Sunday, October 21, 2018

13 books for getting in the Halloween mood

I like hunting out books for lists like this, mostly because I find all sorts of things I forgot I had along with the stuff that I knew I was looking for. Really horrifying horror isn't my thing, I like to be able to turn the lights out when I'm done, but something a bit unsettling is fine. And whilst I think about it - when did Christmas stop being the season for ghost stories and everything become so Halloween specific.

My collection (which is somewhat larger than just these books) tends towards the Victorian, and is mostly short stories - though I have some Shirley Jackson novels which terrify me. This particular selection is a mix of things I've read and know are reliably good, am reading, and might read soon.

The British Library have been publishing an excellent selection of weird tales, including a Christmas themed one I'm very much looking forward to. 'The Haunted Library', which I have read is a perfectly judged collection of book related haunting and happenings. One or two of them made me distinctly nervous, all of them were excellent. It comes highly recommended.

I've had 'The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales' for a few years, shamefully unread, because I've really liked everything else I've read by Braddon. A new edition is due in February with a cover that ties it in to the rest of the weird series (and which is far creepier). I hope I'm going to read this soon, it looks very promising.

'Glimpses of the Unknown' is another British Library title, this time featuring lost ghost stories, and apart from an E. F. Benson, who writes brilliant horror, I don't think I'm familiar with any of the writers in it, never mind the stories. I will mostly be reading it in daylight, I don't particularly want the eyes staring out of the cover anywhere near me whilst I try and sleep.

'The Virago Book of Ghost Stories' edited by Richard Dalby is an old favourite it goes from Charlotte  BrontĂ« through to Dorothy K. Haynes, taking in all sorts of interesting authors along the way. It's an absolute treasure trove and a great introduction to a whole range of women writers, it would be hard to choose between this one and 'The Haunted Library' for quality.

Richard Dalby's name on the cover is why I bought 'Dracula's Brethren'. I thought I had its companion volume, 'Dracula's Brood' somewhere, but didn't spot it earlier - I suppose I'll have to search for it now, despite the increasingly late hour - I can't have a rogue volume of vampire stories running feral around my flat. It would be to much like something out of 'The Haunted Library'. It's another excellent looking selection, which includes Louisa May Alcott's 'Lost in a Pyramid'.

'Dracula's Guest' is billed as a connoisseur's collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. It's edited by Michael Sims who has put together some frankly fabulous anthologies of Victorian detective fiction. As a testament to the richness of the vampire genre there is no overlap with the Dalby book.

Sims is also responsible for 'The Phantom Coach' (nicely atmospheric John Atkinson Grimshaw painting as a cover image). It might actually make for good Christmas reading - book collecting and reading are clearly worlds apart. This too looks like an interesting and varied collection of stories from mostly reasonably well known Victorian writers.

The cover of 'The Penguin Book of the Undead' is frankly terrifying, I am grateful to have been able to turn it over to read the blurb again. I think it was a bit of an impulse Halloween purchase last year, or the year before. Clever marketing aside it sounds genuinely interesting. Ghost stories as we know them are a 19th century convention, "but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms". This book covers 15 hundred years from Hebrew Scriptures, the Roman Empire, Scandinavian sagas, medieval Europe, through to reformation and renaissance. How could I resist?

I couldn't resist 'The Penguin Book of Witches' either. If you're going to judge a book by its cover this one's a peach. I was a bit disappointed when I got this (via a large online retailer) to realise that it dealt predominantly with the Salem witch trials. It's basically an American book, it briefly looks at English antecedents in the 16th century, including James I & VI's peculiar ideas on the subject, before crossing the Atlantic. I had assumed it would be wider ranging. In the end it didn't much matter. The Salem trials and their aftermath deserve the space, and I'm pleased to have read more about them. It doesn't go amiss to have a reminder of what happens when supperstion, paranoia, and fear get out of hand.

Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Gothic Tales' are another Penguin publication (I'm unaccountably missing a collection of Edith Wharton in gothic or ghostly mood to round out my collection of spooky Victorian women. I should fix that). I haven't read this one either, although I've enjoyed her ghost stories in other anthologies. I want to read more Gaskell, so this might be the place to start.

It's not all about ghosts, vampires, and other ghouls. The long nights are a great time for fairy tales as well, especially at the moment when the trees are losing their leaves and everything seems to be transitioning. It makes it easier to imagine any number of strange things, and much easier for eye and mind to play tricks on you morning and evening. 'The Complete Fairy Tales' by George Macdonald underline the Victorian fascination with fairies. They're experimental, subversive, and worth a look.

I'm currently reading, and loving, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin' from Handheld press. Officially out on the 31st, they're as sly and enchanting as the blurb promises. These Fairies have an entirely inhuman morality, they're cruel and beguiling, and you need this book.

Which brings me to Westwood and Kingshill's 'The Lore of Scotland', a guide to Scottish legends. I've chosen this one because it's the most recent book on folklore that I've bought, and I've been really enjoying it as I dip in and out of it. There are all sorts of interesting rabbit holes to fall into in a book like this which makes it an excellent companion for either a stolen half hour, or an extended afternoon of research. And unlike some ghost stories, it's unlike to affect your sleep.


  1. I've been eyeing up the Kingdoms of Elfin - it's one of relatively few STW books I don't own, but also I should probably read the ones I do have...

  2. You need this one! Which is to say after years of collecting her books but never quite reading them, I'm loving this one. I think I'm right in saying the stories were written in the 70's, which I think you can sort of tell, and I suppose you might describe them as magic realism, but that doesn't seem quite right. And there's some tremendous turns of phrase - and I'd really like to know what you make of it.