We hope you’ve all enjoyed our series of Haunting Halloween Reads, showcasing a wide range of authors from Bram Stoker to Alice Hoffman. As it’s the last Friday before the big day (or, big night), we thought we’d share our own favourite spooky picks, straight from the office at Ipso Books.
I do understand that Halloween is the time for witches, the undead, spirits with unfinished business, and various monsters. As someone who has been quite sure since childhood that magic is lurking around the very next bend of my life and would love nothing more than to be invited to join a coven, I am all for Halloween and the excuse if offers to wear a dark cherry lipstick that I’m convinced really works for me. But, for reasons that escape my understanding, the books I turn to when the nights close in and pumpkins start appearing in doorways tend to focus more on spookiness of the human kind.
I have an almost compulsive need to recommend The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and I’m including it here because Halloween to me is Autumn and the strange combination of cosiness and creeping decay that accompanies it. I grew up in a sub-tropical city where the palm trees don’t lose their leaves and seasons range from sweltering to pleasantly warm; I’m therefore obsessed with the whole genre of New England university fiction. It may not feature actual ghosts but a murder, secrets, Greek gods, a well-dressed and eerily timeless group of misfits, and their charismatic leader haunt every page. It’s both beautiful and impossible to put down (the holy grail) and if you haven’t read it yet please stop reading this immediately and get yourself a copy.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt) has all the elements of an ideal Halloween read… A mist-cloaked southern city full of sultry, eccentric characters, some voodoo, a murder, beautiful graveyards, lies, and a number of parties I’d really like to attend. True crime that reads like a novel, it’s like nothing else.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will forever have a special place in my feminist heart, more for the story of its creation than the work itself, but it also happens to be wonderful (and much more complex than the lightning and stumbling green monster of later adaptations). If you must read a story of monsters and the reanimated dead this Halloween, it may as well be one so melancholy and full of loneliness and tragic misunderstanding that it will haunt you for many nights and days to come.
Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger is perhaps my favourite ghost story. But is it a ghost story? I still can’t tell. I think the story is certainly what you make of it. I definitely couldn’t read it after dark, and tried my best not to read it alone. Dr Faraday attends a call to Hundreds Hall – a centuries old and derelict Georgian house. The doctor becomes entwined with the family, and as stranger things keep happening, he seems just as enamoured with the house. The story then becomes a situation of mind over matter – do you choose, like the protagonist, to be pragmatic? Or do you completely succumb to the madness as other characters do? The perfect story of a (maybe) haunted house.
From Ray Bradbury’s classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, to American Horror Story’s ‘Freakshow’, and of course Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, travelling carnivals always carry with them the crackling air of autumn and the uneasy promise of a peculiar magic. While I love all mentioned above, Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer is my favourite carnival pick for Halloween. Though a close toss-up with The Night Circus, Johannes Cabal carries with it more of the macabre air associated with the season. Having sold his soul to learn the dark arts of necromancy, Johannes Cabal now wants it back. Striking a second deal with the devil, he must collect one hundred souls to earn back his own. To do so, he starts a demonic travelling carnival filled with dark thrills and weird whimsy, luring in patrons to steal their souls. Though morbidly motivated, Cabal is actually quite the funny narrator, in his own way, and *gasp* may actually have a heart…
My last pick, is David Mitchell’s Slade House. Another sort of haunted house story, Slade House is more of a fever dream from which there is no escape. Told over five decades in five shorts, Slade House lures in its unsuspecting victims – but to what end? On the last Saturday of October, every nine years, a visitor is invited into this house that both exists and doesn’t. Did you see it there from the street? Has anyone else heard of it? If you slip down that alley, will you be able to get it in? The more fatal question here is, will you ever be able to leave? Slade House fits into the world created in The Bone Clocks, but, I think, is a spectacularly spooky read on its own.
When I was in school, I went through a huge Gothic literature phase, reading everything I could get my hands on from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, to the more popular Dracula and Frankenstein (picture teenaged me wearing black on black, too much eyeliner and an obsession with My Chemical Romance and you have the general idea). One book that really stands out from this period of my life is Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, published in 1806 to unanimous vitriol from critics. Zofloya contains all the darkness you’d want and expect in a Halloween read – murder, plotting, witchcraft, betrayal, and even an appearance by the Devil. Criticism of Zofloya was rooted in the fact that it was written by a woman, hence it will always hold a special place in my heart despite its disturbing themes.
Moving a century and a half forwards to the 1960s, my second pick is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson is a bastion of the ghost story and mystery novel, and inspired many modern writers including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Sarah Waters. Whilst one of her other novels, The Haunting of Hill House, has been called ‘the perfect ghost story,’ Castle is, in my opinion, her masterpiece; a quieter, less overt form of disturbing. Jackson introduces you to two sisters, Constance and Merricat Blackwood, isolated and ostracised by the rest of their village after an unnamed past event that killed the remainder of Blackwood family. Merricat, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, is alarmed by the arrival of the sisters’ estranged cousin Charles. But with whom should the reader’s sympathy lie? Jackson’s intricate worldbuilding leaves you in the dark until the moment is right, and when all is revealed, the impact hits all the harder for the wait. Castle is my favourite supernatural story, and one of my all-time favourite novels.
When most people hear the term witches they think of books like Castle and Zofloya; of horror films and ghost stories; of double, double, toil and trouble. But this is not the case for the million people in America who practice Paganism today. My final Halloween pick is Alex Mar’s Witches of America, a fascinating snapshot into the world of present day magic. More a memoir than a novel, Witches follows Mar on a five-year journey around America, as she immerses herself in the world of witchcraft, surprising both herself and the reader with what she finds. Aiming to illuminate rather than scare, Witches’ place on this list is a foil to my other picks, a reminder that witchcraft can represent hope and faith as much as darkness and fear.
We hope this series has introduced you to some new authors, and provided you with many a spooky read to suit the season. Happy reading, and may your Halloween be filled with specters and spookiness!