We as a culture have genuinely embraced the colloquialism “spooky season” to define the thrills dealt by the month of October, and the term never stops bringing a smile to my face. We’re here, friends. We have unlocked passageway through the iron gates guarding the haunted house bearing the banner “Halloween” and traipse carefully up to the chills awaiting inside. Spooky month has arrived in full force, so I’ve prepared a list of five supernatural reading recommendations to read with the lights out. Tales of witches, vampires, ghosts, and secret societies comprise this October reading list. Read at your own peril…
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Supernatural Thriller / Occult Fiction / Paranormal Fantasy
Page Count: 496
(CW: Death, Graphic Violence, Gore, Cadavers, Murder, Mental Health, Rape, Drug Use, Suicide, Self-Harm)
Leigh Bardugo, the bestselling queen of YA fantasy, debuted with an adult paranormal, occult-ridden book about secret societies in 2019. The first novel in the Alex Stern series, Ninth House, features the titular Alex Stern as she navigates the mysterious happenings within Yale University’s secret societies. A high school dropout from Los Angeles and the survivor of a homicide, the anger-fueled Alex moves halfway across the country to attend Yale on scholarship at age twenty. Alex isn’t offered a full ride by her benefactors because of her academic history, though. For Alex, her attendance at one of the most prestigious schools in the country relies on her supernatural abilities to track down who among Yale’s secret societies are involved in resurrecting a dangerous forbidden magic. After her beloved mentor Darlington goes missing and a young woman is murdered on campus, the stakes are raised for Alex, the fracturing societies, and the accidental victims who get in their way.
Ninth House assuredly earns its “adult” and “occult” label in the fiction genre. Grotesque descriptions of the dead, dissecting cadavers, and general stomach-churning events construct a tale not for the weak of heart. Apart from the universally beloved Six of Crows duology, Ninth House may be Bardugo’s best written work thus far in her writing career. If you were a fan of Shadow and Bone back during the trilogy’s original release, you’ve witnessed the evolution of Bardugo’s craft. Ninth House is a remarkable, chilling, atmospheric read with a brash main character whose backstory will tug on your heartstrings. October should be the month you read Ninth House for the first time. Then, you’ll be forced to hungrily anticipate the release of the next book and fawn over Darlington with the rest of us fans.
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
Genre: YA Horror / Ghost Fiction / Coming of Age Fiction
Page Count: 256
(CW: Death, Violence, Gore, Depression, Mental Health)
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride is her debut novel-in-verse and it crackles with electric, haunting energy in every stanza. Readers instantly enter Moth’s headspace, as she relates her grief through poetic verses. After losing her mother, father, and brother in a car accident and living with an aunt who cannot cope with Moth’s detached behavior, Moth drifts through days like a de-winged butterfly. Her sadness and survivor’s guilt consumes her every waking hour. All passion she once had for the freeing grace found in dance has dissipated into the graveyard with her deceased family. Buoyed only by the strength of her spiritual connection with her long-dead grandfather and ancestors through Hoodoo, Moth’s scars mark a tangible reminder of all she’s lost in the carnivorous universe. Then, one day, she meets a Navajo boy named Sani. A road trip searching for roots and ancestors intertwines their lives and changes everything.
Amber McBride exhibits mastery over the poetic verse form. Me (Moth) presents the idea of tethers, whether it be a connection between past and present, ghosts and the living, or youth and ancestry. McBride embraces the supernatural in terms of how Black Americans can find solace in rootwork and Hoodoo, and how Native Americans can discover identity through convening with the spiritual realm. This is a novel where each stanza slowly builds on one another. Carefully crafted diction conveys emotion as the words float and pop like bubbles, guiding readers through history with care. Me (Moth) crafts an artfully layered world where reading feels akin to tiptoeing through shattered glass until you reach the unpredictable, astonishing conclusion.
The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith
Genre: YA Witches Fantasy / Historical / Paranormal
Page Count: 448
(CW: Violence, Gore, Sorcery, Abuse, Sexual Predatory Behavior, Misogyny)
There’s nothing like a tale of witch-y goodness to set the Halloween season atmosphere. Sasha Peyton Smith makes her writing debut with the YA fantasy novel, The Witch Haven. Set in 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell dully lives out her days as a seamstress. Grief over her brother’s unsolved murder creates a hollow sense of hopelessness in Frances. When a sexual predator tries to attack her, Frances fends for her life–except she doesn’t know how she inadvertently caused a pair of scissors to end up in the man’s neck without ever touching him. News of the incident begins to spread, and Frances is technically guilty of murder. But a pair of disguised witches rescue Frances. Frances is whisked away to a school for witches called Haxahaven, where she learns about her true identity. Haxahaven still can’t protect the powerful witch from men with malicious intents and a boy who walks her dreams with secrets about her brother’s murder.
The Witch Haven thematically examines a time period where feminism was a rising whisper, and the word “witch” should only be uttered through whispers behind a locked room in the dark. Smith flawlessly interweaves magic into a story based on America’s muddied relationship with women’s rights, including the rights nearly non-existent for women of color or indigenous women in the early 1900s. The Witch Haven spills enchanting tendrils of magic over a compelling mystery narrative. Enter into a realm of spells and sorcery this October with Smith’s mesmerizing novel.
The Between by Tananarive Due
Genre: Black Horror / Occult / Supernatural / Psychological Fiction
Page Count: 288
(CW: Frightening/Disturbing Images, Violence, Gore, Sex, Infidelity, Suicidal Ideation, Racism, Racist Slurs)
An amalgam of psychological horror, magical realism, and the supernatural distorts reality in The Between. In The Between, African-American man Hilton James remembers his grandmother dying–twice. During his adulthood, he’s had trouble reconciling the memories of his grandmother lying dead on the kitchen floor, only to mysteriously rise up later as if nothing ever happened and then die a final death rescuing Hilton from drowning in the ocean. Thirty years after the incident, Hilton lives with his two children and his wife, the only African-American elected judge in Florida. A therapist helped ease his nightmares about his grandmother through hypnosis years prior. When his wife, Dede, receives horrifically racist, life-threatening letters, Hilton’s nightmares return in full force. Bizarre dreams begin manifesting in his head until Hilton believes he is actively living through events that never occurred. Reality warps until Hilton’s life is no longer recognizable, and his obsession to hunt down the man threatening his family drives further consumes his mind.
Written in 1995, this debut novel was only the beginning of Tananarive Due’s successful career as an author. The Between works as a stunning portrait of a man who shoulders guilt over his grandmother’s death to the point of questioning his own place in life. Although mental health has slowly begun the social process of de-stigmatization, individuals living with mental disorders for most of history were forced to either seclude their disorders or quietly seek out therapists in secret. Due deftly presents an ambiguous narrative that even breaches the science-fiction realm at one point. Still, talking to medical health professionals about psychological disorders is treated respectfully. The Between is a suspenseful horror novel with sociological and psychological thematic elements to probe your own psyche.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Genre: Vampire Horror / Dark Paranormal Fantasy / Hispanic Fiction
Page Count: 272
(CW: Violence, Blood, Gore,
Vampires were all the rage back in the 2010s Twilight-obsessed era of literature and fandom. Although it is a shame how Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s neon-noir vampire horror novel, Certain Dark Things, got swept under the rug in 2016, the new Tor Nightfire imprint from Tor Books revived the novel for readers to re-discover now in 2021. Certain Dark Things features a cast of damaged individuals, all struggling to outrun the wounds of their past and survive in vampire-riddled Mexico City. When Domingo, a street kid with an abusive past, meets the intoxicating Tlahuihpochtlin vampire Atl, he enters into her dangerous modes of existence. Vampire clans throughout Mexico City clash, and everyone is hunting someone else. They are all out for blood.
Ever since reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and Velvet Was the Night, I’ve found myself lusting for more of the dizzying inebriation I feel when drinking down her words like red wine through a snifter. Certain Dark Things certainly fulfills this longing. Moreno Garcia’s prose unwraps the story like an elastic bandage wrap after an accident. Readers meet Atl, Domingo, Ana, and Nick in media res, with bites of pain and trauma already taken out of them. From there, Moreno Garcia slowly unveils an intricate world teeming with vampiric lore, ravaged familial ties, and grotesque imagery in regards to a few blood-hungry characters. I left the book synopsis short so readers can freshly taste the bitter tang of mystery inside Certain Dark Things without spoilers.
Could you sink your teeth into more spooky supernatural novels or thrilling mysteries? Since this month hosts the horror holiday of the West, here are some additional recommendations for the brave:
- My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
- White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
- Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Slewfoot by Brom
- The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
- The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
- Revelator by Daryl Gregory
- Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney
- The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
- Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
- The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville
- Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone
- Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson
For even more spookiness, check out my September Book Corner, the “Horror / Mystery / Thriller” section of my National Book Lover’s Day reading recs, and the GateCrashers retrospective piece on Stephen King. A wonderous world of haunts and haints are amassing between the pages of these sensory spooky books. It’s up to you read…if you dare. Happy Halloween!
Featured image by Brandie Brimfield. Shop her Etsy store here.