Besides spy fiction, my greatest love is gothic fiction, thrillers, and horror. I hope this reading guide has new and interesting recommendations for people looking for some spooky reading this month.
Dracula, Bram Stoker.
A lot of people think they’re too cool to be freaked out by Dracula since the book is mostly just an extended metaphor for being afraid of sex and Romania. However, if the scene where Jonathan Harker is shaving and realizes he doesn’t see Count Dracula in the mirror behind him doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what to tell you.
“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.”
Salem’s Lot, Stephen King.
This book accomplishes something scientists thought impossible: making vampires scary after 1900. Also, if you squint, there’s a lot to unpack in it about the parasitic draining of small towns and the American underclass. Only if you really squint, but it’s definitely there. It’s also one of the few Stephen King books with an alright ending, so it’s worth the investment.
I am not sure a scary werewolf book is possible. However, North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud has a fantastic story called “Wild Acre” that might be about a werewolf. It also might not.
Affinity, Sarah Waters.
Sarah Waters writes lesbian Victorian historical fiction, usually about the Victorian underworld (spiritualists, dancehall singers, etc). This is the one about spiritualists, and it’s delightfully creepy.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.
This is a classic Gothic novella: governess, ghosts, a country manor, a distanced narrative framework. It’s also the basis for The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is a pretty excellent new Netflix show.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.
This might be the scariest book I’ve ever read. Every once in a while when I’m trying to fall asleep, I think of the scene where Eleanor and Theo are being terrorized by the house, and Eleanor grabs Theo’s hand and holds it, only to realize when Theo asks her a question from across the room that she’s HOLDING HANDS WITH A GHOST.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The Shining, Stephen King.
On Trump’s Inauguration Day, I went to a dive with my friend Josh and we just stared at a small tv playing The Shining. The book gives you a similarly uneasy experience: a man is tasked with taking care of an old, majestic hotel in remote conditions, and once a snowstorm traps his family, things start getting wild. Like most of King’s novels, it has a rushed, stupid ending. However, the body of the book is so good that it’s worth it.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski.
House of Leaves is about a house that gets bigger, and a photographer who decides to explore it. Good luck explaining your weeks of nightmares about a hallway bigger than the dimensions of the house. It’s fairly famous for its postmodern typography, but honestly (and I may get yelled at for this) you can just ignore everything in the typewriter font.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.
After the death of most of their family, two girls live alone in a decaying house. Things deteriorate.
The Witches, Roald Dahl.
I’m dead serious, these witches are scary. Sorry if you disagree and weren’t scarred by this book as a small child. The titular witches turn the main character into a mouse and his only consolation is that due to his newly-shortened lifespan, he will likely die together with his grandmother. It’s messed up! Roald Dahl has so much to answer for! Read for the nostalgia factor. Another recommendation: Dahl’s short stories. Man from the South is basically a perfect example of the form.
General Gothic Stuff
Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier.
Rebecca is about an unnamed young woman who becomes the second wife of the mysterious Maxim de Winter, whose first wife, a beautiful and captivating woman named Rebecca, died in an accident. Once they arrive at Maxim’s estate, Manderley, the narrator is tormented by the fact that she doesn’t belong—why does the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, hate her so much? And what really happened to Rebecca? Du Maurier was a master of the Gothic novel, and if you like Rebecca, you should check out Jamaica Inn, or anything by Mary Stewart.
The Companion, Katie Alender.
I hardly ever read YA fiction, but this is as perfect of an example of a Gothic novel as you can get. It has the requisite themes of isolation, fear of hereditary weakness, discovered manuscripts, an old estate, family secrets, and prophetic dreams. Alender clearly knows her stuff, and it’s a delight to read this modern story of an orphan brought to an old house to care for a catatonic heiress.
Existence in General
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, Thomas Ligotti.
If you know me at all, you know I had to include Ligotti. This is a Penguin Classics edition that collects two of his hard-to-find collections of short stories. Ligotti is obsessed with philosophical pessimism and the idea that life is “malignantly useless.” My personal favorite in this collection: The Spectacles in the Drawer.