Book Club Nominees

6 Stories from an Outsider’s Point of View

Book Club Nominees for November’s “Inside the Outsiders” category

This book collection is about outsiders. It’s an examination into the minds of those who have been cast out, have different ways of looking at, or are isolated in some way from the world. Furthermore, each of these choices, excluding Frankenstein and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is relatively obscure and should, I think, be more widely read. One might say they are outsiders in the sphere of Horror/Weird fiction.

Cover of Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Cover shows a black and white photonegative of a castle. The book shown is actually The Gormenghast by Mervn Peake, and features Titus Grown, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of the Gormenghast novels which, along with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, reign as one of the undisputed fantasy classics of all time. At the center of it all is the seventy-seventh Earl, Titus Groan, who stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way. (Goodreads)

Admittedly I’m cheating with this first choice in that I’m including the first installment of a trilogy. It can’t be helped since this is perhaps my favourite work of fiction, that is outside of Tolkien’s Legendarium. Titus Groan (and the entire Gormenghast Trilogy) is a sprawling ‘fantasy of manners’ gothic-style epic about a sprawling castle. It’s a poetic, surreal, and atmospheric masterpiece of a narrative in which the House of Groan and their servants constitute only one part of the whole. Castle Gormenghast with its absurd customs is the true focus. Titus Groan, a mere stripling in this first novel, is very much an outsider. Almost everyone in Gormenghast is. The work is only horror-adjacent, but there are plenty of seriously dark and melancholy moments in which to wallow. 

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Cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Cover shows an image of a naked man crouched down, looking over his shoulder toward the viewer.  We can only see part of his leg, his back, and the upper portion of his face.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Obsessed with creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life with electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear. Mary Shelley’s chilling Gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley near Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. It would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity. (Goodreads)

I have both the original frontispiece illustration and the first page of this book framed on my wall and desk. Yes, Frankenstein is one of my favourite works of fiction. I’m certain many will have already read this book, but I urge those who are only aware of the mad scientist and his creature from the unfortunately camp films (which ironically make a mockery of the true nature of the creature) to experience this seminal work of the Gothic and the Romantic. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is a beautifully articulate and intelligent soul who, in my view, is forced into a life of dejection and crime by an inconsiderate creator. It is the quintessential outsider novel.

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Cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Cover shows a black and white drawing. Two young women stand in the center of the image. The young woman standing in front is holding a black cat. An older woman stands behind her, hands on her shoulders. Other persons linger in the background.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn’t leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect the remaining family. (Amazon)

No doubt many people have already read this classic, too, but I’m compelled to include it since it’s undoubtedly another quintessential outsider tale. Shelley’s account of a strange young woman named Merricat who’s interested in sympathetic magic and who may or may not be involved in a murder left quite the impression on me. The setting and themes of Castle have influenced my own work.

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Cover of The Other Side by Alfred Kubin. Cover shows a watercolor image of houses in a valley. The houses surround a field in a circle.

The Other Side by Alfred Kubin

The Other Side tells of a dream kingdom which becomes a nightmare, of a journey to Perle, a mysterious city created deep in Asia, which is also a journey to the depths of the subconscious. Or as Kubin himself called it, ‘a sort of Baedeker for those lands which are half known to us’. (Goodreads)

This is a bewildering tale of a couple who take up a mysterious invitation to enter Pearl, a secluded city constructed by an enigmatic figure named Patera. The Other Side is one big fever dream, decadent, surrealistic and weirdly humorous. Near the end it resembles a Bosch painting, and it becomes quite challenging, graphically, emotionally and philosophically. I didn’t understand it all–I’m not sure one is supposed to–but it certainly left an impression. Think Meyrink crossed with Peake and Kafka.

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Cover of The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski. Cover shows a naked woman leaning back against a piece of furniture, perhaps a table. A giant snake is wrapped around her body.

The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski

‘Dedalus have unearthed a series of aptly decadent titles where elements erotic and grotesque combine. The Dark Domain is a collection of psycho-fantasies, doom-saturated tales of lonely men lost in hostile terrain, but the East European melancholy lifts to provide wonderful odd scenes, like the watchmaker whose death stops all the town clocks and the phantom train that always turns up unannounced, surprising the station staff.’  —Chris Fowler in Time Out

The Dark Domain is perhaps the least well-known work on this list. By a European master, this collection, though dating from the early 1900s, has an incredibly contemporary feel. These stories question such things as identity, the nature of creation, even time itself. Grabinski’s work puts me in mind of a blend of Dostoevsky and Knut Hamsun but with a Weird twist. The story entitled ‘The Area’ is astonishingly melancholy and speaks to the soul of the true artist. Be warned: trains abound.

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Cover of The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf. Cover shows a face, half of which is a skill, half of which is a face with black eyes and red lips. The face appears to be made of wax.

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy. – Goodreads

Gotthelf’s The Black Spider is considered to be the first truly Weird work of fiction. I’m not sure if this attribution is entirely accurate given that the story isn’t as strange as one might like, but it’s nonetheless a gripping tale of religious conviction and the destruction of entire ways of life. It concerns a pact made by a headstrong woman with the devil to fulfill an impossible challenge set upon the peasants of the land. From this simple conceit a chain reaction occurs whereby the eponymous creature wreaks havoc and our protagonist is ostracized. If nothing else, it’s an interesting historical document in the annals of dark fiction.

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And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Join HOWL Society on Monday November 22, 2021 to begin discussion!

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