There’s no better time for reading Gothic classics than in these cold, wet nights before Christmas – and when those Gothic classics also happen to be among your favourite novels, then that just sweetens the deal.
As a writer, I’ve always looked to Dracula as an example of great craftsmanship. The pacing throughout is expert – especially the final act, running like a mad scramble downhill to the finale – and the way it’s told through scraps of diary entries and letters is a really ingenious way of turning several parallel storylines into an intriguing mystery. I also loved reconvening with one of my favourite literary characters, Mina Murray: what with all the historic sexism running throughout the story, I’ve always relished the moments when Mina stands up as the dependable pillar of the novel whilst the brave menfolk weep and fall to bits around her.
I must say, the other Bram Stoker novels and stories collected in this edition weren’t much to write home about – to keep it brief, I’ll just say there’s a reason everyone’s heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but not Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. But hey, they were worth reading while I had them, even if I do just pretend this collection ends with Dracula in future.
Considering I only reread The Lord of the Rings just last year, I wasn’t planning on returning to Middle-Earth for a little while yet. But then the universe hit a software glitch and put a frat party bigot into the White House, and I needed a little carefree comfort to see me through.
Unfortunately, not even J.R.R. Tolkien is enough to keep at bay the waves of nauseating horror I feel each time I see The Orange One in the news. But nevertheless, there is still something to be said for returning to old childhood favourites in times of crisis, and especially for renewing the unexpected wisdom of Bilbo Baggins: “Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”
Now, to move onto The Lord of the Rings and read up on how one goes about defeating a dark lord with an ostentatious tower and a love of gold…
A noir thriller? Set at Christmas? Told by a darkly comic narrator riddled with social anxieties? It’s almost like I had this book written to order.
In all seriousness, Eileen was one of those rare novels that made a deep connection with me right from the start. Although the plot is billed as a classic noir – involving a murder, a redhead and a loaded gun, no less – the novel is really more a character study of Eileen Dunlop, a young misfit whose life revolves around caring for her alcoholic father, stalking her fantasy lover, and hiding from the world any sign that she might be anything other than normal.
I’ve read a few reviews since that say Eileen’s internal monologue actually makes this book difficult to digest. I can see why: Eileen’s habits range from the unusual – keeping a dead mouse in the glove box of her car – to the downright unsettling – like daydreaming about her own sexual assault. Add in Moshfegh’s tendency to linger on grim descriptions (Eileen’s “torrential, oceanic” laxative-induced bowel movements come to mind) and that can certainly make for a tough read at times.
But whilst Eileen’s head can be a difficult one to inhabit, I feel that’s what made her so resonant for me. She’s strange, yes, but she’s not a weirdo, and there’s an honesty about that in even the darkest bits of Moshfegh’s writing; and as someone who’s spent most of their life on the other side of normal, meeting a character so honest about and eager to be accepted for their oddities could hardly be more disturbing than it is familiar. Easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year (or any year, for that matter) and to make up for it being pipped to the Man Booker prize by Paul Beatty’s The Sellout I think you should all go out and buy a copy. It is a Christmas novel, after all.
(If you’re interested, here also is a great Guardian interview with Moshfegh about how the novel came about.)