Can you recommend any foreboding, surreal texts?
March 5, 2014 1:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for fiction and non-fiction texts (video, audio, and books) that take what is ostensibly a very real situation and find a surreal perspective. I'm not looking for the fantastic though, but more of a foreboding tone/atmosphere. You know, when a narrative seemingly grounded in reality has an unreal, genuinely unsettling undercurrent. Examples below.

For example:

"Clutter", from This American Life: the escape from 1 World Trade Center

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski: particularly the narrative of The Navidson Record

Mulholland Drive, amongst other things by David Lynch: mainly the first two thirds of the film

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and other works by Haruki Murakami: especially the Room 208 stuff

lots of stories from Scott Carrier

posted by Quilford to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
The King in Yellow
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:41 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Yellow Wallpaper
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:43 AM on March 5, 2014

You might be interested in magical realism. Don't let the name put you off, often it's mostly realism sprinkled with magic, where "magic" stands for mystery, surrealism, otherworldliness, etc. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is often cited as a prime example and it seems to fit the bill: basically a multi-generational family drama except sometimes a ghost visits, or it rains for seven years. Strictly speaking those are of course elements of fantasy, but they are deeply and subtly embedded in an otherwise matter-of-fact narrative, perhaps more so than with the Lynch and Murakami examples.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:28 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Franz Kafka is an obvious choice - some of his stuff veers more towards the fantastic but it's always presented in a realistic and naturalistic way. I'd particularly recommend The Trial and The Castle for your purposes.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:39 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It might be a bit too fantastical for you (in that the premise is magical realist/dystopian but not classically dystopian), but Jose Saramago's Blindness really got under my skin. In a different way and through different mechanisms to House of Leaves (which I loved), but on the same spectrum.

I found Blindness very disturbing in places, I wouldn't exactly say I liked it as a book, and I'm certainly never going to read it again - but while the events aren't quite normal, the atmosphere for me was exactly what I'd characterise as "genuinely unsettling".
posted by terretu at 3:06 AM on March 5, 2014

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand is entirely grounded in the mundane world, but it's written in a way that feels like it's going to break into dark fantasy at any moment. That is, if you've read the sort of spec-fic that comes down from Lovecraft, you keep perceiving the story-elements as fitting into one of those quasi-science-fiction/quasi-fantasy/quasi-horror structures, due almost entirely to the writing style.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:16 AM on March 5, 2014

Magical realism is fine so long as it's got genuinely unsettling undercurrents/moments, which is all I'm really looking for. That feeling on the reader's part of low-level foreboding that could erupt into terror at any time. Or just some genuinely unsettling / creepy moments, like in the "Clutter" story where we're told about the difference between floors, and the choice between the two stairwells.


i hope i'm actually being specific and not just 'what are some scary books please metafilter'
posted by Quilford at 3:30 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is basically a love story, set among hostages and their rebel captors in a South American embassy. It's such a lovely book, and yeah, I'd call its mood foreboding.
posted by Mchelly at 4:10 AM on March 5, 2014

It seems to me your suggestions are very 'place' oriented, which I get but can't come up with good realistic examples of - Mieville writes a lot about cities and their weirdnesses from a gritty fantasy perspective, but that doesn't seem to be what you're looking for. The book that does come to mind is Trumbo's 'Johnny Got His Gun', which is foreboding in that it is from the perspective of someone who cannot escape. In his case, though, it's his body.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:18 AM on March 5, 2014

Paul Auster's New York trilogy feels like this to me. There's a kind of dislocation from normality. Also maybe Kafka's Amerika.
posted by crocomancer at 4:47 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

1q84 by murakami.
posted by chasles at 5:16 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Everything by Jeff VanderMeer, especially the numerous short story collections he is associated with.
posted by jbickers at 5:32 AM on March 5, 2014

The master of what could be called "uncanny fiction" is Robert Aickman, now sadly forgotten. His stuff is available on Amazon, though. I think he's exactly what you're looking for. You can use the 'read inside' feature to get a sense of his style at the Amazon link. "Cold Hand in Mine" is probably his most written-about work.
posted by Philemon at 5:50 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Night Film by Marisha Pessl
posted by lyssabee at 6:05 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some unsettling and foreboding fiction along the lines of Kafka and David Lynch would be the short stories of Bruno Schulz, Thomas Ligotti, and Brian Evenson. I would particularly recommend Evenson's novel The Open Curtain.
posted by fryman at 6:22 AM on March 5, 2014

I would also add David Albahari's novel Leeches, which, while ostensibly a realistic story about a man wandering around Belgrade trying to make connections between the strange occurrences within the labyrinth of the city, is written in such a relentlessly ominous and feverish style that it sucks the reader into the same surreal nightmare mindset as the protagonist.
posted by fryman at 6:35 AM on March 5, 2014

I'd suggest Alasdair Gray's Lanark - it may seem fantastical at first, but it has a firm grounding in realism. Borges' short stories are also good. Try looking at Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick too.
posted by kariebookish at 7:04 AM on March 5, 2014

You might look at the case reports of the SCP Foundation. Some of them veer into schlocky horror or adolescent fantasy, but start with SCP-701 ("The Hanged King's Tragedy"), SCP-1981 ("Ronald Reagan Cut Up While Talking"), SCP-1733 ("Celtics vs. Heat") and SCP-093 ("The Unclean" -- be sure to dig into the supplementary materials) and see if it's up your alley.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:24 AM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you might like Alex Garland's Coma.

Christopher Priest is also a possibility; the premises are not all realistic, but I think his novels are unsettling in pretty much the way you describe. Try The Inverted World.
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:24 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

These recommendations might be a bit more surreal/weird and less grounded than what you're looking for, but I'm a huge fan of the general concept you're talking about, and these are some of my faves.

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett - I'm actually reading this right now, and only about halfway through, but it's got a great (although at times a bit strong handed) sense of "this quaint little town sure has some horrifying things lurking under the surface."

Welcome to Night Vale podcast - If you haven't listened to this already, you should. I'm 99% certain you'd like it based on the items you've listed.

The SCP Foundation - This one's a little harder to describe, but the overall concept is that there is an organization that catalogs, contains, and studies strange things (objects, creatures, places, etc.) and maintains scientific logs of those things. It's easy to lose yourself in this site - some entries are hilarious, some are terrifying, some just make you feel uneasy. Because it's so vast, here's a few to get you started:
SCP 1322 (be sure to read the observation logs)
SCP 1499 (be sure to read the exploration log)
SCP 093 (be sure to read the tests)
SCP 087 (be sure to read the exploration transcripts)
SCP 1845 (be sure to read the request log)
SCP 1171
posted by DulcineaX at 7:26 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might like Dan Simmons' The Terror for real-life events, KJ Bishop's unbelievably surreal The Etched City for creeping-dread-in-sense-of-place, and lots of stuff by Joyce Carol Oates ("Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?" always makes my skin crawl.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:00 AM on March 5, 2014

I feel almost gauche mentioning this because it seems too obvious, but if you haven't been watching True Detective yet, you should be.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:10 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although it's ostensibly horror, a lot of Stephen King's writing is about that undercurrent of foreboding, sometimes without the fantastic and sometimes with the fantastic just thrown in for extra panache. 11/22/63 does have a fantastical framework (time travel) but most of the action takes place in a completely realistic, unbearably foreboding version of the early 1960s.
posted by telegraph at 8:15 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lamark is a fantastic suggestion. Huge chunks of J.G. Ballard's prodigious output are I think almost exact matches for what you're asking for -- his Crash (the basis for the Cronenberg movie, not the later Oscar-winner about how racism is bad and we're all racists) or High Rise, say.
posted by snarkout at 8:17 AM on March 5, 2014

Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares is a book-length poem ostensibly written to celebrate the birth of his children but which features demons and ghosts and the doubt that lurks in the midnights.
posted by verysleeping at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2014

+1 Blindness, though I found the movie creepier. (The movie is very faithful to the book; the main difference is that you can watch it in a couple of hours, compressing the creepiness).

Tana French's mysteries often have that undercurrent that the main character may be losing his/her mind. (The Likeness is my favorite, but In the Woods has that too.)
posted by salvia at 8:54 AM on March 5, 2014

My absolute favorite novel in this category is Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy.

"On his way to a linguists' conference in Helsinki, Budai finds himself in a strange city where he can't understand a word anyone says. One claustrophobic day blurs into another as he desperately struggles to survive in this vastly overpopulated metropolis where there are as many languages as there are people."
posted by perhapses at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2014

I think The Third Policeman fits your theme very well. Of your examples, I'm familiar only with Mulholland Drive and House of Leaves, and The Third Policeman is one of the few works I can think of that produces the same slow build of "something is horribly wrong, but I can't explain what".

You might also enjoy the Kingsley Amis short story "Something Strange", but being a short story it doesn't have much room to build up the strangeness before the denouement.

My other recommendations are, I think, out of print and may be hard to find:
The Swallows by Martin Cobalt (published as a children's book, but none the worse for that), and Castaway by James Gould Cozzens.

My usual term for this kind of atmosphere is "nightmarish" -- to me, this nicely captures the fact that it's about an unsettling feeling, rather than (necessarily) unsettling events.
posted by pont at 9:42 AM on March 5, 2014

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:57 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The final book in the Bible, Revelations, is fairly surreal in its prose - and it is most definitely foreboding
posted by Flood at 11:03 AM on March 5, 2014

To the list of SCPs already provided, let me add SCP-1425 "Star Signals", my personal favorite of the genre.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 1:15 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Coming back to add Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and Caitlyn Kiernan's The Red Tree.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2014

Peace by Gene Wolfe. Neil Gaiman's description is pretty accurate: "Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading."
posted by inire at 2:24 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oooh another one: girlfriend in a coma by Douglas Coupland.
posted by chasles at 4:55 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recently read The Decapitated Chicken by Horacio Quiroga, which had a wonderful sense of foreboding.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2014

The Unconsoled by Ishiguro. I'd say this book is equal parts foreboding and plain confusion and a lot more intricate than Never Let Me Go, so perhaps try that one first to see if you like his style.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 6:29 PM on March 5, 2014

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is a good example of what I think you're looking for. Not only is there a sense of foreboding and doom in the story itself, the entire thing takes place in the shadow of a massive looming rock. I also highly recommend the film of the same name directed by Peter Weir - it captures the surreality of the novel perfectly and really cements the story in the geographical landscape (which you might not fully appreciate if you don't have an understanding of the Australian bush).
posted by goo at 7:04 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding The Terror by Dan Simmons. Also maybe Drood by the same author.

Scott Smith's "The Ruins" might have a bit too much of the fantastical, but I don't think it really has that much more than House of Leaves, and I'd be hard-pressed to name a book that filled me with more dread and a sense of foreboding. I stayed up all night reading it because I was too scared to stop. (I'd stay away from the film version though. Far, far away).
posted by ELind at 7:19 PM on March 5, 2014

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
posted by j_curiouser at 7:47 PM on March 5, 2014

The Returned. A French TV series, and I like the original title, Les Revenants, better. Set in a small town in the French Alps, dead people suddenly start returning - as themselves, with no memory of being gone. Mogwai does the soundtrack. Cinematography, script, and acting are beautiful. Surreal and foreboding barely scratch the surface.
posted by SakuraK at 11:49 PM on March 5, 2014

Sounds like Jonathan Carroll would be worth investigating. Here's Neil Gaiman's introduction to him.
posted by rory at 3:11 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shirley Jackson. The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:46 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:31 AM on March 6, 2014

In Milton Lumky Territory by Philip K. Dick. It is not a science science fiction novel, and has a realistic storyline with heavy foreboding, despite seemingly simple events and interactions.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:37 AM on March 6, 2014

Back yet again to say that the China Mieville short story "Details" gave me this sensation exactly, although it may in fact help to be living in a dilapidated WW2-era apt. when you read it.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:06 PM on March 6, 2014

Ugh, looks like the link I posted is actually not the whole story, so disregard. "Details" can, I believe, be found in this collection of Mieville's stories.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:08 PM on March 6, 2014

I think you would enjoy The Insult by Rupert Thomson.
posted by daisyk at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2014

Surrounded By Spies

I posted this link along with some other info on the Facebook wall of Mindfreedom the same day the executive director at the time, David Oaks fell from a ladder and broke his neck. That part is sad and mysterious to me.
posted by andy_t at 8:01 PM on March 8, 2014

Beyond, a short film from the Animatrix (but only tangentially related). A young woman looks for her missing cat in a "haunted house" full of bizarre glitches in the fabric of reality.

The Marble Hornets series is a more contemporary Blair Witch story, inserting a few terrifying instances of the "Slender Man" in a student film production vlog. It peters out towards the end, but early installments are extremely creepy.

Mothman Prophecies is the creepiest movie I've ever seen, and based on a real local legend. A small town is stalked by a monstrous, godlike presence that manifests itself in indescribably horrifying ways -- you don't actually see it outright in the movie, but the atmosphere is intensely spooky in the worst way.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow (both the short story and the various adaptations)
posted by Rhaomi at 7:10 PM on April 2, 2014

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