After the Break

I heard a horrifying noise, as if our home had been hit by lightning. Through the dust I saw the building had cracked in two, a chasm straight through the middle of our home. The first earthquake in ten years. We were lucky. I was in the study and he was in the dining room, at opposite ends of the house, otherwise I might have lost my Jack.

Looking through the dust that had sprung up we waved to one another. I shouted to him, asking if he was hurt, but I could see his huge smile that he was fine and was obviously relieved I was okay. We tried to reach each other, across the break, but although our fingertips were within millimetres of one another we never quite touched and Jack said it was too dangerous to try to jump. He told me not to worry.

Every single day we delayed the chasm grew a foot wider and he moved further away from me. It’s a bit strange now the gap has grown wider; it means we can’t shout to one another anymore so I haven’t spoken to him for weeks. He wrote me a letter which took two weeks to arrive because of the poor postal system. In it he told me he’s always preferred that side of the house. Most of his belongings are over there and he’s always viewed this half as my bit of the house. He tells me he’d like to stay over there for a while.

I don’t plan to join Jack over there. I understand why he’s attached to his kitchen and studio and he will understand I can’t leave my study and books. It would be impossible to get them across the break and half a house really isn’t big enough for both of us.

We’ve decided the postal system is too tardy. So now the chasm has finally stopped widening we rigged up a pull wire with a bottle and send each other messages every day. Jack tells me he’s applied for citizenship there and that he’s happy. He understands my reasons for not wanting to join him. We’ve always had different hobbies and interests so it’s not as though we lived in one another’s pockets before. We understand the need to make time for ourselves, as well as each other, it’s the foundation on which our marriage was built.

I know we can survive this. We still talk. I mean we correspond rather than talk face to face, but I can see Jack waving at me from across the way and I wave back and it doesn’t feel that different really. I’m as happy as I’ve always been. Nothing has changed for me. He is still perfect in every way. I know he’s still there for me and always will be. I love him and he loves me. The nature of our relationship hasn’t changed at all. It’s just a different geography. Nothing will ever separate us, even when apart, we won’t be divided.

Hearts of Palm

Photo by Julia Manzerova (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Julia Manzerova (copied from Flickr)

They had spent the night freezing in a bus stuck in a long line of vehicles from Lima to the sky.

                “Qué puta el frío,” Galiano had said, but still did not understand that if two people slept close, they’d be warmer than sleeping alone. She didn’t care; she couldn’t sleep anyway. Instead, she worried about the pressure on her bladder – how she’d have to manoeuvre past the bodies huddled against one another in the aisle of the old school bus. Outside, it’d be much colder. She’d have to squat between bumpers, balancing herself precariously till her thighs ached, until she heard her urine steam and sizzle into the parched pavement.

                Too much chicha, she thought. Too much of the purple – maize drink, prepared with the saliva of the indígena women. Galiano had warned her earlier that it would run right through her. Yet, she purchased baggie after baggie on the roadside, bit off pieces of the plastic, and sucked down the dark violet liquid as if she couldn’t be satiated.

                Now shivering next to Galiano, she tried to think of dry things to lessen the urge to go – sand; cracked lips during a Northeast winter; her knuckles red and angry from too much sanitizer; her chafed hands after hours of washing clothes in Lima. Funny, how sometimes water only made things drier.

                The next day, they would have to set out early to walk to Huancayo. It would be warm by then. She could bake herself beneath the clear skies and the hot Indian sun.

                “A toast,” says Drew’s father, standing at the table. The other dinner guests murmur, and some ding their glasses with their silverware. “To my daughter – in – law to be.” He tips his head in the direction of the blonde – haired woman, dressed smartly in a pink blazer with white, braided trim, a modern take on something Jackie O would wear.

                I don’t know her, or them.  I hardly know Drew at all, though we’ve been out dozens of times over the past few months. He works in Sales at Penguin Group. He likes books – George Saunders and Garth Stein. I’m a temp in Production. I do data entry and correct spelling mistakes.

                Raising my champagne flute, I throw back the tart bubbles, which immediately sting my nose. I wonder if all engagements start this way – in fancy restaurants with strange people who you don’t really know, saying they’re your family.

                I don’t know what to order on the menu because I’ve never been to a steakhouse, so I imitate Drew on my right. Only well done. Well done so I can’t taste the blood coursing through my teeth.

                They followed the indígena up to the top of a dirt road, an offshoot of the highway. She crunched a heavily – notched hunting knife between her teeth as she bent down to retie her canvas sneakers, worn through at the big toe. Droplets of saltwater burned her eyes; she was simultaneously sweating and freezing. The women spoke to her in Quechua – exaggerated s and zsa sounds – and she had to respond in Spanish, though she somehow understood what the women were directing her to do.

                When she turned to look for Galiano, she found he had fallen behind. He was sharing a joint with a pair of cute Peruvian girls, whose wide smiles split their faces. City girls, she imagined. Lima girls. She could tell by their starched indigo jeans, somehow pristine and spotless after a night of sleeping in the buses.

                The indígena chattered about the huelga that they had started. All of Perú had stopped. They had blocked all the roads so no one could drive anywhere. Not anywhere, de veras.

                She stood up and adjusted her heavy backpack. The indígena smiled a warning at her that they had to keep moving.  They should at least get to the next town – four, five, six hours away.

                Serve from the left, take from the right. The appetizers arrive – carpaccio of beef tenderloin, seared ahi tuna, lump crabcakes – enough to share as the table chatter continues. My sisters’ voices cluck in my head. They had coached me before I came:  

                You start with the salad fork first if you have salad first. And keep the napkin in your lap. Don’t spill the water. Of course order something to drink, just don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. And whatever you do, don’t bring up politics. You know how you get.

                She imagined the skies in Perú did not exist anywhere else in the world. Cerulean, flawless, and brisk, they could convince even the most indignant atheists that the gods weren’t too far away. They watched just above the icy peaks of the Andes, spreading forth divinity and hope and crisis.

                The indígena were striking because the government had privatized the lakes and the rivers throughout the country. The indígena were prohibited from washing their clothes and fishing for trout in the now private water sources. Soon, there would be a tax imposed on the indígena. Jail time, even, for scrubbing a pair of socks on the side of a creek.

                “Qué hijueputa, no?” Galiano muttered to no one in particular. Everything was hijueputa with him. Son of a whore.

                Though she wanted to agree with him, she had decided not to talk to him anymore. Giggling conspiratorially, the cute girls had moved off to the side of the road. She was certain they were laughing at her. In an effort to feel more presentable, she hitched up her oversized jeans, filthy from the long days of travel. She tried to pat down the flyaway hairs that had escaped her scrappy ponytail.

                She tried to keep up with the indígena women who seemed cheerful as they shooed their children along in the dust. The women smelled like wood and coca leaves. They confessed they didn’t know where their husbands were. Probably burning tires and cutting down trees to further block off any more roads.

                Passing the deserted cars and trucks stalled all the way from Ecuador to Chile, her stomach lurched from the stench of overripe fruit and the dozens of caged chickens. It crossed her mind how much money was being lost. The fruit and chicken peddlers at the very least. But this was the cyclical understanding of history, she thought. Those with power, however fleeting, only fought for whatever benefitted their own people or their own interests. The rest watched their fruit rot in heavenly sunshine.

                She peeled an orange with her knife, and in a loving gesture that surprised even herself, she gave it to Galiano. His eyes met hers briefly, but she couldn’t read them. He slurped the sweet juices as they locked with the dust in his beard.

                The restaurant is called The Palm and famous people eat here. Inside my head, I compliment myself on my good table manners, comparable to those of the pretty women, nursing their glasses of Pinot Grigio and clutching their Kate Spade bags. The men all drink Scotch. No one really speaks to me, for which I’m thankful. Instead, I pick at a pink jumbo shrimp that Drew has put on my appetizer plate. I’ve cut it up into eighths and I swirl it in a dollop of horseradish, which scalds my nostrils from afar.

                At the other end of the table, the men murmur and I hear the mention of Fryeburg, Maine, a town I’ve read about in the papers. The Fiancé motions to keep it down, to change the subject, but it’s too late. One of the Kate-Spade-Ladies cocks a suspicious eyebrow in his direction. So does the Bride-To-Be.

                “Really?” says the Kate-Spade-Lady. “Can’t we have a few hours without the mention of work?”

                The Fiancé looks sheepish, while the other men acquiesce with their jaws pulsing.

                Aside from Drew, they’re all Nestlé executives, headquartered in Stamford, down for the weekend to celebrate Drew’s brother’s engagement. Last year, Poland Spring had pumped 110 million gallons of water out of Fryeburg, but the locals were fighting the company at every turn – even the ones who knew Nestlé would bring more jobs to the area. They were saying the water table had dropped, that the municipal aquifer was running dry, that the future environmental effects of water extraction remain unknown.  

                “Yes, let’s take a break from work,” says Drew’s father, but the Kate-Spade-Lady doesn’t seem satisfied. She taps one of her manicured nails on the table top. “Do you know that there is a higher incidence of tooth decay among young children nowadays?”

                The table seems to mull it over.

                “More sugary cereals,” says one of the men who could be her husband.

                She shakes her head. “Do you want to know my theory?”

                “Do we have a choice, darling?” he says.

                “Bottled water.”

                “She adores playing my Devil’s Advocate,” says the man to everyone’s amusement.

                “No fluoride in bottled water,” she says. “And how many parents think they’re doing their kids a favour by avoiding the tap?”

                The table nods in approval, and the Kate-Spade-Lady tilts her glass in the direction of her husband and the other men. She seems the perfect balance of wife, mother, and woman of the world.

                When they approached yet another blockade in the road, the indígena women finally reunited with their husbands and friends. From the deep pockets of their skirts, they pulled out bags of chilled potatoes and boiled eggs to share.  For a moment, everyone beamed broken smiles, and the children kicked up a spontaneous game of football with a crushed can of Fanta Orange.

                She didn’t know how to say policía in Quechua, but she knew what it meant when the women started running in their little black shoes, their hats flying off their heads and long braids falling loose as they grabbed their children and took off into the hills. They didn’t scream. In fact, the only sound she heard was baskets dropping and vegetables rolling. A mule galloped off into the distance.

                Policía? she wanted to ask, but everyone was moving so quickly.

                “¡Susana!” Galiano pulled her in with his voice, then his hands. Together, they scurried with their backpacks loading them down like burros.

                The Peruvian national police were small, wearing uniforms that resembled the cub scouts of New Jersey, but their AK-47’s were massive and glinted in the sunshine.

¡Parren por favor!¡Parren ustedes!” they shouted.  

They’d probably shoot any minute, she panicked. But the indígena had already disappeared. Of course, they’d already disappeared.

On the protected embankment of a grassy knoll, she and Galiano hid, their short limbs and backpacks impossibly twisted. The cold ground seeped green through her too- big jeans, and Galiano sneered at her as if it were her fault his backpack had slowed him down. More salt dripped from her eyebrows and burned her eyes. Goose bumps speckled her arms.


                Well, let’s see the ring!” someone exclaims, diverting my attention from the politics in my plate. I look up to see them all so pretty. The pretty ladies fuss over a diamond that sparkles all the way across the table even in the dim light.

                The Bride-To-Be is stunning. I try to sit up and straighten my shoulders. I fidget with the hemline of my skirt, which is too short, not because I favour short skirts, but because of the static cling of the polyester sticking to my thick tights. I try not to be a sourpuss, as my sisters would say.  Drew squeezes my thigh, and when I look at him, his smile reaches up his face and crinkles his eyes. His teeth are perfectly straight and stained with nicotine.

                “¿Qué vamos a hacer?” she panted, under the assumption that Galiano would just know what to do.

                He gestured for her to shut up.

                They watched as the policía continued down the road to the smoking blockade. A few of the indígena men had not run away.  The policía barked at them and stabbed their machine guns into the air, but the indígena didn’t move. Next to the policía, they appeared much, much smaller. They wore their hair in long braids like their wives. They wore the same kind of hats – a localized fedora style. They didn’t say anything, and instead, stonily eyed their brothers in uniform.

                One of the officers had had enough. With the butt of his machine gun, he slammed into the quiet face of one of the indígena.

                “¡A la chucha!” exclaimed Galiano, perhaps loud enough to give away their hiding spot.

                She hid her face with her hands, still smelling of citrus. It was too late though; she’d already seen it. The blood spilled from the man’s cheekbone.

                “You hardly ate anything,” says Drew. “You didn’t like it?”

                I had squeezed all the red juice from my filet mignon and let it contaminate my creamed spinach and whipped potatoes.

                “No, it was great,” I say. “I loved it. I like steakhouses.”

                “Another round?” booms his father. He orders a Scotch and so do the rest of the men. The ladies order B&Bs, and obsessing over my inadequacy, I follow them.

                “Shit … what do we do?” she asked, still shielding her eyes. She didn’t need to see it because she heard everything. The schwa sound of indígena Spanish, the swears of the policía. A jumbled new dialect until there were only slapping noises and quickening breaths. The clap of metal on flesh and bones. Then, breathing and sweat.

                The small policía outnumbered the smaller indígena. When she and Galiano finally raised their tired heads, the indígena were on the ground with wet, maroon faces dented by the machine guns. Blood and dirt and juice. Her eyes stung, this time with tears.

                “Arrest them and take them away, hijueputa,” ordered the sergeant firmly.

                The other officers jerked the broken men to their feet and dragged them to a green police truck waiting not too far away. The brown murk was still pouring from their faces.

                The Bride-To-Be talks about their plans for the honeymoon.

                “Costa Rica,” she says. “You know, something a little ‘off the beaten path.’ ” She makes air quotes with her fingers. Her French manicure includes tiny rhinestones, which shimmer in the light.

                The Fiancé grins at her over his glass. “I told her, why not Turks and Caicos? Why not Mustique? A luxury retreat.” He slaps his hand on the white table cloth.

                “Costa Rica is very up-and-coming,” chimes in the Kate-Spade-Lady, “and there’s still adventure. You could do one of those canopy tours with the howler monkeys. There’s an active volcano …”

                “Never a dull moment with my little pet,” says the Fiancé.

                He seems genuine. They all seem genuine. When I look again, they’re all beaming at the lovely and adventurous Bride-To-Be.

                “¿Y ustedes tienen pasaportes?” asked the sergeant, towering over her and Galiano, still topsy-turvy on the knoll. He had surprised them from behind.

                In silence, they showed him their documents, which he glanced at half -heartedly.          “What the hell are you doing on the road to Huancayo in the middle of an Indian strike?” he asked.

                “We’re tourists,” said Galiano.

                The sergeant sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Get a move on,” he said. “Stay out of trouble.”

                With their knees and their backsides wet from the grass, they readied themselves to continue their trek. The policía drove away with the indígena in the bed of their truck. She imagined them clutching their bones together as they bounced and rolled over the hillside.

                “Are they going to kill them?” she asked Galiano after the truck had disappeared, but he didn’t answer her.

                The Andes were suddenly forlorn. Everything was silent, even the gravel under their feet. Rising against the sharp mountain peaks – brown, white, then blue-white – there was only smoke and the stench of burnt rubber.

                “So what about Drew and Susan?” A voice pulls me from the toasty cinnamon of my B&B.

                I look up dully and try to figure out who asked the question. For a minute, they’re ogling me with fiendishly wide, perfect smiles and bulging eyes. When I glance over at Drew, he’s blushing, and I realize what they’ve insinuated.

                When Galiano slipped under the cold, stiff covers, she was still crying. Hours had passed. She could tell he was at his breaking point, but still, she couldn’t stop.

                In Huancayo at last, neither of them had much money, so they rented a miserable room where the door didn’t close all the way. The walls, marred by the names of sweethearts and perverted poets, didn’t meet the ceiling, but the sheets on the bed were clean enough. She was afraid to go outside by herself because of the prostitutes, gossiping and blowing rings of smoke near the patio. She cried harder, while chewing brittle coca leaves in her cheek.

                Puta, you never stop, do you?” Galiano’s patience finally cracked.

                The sounds of snapping bones resonated in her temple. “I’ve never seen men beaten that way,” she tried to explain. “I hate these dirty places,” she said, reading the walls again. “God, it’s so cold.”

                “Humph,” said Galiano. “I thought you were from New York. Surely, it’s colder in New York?”

                She tried to snuggle closer to him, but he turned his back toward her.

                “You need to be tougher,” he said. “Stronger. Así es la vida in la calle, vos.” That’s life in the street.

                Knowing he was right, she bit back her tears.

                “You’re just not accustomed to this. It’s too hard for you. If you think it’s hard here, you’d never make it in El Salvador.”

                The war again. He was talking about the war that had ransacked his country a decade and a half ago. Galiano, begot by the death squads, born into the mass graves – he still carried it with him, pinched into the premature wrinkles lining his eyes and forehead. Sometimes, when her mind was clear enough, she felt like he blamed her for it, even though she was just a baby when Reagan was president.

                “Maybe you should just go back to your own hijueputa pais where you feel more comfortable. The life’s easier there, isn’t it? ¿En los Estados Unidos?”

                She hated him. She hated him more than the cold and the filth etched into the walls. Hijuelacienputa. Son of a hundred whores.

                “I’m not going back to my country,” she spat. “We decided that we would travel together and we are going to stay together because supposedly we care for each other, no? I’m not going back to the U.S., not now, not ever. There’s nothing for me there, and I wish that you would stop talking about what I’m accustomed to when you don’t know how my life was there. It’s not easy there either you know.”

                He frowned at her doubtfully and reached up to turn off the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

                In the noisy grayness, she recalled the Chilean artisan they had met on the road. She was older, maybe in her forties, with freckled cheeks and thick eyeliner. At first, she and Galiano had talked about their travels – the best border towns to cross into Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil. The places where the policía were tranquilo; the places where they were the most hijueputa. Then, they discussed the business of crafts – the polishing of quartz and amber, the price of wire, the best tools to make earrings, necklaces, and anklets for the tourists. But before long, the two were flirting openly, so much that she was afraid Galiano would suggest a threesome, which she wasn’t sure she could bear. He’d make fun of her then – call her a coward, inflexible, frigid – like all the gringos.

                “What can you buy in the U.S. for just one dollar?” the woman had teased her, grinning with her thick silver teeth.

                She hadn’t wanted to answer. She knew the woman would squint derisively at her Nuyorican Spanish.  

                “One piece of gum?” Galiano had asked, joining in.

                In Manhattan: a 12-minute phone call from a pay phoneyou could still find them; a few postcards; a couple of newspapers; two Snickers bars at CVS; the best fucking cup of coffee in the world. Could you say the same of Santiago? she shouted in her head, but at the time, she’d shrugged and said nothing.

                Outside their dark room in Huancayo, one of the prostitutes barked with laughter. The others shrieked like night birds. Galiano finally rolled over and pulled her close.

                “I’m not going back there,” she whispered again, and he offered her a squeeze.                                                                      Finally.

                I feel my face contort, but I can’t form the words. A giggle escapes, and I somehow convince myself that I can fake it. Quiet, giggling girls can be cute sometimes. Suddenly, Drew, still flush-faced, adopts an awkward demeanour – the feigned confidence of a braggart. It fits him like a pair of shoes that are too big for right now, but into which he’ll grow.

                He announces to the table and to my dismay: “Susana spent some time in South America.”

                “Ooooooo …”

                That must have been gorgeous,” says one of the ladies.

                My mouth is instantly dry.  I try to will the words to my tongue, but my brain seems lost.

                “Really, dear?” His mother’s brows arch toward her hairline. “What were you doing there?”

                My mouth opens on one side while on the other, my teeth clench shut. The voices in my head throw up their hands.

                “She was teaching,” Drew says. “What was it? Two years ago?”

                “Oohhh …”

                “Yes,” I finally sputter.

                “Where?” asks the Bride-To-Be. Her words are like a song. “Not Costa Rica, by any chance?”

                “Perú.” The words escape in Spanish.

                The Bride-To-Be and the Kate-Spade-Lady nod their approval.

                “Peru?” thunders Drew’s dad. “They have a large Indian population, right?”

                “Yes … there is,” I say.

                And with that the table erupts with talk.

                “Is that right?”


                “The Incas.”

                “Incas or Incans?”

                “Native peoples … tribal peoples.”



                The men snicker at the other end of the table.

                “So, tell us about them,” says the Kate-Spade-Lady, ignoring the men.

                They grow quiet again. Eyes wide and attentive. All eyes on me.

                Reclining, Drew reaches his arm around the back of my chair. He seems relaxed and proud. Proud of himself. The words still escape me.

                “Were you working on a mission, dear? Educating the Indians?” asks his mother.

                The table approves unanimously. “How noble.”

                “No,” I say. “I didn’t work on a mission.”

                The mother nods thoughtfully. “Are they still barbaric?”

                “They have big families,” says one of the men. “The girls marry incredibly young.”

                “I saw a documentary not too long ago,” says another. “They’re untouched by civilization.”

                “Don’t they kill their babies if they have too many?”

                “Remember what happened in Cochabamba.”

                “… No running water …”

                “… Dreadfully impoverished …”

                “Living in mud huts … cow dung …”

                “… No healthcare; no birth control …”

                “… Typhoid …”

                “… Yellow Fever …”

                “… Jungle …”

                “… The lack of education …”

                “… Flies everywhere …”


                “They have culture,” snips the Kate-Spade-Lady, rising above the din. “Just not education. There’s a difference, you know …”

                “What?” I blurt out, confused by the buzzing. “Who?”

                “The Indians, dear,” clarifies his mother, polishing off her cognac.

                “The indígena.” My ears fill with water. “Yes … Yes … Barbarians.”

The Top 10 Weirdest Relationships in Literature

Cross-dressing, blood-sucking, inter-species flirtation and a touch of necrophilia. The novelist Rosie Garland picks her top ten weirdest relationships in literature. Her debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities, is published by HarperCollins in March 2013.

Rosie Garland, photo by H Fairclough
Rosie Garland. Photo (c) H Fairclough.

Whether the gods are spreading eagle wings and carrying off pretty young men, or showering virgins with golden seed, strange relationships have been central to all religions and cultures.

I was suckled on fairytales. As a child, when opportunities seemed much more fluid, the idea of marrying a mermaid or a lion seemed entirely reasonable. Admittedly, many of the tales reassert the “normal”; Goldilocks rejects the bed-hopping antics of the Three Bears; Snow White is rescued from the polyamorous possibilities of Seven Dwarves by a faceless charming prince. I preferred Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty stuck by her monster to the happy ending.

The edge of things has always interested me more than the soft, squishy centre, whether that’s apple pie or politics. I’ve always written about outsiders, whoever they might be. I’m inspired by characters who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates they have been provided with, and the friction that occurs when they try.

The Palace of Curiosities, HarperCollins, March 2013
from HarperCollins, March 2013.

So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that my debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities (out March 2013), is set in a Victorian sideshow. It is told through the eyes of Eve, a woman completely covered in hair, and interwoven with the story of Abel, a man who heals from any wound. Both of them are freaks of nature, and both are searching for escape. The novel explores life on the fringes of society, what it means to be different, and traces their struggle for self-discovery on the boundaries of what is perceived as human.

So, being asked to choose the top ten weird relationships in literature is a tough call. Why not Gregor Samsa, transformed into a beetle in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”? Ahab and the white whale? All seven of Mr Wroe’s Virgins?

Here are my picks, in no particular order of strangeness…

1. Shakespeare – Twelfth Night

Viola and the Countess by Frederick Richard Pickersgill 1859
“Viola and the Countess” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (1859)

Who better than the Bard to open the proceedings? Strange relationships abound in his plays, from Titus Andronicus’ gore-fest to Titania’s infatuation with Bottom. In Twelfth Night, he plays with gender confusion in his most flirtatious manner. Viola dresses as a man, Cesario, and falls in love with Orsino, who is in love with Viola — but he rather likes the look of Cesario too. Olivia also falls in love with Cesario. Confused? Add this twist: A man acts the part of a woman who is impersonating a man. She (or he) loves a man who is in love with a woman. Who is actually a man. Your head may explode now.

2. Marquis de Sade – The 120 Days of Sodom

"The story of Juliette", 1789 Dutch edition
“The story of Juliette”, an illustration from the 1789 Dutch edition.

Vestigial plot, layer upon cumulative layer of sexual activity, each one impossibly more extreme than the one preceding it: are these the near-unreadable masturbatory fantasies of an Aristo who spent much of his adult life in prison, or nascent radical sexual philosophy? The jury is most definitely out. The Noes are led, unsurprisingly, by Andrea Dworkin who saw in him the archetypal violent misogynist. However, the Ayes have some heavyweights on their team, including Simone de Beauvoir who thought him a forefather of modern Existentialism, and Angela Carter (see No. 10), who described him as a “moral pornographer”.

3. Bram Stoker – Dracula

Bela Lugosi & Helen Chandler, Dracula, 1931
Bela Lugosi & Helen Chandler in the 1931 film

The grand-daddy of them all. Not so much for the long-undead Count’s blood-sucking consummation with Lucy, nor the homoerotic frisson between him and Jonathan Harker in the opening chapter, nor even the luxuriant eroticism of Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three wives. The strangest scene is that between Dracula and Mina Harker. Dracula gashes a wound in his own chest and forces Mina to suck at the bloody slit, like a “child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk”. Say what? Repressed Victorian sexuality at its finest and weirdest.

4. Edgar Allen Poe – “Berenice”, “Ligeia” and “Morella”

"Ligeia" by Harry Clarke, 1919
“Ligeia” by Harry Clarke (1919)

You wait ages for a story dealing with sex and grave-robbing, then three come along at once. Each of these short tales features a narrator with a far from healthy interest in the physical remains of their recently-deceased lovers. “Berenice” shimmers with fetishistic descriptions of her teeth, freshly yanked from the cadaver; the narrator of “Ligeia” attempts (ahem) “resuscitation” of her corpse; “Morella” is a twisted narrative of “mistaking” one’s daughter for her dead mother. All dished up with voluptuous description of death and disease. Something for all the family!

5. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

It’s a relief to turn to safe romantic fiction. Or is it? Well-known for its opening line and unnamed narrator. Known only as the Second Mrs. de Winter, she is prim, naïve and even after she hooks the dashing Max, there’s no sense that much sex takes place. So far, so boring. However, when it comes to Rebecca it is clear that there was a great deal of sex, and none of it wholesome, vanilla or in any way missionary. A mistresspiece of anti-feminism, the novel charts the downfall of a woman who is prepared to perjure herself to hang onto her man. Her reward is a wife-murderer for a husband.

6. Ursula le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness, cover by Alex Ebel, 1974
Cover by Alex Ebel (1974)

Classic is a much overused word, but I’ll brave it in this case. A human, Genly Ai, visits Winter: a planet whose citizens are neuter, adopting sexual identities and having sex only once a month. Genly is called “the Pervert” for being male all the time and becomes drawn into labyrinthine diplomatic struggles. When he develops a relationship with Estraven, a native of Winter, he learns much about life free of binaries or dualities.

7. Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club

Fight Club poster, 1999
A poster for the 1999 film adaptation

A rare example of a great novel with an equally fantastic film adaptation — in fact it’s hard to read it without seeing Pitt, Norton and Bonham-Carter. Partly an elegy for masculinity in crisis, it has one of the strangest relationships in fiction. Not the Narrator and his girlfriend Marla, but the Narrator and Tyler Durden. The novel has a far greater homoerotic frisson than the movie (e.g. they meet on a nudist beach). The two men might not have sex of the missionary variety, but theirs is one of the most intensely physical relationships in fiction, and certainly the most bizarre.

8. Alan Moore – Watchmen

Watchmen, Dave Gibbons, 1987
(c) Dave Gibbons (1987)

In Moore’s tour-de-force, superpowered Doc Manhattan is so far removed from humanity that he loses all interest in whether it lives or dies. He leaves for Mars, leading an emotionally detached existence, unconcerned by the ants wriggling on the surface of the blue planet next door. It’s only his unlikely relationship with the very human Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) that enables him to reconnect with the miracle that is flawed humanity. And thereby saves the world. Hurrah!

9. Gene Roddenberry – Star Trek

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Kirk and Spock, Star Trek
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Kirk and Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Did they or didn’t they? Roddenberry broke sixties’ conventions with a bridge crew featuring white, black, asian and alien. He made no secret of wanting to throw gay characters into the mix (nixed by the studios). One theory is that he hid them in plain sight as Kirk/Spock — whom he compared to Alexander and Hephaiston — the pairing which sparked the whole subset of “slash” fiction. In this novel, he created the word t’hy’la (meaning friend/brother/lover) purely so Spock could use it when referring to Kirk. And don’t get me started on the famous “this simple feeling” scene. “Chums” don’t hold hands like that. Trust me.

10. Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber, 1979

In my voracious childhood reading of fairy tales I took a particular dislike to Hans Christian Andersen and his angst-ridden tragedies where Match Girls die of hypothermia and Little Mermaids never get their prince because they have icky tails. The short stories in The Bloody Chamber knock that melodramatic misery into a cocked witch’s hat. Bursting with strong female protagonists, an assertive Red Riding Hood wakes the morning after “between the paws of the tender wolf”, and in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”, the heroine transforms herself into a tiger in a delightful reversal of the traditional tale.