Welcome back to Spooktastic Reads, the autumnal mini-event that celebrates the darker side of fantasy. Over the next 13 days, I will be enthusing about haunts, folklore, urban legends and horror (and any other spooktastic fantasy I fancy) along with co-hosts Lisa and Jorie and our brave party of adventurers. I’m kicking off with a seasonal book tag…
I first saw this tag over courtesy of BookForager last Spooktastic Reads, but it was created by Anthony of Keep Reading Forward. I’ve got a good pair of running shoes and some holy water (okay, yes, it’s coffee, shh) so let’s dive in!
Witch: A Magical Character or Book
So I was all set to talk about my darling Witches of Lychford – probably the most thoroughly Spooktastic choice I could make – but then I realised just how many other witches I love, and regardless of their spooktastic credentials I’m going to have to show them some love instead. How could I resist Prunella Gentleman and her effervescent talent for challenging patriarchy and Establishment? Or Circe, defying fate and Gods alike from splendid exile? Of course my heart is firmly given to my street rat fire witches, Zaira and Noon, with their glorious temper and firm sense of justice. I think what I’m saying is that I have a soft spot for witches – young or old, human or divine, crafty and unwise.
Werewolf: The Perfect Book to Read at Night
In this context, perfect means sure, I’ll read it after dark, what can possibly go wrong and oh god I need to finish it or I’ll have nightmares, right? For me, this is usually tense monster horror (I’ve learned to put hauntings down after dark because I like to be able to sleep after).
Enter Devolution: the chronicle of a Bigfoot attack on an exclusive eco settlement isolated by a natural disaster. Max Brooks serves up familiar tropes with a satirical spin and makes brutal observations about the fragility of the modern world. Add in an unusual choice of monster and a diary format that guarantees no-one is safe for a page-turning thriller that left me awfully glad I wasn’t reading it out in the woods…
Frankenstein: A Book that Truly Shocked You
There’s so many ways Cass Khaw shocked me. Rupert Wong is a cursed chef trying his best to survive the politics and dinner parties of unlife. Some of the shocks come from the myths in play – Malay undead are far more visceral and less comfortable than their really quite staid European counterparts – and this is a series that cheerfully embraces every pantheon and stirs it together. Other shocks come from Khaw’s exquisite use of language, both beautiful and horrifying evocative. But the biggest shock? Just how much I enjoyed this gory, no-holds-barred comic horror. On paper, this is not my bag at all. And yet… bring me those tentacles.
The Devil: A Dark, Evil Character
I have strong feelings about villains. I love a nuanced villain, with interesting motivations and self-imposed ethical boundaries that make an awful sort of sense in context even as they result in unforgivable actions. Which is to say, I probably prefer antagonists to villains.
Consequently, while I enjoyed Jane Healey’s debut The Animals at Lockwood Manor – a historical sapphic romance with Gothic flourishes – I would have liked it better if it had stuck with The Patriarchy as its entirely effective antagonist, rather than going for moustache-twirling levels of over the top villainy in the final act. That said, it’s all in the execution as demonstrated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia in delightfully dark, totally over the top Mexican Gothic, which drops a 50s socialite into the middle of a Gothic horror and then dials misogyny, patriarchy and EEEEVIL up to 11 – in an entirely satisfying manner.
Grim Reaper: A Character that Should Never Have Died
Right, time to see how close to the wind I can sail without spoilers… I have a clearly observable if inexplicable soft spot for zombie stories. Mira Grant’s Feed is an absolute belter for skipping the apocalypse to look at how we live after, and then using her post-apocalyptic setting to tell a tale of investigative journalism and politics, which is like heaping all my favourite spreads on one slice of toast. And it works. BUT… characters die in zombie stories. In this case, I still can’t get past one of those deaths, which is why I’ve never read the sequels.
Zombie: A Book that Made You “Hungry” for More
It’s probably obvious that I have a weakness for great concepts and evocative atmosphere. No surprises, then, that I love Jeannette Ng’s tangled history of Victorian missionaries to Faerie. Under the Pendulum Sun embraces misdirection and fairytale logic to deliver a glittering vision of Fae who delight in stealing sanity and inciting despair. Ambiguous, profane and haunting – don’t ask me about Catherine’s night-time experiences with her bedroom door. I don’t necessarily want more of Ng’s Fairyland, but ye gods I’m here for anything she chooses to write in future.
Gargoyle: A Character You Would Protect at All Cost
Give me a fantasy of the afterlife, concerned with what happens to unwritten books and their characters’ souls. Give me a troubled librarian and a lapsed muse; a conflicted angel and an urbane archdemon; and a sharp-tongued, self-interested Hero (or is he?). Give me a cinnamon roll at the heart of the struggle, utterly convinced they deserve their place in Hell even as they do their best. AJ Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten is a joy from start to finish and Leto is adorable. I can’t wait for the final volume in the trilogy (due out this winter).
Vampire: A Book that Sucked the Life Out of You
Before I start overthinking this and regretting how little vampire fiction I’ve read recently, I’m just going to talk about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This is – nominally – a ghost story, but it’s mostly about class tension and social climbing and a doctor who is a leech in both senses. It’s not a short or particularly easy read, but I loved it: atmospheric, cruel, tantalising in holding out hope and then snuffing it out. And when I got to that deliberately stare-to-camera ambiguous ending, I was indeed exsanguinated (in a good way).
Ghost: A Book that Still Haunts You
Let’s talk about books that really fucked us up. How many of them were childhood reads? Damn right it was all of them, and (in my case) more than one was written by literary folklorist Alan Garner. I thank the Earldelving for my feelings about enclosed spaces; and you can still send a chill down my back by whispering she wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. If I want a book that will have me on edge and jumpy from the first page, The Owl Service – all atmosphere and fraught relationships and inevitable damage – is a go to. His early novels shaped my expectations around victory, tragedy and loss and are still huge favourites.
Demon: A Book that Really Scared You
There are two things that really get under my skin: near-future spec fic reflecting trends in modern politics, and a well-executed ghost story. The first book I remember scaring the wits out of me is a modern classic: The Woman In Black by Susan Hill. I read it home alone on an autumnal afternoon and then tried not to stare out into the dark as I went around closing curtains. This is still me with ghost stories, folks – turning up lights and background noise to drown out any household creaks, then diving under the duvet at bedtime (ghosts won’t cross the duvet threshold, right?)
Skeleton: A Character You Have a Bone to Pick With
A good mash-up is a glorious thing, so let’s hear it for the outrageously irreverent, wildly entertaining, horror crime space fantasy that is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. A creepy castle full of skeletal servitors overseeing a competition to become the Emperor’s new right hand is disrupted as the competing necromancers are picked off one by one. I chortled from start to devastating finish, when I unexpectedly found myself with wet eyes and yes, Gideon, we do need to have words how very dare.
Mummy: A Book You Would Preserve Throughout Time
Okay, I’ve wrestled with this and overthought it and gone backwards and forwards and oh hell how can I only choose just one? How? HOW? Fine. I’m choosing The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Hush yes it counts as a dark fantasy – sure its about privilege and education and obsession and murder at an elite university, but it’s also about the thin line between the world we know and the mysteries of Dionysus so I’m claiming it as genre adjacent and very much a worthy Spooktastic read.
Creepy Doll: A Cover too Scary to Look At
Obviously I’m not going to inflict such a thing on you, what do you take me for? Assume that anything involving creepy dolls is exactly what we’re talking about because woah dolls are creepy; and certain types of statue (okay, fine, statues that look like creepy dolls – pale children with huge dead eyes) will do it every time. These books do not enter my house. Thank heavens for ebooks – my Kindle is so old it doesn’t show me cover art as a rule (and when it does, it’s black and white, which sort of helps. Sort of).
The Monster Mash: It’s more fun with friends
Fancy joining in? Tag yourself and link back so I can come check out your answers!