The best books on the American suburban gothic

The Books I Picked & Why

American Gothic Tales (William Abrahams)

By Joyce Carol Oates

Book cover of American Gothic Tales (William Abrahams)

Why this book?

As the best introduction to the American Gothic chosen by one of the most prolific modern masters of the genre, this anthology spans two centuries. It offers insightful context and an engaging historical road map to the current site of the genre, the weird and wounded world of the suburbs.

Joyce Carol Oates, who has written some of the most chilling contemporary examples of American Gothic fiction, dissects the shadowy heritage of our national preoccupation with the macabre themes that haunt the American Dream. From Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through James and Wharton to Anne Rice, Raymond Carver, Stephen King, and several lesser-known writers, Oates provides readers with a provocative selection that probes beneath superficial normality to reach the dangerous psychological abnormalities of our national identity.

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The Virgin Suicides

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Book cover of The Virgin Suicides

Why this book?

Adapted from his 1990 short story, Jeffrey Eugenides’ remarkable debut novel does the impossible. Relocating gothic tropes of the past in the Detroit suburbs of the 1970’s, he tells the most intimate, inventive and terrible suburban gothic tale in contemporary fiction.

Employing the funhouse lens of multiple narrators -- neighborhood boys who are voyeuristically obsessed with the five Lisbon sisters -- Eugenides invokes a deceptively nostalgic past while looking ahead to current national traumas including religion, the media, family dysfunction, and environmental disaster. Imprisoned in an ordinary-looking suburban home that is dying like the neighborhood itself, the sisters are doomed from the start.

Don’t let the title spoil this haunting heartbreaking tour de force, where the mystery is not about the who but the why.

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Dark Tales

By Shirley Jackson

Book cover of Dark Tales

Why this book?

The possibility of evil. Not only is this the title of the first selection in this collection of classic and newly printed stories by the queen of suburban gothic – it is the essence of her uncanny literary witchcraft, where subtle twists and sudden turns force readers to confront a creeping unease in post-WWII America. No hideous monsters or grotesque horrors here. Instead, sinister insinuation and irrational fears invade the “safe” suburban spaces. A man believes someone is stalking him on his way home from work.  Anonymous poison pen letters threaten a community. A runaway teenager reappears several years later … and seems to be someone else.

The deconstruction of so-called normality is what makes these stories so unsettling. Who knows what evil lurks behind the white picket fences? Shirley Jackson does.

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Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories

By Flannery O'Connor

Book cover of Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories

Why this book?

Although trespassing on Faulknerian Southern gothic territory, this posthumous collection of nine demonically disquieting stories by Flannery O’Connor pits inhabitants of the New South circa 1960 against old school elemental forces of mystery and revelation.

Set in and around the suburbs of what she called the modern “Christ-haunted” south -- whether on a newly desegregated bus trip to the YWCA, in a doctor’s waiting room, or in a social worker’s ordinary suburban home, grotesque eruptions of violence are the means to startling and sometimes deadly ends. Hypocritical manners that mask ugly generational racism, false liberalism that leads to an unthinkable family tragedy, even the simple act of getting a tattoo – all have theological implications in stories that reveal O’Connor’s uniquely apocalyptic vision, presented with unwavering comic detachment.

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Ghost World

By Daniel Clowes

Book cover of Ghost World

Why this book?

Originally serialized in comic book form by artist and author Daniel Clowes, this semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows the adventures of two teenage best friends, Enid and Becky, as they face the existential terror of growing up in a “ghost world.” Suburbia in this sardonic and melancholy book is a cultural wasteland, a manufactured simulacrum populated by freaks, geeks, neo-Nazis, suspected Satanists, disillusioned adults, and disaffected youth.

The episodic nature of the narrative is greatly enhanced by its graphic novel form. We experience the claustrophobia and disconnectedness of our heroines trapped in two-toned colorless boxes, devoid of vibrant color or open spaces. As the alternately insipid and insidious world of suburbia threatens to turn everyone into ghosts, we can only root for some form of escape. Therein lies the mystery.

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