October is the perfect month to immerse oneself in spooky reads, a month that culminates in Halloween on 31st. And here is a stack of books to set the mood for the season, a great accompaniment to warm fires, candle-lit rooms, rustling autumn leaves, and pumpkin patches. These are unsettling stories where ghosts, lurking unknown danger, urban horror, time travel, sinister children, chilling domestic environments are elements that can send a chill down your spine.
So without much ado, here are some excellent unsettling reads for Halloween…For detailed reviews on the first seven books, you can click on the links.
GHOSTLY STORIES by Celia Fremlin
My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense.
There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house. In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists. Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages.
THE VICTORIAN CHAISE-LONGUE by Marghanita Laski
Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.
Click on the title above which will take you to my detailed review of this excellent novella.
CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)
Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.
“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.
The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.
SUCH SMALL HANDS by Andrés Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman)
In the opening pages we learn that Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.
Once Marina is subsequently taken to an orphanage, the narrative voice shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.
This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE by Mariana Enriquez (tr. Megan McDowell)
Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of twelve wonderful short stories steeped in gothic horror set in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In most of them, traces of supernatural elements exist, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.
We are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.
Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel – Eleanor Vance, Theodora and the Hill House heir Luke Sanderson.
But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.
The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.
WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard
We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.
The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.
DON’T LOOK NOW & OTHER STORIES by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.
My Folio edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.
All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.