There’s a particular kind of spooky book I like to read when autumn rolls around. They’re not necessarily scary per se — but they all have the same sort of air about them: They’re the kinds of stories that beg to be told when the weather starts to get cooler and the nights grow longer and October is in the chair. There’s an impulse to write horror fiction off as “just meant to scare you” and nothing more — but as I’ve mentioned before, good horror is about something much more than just what’s going on on the surface. It’s usually talking about something else — something we really should be talking about.
That’s what these books have. For me, at least.
[Like what you read? Consider supporting The Ghost In My Machine on Patreon!]
After I started compiling this list, I realized that there was probably enough here that two installments might be necessary — so that’s what I ended up doing: Splitting the list into two separate posts. The first one will focus on just one category, since it includes the most titles: Ghosts and Haunted Houses. Why so many ghost stories? Mostly because I just have a particular weakness for them, and as a result… well, let’s just say that I read a lot of them.
As always, this list is far from comprehensive; they’re just things I’ve read and enjoyed. You might feel differently about them, and that’s totally cool. Also, I’ve tried to focus on books that might have flown a little more under the radar; we’re probably all already familiar with Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson, for example. So let’s take a look at some other options, shall we?
Also: If you’re an e-reader user, I highly recommend finding out whether your library lets you check books out on your e-reader. After I moved last year, I discovered my new library has a terrific e-reader lending system in place, and it was life-changing. Seriously, you guys. Library-ing in bed is way better than Netflix-ing in bed.
So, without further ado, onto the Best Spooky Books To Read, October 2016: Part 1:
Ghosts and Haunted Houses
1. White Is For Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
I only discovered Helen Oyeyemi a few months ago, and it was one of those “Where have you been all my life?!” situations. Although White Is For Witching, which was published in 2009, is Oyeyemi’s third book, it seemed like the right one to start with for me; it’s got a small town in England, and a family, and loss, and a house that really, really doesn’t like outsiders. White Is For Witching likely won’t be to everyone’s taste; Carrie O’Grady at the Guardian, for example, called it “a ghost story that lacks both a story and a proper ghost.” I agree more with Andrew Ervin’s assessment in the New York Times, though:
“Helen Oyeyemi’s eerie third novel features a young woman who has a strange eating disorder and lives with her twin brother and widowed father in a haunted house across the street from a cemetery full of unmarked graves. On the surface, this setup might appear best suited to the young adult fiction market, but Oyeyemi (who was born in Nigeria and educated in England) knows that ghost stories aren’t just for kids. And White Is For Witching turns out to be a delightfully unconventional coming-of-age story.”
Oh, also, check out Icarus Girl. Oyeyemi’s first novel (written while she was still in school, astonishingly), it’s also a ghost story of sorts.
2. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Some people think House of Leaves is impossibly pretentious. That may be the case, but I still love stories that play as much with form as they do with content — and if you do, too, it doesn’t get much better than House of Leaves.
The book is kind of like a nesting doll: It’s a story within a story within a story. At the very center of it is a documentary called The Navidson Record, in which a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist moves his family to a house in Virginia in an attempt to repair their fracturing relationships — only to find that the house is bigger on the inside, but not in a good way.
We don’t see The Navidson Record, though; instead, we read about it second-hand in a lengthy piece of film criticism written by a blind man living in Los Angeles known only as Zampano. Zampano’s footnotes reveal his own story even as he details the story of The Navidson Record… and by the way, he’s dead. After he died, his manuscript was discovered by Johnny Truant, a young would-be tattoo artist, whose own footnotes reveal a troubled past and present of his own.
Oh, and as far as Johnny can tell, The Navidson Record doesn’t actually exist.
The story is as winding and twisting as the inside of the house — which, to me, is always the heart of the story, literally and metaphorically. The house freaks me out — the first time I read the book, I actually had to stop reading it before bed because it made my dreams that messed up — and yet, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Which is probably what it wants, ultimately. Isn’t it?
3. Slade House, by David Mitchell
I’ve been been a David Mitchell fan since I first picked up Ghostwritten on a whim in a tiny local bookshop in Maine during the early 2000s. What struck me as extraordinary about Ghostwritten is how distinct each narrator’s voice was; although I spent the first couple of pages of each new chapter a little unmoored as I tried to figure out who was speaking, I was totally fine with it, because it was so very clear that someone new was speaking — I just needed to take the time to get to know them.
I’ve read everything Mitchelle has published between then and now, and while I think some of his books are stronger than others — Cloud Atlas will always be one of my favorites, for example, due to its wonderfully executed and complex structure, while I felt The Bone Clocks was a little sprawling and got away from Mitchell in places — I always take something away from them. That’s the mark of good art to me: It might be flawed, but it’s always interesting.
Slade House scared the pants off me.
And it was interesting.
That ticks all the boxes for me.
I’ve been noticing a theme of time travel — or at least, time anomalies — in newly published horror tales lately. It’s not a new theme, of course; time travel fiction has been around for centuries, as has horror, and they’ve intersected more than a few times in the past (hi there, Army of Darkness). But it seems to be gaining steam in spooky literary works presently, with Slade House being one such example. One of the books in the Murderers and Serial Killers section below features it, too. I’ll be interested to see where the theme goes in the coming years.
But in any event, if you find a gorgeous old house with a beautiful garden tucked away near the pub down the road… don’t go inside. No matter how inviting it seems… it’s not.
4. In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters
I was not expecting this one to spook me nearly as much as it did, but it ended up being one of those books I needed to read with the lights on. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is a fairly conventional ghost story, with a girl during a time of great upheaveal — 1918, the Second World War, and the Spanish flu epidemic — getting some disturbing visits from what looks like the ghost of her first love. This ghost, though? He’s in pain. And the way it manifests is really, really freaky.
I haven’t read anything else by Cat Winters, but if you’re looking for a well-told, classic ghost story, her books look to be good bets. Her most recent one, Yesternight, was just released on Oct. 4.
5. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters is primarily known for her books set in Victorian society featuring LGBTQ protagonists, but The Little Stranger takes place in the 1940s. Her previous novel, The Night Watch, had also been set in the ’40s, and her following one, The Paying Guests, took place in the ’20s; in her more recent novels, it’s been interesting to watch her move away from the era which so defined her earlier works (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith). All of these eras, though, are excellent lenses through which to study class and socioeconomic struggles, and The Little Stranger does so with the additional layer of something that may or may not be supernatural in nature.
Like a lot of gothic literature, The Little Stranger’s centerpiece is a house. It’s a house that was once grand, but which, with the collapsing class system in postwar Britain, has fallen into disrepair. The family, too, which inhabits the house has fallen somewhat into disrepair, and the strange occurrences and frequent tragedies on the grounds certainly don’t help matters. If you like your ghost stories more in the vein of The Haunting of Hill House, The Little Stranger might be worth picking up.
6. Angelica by Arthur Phillips
In retrospect, it’s interesting that Angelica wasn’t the first Arthur Phillips novel I picked up; that honor goes to The Tragedy of Arthur, which tickled my background as both a theatre artist and a specialist in Renaissance drama. (I mean, he actually wrote the alleged Shakespeare play discovered in the novel. And he did it in verse. That’s dedication.) But when I enjoyed that one enough to want to check out more of Phillips’ work, of course the next one I grabbed was Angelica.
Phillips is at his best when he’s taking his cues from longstanding literary traditions, and in Angelica, he takes the Victorian ghost story and stands it on its head. There’s a tragedy, of course — there always is — but the nature of the tragedy changes depending on whose perspective we’re seeing it from. There’s also a spirit medium, and a spooky child… or is there?
Angelica would have been equally at home in the Unreliable Narrators section. Do with that what you will.
Tune in next week for Part 2: Serial Killers, Unreliable Narrators And More.