14 BOOKS ABOUT GANGSTERS FOR THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE

I always joke that I missed my calling as a mafiosa; since I can remember, I have been obsessed with the gangsters of the 1920s through ’40s. I was so pumped to find out in my 20s that my great-great-uncle (Nonamous McBrayer—yes, that was his real-ass name) was a bootlegger in North Carolina. He is legit smiling in his mug shot, y’all. When we checked into our hotel in Havana, I pointed out to my boyfriend they were playing The Godfather‘s theme song. I’m a little obsessed.

Anyway, the first time I went to New York City (I’m from the South), the thing I most wanted to see was the independent Museum of the American Gangster—and it REALLY delivered. I introduce this place because I need y’all to know that the docent at that museum taught me SO much about the culture of the mob, and I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. For example, Al Capone’s famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929—which is the real reason to remember February 14—FAILED. Kind of. Why? The target (Bugs Moran) wasn’t at the garage where he was supposed to be: he was getting a shave and a haircut for a hot date that night. (Granted, this massacre did establish Scarface as the boss of Chicago without him ever getting called to trial, so it wasn’t a total bust.)

My favorite period of gangsters started—of course—as a product of Prohibition. In New York and Chicago, from what I understand, it was illegal to SELL alcohol, but it wasn’t illegal to DRINK alcohol. So, gangsters saw a hole in the economy: there was a demand and no supply. This started the speakeasy concept. If you bought a “membership” it was all-you-could-drink. (Last pitch for the museum, probably-maybe: it’s IN a former speakeasy! I literally walked past it twice.)

What I think so often gets romanticized about gangsters is their ability to bootstrap themselves into success despite open prejudice against them. Although we would consider many of the ethnicities of gangsters “white” by today’s standards, their contemporaries would not have done so. So, while you’re reading this selection, keep in mind that during the 1920s–’40s gangs functioned in part as both a form of either vigilante justice (and God knows I’m a sucker for a vigilante beatdown), or an economy boost for those who otherwise could not even enter the economy.

the godfather1. THE GODFATHER BY MARIO PUZO
You undoubtedly know of these two best-movies-of-all-time and the third that we have chosen as a culture to forget, but have you read the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo? Better yet, give it a listen—all the characters are portrayed by different actors, and it’s a lot like watching the extended cut of the film in your brain.

Although this choice probably seems somewhat obvious, the reason why it’s so famous embodies, I think, some significant reasons why our culture is so obsessed with gangsters as a whole. We see traditions of the old world in the new world that requires immigrants to assimilate and stay at the bottom of the economy if they want to be in America, and yet the Corleones do just the opposite. They make their own economy, and they earn trust by providing protection…from America’s law enforcement itself. And these are not old issues. We see them happening on a daily basis, even modern-day.

2. HONOR THY FATHER BY GAY TALESE
Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese is arguably about the literal family on whom the Corleones were based, the Bonannos. This book is nonfiction, and its author is one who interviewed the famous mafioso, Joseph Bonanno. What I loved about this book was that Talese does not write himself out of the story, the way many journalists and nonfiction writers choose to do. Rather, he acknowledges that his presence changes the story somewhat.

Another of my favorite scenes from this book happens when Joseph Bonanno watches Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, and he admits something like, “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

3. THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
Another classic of the 1920s, most people forget that the titular character of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, in fact, a bootlegger. That’s how he made his millions! That’s how he rose to the economic status that Daisy needed in order to justify being with him!

Plus, you have the scene at the party with Meier Wolfsheim in which Gatsby tells Nick, “That’s the man that fixed the 1919 World Series.” Which brings me to my next point…

tough jews rich cohen book cover4. TOUGH JEWS BY RICH COHEN
Most of the gangsters we see in films are Italian, usually Sicilian, and occasionally they’re Irish. The first gangsters, however, were often Jewish. Many fled Europe and the horrors of Adolf Hitler to immigrate to America. Tough Jews by Rich Cohen documents the facts of the Jewish gangsters of the era.

5. JEWISH GANGSTERS OF MODERN LITERATURE BY RACHEL RUBIN
Similarly to the two books above, Tough Jews  by Rachel Rubin discusses fictional representation of Jewish gangsters throughout modern literature, “specifically on the Russian writer Isaac Babel and Americans Mike Gold, Samuel Ornitz, and Daniel Fuchs, but also taking in cartoons, movies, and modernist paintings.” (Description from Amazon.)

6. WISEGUY BY NICHOLAS PILEGGI
If you liked the movie Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese, you’ll like this book, which he used as a reference. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi is a book of journalistic nonfiction about the working class Brooklyn kid, Henry Hill, who was eventually responsible in part for the Lufthansa heist. (Fun fact: Henry Hill is one of the only known  people to be kicked out of the Witness Protection Program; from what I understand, he really liked to brag about that heist.)

7. GANGS OF NEW YORK BY HERBERT ASBURY
Another book adapted by Scorsese (which includes nearly every man I’ve ever loved in its cast), Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury details the turn of the century. This book is another work of journalistic nonfiction which details the Bowery and Five Points and its numerous gangs of the time—including but not limited to Hell Cat Maggie, who traded human ears (her trophies) for drinks.

8. PIMP: THE STORY OF MY LIFE BY ICEBERG SLIM
Part of what makes the gangsters of the 1920s different from what the gangsters we know today is that their trade, in modern perspective, is mostly innocuous. They were hustling a substance that is now legal, alcohol. However, I’d be stupid not to at least mention that modern gangsters don’t hustle alcohol, they hustle drugs, or in the case of Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim, he hustled sex. As you may have noticed from the title, this is a memoir that details the psychology and capitalism of a pimp from his own perspective, of Chicago during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. It is truly chilling.

9. MOLLY’S GAME BY MOLLY BLOOM
You’ve likely seen the motion picture starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, but Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom, the book, is what made that possible. The book details Molly Bloom’s rise to “Hollywood’s poker princess,” and her fearless hosting of exclusive high-stakes private poker games, first of celebrity royalty and eventually of the Russian and Italian mobs. This book also details her gradual slide into the illegal aspects of running the game.

10. HELL’S ANGELS BY HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Though this book falls out of the category of gangsters from the 1920s–’40s, I’d be remiss not to mention Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson. In this book of gonzo journalism, Thomson—somewhat like Talese—involves himself in the plot itself. The motorcycle gang of the 1960s and ’70s is a different sort of gang than those that we have seen so far, but nonetheless, they live by a strict moral code outside of the law. One of my favorite quotes from this whole book is from Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels: “You treat me good, I treat you better. You treat me bad, I treat you worse.”

11. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN BY CORMAC MCCARTHY
This one may also come from off the radar, but No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is the story of how gangs evolved in the American West during the 1980s. Our main antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is a lone wolf, but there are so many people on so many sides of the same fight that it’s hard not to see how gangsters are involved in this one! (It’s also, IMHO, one of the best novels about gangsters ever written.)

Chris Rosales Word is Bone cover gangster valentine's12. WORD IS BONE BY CHRISTOPHER DAVID ROSALES
Though not, at first glance, directly about gangs or gangsters per se, the novel Word is Bone by Christopher David Rosales (who is my actual friend, omg) portrays the neighborhood of Clearwater, California. Here, everyone is involved in crime out of necessity—which is the main reason, I think, the gangster of the 1920s is so romanticized. We don’t love them for being criminals: we love them for their triumph over laws that were clearly written to keep them from triumph. This novel undertakes many of those instances, whether it comes from a loyal daughter sabotaging her mother’s competing sex worker upstairs, the welterweight pimp who defends his neighborhood, or the elderly woman who slanders a potential gangbanger because she thinks he’s trying to seduce a young girl. If you like gangsters and what they stand for, you’ll love this novel.

13. PABLO ESCOBAR: MY FATHER BY JUAN PABLO ESCOBAR
I always find nonfictional accounts of gangsters fascinating—but even more so when they’re not written by the gangsters themselves. I like to hear the stories from people who knew them. After all, what gangster will ever give you a straight story? Answer: no one. It’s part of the whole deal. But when someone close to them gives the story, well, they may only have some of the facts, but they are more likely facts. Pablo Escobar: My Father by Juan Pablo Escobar, is clearly written by the kingpin’s son. The writeup on Amazon.com says: “This is not the story of a child seeking redemption for his father, but a shocking look at the consequences of violence and the overwhelming need for peace and forgiveness.”

14. ORIGINAL GANGSTER: THE REAL LIFE STORY OF ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST NOTORIOUS DRUG LORDS BY FRANK LUCAS AND ALIYA S. KING
Hot damn. Among the film adaptations of these movies, none cast so many actors with whom I’ve been in love as American Gangster. But the original account, the book Original Gangster by Frank Lucas, touches basically every gangster you’ve ever heard of. Protege to Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas is responsible for nosing in on the Italian families who ran the drug game in New York in the 1960s. He cut out the middle men by smuggling heroin from Asia through the U.S. military. This book details his life, and is not to be missed.

That’s my list of dope gangster books for you to celebrate Valentines’ Day with, but I’m always looking for more—particularly about women. Do you have some to add to my list? Or were they too slick to reveal themselves? Anything about Stephanie St. Clair? Let me know what I need to add to my list by writing in the comments!

And happy Valentine’s Day.

By , February 1
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Works of Nonfiction to Rival Any Great Thriller Novel

Who doesn’t love a good thriller? Whether a tale of murder and mayhem, a page-turning whodunit, dangerous family secrets, or a bit of good old fashioned espionage – there’s nothing quite like a great page-turner. Occasionally, however, life can prove stranger – and more thrilling – than fiction. Some of the best thrillers just happen to lurk in the pages of the nonfiction world. What better way to change up your usual suspenseful binge than to dive into the pages of a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale? Here are a few of our favorites.

In Cold Blood Book Cover PictureIn Cold Blood
Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece is a classic for good reason. It is largely credited with igniting the trend of narrative nonfiction, particularly in true crime, and is lifted by Capote’s skillful storytelling. What truly makes In Cold Blood such a compulsive thriller, however, is Capote’s clear fascination with murderer Perry Smith.

Five Days at Memorial Book Cover PictureFive Days at Memorial
Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spent six years investigating precisely what went on in a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the desperate bid for survival amid the chaos within. Following the devastation of the hurricane, hospital power failed, temperatures soared, and floodwaters rose. Caregivers were forced to determine the order of patients for evacuation. Months later, several faced charges of injecting patients with drugs to speed their deaths. With Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink reconstructs the events with haunting precision.

The Looming Tower (Movie Tie-in) Book Cover PictureThe Looming Tower 
With a narrative spanning five decades, The Looming Tower breaks down the rise of Al-Qaeda and the disturbing failures in U.S. Intelligence in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. Lawrence Wright earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work and it remains the most in-depth account of the myriad events that led to the most deadly terrorist attack ever perpetrated on U.S. soil. It is the definitive history.

Thunderstruck Book Cover PictureThunderstruck
Set against the backdrops of Edwardian London and the coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Erik Larson interweaves the tales of two men — one is creator of a revolutionary means of wireless communication, the other nearly commits the perfect murder. How their stories intersect is a tragic tale of love and betrayal and a suspenseful chase across the North Atlantic. Thunderstruck is Erik Larson at his best.

The Skies Belong to Us Book Cover PictureThe Skies Belong to Us
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of ’60s idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when shattered Army veteran Roger Holder and mischievous party girl Cathy Kerkow managred to comandeer Western Airlines Flight 701 and flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom—a heist that remains the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

The Girls of Murder City Book Cover PictureThe Girls of Murder City
With a thrilling, fast-paced narrative, award-winning journalist Douglas Perry vividly captures the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal- and gave Chicago its most famous story. The Girls of Murder Cityrecounts two scandalous, sex-fueled murder cases and how an intrepid “girl reporter” named Maurine Watkins turned the beautiful, media-savvy suspects-“Stylish Belva” and “Beautiful Beulah”-into the talk of the town.

My Dark Places Book Cover PictureMy Dark Places
In 1958 Jean Ellroy was murdered, her body dumped on a roadway in a seedy L.A. suburb.  Her killer was never found, and the police dismissed her as a casualty of a cheap Saturday night. James Ellroy was ten when his mother died, and he spent the next thirty-six years running from her ghost and attempting to exorcize it through crime fiction. In My Dark Places, our most uncompromising crime writer tells what happened when he teamed up with a brilliant homicide cop to investigate a murder that everyone else had forgotten–and reclaim the mother he had despised, desired, but never dared to love. What ensues is a epic of loss, fixation, and redemption, a memoir that is also a history of the American way of violence.

Killers of the Flower Moon Book Cover PictureKillers of the Flower Moon
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.

The Brothers Book Cover PictureThe Brothers
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 264 others. In the ensuing manhunt, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and brought to trial. Yet even after the guilty verdict and the death sentence, what we didn’t know was why. Why did the American Dream go so wrong for two immigrants? How did such a nightmare come to pass?

The Wicked Boy Book Cover PictureThe Wicked Boy
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

By Keith Rice, August 17, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

6 BOOKS LIKE BIRD BOX THAT WILL CREEP YOU OUT

I have always loved horror. The poorly-written mass market paperbacks I pulled from my father’s shelves. The B-horror flicks I watched in dark basements. The books and movies that suggested that true horror lived within everyday people.

But lately, I’ve been particularly transfixed by horror that focuses on feelings of claustrophobia and unseen menace. As a grownass adult whose day-to-day fears revolve around being trapped by the consequences of my terrible decisions (schedule shift; career move; poor spending choice; ill-advised parenting tactic), this seems apt. And perhaps no book has embodied these fears as perfectly as Josh Malerman’s Bird Box.

When I first read Bird Box, a work of literary horror that has since been adapted (and quite well) by Netflix, it was just a few months before my daughter was born, a life change that would shrink my world, leave me feeling at times constricted. Even four years later, she is so needy it often seems as if she’s trying to crawl back inside my body. So when I read Malerman’s book, there was something in me that connected to the story.

For those who haven’t read the book or seen the Netflix adaptation, here’s the gist: An unseen menace causes people to become violent and suicidal. After a time, it is determined that victims go crazy when they look upon these creatures. As a result, survivors remain in boarded-up houses, with papered-up windows. They go on supply runs with blindfolds over their eyes. Their world shrinks and, in this miniaturized life they are forced to live, they don’t even know what it is they fear.They don’t know what their monster looks like.

It’s a delicious mix of claustrophobia, blindness, and a fear of the unknown. Are there other books like Bird Box? Which ones bring that same brand of terror?

6 books like BIRD BOX to creep you the heck out. book lists | scary books | creepy books | horror books | books like BIRD BOX

THE BEST BOOKS LIKE BIRD BOX

The Mist by Stephen King - 6 Books Like Bird BoxTHE MIST BY STEPHEN KING
Let me just get this one out of the way. King has a number of titles beneath his belt in which the main protagonist finds himself trapped in an untenable situation. The one that reminds me most of what went down in Bird Box is The Mist, a novella about a small town enveloped by a strange mist, in which terrible creatures seem to be skulking about. Most of the action takes place in a supermarket in which a number of townspeople find themselves trapped. As these people, thrust together by circumstance, grapple with what’s going on—and what they should do next—tensions explode. Will anyone make it out alive?

 

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah - 6 Books Like Bird BoxTHE GREAT ALONE BY KRISTIN HANNAH
When I received an ARC of this book in the mail, I was unfamiliar with Hannah’s work. I had no clue she was a New York Times bestselling author with approximately eleventy-billion published novels on her résumé. But I was immediately bewitched by this story of this coming-of-age story in which a small family moves to the wilds of Alaska in order to start anew. Unfortunately, there’s no leaving behind the inner demons of the family’s patriarch, a former POW. In this book-length fight for survival, the barren landscape isn’t the most dangerous thing the young protagonist needs to fear. This isn’t a horror novel, but it is horrifying.

 

Blindness by Jose Saramago - 6 Books Like Bird BoxBLINDNESS BY JOSÉ SARAMAGO
Where in Bird Box, characters were forced to blindfold themselves when outside so as to avoid glimpsing the thing that drove others mad, Saramago’s book is about literal blindness. A city is hit by an epidemic of blindness. Those afflicted are confined to an empty mental hospital, but the conditions there are brutal. Meanwhile, one woman who has miraculously retained her sight struggles to guide a group of strangers through this terrible new wilderness, made even more terrible by how it has empowered others to embrace the worst in themselves.

 

Cover of Blind DescentBLIND DESCENT BY JAMES M. TABOR
Before Bird Box, I lost my shit over The Descent (the British horror film; not the book by Jeff Long upon which it is very loosely based). When I saw the film, I spent the entire one-hour-40-minute run time gasping for air as a group of female spelunkers—trapped in an uncharted, underground cave system—fought and strained to find a way out. There were monsters and jump scares in the film. But what was most terrifying was, again that sense of claustrophobia. Which is why Blind Descent, a work of narrative nonfiction on two scientist-explorers who find themselves trapped within the depths of massive cave systems, freaks me out so much.

 

Hye-young-Pyun The Hole | 2017 Shirley Jackson Awards | Book RiotTHE HOLE BY HYE-YOUNG PYUN
A man wakes up from a coma after causing a car accident that takes his wife’s life and leaves him paralyzed and badly disfigured. He is left in the care of his mother-in-law, who is bereft at the loss of her only child. Confined to his bed and neglected by his reluctant and resentful caretaker, he is left only with memories of his troubled marriage. “Yellow Wallpaper” much?

 

The Devil in Silver by Victoe LaValle - 6 Books Like Bird BoxTHE DEVIL IN SILVER BY VICTOR LAVALLE
And then there’s the book that first introduced me to LaValle’s work. In it, a group of inmates at a mental institution find themselves picked off one by one by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison. But is the creature real, or just the result of group delusion? This book tackles many tough topics, among them the question of how and why our fears manifest.

By , February 

H.P. Lovecraft And The Shadow Over Horror

Scary tentacles

Hello Lovely/Getty Images/Blend Images

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are among the foundations of modern horror. He has an entire subgenre named after him (Lovecraftian horror, also called cosmic horror). His stories can still wring shivers from the modern reader; his gods and monsters are cloned, adapted and mutated by new authors every year (I’m one of them). I don’t actually know how many anthologies include either his name or his iconic creation Cthulhu in their titles — though a sample make up a largish shelf among my books, and then there are the movies, songs, role-playing games and plush abominations (another shelf). During the 2016 election, a Washington Post op-ed claimed Cthulhu’s endorsement for Donald Trump.

But Lovecraft was a bigot. He was a bigot by the standards of our time and his. He hated and feared African-Americans, Jews, poor people and anyone who had the temerity to speak languages other than English in his presence. He once wrote a poem called “On the Creation of [N-words]” and a story in which the horrific punchline was that the femme fatale with monstrous, man-strangling hair was “a negress.” Though sometimes less overt, his terror of humans who were not upper-class Anglo-Saxons pervades his stories. One celebrated classic […] ends by recognizing a strange and alien race as “men” like the reader — men whose civilization collapsed because of a revolt by their monstrous slaves. Those slaves, the shoggoths, appear as boogeymen throughout Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

What to do about the darkness gnawing at horror’s roots? Perhaps Lovecraft’s own metaphors are best: Can this ancestral taint be denied, or does it warp its descendants even today? Could we destroy it, even if we wanted to? If we did, what would remain of our modern branches? Could we instead transform it? Horror excels at making thought-provoking beauty and terror out of the most vile seeds. Can we work such metamorphoses with our own foundations?

Every time someone raises this topic, traditionalists accuse them of forced amnesia. “You’re trying to bury Lovecraft’s memory. You want us to forget him.” Yet modern horror has repeatedly chosen transformation over suppression. Victor LaValle, Caitlin R. Kiernan, N.K Jemisin and Matt Ruff are only a few of those now penning Lovecraftian stories in which bigotry itself is the horror.

Pervasive in cosmic horror is the conflict between attraction and repulsion. Lovecraft’s narrators stumble into terror because they can’t look away: The only thing worse than knowing things man wasn’t meant to know is putting down the book. I feel the same way about Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” begins with the town’s amphibious inhabitants being forced into internment camps; my first novel resulted from yelling at the story until I had to put my fury down on paper. Yet “Shadow” also contains moments of strange sympathy for its monsters and a protagonist who ultimately discovers himself to be one of them, and transforms to “dwell amidst wonder and glory” beneath the waves of the Atlantic.

Lovecraft, too, was conflicted — though in his short life he never found the courage to let his attraction to difference overcome his repulsion. Perhaps we keep building on his creations in the hope that we can finally complete that half-hinted transformation.

Lovecraft’s repellent assumptions still make their way into modern work; even beloved modern authors sometimes show hints of that taint. If we know that a story or author [we’re discussing] is problematic, we’ll tell you — and no shame on anyone who doesn’t care to dip their hands into that particular variety of putrescent pool. There are a few I won’t touch myself. But for those who can’t turn away from what glints at the heart of the slime — or who seek imperfect materials to sculpt into strange new forms — we’ll do our best to map the abyss.

By RUTHANNA EMRYS, August 16, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Editor’s Note:

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series and co-writes Tor.com’s Lovecraft Reread. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with her wife and their large, strange family. You can find her on Twitter as @r_emrys.

 

Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World

Why read horror when the world is already so creepy?
Maree Searle/Getty Images/EyeEm

Tom Lehrer famously said that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet here we are, still struggling to exaggerate the follies of power until power can’t get around us. Horror has much the same resilience. As terrifying as the world becomes, we still turn to imagined terrors to try and make sense of it. To quote another favorite entertainer, Neil Gaiman, “Fairy tales are more than true: Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Horror, descended from those tales, tells us about more monsters — and more strategies for beating them.

The banal evils of the world — children shot, neighbors exiled, selves reframed in an instant as inhuman threats — these are horrible, but they aren’t horror. Horror promises that the plot arc will fall after it rises. Horror spins everyday evil to show its fantastical face, literalizing its corroded heart into something more dramatic, something easier to imagine facing down. Horror helps us name the original sins out of which horrible things are born.

Some of my favorite horror stories are those in which real-world terrors grow gradually into something stranger. Mariana Enriquez, recently translated into English in Things We Lost in the Fire, writes a Buenos Aires in which poverty and pollution inevitably swell into risen corpses and sacrificial cults. Stephen King’s Carrie only destroys her town because abuse and bullying feed her frustrated teenage telekinesis. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” starts from the simple psychological claustrophobia of well-meaning relations and deep-rooted sexism.

All of which gives horror the opportunity to be radically empowering, and to condemn these evils in the starkest of terms. But it doesn’t always do so. In too many stories the Thing That Should Not Happen is simply someone violating the status quo, or outsiders existing visibly. H. P. Lovecraft is a prototypical example — his world-shattering deities are worshipped primarily by those without other means to power: immigrants, rural folk, dark-skinned people trying to summon dreadful entities. His monsters are closely entwined with mental illness and “miscegenation.” His works insist, again and again, that civilization depends on keeping such creatures out of both sight and mind. Nor is Lovecraft (conveniently dead and ostensibly “of his time”) the only one. How much modern horror still draws frissons of fear from disabled villains, or the threat of “madness,” or whatever Other happens to be convenient? How many can only imagine threats as violations of white-picket-fence comfort, overcome when the monster’s defeat allows a return to that comfort for those who had it in the first place?

While it’s tempting to write horror from the perspective of those most easily shocked — those in a position to believe the universe dispenses comfort evenly to all — the best modern work depicts terrors fit for those already intimate with fear. Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire) is brilliant at this. Her Newsflesh trilogy amplifies the perils of political journalism, mindful that authorities’ response to disaster can make the difference between zombie apocalypse and zombie inconvenience. Victor Lavalle, another favorite, finds ways to faze protagonists who already face segregation, police violence, and the cosmic indifference of everyday prejudice.

Horror as a genre is built around one truth: that the world is full of fearful things. But the best horror tells us more. It tells us how to live with being afraid. It tells us how to distinguish real evil from harmless shadows. It tells us how to fight back. It tells us that we can fight the worst evils, whether or not we all survive them — and how to be worthy of having our tales told afterward.

 

Editor’s Note:
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series and co-writes Tor.com’s Lovecraft Reread. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with her wife and their large, strange family. You can find her on Twitter as @r_emrys.

By RUTHANNA EMRYS, August 5, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Universal, but Personal: Hometown Settings in Thrillers

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

One of the most important elements of great literature is that it can be simultaneously personal and universal. It’s why each of us can pick up a book, no matter how different we may be, and understand precisely how a certain character feels. And when speaking specifically about great thrillers, they must also thrill us. The stakes must be high, the potential for loss higher. We must see our protagonist racing against a ticking clock, and each page must present her with new challenges, show her suffering failures and maybe rejoicing in a victory or two. New characters will arrive as the pages mount, others will be killed off. Plot points will roll past. But every page will include the setting. It’s the backdrop for everything that will happen, and as such, the decisions we make surrounding our setting can act to strengthen our plots by creating additional obstacles and challenges or be a wasted opportunity.

One example of a universal and yet personal storyline is the character who returns home after a long absence. We each have a hometown. We have memories of it—some good, some bad—and so we can understand the fear and apprehension built into such a homecoming. It’s why readers never tire of these stories. But our novel doesn’t only tell a story that is universal and personal, it’s also a thriller. The choices we make must ignite our settings with opportunities and challenges, because such obstacles set our protagonist in motion, make clear what she is working toward and firmly establish that she faces certain death if she isn’t shrewd enough, cunning enough and fast enough to overcome them.

Geography is perhaps the broadest choice we will make with our setting, and in making it, we get the benefit of some built-in obstacles. Is our hometown in the mountains or the desert? Each presents obvious obstacles. Is our protagonist’s hometown small? Will gossip plague her? Does everyone in town know every mistake she has ever made? Or does she return home to the big city? Will she remember being a lonely child upon her return? Will she remember suffering among the endless crowds and yet having no one to talk to? These are primarily examples of internal obstacles we’ve created with our choice of setting. Other decisions can add to the more external and tangible suspense we want to generate.  Will the river that runs alongside our protagonist’s hometown be raging and lead readers to fear she will be swept away at some point? Or will it be a lazy river, shrinking from lack of rain, which leads our readers to fear what or who might emerge as the water level continues to fall?

Not only is the part of the country or world in which we set our thriller important, but the time of the year in which we set it presents another opportunity to create suspense. There is no right choice, but once made, we must work to exploit the resulting details. If we choose spring, the rains should make our river rise and become a threat to our protagonist. If instead we choose winter, the snow that falls should make the main road into town hazardous and we should place our protagonist on it in the dark of night. The era, too, in which we set our novel is significant. Here again, our choices, if managed properly, will present us with opportunities to challenge our characters and thereby create internal and external strife. As writers, do we want to exploit the access to information that the present allows? Will our protagonist use a cell phone to find her missing daughter, or bank records to track down a cheating husband? Or do we want the physical challenges of life in the distant past for our characters? Our choice of era also gives rise to cultural conflicts and conflicts between the sexes. How, if at all, will those conflicts and obstacles differ if the novel is set in the present as opposed to the past?

Lastly, the history we weave into our setting does more than perhaps any other choice to define our protagonist, establish her wants and needs and generate conflict and suspense. In the case of our hometown setting, what our character chooses to remember of her home and its history tells us much about who she is and what she values. It will give us insight into the unique knowledge she might have that could aide her as she struggles toward whatever ultimate goal we have given her. The history we choose to include will establish what frightens our protagonist, what drives her and ultimately, what kept her away from home for so many years.

The setting, perhaps more than any other element, permeates every page of a novel. It’s the world our characters live in and the one thing they can never escape. It will always be present to challenge them and they will forever be struggling to overcome it or accept it. There is no right choice when it comes to settings, but it is a matter of understanding the opportunities that come with each choice as well as the pitfalls.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Lori Roy is the author of Bent Road, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Until She Comes Home, finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; and Let Me Die in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her family.

5 Reasons Why the World of High Finance Is Ripe Territory for Thrillers

Photo by Anthony Tyrrell on Unsplash

Hear me out: “financial thriller” is not an oxymoron. If anything, financial thrillers can be timely, explosive and sophisticated, and original. While some may initially glaze over at the thought of reading about stocks and bonds, the world of high finance is ripe — and under-explored — territory for thrillers. Here are five reasons why:

1. Money fuels the highest-stakes crimes.

Behind every great criminal — drug lords, corrupt politicians, film producers who prey on young actresses — is a large sum of money, and behind every large sum of money is a bank. The most direct way to track a high-flying villain is by following his/her money — and the easiest way to stop him/her is to cut off his/her financial supply.

Sure, reading through bank statements can sound dry — unless those bank statements prove that a war is being secretly funded, a politician has been bought off, or illegal arms are trading hands. Bankers have access to enormous amounts of information. Bank statements can prove that all kinds of illicit relationships and transactions exist. By setting a thriller inside a bank, you allow yourself access to all that data — and you can use it as a jumping off point to explore anything from drug trafficking to war crimes to rigged elections. Money raises the stakes of all crimes. Any thriller could contain a financial element that would only serve to further the plot — and heighten the tension.

2. Finance is a world people don’t often get to see.

Part of the fun of reading is getting to peer into a world that you wouldn’t otherwise get access to. Finance can be exclusive and intimidating — and that’s why it’s perfect fodder for a thriller. Think of all the private meetings, the numbered accounts, the confidential conversations involved in finance. What could be more thrilling than being part of a clandestine world, if only for a few hundred pages?

3. The world of high finance is glamorous.

New York! Hong Kong! Geneva! The Cayman Islands! Thrillers set in the world of high finance get to explore all kinds of glamorous settings. And who doesn’t love a touch of luxury in their novels? After all, thrillers are meant to be entertaining — and a break from the mundane. In my latest novel, The Banker’s Wife, I got to globetrot from Geneva to Paris to London to New York — and fly private for much of the way. I also got to attend fabulous parties, ski in the Swiss Alps, drink the finest French wine, drive exotic cars, and discuss priceless art. The world financiers live in can be as beautiful and seductive as it is dangerous — and that’s what makes it so much fun to write (and read about).

4. It raises profound ethical questions.

All my novels explore the corrupting influence of money. When you set a thriller in the financial world, you inevitably raise questions about how money changes people. Digging deeper into these ethical questions elevates a novel from a run-of-the-mill page-turner into a more profound and thought-provoking read that stays with the reader longer.

5. It’s not often explored.

There are so many terrific legal and political thrillers out there, but finance remains largely unexplored territory. Since 2008, financial news has become much more mainstream — and shows like “Billions” (on SHOWTIME) and movies like “Arbitrage” are following suit. While there are plenty of terrific nonfiction books about finance (many of which read like thrillers) there still aren’t all that many novels set inside banks — or featuring a financier as either a villain or protagonist. Being part of the “financial thriller” niche sets a novel apart from the others on the shelves — and can catch the eye of readers who are increasingly interested in the topic.