As many of you know, I've spent the last few years reading only spooky books during October. It's been a lot of fun...but it's also become more and more difficult to find 'good' books. I seriously doubted whether or not I was going to repeat my tradition this year...but then inspiration arrived in an unexpected place.
Then came Penny Dreadful, the amazing Showtime series that seems to have been written specifically for this Gothic-loving/classic-horror fan. And what better way to celebrate Halloween than to go back and read some of the books that helped launch the genre?!
The Penny Dreadful Inspired Classics:
1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley - Seriously, this is one of my favorite books. Frankenstein is the FIRST book I read in college, and I had an amazing honors college teacher who helped me to explore it in ways that deeply touched me and have stuck with me for years. (Creepiest part of the book? Frankenstein's father kept a picture of his wife crying over the coffin of her father over the mantel....) My first college English paper was entitled, "Crying For the Monsters," and my teacher said it was publishable (with some work, of course) Shelley's book for me has never been scary...it's deeply, deeply sad and it breaks my heart every time I read it...which I do often. For the record....Penny Dreadful got the creature right. So, so right.
2. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving - I always forget how much fun Irving's book is. I can just picture Irving, chuckling to himself as he wrote by candlelight on a crisp fall day. (I'm completely making this up...humor me.) His characters are so beautifully drawn, and a sense of humor infuses every paragraph. When I was a kid, I wasn't so fond of the Disney cartoon version....but as an adult I see how very right that is. Speaking of Disney, the most magical thing I've ever in my life seen - the one thing that this girl, who's actually worked for the mouse a bit and thus knows what's behind the curtain, went slack-jawed in amazement at - was the Headless Horseman who led the parade at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World. For just a moment, when he rode by, taking me completely by surprise, I believed! (No, the horseman wasn't in Penny Dreadful.)
3. The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde - Curiously enough, I'd never read it. That's odd, given how much I love Wilde. It was necessary to correct this oversight as Dorian plays a big part of Penny Dreadful. There were parts of this book that left me smiling....Wilde can be so very, very himself when he writes sometimes, and I'd recognize his style anywhere. Overall, though, it just wasn't my cup of tea. Not sure why. I actually find the publication history and subsequent trial to be more interesting than the story itself.
4. The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Lereaux - No, the Phantom was not in Penny Dreadful, but it was the second book I used for that English paper all of those years ago and it remains a favorite of mine. (Once upon a time I listed to the soundtrack for the musical....rather more than is normal....and I will forever be indebted to the parents of one of my college friends who took a group of us to see it!) I had forgotten how funny much of the book is. Seriously. O.G. is an amusing sort of haunt! A complaint I have during the reread is that it ends almost too suddenly, with a lot of the important details just kind of thrown in there.
5. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James - Truth be told, I skimmed it. Despite it's reputation, it's never been a favorite.
I had planned on rereading Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, but I just ran out of time...in part because I started watching horror movies instead of reading....
New Spooky Books:
6. The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black - I discovered Holly Black through my FB requests for Halloween book recommendations a couple of years ago, and rather randomly decided to look her up in my library's digital services to see if she had any other books. I'm so glad I did. This is a tale of the darker side of fey, which is right up my alley! I'm not sure what else to say about it...I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might be interested. As with the other Black book I read, it's a mature sort of YA, with enough of a cool twist on an old type of story to make it feel fresh and new.
7. American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, Hannah Nordhaus (audio) - I searched 'ghost' in my library's digital services, and this is one of the first books that came up. Man, oh man, am I ever glad I did that! So. Much. FUN! What happens when you discover that your great-great-grandmother is supposedly haunting the hotel that her house has become? When the stories of the haunting don't match up with what you always thought you knew about her? Write a book exploring your family history, of course! I loved it. (I also had a lot of fun going online and researching Julia Staab when I was finished.) Nordhaus did an excellent job of researching family history and of infusing her story with enough history to place it in context and help it all to make sense. Interwoven throughout are her experiences with psychics and mediums and the like...all of which are pretty darn funny. (As they were intended to be....I read a few interviews with the author.) She did throw in a couple of sections that could have been trimmed, but all in all it's an excellent read!
8. The Night Sister, Jennifer McMahon - This has been on my wish list every since it was published, and I finally got around to checking it out of the library. McMahon's Winter People remains one of my favorite past Halloween selections. She's an engrossing writer, and her ideas feel different. The books are more atmospheric than scary (in my opinion), and they always surprise me with where they end up going. (hard to do with someone like me who reads so, so much) I love the way the three separate - and very authentic - timelines were woven together, the characters are all marvelous, and the Tower Motel is one of the best settings I've come across in a long time! I devoured this book in a single afternoon!
9. The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, Brent Monahan (audio) - Reminded me a lot of the nonfiction book I read about the Salem witch trials a year or so ago. Most of it was pretty familiar territory, but I have to admit I didn't quite see the twist coming at the end. I think the horror of what life was like back in the good old days (girls marriageable by 12!) was worse than the witch portion.
The Bell Witch is actually quite old American folklore, which has inspired - among other things - the movie, The Blair Witch Project. (True story, I was going to go see that movie after work with friends, and my boss called me in and very calmly asked me if she thought that was a good idea as it was a stormy night and I would be going home really late to my great-grandparents old farmhouse in the country where I lived alone. She was right. I waited until it came out on video and watched it with my husband.)
10. The Winter Ghosts, Kate Mosse - Really, what I wanted this month the most was a ghost story...something atmospheric and kind of sad. I found the Winter Ghosts on a list of ghost stories somewhere online, and decided to give it a try. It was amazing, and was exactly what I needed and wanted. Though I borrowed it from the library, it's gone on my book wish list because I'd love to have a copy to own and reread. A young man, damaged by WWI, gets lost in the mountains on a snowy, stormy evening and has an encounter that's deeply moving in the end. Perfection.