Halloween is in two days, and winter is right around the corner. This is my favorite time of year to read thrillers and spooky books. There is something about the chill that seems to arrive with Halloween that makes me want to curl up under blankets and read something unnerving—or, as is more often the case in this busy day and age, crank up the heat in the car and listen to the audiobook version.
Here are some books that I have really enjoyed. Some are set against wintry backdrops, which always adds to the mood. Some are just creepy or evoke the cold. Some are middle grade, some YA, and some are adult. All were great fun to read.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. This is a middle-grade retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and it is unsettling in a perfect middle-grade way. Minnesota fifth grader Hazel is struggling with her parents’ divorce and with her own identity as someone adopted from another country. Jack and Hazel are inseparable best friends, until Jack gets a sliver of a dark magic mirror in his eye. Overnight, he abandons Hazel and disappears entirely with an evil woman on a white sleigh. Only Hazel sees them go, and no one in her town seems to notice or care. She cannot bear to lose him, too, so she sets off into the woods herself to rescue him. Fabulous, moody, and everything a winter book should be.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Coldtown is the walled city where captured vampires are quarantined to protect the rest of the population. It’s also where anyone bitten should report to wait out an infection. If you can last long enough without biting someone, then you’ll recover from the infection; if not, you’ll be a vampire, too. But everyone knows that once you’re in Coldtown, you never leave. Tana wakes up from a wild party with her high school classmates to find everyone else dead except her newly infected ex-boyfriend (who is tied to a bed) and a mysterious boy who turns out to be a vampire—but not the one who killed all of her friends. Those vampires are still in the house trying to finish the job. Tana decides to rescue her ex and the innocent vampire and maybe, possibly gets bitten in the process. She can’t be sure, so she decides to take everyone straight to Coldtown. She can only hope she doesn’t become Cold, too. A great YA creeper by one of my favorite dark YA writers.
The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read The Strain one October and then waited anxiously for the next two installments the following fall and the fall after that. Del Toro’s gift for creepy films translates to novels, too. This is the creepiest vampire series I have ever read. It’s creepier than any vampire movie I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the TV show yet, because I’m not sure the books can be topped. Now I kind of want to reread them. A plane lands at JFK, shuttles down the runway, and then just…stops. The lights go out, communication goes silent, and the dead plane sits there until the CDC is called in to investigate. Dr. Eph Goodweather witnesses the beginning of a vampire plague that takes over New York, and we follow him as he tries to protect his family and find a team to help him fight it. So. Much. Win.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. If you’ve seen the 1990s Julia Ormond movie, you know where this book is going. I’ve never been happy with Hoeg’s answer to the whodunit in his book, but I enjoyed so many other things about this Danish import. Smilla is half-Danish and half-Greenlander, and she is aloof, harsh, and happier studying the snow than interacting with people. I like when protagonists are tough to like, especially a woman. Her gift is what she can read from the snow, learned as a child in Greenland. The only person close to her is her six-year-old neighbor in Copenhagen, a Greenlander boy who sort of adopts her. When he falls to his death from the roof of their building, only Smilla can read the snow and see that it wasn’t an accident. So she starts her own investigation into what happens. The ending is preposterous, but Smilla’s narration, her feelings for the boy, the tragic history of her family and that of other Greenlanders still make it a great mystery. Who did it is less important than the story along the way.
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. When Rory, a Louisiana teenager with an eccentric Southern family, starts boarding school in London, she is worried about making friends, fitting in, and handling crushes on classmates. But it turns out her school is smack in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory and not long after she arrives, someone starts copycatting the Ripper murders. Rory talks to a strange man outside her dorm and when another body is found, she becomes a witness in the investigation. London is a character here, which is what helps make this so great when the temperature drops. Plus, Jack the Ripper. A great teen read that’s hilarious (all of Johnson’s books are just laugh-till-it-hurts good) and super, super creepy.
Snow Angels by James Thompson. During the annual two weeks of solid darkness in Lapland (right around Christmas), a Somali actress is murdered and left mangled in the snow on a reindeer farm. Inspector Vaara takes the case. He lives and works in his hometown, which is also home to a huge upscale winter resort run by his pregnant American wife. She hasn’t been in Finland long and is totally unnerved by the constant dark. The creepiness of the murder mystery is wonderfully offset by the additional creepiness of the weather, which affects the detective and his foreign wife. Also, when I think of Lapland and reindeer right before Christmas, I can only think of Santa. This book is so not about Santa.
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. This is one of the first books from the awesome YA author of the Leviathan series, and it is spooky and hilarious. It’s another vampire tale and while it may be for teens, it is definitely not Twilight. That is the highest YA vampire novel compliment I can give. In Westerfeld’s world, vampirism is an STD. Some are carriers, who unwittingly pass the disease onto others who become bloodthirsty monsters called Peeps. That’s what happens to our hero Cal, who was a normal college kid until he became a carrier and then infected his next three girlfriends. Now Cal is a vampire hunter in New York City who has to find and stop his ex-girlfriends before they make more vampires. If you’re going to write about vampires, you might as well also make it an allegory for safe teen sex. New York is a great vampire backdrop (just look at The Strain), but Westerfeld makes his teen vampire novel absolutely hilarious and gross in a kind of perfect New York way. I read this book when I was in grad school and living in Hoboken. It stuck with me because one of the first scenes has Cal doing some vampire hunting in the old Hoboken train station. I passed that train station every day, along with several other New York sites thrown in the story. It’s kind of a delicious book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. This one is an obvious addition with its Swedish setting. The whole trilogy is creepy and great, but the first one is a standout winter read. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is offered a chance to rebuild his reputation and finances by spending a year on a private island owned by an eccentric Swedish billionaire. His job is to comb the grounds and all of the family records to solve the disappearance and murder of the billionaire’s beloved niece. Blomkvist enlists hacker Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, to help him find the truth, and the truth is just awful. It’s a great start to a trilogy that embraces Sweden’s good side (an endless chapter in the second book describes Salander’s IKEA purchases in excruciatingly awesome detail) and its bad (a terrible track record when it comes to crime against women).
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This children’s novel isn’t usually thought of in the chilling category, especially after the lush Disney adaptations of the books. But a magic wardrobe that leads to a not-quite-right winter landscape run with an iron fist by a white witch? And the whole good versus evil sibling dynamic of the Pevensies? It’s an elementary school spook fest.
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor. Karou is a 17-year-old who lives in Prague, goes to art school, and has bright blue hair that grows that way. She speaks otherworldly languages and runs errands for a strange shopkeeper who looks after her and collects teeth. Teeth. She doesn’t remember a life before this one until she meets a real, live angel and is thrown into a supernatural war. This is such a gorgeous, strange, gothic YA novel; the first in a series. Prague is a perfectly romantic and sinister setting, and the world Taylor has created is so realized and so incredible.
What are your favorite cold weather bone chillers?