Suspension of disbelief is a term that describes our willingness to be fooled. We all know that when we crack open a novel, we’re volunteering to be lied to, after all; the author is spinning a tale, and in order to enjoy it, we put aside our usual suspicion and distrust. We’re willingly lied to, even if we know on some level that it’s all trickery. Except when it isn’t: sometimes you read a novel describing events so incredible your suspension of disbelief begins to collapse into actual disbelief—and then you discover the story is based on true events, and your entire worldview is challenged. Here are five novels based on incredible, unbelievable things that actually happened.
The Revenant, by Michael Punke
In the early 19th century, a man named Hugh Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear while on a trapping mission with a handful of other men. Badly mauled and far away from even the primitive medical care available at the time, he’s left for dead with two men instructed to guard him from local (and antagonistic) American Indian tribes and bury him properly when he dies. When American Indians do arrive on the scene, however, the men steal Glass’s weapons and other gear and abandon him—but not only does he not die, he drags himself hundreds of miles to an outpost, heals, and then sets out to seek revenge. This story seems as impossible as 127 Hours, but it’s just as real; Punke’s exhaustive research proves it happened.
Paperback $15.30 | $17.00
The Heart of the Sea and Moby Dick, by Nathaniel Philbrick and Herman Melville
In perhaps the most meta moment of all time, every year the novel Moby Dick becomes thousands of students’ personal White Whale, a book readers fear and dread but must face down. While Melville’s classic remains a challenging, brilliant work of fiction, Philbrick’s nonfiction work illuminates the true story of the whaling ship Essex, which in 1819 was rammed and sunk by an enormous sperm whale, leaving the remaining crew to struggle for three months to survive in tiny open boats—or not survive, as most died of thirst, starvation, and exposure before reaching safety. The fact that anyone lived to tell the tale at all would be an unbelievable plot twist if the story were fiction.
Paperback $16.20 | $18.00
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Martin’s epic fantasy may wind up taking as long to write as the historical events that inspired it took to transpire; while the Wars of the Roses didn’t involve any dragons or undead hordes streaming in from Scotland (although the English tended to treat the Scots similarly to the Free Folk), this dynastic struggle for the crown in 15th-century England is Martin’s avowed inspiration for the “game of thrones” that sets the horrific events of his story in motion. The Wars of the Roses lasted about 30 years and included as much (or more) betrayal, skullduggery, and violence as Martin’s books, ultimately elevating Henry Tudor, Henry VIII’s father and Elizabeth I’s grandfather, and transforming England in ways that changed not just English history, but world history. If you think Martin’s plot twists are crazy, try reading the history that inspired them.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Animal Farm is likely more disturbing than Orwell’s 1984, despite the latter’s bleak view of human nature and emphasis on gruesome torture, because it begins almost like a fairy tale, with a farm filled with talking animals who dream of overthrowing their human oppressors and creating a utopia. Orwell skillfully makes the animals into real characters, so it’s all the more heartbreaking to see the dream corrupted as a brutal fight for power and authority transforms a ideal society into a dystopian nightmare, where some animals are more equal than others. Orwell explicitly based the plot on the events surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution, the civil wars that followed, Stalin’s rise to power, and the subsequent consolidation of authority.
Psycho, by Robert Bloch
Although Hitchcock’s film adaptation has eclipsed Bloch’s novel, the book remains a tense psychological thriller. If you think the idea of a disturbed man murdering people and keeping the mummified corpse of his mother seated in his house, where he frequently has conversations with her, to be a bit out there, consider the real-life serial killer the story is based on: Ed Gein, who made “clothing” out of human skin taken from his victims in order to create a “woman suit” he could wear so he could pretend to be his own mother. Bloch claims he wasn’t aware of Gein until the novel was almost completed, but the details are so similar it seems like too strong a coincidence.