find it in other people, and, sometimes, even within yourself. This is a place of madness, hysteria, suffering, narcissism and confusion.
In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together a list of novels that offer a sample of what real-world terror can look like: abject poverty, plotting paedophiles, book-burning, totalitarian states. Though works of fiction, they are inspired by the monsters of this world, and more frightening because of it.
WARNING: This list contains truly depressing novels.
1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It is 1951, a winter day in a Siberian labour camp. A prisoner goes about his day, bending rules, avoiding punishments and making life a little easier where he can. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a labour camp prisoner under Stalin’s reign, this is a grim but powerful account of life in the Soviet Gulags.
2. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The unfair prejudices of the Hindu caste system are revealed as we follow the lives of 4 characters from different castes in Bombay, India, in the 1970s. The poor survive by living on a razor’s edge. For them, everything goes badly; there’s no happy ending in this overwhelmingly sad novel that’s the unfortunate reality of millions of impoverished Indians.
3. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa is a master of modern Gothic. Beautiful and deadly, each short story is like an exquisite delicacy that’s rotten to its core. In the first story, for example, a woman spends an “Afternoon at the Bakery” where she goes to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday, twelve years after he died while trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator.
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four and Farenheit 451 (#5, below) are equally frightening dystopian novels with similar themes. Orwell’s version depicts a totalitarian state where truth doesn’t exist, independent thought is banned, and love is an alien concept (unless it’s love for the Party). It is visionary because some countries today function exactly like the nightmarish world depicted in this 1961 novel.
5. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of future a few years ago. In this dystopian classic, owning, publishing and reading books is a criminal activity. Distracted by technology, citizens allow, in fact prefer, to let books burn. (Sounds familiar?) In the midst of this extreme government-imposed censorship, one book-burning fireman has a moral awakening.
6. Black Hole by Charles Burns
I’ve written about Burns’ macabre graphic novel before. In a gruesome twist of fate, all goes awry when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague starts infecting teenagers in a quiet suburban American town. What unfolds is a testimony to the savage cruelty of puberty and high school politics.
7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European intellectual, meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, and constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her. The prose is as hauntingly beautiful as the story is sad, sick and tragic.
8. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into some sort of vile insect though his intellect remains intact. But the longer he’s trapped in his new form, the more bug-like his mind becomes. Truly kafkaesque.
9. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
The four Dollanganger children are locked up in the attic of their beautiful mother’s childhood home, a sprawling Victorian mansion. Here, the children grow up, enter puberty and discover sexuality with some disastrous consequences. It’s not highbrow literature but that doesn’t stop it from being a dark, twisted fairytale.