Unsettling Reads for Halloween

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 – RebeccaJamaica InnMy 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.

Ghostly Stories – Celia Fremlin

The Faber Stories collection is a fascinating project – a single short story or two packaged as little, compact books, which as I wrote before, are akin to wine tasting where you want to sample a sip before deciding to go in for a bottle. It’s how I discovered the joy of Claire Keegan’s writing through her poignant story The Forester’s Daughter, as well as another terrific tale called Paradise written by Edna O’ Brien, whose work I had never read before. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney was also excellent and now to these stellar books I add Celia Fremlin’s Ghostly Stories.

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.

A hint of discreet violence is palpable in the first story, “The Hated House”, as our protagonist Lorna, a young woman of sixteen, enters her home. Lorna’s hatred and contempt for her home is loud and striking and immediately hooks the reader from the first page…

Now that she had it to herself, Lorna felt that she could almost enjoy hating her home so much. She flung her school coat and beret on to the sofa, dumped her satchel down in the middle of the floor, and watched with satisfaction as the books and papers spilled out over her mother’s spotless, well vacuumed carpet. It was nice to be able to mess it up like that, without risk of reprimand. She gazed round the neat, firelit room with contempt. 

Lorna can’t stand the hypocrisy latent within her family. Her mother’s insistence on a neat and clean home bordering on fanaticism is in sharp contrast to her relationship with her husband; the couple constantly bickers and argues. The house may be the epitome of order, but their marriage is rife with chaos and unhappiness.

When Lorna enters her house she is immediately relieved and a tad bit excited. It is one of those evenings when her parents are away and she relishes the prospect of spending not the just the evening but also the night alone.

Ah, but this was the life! Lorna slid yet deeper and more luxuriously into the cushioned depths of the chair. Tea when she liked; supper when she liked; homework when she liked; music when she liked. Lorna’s eyes turned with lazy anticipation towards the pile of pop records stacked under the record player. 

We are given brief details of Lorna’s parents early on – the father is a tyrant always yelling at the mother, and the latter unable to stand for herself seeks refuge in meticulous cleaning and tidying.   Lorna loves annoying her Dad who later vents his frustration at the mother, and Lorna detests her mother’s meek attitude and for putting up with his bullying.

It’s misery-polish that Mummy puts on everything, it’s dishonesty polish, trying to make this look like a happy home when it isn’t! It’s because she’s too cowardly, too much of a doormat, to stand up to Daddy’s tempers, so she tidies the house instead… I bet she’s tidied the kitchen even better than usual today, just because she’s nervous about leaving me alone! She thinks tidiness is a substitute for everything! 

As Lorna settles into a blissful evening of solitude immersed in her music records, the lamps lit and blazing fire imparting warmth and an aura of coziness, she experiences a state of utter contentment and joy. But then this idyll is shattered by the persistent ringing of the telephone followed by the visit of a strange girl. This is a brilliant tale, a wonderful blend of the eerie with the mundane, its core theme being the burden of a toxic marriage on women and its impact on the entire family unit.

The second story, “The New House”, is from the first person point of view and is narrated by a middle-aged woman called Madge.

Madge begins her unnerving tale with an account of her niece Linda, who is her late sister Angela’s daughter. We learn that Linda came to stay with Madge when she was barely a girl of twelve. Madge has always been anxious about Linda; she was never particularly a robust girl, her frail constitution always a cause for worry.

And yet, Madge admits that the unexplainable dread assailing her over the past few weeks has nothing to do with Linda’s health. Linda is now a grown woman about to be married to a nice enough young man and the couple is now engrossed in building their new home.

But one gusty September evening, the autumn season in full force, Madge who is otherwise a strong, stoic woman feels an all pervading tiredness descend upon her even after a normal hard day of work, and along with that an indefinable foreboding.

The dampness and the autumn dusk seemed to have crept into my very soul, bringing their darkness with them.

A hot cup of tea and a warm glowing stove fail to assuage her fears. And to make matters worse, when she goes to sleep she is haunted by nightmares that vaguely hint at some sort of danger confronting Linda.

It was late afternoon in my dream, and the pale rainy light gleamed on her (Linda’s) flaxen-pale hair making it look almost metallic-a sort of shining grey.

And as I watched her, I began to feel afraid. She looked so tiny, and thin, and unprotected; her fair, childlike head seemed poised somehow so precariously on her white neck-even her absorption in the painting seemed in my dream to add somehow to her peril. I opened my mouth to warn her- of I know not what – but I could make no sound, as is the way of dreams.

With a subsequent brief glimpse into a family secret that could have terrible consequences, “The New House” is a disconcerting, chilling tale of jealousy, doomed love and repressed feelings where the skills of Fremlin’s storytelling shines through.

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. Both the stories are a perfect amalgam of mood and atmosphere – the dusky autumn evenings, the chill of the rains form a stark background to the well-lit cozy rooms that lulls you into a false sense of well-being, but where the menace is lurking on the periphery. At barely 40 pages in the Faber edition, this compact gem can be read in the course of an afternoon and thus very apt for the last day of October that is Halloween.  

We Are for the Dark (Six Ghost Stories) – 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 Trains’ is the first Robert Aickman story in this collection and according to me, it’s his finest. We meet two young women – Margaret and Mimi – who venture on a hiking trip in the country. As far as personalities go, Margaret and Mimi could not have been more different; Margaret is intelligent and perceptive but not blessed in the looks department, while Mimi is the attractive one, and more extroverted of the two. Soon, the morning blends into the afternoon, and the gentle countryside gives way to a dreary, desolate valley. The two women make their way through this unfamiliar terrain, they increasingly rely on consulting the map; each time leaving behind an empty square outlined by four stones (used to place the map on the ground). They eventually come across a railway line and decide to walk alongside it in the hope of finding lodgings, particularly a certain house they had spotted on the map. The first inkling of something strange is revealed when they both stop for tea at the Guest House whose sole customer is a man who spooks them by stating how the valley is quiet with hardly any locals visiting it.  

When they finally make their way to the house, it towers over them, black and mysterious. An unkempt, dilapidated dwelling from the inside, its sole, eccentric occupants are the owner Mr Wendley Roper and Beech, his butler. Meanwhile, secrets and sinister happenings haunt the house – a madwoman waving a handkerchief everyday at the window, the dimly seen figure of the dead woman (the owner’s sister Miss Roper), possibly an apparition that haunts Margaret in the bedroom at night, and the looming dread the women feel of being trapped. Moreover, the constant, disturbing noise of trains as they rattle past at all times, even at odd hours during the night, serve as an unnerving force in the background.  All of these factors have their own weird logic as the story chugs along towards its dark, claustrophobic conclusion. ‘The Trains’, then, is a superb, enigmatic tale of madness, identity, entrapment and terror with a gentle opening that quickly transforms into something strange and surreal in its final moments complete with an unexpected twist.

Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman’s crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret’s compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself; her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.

‘Three Miles Up’ is simply the best story penned by Elizabeth Jane Howard in this book, in fact the best story in this entire collection. Like the Aickman story, this tale also involves a trip, but on water. John and Clifford are in the midst of their holiday exploring the narrow canals of England on their boat. Of the two, John is the expert at maneuvering the boat, while Clifford’s job is to pour over the map and give directions. The canal holiday, however, is doomed right from the start. A slew of minor disasters dampen the spirit, the unpredictable weather only makes matters worse, and the continuous bickering between the two of them ratchets up the tension. The situation mysteriously improves when, on one of their moorings on the canal banks, they spot a young woman slouched against the bark of a tree. She is Sharon and she joins them on their journey, the perfect companion and truly a blessing, she is cheerful and a great cook. The atmosphere suddenly brightens up and it looks like the holiday is saved. But who exactly is Sharon? And why does she readily agree to accompany John and Clifford?

Meanwhile, John and Clifford are secretly vying for her affections, looking to impress her in their own way. But now they have a crucial decision to make. Since there are hardly any days left of their holiday, they must either turn around and proceed back along the same route they had traversed (not an exciting prospect given that the route was arduous), or take a left and arrive at the starting point from the other side (but it’s possible that they don’t have enough time to complete this route). However, when they arrive at the junction where they must make their decision, John spots a third route a bit further to the right. Ominously, this is where the map ends, and so what this unknown waterway entails remains mysterious to the party. In a fit of bravado, both the men decide to explore this route simple because they want to show off to Sharon how adventurous they are. Sharon, meanwhile, is enigmatic, as she goes along with their opinions but never ventures any of her own.

‘Three Miles Up’ is a perfectly paced, chilling story –  one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over the party of three as they navigate this alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying.

They saw no one else. They journeyed on throughout the afternoon; it grew colder, and at the same time more and more airless and still. When the light began to fail, Sharon disappeared as usual to the cabin. The canal became more tortuous, and John asked Clifford to help him with the turns. Clifford complied unwillingly; he did not want to leave Sharon, but as it had been he who had insisted on their continuing, he could hardly refuse. The turns were nerve wracking, as the canal was very narrow and the light grew worse and worse.

‘The Unsufficient Answer’ is another excellent tale where Leo Cust, a journalist, is entrusted with the task of travelling all the way to the Eastern part of Europe. His task? To convince sculptress Lola Hastings to make a brief but long overdue appearance in England. So far, entreaties in the form of letters sent to Mrs Hastings have produced no results, she has always provided vague answers for refusing to travel. Her presence in England is necessary to provide a boost to the sale of her artworks, which have stagnated, and now it is upto Mr Cust to find a way to lure her back.

But as soon as Mr Cust is accepted as a guest to Mrs Hastings’ home, an isolated castle built like a fort, Cust begins to notice bizarre things. The rooms are minimally furnished, bare and stark, arranged with black furniture and for most days Cust remains bored and frustrated with the hours stretching before him and not much to do. For the most part, Lola remains busy focusing on her sculpting, but at dinner transforms into a cultured woman conversing on a variety of topics. We are also introduced to her helper Miss Franklin, who is in charge of the day to day running of the castle, arranging meals and managing the complicated transportation arrangements of Mrs Hastings artworks across the continent to England. And yet, Cust notices the fractured nature of their relationship, as tensions between the two women reach a peak. Meanwhile, while Miss Franklin emits an air of foreboding, Mrs Hastings displays a streak of cruelty in her own personality. Things only get weirder when Cust encounters Felicity one night; she was clearly an inhabitant previously of the castle, but now appears as a ghost, there being something mysterious about her death. ‘The Insufficient Answer’, then, is another excellent tale of isolation, fear, paranoia, art and the trying relationship between two women who are completely cut off from the outside world.

Cust turned towards the warmth, exasperated and, unreasonably a little frightened. Then the bag fell to the stone floor and a tearing pain seemed to amputate his heart as he saw a young woman standing by the fire with one arm reaching up to the high mantelpiece.

‘Perfect Love’, the first story in this collection, penned by Howard, is also notable for the presence of a poltergeist in the form of a child who torments Maria Mielli, a world renowned opera singer. As she leaves behind a trail of suitors desperately in love with her and subsequently heartbroken, it traces the origins of her story – how a mysterious stranger (her patron) helps her launch her singing career and how she is later tormented by the presence of this poltergeist. Here, the narrator recounts this story through letters and newspaper clippings he chances upon while rummaging through his father’s paperwork.

And then we have the last Aickman story called ‘The View’ where a painter called Carfax, while on a cruise, encounters a woman (Ariel) who extends him an invitation to spend his vacation at her home, and they soon become lovers. The house is beautiful, tastefully decorated with lush furnishings and most of the rooms look out to the distant, mist-topped hills. To Carfax, these are perfect surroundings for a much needed rest and conducive to absorbing himself in his art. But he discovers an oddity – the room he is staying in has a very different view. The window looks out to the desolate sea and sky, a view that completely disorients him with respect to his bearings. It builds up to a point where he begins to notice subtle changes in the view over the days and he thinks he is probably losing his mind. This is a well-crafted tale of madness, love, ageing, happiness and what defines it and having a different perspective.

But one morning when he looked at the view for the first time that day, he noticed something nearer the house than the white, and lately multicoloured, buildings on the rather distant cliff edge. At first it seemed as though a big megalith, a rocky pillar of large circumference for a pillar, but medium height, had appeared midway between the sea and the house. At a second glance, however, what had looked a rock or a work of masonry, was seen by Carfax to be a huge motionless man, immobile and staring before him…

We Are for the Dark, then, is an unforgettable collection of weird tales; ghost stories that, according to the Introduction, defy obvious and easy explanations. While the strange and the supernatural are definitely potent forces in each of these tales, there is also a certain degree of psychological depth that enriches them.

Aickman seems to be greatly interested in architecture and all of his three stories collected here center around a house – the black house situated above the railway line in ‘The Trains’, the fortress-like castle inhabited by Mrs Hastings in ‘The Insufficient Answer’ which only highlights how alone she is, and the beautiful but deceptive holiday home with its disconcerting view in ‘The View’. My only quibble is that sometimes the language tends to be ornate and cumbersome; atleast that’s how a couple of the Aickman stories begin before settling into more breathable prose, and Howard’s ‘Perfect Love’ also suffers a bit from an awkward structure. But keeping these aside, I really enjoyed this collection, more so in this gorgeous hardback edition published by Tartarus Press, and would certainly recommend it.