7 Books Featuring Unnerving Wetlands

Written By Rachael Conrad

Rachael Conrad is an award-winning indie bookseller with over a decade of experience in the industry. When she's not reading or writing Rachael can often be found exploring the woods and tide pools of Maine and discussing who the best Chris is (it's Pine, obviously). Her writing can be found in Tor/Reactor, Polygon, and Kirkus Reviews."

I have, for quite some time, been fascinated by wetlands. 

Thinking back, I’m positive that a large part of this has to do with the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings and the ghosts lying in wait for Frodo just under the surface. But marshes aren’t the only wetland that have proven themself to be  mysterious, dangerous, strange, or even harbor the dead (both in fiction and in real life). There are swamps with their ancient, toothy residents and bogs, which are known to perfectly preserve those who are unfortunate enough to get trapped under their surface. They’re fodder for incredible stories, and ground-breaking scientific research. And, as it happens, are quite important parts of our environment as well. 

Below you’ll find seven books ranging from fiction to nonfiction that feature bogs, marshes, fens, swamps, and just about every kind of wetland in between. 

Bog Bodies: Face-to-Face With The Past by Melanie Giles 

By definition a bog or a bogland is an area of freshwater wetland that accumulates decaying plant life, otherwise known as peat over time. But it’s what that peat can do that is truly fascinating. Decay creates acid with a pH level that is akin to vinegar which, you may or might not know, is a key material in preserving things. A lot has been found in bogs over the years, perfectly preserved human remains included. 

Melanie Gist’s book, Bog Bodies (yes, there are two books on this list with the same title) brings readers to North Western Europe, where the preservation of these wetlands allows people to study the past in intense detail. From the world  famous cold-case, the Worsley Man, to their appearances throughout folklore, Gist discusses the intrinsic importance of these wetlands in our lives. 

The Lewis Man by Peter May

Clearly inspired by tales of bog people and the perfectly preserved corpses that have been recovered from the earth, The Lewis Man, the second book in Peter May’s wildly popular mystery series, begins when an unidentified corpse is found preserved in a peat bog on a remote island. The only real clue as to who this person is lies in their DNA, which happens to be a match to an elderly local suffering from dementia. While he has always claimed to be an only child, the truth points to a very different story. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Set during a brutally hot summer in Northumberland, an area in the northeast of England that borders Scotland, Ghost Wall tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie and her rapidly deteriorating relationship with her parents. Her father’s fascination with Iron Age Britons has brought their family to a university funded archaeological encampment near a bog. 

Ghost Wall is the kind of book that will stick with you long, long after you’ve finished reading it. It expertly builds a sense of disquiet and dread that builds to an unstoppable crescendo in its final chapters. Moss ratchets up the tension with each page as the past seamlessly blends with the present 

Swamplandia by Karen Russell 

What’s not to love about Karen Russell? Her novel, Swamplandia, is truly bizarre from the first page to the last, and a perfect example of a book with a grasp on a sense of place—in this case, the swampy Florida Everglades. 

Swamplandia tells the story of Ava, a tenacious twelve year old, and the seventy alligators left in her charge after her mother’s sudden death. Stranger still is the fact that her sister is having an affair with a ghost and her brother has gone all in on the World of Darkness. While Ava faces seemingly insurmountable odds, she comes from a hearty stock and it shows in this gripping coming of age tale. 

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey 

Did you know that in the early twentieth century, Congress planned to fix America’s meat shortage by importing hippos and raising them in Louisiana’s bayous? The plan sadly fell through, and Americans went on to live the free-range hippo-less lives we know so well today. 

Sarah Gailey’s action-packed and insanely fun novella, River of Teeth, imagines what life in the 1890s might have been like if Congress succeeded and ranchers raised hippos rather than beef. One of those ranchers (turned mercenary hippo wrangler through a series of unfortunate events) is the charming and enigmatic Winslow Houndstooth. Winslow, a bisexual Englishman of questionable repute, is tasked by the U.S. government to assemble a crack team to help deal with a sudden influx of feral hippos. Winslow’s crew is a rag-tag bunch of wonderfully diverse, refreshingly non-heteronormative characters that includes a con-woman, a pregnant professional killer, and a demolitions expert. While the feral hippos are terrifying, Winslow (and readers) soon discover that the humans in River of Teeth story can be much, much worse.

Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in Climate Crisis by Annie Proulx

Probably best known by readers for Brokeback Mountain and Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s latest book, Fen, Bog, and Swamp turns an eye to the natural world and how our ever changing wetlands can affect different aspects of our daily lives. 

In Fen, Bog, and Swamp Proulx covers these myriad different wetlands, illuminating how they have changed—for the better and worse—over the years. With a journey that begins in 16th century England, Proulx takes readers around the world, from the Hudson Bay to Russia and beyond, she gathers formidable and enlightening facts for her readers. 

Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton 

Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton is a brutal, bloody, and gorgeously illustrated survival story set in the remote mountains outside of Dublin. It’s part crime story, part ghost story, and manages to push the boundaries of its genre in delightfully unexpected ways. 

When a young Irish gangster, badly injured and on the run, encounters a woman who is lost and alone, they’re forced to band together to survive the desolate marsh between themselves and safety. Bog Bodies is a relentless tale of violence that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.