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Solitude is a favorite hobby of mine. I’m a true introvert and turning into a bit of a hermit as the years go by, so I can entertain myself for days on end without the need to speak to another human. But even I find isolation to be such a shivery and delicious building block of suspense. The feeling that no one can help you and, in fact, they might not even be able to hear you? Ooo, that gives me goose bumps.

But between cell phones and cars and the internet, isolating a protagonist isn’t as easy as it used to be, and bad situations aren’t so scary when you know the character can call 911 at any time. So how to amp up that feeling of a character being utterly alone with their fears?

Obviously, isolation in the physical sense is the quickest way to remove a safety net and throw people into freefall. The wilderness, the sea, or a cabin high in the mountains all work as amazing settings that can prove more deadly to a character than any escaped psychopath. For me, outer space is the ultimate isolation, and I freely admit to overdoing my sci-fi reading this year as I looked desperately for a way to flee the earth’s troubles.

But isolation isn’t only physical. When I started writing AT THE QUIET EDGE, I wanted to separate my poor characters from help in even deeper ways. In the book, Lily and Everett are a mother and son living in an apartment in a storage facility at the edge of a small town. During the day, the business park is bustling with strangers, but at night there are no other people within a mile. More than that, Lily and Everett are a bit exiled from their neighbors because Everett’s father embezzled millions from businesses in their small town, and the police are more interested in tracking him down than they are in helping Lily when strange things begin to happen.

Needless to say, I spent months thinking about isolation and separation and how they amp up tension in a story. Here are a few of my favorite reads from the past year that really struck that note for me.

Isolated by Distance

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Caitlin Starling, The Luminous Dead

 The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling combines the distance of a desolate planet with the pressing terror of underground entrapment. Once you’re a few kilometers below the surface of any planet, no one can help you, and Starling adds a deadly combination of a paranormal happenings, an unseen beast waiting to pounce, and a mysterious, off-the-books boss directing the protagonist deeper into unexplored caverns. I wanted to cover my eyes and hide while I was reading this.

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Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir begins with the terror and dread of a man waking up on a spaceship alone with no memory of his life before. When he discovers two dead astronauts who were supposed to be his teammates, the weight of being completely cut off only increases. This book is the story of him solving the mystery of how he arrived on board, why he’s in space, and just how impossible his mission is. And then he discovers he’s not actually as alone in the darkness of the universe as he thought…

Isolated by Love

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Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon is the story of Vern, who is isolated in so many ways, but to me, the driving factor here was love. Love for her children and for herself drives her into the woods and cuts her off completely from the world. She chooses that solitude so she can raise her babies free of societal expectations and a seemingly all-powerful and unidentifiable villain. This book is described as “genre bending” and I couldn’t agree more. It’s a survival story wrapped up with body horror, science fiction, and lyrical social critique.

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Gus Moreno, This Thing Between Us

This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno dives deep into how a wall of grief can separate a person from the rest of the world. Thiago can’t ask for help, because he’s so buried in his sorrow he’s not even sure he needs it. Is he being haunted by ghosts or by his own guilt and pain? His love and loss separate him from his friends and loved ones and eventually drive him to a remote cabin in the mountains. But of course, he brings the ghosts along with him, and now he can’t escape. A wonderfully scary horror novel.

Isolated by Society

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Rose Lerner, The Wife in the Attic

The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner separates the gothic protagonist from the greater world with all the oldest divisions: class, origin, economics, religion, and identity. Miss Oliver is a guest in her employer’s home, not quite a servant but definitely not an equal. Everything is not as it seems, of course, but is her employer a generous, caring victim or a cruel villain? Asking for assistance or demanding any investigation feels impossible in a town where this man is held above her by anyone who could possibly help.

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Nnedi Okorafor, Remote Control

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor is an epic tale of a girl called Sankofa who brings death with her touch after a strange, otherworldly encounter. She is homeless, wandering, and no longer has a family, and for obvious reasons, she is feared and rejected by every town she approaches. It’s a surreal journey through the near future with a girl who carries loneliness as a heavier burden than death.

Isolated by Deed

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Ashley Audrain, The Push

The Push by Ashley Audrain examines the horror of the most unforgiveable sin of all: a mother who doesn’t love her child. We might draw back in disgust at the idea, but it begs the question: what if the child isn’t lovable? Imagine the absolute isolation of thinking there is something very wrong with your own child when even acknowledging that fear paints you as evil and disturbed. A chilling story.

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Darby Kane, Pretty Little Wife

Pretty Little Wife by Darby Kane presents us with the dangerous isolation of needing to cover up a crime. How in the world do you ask for help when you’d be revealing your own misdeed? This is a delicious cat-and-mouse tale of revenge. Lila Ridgefield is the only one who knows that her dead husband’s body has wandered away. Either he recovered and wants payback or someone knows all her secrets. She’s trapped by her own actions, and I loved every minute of her cool and competent approach to her problems.

Isolated in Every Way!

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Catriona Ward, The Last House on Needless Street

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward tics every box. There is so much isolation and secrecy in this book that at first I didn’t understand anything that was happening. The characters are decidedly… odd. And the main protagonist is living at the edge in every single way. He resides in a boarded-up house that backs to the forest. He was raised by a parent so disturbed that he was kept from normal society. His love for the other characters is a deep and twisted secret that isolates him further from the world. His fears and secrets and dark guilt keep him from asking for help or even knowing he needs it. An astounding and terrifying read that will pull you deep into a desolate life.

I hope you enjoy any or all of these reads!

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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