As the days get shorter and an autumn chill finally rolls in, nothing quite hits the spot like some ghostly, gothic fiction. October is a time for witches, spooks, and all things macabre.
If you're like me, you line up a full 31 days worth of horror films, stock the bedside table with spooky novels, and wish you had a dramatic robe to wear as you stalk the somber halls of a cobwebby mansion ringing with tortured echoes…
Ahem. As I was saying: it's not hard to find a good movie this time of year, what with every station devoting the entire month to a line-up of horror. A bit harder to find is a really solid chiller, the sort of book that'll keep you up long past the witching hour.
So allow me to recommend just a handful of my favorites, a few books right up there with The Others in terms of atmosphere and unsettling themes…
1. The Novels of Simone St. James
- The Haunting of Maddy Clare
- An Inquiry into Love and Death
- Silence for the Dead
- The Other Side of Midnight
- Lost Among the Living
I've already gone on at length about the greatness of Simone St. James, so I'll be brief here: in terms of ghostly chills in a historical setting, you simply can't top St. James.
Each of her novels is a standalone featuring an entirely new cast of characters, so you can read them in any order you’d like. All share the same framework: the protagonist is a young woman trying to make her way in the aftermath of the First World War when she comes into contact with paranormal forces, mystery, and love in settings positively dripping with gothic atmosphere.
St. James's novels are just the thing for a rainy evening. The creepy moments—which are genuinely unsettling—are adroitly balanced by emotional beats and commentary on the psychological affects of war. (My personal favorite is An Inquiry Into Love and Death, closely followed by The Haunting of Maddy Clare.)
2. The Visitant by Megan Chance
Elena Spira travels to a cold and foggy Venice to nurse an epileptic libertine, Samuel Farber, after nearly destroying her family's reputation. The palazzo they're staying at is half-ruined, staffed by indifferent servants, hiding tragic secrets, and seems to be driving its inhabitants into a violent madness. Then the owner of the palazzo, Nero Basilio, arrives, and Elena finds herself entangled with both men…
The Visitant is equal parts Jane Eyre and Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak: a brooding and tortured romance that almost literally—what with the stormy Venetian backdrop—drips with tension and unease. Just the thing for those who enjoy their spooky stories with a bit of heaving bodices.
3. The Dead Travel Fast by Deanna Raybourn
Speaking of heaving bodices: Raybourn truly has cornered the market there (her Lady Julia Grey and Veronica Speedwell books are nearly perfect gothic romance mysteries, what with their Romani curses, prophetic dreams, brooding Byronic heroes, and outspoken heroines).
This standalone novel features Theodora Lestrange—a would-be novelist who escapes an ill-suited suitor and her family's dwindling prospects for a visit to a decaying castle in the Carpathians where an old school friend is staying. Also living in the castle is the mysterious Count Andrei Dragulescu … you can probably guess where this is going.
The Dead Travel Fast may have more vampiric flourishes than ghosts, but the foreboding castle setting and sundry supernatural secrets place it in the same class as the rest of this list. It's an engrossing and steamy read for a chilly autumn night.
4. The Haunting of Hill House & We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
You can't talk about paranormal thrillers and not mention Shirley Jackson. Her Haunting of Hill House has been adapted twice over the years, but neither of the adaptations fully capture the sinister tone (or the ambiguity of the characters and their ghostly experiences).
Widely considered one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written, the plot follows Eleanor Vance, who may be mentally disturbed, actually plagued by spirits, or even a telekinetic—the plot leaves much up to the reader to decide.
Jackson's other great novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, centers on a small family living in a mansion, isolated from the village thanks to a murderous past. The parents, aunt, and younger brother of the teenaged narrator, Merricat, were all poisoned by arsenic some years earlier, and the townsfolk believe Merricat's older sister Constance got away with their murders.
With Merricat practicing sympathetic magic in an attempt to protect what remains of her family, the arrival of a nefarious cousin set on seducing Constance to get his hands on the family's money, and the unanswered mystery of the murders hanging over the characters, this is one of the finest gothic thrillers out there.
5. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Carter's inspirations for this collection of short stories may have been fairy tales—“Beauty and the Beast,” “Bluebeard,” and “Red Riding Hood” in particular—but these are far racier and grimmer than even the Brothers Grimm versions.
The title story, a riff on “Bluebeard,” features an inexperienced young woman who marries an older gentleman, only to find terrors locked away in his cavernous mansion. (Luckily she has the true love of a blind piano tuner and the courage of her mother to sustain her.) “In the Company of Wolves,” which was adapted into a surreal, dream-like art film in 1984, is a Red Riding Hood retelling rife with werewolves.
What makes Carter's collection a particular fave is how she uses gothic tropes and then subverts them by crafting powerful female characters; so often in this genre, women are left in the role of vulnerable victim. Carter, however, underscores feminist themes of sexuality, equality in relationships, and the particular bonds between mothers and their daughters. In Carter's stories, there's no limit to how far a woman will go to protect herself or her children, and that's framed as both brave and admirable.
6. In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is doubtful about the nation's passion for séances in the wake of the Great War. She's not entirely sure that ghosts are real—until her first love, a boy who died on a European battlefield, appears to her.
This may be classified YA, but don't let that deter you: this is an evocative supernatural story with such vivid world-building you'll feel as though you can reach out and touch it. With its trappings of spirit photography (several archival photos are actually included in the text), séances, and the ever-present masks worn by the populace in the hope of avoiding the deadly Spanish influenza, Blackbirds is a novel full of tragic love, loss, and regret.
7. American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus
Rounding out this list is a nonfiction rumination on family legacies, the nature of legends, and the history of spiritualism. Santa Fe's La Posada, a mansion built by German immigrants, has in recent years become a hotel with a ghostly reputation. Julia Staab died in 1896, but it appears she still lingers in the home she came to as a young bride.
Written by the great-great-granddaughter of the resident specter, American Ghost is a poetic elegy: part history and part ghost story. Just the thing for nonfiction buffs who fancy a touch of the paranormal.
Whether you like your ghostly goings-on with dashes of romance, mystery, or solid historical background, this list should satisfy your cravings. The perfect sort of literature to fill out the gaps in a spooky film schedule this October.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.