From Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Carlos Ruiz Zafón chooses his favourite works in a fast-evolving genre
Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona and is the author of The Shadow of the Wind, the most successful novel in Spanish publishing history after Don Quixote. Translated into more than 35 languages, it has been read by over 12m readers worldwide. The Prince of Mist, a children’s book and the first work Ruiz Zafón published, is now available in English for the first time.
“Mention the gothic and many readers will probably picture gloomy castles and an assortment of sinister Victoriana. However, the truth is that the gothic genre has continued to flourish and evolve since the days of Bram Stoker, producing some of its most interesting and accomplished examples in the 20th century – in literature, film and beyond. Ours is a time with a dark heart, ripe for the noir, the gothic and the baroque. A basic list of great 20th-century gothic novels could include at least 100 but, since space is limited, here are a few places to begin your explorations. As always, try to get out of your comfort zone and ignore conventional wisdom on what is good or bad. ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow …'”
1. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
One of the very best ghost stories ever written. Shirley Jackson’s writings are a must for aficionados of the gothic and of good literature. Take this as a first step and discover one of the most unusual and underrated writers of the last century.
2. Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates
I’ve long considered Oates to be one of the greatest living authors, and certainly the undisputed queen of gothic literary fiction. This book is part of her grand Victorian cycle which begins with Bellefleur. Mysteries of Winterthurn is one of the least-known works in her vast oeuvre but it’s my personal favourite. Oates is an extremely prolific writer who has been able to sustain an extraordinary level of quality in her output. Life is short, so kill your TV now and start exploring her universe.
3. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
A very interesting gothic novel set in the American south – and one that will be surprisingly easy to read even for those who tremble in fear at the mention of Faulkner. This was supposed to be his attempt at commercial fiction; perhaps because of this it has always been regarded suspiciously and considered a minor work. It is not.
4. Double Indemnity by James M Cain
Lean, mean and dazzling. This is one of the great LA gothics, with all the best echoes of classic noir and a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Most people have seen the great Billy Wilder adaptation of this novel and therefore bypass the book. Big mistake. As glorious as Wilder’s film is, this novel has a rare, dark beauty that deserves to be savoured on its own terms.
5. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
If you ask me, this novel is the best mystery thriller ever written. It has the classic elements of a Chandler novel combined with the solid tradition of the 1970s supernatural thrillers à la Rosemary’s Baby. The writing, plotting and characterisation are superb. This is a hard title to find, but do yourself a favour and go looking.
6. The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake
Dark, dense, baroque and hauntingly beautiful. Peake’s lush prose and imagery are a pleasure to any lover of the beauty of the written word. A word of warning, however: this one takes its time. Most readers are used to more watery offerings – this is thick, creamy and extra-rich.
7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
China Miéville, poster boy for the so-called “new weird”, is one of the most interesting and promising writers to appear in the last few years in any genre. This is a fantastic yarn that follows the roads set by M John Harrison in his Viriconium world and brings an enormous energy and creativity to the table. A reinvention of modern fantasy with guts, brains and plenty of glory. Plunge in.
8. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter
A treasure chest of wonderfully wicked stories from the late grand-dame of the modern English gothic. Take one at a time and enjoy them as you would a good red wine. Eventually, it’ll go to your head. In a good way.
9. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
A modern-day Dickens with a popular voice and a genius for storytelling in any genre, Stephen King has written many wonderful books. Perhaps none of them are as scary or creepy as this one. Some people write King off because of his enormous success or the rather weak movie adaptations of his novels, but he is a fantastic writer with tremendous powers of characterisation and a talent for driving a narrative that other authors dream of. Don’t let the hype or the snobbery blind you. The man is truly a king.
10. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
A notable hit in Lindqvist’s native Sweden a few years ago, Let the Right One In was adapted into a film that didn’t even begin to do justice to this fresh, powerful and brutally honest reinvention of the vampire novel. This is very effective storytelling with a chilled, Scandinavian, noirish element. White snow never looked so dark.