The best otherworldly novels that will both haunt you and get you to really, really think

The Books I Picked & Why

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

This is one of the books that made me want to become a writer of “speculative” novels. It’s a beautifully engrossing alternate history, set in what appears to be a remote English boarding school. There we meet young people who have been told they have a special destiny, a special place in the world—but not what that destiny is. As his story unfolds, Ishiguro asks us to think about how far human beings might be willing to go to save themselves, what it actually means to be human, and how something as beautiful as empathy and caring can be used, if we aren’t careful, to serve its exact opposite. It’s stayed with me over the years not only for these questions and for its elegant writing, but because it reminds me how easily something precious—love, or even storytelling itself—can, in the wrong hands, become a weapon.

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The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

Book cover of The Haunting of Hill House

Why this book?

I adore this book, often considered to be the mother of all contemporary haunted house stories. It’s another gorgeously written novel, and so subtle you might not realize at first how it is going to creep into your bones and linger between your ears. A group of “researchers” arrive at a mansion to discover if it is indeed haunted; the house begins to work its powers on visitors, preying on the most vulnerable and sensitive among them. It’s as much a study of psychology and need as it is a ghost story, and it taught me that the best haunted tales are about what we refuse to look at but should, what is right in front of us and yet we are afraid to confront it, because it might be some version of ourselves, our desires. Don’t expect big scares or gore in this scary house; it isn’t about that. It’s about what’s in the shadows. And that’s enough.

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The Book of Strange New Things

By Michel Faber

Book cover of The Book of Strange New Things

Why this book?

I love books that are not just set in haunted or “alternate” places but also books set in space. It seems to me as both a reader and a writer I am attracted to stories that are set in worlds that are both imaginable and “strange.” Faber’s book is strange in the best possible ways. A husband and wife are separated when he goes to another planet to work for a corporation that wants religious teachings to take root on the planet. The “natives”—who can be wounded but can’t heal—embrace these new teachings eagerly, at the same time Earth, the world the religion came from, is collapsing (as the wife desperately reports) into utter chaos and ruin. This is a novel about love and separation and fear and harm and good, an imaginative and not-at-all-preachy book that will still have you looking up at the stars and wondering: if we do get there, what will be gained, what will be lost?

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Frenchman's Creek

By Daphne du Maurier

Book cover of Frenchman's Creek

Why this book?

This one might be a surprise on this list—the “other world” it is set in is the coast of Cornwall in the 17th century. The prologue is full of ghostly figures—then the story, in which a bored English noblewoman flees a life of carousing to find peace aboard a secretive pirate vessel, takes off. It sounds like it might be corny, but it isn’t. It’s deeply entertaining, beautifully written (can you tell I like beautifully written books?), and paints an extraordinary picture of a place and an era. But above all, it is about life choices—hard, hard choices. I read it when I was a young writer, just starting out in life, and I remember both loving it and it making me angry. It seemed to be saying it is never easy to have everything, everything you want. Now that I’m older, re-reading it, it seems to be about embracing both choice and regret. An inevitable combination. So you might as well get some swashbuckling in, eh?

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Death with Interruptions

By José Saramago

Book cover of Death with Interruptions

Why this book?

I’ve saved my “riskiest” pick for last—you might not like this one, or at least you might be wondering for two-thirds of the book what the heck is going on, other than that you are reading about a country in which no one dies. The book starts by earnestly (and sometimes humorously) asking and answering questions: what do you do with so many living people? What do you do with people who are say, gravely wounded in an accident but can’t die and also can’t recover? What are not just the logistical but emotional challenges of no one departing? Would people want to live in such a country? Or flee it? Saramago was a philosopher before he was a writer, and he loves pondering things... And then, all of a sudden, the book shifts, it switches into another gear entirely and becomes a beautifully moving story about Death taking a much-needed holiday. Hang in there, and it will reward you—which really makes me think about how all books are “otherworldly,” and how, whether we are readers or writers or both, we’re asked to travel to their unexpected places, with an open heart, if we can. And then just see what happens.

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