It’s Spooky Season once more and it’s time once again for the GeekMom Halloween Reading Roundup. As in previous years, this will be split into multiple parts, so keep an eye out over the next few Mondays for more Halloween reads aimed at middle-grade, YA, and pre-school readers while today’s post focuses on books aimed at adults. If you can’t wait until next week’s post, why not check out our previous roundups? Links are at the bottom of the post. Happy Halloween!
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The Whistling by Rebecca Netley
It’s the autumn of 1860 and following the tragic death of her sister, Elspeth has taken on a job as a nanny on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea. Her new charge is a troubled girl named Mary who has been mute since the recent death of her twin brother William, just days after the disappearance of the children’s previous nanny. Elspeth and Mary find an instant kinship – both somewhat alone in the world – but Elspeth is disturbed by events on the island. No one will speak about William’s death other than to say the boy was involved in something dark and unnatural, strange dolls appear in the rooms of the old house, and Elspeth hears lullabies being whispered in seemingly empty corridors. Worst is the bone-chilling whistling that haunts the night air.
As the weather closes in and Skelthsea is cut off from the mainland, Elspeth finds herself trapped just as events begin to escalate and the danger faced by her and Mary begins to feel insurmountable. It’s down to Elspeth to discover what really happened on the island and what secret is keeping Mary locked behind a wall of silence, but can she figure out the truth in time to save them both?
The Whistling is a fantastic work of traditional style gothic fiction that feels right at home beside classic horror novels like The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black. Its Victorian-era setting makes it feel much older than its actual 2021 release date although the more modern writing style makes it a much easier read than many of the classics it clearly seeks to emulate. I really loved the main character Elspeth who reminded me of an Austen or Bronte heroine determined to strike her own path in a world where doing so is difficult for women and despite her silence, I also found myself increasingly attached to Mary and wanting to protect her just as Elspeth did, even when her motives begin to become suspect.
If you have loved all the classics and are looking to find something new in a similar style then definitely give The Whistling a try.
From Below by Darcy Coates
Darcy Coates is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors and a must-read one during Spooky Season – as is evidenced by her appearing twice on this list! From Below is one of two books she has released in 2022 and puts a very unique spin on two very different spooky genres.
In 1928, the SS Arcadia vanished without a trace while en route from the United States to Great Britain. Now, more than ninety years later, the wreck of the ship has been discovered lying on the seabed between Sweden and Finland, hundreds of miles from its intended route, and Cove Waimarie, a Maori documentary producer, is leading a team to explore it. Over the course of several dives, her team – brusque cameraman Roy, shy marine biologist Hestie, nervous assistant Aidan, and experienced dive leader Vanna – will explore the wreck and gather as much footage as they can for the company behind the documentary.
However, the Arcadia hasn’t yet claimed all the lives it wants. As the team moves around through its narrow passageways, the ship seems to close in around them. Doors close, corridors are blocked, and their dive lines work loose, causing the team to lose their way in the pitch-black depths as their oxygen slowly runs out. Even worse, something seems to be watching them. Shapes drift by in the distance and the team begins to realize that perhaps not everybody who went down with the ship ever really left it.
As someone with a strong fear of drowning and deep water, From Below was a truly terrifying prospect for a book. The author does a fantastic job of conveying the oppressive nature of the dive site. The utter blackness of swimming in deep water where no sunlight penetrates and you are reliant on tiny beams of light from headlamps, the unimaginable pressure of the water above you, and the knowledge that you can’t even swim quickly up to escape, instead, needing regular decompression breaks to avoid having your body torn apart from the inside by nitrogen bubbles. Add to that the twisting claustrophobia of the wreck and how easy it is to become disorientated and get lost, and this is already a horrifying story before the more fantastical elements of the storytelling even begin to take hold.
Scattered amongst the chapters taking place at the shipwreck in the present day are other chapters from the perspective of a crewman named Hardland aboard the Arcadia in the days leading up to the sinking. These chapters were equally as disturbing but for entirely different reasons. The ship becomes mired in an oppressive fog that seeps into every part of the doomed vessel and slowly sends those aboard mad. These chapters can be deeply upsetting with some graphic depictions of suicide and self-harm, but manage to avoid feeling overly gratuitous, instead, you’ll find yourself beginning to experience the same creeping sense of dread, terror, and hopelessness that Harland comes to face in the days approaching the sinking.
My biggest issue with From Below was some of the decisions made by the characters, one in particular who seemed determined to get themselves (and others) killed. The present-day characters repeatedly make stupid decisions, such as refusing to use a known exit route because of something unpleasant in the room and instead choosing to dive down new corridors in hopes of finding an alternate route when their oxygen levels are already low. These moments somewhat spoiled the book by making me feel much less sympathy toward the characters, especially the decision made by one person in the closing chapters – if you’re stupid enough to do THAT then honestly, you deserve everything coming to you! I also would have appreciated some more resolution regarding what really happened to the ship. One possible theory is presented but never fully substantiated and things are left somewhat open to interpretation.
From Below is a terrifying and tragic story that will get under your skin, particularly for those who suffer from claustrophobia or are afraid of deep water. The setting makes it one of the most unique horror novels I have ever read and has increased my certainty that I never want to take up deep sea or cave diving! The book is a perfect choice to read during Spooky Season and if you could do so while sitting by a window overlooking the ocean (or, even better, while on board a cruise ship) even better, but don’t come crying to me when you start having nightmares about being trapped underwater in the infinite dark…
Toil and Trouble by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson
Back in 2019 I read and loved Monster She Wrote, a book all about “The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson. Toil and Trouble is the latest non-fiction book from the same authors and looks at Women’s History of the Occult, from the Salem Witch Trials to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and right up to today’s proliferation of witches and witchcraft on social media.
Toil and Trouble profiles dozens of women from across (largely American) history whose lives have been intertwined with the occult. There are names you’ll almost certainly know such as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and Marie Laveau – the so-called voodoo queen of New Orleans. Others you may remember from history class such as Ann Putnam Jr and Abigail Williams, two of the accusers in Salem, while others will probably be new to most readers including The Public Universal Friend (a genderless being who claimed to be a vessel for a prophet) and Helen Peters Nosworthy (the creator of the Ouija Board). As well as those who embraced the occult, the book also looks at many women who worked to try and debunk such claims such as Roe Mackenberg, a private investigator who worked with Harry Houdini.
Interspersed with the biographies are numerous short interludes that look at subjects such as the connections between the occult and activism, the impact of popular culture like D&D or the 90s cult movie The Craft, the dangers of celebrity psychics, and the ways that race plays into women’s relationship with the occult. These help to widen the purview of the book, building context for the lives the women featured here lived.
Toil and Trouble is a fascinating and at times infuriating look at the ways in which women have gained power through the occult, been persecuted by it, and forged relationships with one another through it. It’s a perfect choice if you’re looking for something a little more grounded in the real world this Spooky Season.
Gallows Hill by Darcy Coates
The second Darcy Coates book on this year’s Halloween reading list is a more typical haunted house book in that it’s set on land, however, this one takes place at a winery.
Margot Hull has returned to the small town where she spent the first part of her childhood in order to lay her estranged parents to rest, both of them having recently passed away on the same night, supposedly from simultaneous heart attacks. Her parents lived and worked on Gallows Hill where the family’s famous winery is also situated, but Margot hasn’t stepped foot on the supposedly cursed land since she was sent to live with her grandmother as a young child. Most of the locals won’t come near the place except Witchety (and her dog Marsh) who is hired to conduct a blessing on the perimeter every few weeks, and the staff all live on-site – rarely leaving Gallows Hill’s borders.
As Margot tries to get her head around the labyrinthine house she has just inherited, along with a successful business she knows nothing about, strange events begin happening. Bells ring in the middle of the night, points of light glow in the dark like reflections from unseen eyes, and Margot begins to learn more about the history of Gallows Hill – the hanging place for hundreds of convicts and the site of a mysterious disappearance hundreds of years ago. Can she piece together the history of her family home in time or is she destined to be the hill’s next victim?
Gallows Hill is a fairly formulaic book from Darcy Coates, but that didn’t stop me from absolutely loving it. Margot’s terror is heart-stopping as she finds herself trapped on Gallows Hill alone at night, or lost in the endless darkness of the winery’s tunnels that snake for miles below its surface. I also appreciated the meaning behind the ending, although I’m not sure I’ll ever want to drink a glass of wine again after reading this. If you’re looking for a classic haunted house novel with a twist this Halloween, then Gallows Hill is a safe bet.
House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson
Marion lives in the slums of the industrial city of Prane where she works as a maid, scrubbing the floors of wealthier women in order to earn enough coins to keep a roof over her head and feed her brother’s maudlum addiction as he succumbs to a deadly disease. She dreams of taking the Night Train to the north where the wealthy live in luxury on vast estates, and one day finds her dreams answered when she responds to an advertisement in a stolen paper:
WANTED: Bloodmaid of exceptional taste. No more than 19. Must have a keen proclivity for life’s finer pleasures. No references required.
Soon, Marion finds herself indentured as the newest bloodmaid at the House of Hunger – one of the oldest and finest ancestral estates of the north and the family seat of Countess Lisavet Bathory. Bloodmaids are servants like no other. Always young, beautiful girls, they bleed for their masters and their courts as the wealthy northerners believe that consuming their blood has restorative properties. The girls can expect to live lives of luxury during their service and to receive handsome pensions once their contracts end, but they are seen as little more than whores to many – especially those in the south who consider the practice of keeping bloodmaids depraved and perverted.
As Marion grows accustomed to her new life, she finds herself increasingly infatuated with Lisavet. However, strange occurrences continue to happen at the House of Hunger. She discovers a tooth below her bed, the same word keeps appearing carved into the woodwork, and something seems to be happening to her fellow bloodmaids – especially Lisavet’s favorite Cecelia. As Marion is pulled into Lisavet’s inner sanctum, can she keep her wits about her and discover the truth before it’s too late?
House of Hunger is one of many books loosely based on the true story of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian woman who is believed to have been one of the world’s first known serial killers and whose name has become linked with vampire mythology. Marion, our protagonist, is a generally likable character with a forgivable desperate streak grown from her years surviving virtually penniless, I loved the found family elements between her and the other bloodmaids and I enjoyed the LGBTQ representation throughout.
One issue I had with House of Hunger was that some of the world-building around the bloodmaids was never really explained. Although we find out the real reason behind the House of Hunger keeping them, it isn’t explained if this is an anomaly or if all the great houses of the north are doing the same. I suspect not, and that Lisavet is using this socially acceptable institution to hide her secrets, especially as it’s explained that all the other houses descended from Hunger, but some more detail would have been appreciated.
Although the first half of this book may not feel all that Halloween-appropriate, the second half quickly descends into a gothic slasher filled with hidden passageways, bloody secrets, and girls in blood-red dresses running through candlelit hallways. If you’re not squeamish about blood then this could be an ideal Halloween read this year.
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2018
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2019
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2020: Babies – Grade School, Middle Grade, YA & Adult Part One, YA & Adult Part Two
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2021: Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.