The Librarian Recommends

by Michelle Montalbano

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

When you pull an image right out of the nightmare factory of your deepest subconscious, what does it look like? With a high dose of realism, which is how I generally like my horror*, it might be something like a girl the color of a 3D-printed steak, a survivor of an “especially heinous crime” who instead of eyes, has bells—for eyes. Two alarming, constantly ringing bells.

I read at least half of this book in a fit on a bus ride from Providence, RI to New York, and my eyes turned into stars (not bells) just about mid-way through the first story, “The Husband Stitch.” That one basically demands that you read it aloud to someone—potentially the unfortunate person next to you on the bus—and it even provides stage directions about the tone of voice, helpful props (shaking a can full of pennies at someone to recreate the bewilderment such an inscrutable and cruel act might induce), etc. There’s also a really great one about the Madwoman in the Attic. Is it all of us? Yes.

Do you know what’s terrifying? Like really spooky? Elevating body horror to new heights, all while being fiercely feminist and delving into some genuinely scary truths of womanhood: the constant threat of sexual assault; motherhood; mechanical sex; dysmorphia; the ever-present boot of unstable mental health pressing on your neck and the eyes that are cast askance at you when you struggle with it; that even when you give everything, it’s still not enough; having a body at all.

It’s got creepy, adult riffs on passed-into-legend ghost stories that you, if you’re anything like me, told at sixth grade sleepovers—after the seance, before Light as a Feather/Stiff as a Board. It is relentlessly weird and brave. Do you remember the one about the girl with that very tempting green ribbon around her neck, or the one about the blushing bride who hid in a chest in the attic during a whimsical game of hide-and-seek and wasn’t found until she was NOTHING BUT BONES IN A WEDDING DRESS? Probably seared into your memory too.

Would press into your hands, firmly, with a hard, knowing look over my glasses.

*This does not preclude the appearance of the occult or other freaky elements—see below review of Shirley Jackson’s siren song of a book.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

As you’ve probably seen, the elder stateswoman of literary psycho-horror has just gotten the Netflix treatment, and when that came out, I also saw that there was a recent adaptation of her gorgeous, witchy outsider novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Get this: Crispin Glover is Uncle Julian. What!!! Taisa Farmiga, who was killer in American Horror Story’s Coven season, is Merricat Blackwood. It was also directed by a woman, probably won’t find any of the heavy-handedness that mars earlier Shirley Jackson adaptations. Subtlety and nuance hamfisted by dudes? Surprise me.

What a seductive novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle is though! From the first paragraph, when Merricat—a beautiful kind of puer aeternus—includes her love of the death cap mushroom (with its Latin name) and that she wishes she could have been born a werewolf casually among her ordinary vital stats, I was hooked. She buries teeth in the dirt and nails books to trees as protective talismans, and spends all day outside in a yard-sized dreamworld with her little black cat, except when she’s charged with going into the hostile village and picking up groceries and library books. Constance is always baking something elaborate and sad in the kitchen, and Uncle Julian has his papers, and he shuffles them and worries. Constance is a shut-in and a pariah, and Merricat is basically feral. There is so much magic in this book. I’m actually supposed to be talking about The Haunting of Hill House, so I’ll do that now. But you should really read both.

If houses are like people, with bones and skin and eyes, then they, like people, can be less than sane. Is it haunted in here, or are you haunted? What is real, and what is a product of your darkest paranoia? How does mental illness shade into the occult, or maybe—cool—you actually inhabit a liminal state and you’re more porous, sensitive, perceptive to what’s unseen? Manifest the reality you want to see in the world. Or maybe it’s just dark in there, so it’s dark out here.

Here’s another one that begs being read aloud, preferably in October in a probably-haunted Victorian house. Alternate chapters.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

What, Clarice Lispector? Who are you? Why are you so cool? If you read this book, you can enjoy a vigorous debate with your roommate over which translation from the original Portuguese is truer to Lispector’s intention, and which neuters the feminine sensibility right out of the prose. Is a translator meant to update the vernacular so that it corresponds a little more seamlessly with contemporary speech patterns—updating slang so it’s not dated, for example—or should it exist in amber, forever representing the place/moment in which it was written? I don’t know! But I have opinions! I love getting into arguments with my friends about these things! You can too!

But really, Clarice’re so beautiful and smart. You make me swoon just like Chopin makes you swoon.

Would plant in your belongings just so I could walk by, notice it, and start a conversation based on your impeccable taste in literature. Bonus points if you start an argument with me for fun.