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Less Than Pulp, Issue 33
What Keeps Me Turning Pages
Now, there's a word that gets tossed around willy-nilly in the book world. But what does it actually mean? It's not simply a book you like. It's not even a book you love. I believe it refers to a book that you don't just want to keep reading but one that inspires compulsive reading. A book where turning the pages becomes pathological. Where finishing means resolving something inside yourself.
Ordinary People by Judith Guest is one such book. The way it juxtaposes young Conrad’s attempts to put his life back together after an extended stay in a psych ward and his father Cal’s impending midlife crisis is masterful. As someone who struggles with mental health issues, very vividly remembers my tumultuous late teens/early twenties and who is now a father of kids with big emotions, I found this book impossible to put down. I neurotically turned the pages, needing to know how it would end for everyone. I saw myself in both characters and desperately needed them to be okay because that meant I would be okay.
That might sound ridiculous to some, but perhaps you can relate.
The experience got me thinking of other books that inspired such compulsive reading, so I figured I’d talk about some titles I’ve read that I would call unputdownable.
Come Closer by Sara Gran was gifted to me by a friend in 2009 or so. This friend and I shared lots of books. I’m pretty sure she still has my copy of Night Shift and a few of my Brian Keene paperbacks. Anyway, she told me I needed to read Gran’s novel immediately because it scared the hell out of her—it scared me too. The way the author handles the question at the heart of the book (is the protagonist possessed or simply insane?) is truly compelling. Regardless of the answer, you as the reader know you are witnessing someone completely unravel, and maybe you’re unraveling too. I used to rave about this book all the time, but too often, it seemed like no one knew what I was talking about. Thankfully, due to the efforts of influencers like Sadie Hartmann (aka Mother Horror), it has had a nice resurgence over the last few years.
I read Black Gum by J. David Osborne while working overnight at the 9-1-1 call center. At the time, I was rubbing shoulders with the bizarro scene and had bought up as many of the books from its authors as I could. Black Gum hit a lot differently than books by JDO’s peers. Where Carlton Mellick III and other luminaries weirded us out with fantasy worlds, JDO was quick to remind us just how weird our own world could be, especially for those who live on the margins. He writes cyberpunk now, but my kids have pet robots and I’ve met a good deal of close friends by spending time online—it’s safe to say that cyberpunk is no longer fantasy. JDO is a keen observer of everyday strangeness, and Black Gum is his masterpiece. I’ve read it four times.
Preacher by Garth Ennis is a notorious comic book series from the 90s. It’s irreverent, blasphemous, sexual, over-the-top, and distinctly American (with all the baggage that entails). It’s got a lot to it in the way of subplots, but the crux of the story deals with a preacher who gains divine power only to find out that God walked out on humanity, so what does he do? He goes looking for the creator of the universe to get some answers. It’s deeply philosophical, angry, and fiercely moral. I read it in 2006, having long abandoned the fundamentalism I leaned on as a teenager, but I hadn’t yet really considered what that loss of faith meant and how I could now shape the way I interacted with the world. As weird as it sounds, this offensive piece of literature—yes, literature—helped drag a lot of this unresolved stuff to the surface, and it was nice to commiserate with Ennis’s bizarre cast of rejects.
My brother loaned me The Catcher in the Rye, along with some Vonnegut books and Catch-22. I loved the Vonnegut stuff and couldn’t get through Catch-22, but Catcher in the Rye hit different. I read it in early 2007, skipping class at community college and hiding in the corner of the library because I had to know how things would work out for troubled Holden Caufield. I had just come out of a three-year relationship and saw a lot of my thought patterns mirrored in those of the protagonist. His false starts felt uncomfortably familiar. I suspected it wouldn’t end well for him, but I still had to keep reading.
There are other examples—many of them thrillers—but what makes them unputdownable is easier to comprehend. Short chapters. Lots of twists. Cliffhangers. Ticking clocks. They also didn’t make me feel like reaching The End would resolve something in myself. They felt instead like rollercoasters or funhouse rides.
The four books I mentioned in this newsletter are page-turners for less tangible reasons. Is there something in these stories that mirror my story? My mental state while reading them? Am I overthinking this? Are they simply good stories, well-told and starring sympathetic characters? Are the authors presenting their rawest selves on the page? Or do they simply possess an uncanny insight into the human condition?
Is all of that true to some degree? Perhaps.
Here’s the thing. We can analyze day and night, but we might not get any closer to cracking the code. Hopefully, the writers among us can internalize whatever it is about the works that keep us compulsively turning the pages and put some of that magic into their own pieces.
What are some books that you found unputdownable?
I have books. Maybe you’ll find that one of them inspires pathological page turning. That’s the hope anyway!
In this week’s episode of Make Your Own Damn Podcast, I force Jeff to watch another 80s slasher. Longtime listeners know that he does not like this subgenre. 1981’s Graduation Day was no exception, but I love it. I love everything, it seems. Anyway, it turned into a fun discussion about why I like slashers from this era, feminist readings of the subgenre, and Jeff’s disdain for 80s nostalgia. You can check out the episode right here or by watching the video below.
One last thing before I go: I want to start setting some goals for this newsletter and share them with you. First, I really appreciate all of you for sticking around. It’s nice to see so many people responding to what essentially boils down to me doing a weekly journal entry. That said, I would like to get five new free subscribers and one paid subscriber by the end of this week. You can help me make that happen by liking, sharing, and subscribing. If we reach that goal, I’ll release another short story here for free. I’ve already got a piece in mind, and I think it’s one you’ll enjoy.
Let’s help this newsletter grow!
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