A little over halfway through my MFA degree, the time came to put together a comps list for my degree. This is a major component of the program—one of the must do’s before graduating a certified “writer”—and putting together a list of reading list with your advisor is one of the unique joys of academia. Every program has its own preferences in terms of what goes on the list in what way, but I thought I would reveal what went into mine (as it currently stands).
Our MFA list is required to have 30 texts total: at least five of these must be writing craft, reference, or nonfiction texts; the rest should be a variety of fiction or poetry texts (based on our specialization). A case can be made for some different kinds of media. If an author is writing within a particular genre the list should include but not be limited to that genre.
I went through several drafts of my comps list before I even sent one to my advisor. Then we met, negotiated, and I revised my list. Luckily, that second list is the one that is my current “working” version which means it’s what I’m building my annotations off of. I’ll try to explain a bit of my thought process behind my choices.
A large portion of my reasoning behind my choices is the nature of my thesis itself, which is complicated. I’m writing a horror novel-in-stories/linked short story collection that’s focused on a small town in Oregon where weird things happen to the townsfolk. It’s heavily thematic, based in folklore and religion, and focuses more so on community and setting than continued character-building or a single cohesive plotline. With that in mind, I had a lot of inspiration and sources to possible draw from.
- Danse Macabre by Stephen King. Originally, I had King’s On Writing, but my advisor suggested this instead and, after reading it, I agreed with the change. King’s analysis of the horror genre and several important works within fiction and film addresses many of the key thoughts I’ve had to address as a newer writer to the genre.
- Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy. While not explicitly writing to horror authors, I think Percy’s main point that a story should keep reader’s attention is key to fiction no matter what and he has lots of great examples.
- On Writing by Eudora Welty. I wanted to include a craft book by a female author as well as a craft book that spoke more to short story writing; luckily this one hits both of those and touches on the use of setting as well.
- West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West edited by Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland. Since my book takes place in Oregon, I’ve had to do some research into how writers conceptualize what is “Western” now that we’re past the stereotypical cowboys-and-Indian days that most people think of with the genre.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My book is heavily ecologically themed and having some knowledge brought forth from an Indigenous writer and their culture is never a bad idea.
- Horror: A Literary History edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes. It’s also never a bad idea to include a history of your genre, particularly when you’re the first person in your program to write exclusively in it.
- Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while; the stories are linked by the actions of characters and it’s written by a WOC, which brings much needed diversity to this subgenre.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Originally, I had Mitchell’s Slade House but my advisor pushed for this change because he loves Cloud Atlas and it still is, in many ways, interconnected stories. Additionally since each section has its own mini-genre and tone it will probably give me ideas that I could bring to my own.
- Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. Since Faulkner kind of inspired the original tone of the book back when it was 100% Southern gothic, I figured I had to include some of his work as my “classic” example of the form.
- Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock. This is a nice example of linked stories that focus more so on a town and its people than solely on characters.
- Goblin by Josh Malerman. These are actually linked novellas, but the bonus is that they’re horror and they build up the history and folklore of a town which complements my own book nicely.
- Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx. Expanding up to state-size, this collection is probably best known for the story “Brokeback Mountain” and I was drawn to the rugged characters and the similarly built landscape.
- Girl Trouble: Stories by Holly Goddard Jones. Recommended by my advisor, this collection includes the same story told from two different perspectives.
- Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due. One of the eminent WOC horror writers, Due’s collection focuses on place as well as touching on different aspects of folklore.
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this version of the form definitely focuses more so on character, but, hey, it won an award so I wanted to include it.
- Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. This retelling of the Vanishing Hitchhiker mythos gives voice to the ghost herself as she reappears and disappears; since I play with that legend myself I figured this was an obvious choice.
- Castle Rock created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, based on works by Stephen King. One of the earliest compliments I received on my town was that it was reminiscent of Derry in King’s work; however, King’s fictional towns span entire novels and I don’t have time for that. This show not only condenses it into easily digestible episodes, but “The Queen” in particular has had an impact on the book.
- Revival written by Tim Seeley with art by Mike Norton. The second I picked up this comic series I wanted it on my comps list. It’s got an isolated small town, spooky stuff, and differing views on the spooky stuff—perfect.
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. One of my personally formative horror novels, I had to include what, for me, is one of the scariest novels I’ve read and loved.
- The Ritual by Adam Nevill. Getting lost in the woods, folklore, and tensions between people are kind of par for the genre but this novel takes that to the next level.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This is like required horror reading at this point. How could I not have it?
- Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. This novel about a town that does its best to cohabit with a witch is a nice example of everyday horror.
- Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell. I discovered this thanks to Paperbacks from Hell, and I wouldn’t be emulating Southern/Western gothic without a crazy powerful family.
- The Auctioneer by Joan Samson. Another Paperbacks from Hell find, and another one that brings rural horror to the forefront.
- Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Marchado. I’m pretty sure most of my cohort is going to include this on our comps list; not only does it pay particular attention to the body, but it’s positive in so many ways that many of us are trying to be in our writing. I’m paying particular attention to “The Husband Stitch.”
- Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward. I could have picked one of Jesmyn Ward’s other amazing novels, but I have a novella in there about brothers and family drama so this one called to me a bit more.
- The Changeling by Victor LaValle. This dark fairy tale captures a tone that I’m attempting in some of my stories and LaValle is great at what he does.
- Winter in the Blood by James Welch. Something about this novel speaks not only to the landscape, history, and ideals that are also present in my book, but also to many of my characters.
- LaRose by Louise Erdich. Even with its basis in a particular Native American tradition, the idea of this is how-it’s-done-here and making things right is something that I feel carries through within my own book.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison. The only horror novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this is not only one of the most famous books about Reconstruction but a ghost story as well. It plays with time, family connections, and has interesting motifs that I am also playing with in my own work.
For now, this is my comps list. Over the next year I will read or reread all of these books, write annotations for each of them, and then—eventually—I will take a test that examines how they connect to each other, to my own work, and to my very soul. These are the texts that will come to define my MFA and, in a way, to define me. I think I’ve made good choices, and I’m happy with how horror-centric the list is.
Wish me luck; I’m going to need it.