When thinking about reads for Halloween I started thinking about books that genuinely scared me. The ones I couldn’t stop thinking about and made me look over my shoulder as I popped to the loo in the middle of the night. I blame the Brontë’s for my love of the gothic, from the terrible creature who visits Jane Eyre’s room in the night and tears her wedding veil, to the icy cold hand of a child that reaches into Mr Lockwood’s bedroom window in Wuthering Heights. I even studied gothic literature at university, that’s how much I love the genre. What scares us doesn’t always mean the traditional ghosts, vampires and witches we’re used to. It can be a really tense thriller, a mystery or even novels that defy genre. Here are a few books that genuinely gave me the creeps!
A.M.Shine was a completely new writer to me when I picked up this novel, so I had no expectations. Since reading this I’ve been so creeped out by his second novel, The Creeper, I had to stop reading it! The Watchers was an incredible read and such an unnatural situation for the characters to be in. Lost in a deep forest in rural Ireland, Mina feels unnerved, when she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As the door slams shut behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. They’re in a concrete bunker and as Mina’s eyes adjust to the light, she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass. A younger man and woman are huddled together, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? I have to say that just when I thought my nerves were calm, this author found a way to leave me with a creeping sense of dread.
The Beresford is my favourite Will Carver novel, because it really does get under your skin without a single ghost in sight!
Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?
The Beresford is an apartment building with a difference. It has a certain atmosphere and it’s not long before you dread the door bell ringing. Mrs May is the landlady, an incredibly sweet old lady who has a daily routine from her eggs and cold coffee first thing, to her rose pruning every afternoon. As anyone who has watched The Ladykillers knows, little old ladies should not be underestimated. Does she know more about what’s going on in her building than we think? Even worse, this is only one side of the building, and what’s going on next door is even more unsettling. I’ve been waiting for Carver to elaborate on the other side of the Beresford and I’m told I will only have to wait till next summer. I know one thing for sure – I’m definitely going to be reading it in the daylight.
This is the copy of William Blatty’s book that I would sneak off the bookshelves when my parents went out. I would read as much as possible, then as soon as I heard the gravel crunching on the drive, I’d pop it back and wonder how I was going to sleep that night. When I was about 13, this book had the combination of being both terrifying and taboo – a teenage bibliophile’s holy grail. My parents had joined an evangelical church and became very restrictive in my teens, so the fact this book was even on our shelves felt transgressive. The book works because of atmosphere and tension the author creates. This is a child, so that innocence contrasts sharply with the creature Regan becomes. At first her mother Chris thinks Regan is ill. While Chris has been shooting a movie in Georgetown, there has been poltergeist activity in their rented house, but as time goes on Regan has been refusing to eat, unable to sleep and aggressive in her behaviour. Could it be psychological? The deterioration in Regan is horrific and the sense of horror that starts to come over Chris as she prepares to enter her daughter’s room can be felt. The icy cold, the smell and the violent expletives really hit home and when even a priest is struggling to contain the evil inside the girl, it’s power is still terrifying over fifty years later.
When people ask me if I believe in ghosts I always say no, not in the traditional sense of apparitions, but I do believe in energy and how a building’s past can be felt within it’s walls. Events leave an imprint behind, the emotional equivalent of muscle memory, and perhaps sensitive people can tap into those emotions. That’s the feel of this novel from Diane Setterfield and for me it conjures up dark winter afternoons and the warm fireside but outside of that cozy circle there may be something lurking and waiting to surprise you with it’s presence. Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten, but is full of atmosphere. It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…
Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…? Prepare to read this with a sense of unease, but a need to unravel the story.
Laura Purcell’s debut was so good it made her my ‘go to’ author immediately! It taps directly into those Brontë themes of atmospheric houses with creepy nighttime visitations. It builds beautifully, from a young woman who is bereaved and pregnant to the huge ancestral home, this is one of those tales that slowly and imperceptibly creates unease in the reader. When newly married Elsie Bainbridge finds herself a widow. and pregnant she is dependent on the kindness of his family. Once she reaches her husband’s family estate, she is disappointed, because far from being awed by the house, the villagers fear it and believe the Bainbridge family are cursed. Elsie pays no mind to servants talk, but maid Sarah seems intent on scouring the creepy house. in order to learn more of her family history. Then strange sounds disturb their sleep, leading Elsie and Sarah to discover a life size wooden figure. It’s like the prop for a play, but yet it has an uncanny similarity to Elsie. They decide to move it to the Great Hall, rather than leaving it hidden in the attic. They’ve also found two notebooks which turn out to be the diaries of Anne Bainbridge beginning in 1635.
Anne has written about her hope to charm King Charles I and his Queen on a forthcoming visit and support her husband, Josiah who wants to make connections. The royal couple’s daughter Henrietta Maria was supposedly conceived using white magic. Anne writes about a shop of curiosities and the Dutch heritage of the ‘silent companions’ she purchased ahead of their visit, subsequently discovered in the attic by Sarah. The figures slowly started to resemble their real life counterparts. Elsie starts to fear she is losing her mind as more figures appear and the mystifying question of what’s going starts to consumer her. This is such an original idea and much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, anything that starts to magically resemble it’s owner is downright creepy! I love Purcell’s ability to create an eerie atmosphere and a very uneasy reader.
Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering. Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen and her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies taken from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.
I think what scared me would have scared any ‘listener’. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come. By the end of this novel so did I.