My favorite books on the American suburban gothic

Why am I passionate about this?

As someone who grew up a child of the sixties amidst suburban conformity but with a decidedly nonconformist gothic sensibility, I have wanted to find a way to combine these contradictory forces. Happily, as a professor of literature and film studies at Hofstra University, I was able to achieve my goal last year when I taught "(Un)Dead Girls and (Un)Safe Spaces: The Suburban Gothic in Film" and "Suburban Horrors" (a literature class). Unaware however that a global pandemic would mean teaching these courses via Zoom, my students and I found ourselves trapped within the confines of our own boxes in a suburban nightmare while discussing fictional and film narratives about sinister neighbors, monsters in closets, murderous family members, conspiratorial racists, and uncanny house hauntings. Oh, the horrible irony.

I wrote...

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "it" Girl and the Crime of the Century

By Paula Uruburu,

Book cover of American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "it" Girl and the Crime of the Century

What is my book about?

The sensational true story of America’s first It Girl. In 1900, 16-year-old Florence Nesbit arrived in Manhattan “with nothing but her looks.” She would soon be seen by millions as the iconic Gibson Girl and most photographed woman of the era. Moving quickly from artists’ studios to the stage (when she became Evelyn) she ended up on the witness stand, where she not only affected the course of the new century’s culture but sealed her fate as “the girl in the red velvet swing.”

After her insanely jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, murdered famed architect Stanford White in what was dubbed “The Crime of the Century,” Evelyn was thrust into the limelight again. The girl “with a face to die for” ignited a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with the currencies of power that still feed the American dream -- youth, beauty, wealth, celebrity, and sex.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of American Gothic Tales (William Abrahams)

Paula Uruburu Why did I love 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.

By Joyce Carol Oates (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Gothic Tales (William Abrahams) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This remarkable anthology of gothic fiction, spanning two centuries of American writing, gives us an intriguing and entertaining look at how the gothic imagination makes for great literature in the works of forty-six exceptional writers.

Joyce Carol Oates has a special perspective on the "gothic" in American short fiction, at least partially because her own horror yarns rank on the spine-tingling chart with the masters. She is able to see the unbroken link of the macabre that ties Edgar Allan Poe to Anne Rice and to recognize the dark psychological bonds between Henry James and Stephen King.

In showing us…

Book cover of The Virgin Suicides

Paula Uruburu Why did I love 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.

By Jeffrey Eugenides,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Virgin Suicides as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introducing the Collins Modern Classics, a series featuring some of the most significant books of recent times, books that shed light on the human experience - classics which will endure for generations to come.

That girl didn't want to die. She just wanted out of that house. She wanted out of that decorating scheme.

The five Lisbon sisters - beautiful, eccentric and, now, gone - had always been a point of obsession for the entire neighbourhood.

Although the boys that once loved them from afar have grown up, they remain determined to understand a tragedy that has defied explanation. The…

Book cover of Dark Tales

Paula Uruburu Why did I love 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.

By Shirley Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dark Tales as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The perfect read for Hallowe'en, this new hardback volume of Jackson's finest stories reveals the queen of American gothic at her unsettling, mesmerising best

There's something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods...

Book cover of Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories

Paula Uruburu Why did I love 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.

By Flannery O'Connor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Everything That Rises Must Converge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Flannery O'Connor was working on Everything That Rises Must Converge at the time of her death. This collection is an exquisite legacy from a genius of the American short story, in which she scrutinizes territory familiar to her readers: race, faith, and morality. The stories encompass the comic and the tragic, the beautiful and the grotesque; each carries her highly individual stamp and could have been written by no one else.

Book cover of Ghost World

Paula Uruburu Why did I love 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.

By Daniel Clowes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ghost World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1998 Ignatz Award Winner, Outstanding Graphic Novel: The inspiration for the feature film and one of the most acclaimed graphic novels ever.

Ghost World has become a cultural and generational touchstone, and continues to enthrall and inspire readers over a decade after its original release as a graphic novel. Originally serialized in the pages of the seminal comic book Eightball throughout the mid-1990s, this quasi-autobiographical story (the name of one of the protagonists is famously an anagram of the author's name) follows the adventures of two teenage girls, Enid and Becky, two best friends facing the prospect of growing up,…

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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

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What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…

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