Scary Fiction [BTBA 2018]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Katarzyna (Kasia) Bartoszyńska, an English professor at Monmouth College, a translator (from Polish to English), most recently of Zygmunt Bauman’s and Stanisław Obirek’s _Of God and Man (Polity), and a former bookseller at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago.

When was the last time a book really scared you?

Every October, my partner lines up a slate of scary movies for us to watch in preparation for Halloween. I am not a fan of horror—I enjoy the ritual of these yearly forays into fright cinema, but I don’t really like the movies that much. Most of them really aren’t scary: once established, the conceits rapidly grow stale, and the movies become a tedious process of getting to the inevitable conclusion. The ones that do work tend to be more upsetting than frightening—The Neighbors scared the shit out of me, but it wasn’t really a pleasurable fear; more like a mild trauma, which has left me with a flicker of nervousness every time the doorbell rings at night. There are exceptions—this last year, for instance, I loved The Babadook, which coupled suspense and startling gotcha! scenes with an underlying existential brooding over the terrors of maternal ambivalence and stress. But overall, I am just not that into horror flicks.

Thanks to BTBA, however, I have dipped my toes into the water of terrifying fiction, and it turns out that I love it. Fiction produces all kinds of emotions, but usually they are more of a slow burn—these books send your adrenaline soaring. You read with breath quickened and muscles tensed. Yet, neither of the two books that I want to tell you about feels gratuitous, or sensationalistic. They’re pure rush, but they earn their effects honestly.


Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left is a taut, thrilling little terror, part Shining, part House of Leaves. A man goes to the country with his wife and daughter to write, and strange things start happening. The language is straightforward, and the pacing is perfect. The story is creepy, but not upsetting—a purely pleasurable fear. It’s a novel you can burn through in one breathless sitting (it probably takes about the same amount of time as it would take to watch your average horror film!), best enjoyed in a quiet corner of the house on a dark evening or cloudy afternoon.


Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, by contrast, is a deeply disturbing tale. The terrors it holds have the tinge of coercion: it’s a book you read with your heart in your throat, pushing on through its looser pacing, though you hardly dare to hope for a cheery resolution. The story is opaque: a woman and boy chat in a hospital, the boy pressing the woman to tell her story, seeking answers to his own mysterious condition. As the details are gradually revealed, a terrifying picture emerges through the haze, with the reader sharing the woman’s growing sense of panic. Although it is theoretically possible to read it in one sitting, I could not—I simply had to take a break. In contrast to Kehlmann’s delicious creepiness, Schweblin offers an anxious, gut-wrenching tale. It is just this side of pleasurable—in the midst of your queasiness you find yourself thinking—oh man, this is goooood—and it definitely leaves a mark that will linger long after reading.

If you tend, like me, toward the more intellectual, contemplative reads, check these two out, and remind yourself of fiction’s more visceral powers.

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