Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!

 

Reviews

REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Silent CompanionsI always feel that the first book you choose to read in a year is, somehow, a reflection of what that reading year will be like. A silly superstition I’m sure but we all have our quirks and picking my first book of a new year is one of mine.

Last year I started with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017 – so my first read of 2018 had big shoes to fill! Fortunately The Silent Companions, which had been lingering on my TBR far too long, turned out to be a great choice to kick of 2018 – spooky, atmospheric and spine-tingling, it had me turning the pages whilst curled up under the duvet and checking the shadows for sinister beings!

Set in both the 1800s and 1600s, the novel recounts the sinister string of events that have led to Mrs Elsie Bainbridge being examined in a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of arson and murder. Mute and traumatised, Elsie is gradually forced to recollect the events of the previous year which started with her new husband Rupert’s death and her journey; accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, to his ancestral home, The Bridge. Gothic and crumbling, The Bridge is an eerie place, made all the more unsettling by the hissing noise emanating from the locked garret. Yet when Elsie and Sarah force their way into the dusty attic space, all they find is a Silent Companion: a wooden figure, carefully carved and painted to fool the eye into thinking they are real. But is there more to the Silent Companion than meets the eye? Why does it bear a striking resemblance to Elsie herself? And why did Robert’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived at The Bridge back in the 1600s fear them so dreadfully?

There is a strong psychological element to this ghost story. Elsie, confused and traumatised by the events of the previous year, is a fantastically unreliable narrator and, as the only surviving witness to her version of events, it becomes impossible for the reader to decide on the true narrative. Is Elsie really the victim of sinister supernatural forces that haunt The Bridge? Or is she a psychotic murderess whose own dark past has finally led her to commit terrible deeds? Even at the end of the book, it’s far from clear what the true course of events actually is – as with all the best ghost stories, it’s left to the reader to decide how much you really believe in the tale being spun.

The supernatural elements themselves are handled really well and I completely bought into the Companions as objects of terror. Whether you see them as objects of Elsie’s tortured imagination or as the inanimate hosts of an unspeakable evil, they’re sinister, creepy and guaranteed to leave you with the shivers.

There’s also a fantastically charged and controlled atmosphere throughout the book. Every page oozes with tension and there’s a creeping sense of horror and dread as you turn the pages. Seemingly innocuous conversations, objects and events become charged with meaning as you switch between Anne Bainbridge’s diary, Elsie’s recollections of The Bridge and her present life in the psychiatric hospital.

And the horror isn’t just supernatural but social. I felt that there was an underlying narrative within the book about the roles and perceptions of women. Whether it’s suspicious whispers about witchcraft in the 1600s or the fear of female madness and hysteria in Victorian England, the events of the novel cleverly illustrate the myriad ways in which fear of the strange and supernatural has often been tied into the control and subjugation of women. It makes the book genuinely frightening, both in term of the supernatural agencies that might be at work and the real world fears of societal exclusion and condemnation faced by Elsie and Anne.

With it’s creeping sense of dread and shades of Gothic horror, this novel reminded me very much of the works of Susan Hill combined with elements of Wilkie Collins and M R James. Utterly terrifying (but in a good way!), I’m definitely up for more of Laura Purcell’s particular brand of spooky in the future so was delighted to read that she has another Gothic thriller due to be published in 2018. In the meantime, if you don’t mind your reading year starting with the spooks, definitely add The Silent Companions to your TBR!

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) and is available now in hardcover and ebook from all good bookshops. 

Readathons

Autumn Readathon TBR

As you may have already realised from recent posts, I love Autumn. As the nights draw in, the thought of curling up next to the fire in a cosy jumper with a good book and a large mug of tea is a welcome solace after a long day at work. So when Mercedes over at Mercy’s Bookish Musings announced she was going to run an Autumn Readathon, my immediate reaction was ‘where do I sign’?!

The readathon runs from 22 – 28 October and is fairly chilled by way of challenges to allow for readers of all speeds and intentions (which I love – not all of us have the ability to read 7 books in a week!) with 4 prompts and 2 optional prompts to attempt. You can watch Mercedes’ announcement video here as well as her TBR and recommendations here but I thought it might be fun to do a post about my own TBR and reading goals for the week as well.

Prompt One: Read a Gothic/Spooky Book

I started on Laura Purcell’s ‘The Silent Companions‘ during Lauren’s Autumn Cosy Reading Night on Friday and, fortunately for me, it doubles up nicely for this prompt. Set in a crumbling country mansion, this gothic ghost story that promises unsettling psychological horror in the vein of Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson and Henry James. I’m less than 50 pages in at the moment but I’m already loving the setting and the brooding sense of malice and unease that has been infused into the most innocuous of interactions and settings.

Prompt Two: Read an Autumnal Non-Fiction Book

Mercedes has classed this as nature writing or autumnal travel-writing but I’ve just gone with something a bit gothic again because I’m currently reading ‘Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England‘ by Sarah Wise which is a fascinating insight into the history of insanity in the nineteenth-century. Looking at both the rise of the ‘mad-doctor’ profession and public fears about sane individuals being locked away in private asylums, Sarah Wise examines twelve real-life cases that could have come straight from the pages of Wilkie Collins or Dickens.

Prompt Three: Read a Novel Set in a Cold Location
Prompt Four: Read a Historical Fiction Novel

Eowyn Ivey’s ‘To The Bright Edge of the World‘ gets to do double duty for this one. I already mentioned in my 5 Star TBR Predictions post that I wanted to get to this novel soon and, with it being both set in a cold location (Alaska) and in the past (1885), it fits the bill perfectly for this prompt. At over 400 pages, it’s unlikely I’ll finish this during the readathon week but, if I can get started, I’ll be happy.

Bonus Prompt Five: Read a Short Story Collection

I recently collected ‘Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories‘ from the library and am intending to dip in and out of it through the week. Featuring spooky stories inspired by English Heritage sites across the UK, the collection features stories by some of my favourite writers including Sarah Perry and Mark Haddon. It’ll also be ideal reading for the run up to All Hallows Eve.

Bonus Prompt Six: Read an Adult Novel with a Young Female Protagonist

I get that you could argue that Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ could reasonably classed as Young Adult but I’m counting ‘The Amber Spyglass’, which I want to finally get around to reading so that I can start the recently released ‘The Book of Dust’, as my choice for this one. Again, I’m not sure I’ll get around to finishing this during the week but I am keen to get it started if I can.

So that is my Autumn Readathon TBR. Are any of you participating in the readathon? If so, what are you reading for it? Have you read any of my choices and what did you think? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter. You can also follow Mercedes at @mercysmusings and join in with the readathon chat using the hashtag #autumnreadathon. So here’s to a successful readathon week and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x