A new report released this week is being billed as the first study to capture critical data about how consumers “engage” with books within a “connected media ecosystem” that includes video games, TV, and movies.
According to Publishers Weekly, “The study’s focus on consumer ‘engagement’ with books—vs. ‘reading’ behaviors—is a key distinction” because “Engagement with books can run the gamut, researchers found, including people who check out materials from the library but don’t always read or watch them, people who give books as gifts, buy them to collect or display, and people who dip into a book for reference, whether for work, school, or a hobby.”
The New York Times engages in self-examination: “As the publication celebrates its 125th anniversary, Parul Sehgal, a staff critic and former editor at the Book Review, delves into the archives to critically examine its legacy in full.”
Sehgal looks at lots of issues that range from the language or style of writing to the publication’s lack of diversity in what gets covered and what doesn’t.
“This renegade professor says literature is a machine that accelerates the human brain.”
They had me at “renegade professor.” Keven Berger, editor of science magazine Nautilus, talks with Angus Fletcher, an English professor at Ohio State University, about his new book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. Fletcher got an undergraduate degree in neuroscience before realizing that “the biology of the brain wouldn’t take him far enough toward understanding our need for stories.”
Since I read mostly fiction, I don’t discuss nonfiction often enough. Here author Samira Shackle defines and discusses narrative fiction: “Narrative nonfiction is a style of writing that takes the facts and dramatises them to create novelistic retellings of real life events.”
See what she has to say about five of the best recent works of narrative nonfiction.
“On the Brilliance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the Intimacy of Everyday Evil”
Shirley Jackson, writes novelist Jonathan Lethem, has “been no major critic’s fetish.”
Rather, Shirley Jackson has thrived, at publication and since, as a reader’s writer. Her most famous works—“The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House—are more famous than her name, and have sunk into cultural memory as timeless artifacts, seeming older than they are, with the resonance of myth or archetype.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the world will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but my speculations are mostly social and political. I know absolutely nothing about economics beyond balancing my checkbook, which is why I took particular notice of this article from Five Books.
As we deal with the economic fallout of coronavirus, what lessons can economic theory and economic history teach us as we navigate the months ahead? Ricardo Reis, professor of economics at the London School of Economics—and consultant to both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve—recommends four books and one article to help us think through the economic challenges posed by Covid-19.
“If you’ve never read his books, here’s where to start.”
Because I abhor horror, I avoided Stephen King’s books for a long time. I did once decide (in my early 30s) that I should probably give him a try and read The Tommyknockers, an experience that validated my assessment.
However, both Stephen King and I have changed in the intervening years. I still avoid straight horror, but I have enjoyed several of King’s not-so-horror works, e.g. Hearts in Atlantis, Bag of Bones, Misery, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Mr. Mercedes, and 11/22/63.
If you’ve never read Stephen King’s works or have read only a few, here’s a list of suggestions to get you started in the following categories:
“I Want to Read a King Classic”
“I Want to Drive Into the Skid”
“I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
“Actually, I’m Not a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
“I Have Time to Begin an Epic Journey”
“I Want Pure Suspense”
“I’m Looking For a Big Fat Read”
“I Want a Great Crime Novel”
“I Want a Deep Cut”
I especially appreciated the entry under “I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”:
It’s fine to not like scary things! That doesn’t mean you can’t read some Stephen King. Though he’s most famous for his horror novels and stories, at this point he has written a significant amount outside of the genre. Early in his career — less than a decade after the publication of his debut novel “Carrie” — King released “Different Seasons,” a collection of four novellas. Three of them have nothing to do with the supernatural. Two of them were adapted into top-tier King movies: “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” became, well, you know, and “The Body” was filmed as “Stand By Me.” Both are set in Maine in the early 1960s, and both give a sense of how lovingly King can draw his characters
In addition to his skill at characterization, King is also a master of description. If you’re an aspiring writer looking to write great description, check out King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
“Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied),” writes Ed Simon in this survey.
the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. . . . Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing. . .
Covering works by early religious writers through authors such as Thoreau and Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, and J.D. Salinger, Simon writes, “Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.” He associates this principle with the rise of the novel as a literary form that allows readers to live temporarily within interior space, the worlds a particular text creates within their heads.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes:
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
“The virus is rewriting our imaginations,” he writes, because it has awakened our realization of the significance of our place in history. “We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters.”
“Since novels like [The Haunting of] Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and short stories like “The Lottery” made Jackson one of America’s most famous horror authors, critics and Hollywood have tried to get to the heart of what makes Jackson’s work so enduringly scary,” writes Emily Alford.
Alford examines both the works themselves and film adaptations to arrive at her answer: “her work’s simplest theme: madness is born of too much time alone.”
The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre and it’s easy to see why. Your house should be familiar and it should behave predictably. When your safe, warm home turns out to be something else, it’s terrifying… . But what do women do in the haunted house? How does the haunted house function as the terrain on which women work out their fears and anxieties?
Smeltzer examines three classic haunted-house stories:
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
She concludes that “the haunted house is a physical expression of anxiety and trauma that stems from violent misogyny.”
Furthermore, maybe the haunted house is the only way that women in the novels discussed above can process what has happened to them. There do not seem to be very many other options for their processing, after all. The women might not have the words or the protection of societal structures to articulate their fears and passions. Therefore, the entire house models itself after them, horrors and all. The physical space takes on their trauma and anxieties.
The article includes a link to a “list of classic haunted house novels” to allow readers to see if other examples follow a similar pattern.
just a few quotes from the novel that hint at why The Haunting of Hill House resonates when it comes to perceptions of haunted houses.
The most telling of these quotations, to me, is this one:
“In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. Not one of us thinks rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and what knocked on the door was a ghost, and yet there was certainly something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind’s instinctive refuge—self-doubt—is eliminated. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”
we’ve rounded up a list of new books to read for Halloween, including an upcoming release from Stephen King. From spine-tingling horror to twisty psychological thrillers to historical novels full of mysterious creatures, these books are sure to get you in the spooky spirit.
In the show, New Zealand journalist David Farrier visits an array of peculiar or dangerous places around the world to see what he can learn. Most people who participate in “dark tourism” travel to places that have, historically, been connected to tragedy, death, or other dark topics.
This article isn’t limited to Halloween; it’s appropriate for the fall season. Romeo Rosales is “excited for the fall beers that hit market shelves to welcome the change in weather and season.”
I am not claiming to know an actual science behind which dark beers should be paired with which dark read. You could pair your favorite dark beer with any dark book, but I have a few book and beer recommendations.
And if you’re not a beer drinker, presumably these books could also be read with wine, coffee, tea, or any other favorite beverage.
Here’s another article about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill [writer Joe Hill, son of Stephen King]. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”
You can also read what other horror writers have to say about Jackson’s novel.
As for the new Netflix adaptation, the description indicates that it makes many major changes in the source material. I plan to watch it at some point to see if it’s true to the novel’s spirit despite the changes.
Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem weighs in at more than 1,200 pages. Joshua Zajdman has been carrying it around for a while, and people’s questions and comments about its size have triggered him to reflect:
why are “big books” perceived so differently? How long have “big books” been such a phenomenon? Is it just length that makes them seem like more of a commitment? Are they of greater intellectual heft, or conversely, perceived as books in need of a good editor simply because of their size? I started to do some research, dip into some other “big books” and discovered a kind of continuum for the “big literary book.” It’s less a question of “Does size matter?” and more a consideration of “Why?” Either way, it’s a question that’s been on the mind of readers for much longer than we may realize.
Of course this article caught my eye, since I’ve written a bit recently on big books.
“now is the perfect time to pick up Jerusalem or any of these big books. Fall is beginning in earnest, election cycles are winding down, winter is coming. It’s time to make the commitment and see how a great and ambitious novel can be wired. I dare you to make the time and devote the energy to the broad swath of humanity and narrative that only an ambitious and very long novel can tackle. What’s stopping you?”
Heather Havrilesky examines Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
In the novels and many of the stories she wrote in the middle of the 20th century, the polite banter of seemingly innocent common folk develops into outright mockery, subterfuge, or even violence. When confronted by an unexpectedly hostile world, Jackson’s female protagonists experience a climactic rush of bafflement and betrayal that inevitably spills over into a more private realm of second-guessing, self-doubt, and paranoia. Jackson relished untangling the process by which women lose themselves.
Novelist Lionel Shriver, perhaps best known for We Need to Talk About Kevin, recently caused quite a brouhaha at the Brisbane Writers Festival with a keynote address that raised the issue of cultural appropriation. If you haven’t followed this story, you can get caught up with the links provided in this Time summary. Then read Nate Hopper’s interview with Shriver about her intentions in her speech and her reactions to the critics.
Megan Abbott’s thrillers are explorations, she says, of “women, power and aggression.” Her latest, “You Will Know Me,” is set in the cutthroat world of girls’ gymnastics and was published this summer, just before the Olympics. A Times review in July said Ms. Abbott had resumed “her customary role of black cat, opaque and unblinking, filling her readers with queasy suspicion at every turn.” She recently completed a cross-country promotional tour for the book, and now Ms. Abbott is back in Forest Hills, Queens, where she lives. During her Sunday writing stints, the author, 45, takes a break from the shadowy side of human nature to step into the light of a neighborhood she loves.
Gothic literature features characteristics such as magic, mystery, chivalry, horror, clanking chains, ghosts, and dark castles to create a spooky atmosphere rife with foreboding and possibility. Over time Gothic emphasis changed from reliance on these external trappings for their own sake to a focus on the inner workings of the human psyche that the Gothic atmosphere represents. Shirley Jackson’s deliciously creepy 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrates the power of the Gothic in the hands of a master craftsman.
Brief History of Gothic Literature
The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a medieval castle featuring dark stairways, mysterious rooms, trap doors, and underground passages. Between 1789 and 1797 Anne Radcliffe wrote five romances, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho, that helped make the form popular. Radcliffe emphasized setting and story over character.
As the Gothic novel spread across Europe, it became the backdrop against which authors examined the relationship between humans and the supernatural, with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) perhaps the best known example. Gothicism also influenced other literary forms, particularly poetry of the romantic period in works by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. In the United States Charles Brockden Brown took up the form of the Gothic novel with Wieland (1798) and five subsequent romances.
Early Gothic novels focused on creating a spooky setting appropriate for a story of suspense, dread, foreboding, and, finally, terror. As Gothicism developed, it incorporated elements of the psychological that allowed a focus on character as well as on setting, as evident in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Still later works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) employ literary devices that developed from the Gothic novel.
Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.
Lead curator of the exhibition, Tim Pye, says: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature and I’m delighted that Terror and Wonder is celebrating its rich 250 year history. The exhibition features an amazingly wide range of material, from stunningly beautiful medieval artefacts to vinyl records from the early Goth music scene, so there is truly something for everyone”.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle Penguin Books, 1962
Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, Blackwood is the first-person narrator of the story. In the opening paragraph she tells us that she is 18 years old and that she lives with her sister Constance: “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).
This final sentence of the opening paragraph signals the story’s Gothic emphasis. Although Richard Plantagenet could be any one of several English noblemen, context suggests that Merricat is referring to England’s King Richard III (1452–1485), who is famously believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. The themes of murder and a family power struggle emerge from this reference. These themes and Merricat’s admitted fondness for a deadly mushroom sharpen our expectations and foreshadow the rest of the story.
Gradually the backstory emerges: Six years earlier the rest of the Blackwood family had died of arsenic poisoning during a family dinner. The dead included Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood (Constance and Merricat’s parents), the girls’ 10-year-old younger brother, and their aunt, whose husband, Uncle Julian, their father’s brother, became very ill but recovered. Uncle Julian was damaged both physically and mentally by his brush with death. Now wheelchair-bound, he lives with Merricat and Constance and is completely dependent on Constance, who takes care of him while her sister largely watches.
Merricat was not at the dinner table that fateful night because she was being punished by having to spend the night in her room without any dinner. That dinner included berries, on which the diners sprinkled sugar that had been laced with arsenic. Suspicion fell on Constance, who did not eat berries and therefore didn’t get sick. She was tried and acquitted of the murders.
This brief outline of the backstory illustrates Jackson’s use of Gothic elements. In addition to the emphasis on death and the sense of foreboding and further impending doom, there are also Gothic overtones in the characterization of Merricat. She goes into the village twice a week for supplies, mostly food and library books, because Constance is agoraphobic. But Merricat must make a game of the trip, with rules about where she should walk and how she should act: “I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian” (p. 16). In addition to all her rules for herself, Merricat also buries things around the family property for good luck and even tacks a book up on a tree as a protective talisman. Such actions are examples of magical thinking, the belief that thinking is the same as doing. Magical thinking is normal in young children, who believe that their thoughts and desires cause events that happen around them. But the persistence of magical thinking in the 18-year-old Merricat suggests a deranged mind, another common Gothic element.
Merricat also continues the belief, apparently learned from her parents, that the Blackwoods are better than the villagers and should maintain their distance to avoid contamination from the less worthy:
All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it… . whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villages belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them. (p. 8)
Mr. Blackwood put up a fence all around the property and fastened it with a padlock. Merricat makes a ritual out of unlocking and relocating the gate when she leaves the house and when she returns from the village. The Blackwoods’ geographical isolation reflects their feelings of superiority and their fear of the masses:
I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind—birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws. (p. 10)
Merricat’s narration of her family’s isolation from the villages bleeds into another Gothic element of the story, its setting. The isolation of the large Blackwood house, fenced off from the everyday world and fortified by Merricat’s magic, fits right into the Gothic picture. Jackson also uses setting to call up another work of late Gothic literature:
The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. (p. 4)
The Rochester house alludes to Mr. Rochester’s huge house, with his deranged wife hidden upstairs, in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.
Gothic features continue as the plot of We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds. The precipitating crisis of the book occurs when Constance and Merricat’s cousin, Charles Blackwood, their father’s brother’s son, arrives to disturb the status quo of their existence. As the only remaining male heir, he intends to take over the family mansion and the family fortune. Merricat ratchets up her magic to protect her existence. When a fire breaks out at the house, the volunteer firefighters arrive to try to put it out. That is, after all, their job, even if they don’t like the Blackwoods, the fire chief insists. A truly macabre scene, suggestive of a Satanic ritual, develops as the townspeople implore the firefighters to let the house burn, then set to smashing and looting whatever the flames don’t destroy.
The fire obliterates the top floor of the house. Afterwards, Constance and Merricat continue to live in the small kitchen area while vines overgrow the top. Whereas Merricat had earlier spoken of their home as the house, now she describes it this way: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p. 177). Finally, the story comes full circle as the house turns into the isolated, creepy castle characteristic of Gothic literature and all the foreboding of impending doom foreshadowed at the beginning comes to fruition.
It’s 250 years since the publication of The Castle of Otranto, an anniversary prompting both a British Library exhibition (Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination) and a linked BBC Gothic season. It is Horace Walpole’s only novel that you see on entering the exhibition, and with which Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC4 series, The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour (which ends on3 November), began.
Another 250th anniversary, of Ann Radcliffe’s birth, goes unmentioned, an omission reflecting her curious marginalisation in both celebrations – “the great enchantress”, as Thomas De Quincey called her, does figure, but mainly as the hapless novelist (vapid and trashy, you infer) sent up in Northanger Abbey. For the British Library display, the problem looks to be the absence of a visual legacy, of Radcliffe manuscripts and film adaptations; for Graham-Dixon, it may be the absence of a penis. His blokeish version of early literary gothic consists of chaps like Walpole, William Bedford, Thomas Chatterton, Blake and De Quincey, with the equally colourful Mary Shelley as token woman, and their manly wrestlings with political and industrial revolution, masculine identity and urbanisation in turn influence the Victorians.