Chelsea G. Summers’ first novel A Certain Hunger is published December 1. She shares five books that make you feel uncomfortable under your skin, writing from Sweden, where she’s migrated: “As a kid, I had an impassioned, vexed relationship with an anthology of witch stories. I’d read a few, then get freaked out and leave the book in a mossy hollowed-out log up by the creek in back of our house. Then a few days later, I’d retrieve the book, read more stories, and the cycle would begin anew. I have a thing about visceral ambivalence, that deep-down frisson in my guts that comes enjoyment and disgust in equal measure. Everybody’s got a thing, and mine is feeling slightly queasy. I’ve selected five books that I know intimately and, with one exception, have loved a long time. There are many I could have chosen (Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven come to mind)—and I love all my gross darlings—but in the end I picked five books that I will eternally “stan” in all their disturbing beauty.”
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
More or less every day I think about the choker of rubies that resembles an “extraordinarily precious slit throat” in the titular story of this Angela Carter collection. This phrase, a juicy wedding of Carter’s baroque language with arterial spray, is body-squirming perfection, and it epitomizes the discomfiting joy I love to experience. Because I’m a weirdo.
Jane Ciabattari: Carter once noted that the latent content of traditional fairy tales is “violently sexual.” She explores that sexuality in The Bloody Chamber, most explicitly, perhaps, in the title story, set in a castle in fin-de-siecle Mont St Michel, where its heroine discovers the secret chamber where her new husband, The Marquis, fulfilled his bloody sexual proclivities. Did Carter influence your character Dorothy Daniels?
Chelsea G. Summers: I owe a throbbing, giant debt to Carter’s baroque prose. In Carter’s language, more is more—except when she decides it’s not. Carter’s intensely, lavishly embroidered syntax gave me a kind of blank check for Dorothy’s voice, which is sometimes so purple it hurts. I fell in love with Carter’s style before I fell in love with the roiling, raging feminist subtext. However, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t also acknowledge that Carter’s feminist revisioning helped me to enact my own. Carter’s stories wrest violently misogynist stories from their patriarchal clutches and reconfigure these narratives in violently feminist ways; likewise, I took inspiration from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in writing A Certain Hunger.
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
I’ve feared rereading this book because I loved it so passionately the first time. A violently unreliable narrator, gratuitous intellectualism, a snaky plot and luscious recipes—Debt to Pleasure is the book I wish I was smart enough to write.
JC: Lanchester intersperses his food-loving narrator Tarquin’s descriptions of dishes like blinis with sour cream and caviar, Queen of Puddings, and a delicate and dangerous wild mushrooms on toast with tales of mayhem. What connection does he make you see between appetite and murder?
CGS: The beautiful thing about Debt to Pleasure is its inescapable feeling of walking a tightrope. You know that things are going to get extremely messy in no small part because the prose is so constraining, so meticulous, and so tightly wound. In ordering the first half of the book, Lanchester uses the conceit of a menu (and Tarquin dissertates upon “menu” in gorgeous, spectacular sentence of more than a hundred words). Menus limit choices; they give form to one’s appetite. The flipside of this concept is that without a menu, one’s appetite runs rampant, and one will eat everything, no matter how insalubrious. Where does appetite run if unchecked? My book goes there.
The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes
Suburbia has rarely been as disquieting as it is in Safety of Objects—Barbie dolls, Nintendo, kitchen islands, that rubber tree in the corner, familiar things are made eldritch, faintly menacing, untrustworthy and new.
JC: Which of the stories in this 1990 collection felt the most disturbing to you?
CGS: Oh wow. That’s a good question. The aspect of SoO that clings to me is the physicality. While each story centers on transgressing invisible webs of power—beleaguered Frank and the mean teen girls in “Bullet Catcher,” the eponymous Chunky in her nakedly erotic story, the crack-smoking parents in “Adults Alone,” and even the muffled, unfulfilled lives of dolls in “A Real Doll”—each story makes those transgressions land squarely in the flesh. I’m the kind of reader who’s usually bored by fiction about people walking around, talking and growing and losing. I need a dead body or magical elements (or a deeply untrustworthy narrator) to keep me interested. Safety of Objects makes the quotidian eldritch and lays bare the treacherous terrain of everyday life.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
There are books that you read, enjoy, and never think about again—and then there is Geek Love, a book that crawls into your brain and lives a feral life, scuttling about your dreams and popping into consciousness with crystal clarity.
JC: The Binewskis Fabulon carnival is populated by hybrid offspring they genetically alter by using a variety of drugs. Geek Love came out in 1989. What makes it so enduring?
CGS: I think you answered your own question: carnival; hybrid offspring; drugs. What more do you need? I don’t trust people who don’t love Geek Love. It’s the kind of book that weeds the true, dyed-in-the-wool weirdos from the wannabe freaks. You almost always come to Geek Love sideways, through a friend’s recommendation or a stray comment. It’s never seen a screen adaptation, and it’s never gone out of print. Geek Love is a book that tugs at memory like a dream, but above all, Geek Love is about learning to value your own trauma and your own disabilities, about finding your own family, and about recognizing the strange, ethereal beauty that only you, in all your infinite and unpalatable oddities, can create.
Last Woman Standing by Amy Gentry
Traversing the worlds of tech, stand-up comedy and Hollywood, Last Woman Standing is a risky, bold, steely, and ultimately empathetic novel that reveals the excruciating layers of female friendship and bad male behavior. I’m deeply enamored of this remarkable book that deftly keeps the reader in a constantly unstable relationship with its characters until the surprising end.
JC: How does Gentry evoke empathy as this revenge-swapping duo of Dana and Amanda push the limits?
CGS: As time passes, I love Last Woman Standing more and more. Gentry weaves a difficult, fraught, and bloody union between Dana and Amanda that, for all its hyperbole, feels like actual ride-or-die female friendship. When I was writing Certain Hunger, I was surprised to discover how much my book was animated by a bond between two female friends (for my novel, Dorothy and Emma Absinthe); I didn’t plan it, but there it was. Last Woman Standing came out after I’d finished my book and reading Gentry’s novel helped to explain my own book to me. I’ve long suspected that the most important relationships many women have are those they have with their friends, and Gentry’s book plumbs the perils and probes the payoffs of these friendships while feeling very real.