The latest installment in the Welcome to Night Vale universe is the story of the familiar and terrifying Faceless Old Woman. Told in a series of harrowing flashbacks, the story of The Faceless Old Woman takes readers back to an early 19th century Europe revealing an initially blissful, then tragic childhood on a Mediterranean estate, her rise in the criminal underworld, a nautical adventure with a mysterious organization of smugglers, her plot for revenge on those who have betrayed her, and her ultimate death and its aftermath, as her spirit travels the world for decades until finally settling in Night Vale.
I don’t know about y’all, but I’m struggling. My anxiety is usually pretty under control, and as far as I know, I have not been exposed to the virus, plus I’ve been following all of the protocol, but the paranoia builds in me every time I reach to touch a doorknob, turn on a light, or even cross the street so as to avoid coming within six feet of someone, waving even as I do it because, I mean, I’m not a monster… I just want to stay away from your gross body and your nasty cooties.
Normally, when I’m anxious about something, I just dive deeper into the crevasse. Meaning, if I’m scared of home invasion, I’ll watch a thousand Lifetime documentaries featuring B&Es, et cetera, because I feel like the better informed I am, the better I can protect myself against whatever I’m afraid of (and I have anxiety, so, like, I’m afraid of everything). To paraphrase Karen Kilgariff from My Favorite Murder, I need to know all of the most horrible shit so that I can avoid it.
It usually works for me. If you’re reading this horror newsletter, it might probably work for you, too. By the way, I’m Mary Kay McBrayer, and you’re in The Fright Stuff, Book Riot’s weekly newsletter featuring the latest and greatest in horror. I structured this newsletter a little differently from the others because, well, desperate times call for desperate measures.
So, here are the greatest books that I know of about plague and/or quarantine:
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
This impeccable debut novel admittedly makes this list because of a small portion that is narrated by a swarm of mosquitos in Zambia, who are self-proclaimed as man’s greatest nemesis. Still, the Old Drift, a colony established generations before, sees change through three families plagued by magical maladies and less magical epidemics like AIDS.
Room by Emma Donaghue
Jack, the five-year-old “Bonsai Boy” narrates this novel in which a woman has been abducted and held in a shop-turned-bunker for years. It’s compelling, sweet, and devastating. I had this book on audio, and I highly recommend that option.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
This collection of stories shares a frame narrative with the Canterbury Tales… sort of. A bunch of writers go to a lock-in retreat where each of them thinks they’ll sabotage the stores and rations just to make things a little more interesting. It unsurprisingly turns into a survival situation pretty quickly, and they all get what they wanted: something to write about.
“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in her collection Her Body and Other Parties
I mentioned this story recently, but I think it bears repeating. Not only is Machado one of THE most interesting voices in horror now, but this story compiles an inventory of sexual experiences which the narrator writes to keep her mind off of being one of–if not THE–last surviving person of a plague.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
This fascinating novel braids two storylines: in one of them, the City is inhabited by souls that have departed earth, but have not yet been forgotten by the living, and yet their number is decreasing. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd’s supplies dwindle in her Antarctic research station, and all she can find on the radio is static. Both groups wonder what is happening, and the story progresses, meeting in the middle to illustrate it to the reader as the characters unpack the mystery.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
If you’re looking for pandemic literature, you can’t skip this one: a pandemic has sorted out all of earth’s inhabitants into the living and the living dead. The narrative follows Mark Spritz, a member of one of the sweeper units that clears lower Manhattan of the remaining feral zombies, and the rest of the population deals with the post-apocalyptic stress disorder that HAS to be a thing–THANK YOU.
Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler
It’s our woman science fiction author prototype, Octavia Butler, again! This novel follows a family as they are kidnapped by Eli, the only survivor of a space mission gone awry, crash-landed in the Mojave desert, and in which he was infected with an alien microorganism. In effort to slow its transmission to the rest of the human species, Eli isolates himself in a “family” situation quarantine. Yikes.
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
We most likely know Mary Shelley from the book that made her famous, the allegedly first science fiction novel, born of an orgy/party hosted by Lord Byron, Frankenstein. This book, too, focuses on a theme of science fiction. After all of humanity has been wiped out by the plague, the Last Man wonders, “And what does our narrator do, alone in the world? “I also will write a book, I cried—for whom to read?” He calls it “The History of the Last Man,” and dedicates it to the dead. It will have no readers. Except, of course, the readers of Shelley’s book.” (This last quotation comes from “What Our Contagion Fables are Really about.”)
The latest in horror:
In keeping with the regulations on how to decrease the spread of COVID-19, I’m just going to list a whole bunch of dope books that have just/are about to release. There isn’t a theme. Or, the theme is, books whose authors/publishers have taken one for the team in limiting their exposure by canceling book releases and launches, thereby directly affecting their books’ sales. In case you missed that subtext: BUY OR PRE-ORDER THESE BOOKS. They’re not getting the exposure that they deserve because their authors, publishers, publicists, et al, have a high regard for human life. (This list is by NO means comprehensive, and if I missed YOUR book or one that you love, pleeeeease let me know. My contact info is in the signature!)
The Fish & the Dove by Mary-Kim Arnold
This collection of poems reflects the history of the Korean War, its effects on generations afterward, and the institutionalized language that it produced. Arnold says, the “legendary Assyrian warrior goddess Semiramis haunts this book,” which I love.
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges by Amber Sparks
This collection of short stories in unmissable–it blends elements of the fairy tale, mythology, contemporary ideals, and apocalyptic technologies to illustrate feminine narratives in hilarious and horrifying ways. You’re gonna love it.
Lakewood: A Novel by Megan Giddings
This book narrates a horror of medical experimentation as it addresses class and race. It’s described as part Handmaid’s Tale and part Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. DON’T MIND IF I DO.
No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez
When a veterinarian pulls over to help at a bad car wreck, one of the survivors leaves her with an impossible choice: she can either let the other victim die, or she can die.
Harbingers (FKA as news):
Do you want to know what our contagion fables are really about? Check out this article on The New Yorker. (Bonus: I learned that heating books in the oven at 160 degrees kills bed bugs WITHOUT damaging the books.)
Rachel Harrison (author of the newly-released title The Return) explains on CrimeReads how a sense of dread is the essential ingredient of a good dark fiction story.
Did you see that Audible just made hundreds of audiobooks free to stream? The list includes some horror classics like Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and a collection of Edith Wharton short stories.
Also, let’s just say that going “deeper into the crevasse” just isn’t working for you, or let’s just say you’re not that into horror right now because the world is scary enough. Here’s a list of books in which NOTHING BAD HAPPENS.
And y’all know I always make jokes about Dante and being your Virgil, but real talk, this time, Italy is about to celebrate its first Dante Day, as the 700th anniversary of his death approaches.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of THE FRIGHT STUFF, and hopefully it made you feel that you weren’t alone, even if you are physically alone. I’m Mary Kay McBrayer, and you can find me on Twitter or Instagram– make sure y’all get at me with any important news that I missed, okay? But y’all keep in mind, too, that while I DO DEFINITELY want to know my mistakes, I also work real hard on this, so y’all be nice about it. Stay safe and sequestered!
Until next week,
Your Virgil (y’all know I’m a stick to my guns on this name),
Mary Kay McBrayer
Co-host of Book Riot’s literary fiction podcast, Novel Gazing