Understatedly Spooky Reads (For When You Can't Do Scary Stories)

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I hate scary stories and scary movies and all the actually scary sides of autumn and Halloween. I love the mythology and the different figures of the season (have I mentioned my love of witch lore?) and I want to be into all of its different aspects, but I just can’t. I try to rationalise it by saying that we live in an increasingly scary world where walking outside alone at night is scary enough without thinking about whether women’s rights are going to be stripped away or whether the world is going to descend into nuclear warfare because of a tweet – but the truth is I’m a chicken. I know a lot of people turn to scary stories because they detract from the reality of the world, because they tend to tell tales so outrageous that the fear they provoke is therapeutic, but that doesn’t work for me. Constantly battling an anxiety disorder, I feel fear all the time and when I turn to fiction, I want to get away from that.

So whenever October comes around, I find myself in a bit of a bind. I want to curl up with a good book, blanket and warm drink at hand, and feel that spooky thrill that feels like it should pervade the October air, but I don’t want to be scared. I want to feel that autumn feel as the skies get darker and the temperatures crisp, but I want to be cozy and safe at the same time. Unsettled, but not afraid.

What I read every October differs, and I never really get to everything that I want, but I try to at least get into the autumnal spirit and at least feel a thrill or two along the way. I shared a few of my all-time favorite autumn reads here last year, and those all still stand – when won’t Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein not be perfectly appropriate, understatedly spooky October reads? But I like to mix things up. Here are a few books that I have on hand this year, as I pursue that cozy October thrill:

The Triumph of Night, Edith Wharton – I read this on a cold November night last year, and the shiver it sent running down my spine has stayed with me. The Triumph of Night is the right kind of ghost story for those of us who don’t do scary stories. Distant in time, elaborately dramatic in setting (a snowstorm! a mansion!), it’s what I think a ghost story should be – vaguely creepy but definitely dramatic. I won’t say more about the plot, but it won’t disappoint. As a bonus, The Triumph of Night is relatively short, so you can read it in an evening without committing to the story for days. Plus, it’s in the public domain so you can find it for free all over the internet (and on iBooks!). I do, however, really need to order Edith Wharton’s collection of Ghost Stories so I can read more of them on the page.

The Merry Spinster, Daniel Ortberg – Are we not all obsessed with Daniel Ortberg and all he’s brought to the internet with The Toast, Texts from Jane Eyre, Dear Prudence, and all of his social media? (He even has Emma Thompson won over.) Well if you’re not, then you will be after you read The Merry Spinster. A triumphant retelling of spooky fairy tales, more interested in the “everyday horror” aspects of the originals than the fairy tale castles of the twentieth century, The Merry Spinster proudly sits on my shelf next to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The short story collection not only delves into creative rewritings for the current day, but it goes beyond the feminist rewritings that we know and questions all aspects of gender.

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado – Another short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties was recommended to me by Lee late last year, and I’ve slowly been reading it since I finally managed to get my hands on a copy in February. I only have one short story left, but it’s been a fantastic book to have on hand. It’s full of unsettling but enriching stories that bring fairy tales and apocalyptic, gothic fiction to mind (without scaring you half to death). You can read the first one in the collection, “The Husband Stitch,” online via Granta Magazine if you want to get a feel for her writing or if you want just one short story to get you into the seasonal mood. You know it’s a good one because not only can I handle it, but Lee loves it too, with her much higher tolerance of scary material.

French Exit, Patrick deWit – Spooky, scary, a book by a man. A modern day answer to Evelyn Waugh’s early works, French Exit is fantastic social satire. It tells the story of an eccentric widow who is extremely attached to her adult son and believes that her late husband has been living inside of their cat for the past twenty years. After blowing all of their money away, the trio find themselves in Paris, and the novel hits you in the face like the drunken leaf that attacks its protagonist. Dark in its absurdity, it engages with human cats, séances, and quite a triggering death. French Exit is not for the light of heart, but it is perfect to read at this time of year and helps fill that Waugh meets Bulgakov meets Arrested Development shaped hole in your heart that you didn’t really know existed.

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie – What better than a glamorous 1930s murder mystery for when you want something slightly chilling but not scary? I had my Murder on the Orient Express moment last year (you can read a lot more about it there), but I’m reliving it a bit now as my grandmother is rereading the novel after having stayed in the suite in which Agatha Christie wrote the novel, earlier this autumn. It is, as a plus, Christie’s perfectly chilly novel.

Bitter Orange, Claire Fuller – A modern day gothic novel, complete with a dark, thorny mystery that unfolds from the attic of a run down estate in the English countryside, Bitter Orange is what you need if you want something slightly Kate Morton and slightly Donna Tartt but more compact than both. The novel takes place in the late summertime, but it is, in feeling, a definite autumn read. The suspense builds from chapter to chapter, and the story’s good company for an evening or two. Definitely read until the end.

Everything Under, Daisy Johnson – My current read, Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under is a modern day retelling of the Oedipus myth, eerily centering around a mother and daughter who live on the canals of London, inventing their own language. It’s mysterious and though it too begins in summer, it fits into the autumn atmosphere. I’m reading it slowly, relishing the language along with the slow unraveling of the plot. So far, it’s no surprise to me that it made the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize.
(The novel is not yet released in the US, but you can already order it via the link above.)

Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier – Forever a classic, and forever the right book to read, whether you’re looking for something on a stormy summer night or searching for something pleasantly spooky in the autumn. Our Lifestyle Editor, Lee summed up the novel beautifully in her Summer Reads post last year: “Back to Cornwall with yet another mystery set in an imposing house, Manderley. Clearly, I have a type. The nameless second Mrs. de Winter struggles with setting herself apart from the beloved first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who died tragically the year before in a boating accident. The second Mrs. de Winter wants to prove herself to her husband and to his friends and family, which is seemingly impossible to do as Rebecca was perfect in every single way. Hard to be measured against a beautiful ghost. The story unravels quite well, and when I first read it I didn't see it coming. Another novel with fascinating and strong female characters. Get swept away (joke!) with Rebecca!”

Florida, Lauren Groff – A decided book of the year for us here at the Attic, along with My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Social Creature and Normal People. I got my hands on a copy the day it came out and spent the summer slowly reading its slightly gothic stories, anchored in darkness not so much by fantasy as through reality and the state of society. Groff is an extremely gifted storyteller and Florida is a fantastic and modernly-spooky read.

The Pumpkin Eater, Penelope Mortimer – Finally, a recommendation from Raquel and one of her own current reads: The Pumpkin Eater is the book I’m most looking forward to reading this month (once it actually arrives). A semi-autobiographical novel, it tells the story of a married woman’s breakdown in the 1960s and her entrance into therapy and promises to be unsettling from more of a social, psychological angle than a gothic one. Still, I’m excited to see where it takes me.

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