Human Monsters: 5 Books that explore the dark side of our nature
In Good Omens, Terry Pratchett writes :
“I don't see what's so terrific about creating people as people and then gettin' upset cos' they act like people…if you stopped tellin' people it's all sorted out after they're dead, they might try sorting it all out while they're alive."
Truer words have never been spoken. Human nature often leaves something to be desired, and while there is no single answer to the social problems we face, speculative fiction has always provided us with a laboratory of sorts. Here, we can follow our thoughts through to conclusion, safely examining the repercussions of racism and forced birth, corporate ownership of assets, and destruction of our planet. We can imagine worlds where certain naturally-occurring traits are a grounds for dismissal from the tribe and create universes where the disenfranchised are empowered to change their fates.
Studies have shown that consuming fiction strengthens the reader’s ability to feel empathy. We connect to those whose struggles we are made to understand.
Representation matters in this space.
Read that again.
Readers and their struggles as humans are diverse; why should the characters they encounter in the books they read be any different? Often, the most avid readers are the writers of the next generation, and as just about everyone can attest-words are imbued with real power.
Horror has a special place in my heart. It is more heartbreakingly vulnerable than any other genre. I recently wrote a piece for the Horror Writers Association’s Mental Health Initiative in which I examined my feelings on the subject. The conclusion I came to was this: Adversity doesn’t always introduce us to ourselves, but fear does. Fear strips us down to our essential selves, to what we are beneath the layers of social conditioning.
Being better isn’t always about learning – sometimes it’s about unlearning. Horror facilitates this invaluable process.
And on that note, these are my 5 favorite books that address social injustice and how we respond to it.
1. Dolores Claiborne
Brief synopsis: Stephen King is the undisputed master of horror. When people name-drop him, it’s often to mention It or The Shining or maybe The Stand. I have seen less attention devoted to Dolores Claiborne and it’s a shame. Told in a single flow of consciousness, the book tells the tale of an abused woman who finds a job caring for elderly Vera. When her charge winds up dead, Dolores is suspected of having a part to play in her murder.
Why I like it: This examines domestic violence, womanhood, the role of social class, and much more, and it does so in a single flow. Dolores doesn’t get a break. Why should the reader?
Dolores is the kind of woman who works for everything she has and will be damned if she’ll let anyone take that away from her. When she takes a job as a caretaker for a rich woman named Vera, she is well aware of the socioeconomic divide. She keeps her head down and does her job.
It is a surprise therefore when Vera becomes a friend, a confidante, and reveals her own struggles with an unfaithful and unkind husband. Still, she’s the one with the weapon in her hand, raised as if to strike. There is an eyewitness after all.
This is one of those novels that gathers momentum as it goes. Fans of King may lament the lack of the supernatural, but there is a moment when it appears, when worlds are connected. Dolores realizes what she must do in the blink of an eye and begins to formulate a plan that culminates in darkness.
Dolores Claiborne is the book I turn to when people begin to suggest that King cannot write female characters well. It’s been suggested that his heroines are beautiful, thin, delicate creatures, but what could be further from the truth? Case in point-Dolores. She is not thin or good-looking. She is not bestowed with a single gift – she knows how to survive.
At its core, Dolores Claiborne is a celebration of strong women everywhere and responds violently to the notion that they always suffer in silence.
2. Tender is the Flesh
Brief synopsis: Tender is the Flesh is the debut novel from Argentinean writer Agostina Bazterrica. The story revolves around Marcos, a human meat supplier in a society that is reeling from a virus that has contaminated animal flesh. The all-too-human carcasses that are butchered under his direction are never named. They are simply, “the meat.” While it isn’t immediately clear how most consumers of this “special” meat draw the line, one is led to believe that socioeconomics plays into the scenario. Sex with the meat is strictly forbidden, but what happens when Marcos’ boss gifts him a young specimen?
Why I like it: Tender is the Flesh does not feel beyond the realm of possibility. It examines the treatment of women and “sub-human” members of the species. It also takes an unexpected turn in the last few pages when Marcos reconnects with his estranged wife who has been mourning the loss of their child.
Bazterrica does not flinch from the inhuman conditions in which the meat exists. She explains in painstaking detail how their vocal cords are removed so that they cannot cry out as they are stunned and slaughtered. Rather than being portrayed as the evil executioner, Marcos is merely following his trade as it evolves. He once did what he does to humans to cows. He has found a way to survive in a system he despises. He has moments of doubt as some part of himself questions the morality of his chosen line of work, but he does not speak of them.
When he is gifted a young girl as a present for high performance, one is reminded of a reluctant homeowner who notices a stray cat. In the beginning, he keeps her outside and feeds her slop. Eventually, he brings her inside. He keeps her in a room while he is at work, takes measures to protect her, eventually allows her to roam the house at large.
How long can Marcos live with his secret pet though before people begin to see the change in his behavior? He’s making mistakes at work, losing focus, finding more excuses to avoid his sister’s invitations to come to dinner. And he has stopped eating meat altogether.
At its heart, Tender is the Flesh is an exploration of how we define humanity, how we normalize the atrocious, what we do to survive in a broken world, and what compromising our moral compass does to us. It speaks to some of what we endure right here and now, some of what we systemize. It is a warning and we would do well to heed it.
3. The Hacienda
Brief Synopsis: The Hacienda is the debut novel from Mexican-American writer Isabel Cañas. It follows Beatriz, daughter of a revolutionary in Mexico’s war for independence. When she catches the eye of Don Rodolfo Solórzano, she thinks her troubles will soon be over. He is rich, powerful, and often away on business in the capital, leaving his spacious estate for her to preside over. Of course, no one mentioned that the hacienda was haunted. Beatriz must enlist the help of a fallen priest to fight an ancient evil.
Why I like it: Cañas.provides no easy answers. Her ghosts are murderous and remorseless. The deeper story is one of women and what they must do to survive. It is also one that touches upon colorism. As someone with more native blood, Beatriz draws immediate attention for being so much darker than her predecessor. Things take an interesting turn when the purity of the native blood in her veins is what is required to get to the bottom of things.
Of course, she also needs the help of handsome young Padre Andres, who finds himself questioning his own faith. His allegiance to the church is a thing done for safety. The same might be said of Beatriz’s controversial marriage.
When Andres feels something in the old manor during the attempted exorcism, he agrees in secret to help Beatriz, to stay with her through the nights, which are getting harder and harder to survive.
My love for The Hacienda stems from the fact that it’s not your usual ghost story. It is historically situated, laden with real threat, suspenseful to the point of exhaustion. It does what it sets out to do but takes no shortcuts on the way to its unexpected conclusion.
The language is also rich and beautiful and downright engaging. This is a story of injustice, threatened erasure, survival, vindication. It is a story about remember the dead but living for oneself. It is an exploration of what we give to feel safe and what it might take to be happy. In a world where history is seldom presented in a multi-faceted way, books like The Hacienda feel incredibly important.
4. The Last House on Needless Street
Brief Synopsis: The Last House on Needless Street is not Ward’s first novel, but it is the first of her works to garner serious attention. It is a mystery wrapped in a puzzle, bound by a conundrum. It makes no sense at first and it’s easy to want to give up on the strange narrative, which jumps between a handful of speakers. Stick with it and you will be richly rewarded. At the story’s heart are Ted, a strange man-child and Dee, a woman in search of her missing sister. There is also a cat called Olivia. I repeat-stick with it and you will be richly rewarded. I think I’ve said too much already.
Why I like it: To give away what I loved most about this book is to reveal the twists and turns that were such a joy to discover. I will only say that things are not what they seem. And are they ever? If there is one message, it is that we all deal with loss quite differently.
Ward’s writing is engaging and jarring. It is devastating and invasive. It buries its claws in you and drags you along for the ride. There are elements that must simply be accepted as you read. The reader is deposited into the middle of the action, left to piece together a real story out of puzzle pieces that may really be there or may be figments of something’s imagination.
This novel is a dense forest of concepts that seem to grow into one another in the shadows. As more light is she, you’ll see distinct branches, leaves, the evidence of deep root systems. The perspective is what makes this one worth reading. The themes it tackles are heavy ones: a lost child, loneliness, hopelessness, faltering faith in authority figures. It’s a story that won’t soon leave you.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale
Brief Synopsis: While The Handmaid’s Tale is classified as science-fiction, and while Atwood is solidly a sci-fi writer, her subject matter here bleeds into the realm of horror. This tale imagines a dystopian world where women who have proved themselves fertile are conscripted to be handmaids, bearing the children of couples who cannot conceive. The main character, who we learn is called June, is referred to only as “Offred,” specifying that she is the property of Fred, the man who owns her. She dreams of escape, but with armed guards on every corner and a partner who watches her every move, it is next to impossible. Can she escape Gilead or is she forever condemned to suffer under the yoke of the theocracy?
Why I like it: One detail that is sometimes overlooked in The handmaid’s Tale is that the birth rate is declining. This begs the question – do the ends justify the means? Should we force women to have children in order to save our species? Atwood does not shy away from portraying true suffering in this one. The parallels with our own society demand that we pay attention, read between the lines, and ask the hard questions.
What I loved most about The Handmaid’s Tale was how it was told. Gilead is gone. Remnants of the civilization are being unearthed. Questions are being asked. The story of one figure in particular is being told long after the events that unfolded.
The implication is clear – we are not immune from falling. What will future generations say about our own draconian measures to control women? This novel has predicted much of what has transpired in American society. It shows us how we are one another’s undoing, how cooperation is essential to defeat darkness, how religious fervor can dismantle our very humanity.