Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, stands out as a "classic instance of a story that's
Ramsey Campbell explains, "precisely because the narrator doesn’t think
it is." Rachel Cusk makes the same point when, reversing a famous phrase, she describes
the novel’s effect as based on "the evil of banality."

Yet other readers, perhaps deceived by the
complacent complicity of the narrator and
other victims in this book, don’t even see it
as a horror tale. They have some justification
is classifying it as a
bildungsroman, or a
philosophical novel—an exemplar of what
John Gardner was calling for in his quasi-
On Moral Fiction—or even a love
story, built on that time-honored plot device,
the romantic triangle.

Ishiguro earns our praise by crafting a lucid
narrative that achieves all of these goals, yet
without ostentation or any sense of tension
between the different layers to his story. As I read
Never Let Me Go, I marveled at the
paradoxical nature of Ishiguro's achievement: the story wears a mask of blandness, yet
I found the book a compelling 'page-turner'. In the realm of horror fiction, where so
many of the leading figures in the field reach for success through excess, where taste
and restraint are often tossed aside within the first ten pages and plot development
proceeds as a kind of Bataan death march, Ishiguro’s skill stands out all the more.

Yet I avoided reading this novel for many years. And the author is to blame for my
hesitancy. When
Never Let Me Go was released Ishiguro gave away 'spoilers' in his
interviews—or at least, I thought they were spoilers. He explained that his book was
about a group of youngsters who lived in a boarding school, but their teachers weren't
preparing them for careers. Instead, the ‘students’ would eventually supply organs for

I naively assumed that I now knew the surprise ending
Never Let Me Go, and this would prevent me from
savoring the suspense and mystery in the book. How
wrong I was! In fact, everyone involved, including the
students at Hailsham school, are aware from the outset
that the endpoint for these children is a series of 'donations'.  
Yet Ishiguro still withholds crucial information—indeed,
one of the most impressive aspects of this novel is the
skill with which our author reveals so many details, while
keeping others under wraps until the proper moment. He
draws on a wide range of devices to achieve this, including
huge leaps in narrative chronology, foreshadowing,
flashbacks, symbols, false hypotheses shared by the
characters, various red herring clues, and other methods
of what magicians call 'misdirection'.  Yet the whole
narrative proceeds with such guileless ease—presented
as a kind of diary of one of the students—that readers can
easily miss the virtuosity demonstrated by our author again
and again in these pages.

The surface story is simple enough. Our narrator Kathy relates her time at Hailsham,
and focuses on her relationships with two classmates, her bossy friend Ruth and the
loner boy Tommy. Occasionally other characters step briefly into the forefront of the
tale, most notably the Guardians who fill the role of teachers at Hailsham. The reader
quickly picks up on the creepy ambience at the school, but only gradually comes to
notice the most unusual aspect of this suspense novel. Put simply, there is no apparent
enemy here, no monster or slasher, no ghost or criminal, no vampire or zombie, nothing
that goes bump in the night. Everybody has the best of intentions—or so it seems.

The mysteries presented in these pages are such tiny ones. Why does a woman show
up every few weeks to scrutinize the youngsters’ artwork, and take away the best items
for her 'gallery'? Why did one of the Guardians make that enigmatic statement in class,
complaining that the students "had been told and not told" about their future?  Why was
she fired a few days later? And what about rumors that some students can get deferrals
provided that they meet certain unspecified criteria?

As I look back at this novel, which I found filled with an almost unbearable tension even
in scenes that are superficially free of conflict, I’m convinced that this pervasive tranquility
is actually the key ingredient in Ishiguro’s success. Has anyone ever written a horror
novel in which everyone is smiling and compassionate? You might assume that such a
path to terror is a dead end road, but when actually  confronted with a story of this sort,
you may find it so unsettling that you even consider putting this book aside. Wouldn't it
be better not to learn too much about the donations? Ah, you will keep reading….because
you, too, will have had your compassion aroused, and will care deeply for our three
main characters. Ishiguro has caught you in his web.

What makes it all the worse (or perhaps better, from a purely literary standpoint) is that
this is one of the most plausible dystopian novels you will ever read. Hardly a week goes
by without some news story about genetic modifications and altered life forms going viral
on the web. While I was reading
Never Let Me Go, the press was breathlessly describing
a successful new program to 'grow' human organs inside pigs. This raises the obvious
question: what if you could save more lives by growing human organs in humans?

This isn't the place to explore the ethical issues raised
by genetic research. I will simply point out that our
technology is advancing faster than our moral wisdom
as a species, and that the shallow utilitarianism that seems
to guide our scientists' actions in the current day—overheated
Jeremy Bentham mixed in with a dose of Auguste Comte's
positivism—will very likely take us to some strange and ugly
endpoints. We are trying to set rules for 21st century advanced
research with an unreconstructed 19th century ethical
philosophy. But I hardly need to prod you to think about these
matters.  Ishiguro's book will do that much better than anything
I could say.

And that’s real horror. This is why the compassion of the Guardians and others in the
book is so bloody disturbing. Of all the terrible things done in the last hundred years,
the very worst were perpetrated by idealists with lofty goals for human improvement.
They just wanted to help. We need horror novels with 'villains' of that sort—not just
because they are the scariest evil-doers of them, but also because it may help us to
recognize them when they next show up in our midst. Then again, maybe they already

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

Publication Date: October 5, 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

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

The Horror of Good Intentions
A Look at Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
Essay by Ted Gioia
Kazuo Ishiguro
To purchase, click on image
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

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence 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

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

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

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

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

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

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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"We are trying to set
rules for 21st  century
advanced research with
an unreconstructed
19th century ethical