With the onset of Fall there’s a definite chill in the air, leaves are starting to turn and the scent of pumpkin spice is wafting out of every coffee shop. With Halloween around the corner, I started thinking about paranormal and horror books that I’ve read over the years and what kinds of books in those genres that evoked the chills and thrills that we all seem to crave this time of year.
Werewolves, vampires, sadistic serial killers – they are good for a few jump scares and copious amounts of gore but they don’t keep me up at night. As much as I enjoy them, somewhere in the back of my mind I can rationalize that you can see them coming and you can kill them (not easily but a silver bullet, stake or a chainsaw will work). But ghosts – for some reason or other, my rational mind seems to keep a small corner open for the possibility of ghosts. I mean, who hasn’t seen something move out of the corner of your eye or heard creaks and thumps in the middle of the night. I know better, but a good ghost story is liable to find me sleeping with the light on and keeping my hands and feet under the covers.
Not all the books listed below are horror stories – I find it very hard to find that kind of sub-genre in lesfic – but they are some enjoyable reads about ghosts and things that go bump in the night. So grab some mini chocolate bars, a roll of rockets, a few Halloween kisses and enjoy. Click if you dare: Halloween Trick or Treat?
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
For me, The Haunting of Hill House will always be the Grande Dame of horror novels. I read the book when I was probably much too young and it scared the bejesus out of me. It remains my gold standard for psychological horror and ghost stories. After all these years and all the times I’ve read it, it still manages to give me that delicious thrill of fear and I recognize elements from it in so many books and movies. Ms. Jackson was a phenomenal writer, and in a relatively short novel, evoked a chilling story that lasts a lot longer than the actual length of pages.
Hill House is an evil house – built by an evil man who corruption and cruelty was built into the very foundation of the structure. Jackson’s beautiful prose and style evokes the unsettling appearance and ambiance of the house and its impact on the group of people who have arrived as part of a paranormal investigation of the house. The key characters in this story are Eleanor and Hill House itself and the obsession that grows between them. The horror is low key, slowly building the feelings of dread and the unraveling of Eleanor’s psyche. Eleanor is such a fascinating character and Ms. Jackson deftly paints a fragile and damaged woman who is desperate to find a life and home of her own. You can’t help but feel sympathy for her and watching her succumb to the draw of Hill House, evil and unsettling as it is, is spine-tingling. And then there’s the whole “take my hand Theo” scene that still freaks the crap out of me.
This isn’t a lesfic per se, but Jackson weaves subtext into the characters of Eleanor and Theo and even though I didn’t know what a lesbian was when I first read the book, I knew damned well Theo was one and I adored her (possibly my first crush … after Wonder Woman).
If you are someone who prefers the movie over the book, I would recommend the 1963 film version The Haunting directed by Robert Wise. Filmed in black and white, Wise’s movie is a pretty faithful to the original story and takes the time to build the psychological suspense and horror. I still get chills when I watch it. Do NOT watch the 1999 abomination – other than a few elements and the name, this movie does a disservice to the original book as well as to the actors. Horrible movie. Horrible. If you have ten hours and a strong heart, I’d also recommend the Netflix adaptation which is more of an “inspired by” than full on adaptation. You can tell that the writers love the original book as much as I do – they take the premise and expand and twist it into a much larger and, at times, scarier story about a terribly dysfunctional family and the long lasting and tragic impacts of living for a summer in Hill House. The suspense in this miniseries is top notch and the writers blend elements of Hill House – themes, names, incidents and items – that anyone who has read the original will recognize and enjoy the hunt for easter eggs and references.
Gnarled Hollow and Legacy – Charlotte Greene
Based on the latest two books by Ms. Greene, I would have to say that she’s a damned fine paranormal author. She has an obvious talent for building the right level of ambiance (creepy and unsettling) in her books that set the stage perfectly for the stories.
In Gnarled Hollow, Ms. Greene provides and interesting take on the Haunting of Hill House– taking the premise and making it her own. I liked the changes and enhancements she made. In keeping with some of the elements of Hill House, the characters and romance didn’t gel as well as they might have – but in Legacy, the characters and motivations seem to have a much more natural feel. I really enjoyed both and am impressed by Ms. Green’s writing. Rather than getting deep into detail here, the full reviews for both books are found here Gnarled Hollow and Legacy
The House – Eden Darry
This is an impressive full length debut novel from Ms. Darry. The story revolves around Fin and Sadie, an established couple, and their two children after the move from London to an old country house – make that an old haunted country house. Sign me up – I love a good haunted house story.
I really enjoyed the way that Darry establishes a healthy and loving relationship between Fin and Sadie and, as the story progresses, how it slowly devolves. The normal stress and uncertainties of dealing with the after-effects of an attack, the looming threat of a stalker and moving from the city to the country would be enough to put a strain on any relationship but when Darry adds the malevolent influence of the house’s ghostly presence, the once strong relationship turns toxic. There’s a subtle build of tension as Fin falls deeper under the house’s influence, her thoughts and rationale getting twisted and darker by the day. This one doesn’t go for the jump scare or lots of thumps in the middle of the night to keep the horror level up – there are odd events and the children are drawn in as six year old Liam senses the innate danger in the house and three year old Lucy’s imaginary playmate starts causing physical damage. Overall a good creepy read.
The River Walker – Cate Culpepper
I first read this in 2010 and really enjoyed it. Nine years later and it stands the test of time. Newly moved to New Mexico, Dr. Grady Wren , a cultural anthropologist, is drawn into a local legend that appears to have become all too real. La Llorna is actually a common Hispanic folklore story about a woman drowns her sons in a river and is doomed to walk the shores of the river looking for them and drowning unsuspecting children. In River Walker, Grady discovers that the legend originated in the town of Mesilla where a woman and her sons were drowned by her abusive husband and her weeping spirit wanders the Rio Grande every 100 years, her wails of rage and grief driving men to drown themselves in the water. For some reason, Grady herself hears La Llorna – and the pain and grief in her cries echos the grief that shadows Grady’s life. She and Elena Montalvo, the last of the Weeping Woman’s descendants and a spiritual healer, try to find La Llorna and put an end to the recent rash of suicides.
Ms. Culpepper was an accomplished writer and as the story and characters unfold you can’t help but be drawn in. Through Grady, you can almost feel the rage, grief and guilt in La Llorna’s cries rising from the pages. There’s a wonderful feel to the story – there’s a bit of suspense and tension as they dig deeper into what is happening in Mesila and the anger and fear that drives the locals to blame Elena for the recent deaths, as well as a sweet and well-paced romance between Grady and Elena. Although the story is told from Grady’s perspective, Ms. Culpepper provides an amusing and enlightening insight into Elena through her one-sided conversations with her goddess – the love and irreverence in those monologues transitions into her humour and teasing of the gringa professor.
A Question of Ghosts – Cate Culpepper
The first time I read this one, I didn’t like it. But since I re-read River Walker and enjoyed it so much, I gave this one another try. I enjoyed A Question of Ghosts much more than the first go around – I still could have done without all the Xena references; but, that’s really just a personal preference. Overall, this was a humourous paranormal romance with two extremely engaging characters and decent bit of mystery to keep things interesting.
Becca Healey should be a basket case – her parents died in an apparent murder-suicide on her fifth birthday, she has developed a debilitating phobia around dolls or anything that portrays a human representation, she has a ridiculously addictive personality (luckily she’s managed to restrict it to chocolate) and she hears the voice of her dead mother over radio static. Instead she’s empathetic, funny, optimistic and has solid circle of friends who love her dearly – okay, so she has a few panic attacks, but she’s so damned engaging you can’t help but fall for her.
Poor Dr Joanne Call, an expert in Electronic Voice Phenomenon that Becca reaches out to, doesn’t stand a chance. Jo is an odd kind of character – unable to process or understand social queues – she doesn’t quite know what to make of Becca and is dragged from her reclusive and quiet life of scientific study. At first she’s fascinated by the EVP phenomena and the messages from Becca’s mother, but she quickly finds herself swept up by Becca and her feelings for her. The two seem to have an ability to figure one another out, quirks and all and they are a perfect fit. So the romance works – it’s fun, sweet and the two main characters are endearing.
The ghost element is rather original – Becca’s mother’s voice emanates from a radio (EVP), giving hints and warnings that prompt Becca and Jo to question whether her death was an actual suicide or murder – and the resulting investigation moves along at a good clip as they sort through suspects, motives and opportunities.
Stay – Mildred Gail Digby
Stay was a very pleasant surprise – some pretty original twists on some normally standard tropes that resulted in an intriguing read. Jade Mayflower is a hard-boiled PI – sharp, abrasive, foul mouthed, and with an appropriately dark past. She also sees ghosts. In Stay, Jade is hired by Connie – a ghost who doesn’t know who she is or what happened to her. Ms. Digby blends paranormal, mystery and romance perfectly in this book, building well-developed characters as you plow through the book wanting to know more about the characters, their backstories and the burgeoning romance (age gap and corporeal gap … who can resist). There’s an insta-attract (Jade’s a bit of a hound) but the romance is rather sweet and works well within the overall story line. The author keeps the pace hopping with the mystery and action but still keeps things light and humourous. It did take me a couple of chapters to get into the story but once I was in, I was fully invested and enjoyed the heck out of it. If you’re looking for something a little bit different but a hell of a lot of fun, try this one.
Sarah’s Lover – Saxon Bennett and Layce Gardner
Sarah’s Lover is a lovely little romance with a paranormal twist. After a rather abrupt break up, Sarah finds herself renting a renovated Victorian house where the ghost of Kirsten resides. Based on my previous experience with Bennett and Gardner’s solo books I was expecting a bit of a madcap farce but the story is actually sweet and has some poignant moments. There is some humour but the focus is more on the characters than the situations. Despite Kirsten’s earlier poltergeist actions with previous residents, there’s no evil intent or horrible secrets – this is just two women (one being dead) who are trying to deal with how their last relationships went so wrong without their noticing and eventually finding each other. It’s a light read.
Scaredy Cat – Robin Alexander
Okay – so I may be reaching by including this one in a compilation of ghostly lesfic novels. If you can stop laughing and embrace the scares, there is a ghost in the end, honest. So tough noogies if you don’t think it fits the theme – this is my compilation and I absolutely adore Robin Alexander.
Scaredy Cat is a pretty typical Alexander book – funny and quirky. It doesn’t have quite the zaniness of some of her later books, but there’s tons of humour in both the dialogue and situations. Blake Taylor is the queen of horror – and literally terrified of everything. She relocates to a small town in Louisiana to get away from a smothering mother and find a way to get past her writer’s block. Originally hired to show Blake around and run errands, Quinn Scott ends up befriending Blake and helps her overcome her phobias and fears to the point that they join a team of ghost hunters who are investigating a haunted house. Scary? No. Funny as hell with engaging characters? Absolutely. There’s a comfortable growth of the relationship as the two grow closer and definitely a strong chemistry both in the banter and in the bedroom.