These Fictional Works Should Come With a Medical Thermometer

Some novels and short stories deserve an “F”…for “feverish.”

Yes, those works are so intense that the “F” word seems totally appropriate, even if the characters’ body temperatures remain at 98.6. The fear they might face is palpable, death might be lurking around the corner, their words and feelings might be anguished or impassioned, the march to the conclusion might leave you breathless, etc.

I read one such novel last week: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s compelling The Insulted and Injured, which is filled with fervent, vehement thoughts and conversations from Vanya, Natasha, and others as they navigate tumultuous relationships and more. Heck, the book’s characters act so feverishly that several of them literally get sick from all their emotional turmoil. (A scene from the novel is pictured above.)

Of course, the much-better-known Crime and Punishment and its Raskolnikov protagonist are so intense that readers might feel like dropping that amazing Dostoyevsky novel like a hot frying pan. Plus first-time C&P readers have a fierce curiosity about whether Raskolnikov’s double murder will be discovered, what the penalty would be, and whether Raskolnikov and Sonya will end up together.

The sheer physical and/or psychological violence of some novels — and wondering who might survive — can certainly dial up the fever meter. Examples include Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, Stephen King’s Misery, and Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, to name a few.

Oh, and virtually all of the Jack Reacher novels conclude with almost unbearably suspenseful chapters as Lee Child’s roaming protagonist tries to mete out justice.

Then there are riveting revenge novels, such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

And novels that deal intensely with social issues — like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

And dystopian novels — such as Butler’s Parable of the Sower, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Albert Camus’ The Plague. (The Handmaid’s Tale fits this category, too.)

And novels claustrophobically set in close quarters, like the ship in Martin Cruz Smith’s memorable Gorky Park sequel Polar Star.

And novels that are ultra-intense romantically — as in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man.

Also, short stories can obviously pack a lot of feverishness into their relatively small number of pages. Examples of these works include — among many others — Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” and many Edgar Allan Poe creations — such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

Which novels and short stories have been the most intense for you?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — a goofy look at how to reach a school’s upper floors without stairs or an elevator — is here.

75 thoughts on “These Fictional Works Should Come With a Medical Thermometer

  1. As a reader, I’m mostly in it for the sensation– suspense, fear, exaltation (a rarer effect to achieve, for writers, in my experience, than the first two), etc., so detective fiction, ghost stories, fantastic tales (but not, for some reason, sci-fi, as I don’t care for it) are my daily fare, punctuated by actual literature from time to time.

    As I look over my vast repository here, I see piles of good intentions. Serious books by serious people I seriously intend to read, but to date, have not found the repose or time for. The books I actually read most often, thankfully, are also the ones I return to the wild once I’ve read them. Otherwise, the place would burst, especially as I tend to keep all the serious books I have managed to read so as to to be able to refer to them here.

    I will mention Welcome to Hard Times by EL Doctorow, a short but breathtaking hellride which had my attention every foreboding minute, and features, on my paperback copy, an actual plug of praise by Norman Mailer, a man who seldom met a writer without seeing a rival to be beaten.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Suspense, fear, and exaltation are all desirable — and I agree that the last feeling is evoked relatively seldom by a novel. The most recently read novel that did that for me was Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers” this summer.

      A positive blurb from Norman Mailer sounds rare indeed! One of those great writers who was not a good person, from everything I’ve read.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Dave, I’m feeling sick to my stomach as I’ve just read more stories from yesterday about the confirmation hearings about the latest addition to our Supreme Court. I don’t think he has the temperament to being on the court for one thing, but I definitely believe Dr. Ford as opposed to him. I was hoping to get through one comment without being negative towards him, but I just can’t seem to do it. Sorry!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I and millions of others are sick to their stomachs, too, Kat Lib. The whole thing was a farce — Dr. Blasey Ford was infinitely more believable than the bad-temperament Kavanaugh, the FBI investigation was an inadequate sham, Republicans (including Trump) acted despicably, Susan Collins is a fake “moderate” sellout, etc. I am seething. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  3. One story that I don’t think was mentioned is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. It’s probably the only one that actually scared me, because our girl scout troop put on a play of it one night while camping in a very dark wood. I’m not sure, but I have this vague memory of being chosen to play Ichabod Crane. It must have been by drawing straws or something, because I was probably the smallest one in the troop at that time, though I shot up in height in 8th grade. I was cursed by always being picked to be a monitor of something!

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  4. Hi Dave,

    It’s great that you opened with a Dostoevski book this week, as “Crime and Punishment” was the first novel that came to mind. I’ve often described it as claustrophobic, so it’s also nice that you have that as a subsection of this week’s intense topic.

    Thinking about literary claustrophobia made me think of Stephen King’s “The Shining”. Once all that snow comes in, and those poor people are trapped with the crazy, I could hardly breathe!

    You also mentioned short stories, which as you said, may struggle to be intense due to lack of pages, but I think it’s something Oscar Wilde does incredibly well in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”.

    I completely agree with Molly about “Gerald’s Game”. I read it in a single night because I just couldn’t put it down. There’s only really one character through most of the book, but she has a very intense time, and King manages to suck you in to the intensity.

    Kat Lib mentioned memoirs which got me thinking about Anh Do’s “The Happiest Refugee”. Anh is an Australian / Vietnamese comedian, and his memoir was very funny in places, however it starts with his childhood in Vietnam, and then a VERY intense boat ride over to Australia. I would love to see it as compulsory reading for all Australians, as we can be so divided on the refugee ‘issue’. I found Anh’s book incredibly eye opening.

    As for boycotting fiction, I’d like to beg that you don’t. Without fiction in the world, this blog wouldn’t exist. And while I haven’t met anyone here in the real world. I do feel that I’ve made friends, and have real conversations about both literature, and the real world. And as Kat Lib said, you’re real nice. I really wouldn’t want to lose that 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Claustrophobic is a great word, and it definitely relates to feverishness and intensity. Dostoyevsky was a master at all that — as is Stephen King in a different way. “The Shining” is indeed an intense novel, and (though I’m a bit wary of how wrenching I might find it 🙂 ) I might try “Gerald’s Game” after yours and Molly’s mention of it.

      I read “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” a few months ago, and it’s a VERY compelling story!

      “The Happiest Refugee” sounds terrific. Intensity and humor — impressive combination.

      And thanks so much for the kind words! 🙂 And for the excellent/wide-ranging comment.

      (The day most readers of this blog boycott fiction will be the day Trump acts like a decent human being. In other words, no danger of us boycotting fiction!)

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Dave, if I only knew one thing about you is that you are a very kind person. I’m not sure that I could be as nice as you are!
    Moving on from there, I’d like to mention jhNY, who not only got me re-reading Ross MacDonald detective stories, but I also came across a few Hamish Macbeth mysteries by M.C. Beaton in our local Salvation Store here in the boondocks. Thanks for mentioning them to me, though I just received in the mail a few Lew Archer novels. This is on top of the fantasy authors, such as the first volumes of Games of Thrones and the Wheel of Time that just arrived the other day. Just how am I going to read them all?! I guess the answer is that I may not anytime soon, but I need to enjoy those that I have today, rather than worrying about those in the future…

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib. 🙂 The feeling is mutual.

      jhNY (like you and other commenters here) often suggests great stuff to read!

      Yes, the number of books to read is overwhelming. You mentioned a very good philosophy — we can only enjoy what we have time to read. Until we get to other books lying around our homes…well, the excellent “A Game of Thrones” is big enough to make an excellent doorstop…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! I was able to get both fantasy books as mass market paperbacks, and the print is very small, but they still both come in at over 800 pages each. It’s somewhat embarrassing to me that I had bought both of them at least 10 years ago, but when I moved to Kennett I gave them away or something. The good news is that I got them again using one of my gift cards, so I keep calling them free books. So, the question is which one to try first: “A Game of Thrones” is much more well-known, which makes me want to try “The Wheel of Time” first, though it has much more in the series. The other thing is that AGOT has many more fans, especially due to the TV series…so who knows? Perhaps I’ll read the first chapter of each to see which one grabs me the most.

        Plus, we were doing errands yesterday, and there are many more trees that have changed colors!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Kat Lib, reading the first chapter of each sounds like a great way to choose which one to continue!

          Yes, when the print is small and the paperback is large-format AND a novel is 800-plus pages, that can be daunting.

          Nice that you’re now getting autumnal views!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Happy to have made suggestions that you’ve enjoyed taking, Kat Lib!

      I am also in debt to you– I am now a veteran of a Lord Peter short story, with plans to get others under my belt in the near future.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good jhNY, I’m glad you’ve tried Lord Peter stories. I mentioned elsewhere in the comments that I’m not that crazy about short stories, so I’ve read them all, as well as the Montague Egg (a wine salesman, of which I’m very fond) stories, but only once each, instead loving the novels so much that I can’t remember how many I’ve read multiple times. But I should note that I meant wine, not necessarily the Egg stories! On top of everything else, Lord Peter is also a wine connoisseur, of course.

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        • I shall bear this in mind, and wait to appreciate Lord Peter fully in book form– but as I did enjoy the story I read, set as it was in Basque country, I shall read the collection I own, knowing the best awaits me!

          As for wine, I would pit my fondness for it against many, while knowing there’s always an enthusiast whose enthusiasm makes mine a pale thing comparatively. I try to limit myself to glass daily, and two on the weekends– and so far, that’s the pace I’ve been able to keep. I doubt I could qualify as a connoisseur, as such expertise requires a familiarity with bottles costing more than $15 per.

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          • Ha! My father was the one who liked and was familiar with wines more than anyone I knew. At sometime in my life when I still lived at home, he introduced me to Chateau d’Yquem sauterne, and at some point I read about it in a Lord Peter novel or story. It was quite expensive when my father gave me a taste of it, which was lovely, but a little sweet for my taste. The first time Bill took me out for dinner 45 years ago, I ordered a bottle of it and it cost $100. The sommelier recognized I was the one who knew anything about it, so he deferred to me when it came to smell and taste, which I thought was very forward looking of him, back in those days. I just looked up what the prices are now, which went from $250 to $1450 a bottle. Yikes! I now buy the cheapest boxed wine I can and am quite content!

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            • It’s virtually impossible to find sauterne anymore. I remember a waiter in Paris suggesting that I order a kir which is sauterne with a splash of Creme de Cassis. It was GOOD!

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            • The closest I’ve gotten to such rarity in vino is a Pommard I shared with an actual connoisseur who wanted me to know what a really complex and fine-flavored wine could be. I was the guy who had said I didn’t know the difference between such a wonder and the plonk I’d sometimes drink with dinner. This was around 1978, and bottle in question cost us maybe $35. He was right. There was a difference, really a difference, and sometimes, I think I can still recall the flavor of that wine all these years later.

              Then I go out and buy another Rioja for somewhere between $11 and $15.

              Liked by 1 person

          • Me also. Further, there is an irony attached to the category, in the form of an Arctic mission’s long winter. Once the ship on which they were traveling froze in ice, the members of the expedition thought they’d be in fine shape for survival, given the profusion of rabbits on the island on which they’d landed. Alas, the rabbits, though profuse were also stringy, their meat nearly devoid of fat. It literally cost more in calories to hunt or trap the rabbits than could be made up by their caloric value. The expedtion’s members perished– perhaps a few survived, but not not most. At least that’s what I remember reading sometime someplace…

            Closer to home, my grandfather survived in the Mexican desert for many days during the Revolution, alone but for his revolver. But he was a crack shot, and therefore, was able to shoot and eat jackrabbits till he reached a company of troops on his side of the conflict. As a small boy, he would have me practice my quick draw from the holster of my toy pistol, and correct my form as needed. He told me it was important to hone this skill, as I might need it to survive. It was only years later, many after his death, that I learned of his own desert experiences. Now, over fifty years later, I have never, thank goodness, shot an actual pistol or eaten a jackrabbit. But I’m trained to be able, as needed.

            Liked by 1 person

            • That’s an awful/intriguing tale of those inadequate-for-food rabbits, jhNY. And what a family history you have — including your adept-at-survival grandfather. He sounds like a character out of a novel.


              • He could also comprehend 7 languages, several well enough to work as a translator– he died at 65 while translating a technical manual for a railroad refrigeration system. He survived the revolution, moved to the US in1917, did well enough in the import/export business to own a Cord in the mid-1930’s, and all while standing no more than 5’2″ in his stocking feet.

                He also found a cache of gold coins behind a wall, hearing the coins clinking during an earthquake at a time during the Revolution he and his old aunt were barely able to feed themselves on what little money they had, and stopped a robbery (and the lives of two robbers) of an elderly gentleman with his pistol in Mexico City, from a couple of blocks away, thanks to the rifle stock he had for it– one of those 44 long barreled Colts.

                Incredible, yep, yet there’s more….he does sound like a character out of a novel, one that might be hard for one to find credible. But that’s the thing about fantastic Real Life.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. I would say Sophie’s Choice was a very intense read for me. The same goes with M. Kantor’s “Andersonville,” probably one of the most graphic and intense books I’ve ever read. I would also toss “Man in the High Castle” out there as a pretty intense read. As hard as it is to read some of these books sometimes, I also can’t seem to disengage from them. This was especially true of “Andersonville,” since I am so familiar with the Civil War, that prison, and the terrible things that happened there. Kantor put in an incredible amount of research and the historical accuracy was amazing. A read that’s worth your time if you can work up the stomach for it!

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    • Thank you, Neil! Unfortunately, I haven’t read “A Journal of the Plague Year” (the two Defoe books I’ve gotten to are “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moll Flanders”). But from its title alone, and from just reading a Wikipedia entry about it, it seems like it must be incredibly intense. I appreciate you mentioning it.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Oh, and let us not forget “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. When I read that as a teenager, I literally had to put the book down periodically and pace the floor to calm myself before continuing to read!

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  8. Dave, I’ve read quite a few of the novels you mentioned, plus some of the short stories and agree with you on them being included although I’m not a big fan of them — of course, Edgar Allan Poe, he’s the best I’ve ever read, which knowing as you do about my reading habits makes a lot of sense. He’s considered by many to be the father of the detective story (3 stories featuring Dupin, including my favorite “The Purloined Letter”), and he’s also written other stories that would fall under the category of the macabre, such as you mentioned above. They were definitely intense.
    However, you probably also know that I’m very partial to memoirs, which to me can be even more intense than any novel or short story, including “The Widow’s Story” by Joyce Carol Oates; “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “Blue Nights” by Joan Didion; “The Liars’ Club” and “Lit” by Mary Karr; “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls; “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and “Cocktails Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” by Alexandra Fuller: and I could go on and on with this topic; but I know that this isn’t what I should be focusing on. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! Mentioning memoirs is totally relevant — the better ones are like great novels in their structure, intensity, and “literary-ness.” Other examples to add to the many excellent examples you listed would include Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” to name just two of the more famous ones.

      Re your first topic, it can be harder to build feverishness into a short story’s relatively few pages than a novel’s many more pages, so it’s impressive when that’s pulled off by people like Poe, etc. One VERY intense story I forgot to mention in my column was Graham Greene’s “Proof Positive.” Quite short, but memorably haunting.

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      • Dave, I’ve read this story through a couple of times and if I’m reading it correctly it’s not something I believe in. Am I missing something?

        Btw, I was just been loaned by one of Bill’s daughters a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle (which I’m very fond of), that is entirely copies of hardcover books from “Beowulf” to more contemporary books. I hadn’t asked her for it, but I think she saw my bookshelves. 🙂 This should be fun!

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        • Good question, Kat Lib. I also don’t believe that “the spirit” outlives the body, but I thought Graham Greene’s depiction of how that “spirit” kept a body “alive” and talking was spooky and fascinating. For all I know, Greene also didn’t believe “the spirit” outlives the body, but figured it would be an interesting writing exercise. 🙂

          That jigsaw puzzle sounds great! I imagine it pictures MANY books you’ve read.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, it’s probably somewhere about 50/50. The best I can say for myself is that I had heard about all of the books on the cover, as part of the half I hadn’t actually read.

            I just noticed that at least some of the trees in the community, including one in my backyard, is changing color. It’s going to be gorgeous out there once they all change over. This is one of the first years that I’m looking forward to the fall and winter, because I now have the gas fireplace and all-home generator. It’s all quite exciting! My only problem is that both my dogs don’t like the rain, so I don’t know how I’m going to get them out when it’s cold and snowy. 😦 But there are much worse things in life!

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            • Well, 50/50 is impressive, Kat Lib!

              Nice that you have the beginnings of fall color in your neck of the woods. With climate change causing warmer weather, the leaves start to turn a bit later these days.

              Hopefully your dogs will adapt to their new winter reality in your new place!

              Liked by 1 person

  9. The first one that comes to mind is Stephen King’s ‘Gerald’s Game.’ I remember reading it and slamming it shut, not sure I could continue. He did a fantastic job writing from a woman’s point of view, and the most terrifying part of the story was that it could happen in real life. Adding the supernatural component brought it to a fever’s pitch!

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  10. Four years ago I read 2 of the very famous, very long novels everyone recommends: “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Don Quixote.” My conclusion? Both were wastes of time. Both were trivial mind games, roller coasters, or soap operas.

    The “Anti-Hero” is a well-known trope or archetype.

    In the world of book lovers, I am an Anti-Hero.

    As such, my mission in life is to convince people to EXIT the world of FICTION, and re-engage, in a more intimate & serious way, with REAL LIFE.

    All that time that you and I spend with Fiction: We never get that time back. It’s gone, gone, gone. And what do we have to show for all that time sacrificed to Fiction? Nothing, nothing, nothing. As King Lear tragically said, “Nothing comes from nothing.”

    How shall I convince you to join this holy crusade against Fiction?

    Caveat: There is one novel that I’ve read and recommend: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” I view it as being, in part, an implicit condemnation of 99% of the world of Fiction. It does this by going beyond, below, & above all the fiction tropes & games that are recycled over and over again in Fiction, Cormac’s “The Road” gets down to the existential core of Real Life.

    Well, I mean no harm. Good night and good luck.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the interesting comment, Barto!

      I’ve read “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Don Quixote,” and while they both were long and sprawling enough to have their ups and downs, I liked them a lot overall. I felt when they were good, they were VERY good — and they reached that level often. The devil scene in “The Brothers Karamazov” is one of my favorites in literature.

      I realize reading fiction is an escape in a lot of ways, but the better novels can tell us a lot about real life. And even books that don’t tell us much can be entertaining; heck, we can all use a psychic breather once in a while, and I’d rather get that from a novel than from, say, TV.

      “The Road” is a great book, but there are various Cormac McCarthy works I like better — including “Suttree,” “All the Pretty Horses,” and the mentioned-in-my-column “Blood Meridian.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, nice to escape un-fantastic real life with a novel. Heck, the real-life Republican disgustingness of the past few days is enough to make one want to literally live in a novel, a la Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.”


  11. I don’t think I ever read James Dickey’s “Deliverance”, but I certainly saw the movie! I developed an elevated temperature due to the disturbing subject matter, truly! I also developed a fever when I watched “The Poseidon Adventure” which was based on a book written by Paul Gallico, who remarkably wrote the “Mrs. ‘Arris” adventures. I never read “The Poseidon Adventure” either but I sure did read some of the “Mrs. ‘Arris” novels!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, lulabelle! Two excellent mentions!

      I both read and saw “The Poseidon Adventure,” and it was indeed VERY suspenseful. (Hard not to be when a ship goes upside down!) I haven’t read or seen “Deliverance,” but have heard a lot about how intense it was.

      Liked by 1 person

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