Potter, Norrell, and....?
August 2, 2009 10:10 PM   Subscribe

Suggest absorbing fiction about mysterious England.

This is purely a mood-driven question. I want to read more books that combine ideally British or possibly Continental European settings, the past (anywhere from sword-and-board to the 1950s), and perhaps some element of the supernatural. To give you some idea what I mean, here are the books that are close, but already read:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Shelley's Frankenstein
The Harry Potter Books (which are really close, I suppose, but a bit too youthful for me. Actually, truth be told, I haven't read them, but I made the insane decision to experience the saga from the movies and have my wife fill in the gaps.)

Okay, so I'm making you all work as literary Pandora Radio. And yes, it's somewhat similar to this question, which is an excellent start, but my peccadilloes are a touch different. Think you're up to it, chaps?
posted by Doctor Suarez to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. It's the Arthurian legend. it's fantastic.
posted by rtha at 10:13 PM on August 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Why not add another classic to the ones you've listed?
posted by cerebus19 at 10:16 PM on August 2, 2009

The Harry Potter Books
Seriously! If you have only seen the movies, you cannot begin to appreciate how smart and funny and dark and awesome the books are.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:25 PM on August 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also... Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is a parody of supernatural horror 1790's bestseller The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, so you might like both of them.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:30 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most of Orwell. I'd particularly suggest "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" and "Down and Out in Paris and London".
posted by pompomtom at 10:31 PM on August 2, 2009

A. S. Byatt, Possession
posted by scody at 10:39 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and Lord John mysteries.
posted by brujita at 10:40 PM on August 2, 2009

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone's Fall are so good and probably fit your taste.
posted by Free word order! at 11:08 PM on August 2, 2009

Little, Big by John Crowley.
posted by five toed sloth at 11:19 PM on August 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well, technically a British setting since it's colonial America, but anyway fantastic: M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party and Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.
posted by nicwolff at 11:40 PM on August 2, 2009

You might enjoy the ghost stories of MR James.
posted by WPW at 11:42 PM on August 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Tim Powers, "Declare" and "The Anubis Gates".
posted by OolooKitty at 11:45 PM on August 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

And, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is set partly in another dimension's England and partly in ours. The first one's excellent, the second one very good, and the third one meh.
posted by nicwolff at 11:46 PM on August 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

How about Wilkie Collins? You may like The Woman in White [also at Wikipedia]. I'm not too familiar with the rest of his works, but he's written other novels and stories, too. Here's the first volume in a collection of just Collins stories: The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Wilkie Collins: Volume 1.

And you may like J. Sheridan Le Fanu. His claim to fame was writing mystery/horror and ghost stories and he was a big influence on Bram Stoker (they were both Irish), among other writers of that era. The Wikipedia page linked above has a good rundown of his major works.

Hey, cool, it looks like Project Gutenberg has a bunch of free books online for Wilkie Collins (including The Woman in White) and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Might want to check out PG for some of the other older books as well.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 12:09 AM on August 3, 2009

The Matthew Shardlake series by CJ Sansom.

A hunchbacked lawyer solving mysteries in and around London during the reign of King Henry VIII. Very good reads
posted by TheOtherGuy at 12:54 AM on August 3, 2009

1. Recommendations

Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda. 1894. Okay, there's no supernatural elements, but it is a really great rollicking adventure with an Englishman who decides to visit Ruritania, a (fictional) European country, and gets embroiled in all sorts of politics and swashbuckling and adventure.

Naomi Novik, Temeraire (which may be called His Majesty's Dragon where you are). First in a series. It's England at the time of the Napoleonic wars, but there are dragons. Wars and politics and so on are going on as usual, but both France and England (and a lot of other countries) have a fleet of dragons. A naval captain recovers a dragon egg, and then various adventures ensue. The whole series is lovely; the British edition has nicer covers (woodcut-style rather than Fantasy Painting Of A Dragon style).

G.K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday. 1908 (both published and set around then). A man becomes embroiled in an anarchist plot; there is a council where everyone takes the name of a day; there's a trip to Paris, tunnels, various unmaskings and peril, and some supernatural elements. Chesterton's Father Brown stories might also be worth a try.

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist. 1926. It's set in a country named Dorimare rather than England per se, but Mirrlees was English and Dorimare reads as English-esque. Lud-in-the-Mist is a city that borders on the Land of Faerie; its inhabitants furiously try to ignore this fact and prevent it from affecting them. But illicit faerie fruit gets smuggled into to the country, the smuggler has to be found and stopped, and problems/adventures/etc arise.

2. Maybes

T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (or The Once and Future King, which includes SitS plus more), as mentioned above. It covers the early years of King Arthur as tutored by Merlin, with lots of charming 1930s jokes.

I could never be bothered with Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, but you mention Lord of the Rings so you're more patient than I am, and might enjoy 'em.

Maybe Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray? Soul-selling and debauchery and such, veeeery 1890s and less close in tone to the books you mention, but fun.

You sound moderately opposed to YA books, but if you're in the mood for some, Diana Wynne Jones is really excellent (and unlike the Potter there aren't movies you can watch instead) - maybe Witch Week or The Lives of Christopher Chant to begin with. Interconnecting parallel Englands, authorities whose jurisdiction extends across several of them, enchanters in attractive dressing gowns.

Lord Dunsany is Irish rather than English but is charming; for example the short stories in the Book of Wonder.

Quite an odd one, but maybe Jane Eyre? Little supernatural content, but it's got that sort of gothic-novel heightened-importance-of-everything feel to it, appropriately-timed rainstorms, and so on.
posted by severalbees at 2:02 AM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wuthering Heights. All the short stories of Arthur Machen.
posted by communicator at 2:48 AM on August 3, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Not about the supernatural, exactly. One of the other amazon reviewers really nailed it with "Ruby [the girl who's the main character] is consumed with magical thinking."
posted by amillionbillion at 3:02 AM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

You said England, but then you said British, so I think it's fair to mention the man who I believe most fits your characterization. He was probably the greatest fantasist and fairy-tale writer of the British Isles of the last century and a half, at least by my estimation and the estimation of many, many other writers; though he is little-known today, he was a friend to everyone from Walt Whitman, Henry Longfellow and Mark Twain to Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He was Lewis Carroll's mentor, and convinced him enthusiastically to edit and develop a collection of his playful but 'unimportant' set of sketches called Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and put them to print. He wrote largely pagan-seeming fairy tales which had little beyond a strangely distant and lofty spirituality to do with Christianity, and yet he was a theologian and minister; many seem to see him as a kind of mystic - C. S. Lewis said of him, "he is my master," noting that this was probably an understatement - and J. R. R. Tolkien saw him as the founder and father of the whole genre within which he aspired to work. In fact, Tolkien was not alone; Madeleine L'Engle, author of the fantastic and wonderful Wrinkle In Time books, thought he was one of the great novelists of the past few centuries, and G. K. Chesterton said that one of his novels "made a difference to my whole existence."

The man of whom I am speaking is George MacDonald, a Scottish minister who wrote poetry and somewhat fantastical stories which seem to be allegorical sketches, although I've yet to actually understand what any of them actually mean. I only love them because they're beautiful and mysterious, and they have the elements which you seem to be seeking. Here, I'll give you the first six paragraphs from what might be his finest work, Lilith:
I had just finished my studies at Oxford, and was taking a brief holiday from work before assuming definitely the management of the estate. My father died when I was yet a child; my mother followed him within a year; and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.

I had made little acquaintance with the history of my ancestors. Almost the only thing I knew concerning them was, that a notable number of them had been given to study. I had myself so far inherited the tendency as to devote a good deal of my time, though, I confess, after a somewhat desultory fashion, to the physical sciences. It was chiefly the wonder they woke that drew me. I was constantly seeing, and on the outlook to see, strange analogies, not only between the facts of different sciences of the same order, but between physical hypotheses and suggestions glimmering out of the metaphysical dreams into which I was in the habit of falling. I was at the same time much given to a premature indulgence of the impulse to turn hypothesis into theory. Of my mental peculiarities there is no occasion to say more.

The house as well as the family was of some antiquity, but not description of it is necessary to the understanding of my narrative. It contained a fine library, whose growth began before the invention of printing, and had continued to my own time, greatly influenced, of course, by changes of taste and pursuit. Nothing surely can more impress upon a man the transitory nature of possession than his succeeding to an ancient property! Like a moving panorama mine has passed from before many eyes, and is now slowly flitting from before my own.

The library, although duly considered in many alterations of the house and additions to it, had nevertheless, like an encroaching state, absorbed one room after another until it occupied the greater part of the ground floor. Its chief room was large, and the walls of it were covered with books almost to the ceiling; the rooms into which it overflowed were of various sizes and shapes, and communicated in modes as various - by doors, by open arches, by short passages, by steps up and steps down.

In the great room I mainly spent my time, reading books of science, old as well as new; for the history of the human mind in relation to supposed knowledge was what most of all interested me. Ptolemy, Dante, the two Bacons, and Boyle were even more to me than Darwin or Maxwell, as so much nearer the vanished van breaking into the dark of ignorance.

In the evening of a gloomy day of August I was sitting in my usual place, my back to one of the windows, reading. It had rained the greater part of the morning and afternoon, but just as the sun was setting, the clouds parten in front of him, and he shone into the room. I rose and looked out of the window. In the centre of the great lawn the feathering top of the fountain column was filled with his red glory. I turned to resume my seat, when my eye was caught by the same glory on the one picture in the room - a portrait, in a sort of niche or little shrine sunk for it in the expanse of book-filled shelves. I knew it as the likeness of one of my ancestors, but had never even wondered why it hung there alone, and not in the gallery, or one of the great rooms, among the other family portraits. The direct sunlight brought out the painting wonderfully; for the first time I seemed to see it, and for the first time it seemed to respond to my look. With my eyes full of the light reflected from it, something, I cannot tell what, made me turn and cast a glance to the farther end of the room, when I saw, or seemed to see, a tall figure reaching up a hand to a bookshelf. The next instant, my vision apparently rectified by the comparative dusk, I saw no one, and concluded that my optic nerves had been momentarily affected from within...
I love this book, though, again, I can't really make heads or tails of it; it's clear already from this brief passage that one gets the feeling that something ominous and yet mysterious and frighteningly beautiful looms behind his writing.

A few other suggestions within this genre:

Watership Down, by Richard Adams, is the great English ecological fairy-tale, but it is so much more: a mystical view of life, a treatise on leadership, and even a parade of cute bunnies. (Okay, not that last one. Really not that last one. If you can picture heroic rabbits... well, just read the damned thing; by the time you're done, you'll just know that rabbits must be heroic.) Really a fantastic and joyful book, and one of my absolute favorites.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, was not originally as those of us who grew up with the (admittedly great) movie may remember it; it was actually a German story which was translated very well into English. Also, it was a good deal longer and more adventurous. I really got lost inside this book when I read it; it's that kind. I really highly recommend it; it is full of many more interesting puzzles and twists than can be fit into the movie.
posted by koeselitz at 3:35 AM on August 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams, mostly fit your criteria. (For that matter, so does the fourth book of the Hitchhiker's trilogy: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.)
posted by milquetoast at 3:56 AM on August 3, 2009

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca!
posted by oinopaponton at 4:30 AM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

You'll probably love China Miéville's young adult novel, Un Lun Dun
posted by reptile at 4:32 AM on August 3, 2009

Alan Garner, of children's classics The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath fame; Red Shift for slightly older young people; the recent Strandloper and Thursbitch for adults.
posted by Abiezer at 4:45 AM on August 3, 2009

The Mists of Avalon by Miriam Zimmer Bradley, which treats the Arthur legend as a story of the change from paganism to christianity. There are sequels, but not as good as the first one.

Also Avalon (another treatment of Arthur, in which he's a peripheral and historic character) and Green Darkness, a speculative historic fiction about the actual find of a walled woman, by Anya Seton
posted by nax at 5:53 AM on August 3, 2009

Second the Alan Garner, especially _The Weirdstone of Brisingamen_, which, although definitely for young readers, has a very real sense of menace (and some amazing set pieces).

_Little, Big_ is set in New England, rather than England, but it is well worth reading nevertheless.

William Hope Hodgson was a terrific horror writer somewhere between Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft (if Hodgson hadn't died in WWI he might be better remembered than Lovecraft). The Carnacki stories are very fun.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:02 AM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is an adventure story set in a hidden underground realm within London, populated by figures of myth and fairy-tale.
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:06 AM on August 3, 2009

I'd try The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, great story and one of the last gothic horrors, it seems like a novel on high society and flamboyance but soon reveals a darker side.
posted by tumples at 6:08 AM on August 3, 2009

The List of Seven by Mark Frost.

(Huh, that's the second time I've added that to an Ask MeFi recommendation thread. I do read other stuff, honest!)
posted by usonian at 6:39 AM on August 3, 2009

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Actually almost all his books aré set in a mysterious england.
posted by dhruva at 7:13 AM on August 3, 2009

I'm surprised no one has mentioned John Copwer Powys yet.

Seconding M.R. James - Casting the Runes is a good place to start.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:20 AM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Er, that should be "John COWPER Powys" there.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:21 AM on August 3, 2009

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. I recommend this to everyone.
posted by mattbucher at 7:25 AM on August 3, 2009

Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Mary Wesley, Penelope Lively, Mark Haddon, Margaret Drabble, Ian McEwen, any of the Man/Booker prize winners. Browse http://www.amazon.co.uk/.

I envy you if you have not yet read Lucky Jim. One of the funniest books ever. Dance to the Music of Time is a massive commitment, but extremely British.
posted by theora55 at 7:32 AM on August 3, 2009

Someone's already posted Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, but his Sally Lockhart series is also worth a try - starting with 'The Ruby in the Smoke'.
posted by nextian_geometry at 7:43 AM on August 3, 2009

Thirding M.R. James - his stories are very true to the feeling of East Anglia.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on August 3, 2009

Good lord...nobody has mentioned Christopher Fowler's peculiar crimes series (Bryant & May)?
posted by madmethods at 8:59 AM on August 3, 2009

It's admittedly a stretch, but perhaps Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's not that far into the past or whatever at all, but it has the eerie cold pastoral British landscape aspect to it, and creepiness galore--man-made creepiness of a sci-fi-y kind, not so much supernatural.
posted by ifjuly at 9:46 AM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned John Cowper Powys yet.

I was just coming in to suggest A Glastonbury Romance.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:00 AM on August 3, 2009

Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

You could try books by Nick Hornby as well.
posted by murtagh at 10:06 AM on August 3, 2009

Also: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon).
posted by murtagh at 10:10 AM on August 3, 2009

E. Nesbit's Five Children books.
posted by brujita at 11:04 AM on August 3, 2009

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories is an excellent place to meet M.R. James and the other great English supernatural writers.
posted by barjo at 11:33 AM on August 3, 2009

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy.
posted by elizardbits at 11:41 AM on August 3, 2009

Alan Moore's "From Hell"

Ignore the film, the book is exquisitely researched graphically, and a love song to Victorian London.

Also, John Buchan's "The Thirty-nine Steps", though not very supernatural.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:25 PM on August 3, 2009

Response by poster: Oh. My. God. What a wealth you guys have provided for me. Right now, I don't think picking any one best answer would be a wise idea, since I won't know until months later after I've read them all. But this list is going to be very valuable for me for years.

Just a couple amendments, etc. I have read some of the books you guys suggested, even though they slipped my mind when asking the question.

-Read Jekyll & Hyde back in 9th grade. Good suggestion.
-Read Dirk Gently, and I enjoy Adams, but not a perfect fit.
-Read Dog in the Nighttime, which I found utterly fascinating, but mentally I always thought of it in terms of its gimmick, rather than the setting. (And I don't mean gimmick in a bad way. I loved that about it.)
-I can't believe I didn't mention From Hell. Not only is it a perfect fit, it's actually a big favorite of mine. It really belonged on my list of examples. Good eye.

I know, I really should read the Potter Books. I think what I'll do is wait until a few years have gone by after seeing the last movie, then give them a start. But I'm going to begin with #2, since I read #1 and really didn't like it.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 6:00 PM on August 3, 2009

I'd recommend Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Titus Groan (leave out the third book, Titus Alone, which was written during Peake's mental decline.)

In a youthful-but-way-more-intelligent-than-Potter way: Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising series.

At the recommendations of TH White's Once and Future King and MZB's Mists of Avalon, I tilt my head and go "hmmmmm." I'd say: read Sir Thomas Malory first, since he's the main source for both. For that matter, the anonymous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an excellent mysterious read, if you can find a good translation into modern English. Tolkien's the standard, but here's mine (link to the beginning; keep clicking "next entry" for more. I'm about halfway through at present.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:45 PM on August 3, 2009

I think HP and the Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of them, but I LOVED HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban....especially because it introduces my favorite character: Lupin.

I enjoyed the series, but it seemed to me that the other characters had much more personality than Harry did.
posted by brujita at 8:42 PM on August 3, 2009

I also like Mary Stewart's quintet of novels about Merlin and the Arthurian legends. It begins with The Crystal Cave.

Diana Wynne Jones is absolutely brilliant. Witch Week is a good one as a stand-alone read that also introduces you to the character of Chrestomanci (an enchanter who's in charge with regulating magic, as a government post, and travels between parallel worlds). Hexwood is a retelling of Arthur that somehow fits in intergalatic travellers and makes really believable. Fire and Hemlock is based on the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer.
posted by dustyasymptotes at 9:53 PM on August 3, 2009

I'm reading the Gormenghast trilogy right now (well, I'm on Titus Groan). This is the book you want. The book I'm currently reading is hard to put down, and it has a bit of everything you're looking for, I'd say.
posted by Mael Oui at 9:55 PM on August 3, 2009

Not supernatural, but certainly atmospheric, I really liked The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
posted by nfg at 8:27 AM on August 4, 2009

Another Authurian legend series I would highly recommend is The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead. Some people I have recommended it to have said it was overly descriptive, and others have stumbled over the first book being partially narrated by a young woman, but I would very much encourage you to give it a shot. It nicely weaves the mystical with historical research.
posted by Feantari at 10:41 AM on August 4, 2009

I'm reading The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox right now, and it sounds like it'd be up your alley.
posted by lucyleaf at 8:10 AM on August 28, 2009

Just wanted to pop in with a recommendation from someone who was doing the same thing for the Potter books as you, watching the movies and then planning to read the books later. I figured I would enjoy the movies more this way (which was true). I'd actually also read the first book, and was pretty meh about it. However, after watching the 6th film I was caught by the "want to know what happens" bug and decided to start from the beginning and listen to all the audiobooks. I picked the Stephen Fry narrated versions because he's awesome, and also it saddens me that the American versions translated out a lot of the essential Britishness of it. Nevermind the horrible change to "the Sorceror's Stone." What I ended up finding was that while I'd enjoyed the films, the books were so much more expansive and just really showed how very much had to be taken out in order to fit the time restrictions. Fry's narration and voicework is extremely excellent, and while there are many things to quibble about (I'm sure you won't have ANY trouble finding H.P. detractors) I found the overall experience to be very enjoyable and recommendable. From the third book on there is so much material that will be "new to you" having only seen the movies, that you hardly notice that you already know what is going to happen.

For another good young adult pick, I also would recommend Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" series, the protagonist is Irish, and it's very globe-hopping lighthearted action-y supernatural fun. Not the greatest books ever by any means, but enjoyable quick reads that fit the mold you're after.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:30 AM on December 7, 2009

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