With All Hallow's Eve soon approaching, here for your consideration are an unlucky number of books that, each in its way, fit the mood of this spectral season. As the above heading implies, many are indeed mysteries while others are merely, well, mysterious. My suggestions here are skewered towards the antiquarian. There’s one 1992 offering, but the rest reach much farther back—all the way to the 1800s. These books, in no discernible order, run the gambit from novels to story collections to paranormal non-fiction to comic book super-spooker. Pick one or more, douse the lamps, light a candle and curse the darkness.
1. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
The Queen of Deduction provides us with a trio of village witches, an electronic spirit machine, and a black-magic-for-hire scheme. The title refers to an old inn where the mischief percolates. No Poirot or Miss Marple in attendance, but Agatha’s reoccurring alter ego Ariadne Oliver is at hand. The supernatural and the suspicious overlap nicely in this spry whodunit.
2. The Golden Ball and Other Stories
More Christie; more supernatural. At least in part. This one’s a collection of fifteen tales, several which deal with occult themes (mostly the latter half of the volume.) Again, none of Dame Agatha’s series detectives are here, and not all the stories are mysteries, but Christie doing spooky is worth the visit.
3. Hag’s Nook by John Dickson Carr
Another Golden Age master tackles the seemingly mystical. Carr’s massive lexicographer Dr. Fell, investigates a mystery involving a crumbling, ancient prison tower, an impossible death, and an ancient family curse. What’s not to like? Carr was an expert in the locked room puzzler, as this novel bears out.
4. Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh
Here’s the last of the prolific New Zealander’s thirty-two Roderick Alleyn mysteries. For her final curtain, Marsh—a passionate champion of the theater—mixes murder with traditional stage superstitions, specifically those surrounding “The Scottish Play.” (Alright, I’ll say it: Macbeth!)
5. The House of Terror by Edward Woodward
Admittedly, this is a stridently obscure choice, but it’s got a cool purple-prose name and was published by the Mystery League—which sounds like a really cool group to be part of. This 1930 thriller is a pretty creaky affair with secret passageways, nocturnal abductions, and sinister misshapen manservants. Garish and gothic and long out of print. I stumbled upon it in a cluttered, shadowy used book store, but you‘ll probably have better luck procuring it online.
6. Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Scream Along With Me
First, a little idol-smashing: beloved Uncle Alfred apparently had nothing to do with the dozens of 60s and 70s mystery and horror anthologies that bore his name. Didn’t write ‘em, edit ‘em, or even pen the prologues. He simply let the publishers use his appellation and image—for a pretty penny. But somehow the name and image are enough. When I first read Scream Along as a kid, it particularly stuck with me. These stories lean towards the uncanny, and “Camera Obscura” still gives me the creeps.
7. Ghost Stories of an Antiquity by M.R. James
As the title implies, this 1904 collection features full-on old phantom fictions. James, the master of that genre, composed many of these eight ghost stories to be read aloud as part of an old-timey Christmas Eve. You can almost hear the yule log crackling (but the Halloween log will do just fine.) The most anthologized of the eight has one of the most poetic, haunting titles of any such tale: “'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad.”
8. In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
Another short story collection. They number but five, yet they pack a lot of paranormal punch. Fancy a minister-menacing monkey demon? We’ll then have some “Green Tea”(featuring the early occult detective Dr. Hesselius.) Prefer a lass-loving, castle-lurking lady vampire? Meet the infamous “Carmilla” (which inspired Bram Stoker as he wrote Dracula.) The Irish La Fanu was one of the most influential 19th century authors, and his tales still instill fun fear.
9. Carnacki the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson
And yet another collection with an occult detective. As the title implies, Thomas Carnacki finds ghosts. To do so he employs the very latest tools of Edwardian technology, such as spirit photography and electric pentacles. Enter “The Whistling Room” at your own risk.
10. Ghost Cadet by Elaine Marie Alphin
Here’s my aforementioned ’92 entry, and—surprise—it’s a middle-grade juvenile novel. It tells of the friendship between a modern living twelve-year-old and a young cadet killed in the Civil War during the Battle of New Market. When my kids were small, I read this to them on a family trip, by flashlight in a tent. It was a great eerie evening.
11. The Spectre
Just to mix it up: a comic book superhero—and not just super but supernatural. Tough detective Jim Corrigan, having a truly crappy day, gets slugged, shoved in a barrel, cemented, and flung into the bay. For some vague cosmic reason, his murdered soul must return to earth to enact vengeance on all wrongdoers. Naturally, the first enacting he does is on the criminal who snuffed him, promptly turning that rat into a skeleton. Jim—now known as the chalk-skinned, green-cowled Spectre—soon discovers many creative, horrid ways to ply his new trade. This character has haunted the paneled page for over seventy years and can be found in numerous bound books and comics.
12. Ghosts I’ve Met by Hans Holzer
Here’s our non-fiction entry. The Austrian born Holzer was the first of the modern ghost hunters. Believe what you will from this collection of haunted accounts, but they serve to spook and entertain. In truth, any of Holzer’s books would do for this list, but I always liked the name of this particular one: it’s both nonchalant and unnerving.
13. Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Oh, why not? Isn’t Halloween the perfect time to revisit those misty moorlands with that most iconic of problem-solvers? We’re talking supernatural legends! We’re talking murderous hellhounds! We’re talking Sherlock, for Pete’s sake! Just do it!
Michael Nethercott is a playwright and writer of traditional mysteries whose O’Nelligan and Plunkett tales appear periodically in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel featuring this 1950s detective duo, The Séance Society, will be released in October, 2013 by St. Martin’s Press.