Our book, The Night Visitors, is a horror novella told through an exchange of emails between two women who are investigating an unsolved murder. Gradually, the effects of their mutual obsession evolve into hallucinatory madness and the supernatural begins to intrude on their correspondence. There were two of us writing, and we each composed one side of the exchange, sending the emails to each other “in character”, then swapping sides after the first draft to edit. We like to think it was the joint folly of the writing process – a kind of spontaneous mutual insanity – that spawned a tale of possession, telepathy and bloodshed.
A correspondence may well sound like a rather fiddly and antiquated way of telling a story, but the disorientating subjectivity of the epistolary form earns its postmodern credentials: chronology is derailed and the reader is required to figure out what is going on based on differing, at times contradictory, accounts. The illusion of a “found” correspondence can conjure or critique realism, adding another layer of uncanniness and doubt, which is always handy when writing a tale involving the natural subject matter of the epistolary: the gothic. In epistolary fiction, the reader becomes a character, implicated by the act of reading: once a letter (or an email) is opened, it becomes the illicit property of its prying audience, the burden of its contents passed on like a curse.
So here are 10 modern novels – or rather seven conventional novels, a graphic novel, a children’s book and a short story – that show the epistolary remains in rude health.
1. The Fan by Bob Randall (1977)
This brisk, now out-of-print pulp thriller tells the story of Sally, an ageing movie star poised for a dubious Broadway comeback. We learn about her through her correspondence with friends, colleagues and a fan, Douglas, whose polite letters requesting an autograph slowly give way to obsession. Randall started out as a playwright and The Fan often feels like a dramatist’s five-finger exercise, but this is belied by his knack for slaloming effortlessly between settings, characters and even letterheads. RVH
2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
Celie begins by addressing herself to God, who does not reply. The epistolary form here comments on the way the violence of racism and misogyny colours the lives of black women in 1930s rural Georgia and isolates them from each other: Celie from her sister, from her children, from her lover. When the characters are finally reunited, the letters stop. JA
3. The Jolly Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg (1986)
The Ahlbergs, the couple behind some of Britain’s most cherished picture books, worked their magic by marrying the fantastical to the mundane. Here, a postman rides his bicycle from house to house, meeting characters from fairytales and delivering their morning post. But there is a twist: this post arrives in the form of physical letters, cards, games and miniature books squirreled away within pages shaped like envelopes. RVH
4. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (1987)
This slim slice of dystopia follows Anna Blume as she sets out into a city in a state of collapse, reporting her picaresque experiences to a friend back home: scavenging has replaced the economy, public suicide is commonplace, corpses are requisitioned for fuel. The “last things” of the title are this world’s objects, which are slowly disappearing, taking with them the language that once described them, an amnesia against which Blume’s letter is an act of defiance. RVH
5. The Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen (1989)
Jackie McKee is kidnapped and held prisoner by a mystery assailant. In the days that follow, touch-typing in a dark cellar, she writes a series of letters to the police, her friends and parents and to God. The novel’s bleak, cliffhanger ending shocked a generation of American teenagers. It’s hard to get hold of now, but worth it. JA
6. Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock (1991)
Griffin, a depressed postcard illustrator based in London, receives a note from Sabine, a mystery woman in the south Pacific, which mentions a change he made to one of his pictures. But it was a change made before publication: how can she possibly have known about it? Thus begins an exchange of postcards and letters – each a tactile and spectacularly illustrated object – that segues into a story of love, fantasy and the destructive power of the imagination. RVH
7. The Mansion on the Hill by Rick Moody (1997)
Andy writes to his “sis”, sardonically describing his experiences working at a soulless wedding venue, the eponymous Mansion on the Hill. Eventually, he finds himself organising the ceremony for his sister’s former fiance: the sister, we learn, is dead, killed on the night before her wedding, her cremated remains interred in a canister Andy now carries around with him. The reader begins to suspect that The Mansion on the Hill is perhaps not a letter at all but a stream of grieving, guilty consciousness directed at an absent individual. RVH
8. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997)
This experimental collage of diary, letter and auto-fictional criticism flickers between seduction and stalking. Kraus uses the form to explore who gets to speak and who gets to answer back, and for all its complex layering and nuanced performance of thought, the book is intensely, addictively readable. I don’t know of any woman who hasn’t read the final pages of this book without a powerful mixture of recognition and rage. JA
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
In the aftermath of a school shooting, for which her son Kevin was arrested and imprisoned, Eva writes to her husband, Franklin. She repeatedly asks Franklin: was their son born bad, or did they make him that way? We Need to Talk About Kevin reminds us that the epistolary form is as much about words lost in transit as it is about letters sent. JA
10. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (2015)
Jason Fitger is a professor of creative writing at Payne University. These are his letters – his hastily typed recommendations, expressing tender enthusiasm for students with little talent and even poorer attendance. There’s a campus novel here, of course, but more than that, there’s a study of hope. What else, after all, is a letter sent out into the world – whether it’s a message in a bottle or an email to a water-cooler company – than an emblem of hope? JA
- The Night Visitors by Jenn Ashworth and Richard V Hirst is published by Dead Ink Books, priced £7.99. It is available from the Hlcarpenter.com bookshop for £6.79.