If you’re not a scary movie person, or if you’re too old to go trick or treating, then why not pass your Halloween with a spooky book? This is a list of eight frightening favourites (with a half a dozen bonuses included, just for value for money) from both the fiction and non-fiction shelves, appropriate to the 2016 holiday.
ONE- Edgar Allen Poe – The Cask of Amontillado
So Poe is always a Halloween kind of guy. He was a nineteenth-century expert in terrifying short stories that play on mysterious and macabre themes, and actually the first famous American to earn a living through writing alone. He is very much a capital-G Gothic writer, and key among the American Romantics.
I’m highlighting Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado this year in particular because of this:
The Cask of Amontillado is a wonderfully creepy short story from 1846, telling the tale of an Italian man who feels insulted by his close friend, and so takes revenge on him. This revenge? Yeah, he lures his friend into the wine cellar on the promise of a fine amontillado, and then chains him to the corner and builds a wall to trap him inside. It’s not clear if Mexico paid for the wall or…
It features two big hallmarks of Poe’s writing. In this story the murderer is the narrator, forcing the reader to at least understand (if not necessarily sympathise with) his feelings; additionally Poe has a peculiar obsession with being buried alive, and you can find this as a motif or a plot device in some of his other works. Other things to look out for include explicit masonic references, a line lifted from The Last of the Mohicans, and heavy references to Poe’s rivalry with author Thomas Dunn English.
BONUS- Since this short story is so short, why not also check out the somewhat more famous The Tell-Tale Heart? You may recognise it as the inspiration for Lisa Simpson’s pulsating diorama.
TWO- Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle
I’m not going to go too heavy on the plot in this one for two reasons- the first is that there’s a glorious (if heavily-hinted and probably guessable) twist that changes how you understand the protagonist/narrator, and the second is that I’m doing a much bigger review-come-analysis post on this very novel in the coming days.
Castle is about Merricat Blackwood, and the sister and uncle she lives with, in a large crumbling house isolated from the nearby village, after the recent and suspicious deaths of the rest of the family. If you’re somebody who wants to read the book before you see the film, then read it sharpish, because it’s due to be released next year. It’s going to star Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Solider) and Crispin Glover, and has had a good amount of buzz so far.
This is the final novel that Jackson ever published, in 1962, just three years before her death. It picks up on Jackson’s interest in sympathetic magic and sisterhood; vaguely defined personality disorders and mental illnesses, including agoraphobia and obsessiveness; and her distaste for small town anti-intellectualism. The book is written in beautifully simple language, is confined to very a small number of locations, and has so few characters that the reader can’t help but be entirely drawn in to this microcosmic world.
The above image was drawn by Kit Mills, a professional designer and illustrator, and I would recommend their work very much. You can find more here.
BONUS? Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been professionally described elsewhere online as super ***ing scary.
THREE- Bram Stoker – Dracula
This has to be no surprise- Dracula has been the basis of an endless number of adaptations since it was written, with Stoker actually responsible for the first theatrical performance. Perhaps most famously, the Count was portrayed by Sir Christopher Lee no less than nine times: first of all in the 1958 Dracula, produced by Hammer Horror. There’s an amazing podcast episode by the talent at Stuff You Missed in History Class about the life and career of Christopher Lee, which goes into more detail, and which I heartily recommend (link).
If you’ve only ever seen films or TV versions, then you are missing out. The book is written in an epistolary format: the plot is advanced by diary entries, ‘voice recordings,’ entries in a ship’s log, and letters that all involve the main protagonists. This book is the originator of Van Helsing, as a character, as well as the famous Jonathan Harker and Mina, and the be-stalked Lucy Westenra. Importantly, it also reflects many contemporary ideas and fears: in particular, Dracula has been seen by many scholars as an example of ‘invasion literature.’ Towards the end of the nineteenth century many authors, including Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote allegorical tales of frightening creatures and foes that exposed British fears of invasion from central and eastern European forces.
Dracula is also interesting for its tentative exploration of female sexuality. Stoker compares and contrasts the Victorian ideal woman, Mina, with the three sexualised female vampires associated with Dracula, and again with the ambiguous spectrum-hopping Lucy Westenra. Lucy is probably the most interesting, simply by virtue of not being an overt stereotype. Lucy begins as a fairly staid Victorian woman, capable of turning down suitors politely, and embodying many charming domestic characteristics. However, as the novel progresses, the Count gets to her, and “the sweetness was turned to … heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.” If you’re interested in the sexual politics of vampire stories, you might also check out Polidori’s The Vampyre, and (importantly) Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
Another little BONUS for you- an amazing book has just been released about Bram Stoker, which explores his amazing personal history. Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula focuses particularly on the psychological and medical elements of the personal life of this famous author, in an attempt to pick up on things that have been very clearly translated into the book. Stoker was a notoriously private man, so this book drifts far and wide in an attempt to piece together a coherent picture of this man, and sometimes the book misses this goal. But overall this text offers a useful means of placing Dracula in a historical context appropriate not to grand literary themes or nationwide trends, but to Stoker’s own life and his own circle of friends and colleagues.
FOUR- Audrey Niffenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry
You might recognise that name, from the hit novel The Time Traveller’s Wife? Well, this second novel from Niffenegger is very different. It’s a haunting, modern piece, set in London’s High Gate Cemetery, which focuses on identical twins, death, ghost, and the immeasurable symmetry and rhythms in life.
The plot is easily spoiled, but an interesting little nugget is that the novel’s title was inspired by The Tyger, by William Blake:
“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/ In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ could frame thy fearful symmetry.”
FIVE- David J. Skal – Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween
Skal is a cultural historian who has spent his career researching and analysing horror literature, cinema and related social customs. He actually recently released the bonus book analysing Dracula, because he is in so deep on this subject. If you’re interested, he also wrote the well-regarded Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, which maps out a visual and cinematic history of ‘the vampire’ from Victorian literature and into Hollywood.
A specific positive to Skal’s work is that he doesn’t skimp on the gratuitously niche, heavy details that make a great microhistory. In Death Makes a Holiday Skal explores Halloween’s dark Celtic roots and ritualistic appeal across America, interviewing people from different areas of society (including practising witches). The first chapter explores American urban myths about poisoned or otherwise tainted trick-or-treat sweets and candy, in a way that will suck you in and scare you.
SIX- Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory
If there was an odd one out in this list, it’s this book. The Wasp Factory is not a ghost story, or supernatural in any way: it’s about an outwardly normal person who is is actually a murderer, and its one of the best explorations of a killer’s mindset you’ll find in any book.
The Wasp Factory is often cited as one of the most disturbing books you’ll ever read. On a personal note- I tried to read this at college as part of a reading list, and didn’t get all the way through. It’s full of odd characters, biting satire, Scottish gothic motifs, and unending scenes of nightmarish horror. It’s full of explicit violence against animals and people, but it’s not shock horror. It’s a lot worse. Banks also has an ability to portray, clearly and strongly, obsessiveness and OCD-like tendencies that are, nowadays, distressingly recognisable. Also, the conspiratorial mindset gets a good airing here, and it’s very well depicted.
So basically, this is a hard, scary read. Don’t read it if you don’t think you can stomach it. But it’s probably pretty rewarding? I don’t know. It’s one of the only books to make me feel physically sick.
Bonus- Another book to make me feel physically ill, but not Halloween-related, is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
SEVEN- Scott G Bruce – The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters
This is a much-anticipated release from Penguin which explores popular and private ideas of the undead, looking at texts from the ancient world, Shakespeare’s plays, and everything in between.
Scott G. Bruce explains the semantic nuances of the term undead in the introduction, explaining that the book will consider reanimated corpses (in all of their forms), ghosts, and other malevolent spirits. This picks up the changes in theological belief, societal customs, laws, gender roles, and all kinds of other cultural themes that influence humanity’s relationship and understanding of the dead. It’s a fairly Eurocentric piece, but it’s also a mammoth undertaking… swings and academic roundabouts?
Usefully it has a suggested reading list, if you’re interested in this area. The list is very early-modern-centric, and it incorporates some of the biggest names in the field, so it might not provide anything new to you, but it’s a nice touch that you don’t always see.
BONUS- If you’re looking for other books in this vein, you could try these titles:
- Katherine Howe – The Penguin Book of Witches
- Ray Russell – Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories
- Michael Cox – The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories
EIGHT – Stephen King – It
So if there weren’t enough reasons to be scared of clowns right now, why not go back to horror expert Stephen King’s It?
I can’t get to the core of how frightening this is. There’s something about the malevolent entertainer, the innocence of children, facing your old fears as an adult, small-town America… The blurb says more than I ever could:
“It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing . . .
The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.”
There’s a lot more to this book than just the clown figure, Pennywise, though. Authority figures, like parents and siblings, are threatening and scary too; there’s also some Wasp Factory-esque animal abuse and casual murder of infants. No more spoilers than that, but seriously, it’s terrifying. And obviously the infamous source of terror generates this really unabating sense of dread that seeps through the pages. It nevers gets a physical decription- it really is one instance where the book is better than the movie, because in words, this unknown and sickening figure becomes an ever-changing manifestation of all of your worst fears and internalised sadism.
Bonus? Well any of King’s novels seem appropriate to the holiday spirit. But really, I would so recommend the 1990 TV adaptation, with Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.
Let me know your thoughts on this list- Leave a comment with your ideas about any of the books discussed (especially if you disagree!) or recommend some more. After all, if I start now, I might get through them before next year…