What is horror? The movie business made millions on horror films that reduced the
genre to the on-screen depiction of outlandish monsters.  But a handful of literary works
have explored an alternative conception of horror—one that resides in our own hearts
and minds. When Colonel Kurtz, at a key juncture in Joseph Conrad’s
The Heart of
, shouts out "The horror! The horror!" he isn’t confronting a vampire or
werewolf, merely his own personal capitulation to evil.  He is the beast, and it dwells

Helen Oyeyemi focuses on precisely this kind of terror in her 2009 novel
White is for
. Here the narrator, a troubled young woman named Miranda Silver, might be
haunting herself. She hears voices and sees ghosts, but is this a visitation from the
afterlife, or just a sign of psychological turmoil and impending mental collapse?  

She resides in a bed-and-breakfast run by her father Luc,
and at certain moments the building steps forward as
narrator in Oyeyemi’s novel.  The house has plans of its
own, and they reflect dark, destructive desires. But, here
too, Miranda shares some of the guilt—at times she  seems
like an extension of the haunted house, and it channels its
maleficent energies through her.  Yet, from another
perspective, Miranda is little more than a victim, the
plaything of forces beyond her capability to comprehend
or control.

Some have compared Helen Oyeyemi to
Henry James, and
at first glance this seems a strange connection.  
White is for
is an unconventional novel, less a structured story
than an extended mood piece, a rumination on horror as
personified in a disintegrating personality.  Even so,
is for Witching
captures some of the characteristic Jamesian
ambiguity, the openness to multiple interpretations that has
kept literary scholars debating, more than a century after it
was written, whether
The Turn of the Screw is really a ghost story, or just a
metaphorical haunting that reminds us of the dark corners of everyday existence.

This kind of existential dread of the horror within is perfectly suited for realization via
the techniques of literary fiction. Even so, only a few authors have plumbed its depths.
Women authors have played a significant role in developing this theme, and we can
trace its evolution from the Bronte sisters all the way to "The Lottery" (
Susan Jackson),
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath), and works by contemporary writers such as Housekeeping
(Marilynne Robinson) and
The Orange Eats Creeps (Grace Krilanovich).  In these
books, horror doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in terms of ghosts and haunted
mansions, but might appear in the form of an eating disorder or obsessive-compulsive

White is for Witching begins with Miranda Silver returning to her home in Dover
after a lengthy period of institutionalization.  Her mental state is precarious, perhaps
even psychotic, and she suffers from pica, a dangerous disorder marked by a craving
for non-nutritional objects. In Miranda’s case, she eats chalk.  The recent death of
her mother Lily has aggravated her compulsions, but after a long stint under medical
supervision she is ready to resume normal life. In a moment of atypical ambition, she
even applies to Cambridge—although perhaps less because of her academic aspiration
and more because her twin brother Eliot is doing the same.  Eliot’s application is
rejected, but Miranda is accepted, and she now must control her self-destructive
impulses, and adapt to the demands of university life.

In the hands of another novelist, this story might have resulted in a triumphal
reintegration into society, a returning from the brink for our troubled protagonist.
White is for Witching is not that kind of book.  Miranda not only fails to find her
way back to normalcy at Cambridge, but even manages to drag her intimate friend Ore
into her psychic malaise.  Before long, Miranda has returned to her haunted home in
Dover, and has even convinced Ore to pay a long visit.

But the evil building is hostile to outsiders.  Sometimes it traps people in its confines
—in magical areas where they are held captive. The building’s elevator is especially
dangerous, always threatening to take people to floors that they never knew existed,
and from which they might never return. Miranda is conflicted between loyalty to the
house and horror at the danger it represents.  Or perhaps I could describe her dilemma
as a choice between seeing herself as part of the deadly tradition the home represents,
or as a victim that must escape from its clutches.

Readers will probably find this vacillation unsettling, and perhaps ultimately
unsatisfying.  Even at the conclusion of the novel, they won’t be sure who did
what to whom.  The plot leaves behind a tangle of loose ends and unresolved
conflicts, and some of them were hardly developed before getting abandoned. For
example, we learn early in the book that Miranda’s mother died during a violent
incident in Haiti, and I kept expecting that the circumstances would be explained.
Yet Oyeyemi skips over this, as if were hardly worth discussing—although the
mother's death appears to precipitate everything that happens subsequently in the
book. The same is true of the incidents that resulted in Miranda’s institutionalization
at the start of the novel. The reader is told that Miranda can’t remember what happened
in the moments leading up to her collapse, and though we eventually are given a few
hints, the sequence of events remains confusing. Again and again, the link between
cause and effect is tenuous.  

This compression of key incidents that seem loaded with tragedy into a tiny number
of facts undercuts the emotional impact of the novel. But the poetic qualities in the
book compensate, in some degree, for the looseness in plot and structure.  At times,
White is for Witching, moves away from the constraints of the novel, and instead
operates as a richly imaginative—if slightly feverish—journal. We continue to read
on, despite gaps in the narrative that a more conventional author would have filled.

And, to some extent, Oyeyemi earns my praise for infusing even the most outlandish
details in this story with a plausible psychological resonance.  I may walk away from
this book wondering whether it isn’t more a hallucination than a structured narrative.
But I could imagine reading accounts of just this sort in collection of psychiatric case
studies. And this is more than just the chronicle of a medical condition. It is a legit
horror novel. After all, what could be scarier than a ghost story where you can’t
escape…because you are the ghost?

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: August 14, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
To purchase, click on image
By Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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