In our previous two Halloween Reading Roundups, we have looked at books for babies, preschoolers, and grade school kids, and also middle-grade books. Today we’re moving on to Halloween reads for teens and adults with five books featuring monsters, witches, vampires, and other unworldly beings. Check back next week for another YA/adult selection.
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Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
My first entry in this reading roundup was one I read way back in July/August when its cover seemed to be everywhere I turned! Home Before Dark is the fourth book from thriller writer Riley Sager and one I picked up largely due to it being a JadeTheLibra book club pick.
When she was five, Maggie Holt fled from her new home – Baneberry Hall – in the middle of the night along with her parents. They went to the police that night and told the officer on duty that they feared for their lives after being attacked by an entity inside the house. Maggie has never been back to Baneberry Hall since that night but her father wrote what became a bestselling book recounting the events that caused them to flee and ever since, Baneberry Hall has been part of the tourist literature.
Following his death 25 years later, Maggie has inherited Baneberry Hall to her shock as she never knew her father still owned it. Now an interior designer and house flipper, she decides to go back for the very first time with the intention of fixing the house up and turning a profit. Maggie fears nothing because she has come to realize that her father made the ghost stories up, however, both her parents have staunchly refused to ever reveal what exactly made them flee the house in the dead of night and she is determined to find out, despite her mother’s protestations and her father’s deathbed warning telling her to stay away.
Staying in the house alone, events from her father’s book begin to play out once again and Maggie begins to question how much of the story that has plagued her whole life is fact and how much is fiction.
A twist on the Amityville Horror, Home Before Dark is two stories in one set 25 years apart. The chapters alternate between Maggie’s modern-day perspective and extracts from Ewan’s book, allowing us as readers to follow both of them simultaneously through events at Baneberry Hall while also seeing how those same events run parallel to one another. This book is a true gothic style horror filled with interesting takes on classic plot elements – things going bump in the night, imaginary friends that might be all-too-real, shadowy figures, and flickering chandeliers that turn on and off at will. I guarantee you will never hear the soundtrack from The Sound of Music in the same way after reading this!
Home Before Dark left me guessing right to the very end and leaves us with an element of ambiguity regarding exactly what was really going on in Baneberry hall. I made the mistake of staying up until 2 am to finish it one night and found myself jumping at every slight noise or glimpse of movement on my way to bed that night (bonus shout out to my cat who jumped on an empty waste bin outside my house moments after a mystery thump was heard in the book and almost gave me a heart attack – thanks Salem!) This is a fantastic page-turner that I thoroughly recommend to start your Halloween reading out with a bang. Or should that be a bump…?
B*Witch by Paige McKenzie and Nancy Ohlin
Next up is a YA choice with strong political leanings. In B*Witch by Paige McKenzie and Nancy Ohlin, the existence of witches is common knowledge but the group is persecuted in ways reminiscent of America’s stance against Black and homosexual groups. A specific law bans witchcraft although it has largely been ignored in recent years, however, the recent election of a vehemently anti-witchcraft President has ignited anti-magic sentiment, and new groups calling themselves Antima (Anti-Magic) have risen to prominence.
In the midst of all this, Iris – a witch in hiding – just wants to get through her first day at a new high school, unaware that the school is already home to two rival covens. The first coven, led by Greta and home to cyber-witch Binx and secretly trans witch Ridley focuses on natural magic, while the other (nicknamed the Triad of Evil by Greta) is more willing to experiment with other, potentially darker, forms of magic.
Both covens are immediately interested in trying to recruit Iris, along with another new potential witch named Penelope and tensions quickly begin to mount, opening up old wounds between all the girls. But when one of them turns up dead, obviously the victim of dark magic, and more and more students begin brazenly wearing Antima patches to school, the witches realize they will need to work together to keep themselves safe.
B*Witch was an interesting book with a fantastic premise but that could have used some better editing to help make it clearer and easier to follow. The book alternates between the perspectives of five different characters – all high school age witches – and I found it difficult to remember who was who. The diversity here also felt forced with some characters having so many traits layered on top of one another that it felt as if the authors had a checklist of attributes they wanted to include and simply assigned a bunch of them to each person to make sure everything was covered.
That being said, I did particularly enjoy the chapters from Ridley’s perspective. Ridley is a trans girl using witchcraft to physically alter her body so she still appears in her male body in her conservative home, but has a female body at school and out with her friends. This ability allows for lots of discussion about what it means to be male or female, and how that meaning would shift in the face of magical (or potential future scientific) abilities that would allow a person to freely alter their body at will.
While I found the political elements of B*Witch fascinating, and obviously written to reflect current political tensions against specific groups in the US today, I found the main storyline somewhat lacking. There were simply too many characters vying for attention and too many simultaneous plots happening that no one idea or individual had an opportunity to shine. The book is also the first in a series so many of those plots were left hanging by the end, leaving more questions than answers.
This one had potential but could have been executed better, meaning I wouldn’t put it high on my must-read list this Halloween.
The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige
Next up for me was another YA book, however, I would personally classify this in the lesser-known New Adult category instead. The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige lingers on the borders of the Dark Academia genre that is currently gaining popularity, mixing it with plenty of supernatural elements and more darkness than you might typically expect from YA.
The Ravens is told from the alternating perspectives of two students at the prestigious Westerly college in Georgia. Vivi is new and hoping to use her move to Westerly as an opportunity to reinvent herself. Sick of being dragged around the country by her eccentric mother, Vivi wants to finally settle down somewhere and make friends. Scarlett is a senior member of the Kappa Rho Nu sorority with her life meticulously planned out in front of her and one main goal – excel at everything in order to impress her mother and sister, both former presidents of Kappa.
Kappa is no ordinary sorority. Rather, it is a convenient front for one of the most influential covens in the world and only the most powerful witches are invited to join its ranks. This year, Vivi is among them (much to her shock) but a series of misunderstandings immediately set her and Scarlett at odds with one another. However, a number of dark events in the sorority’s recent past seem to be coming back to haunt the current crop of witches and the sisters of Kappa Rho Nu are going to need one another’s strength more than ever to overcome the evil they are facing. But are all of them to be trusted?
This dark and dangerous book takes the concept of the college Greek system and its elements of hereditary power and gives it a supernatural twist. Sisterhood is at the core of this story and the support and strength that comes from its bonds form the heart of both the story and the relationships between the main characters. Of course, that means that betrayal within that sisterhood hits hard and we as readers feel almost equally violated when it happens. The male characters are all relegated to the sidelines, allowing women of many types to occupy the spotlight. These are girls who have mostly been coached to aspire to positions of leadership and it’s exciting to see a world where the old boys club is more an old crones coven, even if the witches do still have to hide themselves through fear of persecution.
Despite being set on a college campus, none of the girls ever seem to actually attend more than the occasional lecture or study anything non-witchcraft related, which did seem a little odd – especially when so many of them have career ambitions in law, politics, and hard science. Some of the twists were easy to see coming but a few genuinely took me by surprise too, as did the level of violence here. There are some truly disturbing moments involving dark magic, and every character is at risk – not everyone is going to come out of this alive and those high stakes kept me turning the pages until the small hours.
The Ravens is supposedly the first book in a series but there is no cliffhanger ending here that will have you cursing the months until a sequel is released. I’m sure I will be picking up that sequel if it ever comes to fruition, however, as I’m curious to see what’s next for the sisters of the Kappa sorority.
The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard
My next choice was a short story collection in comic/graphic novel format. The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard contains five evocative stories featuring monsters of both the human and otherworldly kind, all illustrated in a black and white style that adds to their unnerving nature.
In “The Girl in the Fields”, a queer, teen girl named Frankie feels trapped in her conservative home but befriends another girl she sees only through a small hole in their shared fence. When Frankie finds herself threatened, she finally dares climbing the fence only to discover that who she’s been talking to isn’t who she thought at all, but who is the real monster here? In “Mattress, Used” college student Christina finds a stained, old mattress on the sidewalk and drags it home, grateful to have something to sleep on that isn’t a pile of clothes. That night, she dreams about a giant bedbug devouring her skin. A night terror (she thinks) but when she begins to feel unwell and starts scratching at her arms, she begins to fear that perhaps something worse is happening.
In the third story, “The Boy from the Sea”, a young girl named Nia meets a boy named Gregory when her family vacations in a beach house. Nia is feeling abandoned by her older sister who makes friends easily and is delighted by the boy who makes her feel special. Nia’s older sister Ayanna is immediately suspicious of Gregory’s motives and tries to keep the pair apart, but the boy is smart and soon, the sisters are at odds with one another. In “Our Lake Monster” a family plans to hand over their pet monster to a university when it becomes difficult to control, much to the horror of their daughter Mary-Anne who believes it understands her and is simply misunderstood. Desperate to save it, she makes decisions that will have dire consequences for everyone she loves. And finally, in “Kindred Spirits”, an old lady is visited by bog spirits who have a plan for her, but is that plan truly as evil as it seems on the surface?
I absolutely loved this collection of stories that all gave me strong Neil Gaiman vibes. All five of the tales included here were the type that gets under your skin and leaves you with a disturbing sense that something isn’t quite right, less jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, and more a lingering sense of foreboding that will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page. I know for a fact that I’m going to be wary of second-hand furnishings for a long time to come…
While there are plenty of true horrors here with disturbing monsters and gross-out moments plentiful, it was the humans who were often the most frightening part of these stories, and what you think is actually the monster in a story frequently isn’t what it seems by the end, and that’s what made each of these so great, although my absolute standouts were “Kindred Spirits” and “The Girl in the Fields”.
The Crossroads at Midnight has been one of my favorite Halloween reads this year so far, and I’m looking forward to picking up another Abby Howard book, The Last Halloween, Book One: Children for next week’s Halloween roundup.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite, Edited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker
My final choice this week was a YA anthology of short stories, all themed around vampires. Vampires Never Get Old collects stories from authors including Samira Ahmed (Internment), Mark Oshiro (Each of Us a Desert), Rebecca Roanhorse (Trail of Lightning), and Victoria (V. E.) Schwab (City of Ghosts) and this diversity in authorship is reflected in its pages.
Rather than sticking with the traditional image of the vampire as a thin, white, cis, able-bodied heterosexual figure, the vampires in this collection reflect the diversity of our real world. There are vampires who are disabled, trans, gay, Desi, and of many different ethnicities, and these identities were not simple words to add in diversity for the sake of it, they were important elements of each character. Ever wondered how becoming a vampire would work out for a 17-year-old Desi, or a 16-year-old with numerous disabilities? How would the shapeshifting element of vampire lore help a trans kid? These are just some of the topics tackled in these stories.
Naturally, I had a few favorites. “First Kill” by Victoria Schwab is a dual-perspective story told through the eyes of two teenage girls at the same high school. One is a vampire and one a hunter in the Supernatural style. They are also both, in the author’s words, “super gay” and mutual attractive forms, but smooth sailing is not in the cards. “Mirrors, Windows, and Selfies” by Mark Oshiro was written in the style of updates to a Tumblr blog which I really enjoyed along with the ongoing mystery it slowly uncovered, and “In Kind” made me really consider the ableist nature of most human-to-vampire transformations and why those narratives can be harmful.
There are certainly a few problematic elements here. One story with a trans main character is not an own-voices story which could be upsetting to some readers, several others had elements of grooming between older vampires and young teens, and there are two stories that contain aspects of child abuse. I also found that many of the stories lacked closure. Several times I turned the page expecting more, only to find the story coming to an abrupt end. While brevity is to be expected in a short story anthology, many of these endings didn’t feel like natural conclusions, more that the author just gave up and walked away.
Each story concludes with a single-paragraph thinkpiece from the editors that explains why they liked the story and explores a few of its key themes. These paragraphs each end with a question for the reader to contemplate too such as “in what other ways are vampires a symbol of privilege?” or “what would you sacrifice in order to live forever?”
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Vampires Never Get Old and would highly recommend it despite its problems to anyone looking for a different take on these classic monsters.
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.