The best books about a world under secret control

Jesse Karp Author Of Those That Wake
By Jesse Karp

Who am I?

I grew up in the 1970s, still in contention for America’s most paranoid decade (thanks, Watergate). Practically everything I watched, listened to or read (right down to my beloved superhero comics) was asking, what’s hiding behind the world around you? I don’t think of myself as a paranoid guy – I don’t, for instance, believe in a real life Deep State – but these are the sorts of stories that resonate for me. Taken less literally, they do ask worthwhile and still disturbingly relevant questions: what is beneath the world you know and see every day? What is right in front of you, both good and bad, that you aren’t seeing?

I wrote...

Those That Wake

By Jesse Karp,

Book cover of Those That Wake

What is my book about?

Mal sneaks back into his foster home after a bare-knuckle brawl to find that his brother has disappeared, leaving behind only a mysterious call for help. Laura calls her parents after a disastrous day only to find that they have no idea who she is. Someone or something has plucked these two out of memory, out of their own lives. With Mike, a high school teacher eaten by rage, and Remak, an investigator who knows more than he’s sharing, Mal and Laura must fight their despair and plunge deeper into the darkness, to grapple with the secret machinery of the world, and the force that pulls its levers.

The books I picked & why

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House of Stairs

By William Sleator,

Book cover of House of Stairs

Why this book?

When they take off his blindfold, Peter is on the landing of a stairway. The stairway goes to another landing with more stairways coming off it, and on and on into infinity. What is this place? And what, God help him, is its purpose? When I first read the great William Sleator’s intense study of group dynamics under stress in a sinister, constructed world, it changed my brain and made me look at the world we live in differently for the rest of my life. The secret behind the place invites disturbing questions: how do we rely on other people and what do they want from us? How can our behavior be manipulated and controlled by forces we can’t see or know? 


By William Goldman,

Book cover of Brothers

Why this book?

Agent Scylla was dead, but they brought him back because someone is holding a contest, a contest to see who can create the deadliest weapon. As Scylla navigates a world he’s been out of touch with for too long, he finds that there’s something on its outskirts, pulling all the wrong strings. A thrilling espionage adventure drenched in paranoia, this was the most fun I ever had being terrified to learn the truth. The only book I ever read that I literally could not put down. Its momentum – the need to find out what the contest was about and where the search would lead Scylla – was so powerful, I could not stop my fingers from turning the pages.  

Time Out of Joint

By Philip K. Dick,

Book cover of Time Out of Joint

Why this book?

Suburbanite Ragle Gumm is overcome with a sense of urgency to play a bizarre newspaper game every day. He’s so good at it, he makes a living from its cash prizes. But lately, his world seems to be fraying around him. Things he sees and knows are suddenly...not. And if you can’t trust the very ground you’re standing on, what’s left? This takes the whole “maybe my world isn’t what I think it is” idea about as far as it can go, and it was just about the first story to ever do that. The best, most satisfying book I ever read about a banal, mundane world that turns out to be anything but.


By Josh Simmons,

Book cover of House

Why this book?

It’s about the simplest idea you can hang a story on: three people discover a house in the wilderness and explore it. But this short, black and white, silent graphic novel just sucked me deeper and deeper into the terror of a place that seems to grow impossibly larger, even as your pathway through it becomes narrower and narrower until...well, it’s pretty dark stuff. Simmons’s art is also inky black, but visualizes the concepts at play with beautiful power. There is a terrible force behind the scenes here, but you can never know what it is and you can never defeat it.  

Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the World

By James Tynion IV,

Book cover of Department of Truth, Vol 1: The End of the World

Why this book?

It’s the post-modern apotheosis of all conspiracy theories: convince enough people something is true, it becomes true. Doesn’t matter how far-fetched – the Earth is flat, the world is overcome with Bigfoots, shape-changing lizardmen are secretly controlling everything – convince enough people, and it happens.  Except, who’s trying to convince people? And who’s trying to stop them? And are either of them on our side? It’s really a bottomless hole in the most enjoyable way (if paranoid fables are your thing): no matter how bad you realize it is, it’s actually worse. But wait, it’s even worse than that. And even worse than that. This is an ongoing comic series (even the art makes reality seem haunted and insubstantial), so while there are already several collected editions, there’s no end in sight.

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