Autumn is my favorite season, and October my favorite month, not only because I like apples, pumpkins, and falling leaves, but also because it’s that moment in the year when the veil between worlds grows thinner, permitting the unknown to tiptoe up behind us and tap us on the shoulder (in our imaginations, if not in fact). It becomes easier for the more rationally minded among us to look at the stars in the clear, crisp nights, with our breath huffing and leaves falling, and, momentarily, believe in spooks and haints. To quote the master, Ray Bradbury:
“For these beings, fall is ever the normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth….Such are the autumn people.” (From Something Wicked This Way Comes.)
Of course, one way we celebrate the longer nights and colder days is with ghost stories. There was a time when people told ghost stories on Christmas Eve, as did M. R. James and his friends, and I can imagine a few people sitting next to a fire, the embers dying, darkness beyond the frosted windowpanes, as they scared the bejeezus out of each other on (what was for them) the holiest night of the year.
James’ timing was better, telling ghost stories, as he did, nearer the solstice, but, with typical American impatience, we’ve moved our celebrations ahead a few months to the very beginning of the change in seasons. But we have Halloween to look forward to and, with that in mind, I’ve prepared a list of 10 books that I think are appropriate autumn reading. They’re not all filled with ghosts and goblins, but they get the aura of mystery and terror just right.
In no particular order:
- The Owl Killers, Karen Maitland. Maitland’s novel is set during the fourteenth century, in an isolated English village confronted with unwanted visitors: Beguines, or women who joined a religious community without taking formal vows. (A real phenomenon about which I previously knew nothing.) The women of the beguinage and the villagers are set on a collision course from the moment the former witness the pagan rites practiced in the village. (If you like The Owl Killers, try Maitland’s Company of Liars.)
- The Hellboy graphic novels, Mike Mignola. Mignola’s comics are a different beast from the movies with which you’re familiar. Hellboy’s stories are informed by European mythology and folklore, with some H. P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. Mignola’s artwork is dark and moody. (Mignola stopped doing the art for the series halfway through; I recommend avoiding volumes not drawn by Mignola.)
- The Monstrumologist, Rick Yancey. Intended for teens, Yancey’s overflows with enough gory details to put an adult’s teeth on edge. Narrated by Will Henry, ward of Dr. Warthrop (the “monstrumologist”) of the title, the four novels tell the story of humanity’s battle against beasts biological and, perhaps, otherwise.
- The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters. Waters’ novel, set in postwar England, is a more classic ghost story than many of the other books listed here. Dr. Faraday, a country doctor, becomes involved with an upper class family fallen on hard times. Faraday’s interest in their manor house might have unexpected consequences.
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs. Riggs’ story isn’t a ghost story, per se, but it definitely captures the right atmosphere, set mainly on an isolated island off the Welsh coast. Jacob, the protagonist, encounters eerie children with “peculiar” powers. You can read my full review of the book at Geekadelphia.
- A Good and Happy Child, Justin Evans. The main character of Evans’ novel, George Davies, can’t hold is infant son; Davies is repulsed by physical contact with his baby. It might have something to do with the inexplicable events he suffered as an adolescent.
- The Terror, Dan Simmons. Simmons uses the true story of a British expedition to the Arctic in the 1840s to plumb the depths of what men are capable of enduring–and inflicting on one another. As the crew of the HMS Terror, icebound, degenerates into chaos, they also confront something even more awful out on the ice.
- American Gods, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s classic isn’t scary, but it’s overflowing with creativity, mythology and the fantastic. The story follows the ex-con Shadow as he works for a mysterious character called Wednesday, and sprawls across the width and breadth of America.
- The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova. The Historian is a retelling of a classic horror tell; I won’t ruin in by telling you which. Set mainly in Europe in the 1970s, The Historian excels in atmosphere, even if the plot weakens towards the end.
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy. This novel is by far the most terrifying on the list. McCarthy is best known for his literary fiction set in the South and the Southwest. The Road is a radical departure from McCarthy’s earlier settings, as it follows the journey of an unnamed father and son across a horrifyingly realistic portrait of a post-apocalyptic America. Gird yourself for this one.
So don’t be scared. Curl up with a cup of tea (or a nice fall beer) and get reading. Did I miss anything? Let me know. (I’ll talk about nonfiction alternatives in a future post.)