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All Things Dark and Beautiful--2016 Edition

Hope and Tess as the Grady twins from The Shining--a mothering pay-off moment for me. 

In years past, I've made lists of books, movies, music, and places that evoke the Octoberish feeling. All this month, I've been too busy with my wonderful graduate program (and, um, a trip to Paris), and haven't had enough leisure time in which to sink into a pleasurable melancholy. But I turned in a school packet Saturday night, so today's the day. Fittingly, it's Halloween. And November, my favorite month of the year, is a wonderful time to indulge in all things Octoberish. With that in mind, here are all the latest things I've found that bring me to that elusive, borderless place that Ray Bradbury called The October Country


The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

A haunted house story in high Southern Gothic style. You feel like your family is dysfunctional? Read this book, and you'll feel like you're part of the Brady Bunch. Images of Beldame, sitting on a desolate beach in Alabama, will stay with you.

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

The dream Long Island summer rental turns deadly for a couple from Queens. This book and The Elementals were re-released relatively recently by Valancourt Books, which looks like a treasure trove of forgotten horror classics that I'll be mining for quite a while. 

Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

Forget Neil Gaiman and John Bellairs (well, not really): this is THE scariest book intended for children that I've ever read. Barraclough expertly sustains dread and atmosphere to the very last page. The companion book, The Mark of Cain, isn't quite as well done, but it's still worth your time. 

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

An English village is plagued first by an epic flood and then by contagious, suicidal madness. The bizarre Willoweed family is at the center of all the action. This book was banned in Ireland for decades; it's definitely an unsettling little book.

Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

A book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Lyrical magical realism also fits the bill. Finn goes in search of his missing friend Roza, who has been kidnapped by someone who doesn't appear to be of this world. Both lovely and suspenseful; I bought it in hardcover, because it's a keeper.

All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage

Murder mystery? Ghost story? Hudson Valley idyll? In this compelling novel, Brundage does what Gillian Flynn tried (and failed) to do with Gone Girl.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Here's a nod to the younger kids. This lovely, only slightly creepy book featuring the most British of monsters is about dealing with grief. I read it on an airplane: big mistake. Sobbing in public is not my favorite thing. 

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racciula

The students and chaperones of an all-state music festival get snowed in at an upstate New York resort--where a grisly murder-suicide occurred years before. With many nods to The Shining (but working far more in the mystery genre than in horror), Racciula manages a quirky and complex ensemble cast with dexterity, wit, and compassion. 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

I approach retellings with strong caution--especially retellings of English classics I have cherished since childhood. This expert retelling of Jane Eyre met and exceeded my very high expectations. It is its own story. Set in 1960s Scotland and Iceland--two very Octoberish spots

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, started out with this book. It's not perfect, but it's good. The best approximation I can give you is that this is what would have happened if Shirley Jackson had written To Kill a Mockingbird. Now: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and Jackson is one of my favorite writers, and The Little Friend is not as good as all that--but that description should give a sense of its atmosphere. 


I could write pages of posts about melancholy music in all genres, especially classical--but that's beyond the scope of today's exercise. Instead, I'll give you a few songs that I've played over and over this year to assuage my need for October. 

Sarah Calderwood "Through Bushes and Through Briars"

My favorite (and most Octoberish) composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, collected this folk song at the close of the 19th century. Calderwood does it justice in this simple but haunting version.

Mandolin Orange "One More Down"

Life in the South can be depressing, you know? This very talented duo sing their hearts out on dozens of plaintive, original songs. This is one of their best. I love the simplicity and pathos.

François Couperin "Les Barricades Mysterieuses"

This piece puts me into a trance of otherness. I love it deeply. At this summer's residency, I was reading in the chapel, one of Vermont College's only air-conditioned rooms, during some free time. A woman I knew only slightly came in with some music and sat down at the Steinway. After she played a Bach Chaconne, I asked her if she had this piece with her. Startled, she said yes, and she played it for me. Magical. But it was only afterward that I realized what an odd coincidence this was; she'd only brought a few pieces of music with her from home, and this, a relatively obscure piece, was one of them. (At this point, my kids would say, "Connect the dots.")

John Rutter "Blow, Thou Winter Wind"

This chilling secular carol will carry your Octoberishness straight through to March. Words by Shakespeare; music by Rutter: it does not get better than that. I heard it once and immediately ordered the sheet music so that we could sing it at home. Gorgeous.

Led Zeppelin "When the Levee Breaks"

This is hands down my favorite LZ song of all time (and there are so very many to love). The echoing harmonica, John Bonham's driving, monstrous drums, Jimmy Page's otherworldly guitar, Robert Plant's mournful delivery of classic blues lyrics--perfection. This semester, I'm writing a ghost story set in California's Central Valley, and this song always gets me in the mood to work on it. 


Goodnight Mommy (R)

Holy crud, this movie is creepy. Twin boys become increasingly sure that the woman who came home from surgery at the hospital is not their mother. It's so immersive that you'll forget it's in German. Clever script, great camera work.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PG-13)

The girls and I loved this one, based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith (and borrowing more than heavily from Jane Austen). It didn't do well in theaters, but I think it's a gem. My friend Danae would call it "kick-donkey."

Cold in July (R)

A movie doesn't have to be set in the fall to be Octoberish. A man shoots a burglar, whose newly-paroled father then seeks revenge. Heart-stopping, twisty, but a little more grisly than I'd prefer. That flaw aside, this is a story with staying power. 

Midnight Special (PG-13)

Things aren't always what they look like at first glance. A father must evade both the government and an apocalyptic cult in order to protect his son, who has otherworldly powers. Hypnotic. 

The Keeping Room (R)

This may be my favorite film of this year. Two sisters and a freed slave fight off a seige by two renegade Union soldiers. You feel the suffocating heat and humidity of the desolate plantation; you feel the paralyzing dread of the women in their vulnerability. Melancholy in the extreme. 

Lost River (R)

Okay, this movie is FAR from perfect, bless director Ryan Gosling's little heart. BUT there is real emotional power and atmosphere here. It's set in Octoberish Detroit, and is post-apocalyptic without the actual apocalypse. Will this family escape the crushing despair of its circumstances? The curse of Lost River indicates no, but watch until the end to see. 

Ex Machina (R)

A programmer wins a week at the estate of his company's reclusive CEO and must pass a Turing test with a beautiful, intelligent android. Love triangle becomes love square....Claustrophobic and dread-filled. 


The Returned (Les Revenants) (R)

You want the French series, not the failed American series that was based on it. Several inhabitants of a town in France's Haute-Savoie come back to life, with no memory of what happened to them while they were dead. Their attempts at reintegrating into society are heart-breaking and riveting. As with Lost River, a reservoir created by damming a valley (and flooding several towns) figures prominently. if I'd had the time, I would have binge watched the first season. I still haven't watched Season 2; I'm kind of hoarding it. 

True Detective, Season 1 (R)

Southern Gothic at its best and most modern. I don't know if I'll ever bring myself to watch further seasons of this show, because Woody Harrelson + Matthew McConaughey + a freaky serial killer + the Louisiana bayou = black magic. This series kept me guessing, and that is hard to do. More smexy (that's my portmanteau of "smut" and "sexy") than I'd prefer, but that's what the fast forward button is for.

The Leftovers, Season 1 (R)

What happens to the people who don't get caught up in the Rapture? This show explores that question. I liked the series much more than the Tom Perrotta novel on which it's based. Again, too much smex for my taste, so consider yourself forewarned. 

The Magicians (R)

I loved Lev Grossman's trilogy about college-age magicians who discover a Narnia-like otherland, and I was cautiously delighted when I heard that Syfy was going to make the books into a series. Patrick and I LOVED Season 1 and can't wait for Season 2. 

Stranger Things (PG-13)

We've only watched two episodes so far, but I'm hooked. It feels a little Twin Peaks-y, a little X-Files-ish--which means it's right in my wheelhouse. Hoping to watch episode 3 tonight after trick-or-treating.

What would you add to this year's Octoberish edition?

Reader Comments (1)

Love this. Reminds me of an LMM quote from Anne (which I'm sure I'll slaughter in the paraphrasing): "I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers!"

November 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette L

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