Happy Halloween! In honor of my favorite unofficial holiday, I’m going to share a few of the most noteworthy spooky, creepy, and just plain frightening books I have had the pleasure of reading so far in 2014. Each of these titles would be a great choice to curl up in front of a fire with some tea and a big bowl of candy as things (dressed in unfortunate "topical" outfits) start to hammer on your door.
Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
This mysterious and complicated trilogy of genre defying sci-fi, horror novels, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, make for a dark, menacing, and strangely beautiful puzzle that I think readers will be pondering for years to come. Exploring the horror and the wonder of the natural world itself and the place of human consciousness in the universe, people and landscapes transform utterly while, at first glance, everything seems normal.
Strange, inexplicable things happen in Area X, a region on the Forgotten Coast (implied to be somewhere on the Gulf Coast) and a secretive government agency, the Southern Reach, has sent more than a dozen expeditions into it to try to study it’s mysterious properties; monstrous things lurk in the midst of unspoiled wilderness, and even your own identity is forfeit once you pass the guarded border and set foot into Area X. The first book, Annihilation, follows the results of one sojourn into Area X, while the second, Authority, showcases Southern Reach itself and its fumbling attempts to understand the ununderstandable. The use of occupations and nicknames in place of human titles make the characters feel very open and brings into question human agency in its entirety. The final book, Acceptance, brings together the themes from the first two and, because of this, is the most difficult and thought-provoking, tying all the themes together yet not giving a single answer. I think I will definitely return to Area X again in the future, and maybe try to put a few of the pieces together.
Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches #1 by Cherie Priest
An entertaining supernatural horror romp through the 1890s, Maplecroft reveals the truth behind Lizzie Borden’s axe murders and the dark secrets of Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden and her sister, Emma, are the only two people who realize the fearful threat of bizarre things from the sea, fish-like things that can infect people to become creatures like them; this very fate occurred to Lizzie’s own father and step mother. Fortunately, an axe works quite well on them and Lizzie certainly goes to town with one quite a bit during the course of the novel. An epistolary novel, Maplecroft captures the feeling of the time period, and approaches the Lovecraftian atmosphere called for in such a story. As she recruits a few allies in frightening this threat, she also discovers an enemy and struggles with her relationship with her lover, Nance O’Neil, and her older sister Emma. In general, a fun and snappy book, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
A lush, dark, and delicious collection of scary tales, “Through the Woods” is a great graphic novel to devour in the dark, as the days turn shorter and the darkness begins to last longer. Especially if you happen to be near some woods, where most strange things come from, after all. I have seen some of Emily Carroll’s work online in the last few years and was extremely impressed with her artistic output; see this story here, The Prince and the Sea, for example; so I was very excited to see that a collection of her stories had been published. I highly recommend this spooky, beautiful, and spooky collection of short stories drawing on folklore and fear; rarely have I seen a comic that can create and maintain so eerie an atmosphere; really, this is one that might cause you pause to read alone in the middle of the night.
Carroll works in the oeuvre of the dark fairy tale and empowers her work with a grim folkloric dread worthy of the best as young characters encounter strange and horrible things in the woods, in palaces, or even at home. She appears to specialize in monsters, and not always monsters that you can see (though she certainly has those) but those you know are there, hidden in the darkness or just off the page. Her watercolor work is superb and deep contrasting reds and blacks fill the reader with a perfectly delicious tingly sensation. Grasping fingers, rolling eyes, deep snow filled forests where anything could lurk, Carroll’s elegant illustrations are perfect for evoking mood, so “Through the Woods” is among the most unsettling and best graphic novels I’ve read this year.
The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood and Company, #1, by Jonathan Stroud
The Lockwood and Company series, by the author of the Bartimaeus trilogy, continues to impress with it’s mix of witty banter and genuine chills in a magical world just a little removed from our own. In a London beset with the spirits of the hostile dead, in a variety of forms and types, only children can see and combat them. Some of these entities are, to be honest, totally bone chillingly frightening; while it may be a bit too scary for some young adult audiences, I found it deliciously shivery and the great world building and imagination evident throughout Bartimaeus shows up here as well; I can’t wait to continue with the story!
While the Screaming Staircase was published in 2013, I read it this year and I am just starting on the second book in the series, The Screaming Skull. Looking to be really scary so far!
The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson
This one is slightly different; while I was drawn in by it’s elegant and beautiful writing and gripping hook, of ghosts, and mystery, and love, all set in the quaint tourist towns of Door County, Wisconsin, it was, for me, probably the biggest disappointment of the year. 16 year old Maggie and her family have fallen on hard times and moved to a haunted old house on the Peninsula, where she soon becomes friends with her eccentric neighbors; Pauline, a wealthy, flighty girl and her childhood friend, the outdoorsy Liam, who has been in love with her forever. As Maggie negotiates her friendship for each, a distinct love triangle develops. Meanwhile, a ghost watches the proceedings with a detached interest and a serial killer has come Door County as well, drowning girls in Lake Michigan and adding to an atmosphere of dread.
Sadly, none of these elements really come together for me; the murder mystery and the ghost add nothing to the story, and love triangle between Maggie, Pauline, and Liam adds up to nothing except to make me dislike all the characters. The tragic ending then comes as an unwelcome twist, in spite of the obvious foreshadowing. I had to wonder what the ultimate point was?
Beautiful writing and atmosphere coupled with a disappointingly meandering love triangle and a hasty, unsatisfying ending was not enough to make “The Vanishing Season” anything but a disappointing read.