“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” —Alfred Hitchcock
The days get gloomier and my load of work for uni gets heavier and heavier: time for some spooky reads. I have always enjoyed reading about ghosts, vampires, superstition, magic and curses. I think the supernatural and otherworldly has always been a strong subject in literature, coincidences and oddities have always fascinated writers, and the unexplicable is always a great presence in our lives. Perhaps that is why we read about ghosts and haunted mansions, or perhaps we just need a scare every now and then. Either way, there is no greater season for unsettling reads than fall.
If we get technical, there is a difference between horror and terror. Terror is anticipating something dreadful, fearfully expecting that those slight knocks on your windowpane are not the skinny fingers of a ghost. Horror is going out to actually find a dead corpse knocking on your door; it is the shock of actually seeing something dreadful. I honestly side with Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel and sickly heroines, when she said terror dwells on indetermination and therefore requires more from the reader. Gothic novels, for example, could be categorised at terror, and also the reads I am about to suggest… although I can’t guarantee that the monsters and creatures that creep in their pages won’t actually come out of under the bed. As always, read at your own risk.
First things first. I think this short story is one of the greatest examples of terror. Could write about what it is about, but it’s so short you should just read it right now. Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for.
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
As it title lets out, this is about a haunted house. This house is supposed to have driven out its inhabitants for years and now, a scientific is determined to prove that it is not haunted by bringing a group of peculiar people who are likely to perceive anything that is amiss in the house— among them an artist, a clairvoyant, a reclusive young woman—. So is the house haunted? Strange things definitely happen, but the thing with Shirley Jackson’s writings is that you should always fear people more than you fear ghosts. Did I mention Jackson was also a witch?
Night Shift, Stephen King
What do quitting smoking, cornfields, trucks and a laundry press have in common? Basically that, when passed through King’s imagination, they can turn out to be pretty damn scary. In the stories that compose this volume you’ll find a wide variety of subjects; from creepy children to killing machines. It is really scary at times, but also entertaining and unsettling in more than one way. From King I have also read The Shining, which scared me a lot, and Pet Sematary, which I coulnd’t even finish.
Collected Short Stories, M. R. James
When it comes to ghosts, there is no one better than M. R. James. These the old fashioned ghosts than have been shaping nightmares forever, and another perfect example of “anticipating the bang”. The settings for Jame’s stories are also phenomenal: old abbeys, boarding schools, deserted inns, foggy paths in the night. Definitely read this, start right here with Number 13.
The October Country, Ray Bradbury
This small book of short stories might be Bradbury at its best. Ghosts, circus entertainers and mummies lurk in the pages of these stories, that I would describe as creepy. What is wonderful of this book is the way that the strange and the grotesque mix with human emotions such as nostalgia and love.
Of course, one should never skip the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserve a space on any spooky shelf. If short stories are more your thing, then most of Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales will definitely creep you out, an the same goes for the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens and E. T. A. Hoffman also wrote a considerable number of short stories that involve ghosts. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“ and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. Ans also the American Classics, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are also many very good anthologies, like Late Victorian Gothic Tales from Oxford University Press.
and be careful 🎃
P.S. Currently I am reading Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, so I might be adding it to the list. Next for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What are you reading? Anything you would include in this list?
We all think of certain things when we think about fall. Golden, crispy leaves falling from trees, chilly nights, Halloween preparations, allspice and cinnamon, the end of the school year (finally). Most of what I associate with fall, however, comes from literature and movies. Where I am from, fall is stealthy and subtle: the rainy season comes to an end and the temperatures slowly get a bit lower each night. I first experienced an actual autumn five years ago in England. One day I looked out of my window into Asbury Close in Cambridge and saw that the pavement and the grass were almost fully covered in a coat of leaves, orange and brown, held tightly together by the morning mist. Fall is perhaps my favourite season since. In Mexico City I love it too, but in a different way. The heavy rains stop and there are clear skies by day; the nights are cold and windy, and there’s pan de muerto in every supermarket.
Most Western cultures’ celebrations during the fall are related to the equinnox, the Celtic Samhain and the christian All Hallow’s Eve —Día de Todos los Santos and Día de Muertos here, traditions coming from Spain and native Americans—. Most of these celebrations are somehow related with death and rebirth, with the links between the living and the dead, and with the harvest.
It actually makes sense that we have come to associate this particular season with nostalgia: the autumn marks the end of the summer, of fruits and green leaves, and the transition to winter, what was before a season of rationing and scarcity —and really, if it wasn’t for Christmas, winters would suck—: it is the year getting old, but also getting ready to start again.
It would suffice to take a look at most literature about fall, specially poetry, to get the blues. When I think of fall I usually see myself in an English cottage, having a cup of coffee and reading a book with a blanket on my lap. There’s usually a fireplace nearby and a big alaskan malamute dozing off at my feet. Oh, and in most of these reveries I have a very thick Yorkshire accent, who knows. And really, apart from taking a stroll outside (if you’re lucky enough to live where the trees actually shed their leaves and thequality of the air is okay—no offense here, Mexico City), and having pumpkin lattes/cakes/pies/lipbalms/hand creams, getting nostalgic over a book under a cosy blanket is the best next thing. If you agree with these statements, you might like the books I’m about to suggest.
Villette, Charlotte Brontë
By now it is a tradition for me to read some Charlotte Brontë during the fall. Villette is one of those books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would go as far as to say it’s one of the best novels of the 19th century, along with Jane Eyre. Villette is the name of a small town in an unnamed country in Europe —possibly in Belgium— to which the young Lucy Snowe arrives one cold evening. Lucy, just like Jane Eyre, has nothing but an indomitable self reliance, intelligence and hope.
All her life, Lucy has been taking care of an old lady for a living and now she finds herself in a strange land, a teacher in a girl’s boarding school. Like any good 19th century novel, there’s love, mean old people, class-based obstacles and even ghosts. A blending of sadness, hope and rebellion from the perspective of one of the greatest characters in literature. This is also a somewhat nostalgic book. Similarly to Jane Eyre, Villette is the narrative of Lucy Snowe’s memories, tinted sometimes with regret and sadness. If I had to name a theme for this book, it would be courage. Think of reading about ancient châteaus where eerie occurrences take place, of lonely musings by moonlight and of turbulent nights spent on a boat during a storm. Tempting, isn’t it?
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
This one is really a must. Get yourself a pot of coffee, some blankets and read this when you’re all by yourself. All you need to know about the plot is that there’s something wrong with the kids this governess has to take care of, but she doesn’t know what exactly it is. Might have something to do with the fact that she has never met their parents, or that they live in a secluded property in the middle of nowhere, or that the only people there apart form themselves seem to know something and act weird all the time, or that these kids are just creepy. Enough to drive anyone crazy; now add some ghost stories about the house. Is there something wrong with the kids? What was that noise? Did you just hear something rapping at your actual window while reading this book? Really, a must.
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Mars. A red planet with red soil and red skies— what is more suitable for fall? This book can be read as a novel or as a series of short stories. In both cases, it is about the colonization of Mars from different perspectives: that of the martians, of the spacemen, of the people who remain in Earth. Bradbury manages to introduce one of his favourites themes into space: nostalgia.
Why humans leave the Earth is not nearly as important as showing how they try to make Mars resemble it once they’re there. What would you take to a different planet, where everything from houses to feelings are different? Not always good things. As always, Bradbury manages to sneak some deep reflections on human nature into masterly crafted sci-fi.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is also one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from other people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro manages to build through Kathy’s perspective a cast of very complex characters who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully.
Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic which appears throughout the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. If you were looking for a nostalgic read, this is it.
Atonement, Ian McEwan
Another one for nostalgia. And another one made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, yay. Atonement is a story of love, guilt and childhood. It is narrated from the perspective of Briony, a 13-year-old girl whose mistaken interpretetaion of a scene changes forever the lives of her sister and her lover. The book is divided into three parts that deal with the childhood, young age and adulthood of Briony, and explore how she comes to realise her mistakes and deal with guilt. Beautifully written, McEwan’s settings, descriptions and narrative accuracy make this a book hard to forget.
The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers
This was an unexpected jewel. McCullers is known to be one of the most important exponents of what is known as “southern gothic”. Whether that is an accurate description of this book or not, I really loved it. Seven short stories are included in this book, of which the most striking might be the homonimous “The Ballad of the Sad Café” and “Wunderkid”.
All the stories share this simple yet daring narrator, capable of evoking characters and places that are somewhere between the strange and the endearing. McCullers’ narrative offers a peculiar balance between the internal life of her characters and their exteriors, a balance that comes together in what I identified as the theme of the book: how bizarre human emotions are. Expect some southern settings, grotesque characters and sad love stories.
Rayuela, Julio Cortázar
Perhaps Cortázar’s book that most resembles a traditional novel. Rayuela —or Hopscotch in English— was first published in 1963 and what is perhaps the most striking thing about it is the way in which is it structured. The novel has 155 chapters, but there’s more than one way to read it. You can read it like a traditional book, from beginning to end (and you’d end in chapter 56), or in the order suggested by the author at the beginning of the book.
The book is mainly set in Paris, where Cortázar lived most of his life, and follows the adventures and shortcomings of a group of expatriated—you’ll be reminded of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—, especially those of Oliveira and his relationship with the whimsical and peculiar Maga. There’s a bit of everything in the book, and most of what Oliveira reflects about along its pages, wandering through the rues of Paris, is the nature of narrative, the possibilities and limits of tellings stories and the links between experience and writing. You could say Rayuela is a love story if you think all literature is really about love, a statement I certainly agree with. It is a sad love story, though.
The Snows of Kilimanjaroand Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is famous for his stripped, simple way of writing. I believe this book is where he takes this to the limit. Stories like “The Killers” and “Fifty Grand” set the way for modern writing and are majestic to read to this day. Reading this book I often thought that Hemingway’s mantra, “write hard and clear about what hurts”, made a lot of sense.
Love, loss and suffering are themes you’ll find among these stories, but overall courage, courage and an honest depiction of the eternal struggle between man and nature, a central theme to Hemingway’s writing. This is a profoundly sad book because not only does it ponder over the mean and the bad in human nature, but because it also depicts the brave and flawed search for love and greatness at the heart of every human endeavour.