Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Pleased to Meet You: Some Mysterious Strangers in Fiction

On this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I talked about some of my favourite ‘mysterious strangers’ in fiction. You know the sort of character I mean… a shadowy stranger who arrives to tempt the protagonist and seems worryingly (alluringly?) familiar. Inspired by a novel I read recently, I thought it would be good to gather up some of these mystery men for this week’s show.

You can listen to the show on the player below. But, as promised, here is the list of books featured. If I’ve missed any of your favourites, let me know in the comments.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2008)

The Angel’s Game (El juego del ángel) is the prequel to Zafón’s 2001 novel The Shadow of the Wind, and like the earlier book it was translated into English by Lucia Graves. The book includes reference to a couple of settings and characters from The Shadow of the Wind, but it also works as a standalone novel if you haven’t read the earlier work.

The book is set in Barcelona in the 1920s and 30s, and tells the story of David Martín, a troubled young man who works for a newspaper after the death of his father. As he attempts to develop his burgeoning literary career, David writes penny dreadful-style serial fiction (the Mysteries of Barcelona) under another name. And then… he gets a letter from a strange French publisher named Andreas Corelli. David ignores the note and continues to try to make it as a novelist. He moves into a mysterious tower house and becomes preoccupied by the fate of its previous occupant, but Andreas Corelli isn’t done with him yet. He has a proposal to make to the aspiring writer that is almost too good to be true…

Zafón followed the book with The Prisoner of Heaven (2011), which was a direct sequel to The Shadow of the Wind, and then The Labyrinth of Spirits, both of which return to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and Sempere and Sons Bookshop, two places that play an important part of the first two books.

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (1984)

In the Rhode Island town of Eastwick, in the 1960s, three women, Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart and Sukie Rougemont, have lost their husbands and developed new powers. They are witches – and not the nature-loving white witch healer kind either. They stick pins in wax dolls, seduce married men, and play nasty pranks on their neighbours. Enter Darryl Van Horne, a dark (but not particularly handsome) stranger, who seduces them all all and increases their powers. When Darryl ‘leaves’ them for a younger woman, the witches of Eastwick use their powers to get some nasty revenge.

Updike’s novel is not a parable of female empowerment or sisterhood, but a rather scathing critique of liberalism and the ‘free love’ world of the 60s. Nowadays, it’s probably best known from the 1987 film adaptation, which starred Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson (and which toned down a lot of the women’s nastiness). Updike wrote a sequel to his novel in 2008, which was called The Widows of Eastwick, and which picked up the women’s story years later.

The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain (1916)

This is the book that gave me the name for today’s theme, but it’s a difficult one to talk about. In fact, it isn’t really one book at all. Twain attempted to write this story on a number of occasions, and it was still unfinished and unpublished when he died. The version closest to being complete (in that it has an ending of sorts) was the one known as No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger. Set in 1490, this version tells of a stranger named only No. 44, who arrives at the door of an Austrian print shop and proceeds to use his powers to reveal the futility of humanity to the print shop workers.

However, the version that’s probably best known now is the composite text published (and, arguably, created) by Albert Bigelow Paine after Twain’s death. Paine claimed to have found this complete version amongst Twain’s papers, but it has since been argued that Paine combined the ending of No. 44 with a heavily edited version of another unfinished text, The Chronicle of Young Satan, to create The Mysterious Stranger. In the published version, set in 1590 in an Austrian village, three boys meet a handsome young stranger who goes by the name of Satan, who performs magic tricks and fortune-telling before revealing the ‘truth’ about their reality.

My first encounter with The Mysterious Stranger wasn’t from the published novel, though. I first came across the story as a (very dark and a little disturbing) section of the 1985 claymation film, Comet Quest (called The Adventures of Mark Twain in the USA).

Needful Things by Stephen King (1991)

Where would a Hannah’s Bookshelf list be without a mention of Stephen King? There are a couple of King novels that fit my theme today, but I decided to go with Needful Things, as it is probably the one that fits best. Needful Things is set in King’s fictional Maine town of Castle Rock – it was marketed as the last Castle Rock story, though King has since published at least one short story set there. The title refers to the name of a shop opened by mysterious stranger Leland Gaunt, a shop which always has everything in stock and on sale at a low price (or is it…?) Leland Gaunt can get hold of anything a person needs, and all he asks in return is that they play a prank on one of their neighbours.

Sheriff Pangborn becomes suspicious when some of the pranks lead to violence, and things threaten to escalate. Gaunt’s assistant Ace Merrill, who is lured to work at the shop with the promise of high quality cocaine, also begins to suspect his boss has more nefarious plans in mind. But just who is Leland Gaunt? and what does he want with the people of Castle Rock?

Needful Things was adapted into a film in 1993, starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia and J.T. Walsh, but it’s not one of the better-known King adaptations. The book is a definite recommendation though.

Passion by Lauren Kate (2011)

Passion is the third book in Kate’s Fallen series of YA novels, which follows the adventures of Lucinda Price and her relationship with a fallen angel named Daniel. Luce and Daniel met at the Sword and Cross Reform School in the first novel (Fallen, 2009), and Luce began to find out about her mysterious new lover’s identity. In the second book (Torment, 2010), Luce discovers that she has been repeatedly reincarnated throughout history, as Daniel is cursed to meet her, fall in love and then lose her. Added to this, various groups of fallen angels, demons and Nephilim (the offspring of humans and angels) are very interested in Luce, and she is beset on all sides by people she can’t quite trust.

By the end of Torment, Luce has decided to use a type of angelic portal to travel through time. Passion sees her moving through her past lives, finding out more about the long history of heartbreak she shares with Daniel. However, she isn’t safe. Angels and demons are out to capture or kill her, and she’s being chased through time by Daniel himself, who is desperate to ensure she doesn’t accidentally change history and erase her very existence. Enter Bill, a very helpful gargoyle who offers to help Luce in her quest for understanding. Bill explains many things to Luce, including quite a lot about her soul…

Passion was followed in the series by Rapture (2012) and Unforgiven (2015).

The Descent by Jeff Long (1999)

The final book on today’s list is a slightly different take on the theme. This time, the characters are a bit more proactive – instead of waiting for a mysterious stranger to show up, they actively go out to search for him. Long’s novel begins with a group of trekkers in Nepal getting stuck in a cave during a blizzard. They find the mummified body of a WWII RAF pilot – which is covered with strange tattoos – but can see no obvious way of the pilot’s body having got to that particular cave. They discover (from a diagram tattooed on the pilot’s body) that the cave is connected to a much larger network, which they decide to explore. But they aren’t alone in the caves…

Jump forward several years: Elias Branch is investigating a mass grave in Bosnia. After a plane crash, his navigator is tormented by an unseen enemy, and Branch believes it has something to do with the local cave network. This begins the intertwining of two main storylines. One follows a military operation to explore (and conquer) the ‘sub-planet’ and its inhabitants, a group of troglofauna-like hominids that are named Homo hadalis (or Hadals) by the humans. The other storyline follows a group of scholars named the Beowulf Circle, who are convinced the Hadals hold the key to human myths of Hell, devils… and Satan himself.

The book isn’t officially connected to the 2005 horror film of the same name, though there are undoubtedly similarities. While the film Descent doesn’t include any of the elements of the military operation or the scholarly search for Satan, many readers have viewed it as a loose adaptation of the book’s opening chapter. I’m not completely convinced, but you’ll have to read the book (and watch the film) to make up your own mind!

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here:

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