With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Storytellers have used science fiction and horror to comment on real-world issues since the categories were invented, borrowing the tropes and frameworks of the genres to illuminate something deeper about their core themes. But in some cases, the authors don’t choose one or the other, instead combining fantastical elements to an otherwise straightforward story to amplify their point of view. Matt Ruff is an expert in this subgenre. His previous book, The Mirage, was an alternate-history look at the War On Terror, while his latest, Lovecraft Country, brilliantly uses the horror genre to probe the sins of America’s racial past. The book pits its black protagonists against not simply the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft’s literary universe, but also the very real dangers black Americans faced in the Jim Crow era. Ahead of Lovecraft Country’s February 16 release, Ruff spoke to The A.V. Club about five other books that fused the real and the mythical, becoming more than the sum of their parts.
The Shining, Stephen King
Matt Ruff: This was the second Stephen King novel I ever read. The first was Carrie, which I made the horrible mistake of reading when I was 11, because that was much too young. It completely traumatized me, and put me off King for a while. A few years later, I guess I must’ve been about 15, I was in high school and the Stanley Kubrick Shining was coming out. I was kind of curious about it, but was still a bit leery on King, until a friend said the book was really good and that I’d like it.
So I read it, and it scared the heck out of me, but I was really blown away by it as well. The thing that made the biggest impression of me is that on one hand, it’s a really effective horror novel, but King also does a really good job of character development. He spends as much time on the characters and their real-world problems as he does on the scares, to the point where you might not mind if the monsters never even showed up. The real-life problems are interesting enough to draw you in, but when you combine that with late-night horror themes, both sides of the story are enriched. That was a real revelation to me as a budding storyteller, that you could blend two different genres and get something that was stronger than either of them alone.
The A.V. Club: How do you think the real-life and monster elements enrich each other? Do you think the horror elements function as a kind of metaphor, or is that too simple a reading?
MR: With King, the character development is what’s key. The more real the characters are, the more you care about them, and thus, the higher the stakes when the monsters show up. Obviously some writers use horror elements as metaphors for real-world issues, but I don’t necessarily need the metaphor. I’m fine with a story where ghosts and vampires and stuff are real; those things are fun in their own right. But here, the ghosts add another level to issues like abuse or alcoholism, and that makes the story more vivid than it would be if it was purely realistic. You have characters you really care about, which makes the stakes higher, and then the power of fantasy adds something that you wouldn’t find in a strictly realistic story. Both sides amp each other up in that way.
AVC: Where do you come down on the film, which notoriously cut out a lot of the real-world themes?
MR: I was actually just re-watching the film last night, and it doesn’t work as well for me now. A lot of the best parts of the book are interior thoughts, like Jack wrestling with his inner demons, or the very effective scenes where this 5-year-old kid is trying to understand his parents’ problems. He’s psychic, so he can pick up on their emotions, but he really can’t understand what’s bothering them. He doesn’t know enough about adult problems to understand why things are so fraught in his family, emotionally. Because that’s all internal, it’s easy to handle in a novel but hard to translate into a movie. So I feel like Kubrick’s film loses a lot of what makes the book so endearing. Also, and King himself made this point, there’s a problem with casting Jack Nicholson in the lead role. The story is about a troubled guy who slowly descends into madness, whereas Nicholson, the first time you see him, looks like an ax murderer waiting to happen. It’s a lot less subtle and a lot less effective.
There’s also the Halloran character, whose job is to explain Danny’s power at the beginning and then be the cavalry in the third act, riding in and saving the family. Because the character is black, he runs the risk of coming off very stereotypically, but I think King does a good job of humanizing him. King spends almost as much time on him as he does on any of the three main white characters. In the movie, much of what makes Halloran interesting is cut. Basically he shows up, Nicholson kills him, and that’s the end of him. There’s almost no interaction between him and the other characters. He’s more of a plot device than a person.
So the movie doesn’t work for me as much. It impressed me when I was younger, in part because it was one of the first horror movies I had ever seen, but the book is a much better story.
The Haunting Of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
AVC: Did you pick this because of the ambiguity that surrounds the story, where you don’t know whether the house is haunted or whether the main character is insane?
MR: It’s funny, but this question also comes up with The Shining. There are just some readers who balk at supernatural elements and want make the argument that the story is actually a hallucination or something. For The Shining, you can probably make that argument better for the Kubrick movie than the novel, where it seems quite clear that King intends for the monsters to be real. Here, the question is much more subtle, mostly because Jackson is a much more subtle writer. There is a suggestion of mental illness, although I tend to think the house is haunted. You can argue about the mechanisms of what’s going on, but it isn’t an ordinary house.
The reason I picked it is because Jackson, like King, combines really interesting character portraits with horror elements. Actually, I’d describe this as more terror than horror; the book is very atmospheric, which is why the story has proven hard to film. Other than some banging and weird sounds, there isn’t a whole lot to the haunting. It’s more about people being really scared, jumping at shadows. It’s about an oppressive atmosphere, rather than anything specific being done to the characters.
Jackson’s characters tend to be much nastier than King’s, in a way that’s interesting to me. They’re often quite funny in the way they’re mean to each other. One character, for example, is described with the lines, “The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her 5-year-old niece, and she had no friends.” Boom: That’s your protagonist. That’s the character you’re supposed to care about.
To me, the horror of the novel comes from how this woman spent her youth taking care of her invalid mother, a sacrifice her family doesn’t appreciate. It left her lonely and desperately wanting to fit in, but without the social skills to do that. Her trip to Hill House is actually the first vacation she’s had in years—there’s an interesting award for sacrificing your 20s. She gets there and she’s desperate to fit in with the other people, but at the same time, she just doesn’t like them that much. That’s what makes her vulnerable, and it’s what allows the house to start driving her crazy. The social horror, combined with implications of supernatural horror, is what gets you.
At one point, a character says that no ghost has ever physically harmed a human being, basically implying that you’re only vulnerable if the house gets in your head and drives you over the edge. It’s able to do that because of the character’s history and inability to fit in. That’s what’s unsettling to me.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft
MR: The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a story about a town of ill repute on the coast of New England, whose residents have formed an unholy alliance with aliens from the deep ocean. The aliens predate the human race and in exchange for getting a foothold on land, they give the townspeople gold and good fishing. They’re also interbreeding, so the people of Innsmouth have begun to devolve and become aliens themselves. The story’s narrator, a vacationing amateur genealogist and antiquarian, stops in Innsmouth for the day, sees too much, and is forced to run for his life when the whole town turns out to lynch him.
The story is really about Lovecraft’s fear of miscegenation and of other cultures. He was a white supremacist, but a weirdly fatalistic one. He believed European culture was the pinnacle of human evolution, but that it was a temporary position, and that one day another culture would come into ascendancy and put white people into decline.
That’s kind of how you can read this story: Once upon a time aliens ruled the Earth, now humans are having their temporary day in the sun, but one day when the stars align the aliens will come back and wipe us all out. So on one level, the story is a not-very-subtle allegory about what Lovecraft sees as the horrors of miscegenation, and a fable about the precariousness of human—read: white—civilization.
Now, if you’re wondering why you’d want to read fiction by a white supremacist, it’s because while the specifics of Lovecraft’s stories are very often racist, the general sense of dread they tap into is universal. Even if you don’t share his racist views, the story works, and with only a few changes, The Shadow Over Innsmouth could easily be the story of a black tourist caught in the wrong town after sundown. That fear, the fear of finding yourself surrounded by people so devoid of mercy they might as well be aliens, is one that anybody can appreciate.
This is something I get into in Lovecraft Country. Black travelers in the 1950s had travel guides telling them where they could stay in different parts of the U.S. because otherwise they wouldn’t know. If they stopped at the wrong place, they could face a humiliating experience at best, or it could turn dangerously deadly. So the sense that there are places in the world where a sense of dread can crystalize into a real threat, that’s a more general human experience, and it’s the kind of thing Lovecraft specialized in. He’s very good at invoking an ongoing sense of dread. Also, as far as reading Lovecraft goes, a lot of his stories just feature that dread: you wait and wait for something bad to happen, and then at the end there’s a paragraph where the monster shows up. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a good Lovecraft to read because the action is much more sustained.
The Ghost Writer, John Harwood
MR: This is a story about a man named Gerard who lives in a very small town in Australia. His mother is originally from England, but doesn’t talk about her past. He’s very lonely, and eventually becomes pen pals with an English girl named Alice. They have a weird relationship, becoming friends and eventually long-distance lovers, but then you begin to suspect that something else is going on here. There are clues that Alice isn’t what she says she is, and that there could be some connection between her and the story of why Gerard’s mother left England.
Interspersed with the main narrative—where he goes to England to look for Alice—are short ghost stories written by Gerard’s great-grandmother. The stories are creepy in their own right, and you start to realize that they contain clues to the larger mystery of who Alice is and what she wants. You begin to suspect that she’s a ghost seeking revenge, which adds an element to whether or not the whole story is supernatural.
The main reason I picked this one is because it’s a story I discovered relatively recently, and it really impressed me. I wish it was more widely known. It uses a lot of ghost story “tricks”; like Hill House, it feels more terror than horror. It plays with what’s real and what isn’t, and you spend a lot of time in anticipation. Using your imagination can be scarier than what actually ends up happening.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
AVC: Going back to Lovecraft Country, here is another book that fuses genre elements with a look at race.
MR: Right. But here, the only overtly supernatural element is in the premise, which has a black woman from the 1970s becoming unstuck in time and getting repeatedly drawn back to antebellum Maryland. Every time she goes there, she’s forced to save the life of her great-grandfather, a white slave owner.
From what I understand, the book was written in response to people who were disdainful of slaves for not fighting harder against their owners, or who felt they themselves wouldn’t have buckled under slavery. The novel is Butler’s way of exploring that issue. Her protagonist is someone who hasn’t been climatized to slavery, and in the book, it doesn’t take her long at all before she starts to break and think like a slave. Basically, one brutal beating and she’s on that path.
The story is very harrowing and twisted. Eventually, you find out the great-grandfather owned the woman’s great-grandmother, so it’s really a story about a rape. By keeping the great-grandfather alive—which she has to do to ensure her own existence—she basically becomes complicit in that crime. The novel is just one horrific moral dilemma after another, and the wonder of it is that Butler makes you completely understand the decisions the protagonist makes. Even though, if you were to step back and look at it objectively, you can’t imagine doing the things she does, the book argues that this is what slaves had to do in order to survive. All of the horrors are real; Butler writes very realistically about slavery, which in the 1970s was relatively unusual. Today it might be a bit more likely that someone would be frank in this fashion, but she was really breaking ground, especially in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very interesting book, but also a really disturbing one.