If you’ve been following our stories on the eNotes Instagram, you will have seen us post about our book club a few times. As literature experts, we’re constantly on the hunt for new and interesting stories to read. That’s why five of us decided to create an eNotes book club where each week, we discuss a new short story, poem, or essay. For the month of October, we each picked haunting short stories to get us in a spooky, Halloweeny spirit. If you’re looking for reading recommendations, look no further!
“Teatro Grottesco” by Thomas Ligotti
Hailed by The Washington Post as “the best-kept secret in contemporary horror fiction”, Thomas Ligotti arguably deserves this title—although I’d prefer it if more people read and discussed his work. Imagine my joy when our reading group agreed to read the titular short story from his collection Teatro Grottesco.
“The first thing I learned was that no one anticipates the arrival of the Teatro.”
We quickly realized that the other thing we could not anticipate was the direction our analysis and discussion would take. Despite claims that Ligotti deserves to inherit the horror mantle from Lovecraft, “Teatro Grottesco” goes profoundly beyond cosmic horror and Eldritch monstrosities to stress the boundaries of our beliefs. The writing is literary, complex, and engaging—it is also frustrating, obtuse, and puzzling.
“In a word, I delighted in the unreality of the Teatro stories. The truth they carried, if any, was immaterial.”
At the beginning, we learn that the narrator, a writer of nihilistic prose works, is sharing his own Teatro story. So, what do we make of his claims that the Teatro tales are delightful but their truths are inconsequential? If the truth of the tale is nothing of substance, then what is the point—where is the horror?
Make no mistake; several scenes are rightfully disturbing, from a visceral artist’s painting a moonlit night red to a photographer’s surreal encounter at the headquarters of T.G. Ventures. However, the horror of these moments only builds to the existential terror eventually revealed.
“You can never anticipate the Teatro—or anything else. You can never know what you are approaching or what is approaching you.”
We could not quite conclude just what the Teatro actually is. The story tantalizes, teases, and troubles. Read it carefully, but know that “The soft black stars have already begun to fill the sky.”
“The Yellow Sign” by Robert W. Chambers
A short story in his larger collection The King in Yellow, I selected “The Yellow Sign” for us to read because I had previously read a different story in Chambers’s collection, “The Mask.” I especially enjoyed the hints of mystery threaded throughout the piece. Chambers tells the story, but he doesn’t overtell—a tactic that kept us all wondering.
“When I first saw the watchman his back was toward me.”
Although he tells the story with an air of mystery that kept us all guessing, we noticed that Chambers tended to add a few too many extra details to his story. Some of us felt that these details didn’t necessarily add to the story and instead distracted from the “point” of the short story; this, in turn, led to questions about what’s “necessary” in a short story and whether or not rules for writing are arbitrary, taking our discussion outside of the realm of the story itself.
“I could tell more, but I cannot see what help it will be to the world. As for me, I am past human help or hope.”
“The Yellow Sign” by Robert W. Chambers is a great short story to read if you want to discuss omens and their place in storytelling.
“Bog Girl” by Karen Russell
After consulting with the oracles on what to read—i.e. Googling “good spooky short stories for a book club”—I found this short story by Karen Russell, originally published in The New Yorker on June 20, 2016. I wanted to pick a story by a female author I knew no one had read yet with, of course, various threads of interesting discussion to tug on. As I first read the story (and what made me ultimately choose it), I was anticipating what would happen next and was right, oh, about 0% of the time. The narrative was entirely unexpected, and, when compounded with the natural wordsmithing, I assigned it immediately.
“In the Iron Age, these bogs were portals to distant worlds, wilder realms. Gods travelled the bogs. Gods wore crowns of starry asphodels, floating above the purple heather.
Now industrial harvesters rode over the drained bogs, combing the earth into even geometries.”
Our group particularly enjoyed the feminist themes and commentary on female bodies and personal agency as well as the interesting transitions employed by Russell.
“The girls had matching lunches: lettuce salads, diet candy bars, diet shakes. They were all jealous of how little [the bog girl] ate.”
My favorite part of the story is how Russell introduces Cillian’s Uncle Sean. I’ve since added “smearing” into my personal lexicon to describe such… smearers. (You know the type.)
“He smeared himself throughout their house, his beer rings ghosting over surfaces like fat thumbs on a photograph. His words hung around, too, leaving their brain stain on the air.”
There are a lot of avenues of discussion to take with this piece, and we could have very easily talked about it for several more hours. I don’t want to give much more away, but this is a highly recommended, surprising, and well-liked piece for your next book club!
“Winter” by Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare is best known as a prolific poet, critic, and anthologist who contributed widely to the world of British letters in the early 20th century. His short stories, though seldom read today, stand among his best work. For our book club, I chose de la Mare’s 1922 story “Winter,” a sparse, enigmatic tale about a man who walks into a churchyard on a winter’s day and encounters something—or perhaps someone—he cannot explain.
At the start of the story, the narrator tells us that “any event in this world—any human being for that matter—that seems to wear even the faintest cast or warp of strangeness, is apt to leave a disproportionately sharp impression on one’s senses.” The story that follows is both a confrontation with the uncanny and a probing of the mind. The narrator constantly questions his own senses and intuitions as he tries to account for the unaccountable.
At the end of the story, the narrator describes the inexplicable being: a beautiful, angelic figure “in human likeness [but] not of my kind, nor of my reality.” The being looks in terror upon the narrator and his human world—the churchyard filled with its monuments of death—and disappears, returning to the reality whence it came. The narrator is left with both a longing to visit that realm and a deep feeling of distortion, for the ethereal visitor has revealed the rends and frayed edges of our map of reality.
In riddling, poetic phrases that accrue like snow on a barren field, de la Mare serves up the best kind of supernatural tale: one which illuminates the mysteries of our world. A perfect read for the darkest season of the year.
“Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU” by Carmen Maria Machado
Every literary mailing list I’m on has been recommending Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties for months, so assigning “Especially Heinous” was a smug way to integrate personal reading with workplace obligations.
“Especially Heinous” is composed of episode summaries for 12 fictional seasons of Law & Order: SVU, ranging in length from 4 to over 150 words. Its sentences tend toward staccato rhythms and are objective—even clinical—as they describe events of absurdity and horror. For example, an episode from season one:
“Misleader”: Father Jones has never touched a child, but when he closes his eyes at night, he still remembers his high school girlfriend: her soft thighs, her lined hands, the way she dropped off that roof like a falcon.
Featured motifs: sexual violence; fairy-tale tropes (here, a triad of attributes); a haunting image offering neither context nor judgment. (Father Jones returns in season three.)
I’m not sure this was a story anyone loved, but it offered a lot to discuss. The episodic structure left metaphors, and sometimes entire plot points, almost entirely up to personal interpretation, alienating some from the narrative. The objectivity of tone resulted in a divided readership: some readers found a lot of humor in the blatant absurdity of Machado’s narrative (the word “whimsical” was used); for others, that absurdity read as dark and ominous, engaging themes about cultural fixations and sexual violence. While all of us were interested in the story as an exercise in form, its success as a story was still up in the air as we left the table.
“Especially Heinous” is interesting. It’s also hard (and for me, at least, emotionally exhausting) work. I want to go back and read it again, now that I know what I’m getting into, but book clubs, be warned: this is a rough one to unleash on unsuspecting coworkers.