Saturday, 6 December 2014

Ghosts, horror and the uncanny: the definitive* guide to spooky winter stories

*Okay, it's not THE definitive guide, it's just A guide - my personal guide - although I have tried to make it as definitive as I possibly can.

Over Halloween I saw so many terrible lists of ghost story recommendations that I started getting quite annoyed. I resolved to create my own, but it soon become obvious that it wouldn't be an easy or quick job, which is why this list, intended for Halloween, is only making an appearance now, in December. Once I'd started it, I found myself adding all manner of books to this list and separating them into categories: spooky stories, gothic fiction, twisted tales, winter reads. So, some of them have nothing whatsoever to do with ghosts or the supernatural, but capture the same uneasy mood, or else are just perfect for winter reading.

What makes a good ghost story? For me, it's all about atmosphere. If a tense, terrifying atmosphere is created effectively, it doesn't matter if the plot verges on the ridiculous (as they must often do). Subtlety is important - even if the climax of the story ends up being lurid and bloody, whatever gets it there needs to have some restraint to it, and should initially be rooted in reality for the most disconcerting result. You need to care about the characters, too, enough that their fate matters - but perhaps not so much that you'll be completely devastated if they meet a terrible end. And when it comes to this particular genre, I quite enjoy clichés. In the right hands, executed properly, they can be wonderfully effective, even genuinely frightening. The old country house in the winter night, the inexplicable sense of some strange presence nearby, the sound where there should be no sound...

Ghosts, horror and the uncanny - the definitive guide to spooky winter stories

If you've been reading my blog or reviews for any length of time, you'll already know that F.G. Cottam is one of my favourite authors. He writes ghost/horror stories with bags of atmosphere - I can truly lose myself in them - and also has a knack for creating very believable and likeable characters, something that's often neglected in this genre. My favourite ever Cottam book is the wonderful Dark Echo, in which a millionaire's son is drawn into the dark and bloody history of a 'cursed' boat bought by his father. I've read it FOUR times and can confirm that it remains just as powerful and compelling as it did the first time I read it (and that first time remains one of my favourite reading memories). Other Cottam books I'd recommend are The Waiting Room, Brodmaw Bay, The House of Lost Souls - well, all of them, really. This year's The Lazarus Prophecy is a departure from the author's usual template - it's as much a murder mystery and a thriller as it is a horror story - but is also excellent.

Also near the very top of my top picks is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Set in the Arctic winter, in a state of permanent night and amongst frozen landscapes, this story of a disastrous expedition - told in the form of a diary - is brilliant in its depiction of desolation and loneliness, and the tricks the mind can play in such a situation.

Some might argue that Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger doesn't belong on this list - arguably, it isn't a ghost story at all... But to say any more about that interpretation would give the game away. It follows an apparently unassuming doctor who becomes involved with an aristocratic family, the inhabitants of crumbling Hundreds Hall, one post-war summer. Tense, unpredictable and unputdownable; in my opinion it's the author's best work, and whether it can be counted as a ghost story or not, it's undeniably haunting. (It also has the best ending of any book I've read. Ever.)

No list of ghostly tales is complete without some mention of Susan Hill and her famous story The Woman in Black, which has become something of a modern classic. While The Woman in Black is good (and certainly better than the daft film), I've often found Hill's ghost stories to be slightly disappointing - they usually start so promisingly, but inevitably turn out to be too short and lacking in satisfying conclusions. My favourite of hers (and the most fully-formed) is The Mist in the Mirror. And while it's not about anything supernatural, her short story Hunger is delightfully unnerving.

Edith Wharton is best known for her novels, but her collection of ghost stories - imaginatively titled The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton - is honestly one of the best I've read. With malevolent ghost dogs in 'Kerfol' and disembodied eyeballs in 'The Eyes', the horrors in these stories are so original, and their hints of satire and humour make them feel way ahead of their time.

A modern example of the Christmas ghost story that works exceptionally well is The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Set in 1928 in the Pyrenees, this tale of a solider who meets a mysterious girl at a winter feast is generally not very well-liked, but I think it deserves reassessment. The hardback version is worth seeking out, as Brian Gallagher's illustrations really bring the story to life. Mosse's collection of short ghost stories (many winter or Christmas-themed), The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales is good too: some of the tales are much stronger than others, but I found that their settings and atmospheres stayed with me long after finishing the book.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne is an effective, affectionate send-up of every ghost story cliché in the, er, book; at least, that's how I read it. It's gloriously gothic, but at the same time rather tongue-in-cheek with its deliberately clichéd setting and heroine - altogether very enjoyable. Another book that's equal parts homage and humour is Jeremy Dyson's The Haunted Book. It mixes traditional styles of ghost story with modern updates and an abstract ending, and although it isn't entirely successful, it's really interesting in parts - best read as a collection of short stories than a single narrative. Like The Mistletoe Bride, it contains stories set in the past, recent history and present, making for a pleasingly varied collection.

I'm probably required by law to mention The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, so here I am mentioning it, even though I just thought it was alright (sorry). Better 'classic' ghost and horror stories can be found in collections such as Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James, and The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood.

I'm sure there are lots and lots of good ghost stories for children; it just isn't an area I know much about. One author I can recommend, though, is Chris Priestley. His Tales of Terror books are great fun - in terms of scariness, some of the tales are easily the equal of many ghost stories for grown-ups - and I also really enjoyed The Dead of Winter (set in a classic ghostly, gothic manor) and Through Dead Eyes (a tale of haunting in wintery Amsterdam).

A couple of ghost stories I've recently added to my shelves... I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is about as bleak and icy as you can get - if you love Scandinavian crime, this is the ghost story for you. It weaves murder mystery with supernatural goings-on in an extremely remote part of Iceland, to brilliantly tense effect. On the other hand (as the title may suggest), Springtime by Michelle de Kretser is almost the opposite: set in Sydney during a balmy spring, it is a character study with a few disquieting touches. It plays with the reader's expectations by using the subtitle 'A Ghost Story' and then appearing to have very little of the ghost story about it... But there is a twist in the tale.

Most recently, I was blown away by A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee. This strange, beautiful story follows an artist who, while staying at a country manor where he has been engaged to paint portraits, becomes obsessed with his client's wife. It turns out that not only does she bear a striking resemblance to a painting of one of her ancestors, she also has an unhealthy fixation on that ancestor's life... I can't recommend this enough - it is unexpectedly innovative, repeatedly surprising, and wonderfully written.

I've also just finished reading Cold Hand in Mine, a book of short stories by Robert Aickman, whose works are typically described as 'strange stories' (the author's own preferred term). True to that description, they are not quite ghost stories, but ambiguous tales in which very odd things happen and are not always explained. I found Cold Hand generally uneven but parts of it excellent - I'll be reading more Aickman. My favourite tales were 'The Hospice', an immensely creepy story about a sinister hotel, and 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', a perfect pastiche of a historical vampire story related through a teenage girl's diary. That brings me neatly to the fantastic Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: deservedly a vampire classic, it's a deliciously readable story about the burgeoning friendship between a young woman and her enigmatic new friend, saturated with melodrama and sexual tension. A modern take on Carmilla can be found in Rachel Klein's The Moth Diaries – one of the very best books I've read this year – which is replete with fabulous gothic detail. Like Le Fanu's story, it focuses on friendship, capturing the teenage psyche beautifully, and melds this with supernatural overtones, keeping you guessing about what is and isn't real. For more vampires, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian mixes a loose reworking of Dracula with a rich historical travelogue, creating a story you can really lose yourself in.

Many of Daphne du Maurier's short stories - which are, in my opinion, her finest work - might also be categorised as 'strange stories'. They frequently have an uncanny feel about them; the subject matter is dark and often shocking, the stories full of dread and tension. Pretty much all of her short story collections are worth reading, but the two essential volumes are Don't Look Now and The Birds. While it's explicitly more fantastical, Diving Belles by Lucy Wood is a similarly well-written set of short stories, combining very believable characters with magical elements drawn from traditional folklore. And dark, sensual reworkings of fairytales can be found in Angela Carter's superb The Bloody Chamber.

In recent years, Random House's Hammer Horror imprint has published a number of ghost and horror novellas from a variety of authors, many of whom are not known for writing in this genre. A lot of the books have had poor press, but I've really enjoyed most of those I've read - like a good B-movie, the best of them blend schlocky horror with a generous helping of comedy. My favourites from the series: Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss (evil talking cats - enough said); Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre (the B&B from hell, possibly quite literally); and The Quickening by Julie Myerson (newlyweds take a doomed honeymoon in Antigua).

A few more gothic horror novels I've liked: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Richard T. Kelly, told through diary entries, moves slowly from a mysterious disappearance to devilish horror; The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis is a haunting blend of ghosts and gruesomeness, set in a psychiatric hospital, with a great ending; The Asylum by John Harwood has a similar set-up, following a young woman who has been falsely imprisoned in a lunatic asylum - or has she? All of these have the added advantage of being quick, easy and thoroughly absorbing reads, so they'd also be perfect to take with you on holiday.

And you can't beat a good creepypasta...

There's a whole other grouping here of what I could call 'winter stories'. They may simply be set in winter, but I think there's something special about all of these that really captures the spirit of the winter months. Winter stories exist in a huge variety of genres, but what all of the books below have in common is an ability to evoke setting and atmosphere in a vivid, memorable way.

Don't be fooled by the title: A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside is set in the Arctic Circle, and offers a wonderful portrait of solitude laced with a profound sense of unease. Remote and snowy settings also come into their own in When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones, a superb historical mystery about four women who form an Antarctic exploration society. (I'm going a bit off-topic here, but Jones is good in general and I also loved her debut, The Earthquake Bird, an unreliable-narrator thriller set in Japan). Amy Sackville's Orkney is a skin-crawlingly creepy tale of an obsessive husband's 'love' for his wife, unfolding over the course of their unconventional honeymoon in rainy, wind-swept Orkney. Archangel by Robert Harris is a completely different sort of book, more of a political thriller, which makes brilliant use of its bleak settings in 1990s Russia - written so powerfully that the country essentially becomes a main character in the story. The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker focuses on a woman with a troubled past living alone on an isolated farm, where something or someone is picking off her animals one by one - see also All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which has a similar premise. The Burning Air by Erin Kelly, set mainly around Bonfire Night, is one of my favourite mysteries and a superior book from the generally great Kelly. A Berlin winter is the beautifully portrayed backdrop for Louise Welsh's tense and subtle thriller The Girl on the Stairs; Welsh has also written a short volume of three ghost stories, The Face at the Window, which is worth a look if you enjoy her other work. And finally, I can't finish this post without mentioning Ice by Anna Kavan - a recent read and an immediate addition to my list of favourites. Kavan's surreal, fractured narrative creates fantastical frozen dreamscapes; arguably a winter story taken to the furthest extreme.

PS, here's what you shouldn't read. Sophie Hannah's The Orphan Choir (a less successful part of the Hammer series), because it's just plain awful. Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black, because it's extremely dull, and despite being subtitled A Ghost Story, it isn't really one - her pseudo-gothic debut The Thirteenth Tale is good, though. Kate Mosse's The Taxidermist's Daughter - also very dull; the other books by this author mentioned above are much more worthwhile.

If you made it through the whole of this, you probably deserve a medal, and I hope you found some useful recommendations. Of course, there's loads of books and authors within the ghost story genre (and related genres) that I've never read, and I'm always keen to find out about lesser-known books similar to those listed in this post, so please feel free to give me further recommendations.

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  1. Wow, thank-you so much for this post! I really enjoyed it. I started following your reviews awhile ago because I wanted to read more eerie, atmospheric books. Some of the books here were already on my TBR list due to your reviews, but I must have added at least half a dozen more. Great recommendations.

    1. Glad you liked it, and if you end up buying any I really hope you enjoy them!

  2. Found loads of my favourites on this great blog like 'the little stranger' 'Dark Matter' 'the historian' but also found some new ones. Just starting the Vernon Lee. Wonderfully atmospheric. And may I add 'The Willows' by Algernon Blackwood to your list? Great to find someone who shares my wierd taste!

  3. Apologies for spelling weird wrong!