A small disclaimer first—in Croatia we don’t have a tradition of Halloween, but thanks to the globalisation and American media being so prevalent in our lives it’s not surprising that Halloween creeped into our lives as well. We end up having Halloween parties—more and more each year—even people dressing up. I believe that the only thing we still don’t have is the “trick or treating”, but who knows, with so many kids growing up with American movies and tv shows influencing their formative years, there’s a possibility that someone did try it out (although in Croatia, we have a… let’s say similar tradition during the time of carnival festive season when kids dress up in masks and go door to door asking for money—I grew up in a family with a strict “don’t answer the doors during the carnival because of the masked people” policy).
It’s impossible to ignore all of the Halloween talk. Everything is Halloween at some point on social media, skeleton gifs circulating on Tumblr even before October. It’s the aesthetic of fall, basically. I’ve embraced Halloween—or was at least brainwashed into loving it. Who knows.
In any case, as a speculative fiction fan, especially as a horror stories fan, I wholeheartedly welcome any sort of excuse to consume and talk about stuff that is spooky, creepy, dark and scary. So that’s what I’m going to do, on this day, first of October—the Halloween month.
If you’re looking for inspiration, something appropriate to read during this unholy month of ghosts and other related horrors, here are some of my favorite horror titles that I’ve (recently) read.
Yes, I’m starting with the one title that is gaining popularity given the currently airing tv show on HBO. Fun fact: the first draft of this text was actually more in the line of “what to read while waiting for the premiere of Lovecraft Country” and I’d chosen some of the modern lovecraftian titles with similar themes that I liked, but I knew at some point I won’t get time to actually write it before the first episode airs. Instead, I decided to rewrite the text and include new titles (stuff that I’ve read during this summer) and so the spooky October reading list was created.
Of all of the books that I’m going to mention here, this one was probably the scariest for me to read. The suspense is unreal. It made me read this novel in a short period of time, because it was so hard to put it down, not to mention, there were so many times I literally held my breath while reading. Something that doesn’t happen very often.
The novel is structured as a collection of stories—each chapter is a new story, following the life of one extended family. Even though each chapter is about a different character who has their own horror trope to survive through, the stories are interconnected. It makes it feel like a tv show with a monster of the week and an overarching plot. And if I’m not mistaken, it’s written like that on purpose. And even though it’s called Lovecraft Country (after the first story, or well, chapter), Lovecraft is not the only influence shaping the story. Some of the other inspirations are also classics of gothic literature (like Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde) and classic sci fi and adventure novels. So there are a lot of different tropes these stories go through, like: cultists, haunted houses, creepy possessed murder dolls, ghosts, space travels and aliens. A little bit of everything and the only way it works is because each chapter is written in its own genre.
But it’s not the monsters or lovecraftian cultists that makes this novel so suspenseful and scary. It’s the human factor that makes you really grip harder on your book while reading it, internally screaming the whole time. Or at least it was for me.
The novel is set in the 1950s and our main characters are black people trying to survive the systemic racism that shapes their lives. On top of that very shitty situation—they are forced into a world of magic and supernatural monsters thanks to the machinations of the evil rich white cultists with nefarious plans. What this novel really succeeds at is creating suspense and tension not with the supernatural but with racism. The scariest parts for me were in every possible interaction that our protagonists had with white people, small or big. I could really feel what the characters were going through, their very real fear and anxiety that came from the position of oppression in a society that didn’t view them as humans or worthy of the basic human rights. It gets frustrating, depressing, sad and horrifying in turns. But our protagonists are also fun, complicated, nuanced, interesting and competent so no matter how horrible the situation is, it never turns into a complete tragedy. At least not for the main characters. There is plenty of tragedy interwoven in the history of black people in the USA and generational pain going on in the background.
Ultimately, this is a story about experiences of black people during the Jim Crow era of USA history. Or to be honest, about experiences of black people in the USA in general. A lot of horrifying, disturbing, humiliating and dehumanising stuff written here still happens to this day. And that’s the most horrifying part of all.
If you haven’t yet, check out the tv show as well. I’ve seen some book fans being disappointed with some big changes, as readers usually get with adaptations, but I’m loving it so far (it’s HBO though, so I’m not ruling out being totally let down by the end).
The novella The Monster of Elendhaven isn’t a horror in a way we came to expect from that word, but is actually written in a style of the oldie gothic stories about monsters that lurk in shadows and in ourselves. It questions the nature of monsters and humanity, that link between it, and what it means to be a monster vs what it means to be a human (you know, like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde).
But just because it’s not scary, it doesn’t mean it’s not unsettling and disturbing. Many of the scenes are like that, because we’re constantly in the head of the monstrous character. Visceral descriptions of the dark, grey and sickly town, where everything is poisonous, dangerous and derelict, and images of hunting and killing are so masterfully done in prose, that you’ll not be able to stay indifferent.
Nothing in this novella looks healthy—it’s either bloody, grotesque or deformed. The city reflects people that live there. The main characters are so dramatic and over the top in the way that they complement each other; one is a Byronic soul and the other the Mister-Hyde type, and the two of them are the crux of the story. Their relationship is the story and it’s done in a way which makes it possible for a lot to be said about it. Just like it could be said that the narrative itself is queer and not just because of the characters and their relationship, but because of the themes like: repression, being rejected from the society over something you can’t control, social persecution and hiding your true self in front of others as a way of self preservation.
Without spoiling too much, I’m going to say: I was rooting for the main character all the time, although he was shown as an eldritch monster who crawled out from the toxic sea. The other character was able to make me so mad, but I understood his motivation, and no matter how much some of the stuff he did irritated me, I had nothing against his plan. I was a little bit disappointed with the end and how some stuff was left too open to interpretation. But all in all, the novella was interesting enough, different enough, for me to recommend it to others. Especially to those who’re trying to find something else, something new but classic in its execution, to read.
These two short lovecraftian novellas really play with the language of horror. The use of language is what sets aside these stories from others. And really, they’re great, not so much scary as unsettling, playing with the creatures of the Lovecraft mythos in new and interesting ways. The main character in Hammers on Bone is a private detective who only seems human but in fact is something else. The plot of the first novella is him working on a case, dealing with other eldritch horrors loose in the world in a mix of noir and horror story.
The second novella is told from the perspective of the victim, a black blues musician whose life turns suddenly into a lovecraftian horror (reminds me a lot of a character that exists as an investigator in the Eldritch Horror Board Game). A Song for Quiet is a sad story about quiet and not so quiet grief, deeply rooted in a person, and trying to come up with a way to handle it, to find an outlet to let your emotions out and reconcile with the loss of a loved one. All the ways we can bury it inside, or just let it out in an Earth-shattering scream when it becomes too much. Only, it’s set in the world where monsters lurk waiting to pound on people to get what they want. I couldn’t read this without feeling the profound sadness of this story and that’s why I liked it, even when I was unhappy with the ending. Also, the atmosphere really fits the blues, the music that the main character produces.
It’s really hard to talk about these novellas though, because I feel like I don’t have enough words to describe how they made me feel while reading them. But I could vividly imagine this world as a sort of twisted, grey version of ours, like a dream I had that is slowly slipping away now that I’m awake.
Moving on from lovecraftian motifs and style, I’d like to talk about Wilder Girls––an amazing body horror novel with a teaspoon of coming-of-age story.
Full disclosure: I’m a teacher who works in a sort of dormitory for highschoolers, so I found the setting of this story great mostly because of the way I could relate to it. Namely, the story is set in an all girls school, located on a mysterious island, isolated from the outside world. Not only that, but they’re also quarantined (quite relatable in 2020) because of the strange disease that falls upon every living thing on the island, changing their biology. We see a variety of characters and the way their bodies are changing into something else, something new, how they’re surviving being completely isolated with most of the teachers dead and without contact with their parents; with hints of a deeper mystery that needs to be uncovered. I don’t usually like body horror and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through reading this novel. Not only could I read it, but I was amazed with the way the author managed to portray some very violent body transformations in a way that I didn’t find them scary so much as artistic. Fear came mostly with other aspects of this novel—the isolation, the loneliness, being powerless against the destructive nature, and in the way important decisions were being made without the girls’ knowledge, over their own bodies.
Beautifully written, with vivid imagery that turned the most gory details into something like a grotesque pre-raphaelite picture, this story really illustrates the horrors of being a teenage girl in a new and disturbing way. It’s also very queer and it doesn’t fall into a “well, it’s a situational thing because all of them are girls” trap, having the characters established in their sexuality before coming to the school. It also doesn’t gloss over the violence of the situation they find themselves in, having them become wild, violent and unpredictable in turn, like nature. These girls are not frail damsels, oh no. They’re feral, dangerous and amazing.
I knew that I liked Ursula Vernon’s writing style so it was really a no brainer for me to choose this novel as a summer read (written under her pen name T. Kingfisher). And oh my, how right I was.
The protagonist in this book is a freelance editor who has to go and clean up a house in the middle of the woods, belonging to her deceased, hoarding, evil grandmother. Of course, there are certain mysteries regarding her step-grandfather and something in the woods, waiting for her to discover them. The other main character is her coonhound Bongo and there’s a lot about coonhounds to be learned in this novel, which I think is neat. Also, it’s relevant to the plot, which is, of course, the best way to include a dog in your story (per my humble opinion, as a writer who also likes to use specifics of a dog breed for plot purposes). And while there are some other characters that show up and are part of the story, it’s really the two of them for most of the story. Which is awesome and works because the protagonist is such a funny and relatable narrator, and I don’t think I need to explain that I loved Bongo unconditionally. Because of that I really found myself worrying about them when the horror stuff started happening. It was really hard to put the book down and stop reading, always wondering what would happen next and what the nature of the creatures creeping in the woods was.
The story is a mix of humor, suspense and outright horror, at least for me, seeing a few of my particular fears getting used in this book. The suspense and horror progress slowly, rather than hitting you all at once, but the humor mostly stays, thanks to the protagonist’s charm. But at no point does it negate the danger which the characters find themselves in or interfere with the creepy atmosphere.
And the atmosphere really, truly gets eerie in a way that reminded me of Lovecraft, mostly his novel Mountain of Madness.
This story is also inspired by one particular horror classic which I never knew existed until I read about it in the author’s afterword––The White People by Artur Machen. Because I’ve never read it I completely missed Vernor references or that this is a play on a found manuscript story, a trope I also completely ignored. But regardless, even without knowing that stuff, I had no problems enjoying The Twisted Ones immensely, these facts merely highlighting my enthusiasm.
On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between the novel Mexican Gothic and the movie Crimson Peak. In the Guillermo del Toro’s movie we follow a young, intelligent, beautiful and rich girl being seduced by a mysterious British guy who comes from decrepit nobility and who needs, you know, money. We see how he preys on her vulnerabilities, their fast wedding, and then living with his sister in a very old very haunted house. It’s a story about how a fairy tale can end up being a nightmare when, instead of a prince, you marry into a family of monsters.
Similarly, Mexican Gothic also has a young girl (in 1950s) that comes from a rich family and suddenly marries a mysterious British dude whose family used to be rich due to the ownership of a silver mine, but whose fortune is now mostly ruined. Except she’s not the protagonist—her cousin is. Noemí is also young, quite intelligent, strong willed, full of life and joy, whose life of constant partying had to come to an end when her family got a letter from her cousin Catalina, the one who’d recently married a mysterious man. The letter is full of ramblings about how her husband is trying to poison her, how there are ghosts in their house. While Noemí and her father don’t really believe in hauntings, there is a question of Catalina’s sickness and mental health and whether her husband, a stranger to the family, keeps a good care of her. So it’s up to Noemí to go visit her cousin and investigate her sickness.
As soon as she gets to the house, it’s obvious she’s in hostile territory. The house is an old and looming presence of gothic stories, familiar to the fans of the genre. The family in question is suspicious at first glance, and it doesn’t really help when the old pater familias starts talking to Noemí about eugenics, “superior and inferior people”, noticing how “darker” Noemí is in comparison to her cousin and so on. Noemí is stuck in this oppressing environment, and has to endure both direct and indirect racism and sexism, not the mention threats of sexual assault. And to understand what’s happening to her suddenly sick and frail cousin, she has to understand the family and the house that’s keeping them.
In the beginning of the story it’s easy to feel anger and frustration at Noemí’s position, but the more she finds out, the more secrets she uncovers and the more the mystery unravels, the more scary it gets. Silvia Moreno-Garcia really gives us a detailed history and mythos of the monstrous family and house, making the mystery all the more satisfying. Because there is logic to the haunting, and because there is always something new to be learned about this family, it never feels superficial, and can get truly horrifying.
Similar to Lovecraft Country, the real horror lies with the human factor, not the supernatural or science fiction element. Because, ghosts can be scary in the dark, but nothing compares to old white men with power who believe themselves gods.
For the grand finale, I chose a teen slasher novella. Because really, there’s no horror movie night with my friends which doesn’t include slashers, especially those with teenagers as main characters. So, it’s only fitting for me to finish my horror book rec list with this title.
I’m going to start with the fact I didn’t know a thing about it when I chose to read Night of the Mannequins. I was, however, intrigued with the book cover, and given that I follow Tor publishing’s Instagram account (all of them), at some point it was everywhere. I was still too lazy to actually check out the synopsis and really, most of the time I don’t do that (they can get from vague and outright wrong to spoilery or just unflattering or, worse of all, boring; so I mostly just check shelves on Goodreads to get the idea what the book is about without too much information).
I was completely hooked by the first sentence. Really, I’m glad that I got into it not knowing a thing about the plot, except that it has mannequins, apparently (and I know fully well how creepy stories with mannequins can get). It was such a wild ride from start to finish. Whacky, unpredictable, weird, macabre and hilarious in a way only a teen slasher can get, and then, even more than that. The narrator is definitely the reason for this. I don’t want to tell too much to destroy the experience, but I found the story both disturbingly charming and sinister. Really a great read for Halloween.
Honorary mention: The Magnus Archives
I lied. I’m not finishing with Night of the Mannequins. But given that The Magnus Archives is not actually a book, I felt like it would be cheating to put that in the list. That’s why the “honorary mention” category. It’s still cheating, but oh well, it’s my text I can do with it what I want.
And what I want is to talk a little bit about The Magnus Archives.
It’s a Rusty Quills horror podcast written by Jonathan Sims, directed and produced by Alexander J. Newall. It started out as a horror anthology where each week you could listen to a new short horror story, written in the form of a statement, by a person who has experienced something supernaturally menacing and frightening, to an Institute that finds its whole purpose in collecting and investigating these types of stories. The whole shtick was that you were hearing the recording of this statement made by the main character—Jonathan Sims—who is a head archivist, whose job was to file them. He would read them into the old tape recorder, because for some unknown reason, nothing of the new technology worked with these statements. Of course.
But that’s how The Magnus Archives started out. First season is full of these seemingly unconnected stories, very simple in production, with only a few recurring characters. It grew out of that form and became a full blown horror radio drama about all the ways fears can manifest in human lives.
It’s addicting. When I first started listening to The Magnus Archives, it already had four seasons, and I was honestly a little concerned that I won’t be able to get into it. But it became so popular it was hard to miss it, and the fan art that bombarded me on Tumblr looked so interesting, not to mention canon queer main characters in a horror story, so I gave in to the hype. And I’m not sorry about it, at all.
Not all of the episodes are equally scary. Nor do they need to be. Even when an episode is not as scary, there are some truly disturbing and horrifying ideas, because, like I said, these stories are about explorations of fears. Since there are so many different fears and so many different experiences with them, not everything hit me in the same way. But even without some big, overarching plot in the first season, there were some unique, dark, disgusting and scary stories that managed to hook me on the show and turn me into a fan even before it delved deeper into its own mythos, creating a whole new lore and turning the worldbuilding from the simple “there could be something supernatural at play here” to “we have a whole taxonomy of monsters”. It also helps that characters are relatable and funny, even when they get frustratingly difficult at times, and that the Institute is appropriately mysterious.
Not to mention amazing voice acting. Jonathan Sims’ voice is really something else. But others are great as well, which makes it easy to follow (I have problems with concentration with audio books, so I need to have voice acting, not just reading lines). Absolute recommendations.
In the end
A tiny bit of shameless self promotion, so to speak. I’m not just a reader of the genre but also a writer, so if you liked my list of recommendations, it would be a waste not to mention my two recent horror stories—Of Monsters and Dogs (an urban fantasy horror with monsters from old Slavic folklore, dogs and shy sapphic girls, available online for free) and the novella What Do Nightmares Dream of (a lesbian horror story about nightmares, family and anxiety), set to publish this October, 15th.
I hope some of the titles I mentioned will interest you enough to try them out during Halloween month. Or listen to, in case of the TMA. It’s time to get spooky!