Joanna's Top 10 Spine-Chilling Reads

Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel Touched is a spine-chilling tale of a creepy cottage and a mother’s terror as, one-by-one, her daughters start to go missing. So who better to compile a list of her favourite books that go bump in the night? Here are Joanna’s top 10 terrifying tomes:


If I had to choose one favourite novel of all time, it would be this. Profound, important, beautiful - it takes my breath away.

The haunting it describes represents the whole legacy of abuse and tragedy of American slavery.

As the story of an individual mother and the daughter whose spirit returns, it is so utterly moving, so disturbing, it has me in tears every time I re-read it. A masterpiece.


This isn’t even published until September, but when I heard about it, I knew I had to get my hands on it! I was struck by the idea of a museum of stuffed carrion birds (who wouldn’t be?), of a tale featuring bell jars and a decaying house. Even the title itself is high in thrills and chills, and Kate Mosse does gothic like few other modern writers. Her settings seem to be alive.


This is a classic of ghost literature and has to be chosen. Unusually - and it feels terribly low-brow saying this - I prefer the film (The Innocents) to the novel. The script was partly written by Truman Capote, and the eerie lighting is masterly.

It’s a great story of a governess and two small children who seem to be in the grip of evil influences, all the more haunting for its ambiguities. (read the full list at The Express)

Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

A lonely woman's fixation on the lives of her apparently glamorous neighbours leads her on a path to frustration, anger and disaster

Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian

This is a novel in which very little happens. Yet it is also an addictive page-turner, and written with such artistry that the reader can do little but succumb. Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling.

It opens in the first person with a litany of foul-mouthed complaints that comes as a shock to anyone familiar with Messud's usual Jamesian prose style. Here is the story of an angry woman whose explosive rage settles into a sense of threat that pulls us along with it, eager to discover its source. "I want to make my nothingness count," the narrator warns. "Don't think it's impossible."

Nora Eldridge is a "straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter" who has spent four years looking after her dying mother. Now 42 and responsible for her father, she is an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a frustrated artist dragging abandoned hopes, with no partner and a vivid life of the mind. In her "calcifying spinsterdom", she is the ubiquitous "woman upstairs": accommodating, anonymous, almost invisible.

We return to the period five years before, when Nora is becoming aware of lost opportunities. Into her classroom walks eight-year-old Reza Shahid, a new pupil who instantly charms her. Reza's Lebanese father Skandar Shahid is an academic on a year's Harvard fellowship. More intriguingly, Sirena Shahid is an artist, wife, mother: everything that Nora is not. On meeting her, Nora feels the "voltage" of her presence, and an unequal friendship develops. They share a studio, where Sirena produces work on a vast scale while Nora fashions miniature dioramas requiring "hours of dollshouse labor". Nora. Doll's house. Get it? The novel is scattered with literary allusions.

The theme of falling in love with a family is common among young writers, but with the distance of a more experienced practitioner, it feels like fresh territory. Living "the opiated husk of a life, the treadmill of the ordinary, a cage built of convention and consumerism and obligation and fear", Nora appoints the Shahids her saviours as her attachment develops an obsessive flavour reminiscent of Zoë Heller's lonely narrator in Notes on a Scandal. She greedily imbibes their certainty and style, while her idols naturally fail to understand the role they play in her imagination. Nora becomes their free babysitter and an unpaid helper on Sirena's "Wonderland" installation, the piece which is to make her name. Even after the Shahids' departure, Nora is imprisoned by her fixation on that "lost paradisiac year". Her awakening is delayed, and brutal.

The Woman Upstairs is a brave and highly risky novel in that it eschews any significant plot, state-of-the-nation ambition or high concept. It is a strictly artistic endeavour that also works as an entertainment. Kick-starting the story with a rant is a clever device, but it's the quieter, brooding sense of foreboding, the intimation of disaster, that provides, along with the narrator's voice, the novel's engine.

Reminiscent in some ways of The Bell Jar in its wry yet furious take on women's position in society, this is a strongly feminist novel that is neither didactic nor straightforwardly political. It is about creativity versus duty, compromise versus cruelty, the difficulty of reconciling an artistic life with a normal existence. Nora proposes that artistic success requires becoming "a ruthless person", in a world where girls are taught self-abnegation. Above all, The Woman Upstairs is about the "precious, hidden specialness" beneath the most prosaic of exteriors: the secret life of the mind.

The prose here is more relaxed and vernacular than the precise, mesmeric lyricism of Messud's The Hunters or The Emperor's Children. It is an uncomfortable, erudite and deeply profound novel. Sometimes almost wilfully contemplative, its motifs are repetitive and its dark grip unfaltering. This is a world the reader so fully inhabits that it seems a helpline is all that's missing when it ends.

Messud is a bigger name in the US than here, and The Emperor's Children was a New York Times bestseller. The Woman Upstairs is both quieter and braver; it roars in its own muted way, and dares to pin down things that are both excruciating and universal. Claire Messud should achieve literary giant status before too long. To paraphrase Nora, just watch her.

"Sleep with Me"on DVD


Joanna Briscoe's novel Sleep With Me, adapted by Andrew Davies as a two hour drama starring Adrian Lester, Jodhi May and Anamaria Marinca and broadcast on ITV has now been released as a DVD

Listen to Joanna and Andrew Davies talk to Mark Lawson about "Sleep With Me" on BBC Radio 4


Port Eliot Festival

Joanna talking to Dovegreyreader

Joanna talking to Dovegreyreader

Joanna took part in the Port Eliot Festival in Saint Germans, Cornwall discussing her book in the Round Room before heading over to the dovegreyreader tent (see photo) to discuss her latest novel You and indluge in a little knitting. The plot twists (not all of them) and the location (Dartmoor) featured large, along with teenage obsessions and the relentless way that the spirit of the house that had so dominated her childhood and teenage years kept returning to haunt her. Read dovergreyreader's full post about the visit here and the review of 'You'.

"Writer's Rooms" in The Guardian

My Study

My Study

I can write best in this room by pretending to myself that it's a tree-house. It looks quite normal in this photo, but what you can't see is either the quantity of wood or the view, which makes this ongoing fit of delusion possible. Because it's built so high above gardens, with an uncontrolled tangle of jasmine at the window and much creaking of floorboards, it's quite easy to imagine I'm in a wooden hut swaying among the trees and conveniently fitted with bookshelves. I dream of a real treehouse study, but the one spindly, woody specimen in the garden can barely support a bird-feeder, let alone the Swiss Family Robinson cabin of my imagination.

I'm in the last weeks of writing a novel set on Dartmoor, so my mind is full of rivers and racing clouds. Above the desk is a precious birthday present, Dartmoor by Arthur L Salmon, published in 1913, with fog-laden colour plates. The desk was given to me by my father when I was young and wanted to become "an authoress". The chair was nicked from an office I used to rent for 20 quid a week in a building that resembled a public lavatory. It was the only chair I ever found that didn't induce instant scoliosis so when I gave up the office after a section of ceiling crashed on to my desk, I brazenly walked out with it, and carted in an equally ugly replacement.

The children's art is around to remind myself of them in the day, and on the left wall I keep a photo framed by my publishers of the tube campaign for my last novel. I often take my laptop to cafés or the British Library to escape the internet. It's lucky I can write anywhere: my beloved wooden study is threatened with becoming a bedroom.

Cultural Life, The Independent


Books: I'm reading 'The Constant Nymph' by Margaret Kennedy, because it deals with a subject close to the one I've just written about – a teenage girl's obsession with an older man. In my novel, it's a teacher; in this novel, it's a family friend. Published in 1924, it reads as though written much later. When I'm not reviewing, I go back to the classics, or quirkier 20th-century novels. Before this, I read 'The Franchise Affair' by Josephine Tey and 'Girl Reading' by Katie Ward.

Television: I'm hooked on 'Glee'. Other than that, I do the classic working-parent thing, by catching up on the big series with box sets. Lovefilm is my TV salvation! I'm inevitably addicted to 'Mad Men', and have had a little re-watch of 'Twin Peaks' 20 years later. It pretty much stands up.

Theatre: I admit to being a total philistine when it comes to the theatre – partly because it's just too darn expensive. I recently walked out of 'The Children's Hour' because it seemed to be lacking any dramatic tension or drive. 'Jerusalem' was the best theatre I have ever seen. A masterpiece.

Music: I recently heard Ana-Maria Vera playing Mozart and Chopin. I'm also listening to Tanita Tikaram, because I think her recent work is very good, and I'm also enjoying Jocelyn West singing Hildegard von Bingen. My standby is Bruch's 'Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor'! As ever, I'll loyally trot along to see Debbie Harry...

Visual Arts: The Susan Hiller at the Tate Britain was amazing. I'd first seen her at the Camden Arts Centre, which I like as it's local and nice to be in. I recently saw Kerry Tribe there. The exhibitions are always quite extreme, but thought-provoking. (more)