Previously: Spooky Books: Ghosts & Haunted Houses.
Time for the second installment of the Best Spooky Books To Read, October 2016 edition. Whereas last week we focused on ghost stories, this week, we’re broadening it out a little bit: Murders and Serial Killers, Unreliable Narrators, and Short Stories. As was the case with last week’s selections, the books found here aren’t necessarily “horror” in the classic sense of the word; they span many genres, often even defying genre entirely.
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But what they all have in common is that they’re “October books” for me — the kinds of books that are good no matter when you read them, but which always pack a particular punch at this time of year. (See the introduction to last week’s post for more about what I mean.)
Murderers and Serial Killers
I first discovered South African writer Lauren Beukes courtesy of a Humble Book Bundle; the book was Zoo City, her second novel, and I was hooked. I picked up Moxyland shortly thereafter and ate that one up, too, so of course as soon as I heard in 2013 that she had another book coming out, and that this one featured a serial killer… well, the fact that I would read it the day it was released was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
That book was The Shining Girls, and it’s magnificent. So, too, was Broken Monsters, which followed just a year later in 2014.
The Shining Girls was the first of Beukes’ novels to take place in the United States, rather than South Africa, which means that the underlying issues it and Broken Monsters — also set in the United States — address are a little different than the themes that occupy her earlier works. They all deal with classism and socioeconomic struggles, though… and they also examine perception in some interesting ways. They remind us that although we all know that the way we see something might be entirely different from the way someone else sees it… sometimes we lose track of exactly how different those two points of view can be.
Oh, and by the way, The Shining Girls? That’s the other time travel horror story I mentioned in the first installment of this list. Do with that what you will.
2. The Killer Next Door, by Alex Marwood
I can’t tell you much about Alex Marwood herself; it’s a psuedonym. But what I can tell you is that her books are great. The Wicked Girls, published in 2013, is sort of a Boy A story with a few more twists, while The Killer Next Door is about… well, the killer next door. Set primarily in a shady flat in South London, the daily lives of the inhabitants — and their pasts, which sometimes have a habit of catching up to them — are juxtaposed with scenes from within one of the flats that show exactly what happened to all those missing girls everyone keeps talking about. The thing is… we don’t know exactly whose flat we’re in.
The killer might be next door, but no one actually knows it.
3. Sister, by Rosamund Lupton
I am always an absolute train wreck at the end of Rosamund Lupton’s books, and it all started with Sister. There are actually two sisters here; Tess, who is missing, and Beatrice, who is trying to find out what happened to her. It sounds so run-of-the-mill when I describe it like that… but if I tell you anymore, it’ll give everything away. Really, it’s best if you just discover it all for yourself. Just know that, as is the case with so many of the books on this list, things in Beatrice’s world may not be what you think they are. Everything you think you know, in fact, might be completely, utterly false. And it will be absolutely heartbreaking when you realize it.
(And then check out her second book, Afterward, when you’re done; that one kind of falls under “Ghosts and Haunted Houses.” I haven’t read her third, The Quality of Silence, yet, but you’d better believe I’m going to.)
1. You, by Caroline Kepnes
Joe seems like he should be the perfect boyfriend.
He’s really, really not.
And that’s probably all that I should tell you about this one.
There’s a sequel to this one, by the way; it’s called Hidden Bodies. In some ways, I kind of wish there wasn’t one — the first book is full of delicious ambiguity, and I think the open-endedness serves the story well. That said, it’s also still absurdly fun (in a sick sort of way) to watch everything unravel in Hidden Bodies, too.
2. Before I Go To Sleep, by S. J. Watson
The reason I’m filing this one under “Unreliable Narrators” isn’t because we can’t trust the narrator; it’s because the narrator can’t trust herself.
Before I Go To Sleep is kind of Memento-like in that its protagonist can’t make new memories; however, unlike Leonard, she can’t recall her old memories, either — the ones from prior to her accident. She has a system in place to help her get through the day, which she has developed with help from her therapist… but when all you know about your life and yourself is what other people tell you about them, the truth of your existence is at the mercy of whatever everyone else wants you to believe.
And what some people want you to believe may not match up with the real truth.
(P.S. Don’t see the movie adaptation of this one. It’s terrible.)
3. The Possession of Mr. Cave, by Matt Haig
Like David Mitchell, I’ve been eagerly gobbling up everything Matt Haig has written since early in his career. I actually read his second book — The Dead Father’s Club, a riff on Hamlet — first; honestly, though, that’s probably what got me so interested in his work in the first place. His first novel, The Last Family In England (published in the United States as The Labrador Pact), is a riff on Henry IV, and while I do have an appreciation for the Henriad, Hamlet has always been the Shakespeare play that resonates the most strongly with me. It’s one of those pieces I keep coming back to, time and time again, getting something different out of it each time, depending on where I’m at in my own life at the moment — whether that’s high school, college, graduate school, my mid-20s, or, as now, my 30s.
But I digress.
My point is that Haig’s inventive methods of storytelling explore what’s often referred to as “the human condition” in wonderfully unique ways: Through ghosts, through talking dogs, through vampires, through aliens, and through forms that tell us just as much about what’s going on in these people’s lives as the content does.
The theme of what it means to be family recurs frequently in Haig’s work — indeed, almost all of his novels for adults feature families at their centers — and The Possession of Mr. Cave is no exception. It explores what happens when a family is essentially cut in half: Whereas once the Cave family consisted of father, mother, and twin children, a son called Reuben and a daughter named Bryony, following the deaths of his wife and son, Terrance Cave is left alone to raise the remaining Cave child. It’s perhaps understandable that he’d become a little overprotective — but Terrance quickly begins to spin out of control. And that’s when things start to get messy.
The title for this one is a clever one; there are several layers of meaning there.
But perhaps I’d better leave you to tease out what they are on your own.
1. 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill
I believe I’ve mentioned this once before, but I actually find Joe Hill’s stuff to be more frightening than I do his dad’s. Not that I don’t have a soft spot for Stephen King, too — once I was old enough to venture into the Grownup Section of my hometown’s library when I was a kid, I systematically worked my way through everything of his they had, devouring it all at great speed — but, well… Hill’s stuff often seems to tap into something a little more human to me, and therefore a little more terrifying, as well.
20th Century Ghosts is a superb short story collection, in part because it’s not all ghosts, and it’s not all horror. Sure, there’s some straight-up, meant-to-cause-nightmares stuff in there; indeed, the very first story in the book, “Best New Horror,” falls under that umbrella (so, if you liked Heart-Shaped Box, which my dad never actually finished because it scared him too much, you won’t be disappointed here). But there are also stories like “Pop Art,” which has a fantastical premise (it exists in a world where some people are inflatable), but which also nails that feeling of loneliness and isolation we’ve all experienced at one time or another simply for being “different” than the norm. (That one always sends a pang straight through my heart.) Every single story is a winner, even if you don’t usually like short stories as a medium.
My favorite story in the collection is hidden, though. You’ll have to look for it. But trust me: It’s worth it.
2. The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers
Confession: I haven’t seen True Detective. I kept meaning to watch it, but then I heard that the first season was excellent until the finale turned into a train wreck; and then I heard that the second season was terrible; and now I’m kind of afraid to start it for fear that I’ll get really invested in it and ultimately end up overwhelmingly disappointed. Nothing hurts more than a story that shows remarkable promise, but just doesn’t land.
If I do ever watch it, though, at least I’ll be well prepared; people tell me that The King in Yellow is a major part of the series. My Amazon history tells me that I ordered the book in February of 2014, so I’m actually pretty sure that I decided to read it because I’d seen some chatter about it inspired by True Detective’s first season. (The show began airing in January 2014.) That, and the fact that H. P. Lovecraft was apparently a big Chambers fan. An endorsement from a writer you already love usually means something will be worth it.
And it is worth it, although I… honestly don’t know if I should really tell you anything about this one going into it. The stories are connected… but they’re also kind of not… and they’re really, really weird. But you’ll probably dig The King in Yellow if you like spec fic (published in 1895, it takes place largely in what was the future at the time — by which I mean the 1920s), George Orwell (particularly 1984) or Philip K. Dick (particularly The Man in the High Castle), or the Cthulhu Mythos.
Oh, and it’s in the public domain, so it’s free on Amazon (linked above), as well as available via Project Gutenberg. Thumbs up to free books.
3. Any of Neil Gaiman’s Collections
I’ve long been of the belief that if you only ever read one short story collection in your life, it should be Smoke and Mirrors. Then again, though, Fragile Things and Trigger Warnings both have some terrific things in them, too; I’m also fond of the collections Gaiman has selected and edited, Unnatural Creatures and Stories: All-New Tales (with Al Sarrantonio). I particularly enjoy his brief introductions for each of his own stories — it can be hard to nail down where a writer’s inspiration comes from, but the theme that keeps coming back time and time again is about looking at something that exists in our own world and thinking, “What if…?” I love that.
I’m usually hesitant to classify Gaiman as any one genre; usually I just like to refer to him as “fantastical” and leave it at that. But although I’d argue that his books mostly defy genre, what they very much are to me are October books.
Because, well… October is in the chair, after all.