The best books in which things take a nasty turn

The Books I Picked & Why

The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

Book cover of The Haunting of Hill House

Why this book?

I’ve loved Shirley Jackson’s work ever since I heard her reading her shocking short story "The Lottery". Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is not only a chilling haunted-house story, it also movingly captures the complex dynamic between the house and Eleanor Vance, who has ‘no one to love’ and has ‘never been wanted anywhere.’ Recruited to take part in a group investigation into supernatural manifestations, Eleanor arrives at Hill House, where she feels wanted and included and ‘unbelievably happy.’ But Hill House, gloriously vile, is ‘a place of despair,’ and Jackson has a genius for writing about rejection and exclusion. Every time I read or write about this classic novel I find something new, and its ambiguity makes it very satisfying to discuss.

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By Stephen King

Book cover of Misery

Why this book?

My favourite Stephen King novels feature a writer and his intentions pitted against some malevolent force: a literary fiction writer versus his horror-writer alter ego in The Dark Half; Jack Torrance hoping to write a play in a haunted hotel in The Shining; and Paul Sheldon who has written his final romance novel, killing off his heroine in the process, and must now face the wrath of his ‘number one fan’ in Misery. It’s a great horror story, an oppressive nightmare, and the character of Annie Wilkes is awesome, but King has also written eloquently about how Paul’s resourcefulness and efforts to save his life by playing Scheherazade ‘gave me a chance to say some things about the redemptive power of writing that I had long felt but never articulated.’

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Rosemary's Baby

By Ira Levin

Book cover of Rosemary's Baby

Why this book?

I usually like to read a book before watching an adaptation, but with Rosemary’s Baby I’d already seen the iconic film so the novel, by Ira Levin, had a lot to live up to. It’s a masterpiece, as flawlessly crafted and vivid as the film. The Woodhouses, a young married couple, move into the Bramford, a desirable ‘old, black, and elephantine’ New York apartment building with an unpleasant reputation. Guy takes a shine to their elderly neighbours but Rosemary finds them overfriendly. As the neighbours become increasingly intrusive and Guy’s behaviour begins to trouble Rosemary, she falls pregnant. When I wrote my horror novelette and needed a suitable (or unsuitable) story for a woman to be reading in hospital, it was this anxious and quietly terrifying novel that I chose.

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The Paying Guests

By Sarah Waters

Book cover of The Paying Guests

Why this book?

I had the pleasure of hearing Sarah Waters speak at the Derby Book Festival in 2015, bought a signed copy of her latest novel, and have been recommending it ever since. The Paying Guests is set in the wake of World War I, and the historical context is beautifully rendered. Frances Wray and her mother have been living a quiet and orderly life on a street where the houses have ‘a Sunday blankness to them… every day of the week.’ It’s a life stuck in time, in a house whose ‘heart stopped… years ago.’ Then the Wrays’ new lodgers arrive, and they are noisy, gaudy, messy, dramatic, attractive. The two worlds collide with Frances caught between them, and what follows is both a captivating love story and a gripping crime story.

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I'm the King of the Castle

By Susan Hill

Book cover of I'm the King of the Castle

Why this book?

I have a soft (tender, bruised) spot for stories exploring childhood bullying, and Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle is one of the best. I also love big creaky old houses, and here we have Warings, a big creaky Victorian house inherited by Joseph Hooper, who moves in with his son, Edmund. Joseph, a widower, brings into the household a housekeeper-cum-companion and her son, Charles Kingshaw. Edmund does not want to share ‘his’ house and lets Charles know he’s unwelcome, but the grown-ups insist that the boys, both ten years old, will be friends, and go on insisting that they are friends even as Edmund is persecuting Charles, making his life a misery. It’s a claustrophobic and compelling novel and the final lines are brilliant and memorably harrowing.

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