Tell-tale hearts

The author of "A Prayer for the Dying" picks five tales of creeping madness.

Published March 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

As a lifelong connoisseur of horror writing, I find that little appeals to me as much as the inexorable spiral into madness or evil as described by what at first seems a trustworthy narrator. Poe was the first master of the genre, and since then all kinds of fine writers have tackled it. Noir giant James M. Cain specialized in the good man temporarily driven bad by his love for a woman, and Jim Thompson took it a step further, with characters who slowly revealed (and creepily reveled in) their capacity for evil. Here though, I've chosen five writers using the first person to describe the anger, doubt and madness behind their women narrators:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1962/1971)

"It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs." Well, hello to you too. Esther chatters and sulks at times like Holden Caulfield, but underneath it there's a lot farther drop. When she levels her disgust at the people trying to love and help her, the reader gets a feel for that free fall, even without adding on Plath's own pathology. Extra points for the Jesus allegory, implicitly comparing her tribulations to crucifixion.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972)

"I can't believe I'm on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south ..." Atwood has been gloomy in other books, but here she isolates and then breaks her heroine down to raw nerves, jettisoning the entire world to find herself. A back-to-nature Gothic.

Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman (1979)

Like Atwood's narrator, Braverman's has chosen to confront everything wrong with her life simultaneously, including a sad habit of ingesting every drug that floats through her L.A. neighborhood and giving in to asshole boyfriends. One of the great deadpan junk books, along with Denis Johnson's famous "Angels." "The Enterprise was run by Captain James T. Kirk. Gerald dismissed him as meaningless."

Suspicious River by Laura Kasischke (1996)

Kasischke's Leila drifts into prostitution just for something to do -- to fulfill some unknown need she can't quite fathom. And it's hard to say -- for Leila and for the reader -- whether she's enjoying her power or it's draining her. The writing careers from the sensual and poetic to the flattened affect of Chandler: "There are different kinds of men, I thought then, but not many different kinds." Face it, bad things are gonna happen. But you know what? She doesn't care.

The Devil's Chimney by Anne Landsman (1997)

In the middle of nowhere in South Africa this old crazy drunk spins her memories, mixing things up. A girl disappeared, some other woman was murdered years ago. What the hell is she talking about? Landsman gives her wicked asides, while all the time she's trying to charm us. Unreliable, unpredictable, funny and mean as hell.

And that's one thing all five narrators share: how they surprise us with their angry insanity. Flannery O'Connor said the best way to get to readers was to distract them, then hit them over the head. These five do that brilliantly, suckering us in with the intimacy and warmth of the first person and then chilling us. Edgar Poe would be jealous.

By Stewart O'Nan

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