Guest Post: Lucy Atkins on Fiction’s top Five Twisted Housekeepers and Nannies
What happens when the one place you should be safe - your home, and, by extension, your relationships with the people you welcome into it - becomes dangerous? The ever-growing domestic suspense genre is proof positive of the perennial appeal of novels examining this exact question. Personally, I like to think that it’s the familiarity we have with these stories' backdrops that make them so chilling; it's as though the authors of domestic thrillers reveal to us just how fine the line is between the perceived safety of our ordinary lives and the myriad frightening ways that things can quickly turn sinister. Perhaps the strongest (and most inventive!) example of this particular vein of suspense that I’ve read recently can be found in Lucy Atkins’ deliciously chilling psychological thriller THE NIGHT VISITOR, which releases in the US today (7/3/18). The driving force of this superb suspense novel is Vivian Tester, a housekeeper and caretaker for an old estate. When Vivian uncovers the rare diary of a female Victorian physician, she makes contact with a popular historian in hopes of sharing her remarkable find. The two women embark on a project together, chronicling the life of the diary’s author - but the journey begins to twist and turn towards a claustrophobic and downright sinister conclusion. Vivian is a case study in the trusted individual whose apparent selflessness hides darker motivations. She may look like the kind of person you'd want to welcome into your personal life, but don't be fooled—she has a few tricks up her sleeve that will shock readers as much as they shock the unwitting target of Vivian's laser-focused attention.
With the release of THE NIGHT VISITOR, Vivian Tester joins the ranks of some of fiction’s most twisted housekeepers and nannies—and today on Crime by the Book, Lucy Atkins stops by to share her expert opinion on who exactly those "most twisted" housekeepers and nannies are! If you’re in the market for a chilling story of should-be "safe" relationships gone very wrong, listen up: Lucy has the reading list for you. (And, while you’re at it, grab a copy of THE NIGHT VISITOR—you won’t regret it!) Read on for Lucy's picks, and to learn more about her superb new release.
Top Five Fictional Housekeepers and Nannies:
These “helpers” will give you nightmares long after you close the book
By Lucy Atkins
When we think about fictional home help, the woman who probably springs to mind is Mary Poppins. With her umbrella and sparkling eyes, her songs and fun and spoons full of sugar, Mary is the essence of positivity, the mothering outside force brought into the chaotic home to smooth out all the creases, revitalize, organize, and nurture. For suspense writers such sweet and innocent figures are irresistible. We chew them up, give them a twist, and spit them out as something else entirely: the lovely pregnant woman and her unborn demon in Ira Levin’s 1967 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby, or Neil Gaiman’s “Other Mother” with her black button eyes in Coraline. Sigmund Freud famously explored this effect in his essay on the “unheimlich”: the feeling that something supposedly secure and familiar is in fact unsettling and wrong, perhaps even deeply disturbing. When novelists create twisted housekeepers and nannies we are playing with exactly this feeling because few things can be more disturbing than realizing that the woman who looks after you—or your children—is not, after all, a safe pair of hands.
1. Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
She has to come first: the original, the one-and-only, the crème de la crème of scary housekeepers, Mrs. Danvers has it all. She is supercilious and sinister, fleet-footed, creepy, clever, narrow-eyed, dressed in black—the ultimate dangerous manipulator, guarding her glamorous mistress’s legacy, and playing on the nerves and insecurities of our young and naïve narrator. When it comes to menacing housekeepers of a certain age, absolutely nobody does it better than “Danny.”
2. Louise in Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny
A recent sensation in France, Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny features the babysitter all parents dread. The book’s brutal opening line tells us everything we need to know: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.” But why would Louise, a dedicated, efficient, middle-aged nanny commit such a heinous crime? The devil is in the details here—when Louise plays hide-and-seek she leaves the little children just a bit too long, until they are terrified; when her boss throws out a chicken carcass, she plucks it from the trash and feeds it to the children. Louise’s twisted psyche unfolds gradually and grimly. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
3. Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery
Okay, so she’s not strictly a housekeeper, but middle-aged ex-nurse Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s 1987 horror thriller Misery shares so many of scary housekeepers’ traits it’s impossible not to include her. Played by the truly menacing Kathy Bates in the Hollywood movie, Annie is a literary superfan gone crazy. She plucks our hero, a bestselling author, from the wreckage of a car crash and proceeds to “care” for him in her own home, setting his badly broken legs herself, administering hard drugs, and tending him back to “health.” But of course, she is also deeply disturbed: she has blackouts, mood swings, and depressions where she slaps herself, binges, and grows increasingly, and dangerously, paranoid. Annie is the domestic “carer” to end all carers.
4. Eunice in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone
As with Leila Slimani’s French nanny, we know from the very first line that housekeeper Eunice did a very bad thing: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Eunice comes to the English countryside to look after the nice posh family but—like all the best scary housekeepers—she comes with a shadowy past. A social misfit, she is furiously efficient and completely sociopathic. A chilling creation by the queen of suspense.
5. Nanny in Evelyn Piper’s The Nanny
This one’s a bit of a wild card since the novel is frankly bonkers and very dated—you’ll either love it or loathe it—but sinister Nanny has to be up there with the best of them purely because Bette Davis played her so brilliantly in the 1965 Hammer film. Nanny has all the key ingredients: she’s a bossy, helpful Mary Poppins, but with a glint of menace in her eye. The awesome Bette Davis was in her element and Nanny remains a chilling reminder that the woman bathing your child might not be quite what she seems . . .
Plus: Catch My Review of THE NIGHT VISITOR
I absolutely loved Lucy Atkins' THE NIGHT VISITOR - you can catch my full review here, or find an excerpt below!
Every summer that CBTB has been in existence, there’s been one out-of-left-field psychological thriller that has snuck up on me and totally blown me away. In 2016, this was BLOOD WEDDING by Pierre Lemaitre; in 2017, it was a book I was lucky enough to work on publicity for - FINAL GIRLS by Riley Sager. This year, I’ve found my “out-of-left-field” favorite: THE NIGHT VISITOR by Lucy Atkins. Atkins is an award-winning author and journalist, and THE NIGHT VISITOR is her third novel - but it’s the first of her work that has ever found its way onto my reading list, and boy, am I so glad that it did. After devouring this exceptional psychological thriller, Atkins has secured herself a spot on my list of must-read suspense writers. So impressed was I with Atkins’ writing that I did a little reading about her background, and discovered that she has extensive experience both as a book critic and a teacher of creative writing. Frankly, given the quality of her newest release, I wasn't the least bit surprised. Take it from me: her professional experience shows. Wholly original and utterly unputdownable, THE NIGHT VISITOR delivers a superb story of suspense with a personality all its own. If you love gripping psychological thrillers, quirky and compelling characters, and a story with a totally unique backdrop (an old estate + the world of academia!), THE NIGHT VISITOR belongs on your reading list. In short: every book should be as fun to read as this one.
THE NIGHT VISITOR by Lucy Atkins
Hardcover: 544 pages
Publisher: Quercus (July 3, 2018)
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