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31 Octoberish Books

Living in Southern California, fall didn't really register with me until yesterday. The seasons here are...subtle. But yesterday, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, and it rained and blustered all day. HEAVEN. I pulled out my favorite hand-knit sweater, made Mexican hot chocolate, and cooked up a big batch of boeuf bourguignonne. Gray days have always been my favorite, and tend to lead me to happy contemplation of all things pleasurably melancholy--and even a little (or a lot) spooky--Octoberish. 

Here's a list of my 31 favorite Octoberish books (in no particular order), some scary, some just a little...other. I've rated them for scariness and/or explicitness. How many have you read?

1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

This is one of my favorite books of all time. Two 19th century English magicians compete to see who is the more powerful--and unwittingly stumble upon the secrets of the shadowy John Uskglass, The Raven King. A companion collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, came out a couple of years after Jonathan Strange, but I can't get enough. Please write faster, Susanna Clarke! I need another fix of your strange and wonderful world. PG

2. Shadowland, by Peter Straub

This is the story of a magical apprenticeship gone very wrong. Straub is most famous for the terrifying novel Ghost Story and his collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman. Both those books are fantastic, but Shadowland adds an extra level of horror for any parent. R

3. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

When I was about 11, I started this book but put it down after reading the first chapter--because that alone was just. Too. Frightening. I did this twice more before I had the courage to keep reading. Spoiler alert: this is not a romance, despite the torrid movie trailers you might have seen. The Yorkshire moors, plaintive apparitions, and tragic love--the Brontë sisters never disappoint. PG-13

4. Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons writes both excellent science fiction and excellent horror. This book is his best. Psychic vampires and Nazi conspirators? BRING IT. R

5. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

I loved the author's first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and when I heard she had a new book out, I was afraid that I wouldn't like it as much. WRONG. Night Film is the story of a reclusive film director, his talented but troubled daughter, and the investigative journalist who pursues their story at the expense of all else. Pessl's interstitial documentation of the journalist's story adds to the dark not-quite-realism. R

6. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Kids: you can't leave them alone for even an hour. If you didn't like this book in high school, give it another try. Patrick and I recently read it with two of our teenagers and had a wonderful discussion about morals, agency, and peer pressure--and just how freaky this book is. PG-13

7. The Children of Men, by P.D. James

Famous mystery writer P.D. James published this novel in the early nineties, long before dystopians became the thing. It's gorgeously crafted and written and dark, dark, dark. R

8. Psalms of Herod, by Esther Freisner

Freisner usually writes humorous fantasy along the lines of Terry Pratchett (I once heard them speak on a panel together), but she took a break from the funny in the mid-nineties and put out this book. It and its sequel, The Sword of Mary, make The Children of Men (above) or Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale look like a romp in the park. Pitch-black dystopian. LOVE. It needs to be on Kindle, but you can get it used on Amazon. R

9. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Freaky. Deaky. And way meta. With even more cool interstitial stuff along the lines of Pessl's book, above. (Of course, they both copied the stuff that Jared Adair and I created for The Book of Jer3miah: Premonition. YES, THEY DID.) And someone should really write a paper comparing and contrasting this book with Night Film, because the similarities are fascinating. A filmmaker and his family move into a house that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. What's so scary about that? Read it and find out. R

10. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

One of the very scariest of ghost stories. A governess tries to protect her charges from the malevolence of her predecessor and her lover, Peter Quint. No blood, no violence--just taut suspense and chilling allusion. This novella was the seed for the most frightening part of Straub's Ghost Story. (Again: a paper waiting to happen.) See Britten's opera based on the story, if you can. Chilling and wonderful. PG-13

11. Salem's Lot, by Stephen King

I've read all of King's books. Every one. Though his books vary widely in quality, I adore the man, as I've written before. Jerusalem's Lot, a small town in Maine, is a haven for vampires of the most un-sparkly sort. The quiet dread is unnerving. Other favorites by King include The ShiningMisery, and Bag of Bones. If you want PG-13 King, try The Green Mile or Joyland—but Salem’s lot is a definite R.

12. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

We used to live a half hour from Sleepy Hollow, and when we listened to thunderstorms from our house in the Hudson Highlands, it was easy to see why Irving likened summer storms to the ninepin bowling of giants. All of Irving’s writing is excellently melancholic, but Ichabod Crane’s taut, tragic story stands out. PG

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

You probably know “The Lottery,” Jackson’s iconic short story, from high school, and you may have heard of The Haunting of Hill House, which is fabulously frightening. This book is not as well known, but every bit as awful (in the best of ways). Magic, murder, and betrayal in New England—Octoberish, indeed. PG-13

14. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Now, THIS is Gothic romance of the highest degree—a forbidding mansion, a mysterious stranger in the attic—and the star-crossed heroine and her employer, Mr. Rochester. Brilliant and haunting. PG

15. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury may as well have invented October. His dreamlike stories always have a hint of the strange about them—and this one is downright eerie. Bradbury realizes the inherent otherness of a traveling carnival—and then exploits it to the nth degree. PG 

16. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

This book reads like something written at least 70 years ago—and I mean that as the highest of compliments. A country doctor is called to attend what’s left of an aristocratic Warwickshire family brought low by two world wars. Their decaying house—and what’s in it—haunts the family, the doctor, and ultimately, the reader. PG-13

17. The Complete Edgar Allen Poe

When I was in fourth grade, I checked a book of Poe’s short stories out of the school library. For years afterward, I lay awake at night, terrified that a pendulum or a tell-tale heart or a black cat would spell my doom. Poe is the American master of melancholy and dread. PG

18. The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins, a close friend of Charles Dickens’s, is most famous for his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. This lesser-known gem, his first full-length novel, is no less creepworthy. Every chapter is a cliff-hanger, probably because the book first appeared serially in the magazine Household WordsPG

19. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

The title alone speaks of October. The third and final novel by a Brontë to appear on my list tells the compelling story of a beautiful woman with a tragic secret. Will she ever be free of the past that haunts her? You never know whether you’ll get a happy ending or a tragic one when it comes those wacky sisters from Yorkshire. PG-13

20. Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

Urban dystopic fantasy can be filled with pensive dread—especially when written by China Miéville. Art, its exploitation, and shadowy conspiracies all thrive in this magnificent book of a parallel London. R

21. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Again, the title itself is brilliant, and the book is no less fabulous. It tells the tale of two travelers—a businessman named Richard and a damaged street girl called Door—to the dangerous world of London Below. This is my favorite of many great books by Neil Gaiman. PG-13

22. In the Forest of Forgetting, by Theodora Goss

Yet another title that I envy—so evocative, and the book lives up to its promise. This collection of short stories is firmly in the gothic/slipstream tradition and reads like a bunch of the darkest, oldest fairy tales. We need much more Theodora Goss. PG-13

23. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I first became acquainted with the work of M.R. James when I attended a dramatic reading of some of his ghost stories. James was a highly educated scholar of medieval studies; he perfected his disturbing narratives purely as a hobby. His dark tales would be best read aloud by firelight—but be prepared for some sleepless hours afterward.PG-13

24. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” Thus begins one of the most powerful Gothic novels ever. Here’s another scholarly paper begging to be written: examine both the prevalence and the role of sinister servants in English Gothic novels. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers? Yeah: she’ll give you nightmares. PG-13

25. Bellefleur, by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is marvelously prolific, and that’s a very good thing. She tends to write claustrophobic psychological thrillers, and I’ve never been sorry to spend time with any of her books. Bellefleur, the magic realist novel about an inbred family living (and dying) in upstate New York, is one of her best. R

26. Lost Boys, by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is best known for his fantasy and science fiction, but he’s written some good horror novels, too. This is one of the saddest ghost stories I’ve ever read. It has staying power; I think our son Christian has read it at least five times. PG-13

27. Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O'Connor

Oh, how I adore Flannery O’Connor. She’s the very best of the Southern Gothic writers, and these short stories are deeply strange. Great stories get better with every re-reading, and that is certainly true of this collection. Hollywood should be mining O’Connor’s work they way they do Philip K. Dick’s. Pure (if tarnished) gold. PG

28. Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s work—all slipstream short stories—fills me with envy and awe. She’s won a ton of awards, and she’s deserved them all. Read “Stone Animals” or the eponymous short story, and the rest of this collection. Then read her other books, Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters. Link’s tales are addictive and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. More, Kelly; more! R

29. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

This is a children's adventure that has often been compared to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's witty and wry, but there's a definite undercurrent of the autumnal throughout. A wonderful, non-scary read-aloud. G

30. The Magic Toyshop, by Angela Carter

Grim and gritty and PUPPETS. Need I say more? Angela Carter's stuff is all creepalicious, but this novel? Sheesh. For more shudders, read her fairy tale retellings in The Bloody ChamberR 

31. Orlando: A Biography, by Virginia Woolf

This tale of the gender-shifting, seemingly ageless and immortal Orlando is a fascinating, dreamlike trip. What could be more Octoberish than living for centuries and watching those around you age and die? Woolf's prose is gorgeous, and her moody spirit can't help but leak through. PG-13

As I look over my list, I see interesting patterns--lots of English novels, lots of books by women. I go more for the atmospheric than the graphic. Almost without exception, the books are set in England or on the East Coast of the United States; there doesn't seem to be much of what I like set in here in the West. Clearly, I need to invent California Gothic....

I also find that in trying to encapsulate the essence of these books, I want to re-read almost all of them. Ah, Happy October to me! And to you. Let me know what you would add to the list. I'm always up for a new Octoberish read. 

Reader Comments (5)

Fabulous list, Luisa! The academic track at Life, the Universe, and Everything would, I'm sure, welcome any and all of your proposed papers (which you could write in your copious spare time).

_A Night in the Lonesome October_ by Roger Zelazny, is our traditional October read. Fits right in on your list AND has one of the best first paragraphs in all of speculative fiction.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLee Ann Setzer

I have read six and two halves of them. In this case, two halves do not make a whole. :)

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Thanks so much for your list! I was trying to describe House of Leaves to a friend the other day and failed miserably. You did a much better job! For an October read. I love The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It's not set entirely in autumn but there's something about circus tents and hot drinks and caramel popcorn that screams fall. Also, I think that The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater has a very autumny/fallish feeling to it besides being an amazing read. And one good Ray Bradbury deserves another-- The October Country has some great short stories, some of which are very creepy. But then, I have a decidedly lower creep threshold than a lot of people. :)

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAubrey Mace

Great list! I like that you added a children's choice and The Phantom Tollbooth is a favorite in my family. I thought you might like to add The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It's the story of a woman's search for Vlad the Impaler. It isn't really scary but has some creepy moments and it is a wonderful read. Check it out if you haven't already.

Your blog list was forwarded to me by a friend. I'm going to read a few of your choices that have been on my list for a while: The Turn of the Screw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Lord of the Flies. I know, they're classics, but I haven't gotten to them, yet!

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Andersen

I got scared just reading your summaries! I'm a wimp. I know I can't handle your list beyond the Gothic romances.

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

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