Reading Recommendation: 5 Books Perfect for Spooky Season
Stories that will make you sleep with the lights on
Not only is October obviously the prime month for all things creepy and crawly, it's also the first month that fall really feels like it's settled in. Wrap up in your favorite flannel, pour yourself a cup of pumpkin spice, and get lost with one (or all!) of these book recommendations:
5. Hot Off the Press: The Devil Takes You Home, Gabino Iglesias
Full disclaimer: The Devil Takes You Home is still atop my TBR pile. In the meantime, however, it's making a scene clawing its way up national bestseller lists, and what I've read thus far is enough to concrete its place here.
If you're unfamiliar with his work to date, Gabriel Iglesias is a Texan professor turned godfather of barrio noir, a writer generous with gritty characters and gratuitous violence. Iglesias, previously nominated for the Bram Stoker, Locus, and Wonderland Awards, writes with a kind of pedal-to-the-floor adrenaline that at times outruns the story itself, possessing a raw talent for both visuals and visceral impact.
While Iglesias' writing is consistently deemed too much by critics, it is simultaneously hailed as exceptionally open-eyed to societal failures and modern struggles. (Please note: if you don't think racism is a relevant, systematically rooted problem, this book is not for you, and you probably won't like the ones I'd recommend in its stead.)
The Devil Takes You Home follows Mario, a father plagued by bad luck, poor choices, and the occasional hallucination. After his daughter's cancer diagnosis, Mario spirals from one questionable decision to another - one that starts with accepting a contract kill from a meth-ridden former acquaintance, to give you an idea.
As it turns out, the problem isn't the killing itself - it's the fact the corpse is infested with… something.
Although, that isn't the problem, either. Not really. The problem is a broken system, a life that feels inescapably futile, and the kind of desperation that threatens to make monsters of us all.
Excerpt: Leukemia. That's what the doctor said. She was young, white, and pretty. Her brown hair hung like a curtain over her left eye. She talked to us softly, using the tone most people use to explain things to a child, especially when they think the kid is an idiot.
4. Read With Your Book Club: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires, Grady Hendrix
Grady Hendrix has the incredible gift of finding his characters' voices and making you believe them.
In a definite nod to its name, Hendrix's third novel reads more like contemporary fiction than traditional vampire-themed horror, elevating its moments of [impressive] violence to startling heights. Equal parts clever and skin-crawling, it's a story that will leave you wondering why "housewives battling vampires" wasn't a genre long before this.
Patricia leads an ordinary, respectable life, one that revolves around her family: a husband consumed by his job, teenagers intent on… being teenagers. Her sole guilty pleasure is the book club she and her friends use to [secretly] indulge in true crime and horror novels.
When a charming stranger moves into the neighborhood and children start disappearing, Patricia is forced to face not only the improbable idea that her new neighbor is a vampire, but the uncomfortable, ugly truths that had previously been the foundation of her comfortable reality.
Patricia's friends are largely frustrating, firmly rooted by the comfort of their societal standings. Admittedly, many - if not most - of the characters are blatantly unlikeable, although I would argue this is by design. Pitted against everything she holds dear, Patricia is often painfully isolated, questioning her own certainty that the man next door is indeed a monster. (Spoiler: he is.)
I do find it necessary to state that this book's review section is riddled with one-star reviews, accompanied by comments genuinely enraged that the women in this book are actively ignored, mistreated, and dismissed by their husbands and community. And, forgive me, but these readers have - frankly - missed the point. This is not misogyny carelessly penned by the author: it's an active, and integral, part of the horror his characters suffer.
This, in my opinion, brings us to one of Hendrix's most interesting qualities, his ability to write blistering social commentary seamlessly into supernatural settings. Per an interview about this book specifically, Hendrix states:
"With this book, I wanted to pit a man freed from all responsibilities but his appetites against women whose lives are shaped by their endless responsibilities. I wanted to pit Dracula against my mom. As you'll see, it's not a fair fight."
My personal recommendation: read this one with your book club, and have a conversation about it - not just about vampires, but about gender roles, racial disparity, community and feminism. If you don't have a book club, start one. This is your chance.
Excerpt: Dying isn't the important thing. It's nothing more than the punctuation mark on the end of your life. It's everything that came before that matters. Punctuation marks, most people skip right over them. They don't even have a sound.
3. The Slow Burn: House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski
At best, House of Leaves is a strange, haywire tale of insanity, told like strings pulled taut over a corkboard.
At worst, it's near-impossible to read.
In both ways, it succeeds.
The story itself is built on a simple premise: a family discovers that their house is larger on the inside than the outside. At first the idea feels unsettling, if not terrifying - but when the obsession of why and how takes hold, it quickly becomes clear that not only is the house hungry… it's growing.
House of Leaves has a kind of cult following that ranges from the casual have you read this? to full dissertations on the book's intended meaning. For those of you dedicated to the digital age, I would urge you to make an exception here; House of Leaves is meant to be experienced in a tangible, hands-on fashion, and the format of the print edition helps drive this forward relentlessly in a way that audio and digital are unable to capture.
At times, Danielewski's prose is all-encompassing, leaving you to wander the house's labyrinth and enjoy the depths of his characters. Other times, being forced to flip from footnote to appendix to dialogue becomes infuriating enough to consider shelfing it entirely.
There is a definite parallel between the story and narrative; subplots at times dead-end without warning, characters take tangents seemingly of their own devising. You'll have the sense of bumping into walls, often wondering if the book has lost its way, or if you have. You'll consider (perhaps more than once) putting it down.
But as the characters begin their descent into madness, you're helpless to do anything but stumble forward together.
The highest praise I can offer is that somehow, after you finish, House of Leaves will sneak up on you. Weeks, months, years later, as promised, it will cross your mind.
That book, you'll think, and glance over at your shelves - not least of all to reassure yourself it's still there.
It will be. Waiting, patiently, for your return.
Excerpt: This much I'm certain of: it doesn't happen immediately. You'll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You'll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won't matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you'll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You'll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you'll realize it's always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won't understand why or how. You'll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place.
3. True Crime: I'll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara
All monsters are human, and in the digital age, everyone is a detective. Still; few can boast the absolute dedication that Michelle McNamara spent chasing the identity of the Golden State Killer. Over the span of ten years, McNamara personally compiled more than 3,000 case files, 37 boxes of legal documents from the case's lead prosecutor, and dozens of notebooks filled with her own notes, questions, and leads.
The crimes themselves were unspeakable: a string of fifty sexual assaults in Northern California as well as ten murders in Southern California that spanned 1976–1986. Unsatisfied with the acts themselves, the perpetrator made extra effort to taunt police and torment his victims - not just in the moment, but long after. In 2001, twenty four years later, one victim received a phone call in the same house where she had been attacked.
With the Golden State Killer free, his surviving victims were condemned to this endless nightmare, constantly aware they were living in his shadow.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark is equal parts memoir and procedural; it details not only the devastating trail of a seemingly unstoppable monster, but one woman's unlikely determination to bring him to justice. She writes unflinchingly about his brutal acts, but never fails to speak with compassion for the families left broken in his wake. McNamara never falls into the trap of glorifying the killer, but is genuinely heartbroken on behalf of his victims. While they are unable to rest, she seems unable to rest.
After spending so much time immersed in a decade of strangers' pain, McNamara writes, "There's a scream lodged permanently in my throat."
Of her own obsession, McNamara justifies it the only way she knows how: to identify a killer, she writes, is to take away his power.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark succeeds at bringing to life not the crimes, but the victims themselves, framing their humanity in a way true crime often leaves forgotten. As a storyteller, McNamara is warm and engaging, often laughing at the depth of her own obsession; as an investigator, however, she is focused and thorough.
This is not the story of a monster; this is the story of catching the monster. The difference may seem slight, but here, makes all the difference.
Note: McNamara died before completing her work, at the age of 46. Shortly thereafter, police arrested the Golden State Killer, who was sentenced in 2022.
Excerpt: That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter's playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I'd retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities. Our neighborhood northwest of downtown Los Angeles is remarkably quiet at night. Sometimes the only sound was the click as I tapped ever closer down the driveways of men I didn't know using Google Street View. I rarely moved but I leaped decades with a few keystrokes. Yearbooks. Marriage certificates. Mug shots. I scoured thousands of pages of 1970s-era police files. I pored over autopsy reports. That I should do this surrounded by a half-dozen stuffed animals and a set of miniature pink bongos didn't strike me as unusual. I'd found my searching place, as private as a rat's maze. Every obsession needs a room of its own. Mine was strewn with coloring paper on which I'd scribbled down California penal codes in crayon.
2. The Thing in the Shadows: Silk, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Come October every year, I break out my battered paperback copy of Silk, and open it to a first line I've long since memorized.
Kiernan writes like a fever dream, her monsters forever shapeless and kept in the shadows, leaving her characters to largely haunt themselves. They aren't running from anything they can define, but that fact does nothing to dull the teeth snapping at their heels.
Main character Daria Parker is the lead singer of punk rock band Stiff Kitten; her boyfriend, Keith, is a struggling addict. Across town, tattooed outcast Spyder Baxter is an otherworldly creature fleeing a haunted past. And somewhere between the two, hitchhiker Niki Ky is swept along for a nightmare she could never see coming.
To be frank about Silk, parts of the book are now clearly dated: certainly the cast would benefit from diversity, and there's a lingering sense of self-pity radiating from the characters, often without a definite source aside from being so misunderstood by the "normal" public. With that being said, everything here will feel wholly familiar for anyone who has ever frequented a Goth Night, from sticky venue floors to the heavy, cloying aroma of clove cigarettes.
If, however, the reader can forgive these faults, the story itself is a beautifully crafted nightmare full of webs and trapdoors, and an excellent introduction to Kiernan's other works, (especially The Red Tree and Threshold). If you have half a taste for surrealism in your horror, make space on your shelves - her voice positively resounds.
Whatever else you may take from it, Silk is a story about guilt, fear, and the things we'll do for love.
Excerpt: Two nights before Halloween, as if it matters to anyone in the house, as if every day in this house isn't Halloween. As if every moment they live isn't the strain and stretch, the hand reaching back, groping through bottomless candy bags down to where front porches glow with orange flicker grins and skeletons dance hopscotch sidewalks and ring doorbells. And they are all here, here around her where they belong.
1. The All-Nighter: Hide, Kiersten White
Kiersten White has previously published several outstanding young-adult novels, from her Camelot Rising series to the Bram Stoker Award-winning Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. In Hide, however, she paints a much darker storyline, one rife with violence and blood.
When fourteen people are selected to compete in a reality show's "ultimate game of hide and seek", only one hesitates: homeless Mackenzie Black, who has spent the years following her father's murderous rampage trying to disappear.
Eventually, however, Mackenzie decides that her past has prepared her to be the ultimate hide-and-seek competitor. The fifty thousand dollar prize will go a long way in changing her future.
But of course, few things play out the way they seem. Not only are they trapped within the park, but something is hunting them. If these strangers can't find a way to work together, "winning" will be the least of their concerns.
White's characters are both diverse and believable. Even when clearly fashioned around tongue-in-cheek humor (for instance, the pair of Internet influencers), there's an astutely self-aware quality to White's writing that makes it more than palatable. For instance, one of the influencer's narratives includes the following passage:
She's so sick of trying to turn everything into an opportunity, trying to exploit every hobby, every interest, every talent, even her own… face and body in a desperate attempt to make enough money. The last time they spoke - a year ago, maybe? - her father accused her of being lazy, of not working, but the truth is, like everyone her age she knows, she's always working. She's just not making a living doing any of it. Yet.
At times, Hide feels almost like it wants to be a YA novel (it's admittedly difficult early-on not to draw Hunger Games parallels); at others, you might wonder if the supernatural element was necessary at all. Both are minor complaints, however.
Although Hide is not particularly long as a novel, checking in at a tidy 240 pages, White makes every word count, using a shifting narrative to account for the competitors, their captors, and the forces that brought them all together. The result is a sleek, blisteringly paced story that proves near-impossible to put down.
Excerpt: People pretend things aren't wrong, even when they can feel the truth, because they're too afraid of what it means to look right at the horror, right at the wrongness, to face the truth in all its terrible glory. Like little kids, playing hide-and-seek. If they can't see the monster, it can't get them. But it can. It always can. And while you aren't looking, it's eating everyone around you.
About the Creator
Laura Presley is a firm believer that magic is real and birds are not. She lives and works in Ohio with her husband, their brood of wildlings, and their excessive number of rescue animals.
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