I don’t enjoy being scared. Last scary movie I saw was Poltergeist in 1982. I went to Knott’s Scary Farm once. I read “Salem’s Lot” in high school and not another Stephen King novel since. I don’t visit haunted houses. My Halloween decorations are more cute and spooky than gory or scary. (Interesting article in the NYTimes as to why some people like to be scared and some are self-confessed scaredy-cats here.) But I like to read with the seasons and the holidays, and I like an atmospheric book this time of year. (Interesting side note: It used to be an English tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Weird.) Here are a few selections that I can recommend if your idea of a scary story is more about mood than gore:
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is her debut novel. An old, famous and reclusive author hires a young woman to write her biography, and to settle the mystery of the “Thirteenth Tale”, missing in one of her books, which only recounts twelve. It tells a story set in early 20th century England, and it involves twins, connection, loss, death, madness, incest and guilt. Ghosts? Maybe. Small nods to Jane Eyre and other gothic stories, I really enjoyed it and was caught unawares at the stories ending. Recommend. (Turns out it was made into a film by the BBC in 2013. I’ll have to find it.)
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the aforementioned Christmas ghost stories. It is the retelling of a story by the old governess of two children who are menaced and haunted by ghosts. Open to different interpretations over the years (Are the children seeing ghosts? Is the governess becoming deranged?) it is sinister and suspenseful. I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorites, but it does seem like a good novella for this collection.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is a hard one for me to review. It is beautifully written and I really like the author. It takes place in Eel Marsh House (doesn’t that already sound creepy?), a large home on a causeway that is cut off from the mainland when the tide comes in. It involves creaking chairs, screams in the night, and lots of other ghostly things. It is very atmospheric and eerie, with some scares throughout, but the underlying story is so sad that I had trouble feeling anything but sorrow over the whole thing. But it has been hugely popular book and made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe (reviews are mixed but mostly good).
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a short novel about two sisters hiding away in their mansion in an unnamed American city. More a story of accidental death or murder than ghosts, the characters appear ghostlike in their interactions with outsiders. It touches on instability, revenge, love, madness, protectiveness and guilt, the book is filled with tension and menace and clues to what happened to “the others”. It was a fun, quick read for the season. Of course Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery” (read) and her scary book “The Haunting of Hill House” (not read – see intro).
The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. I’ve talked about this book before. It has more of a winter theme (duh) than Halloween, but I just loved it and you can easily read it in a day. It takes place between the wars in France, and tells the story of young Freddie, just back from a clinic where he recuperated from a nervous breakdown caused by grief of the loss of his brother in the war. He crashes his car in the snow and has to walk to the nearest village, Nulle. (Clue.) Here he is invited to attend fête de St. Etienne, and meets a young woman who finally understands his grief. A story of loss, persecution, ghosts, death and redemption, I can’t recommend this book enough.
The Asylum by John Harwood was our book group pick for this month. It takes place in a private asylum in Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor (gone “Bodmin”, any Doc Martin fans?) in the mid-nineteenth century. A young woman wakes up in the asylum with no memory of how she got there, and is being addressed by a name that is not her own. You get a feel for her helplessness and growing uncertainty amid her now-involuntary stay. Is she mad? Certainly being held against her will, but is it for her own good? It’s told in the young woman’s voice, interspersed with old letters that slowly shed light on her identity and troubles. It starts off very page turning, but bogs down a bit near the end, with an obvious and hurried climatic finale, but it was a fun book for sitting by the fire and suspending a little belief. More than a little bit of an homage to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie is her most famous book. Ten people are invited to an isolated island, and once by one they die at the hand of another. No one is left, so who could have caused the deaths? A classic whodunnit and locked room (locked island?) mystery, it remains an excellent and spooky take layered with menace and revenge. Plus I love Agatha Christie.
Someone in the House by Barbara Michaels. Barbara Mertz, better known as Elizabeth Peters of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, wrote a number of novels under the pseudonym of Barbara Michaels. Her stories are usually a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural goings on, and frankly I liked pretty much all of them. This one stands out as the spookiest, and is about an old gothic castle moved to Pennsylvania, but did it really leave its past behind? Humorous, spooky, atmospheric and fun, these are the thinking writer’s ghost stories. Perfect for a dreary fall or winter day. The Georgetown Trilogy, starting with Shattered Silk, is good fun. (I recommend Elizabeth Peters’ books as well, though the Amelia Peabody series went on too long, in my opinion.)
Not sure how I’ve missed this. Pretty sure it’s on our shelf. Fun fact: Ray Bradbury met his wife at my husband’s family’s bookstore in Los Angeles, Fowler Brothers’ Books.
A crumbling english hall, mystery, romance and ghosts. Sounds perfect!
Takes place in London (my favorite city) and involves those pesky twins again. They inherit their aunt’s (also a twin of their mother) flat in London (swoon) but we shall see if it is worth it.
So, do you have any favorite spooky stories for Halloween? Anything that gets you into the spooky mood? Share them here. Happy Halloween!