Scary Books for October

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The month of Halloween is a perfect time to indulge in some literary chills and thrills. The best scary stories do more than just shock and disgust; they inspire fear through the atmosphere they create, the what-ifs they pose, or the twisted psychological dynamics at play. With these criteria in mind, I've compiled a short list of scary books on my radar. The first three are ones I've read and highly recommend, and the others I've added to my ever-expanding reading list. 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This murder mystery is set during Medieval times in an Italian monastery, where two visiting monks are investigating a strange series of gruesome deaths. As part of their search, they sneak into the labyrinthine secret passageways of an old library and must crack a series of textual puzzles to solve the crime. The book is heavy on theology and philosophy, which is at times dense (I resorted to Wikipedia), but if you're willing to take on the challenge, you'll find yourself immersed in the world of the monastery and the investigations that unfold. 

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Truth is sometimes stranger, and scarier, than fiction. Ronson proves this point in his journalistic investigation into the world of psychopaths. As he profiles psychopaths and the researchers who study them, the true stories he tells are terrifying (and occasionally, hilarious). I reviewed this book here

In the Woods by Tana French

A duo of Irish detectives, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, investigate the death of a young girl found in the woods near an archaeological site. As details emerge, Ryan notices striking parallels between this case and a traumatic incident from his childhood. You may find the end emotionally distressing, but not because of the crime itself. This is the first book in the Dublin Squad series, so if you like it, there's more where it came from.

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this book is actually a work of creative nonfiction about the crimes, trial, and eventual execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. The 1,000-page magnum opus explores many of the people closest to Gilmore, including his ex-girlfriend and "true love" Nicole Baker. Gilmore is famous for refusing to appeal his death sentence and vocalizing his desire to be executed. Check out Joan Didion's review here

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

This tome is a cult favorite, and I'm so excited to read it that I already went out and bought a copy. Some readers say this is one of the most unsettling books they've ever read. The plot is apparently difficult to summarize, but I've gleaned that it's about a house that's bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. It's considered both a work of horror and a love story. It is also an "ergodic" work, meaning that the reader has to work to construct meaning by putting together various fragments and storylines. 

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

The novel begins when the Detroit police discover a gruesome body hidden in a tunnel. As lead detective Gabriella Versado becomes entrenched in the case, she fails to notice that her daughter, high school student Layla, has engaged in a risky online flirtation with a pedophile. The glowing NPR review of this book is what makes me want to read it. 

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser

Millhauser is a Pulitzer and Story Prize winner, and in this collection of short stories, he weaves together myths and fairy tales with small town characters caught in unsettling situations. For instance, the premise of one story, based on the myth of Narcissus, is that a man becomes obsessed with a special mirror polish that reveals a superior reflection of himself when applied to any mirror. 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Again, I try to avoid books that derive their horror from shock and disgust. Reviews assure me that Geek Love doesn't just do that, but out of all the books on the list, it sounds like possibly the most shocking and disgusting of them all. It's about a family-run traveling carnival that is struggling to make a living when the parents devise a terrible idea: they will turn their family into a freak show by altering their children's genes. What ensues is sibling rivalry and the creation of a particularly disturbing cult. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

The Blackwood sisters and their uncle are the sole survivors of a mysterious poisoning that left the rest of their family dead. The village suspects Constance, the older sister who cooked for the family on the night they died. The novel begins:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

A film adaptation of this novel is coming to theaters next year, so now's the time to read it!

Please share your scary book recommendations! Recommendations for scary movies, podcasts, etc. are also very welcome.

Book Review: Missing, Presumed

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and the time is nigh for page-turners that will keep us from going into premature hibernation. Missing, Presumed by Sadie Steiner is one I recommend for those of you who like a dose of literary character development with your fictional tales of mystery, murder, and mayhem. 

At the start of the novel, Detective Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire police is lamenting her latest disastrous date when she receives an alert about a missing female. Edith Hind, a beautiful postgraduate student and the beloved daughter of the Royal Family's surgeon, has disappeared from her home, leaving behind her phone, keys, shoes, and coat. A broken wineglass and a trail of blood suggest that Edith was taken against her will, and that the crucial window of time to save her is closing. As the police interview Edith's family, boyfriend, and closest cohorts, secrets emerge about her complicated love life, which the tabloids quickly proliferate with little respect for anyone's privacy. When the body of a young man is found in a nearby river, connections to Edith's disappearance seem tentative but impossible to ignore.

The dogged single female detective, or dogged single female protagonist who becomes deeply invested in solving a crime, has become a popular character type in fictional mysteries (see TV series like Prime SuspectThe Fall, or Marcella). Manon occupies this role somewhat unwillingly. While she presents herself as brazenly independent, she at times feels painfully lonely; she is cynical but persistent in her attempts to find companionship. As Manon navigates two unpredictable worlds, one of crime and the other of online dating, she exposes the gulf between how we present ourselves and how we actually feel. This split between interior and exterior distresses Edith's best friend, who faces the scrutiny of the public eye into her personal affairs. It is also the reality of Miriam, Edith's mother, as her experience of grief and hopelessness isolates her from her husband and friends. When certain characters fail to reveal their interior motivations, we feel Manon's frustration.

We are not how we appear. Mysteries play upon this truth to a somewhat extreme degree. All of us are selective in how we present ourselves to others; our lives are messier than the facades we construct. In Missing, Presumed, and especially for the novel's female characters, this public/private division is both a burden and, at times, a necessity that should be honored. In a genre in which the ultimate goal is to know everything, the interior lives of others will always be, to some extent, unknowable.