Hey there! Happy Friday! Liz here, and I’m psyched to have our friend Art Taylor here today. He’s always got something interesting to say! Today he’s talking about books that make you uncomfortable…Take it away, Art!
Come In, Sit Down, Make Yourself… Uncomfortable?
Last week, The Wickeds hosted a holiday edition of “What We’re Reading”—balancing books they got for Christmas against some they still needed to finish reading from 2018.
As I commented, I was in the same boat myself—still about halfway through Tana French’s The Secret Place as the New Year rang in. The book is great, but it’s looong! (I’m still reading it as this post goes up.)
But meanwhile, I also snuck in a book I got from my parents for Christmas—a first edition of Stanley Ellin’s 1972 novel Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, a book that (to be honest) I’d hinted that I wanted.
Ellin is probably my favorite short story writer, but I’ve only read one of his novels, The Eighth Circle, and I wanted to read more. This one caught my attention after reading a post that my friend Martin Edwards wrote about it, part of his series on forgotten books.
The premise of Mirror, Mirror is intriguing: The main character, Peter Hibben, finds in his bathroom “a large, fleshy, terrifyingly lifeless woman on the floor, apparently shot to death by the gun lying beside her.” He recognizes the gun, doesn’t recognize the woman, but as he admits, “trembling, sweaty, nauseating logic tells me that since the lady’s remains repose on my bathroom floor in my own locked, barred, closed-circuit-TV-guarded apartment on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, and since she is semi-clothed in a way that makes it clear she had not simply stepped in off the street, there could have been some connection between us. With emphasis on the physical.”
A locked room mystery then, and as Martin Edwards described it, a “whowasdunin” too. And the book’s structure proves fascinating. As Peter struggles to remember (or admit?) who the victim is and his own role in the death, a fantasy or dream plays out in that bathroom: his therapist and a lawyer (also his ex-wife’s new husband) taking opposing sides in a trial scene, interrogating Peter as well as his family members and others, each new round of questions delving into some new chapter from his past and trying to figure out the truth of what’s happened.
It’s all very cleverly orchestrated—brilliantly so even. The novel includes a lot of sprightly humor, despite that body center stage. And from fairly early on, the book indulges some sexual shenanigans, which seem playful and suggestive and risqué in equal measure.
…until they aren’t anymore.
The book is short, novella-length maybe, and I basically sped through it—spurred on by wondering who the woman was and how this crazy “trial” was going to play out, what turn the plot would take next. Right up to the end, I felt myself pulled further and further along by the twists and revelations, but it eventually went places that left me uncomfortable, I’d even say disturbed. Still, I couldn’t stop reading it, even through the final pages when I found myself stuck with this unpleasant feeling—shocked and sad—a feeling it took me a while to shake.
Despite my admiration of Ellin’s work generally and this novel too in many ways, Mirror, Mirror is not a book I’d necessarily recommend to others—not widely at least and not without caution.
But I’m bringing it up here because I’m curious: Like many of us, I read along a wide spectrum of crime fiction—cozy and traditional, domestic suspense, psychological suspense, thrillers, noir—and as a writer, my own stories sometimes range from light to dark. But I often wonder where the lines are for readers—myself included— and what might compel any of us to cross those lines. So: What novels or stories have you read that drew you in and kept you reading despite some aspect of the book you found uncomfortable or even unpleasant? And did you ultimately regret reading them?
I’m not sure I’ll be adding all answers to my TBR list (!!) but I’m interested to see where the discussion goes! And thanks to Liz for having me on today.
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won three additional Agatha Awards, the Anthony, two Macavitys, and three consecutive Derringers. His latest story is “English 398: Fiction Workshop” from the July/August 2018 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.
Welcome back, Art! I’m not sure I’ve read anything like that recently. When my precocious-reader son had moved on to Tom Clancy at age 12, I had to pre-screen the books. One included women’s breasts being cut off. I told him he’d have to wait until he was 18 for that one . I hope he never went back to it (he’s 32 and married now…).
Those kinds of pre-screenings are key. I’m sorry to admit I’ve never read Tom Clancy, but wouldn’t have expected that in his books, gotta admit…. We’re pre-screening for Dash at a different level, most recently whether any of the Christmas books or movies cast any doubt on a certain someone from the North Pole…. (Easier at this age.)
Great post, Art. DEFENDING JACOB was a little like that for me, but there was another one..oh gosh, I can’t remember the title. But I do remember thinking, “Just how much worse can this get?” while simultaneously being unable to put the book down. I’ll have to check my Goodreads list and see if I can find it.
Defending Jacob was on my shelf for a long while, came highly recommended, and yet somehow I never got to it. (And not sure where it is now!) Let me know if you remember the other one. Interested to hear! (I may check your Goodreads myself too, see if I can spot it!!
I do, actually, recommend Defending Jacob. I had that same “pulled through the book” feel Liz did. And it was somehow worse because it takes place in the neighborhood I was living in when I read it and I knew all those places… My husband hated it, btw. Chacun a son gout.
I keep thinking that “chacun a son gout” is saying something not very nice about your husband…. like he should get gout? maybe because of his bad taste in books? (I know that’s not it, of course….)
LOL. Translation from the French, “chacun a son gout” “may your bad taste give you gout.”
I looked and I can’t remember it! But it was disturbing.
Hi, Art! Now I can’t decide if I should read Mirror, Mirror of not. While I loved The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh there were aspects of it that made me uncomfortable. At the same time she’s such an amazing writer and even the details of the setting added to the atmosphere of the book. I found it impossible to put down.
Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it…. LynDee and I were talking about this (she read an advance of my post here) and she said, “Now I want to read it!” And I said, “No, you probably don’t.”
But I need to check out Laura McHugh’s books. Met her at Bouchercon. Thanks for the extra recommendation!
Many years ago I read a book which makes me uncomfortable to this day. It was “Let’s go Play at the Adams'” by Mendal Johnson. PLEASE DON’T READ IT!
Thanks for warning me away, Carol! (I have to at least glance at the plot description on Amazon now, though….)
Um… Yeah, that looks unpleasant….. The subtitle on the edition I saw on Amazon was “A Novel of Lingering Horror,” so…. Ugh.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum was one of those can’t-put-down, this-is-horrible books for me. I’m pretty sure the version I read had a different cover than it does now, because if I’d had any clue the book was a horror novel I wouldn’t have picked it up. And yet, once I started I had to keep reading. I would say don’t read it, but doesn’t that just make people want to read it more? At any rate, it’s disturbing, and it becomes only more so when you get to the author’s note at the end and realize it’s based on a true story.
Yikes, yeah—I think that was mentioned in some of the comments I saw on the book Carol talked about above. And you’re right on the cover and clues you might get from it. The edition of Mirror, Mirror that I read was the first edition, where the one pictured above has a review blurb on it–one which gives a better preview of what a reader might be in for, at least a glimpse. Thanks for chiming in here!
Im intrigued by Mirror, Mirror, but sounds like I shouldn’t read it. Thanks for the warning.
Im going to mention a surprising one. Robert Crais. I have a love/hate relationship with his books. Some truly are great. Others are average at best. And he pads his word count with so much foul language it can be a turnoff. His second book was especially bad, and it kept me from going back to him for over a decade. But I keep listening to them because when he is on, he is great. And he is such a big name I feel like I should know about all of them. (Yes, he is one of the authors I cycle through on audio.)
That is a surprise! But good points about his work. And I imagine listening on audio makes the language stand out even more….
Hi Art! Your question made me think of two books: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist. Both brilliant but I can’t recommend that people read A Little Life because it is so emotionally grueling – I still feel depressed when I think about it and I read it ages ago! Whereas Let the Right One was so blood-soaked that it was hard to read, but at the same time I couldn’t stop reading because it was positively fresh and powerful. Sorry, neither one a mystery but I understand your predicament with Mirror, Mirror.
Thanks for these two, Shari. I think Kris Zgorski mentioned A Little Life before—with the same kinds of comments. I saw the movie version of Let the Right One in, and I know that Tara has the book on her shelves—wondering if she’s read too. But I think this is exactly the kinds of things I was thinking about…..
Indeed, I felt the exact same way about A LITTLE LIFE. It really is a brilliant book and deserves every accolade it has – and will continue to – receive. Words like “classic” are not hyperbole in its case. HOWEVER, I simply can’t recommend it to people, because the depression I entered after reading it was beyond anything I can even describe. I have had some people reach out to me when they were going to read it – without any influence on my part – and I think I am at about 50/50 on whether the folks decided to plow on or not. But 100% of those folks who did continue on say they are glad they did, but that they wouldn’t be recommending it to anyone either. Make of that what you will. (I hear a TV series is in the works and frankly, I have NO IDEA how that will work, but I don’t think I can risk putting myself in that situation again.)
Thanks for chiming in, Kristopher—I thought I’d remembered correctly you talking about the same book, but I didn’t remember you talking about the full fallout of reading it (the extent to which you’re describing it here). I find myself intrigued by the book (again) but also wary of it too—in equal measure. Appreciate you sharing your thoughts!
I have not read the book yet, mostly because I was so disturbed (in a good way) by the movie!
Hello Art! I just finished The Life She was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It was a recommendation by our shared editor and really was wonderful. That being said, I did have to take frequent breaks whilst I read it because I was so overcome with worry for one of the POV characters. I couldn’t help going back to it but I found myself with my hands over my eyes tryign to block out some of the imagined scenes. VIvid, compelling and demanding.
Thanks, Jessie! This isn’t one I’ve heard of, but I’ll check it out. And yes, I’ve had other books where I’ve taken breaks and then come back to it (as opposed to pushing, pushing ahead). That can help too, good to mention.
Thought-provoking, Art. I try not to be critical of working authors but I am going to mention The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I loved The Secret History, which was disturbing but riveting, and I’ve read it multiple times. I pushed myself through The Little Friend and was bothered by it for days. .
Yep, Ramona, I can see that. (And understand your hesitation about being critical of other authors, but the good news, of course, is Tartt’s probably a safe choice here. Not hardly struggling in the sales dept., I mean!) 🙂
I have two books to mention here. One is American Psycho. The killings were so disturbing and gruesome that I distinctly remember reading it while eating lunch and honestly thinking I was going to throw up. But I recognized he was doing that on purpose, as a larger theme of the book. I was also younger when I read it. I think today I’d probably have given up on it. The second is The Road. I was so deeply disturbed by that book, but it was more a profound, scary sadness. And it’s such a great book that I had to keep going. I consider my reaction to that book a strength of the writing, though. And finally, in general, I have a very hard time reading books that involve rape. Even if the book treats the subject with delicacy and the writing and purpose is good (and a lot of times this is NOT the case), I really just can’t do it.
Yep on The Road—another one that I should’ve thought of myself. Haven’t read American Psycho. And good point on books about, involving rape. (See a couple of the books already mentioned above…. Or rather, don’t see them, I guess, but you know what I mean….)
I can’t think of a book but I had to stop watching Criminal Minds years ago. I still miss the cast and character but I couldn’t stand the weekly creepiness. Other shows like the C.S.I.’s or the NCIS’s have a few episodes like that but not every week! I do remember that I stopped getting Readers’ Digest Condensed Books because they usually had a terrorist or drug runner story. Have to admit I prefer cozy mysteries.
Hi, Sally — Thanks for opening this up toward other media. I haven’t watched much of Criminal Minds, but know enough about it to understand what you mean. There’s a reason so many people are fans of cozy mysteries—you’re not hardly alone!
I read a Karin Slaughter book, PRETTY GIRLS, that was absolutely brutal. As the mother of a teen girl, I do NOT need to read about teen girls being raped, tortured, and murdered. That book still haunts me. Never again.
I’ve heard from several people who can’t read Karin’s books. She’s a terrific writer, but her subject matter does tend dark…..
Great discussion, Art! One book in this category for me is Bull Mountain. It’s brilliantly written and has a Southern gothic vibe I really appreciated. But the violence, one brutal scene in particular along with its aftermath, was really unsettling and stayed with me. It’s definitely not a book I’d recommend for everyone.
Bull Mountain was a finalist for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel along with my own book, so I got to know Brian then. He’s a fine writer, as you said, and a fascinating person too, but violence and the Southern gothic do indeed go together hand in hand, and…. I know what you mean!
For me It would be Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. It is brilliant, but I couldn’t in all conscience recommend it to anyone. It is truly disturbing – at least I found it so,
I read that one several years ago—brilliant indeed but disturbing as well. Some of the turns it takes, the places it goes… Whew!
If something ends too grossly, I post a warning at the start of the review along the lines of “Unless you are REALLY into (whatever), this is NOT the book for you.” I might give it stars for good writing, but it won’t get five. My memory for titles is waning (I did read over 300 books last year) so I cannot name one for you. May you have a blessed day. Barbara
Thanks, Barbara — and good to give readers that kind of heads-up, I can imagine, especially if the content is controversial in some way. Thanks for commenting!
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