Karen Russell's 6 favorite literary journeys to the underworld
Karen Russell's new book, Orange World and Other Stories, offers eight idiosyncratic encounters with the uncanny. Below, the acclaimed author of the novel Swamplandia! and two previous story collections recommends six journeys to the underworld.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (1955).
You can still get a nasty sunburn in the underworld. In this classic of Latin American literature, Juan Preciado travels into the blasted wasteland of Comala, a ghost town of floating echoes and dueling daymares.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977).
A fusion and fission of African and Greek myths, Morrison's novel is also a profoundly American story. Its protagonist, "Milkman," embarks on a quest to exhume his roots, a reverse migration to tiny Shalimar, Virginia. "Shalimar" derives from "sheol": the Hebrew word for pit, cavern, womb, underworld.
Erdrich's spectacular novel portrays an evolutionary descent. Winter has gone extinct, and animals are devolving into dinosaurs outside Midwestern windows. Fetuses are mutating, and the state detains pregnant women. Erdrich has written the best and most harrowing (12-page) birth scene I have ever read. Women's labor, as she knows, is a katabasis, an epic plunge into the shadow realm equal to anything in the Odyssey.
Ill Will by Dan Chaon (2017).
One of the best and scariest novels I know features a frighteningly unreliable narrator, psychologist Dustin Tillman. It will rob you of sleep and rock your house on its foundations.
Cruddy by Lynda Barry (1999).
This illustrated novel about a father-daughter desert road trip is one of the saddest, most hellish, and also funniest literary journeys I've taken. You might agree if you find the idea of a knife named Little Debbie and a portal to Hades called the Knocking Hammer Bar at once terrifying and hilarious.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956).
If you only know Lewis from his Narnia books, you might be surprised by the depth and power of his last novel, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche framed as a queen's accusation against the gods.
Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar (2014).
When 33 men were trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine in 2010, the surface world was riveted. Although this book is nonfiction, Tobar makes it read like a Chilean version of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," the "Odyssey," and Lazarus' tale.