“Who are you?” I asked myself this question as I perused my bookshelves for this January’s Scary Reading List. It’s a loaded question, one that is asked again and again during this time of the year. Once the New Year arrives, many people (myself included) are overwhelmed by this question. Out with the Old You, in with the New You, right?
Gym advertisements ask, “Who are you? Are you going to be the person who sits on their butt all year or are you going to do something?” Diet ads are even worse, posing the question as, “I love the new me! I don’t even recognize that girl from 50 pounds ago! Don’t you want this too?” There are the countless magazine and internet articles about “Bad Habits to Break”, “Good Habits to Form”, “Effortlessly Trick Yourself Into Saving More Money!” and “8 Easy Steps To A Better, Happier You!”
It’s weird, right? A person can try to change their life whenever they want, but it’s only in the first few weeks of the year that the scrutiny becomes so invasive. Ads are run, articles are published, money is spent, intentions are proclaimed, and resolutions are written. All so we can transform into Different People. Better People. It seems doable at first. How could you not implement these “easy changes”? Why not build yourself a new life for the New Year?
But then for many people, all those plans for change and self-improvement fall by the wayside. It’s almost never a spectacular failure, just a series of small setbacks that gradually push you off the wagon altogether. Suddenly, you find yourself right back where you started.
Who are you? Not that person you thought were going to become.
That’s the fear inherent in the New Year. It’s a quiet fear, but very real—fear that you will fail your resolutions and you won’t make any progree. A fear that you will always be the person you have been. Maybe you don’t like that person very much. That person has become stagnate.
Or worse still, maybe failing to become a “better” person means you’re actually becoming a worse person.
What does that person look like?
As I sorted through stacks of books (I have a problem where I buy way too many books), I wondered what kind of person I’d be if I was ever faced with a monstrous threat. Forget shallow New Year’s resolutions, I thought, what happens when things go wrong? Really wrong? What kind of person would I be if I ever had to face something truly horrible? Would I like that person?
With these questions in mind, I selected the following three books, all of which explore what happens to people caught in unimaginably terrible situations, teasing out these struggles with themes of identity, self-awareness, and deep mistrust. These books ask about who we are—not just the people we aspire to be or even the people we are in normal circumstances, but the people we are when the rules no longer apply and the world disintegrates.
After all, the scariest monsters in the world are the ones lurking inside the dark recesses of our psyches. We like to think we can control them, that we’re rational, measured, and civilized. It’s easy to assume it’s the truth when our lives are going as planned, when our biggest worries involve our New Year’s Resolutions. It’s a lot harder to maintain a logical mindset when your ship is trapped in the ice, your town is plagued by witches, or when your daughter is possessed by a demon.
So here’s my January 2016 Scary Reading List! If you are similarly interested in examining how the human psychology contorts in the face of terrible adversity, feel free to pick up any one of these books and let me know your thoughts in the comments. Think of it as a mental exercise, perhaps even a method of achieving a new degree of self-awareness.
Or just a way to entertain yourself on the cheap this month. Either way works!
- The Terror – Dan Simmons
“The men on board HMS Terror have every expectation of finding the Northwest Passage. When the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, meets a terrible death, Captain Francis Crozier takes command and leads his surviving crewmen on a last, desperate attempt to flee south across the ice. But as another winter approaches, as scurvy and starvation grow more terrible, and as the Terror on the ice stalks them southward, Crozier and his men begin to fear there is no escape. A haunting, gripping story based on actual historical events, The Terror is a novel that will chill you to your core.”
I’ve wanting to read this book for years now, and I finally decided I was going to make time for it! It seems to hit all the marks—gripping premise; merciless Arctic setting; group-infighting and threats of mutiny; oh, and a ghastly monster.
Told from multiple characters’ points of view, this fictionalization of a legendary but lost expedition to the Arctic imagines what happened to the doomed ships and their crews. A group of tough sailors, led by the ambitious but flawed Sir John Franklin, endeavors to find the waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a feat which would have provided an important trade route. The expedition was confident that they would succeed in exploring the last remaining bit of the route. It should have been smooth sailing (forgive the pun).
But from what I’ve read about it, everything that could go wrong goes extremely wrong. And on top of the bitter cold and lack of food, these men find themselves stuck in the ice, hunted by an terrifying predator. Eventually they turn on each other, committing unspeakable deeds in the name of what they claim to be “survival,” like mutiny, murder, and cannibalism.
Are these the same decorated, accomplished men who were so confident in their purpose when the left the comfort of civilization behind? I find it intriguing to examine how civilized men descend into savagery in the face of overwhelming cold, hunger, and fear.
- The Witches: Salem, 1692 – Stacy Schiff
“It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, THE WITCHES is Stacy Schiff’s account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.”
The Salem Witch Trials have always fascinated me. It’s an unfortunate, true example of how fear can twist a community into something horrendous and how people manipulate the truth to serve their own purposes.
I see a parallel between the Puritans and the crew of The Terror. As this The New Yorker article points out, when the Salem Witch Trials took place, the Puritans had only recently colonized New England, and life was incredibly difficult. Devestating winters, Indian raids, and animal attacks were just a few of the very real dangers they faced. However, the Puritan settlers thought of themselves as God’s chosen people and were confident in their mission to build a more godly civilization. They were going to create something wonderful, which would make them better Christians and make the world better, all to the glory of God.
But how could this vulnerable, small community hope to avoid psychological distress while trying to scratch an existence from a foreign and hostile wilderness, fend off Indian attacks, and survive the brutal New England winters?
It’s not a stretch to believe that, with their religion as the only source of affirmation and comfort in their lives, that their faith would distort their beliefs and confirm their fears, however illogical and destructive. Is it really so hard to understand how a community banded together to accuse, try, and execute family members, friends, and neighbors of heinous crimes with no real proof?
Instead of creating a Christian utopia, they fell victim to mass hysteria, accusing victims as young as five years old.
Part of my aim in reading this book is to find out if the people of Salem ever realized the gravity of the trials. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lived in denial for the rest of their lives and refused to acknowledge what they’d done. It might be impossible to accept such a truth.
- A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
“The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.”
Unlike the previous entries on the list, this novel seems to work entirely within the confines of a family, which goes to show that even small-scale traumas can demolish everyone’s sense of identity and self-control (or lack thereof). One person’s behavior can transform everyone around her, especially when she’s possibly possessed by a demon and a camera crew hows up to film everything.
As if possession isn’t enough to freak me out, I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through the ordeal laid out in A Head Full of Ghosts, on national television no less. I’m very excited for the reality show aspect, because reality shows could be said to embody the worst in voyeuristic human behavior.
It’s intriguing idea to explore. People act differently when they think they’re being watched, just as they act very differently when they know they aren’t being watched. How would the members of a family act when their child becomes possessed, the money runs out, no one can help, and a camera crew films every last bit? What happens to the people who watch this morbid display unfold in relative anonymity? I can’t wait to find out!
In case you need more convincing, check out this quote from NPR’s review: “Tremblay ambitiously structures the story as a pingponging narrative that coalesces into an unsettling conversation about the truth, or what the various characters suspect is the truth. It’s an intricate dance, and one that Tremblay pulls off with agility, ease and immaculate pacing. Merry’s poignant numbness, Karen’s secret reason for being obsessed with The Possession and Marjorie’s increasingly shocking transgressions mesh like clockwork with themes of greed, deception and faith.”
The New York Times also loved it. What more do you need?
Happy Reading! Leave you thoughts in the comments!