October is a month that I have grown to love. One of the first foundation-rocking disagreements between me and my husband was his determined preference of Halloween over the, clearly superior, shenanigans of the Christmas period. It was a major trial for our ‘love across cultures’, where my lack of never having participated in any form of trick-or-treating (and general confusion as to why anyone would enjoy the harassment of overworked adults and the elderly while dressed as a teenage mutant ninja turtle) conflicted with his uncertainty as to what exactly gets boxed on Boxing Day. We’ve now been together for six years and have split that time pretty much equally as residents of both the UK and the US. It’s been an education and one in which we have both been forced, without any conscious consent, to ingratiate ourselves to the peculiarities of unfamiliar cultures. My husband now understands that ‘alright?’ is a greeting, not a question, and can actually tell the difference between Ant and Dec (a claim that most British citizens can’t make for themselves). I, on the other hand, know that good customer service is not intended to make me feel suspicious and that a ‘rubber’ is not something you should be asking for help finding in a stationery shop.
Beyond these vital pieces of cultural knowledge, living in the US has also infected me with the spirit of Halloween. It was inevitable. Despite my insistence that the best thing about October was an excuse to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas on repeat, I have given into the joy of languorously collapsing pumpkins and decorations decimated by windy nights. There is something heartening in an entire country’s coming together to celebrate all things spoopy – a love surely borne of the Pavlovian reinforcement that can only be procured through the copious amounts of sweets shovelled into children on 31st October. Having missed out on this myself, I am doing my best to institute my own association between Halloween and delicious treats by breaking records in the amount of chocolate I consume in the weeks immediately preceding the holiday. It seems to be working. Despite my new found love for Halloween, however, I remain a resolute opponent of all things genuinely scary. I can’t watch or read anything remotely horrifying or gory – a fact probably produced by existing with already-concerning levels of anxiety. Since an untidy desk has the potential to provoke a panic attack, it’s perhaps no surprise that I would pass up horror films without a thought. However, I can’t help but love the atmosphere of Halloween in its more gothic forms – an air of creepy suspense, distilled entirely in the anticipation of what lurks in the shadows. As long as what actually lurks in the shadows is either nothing or a monster of impressively camp drama.
In this spirit, I’ve put together a list of my 10 favourite October reads. Although each of these novels resounds with its own peculiar display of anticipatory creepiness, none of the books mentioned could truly be classified as approaching horror. These books all evoke an atmosphere specific to this time of year but, for those of us to whom horror projects only many nights of sleeping with the lights on, this list should leave you sleeping undisturbed. Let me know the titles of your favourite non-horror Halloween reads in the comments!
1. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
One of my favourite recent discoveries, Angela Carter’s fiction has carried me through the challenges of the past couple of months. Her luminous prose and beautifully gothic themes read like a poetic epitaph on the grave of a lady for whom death is not the end. The Magic Toyshop explores the nature of sexual and emotional growth in the setting of a joyless toyshop. The shop’s proprietor, Philip, rules his household with an unquestioned authority that dictates the misery of his wife, brothers-in-law, and the adopted children of his dead sister. It is a novel haunted as much by the unfulfilled desires and choicelessness of its characters as by the elegiac presence of Philip’s spectral wooden puppets. An excellent October read for lovers of fairy tales who are looking for something darker.
2. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
It’s no secret that Daphne du Maurier is muscled into almost every list of favourite books that I put together. Rebecca remains one of the most atmospherically evocative novels that I’ve read to-date and an almost perfect example of the potential of gothic literature. My Cousin Rachel was one of my reads from earlier this year and provides further evidence of du Maurier’s incredible narrative skill as a master of suspense. That My Cousin Rachel never truly answers the mysteries at its heart – regarding the suspicious Rachel, her identity, and her potential involvement with the death of the main character’s uncle – only adds to the ways in which this novel thrives best in its own enigmas.
3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
A sure favourite of mine for this time of year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a novel whose merits extend far beyond idiomatic ideas of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality. This short work is a gothic masterpiece, exploring – as many great works of gothic literature do – the boundaries of identity and the meaning of self. The notion of duality and human nature’s variability is certainly the novella’s most fascinating theme, and one in which the story’s preternatural fear absolutely thrives. From the expert invocation of London’s most troublingly Dickensian elements to Hyde’s murderous malevolence, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde couldn’t be more perfect for the Halloween season.
4. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
One of my more recent reads, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is an incredible journey through both the medieval history of eastern Europe and the myths of vampiric lore that surround Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes – also known as Vlad the Impaler. With her remarkable grasp of Ottoman history and a gripping rewriting of the Dracula legend, set within the world of contemporary academia, The Historian is a worthy successor to the masterpiece of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although Kostova’s work doesn’t rival Stoker’s originality – and stumbles in the author’s awareness of her own ambition – it is a perfectly unique read for fans of non-horror Halloween reads.
5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Perhaps somewhat cliché as a Halloween pick, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also unrivalled as one of the most appropriate October reads for those who prefer to avoid anything approaching horror. As with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein is a victim of its own infamy. Beyond the popular confusion regarding Dr. Frankenstein versus Frankenstein’s monster (a mix-up at which almost every bibliophile regularly roles her eyes), the novel is typically assumed to exist as a simple work of Victorian horror involving resurrection and/or the use of dead body parts. So much has been lost in the assimilation of Frankenstein‘s broader details into our shared cultural consciousness. The novel’s exploration of connection, belonging, and identity is central to explaining both Shelley’s brilliance and the importance of Frankenstein as a work of literature, quite separate from the centrality of the book’s imagery to our favourite spooky season. Frankenstein is a tremendous work and one that will surely outlast even our commitment to sexy costumes and eating too much chocolate.
6. Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
Strange Bodies is an expert demonstration of how the themes from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein can be transposed into contemporary literature. A thriller steeped in the mysteries of traded identities and centralising the work of Dr Samuel Johnson, Strange Bodies exists at the limits of what one can imagine technology able to achieve. Much as with the results of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments, Strange Bodies plays with physical identity to question what it actually means to be human. Marcel Theroux is an incredibly underrated literary talent and Strange Bodies remains his most impressive work. It is wonderfully creepy, philosophically intriguing, and the perfect read for anyone already well acquainted with Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Autumn, for me, is a season of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. With almost clockwork regularity, the falling leaves and dropping temperatures invite an overwhelming desire to crack open my literary favourites. Of all Agatha Christie’s works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd remains both my most regularly re-read and the most impressive demonstration of Christie’s spine-tingling skill. With its incredible twists and turns, this mystery is perfect for lovers of crime fiction who are looking for something unexpected in their October reads. Once you’re done, be sure to check out the BBC’s adaptation of The ABC Murders – easily the darkest and most Halloween-appropriate televisation of any Agatha Christie mystery!
8. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Would any list of October-appropriate reads be complete without Oscar Wilde’s gothic classic? The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the eponymous antihero as he descends into narcissistic madness, inspired by a fear of losing his youth and looks. It is a magnificent novel, saturated with the supernaturalism that renders gothic literature so fascinating. Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a provoking departure from the unrivalled comedy of his globally-celebrated plays. The book is evidence of Wilde’s significant literary talent, as well as an important insight into the psychological consequences of hedonism at its most extreme.
9. Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin
Although this pick certainly treads the boundaries of horror, Samanta Schweblin’s Man Booker-nominated collection of short stories, Mouthful of Birds, is a riveting literary accompaniment for any Halloween obsessives. Her careful invocation of dystopian themes, alongside a willingness to engage with the more horrifying aspects of the human psyche, make for a stomach-churning collection of significant literary merit. Schweblin’s own narrative skill and blunt prose ensure that Mouthful of Birds is an effortless read. While its bolder stories may leave you quaking with discomfort, Mouthful of Birds is a wonderfully suspenseful collection of short fiction that one would be hard pressed to forget.
10. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
For those looking to trade fiction for fact this Halloween, you can’t go wrong with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Following the events that surrounded the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, Capote works to unpick the motives of the Clutter’s murderers in this seemingly purposeless crime. Visiting both Richard Hickock and Perry Smith as they await their executions for the murders, Capote finds himself developing a unique relationship with the family’s killers. In Cold Blood is a multifaceted work that examines the psychology of murder and willingly engages with the possibility of compassion for those capable of such monstrous acts. While certainly unafraid of the hair-raising details of the murders, In Cold Blood is a profoundly human work that invites questions about justice and forgiveness.