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In Dreamful Autumn: The 2017 Octoberish Lists

Photograph: John Batho, Présents et Absents

For the past few Octobers, I've posted lists of things I deem Octoberish. Sometimes they're creepy books or movies; sometimes they're melancholy songs or places. It's not always about the scary for me; sometimes I'm after the things that evoke sehnsucht; saudade; "northernness," as C.S. Lewis called it; or how I put it when I was a kid, "the Connecticut feeling." I was homesick for a place I'd never been, and I still love feeling like that now. 

Here are all the Octoberish goodies I've discovered in recent months. 

Picture Books

I've studied a lot of non-American picture books while in my MFA program, and many have a decidedly melancholy bent. Here are some of the best I've found:

Duck, Death, and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch

Duck and Death become lifelong friends--until Duck dies. Though unresolved, the ending satisfies. 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break, by Glenn Ringtved

Four children decide they won't let Death take their grandmother away--but Death takes the time to explain the inevitable in a way that honors both intellect and heart. 

Jane, the Fox, and Me, by Fanny Britt

An ostracized girl finds comfort in two sources--Jane Eyre and a fox she sometimes sees in her neighborhood. As my kids would say, "Relatable." 

What Color is the Wind, by Anne Herbauts

A blind child repeatedly asks what color the wind is and gets varied and unique answers. Satisfying on both a literary and a tactile level.

The Only Child, by Guojing

A lonely little boy decides to take the bus to visit his grandmother. When he gets off at the wrong stop and finds himself lost in the woods, a mysterious stag rescues him and eventually guides him home. This gracefully illustrated, pensive wordless picture book reminds me of another favorite picture book of mine, Tim Wynne-Jones's Zoom Trilogy.


The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, by Claire Legrand

Victoria is the only one who can save her best friend from the sinister new school in town. This was one of the books I used in my critical thesis. As well as being a delightfully creepy read, it's a primer on how to write effective horror for middle graders. Anne, while reading it the other day, marched into my room and announced, "This book is GOOD." 

A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans

George finds he's terrified to hold his newborn son. The reader finds out why through a series of engrossing flashbacks to George's youth. Beautifully structured and paced. For adults.

Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand

I'm telling you: Elizabeth Hand looked inside my head and then whipped up the ideal short novel for me. A folk rock band rents an old English manor in order to record an overdue album away from fans and other distractions. Trouble is, the manor is haunted. Any fan of 1970s English rock will find Easter eggs aplenty in this fascinating tale. For older teens and up.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Aliens invade Earth, and just one look at them will drive you to suicidal madness. The narrator and other characters of this post-apocalyptic novel for adults are therefore blindfolded most of the time. Claustrophobic, chilling, unputdownable.

The Widow's House, by Carol Goodman

Again, another novel for adults that could have been commissioned for my birthday. Haunted house + Hudson Valley + writers + unreliable narrator = happy Luisa.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

As I wrote in last year's post, a book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Set in rural Pennsylvania between the World Wars, Wolf Hollow tells the story of a girl who fights against deadly small-town prejudice. This book for middle graders and up gets compared to To Kill a Mockingbird often, and for good reason. It'll definitely be on my best books of the year list. 

House of Furies, by Madeleine Roux

A runaway finds work at a remote manor on the Yorkshire Moors. She soon learns that the rest of the household staff and her employer are not at all what they appear to be. Though it has a sequel (which I haven't yet read), this memorable YA novel stands on its own. 


I worked long and hard on this playlist, mainly because I know Christian will appreciate it for years to come. Here's the thing: there's an awful lot of music out there that is scary, gross, or horrifying. But most of it just isn't very interesting or good. Here's this year's collection of dreadful, melancholy, or creepy songs that are actually worth playing.

The Dead South, "In Hell I'll Be In Good Company"

This dark bluegrass band is made up of virtuosi who don't take themselves too seriously. Great energy, evocative lyrics. 

The Civil Wars, "Barton Hollow"

My old blogging pal Heffalump introduced me to The Civil Wars, who unfortunately are no longer together. In this song, an outlaw on the lam alludes to various unforgivable crimes. Moral: there's no rest for the wicked. 

Stars, "I Died So I Could Haunt You," 

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for Canadian pop and folk music. Stars hasn't earned the high esteem I reserve for bands like The Wailin' Jennys and Great Big Sea, but they have put out some solid songs. This neo-80s duet is one of their best, off an album with a suitably Octoberish cover. 

The Avett Brothers, "Murder in the City"

Death by move to the city? The lyrics to this song read like a suicide note. Apparently when you leave your family and farm, goodbye IS forever. 

Rhiannon Giddens, "We Could Fly"

I have a huge crush on Rhiannon Giddens. Her 2017 album Freedom Road is mostly original, haunting songs (and a couple of brilliant covers) about her ancestors' lives as slaves. "We Could Fly" sounds like a mournful old folk tune, and coming from me, that is the highest of compliments. I love how she refuses to resolve the final melodic line; to me, it's a metaphor of how racism is far from eradicated today. Give it a listen, and you'll see what I mean.

Leon Bridges, "River"

This young gospel/soul singer will soon become a national treasure. More exquisite lamenting over injustice; he and Rhiannon Giddens should do a duet. 

Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black"

The magificent Amy Winehouse sang about despair with authenticity. I love the black and white music video of this, one of her most iconic pieces.

Louvin Brothers, "Knoxville Girl"

Nothing says "October" like a good old Appalachian murder ballad. Yes, there's a whole subgenre of them. This is one of the best. It's frequently covered, but the Louvin Brothers sing it as if they knew that golden-haired girl personally.

Evanescence, "My Immortal

If you'd told me in 1983 that goth rock would live as long as it has, I would have laughed you out of the house. And yet, here's Evanescence, with an engaging power ballad that likens breaking up to being haunted. Not an original idea, but earnestly and beautifully expressed here. Oh, to be young again and wander around Italy barefoot with a ragged tutu and ribbons....

James Blake, "Retrograde

That croony little minor arpeggio that loops througout, the gospelly clap beat, the droning keyboards, and the minimalist, evocative lyrics all combine here in a very Octoberish slow dance.  

Joan Baez, "Diamonds and Rust"

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had to break up; that much greatness couldn't live long under one roof. And because they did, we have this exquisite piece of music. Judas Priest covered it pretty brilliantly, but I still prefer the gorgeous original. 

Jamie Samson, "Funeral for a Fallen Leaf"

October abounds here: the urban legend surrounding this song is that the teenaged singer/songwriter disappeared not long after recording it and is now presumed dead. Google as I might, I can't find any compelling evidence to the contrary. So: a mysterious Irish folk singer writes a song that's an elegy to autumn? Jamie, you win this year's Golden Pumpkin award.

Loreena McKennitt, "She Moved Through the Fair"

While we're on the Green Isle, let's sit a spell with one of Erin's finest sopranos as she sings an old Irish tune about a bride who disappears under mysterious circumstances. Despite the somewhat sinister lyrics, this song is apparently sung a lot at Irish funerals. It is undeniably lovely.

Eminem featuring Rihanna, "The Monster"

Eminem made my original Octoberish playlist, but given his Detroit roots, it's not surprising that he's got more moody goodness up his sleeve. Here, he and Rihanna sing about a monster under the bed, a metaphor for fame-induced insanity. *shiver*

Nina Simone, "I Put a Spell on You

Screamin' Jay Hawkins wrote this R&B classic, and everyone from Annie Lennox to Jeff Beck has covered it. But Queen Nina, with her biting contralto and inimitable swagger, has a corner on the most Octoberish version.

Queens of the Stone Age, "Mosquito Song

If you've read my previous Octoberish posts, you'll remember that I came to enjoy QotSA late. But I'm making up for lost time. This vampiric ditty, sung from the perspective of an insect, has undeniable creep factor.

Demons & Wizards, "Fiddler on the Green"

I have a soft spot in my heart for this band. They did a whole album based on Stephen King's Dark Tower series; that's so endearingly nerdy. (That, and their name; D&D-obsessed 15-year-old Luisa would have loved them without reserve.) This retro-English folk rock song is about a special corner of the afterlife, where the fiddling and dancing never stops, and where parted lovers beg the Grim Reaper to rejoin them. VERY Jethro Tull; well done, boys.

Shakey Graves, "Dearly Departed"

Shakey Graves is hotter than July, and this break-up song, full of spooky imagery, is one of his best. Did the narrator kill his lover, or did she depart under better conditions? Shakey is a pleasingly unreliable narrator.


The Witch

A Puritan family is exiled from its community and must attempt survival on its own--with disastrous results. I saw this movie a few months ago, and the more I think about it, the higher it's rising on my list of all-time favorite films. Every frame looks like a painting by Rembrandt or Vermeer, and writer/director Robert Eggers portrays the terrifying side of the Calvinist worldview with zero condescension. AND it's slow-burning creeptastic. Possession, or ergot-induced madness? You'll have to decide for yourself. Now I want to watch it again. R.

The Visit

A single mom send her kids to visit their grandparents so she can go on a cruise with her boyfriend. Big mistake. Nana and Pop-Pop are as crazy as foxes, and Becca and Tyler record their terrifying behavior on a camcorder. Big mistake. The peril ratchets nerves tighter and tighter until the satisfying denouement. Reviews were mixed, but I think this is M. Night Shyamalan's best movie in a long while. PG-13.


Part horror story, part teen pastoral, the latest Stephen King adaptation is a huge success. Bill Skarsgård excels as Pennywise the Clown, but it's the kids who really shine in this well-paced tale of friendship overcoming fear. I was lucky enough to be at the Hollywood premiere and the cast party afterward, where kids wearing yellow slickers and holding red balloons wandered aimlessly. Loved. It. You'll float, too. R.

Session 9

Christian introduced me to this 2001 cult classic about an asbestos removal crew that wins the bid on a job at an abandoned mental asylum. Big mistake. Lots of ambiguity and well-timed flashbacks contribute to the unease created by Simon, a genius loci who lives "in the weak and the wounded." Another slow burn with a minimum of gore, and the filmmakers achieve an amazing amount with a tiny budget. R. 

My Cousin Rachel

Based on the novel by veteran Octoberist Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel is another film employing ambiguity with surgical precision. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as the mysterious cousin who enchants Philip, a naive young man with a significant inheritance. Beautifully shot in Octoberish Cornwall. PG-13.


Hotel Beau Séjour

A young girl wakes up next to her own body with no memory of how she died. Only a few people can see her now, and she enlists their aid as she solves her own murder. This compelling Flemish-language Belgian Netflix original series is ideal for binge watching. TV-14 in Belgium, but be aware that the F-word is alive and well in languages other than English.

The Tunnel

We've just started watching this French-English crime drama, and we're hooked. A body is found on the line demarcating the border between the UK and France in the Eurotunnel, and police from both nations team up to solve the murder. Apparently this show is based on a Danish/Swedish series called The Bridge; we'll have to watch that next. TV-MA.

That's it for this year! Here are links to past posts:

My Top 13 Overlooked Creepy Movies

31 Octoberish Books

An Octoberish Playlist

Thirteen Octoberish Pilgrimages

All Things Dark and Beautiful

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