Books about conspiracy.
October 25, 2009 9:25 PM   Subscribe

[Englishmajors-filter]: Looking for works of literature that deal with conspiracy, real or imagined.

I'm putting together a list of literary works that take paranoia, persecution, and conspiracy as central themes. Some examples: 1984, The Crying of Lot 49, Foucault's Pendulum. Can you think of more? (No Dan Brown, please!) I can think of lots of novels but I'm also looking for short stories, plays (or movies), and poetry. I'm especially interested in works written before the 20th century.
posted by ms.codex to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The Turner Diaries.
posted by dfriedman at 9:28 PM on October 25, 2009

Oh, didn't see the "before the 20th century" part. Sorry.
posted by dfriedman at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2009

My first thought was The Crying of Lot 49, but you already have that! How about the Parallax View?

Lady Audley's Secret might be what you're looking for, especially for an earlier work. It's one of the first mid-19th c. "novels of sensation," and is very gripping and mysterious.
posted by apricot at 9:34 PM on October 25, 2009

Julius Caesar
posted by pompomtom at 9:44 PM on October 25, 2009

king Lear
merchant of Venice

posted by dfriedman at 9:52 PM on October 25, 2009

Perhaps Caleb Williams? Possibly something like The Revenger's Tragedy or Arden of Faversham?
posted by Orinda at 9:54 PM on October 25, 2009

posted by sonic meat machine at 9:54 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in Empire Of Conspiracy, by Timothy Melley, and/or the books discussed within.

From the amazon page linked above:
Empire of Conspiracy offers insightful new readings of texts ranging from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to the Unabomber "Manifesto," from Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders to recent addiction discourse, and from the "stalker" novels of Margaret Atwood and Diane Johnson to the conspiracy fictions of Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and Kathy Acker.
posted by zoinks at 10:03 PM on October 25, 2009

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Pynchon's recent Inherent Vice
for a less recent example, Conrad's The Secret Agent
posted by Bromius at 10:06 PM on October 25, 2009

Well, I haven't seen you or anyone else mention the classic paranoid novel of the 20th century, The Illuminatus! Trilogy by RA Wilson, Robert Shea, and, so the rather dubious legend goes, two other authors not mentioned on the dust jacket, one of whom was in MKULTRA with Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a thousand-page contact high/conspiracy theory, with each few hundred pages completely turning the way the conspiracy works in on itself. It's extremely 1960s counterculture but it's definitely worth a look. It was also turned into a cycle of short plays— twenty-three twenty-three-minute plays if I remember correctly, more than 18+ hours running time.
posted by Electrius at 10:09 PM on October 25, 2009

The Man Who Was Thursday.
posted by Iridic at 10:14 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

The King in Yellow (1895). It's a proto-Pynchon, proto-Cthulu kind of thing about a play that drives people mad so that they believe they are part of this secret conspiracy.
posted by johngoren at 10:16 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of Kafka's works meet your criteria in varying degree. And anyone citing 1984 as an example of anything should know about Zamyatin's We as well. :P
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:23 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you can't go wrong with Z, either the book by Vassilis Vassilikos or the film by Costa-Gavras.
posted by Bromius at 10:23 PM on October 25, 2009

Might as well look up Aeschylus' Oresteia as well. Daisy chain of conspiratorial murders, flight, and blame.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:46 PM on October 25, 2009

Besides Lot 49, you could also look into, uhh, every other book or short story Pynchon's ever written. Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl might be relevant, too.
posted by Limiter at 10:48 PM on October 25, 2009

Poe's 'Tell-Tale Heart'. Or any Poe for that matter.
posted by shinyshiny at 11:06 PM on October 25, 2009

Jane Eyre
posted by fifilaru at 11:08 PM on October 25, 2009

Without knowing details of the criteria or purpose of your list, I wonder if many parts of the Bible might qualify? All sorts of religious texts really, I guess.
posted by zoinks at 11:12 PM on October 25, 2009

The Yellow Wallpaper.
posted by athenasbanquet at 11:24 PM on October 25, 2009

Well, arguably, conspiracy is something that's especially prevalent in postmodernity, as the world becomes too complex for a single individual to behold. Fredric Jameson has this essay (warning: badly OCRed text) where he speaks of conspiracy as a "poor man's cognitive mapping", that the sense of conspiracy arises when there's a failure to comprehend the "total logic".

In some sense, then, conspiracy is contemporaneous with social development/industrialization/globalization, so you might be harder pressed to find examples of pre-20th C conspiracy -- or if you do, you might find them in books dealing with the mystical/gods in which the mystical is a sentient, deliberate presence.

William Gibson is a great example of a writer who weaves a world with a conspiracy theory at its core (and Jameson does write about Gibson multiple times). Kafka's works (The Penal Colony) springs to mind are pretty paranoia-filled, and often deal with the feeling of being dwarfed/manipulated by indecipherable machinery.
posted by suedehead at 1:14 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Books about conspiracy before the twentieth century are extremely rare - but you probably know that if you're writing about it. On preview, suedehead gives a great account of why.

A great example at least of paranoia, anyway, can be found in one of my favorite stories, Nikolai Gogol's The Nose. Interesting psychologically, of course; the premise is that a man wakes up one day without his nose. Hmm. Text here.

Alvy and Iridic are right on in their pointing to mystery stories; those will certainly be some of the earliest examples of conspiracy stories. I'm reading a lot of Dashiell Hammett right now, and one of my favorites of his -- and the earliest example I know of that describes a vast conspiracy -- is his novella Nightmare Town, which has recently been published in a collection of the same name. It was written in 1924 - pdf of text here.
posted by koeselitz at 2:01 AM on October 26, 2009

The Book of Job.

Also, Illuminatus! ftw.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:25 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is about a noblewoman who marries beneath her station, and how her two brothers seek to destroy her for this affront. It includes the execution of children and murder with a poisoned Bible.
posted by dortmunder at 4:24 AM on October 26, 2009

Don De Lillo's Libra, about the Kennedy assassination.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:43 AM on October 26, 2009

Not very literary, bur certainly fiction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion showed up at the dawn of the 20th century and was used to demonize Jews, Masons, and Bolsheviks for decades.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:49 AM on October 26, 2009

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White

Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (more on the paranoia end, I guess)

Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa (abduction, forced detention, fake marriages, tons of conspiracy between rich noblemen and their flackeys)

Also, pretty sure there are various Sherlock Holmes stories dealing with these themes.
posted by Bardolph at 4:55 AM on October 26, 2009

Anything by Robert Anton Wilson.
posted by Area Control at 6:37 AM on October 26, 2009

Count of Monte Cristo
posted by Kimberly at 9:39 AM on October 26, 2009

Ernesto Sabato: On Heroes And Tombs especially the section "Report on the Blind"
posted by canoehead at 10:12 AM on October 26, 2009

The anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex (it coined a term), the movies "The Matrix," "Men in Black," "The Conversation," & "Sneakers."
posted by Pronoiac at 11:00 AM on October 26, 2009

Gimmes from the TVTropes page on just Government Conspiracies: X-Files, The Prisoner, Charles Stross' Laundry series.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2009

Don DeLillo's Libra was mentioned, but it's a pervasive theme in his work. Mao II, The Names, Players, and Running Dog are a few others.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 11:31 AM on October 26, 2009

The Manchurian Candidate (yes, it was a book before it was a movie) is also good.
posted by lex mercatoria at 12:38 PM on October 26, 2009

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