(Yes, this is a break from witchcraft/paganism-related content. It’s been a long week and my brain is tired, so we’re going to talk about other hobbies that require less research.)
Does anyone else feel like Halloween has totally crept up on them this year? This is my favorite holiday, but I feel like I just have not had time for spooky celebrations. It’s like it was mid-August, and then I blinked, and then it was late October.
The one thing I have been doing to celebrate spooky season is reading horror novels. I love horror generally, but around Halloween I crave a certain kind of horror story. It has to be supernatural, it has to be atmospheric, and it has to be creepy. Realistically, it also needs to be pretty short because I’ve been crazy busy this year.
I thought I’d share the spooky books I’ve enjoyed lately, in case any of y’all are looking for something to read in the week leading up to Halloween. In no particular order, they are:
Thirteeen Storeys by Jonathan Sims
I have been looking for a good “haunted apartment building” type of story for so long, and this book is exactly what I wanted.
This is? not quite a short-story collection, but also not quite a novel?? As the title implies, it’s thirteen short stories set in the same apartment building, but the stories overlap in some places and do come together into one big narrative in the last couple of chapters. It reminded me of horror anthology movies like The Mortuary Collection or Trick ‘R Treat where the different stories are revealed to all be connected at the end.
The anthology format allows Sims to fit several different horror subgenres into a single book without it feeling like there’s too much going on. The first chapter is a pretty straightforward ghost story, the third chapter is sci-fi horror about technology gone wrong, the fifth is psychological horror, etc. I really enjoyed this approach, because it really keeps readers on their toes and keeps things feeling fresh. Usually in short story collections there’s a couple of standouts and a couple of duds, but I really enjoyed all of the stories in this book.
One of my favorite things about this book is its explicit anti-capitalist themes. The apartment complex was built by a billionaire and is funded by some of his business ventures, and many of the hauntings are tied to human rights violations, worker abuse, and illegal dealings in those businesses. Maybe I’m just a cynical leftist, but I felt like this helped ground the horror in real-world issues. And without getting into spoilers, the way these themes get wrapped up at the end was really satisfying.
(And yes, this author is that Jonathan Sims, the writer and narrator of The Magnus Archives. But for what it’s worth, I’m not a TMA listener and did not buy this book because of the podcast, and I fucking loved it. I think Sims is a really excellent horror writer.)
The Lost Village by Camilla Sten, translated by Alexandra Fleming
I was a little disappointed with this one, but it’s not really the book’s fault. This was recommended to me by someone who said it was similar to The Blair Witch Project, which I think set some unrealistic expectations going in.
This is a story about a documentary team investigating an old mining town where the entire population disappeared in the 1950s. Because this is a horror novel, things do not go as planned. Equipment breaks or malfunctions, distrust starts to build between team members, and of course, they start to suspect that the town isn’t as empty as they thought.
This is also, in the author’s words, “a book about how society views women suffering from mental illness.” There are three women in this book living with mental illness — one who has recovered, one who is in recovery, and one who never had access to treatment. There’s explicit discussion of this in the book, including mentions of a suicide attempt and of sexual abuse. If either of those topics is a trigger for you, you may want to skip this one or read ending spoilers before deciding if it’s for you.
Interpersonal relationships also play a big role here. Friendships, ex-friendships, and romances are all part of the equation, and feelings definitely get hurt along the way. That’s not a bad thing, but I’d definitely say this is a character-driven book, not a plot-driven one.
This is a translation of a Swedish novel, but there wasn’t any translation-awkwardness that I noticed. I’m sure there’s things I missed because I didn’t know the cultural background, but I thought the translator did a good job.
My biggest issue was the ending. No spoilers, but it was not what I wanted and I personally felt like it was kind of a let down. That’s definitely just a personal preference thing, though.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
I think this might be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read.
Which may seem odd, because as far as horror novels go, this one is actually pretty tame. It’s nowhere near as gross or nasty or viscerally unsettling as other books I’ve read, and yet this book got under my skin in a way that gorier, scarier, more action-packed books haven’t.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe as an older sister and survivor of religious trauma with close friends and family who have bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, I am uniquely positioned to be freaked out by this story of an older sister with schizophrenia whose father decides exorcism is a better option than psychiatric help. (Okay, I’m not being totally fair. Technically it’s never made clear whether Marjorie is possessed or just mentally ill, and the fact that I lean hard into believing she’s experiencing a psychotic break says more about me than about this book.) Maybe it’s because this book is a little too real and hits a little too close to home for anyone familiar with real-life cases of religious abuse. Maybe Paul Tremblay is just really good at his job.
I would describe A Head Full of Ghosts as a meta horror novel. It reminded me a little bit of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — both follow a “story within a story” structure, although A Head Full of Ghosts is definitely less intentionally confusing than House of Leaves.
Let’s break it down a little: When Merry was a child, her family was on a very popular reality show that revolved around her older sister’s demonic possession. The book is framed as a series of interviews with adult Merry, who is telling her side of the story to a biographer. The book also includes a series of blog posts from a horror blogger who analyzes the episodes of the reality show through the lens of horror fiction. I really liked the blog posts, because that’s where the author gets to be more self-aware and tongue-in-cheek.
I like that this book works both as a straight-forward modern possession story and as a deconstruction or commentary on the possession horror subgenre. I think horror nerds would really enjoy this book.
The Carrow Haunt by Darcy Coates
Sometimes I just want to read a classic, simple, straight-forward ghost story, and Darcy Coates absolutely delivers on that front. I’ve been hearing a lot about Coates lately, and I chose to start with The Carrow Haunt because the synopsis reminded me of The Haunting of Hill House, with a bunch of people coming together to investigate a Very Haunted House which, of course, goes very badly almost immediately.
I’ve heard people describe Darcy Coates books as “bingeable,” and I can definitely see why. Although I sadly didn’t have the free time to binge this book in one sitting, I think I would have if I could have. It was definitely a page-turner, and I did finish it pretty fast even though I was mostly reading it in the mornings before work.
Again, I really like how simple this story is. It’s a very classic ghost story, and it doesn’t have a lot of subplots and extra drama like The Lost Village does. The story mostly stays focused on the haunting. It’s also a bit more fast-paced than traditional gothic novels, so if you’re someone who likes haunted houses but doesn’t like waiting for things to start happening, I think you’d enjoy this book.
One thing that surprised me was that this book actually has explicit rules for how ghosts work. Most supernatural horror leans into the unknown and mysterious, but this book takes a very scientific (or at least pseudoscientific) approach. Several of the characters are experts on paranormal activity, and they talk about different classifications of spirits, the environment and energy required for a ghost to be able to manifest, etc.
My biggest gripe with this book is the ending. Without getting into spoilers, I felt like there was a very abrupt change in tone right at the end of the story. It felt inconsistent from what had come before, and in that way it left me feeling unsatisfied.
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