It’s getting to the time when I normally post about my favourite books of the year. But this year, given that I’ve now got books out in three different categories – young adult, horror and poetry – I thought I would post about my five favourite of each… ever! My most recent book is The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, a ghost story, so I’m going to start with my five favourite creepy stories.
First off, Frankenstein. One of my favourite books of all time, regardless of genre. Frankenstein is brilliant and can be read on many different levels. It can be seen as a political allegory for the French Revolution or the abolition of slavery; a lament for Shelley’s own lost child; a cautionary tale on bad parenting; or a warning on the dangers of overreaching yourself with technology. Read this excellent article to see how.
I knew the book as a favourite of my grandma’s, but only read it when I was doing an English degree at university. We studied Frankenstein not in Literature but in our English Language module, because the newly-created ‘monster’ gives a Saussurian view of the world without language to break it down and ‘contain’ it. There’s a brilliant description of the monster staggering through the woods bewildered, his senses overcome by the sounds and sensations all around him. Eventually he sits down and manages to focus on just one thing – a slice of moon in the nighttime sky.
Whilst it’s true the novel works on many levels, it’s also worth stating that the one it works best on is as a gripping horror story. The horror comes from Dr Frankenstein’s neglect as well as from the monster’s crimes. This is a brilliant, claustrophobic suspense story, ranging from the civilised refinement of Geneva to the bleak icy wilds of Antarctica.
Mary Shelley is my standout novelist. Just remember, she wrote this, one of the greatest works of English literature, when she was eighteen years old. And she had to publish it anonymously, for fear of how it would be received were it known the author was a woman.
2. Salem’s Lot
Where to start with Stephen King? Whilst I don’t list myself among the true hardcore of fans who have read all of his novels, each time I do read one I marvel again at his skill and invention. Whilst he’s a horror writer, I think of him alongside another great modern US writer from the North-Eastern states, John Irving. Like Irving, he takes time to lay out the table, recording his characters and (mostly) small town settings in detail that’s loving but never laboured. Then, again like Irving, he strikes us with seismic, often catastrophic events that, due to the groundwork, you will have known are coming – although you will not have known how, when and where from.
I could choose many of King’s novels – The Stand, Bag of Bones, The Girl who loved Tom Gordon, Green Mile – but I’ve decided to go with Salem’s Lot, which truly scared the heebie-jeebies out of me as a teenager. That floating vampire kid scratching at the window? Give me a break. Or the iconic moment when the priest’s faith fails him and the crucifix loses its power to keep the vampire at bay? I’d seen a hundred horror films but that never happened. I was totally blown away, my world view changed in one fell swoop. Awesome.
3. The Wine-Dark Sea
Want to be properly disturbed by your horror? Read Robert Aickman. I only came across him a few years ago when I saw this collection in a bookshop in Covent Garden. I wrote a short review of it here. Aickman is unlike any other horror writer I know. This quote sums up his approach:
“Nothing is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide an alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it.”
His dark tales work like sinister magic, probing away at the depths of your subconscious. I’ve never had such strange dreams as those whilst reading this book (appropriately one of the scariest tales, Into the Wood, is all about insomnia). In most the stories the creep is left open-ended, in a deliberate attempt to stretch your mind, to keep you away from certainties, to open your eyes to the weirdness and mystery at the heart of living. Suggestive, dark, brilliant – but not for everyone…
4. The Cormorant
A couple relocate from the city to a isolated seaside cottage in Wales, an inheritance from an eccentric uncle. But there’s one catch – they must look after his ‘pet’ cormorant. It seems a simple enough ask – but soon things start to go horribly wrong.
I read Stephen Gregory’s story a long time ago when I was working in the Welsh valleys. I’ve always loved the strange, ominous atmosphere it creates and I’m planning to read it again soon.
5. The Little Stranger
A classic ghost story, with a twist (sound familiar?). Without wanting to give anything away, I’m not quite sure whether this counts as a ghost story – although it certainly has a very real supernatural element.
It starts off more like a piece of unsettling period literature – but then, with an incident of a dog and a little girl at a party, transforms into something altogether more visceral and terrifying. The novel deals skillfully with the feelings of injustice that class division arouse – coupled with the burning frustrations of love. I think the ending is one of the most satisfying I’ve read.
And finally… the ones that got away.
It was hard to make this list, and I was often left wondering why on earth I’d just settled on five. Was it purely because ‘Five Favourites’ sounded good? Probably. But I also wanted to give a bit more time to each book than I normally do.
So here’s a few more I’d have liked to include, because I love them too:
The Terror, by Dan Simmons. Recently made into a superlative TV series, there’s a supernatural beast in this but the real horror comes from two Victorian ships trapped in the Arctic ice without sunlight for six months of the year. For three years. Yes, three years.
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd. One of my favourite authors, Peter Ackroyd brings the saturated history of London to life like no other. This is my favourite book of his, a horror mystery that has a mythical monster slashing Victorian Londoners to pieces (Pisaca, anyone?). Who is the dreaded Limehouse Golem?
The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. A sprawling, multi-perspective vampire novel set in Princeton university in the early twentieth century. Real life characters including Woodrow Wilson and Jack London add to the zest.
Jaws, by Peter Benchley. The monster of the deep did more to damage the reputation of sharks than a thousand fishermen, but this novel is nevertheless superb. I burned through it when I was eleven, in probably the same amount of hours.
The Magician, by W Somerset Maugham. Whether there are any real supernatural elements is left up to the reader to decide, but this tale of an overbearing, repulsive occultist who steals a beautiful woman from her fiancee is as gripping as any poison love story. The character of John Thrush in The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask was partly inspired by this story.
If my five favourite creepy stories have whetted your appetite for the macabre, why not check out my own ghost story, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood – out now on Amazon: