I was very much in the mood to embrace the spirit of the season with my reading this month, and I did precisely that. As such, most of the 12 books I picked up were gothic or horror reads. Here are some thoughts on each of them, with links to my full reviews over on Goodreads.
Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This collection of short stories isn’t about outright scares, focussing instead on a creeping sense of menace, and an eerie dream logic. A few flirt with the supernatural, but most explore the disturbed side of the human psyche; peeling back the facade of mundane everyday life to expose the darkness that lurks beneath polite society. Jackson is a master at building tension to its peak, before abandoning the reader in a state of bewilderment; the true horror left to our imagination.
The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This book markets itself as a ghostly thriller, but that sadly isn’t what it delivers. The haunting element of the story only ever feels like a sublot, shoehorned in as a metaphor for the book’s real theme, which is a woman who feels suffocated by her domestic situation. There are some interesting ideas at play, and it was very readable, but I felt it moved in circles too much, and didn’t offer up anywhere near enough chills.
Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A gripping, first-person character study that reads like one extended monologue, King once again displays his skill at crafting a complex, captivating anti-heroine. Despite making clear the main outcome from the off, he still manages to create tension, intrigue, and emotional impact, whilst exploring the crippling effect of living with secrets, and asking us to ponder the ultimate moral question: can murder ever be justified?
Dracula by Bram Stoker
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is one of those classics that is so iconic, I thought I knew it before I’d even read it. In finally picking it up, it delivered so much more than I expected, in terms of both reading enjoyment and literary merit. Gothic, atmospheric, and transporting, its handling of gender and sexuality is fascinating; its structure highly effective in adding a sense of realism; and its insight into the birth of many horror conventions both fun and satisfying for a lover of the genre.
Autumn by Ali Smith
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I wanted to break up the horror reads a little, but still opt for something seasonally appropriate, hence reaching for Autumn. I had a very odd reading experience with this one; equal parts wonderful and maddening. Smith’s prose is undoubtedly gorgeous; her evocation of the season wonderful, and her nuanced exploration of interesting ideas such as the power of art to capture a specific moment in time, and the concept of invisible boundaries that separate us, was very intriguing. However, I felt emotionally distant for much of the story, and it did veer into alienating psychobabble at times. I’m definitely eager to try more of Smith’s work.
An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] A fun and easy reading experience, but ultimately underwhelming, this is essentially a love letter to old-school locked-room mysteries, with a group of strangers trapped in a remote hotel, and the body count on the rise. With many tongue-in-cheek references to the golden era of crime, it had a cosy, nostalgic vibe, despite the sinister goings on. But a couple of tired clichés, an info-dumpy reveal, and a lack of climax stopped the book from wowing.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] As desperately sad as it is chilling, this is an ambitious, intelligent, and affecting novel. The plot follows a family who become the subject of a TV documentary when they suspect their eldest daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour may be caused by demonic possession. It soon becomes clear, however, that the real horror here is the demonization of mental health, and the moral depravity of a society obsessed with exploitation as a means of entertainment. Its use of perspective, and its critical look at the horror genre at large are also hugely successful.
The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Visited by the ghosts of Mary Shelley and her most famous characters, a writer broods on the relationship between art and artist; writer and reader. It’s thought-provoking, experimental, and very meta. Whilst I loved the philosophical questions it posed about creation and legacy, and its visceral evocation of a remote alpine setting, I found its sexist handling of Shelley and her work very problematic. As a think-piece on the power of writing and reading, it’s well worth a read; as a ‘celebration of the legacy of Frankenstein’, somewhat less so.
Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] This twisted take on Sleeping Beauty is about a woman who slips into deathlike comas, and the wicked husband who plans to use her condition to bury her alive and steal her fortune. It’s fairy tale-meets-Western-meets-dark fantasy, and there’s no denying that Malerman both writes well, and knows how to tap into our primal fears. However, it’s hampered by a meandering pace, and though the author sets out to subvert classic tropes – like the damsel in distress and the disfigured villain – he never does so fully enough to avoid falling back on a sense of predictability, meaning that the book ultimately underwhelms.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A rare re-read for me; I think I actually enjoyed these creepy graphic novel-style short stories a little more this time around. Carroll’s striking and unconventional use of colour and layout adds to the strange, eerie, and hypnotic atmosphere of these twisted tales. There are deeply unsettling moments and haunting images throughout, making it a great little read for this time of year.
The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The title story in this slim volume is a great Victorian chiller. Ghostly and gothic, it tells a full and satisfying story with plenty of intrigue and atmosphere. The accompanying story, Curious, if True, worked less well for me. It had an interesting, fun premise (a man stumbling upon a party full of fairy tale characters), but it wasn’t creepy, like I’d hoped, and I found the ending a little cliché. Still, I enjoyed Gaskell’s descriptive prose, and this was a nice little introduction to her work.
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Though I didn’t find this as gothic as its comparisons to du Maurier and Jackson would suggest, it was a surprisingly melancholic story about the toxicity of living with secrets, and the search for understanding – and I flew through it. The motif of façades is used well throughout the narrative to drive home the theme of repression, with each of the characters being flawed and richly drawn. They all seek penance in their own tragic ways, and I appreciated that Fuller could provide a satisfying conclusion without tying everything up too neatly in a bow.
There we have it! My reads for the year now total 108. My favourites this month were Dracula and A Head Full of Ghosts; what were yours?