October is my second favorite month of the year, topped only by the glory that is November. Shorter, darker days, cozy reading by the fireplace, falling leaves, rain, fog, mist…I love everything to do with fall.
But when I moved to Southern California, I had to work to get my autumn on. As a result, I started making lists of “Octoberish” books, movies, places, and music — things that would help me escape into a pleasurably melancholy state of mind.
Though I enjoy a good scare as much as the next person (I wrote my master’s thesis on the importance of fear in children’s literature), for me, October doesn’t necessarily equate to spooky. It also includes things that evoke yearning, wistfulness, and gloom.
The reading list that follows is a compilation. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious — from my beloved Brontës to my hero, Stephen King — since you already know about them. Instead, here are the best of the somewhat lesser-known books that I find perfectly Octoberish.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Okay, this was a bestseller, but it’s also one of my favorite books of all time, and it deserves to be more widely read. Two 19th century English magicians compete to see who is the more powerful — and unwittingly stumble upon the secrets of the shadowy John Uskglass, The Raven King. A companion collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, came out a couple of years after Jonathan Strange, which I devoured just as quickly.
- Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
I loved the author’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and when I heard she had another book out, I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it as much. WRONG. Night Film is even better. It’s the story of a reclusive film director, his talented but troubled daughter, and the investigative journalist who pursues their story at the expense of all else. Pessl’s interstitial documentation of the journalist’s story adds to the dark not-quite-realism.
- House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Freaky. Deaky. And way meta. With even more cool interstitial stuff along the lines of Pessl’s book, above. Someone should really write a paper comparing and contrasting this book with Night Film, because the similarities are fascinating. A filmmaker and his family move into a house that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. What’s so scary about that? Read it and find out.
- The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
I liked the recent movie, but the book is far better. It reads like something written at least 70 years ago — and I mean that as the highest of compliments. A country doctor is called to attend what’s left of an aristocratic Warwickshire family brought low by two world wars. Their decaying house — and what’s in it — haunts the family, the doctor, and ultimately, the reader.
- Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough
Forget Neil Gaiman and John Bellairs (well, not really): this is THE scariest book intended for older children that I’ve ever read. Barraclough expertly sustains dread and atmosphere to the very last page. This was one of the books I analyzed in my thesis, and it gets better with every re-reading.
- The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt
Tartt, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch, debuted with this book. It’s not perfect, but it’s well worth your time. The best approximation I can give you is that this is what would have happened if Shirley Jackson had written To Kill a Mockingbird. Now: TKAM is one of my favorite books, and Jackson is one of my favorite writers, and The Little Friend is not as amazing as all that — but that description should give a sense of its atmosphere.
- Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The title itself is brilliant, and the book is no less fabulous. It tells the tale of two travelers — a businessman named Richard and a damaged street girl called Door — and their adventures in the dangerous world of London Below. This is my favorite of many great books by Neil Gaiman.
- In the Forest of Forgetting, by Theodora Goss
Yet another title that I envy — so evocative, and the book lives up to its promise. This collection of short stories is firmly in the gothic/slipstream tradition and reads like a bunch of the darkest, oldest fairy tales.
- Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s work — all slipstream short stories — fills me with envy and awe. She’s won a ton of awards, and she’s deserved them all. Read “Stone Animals” or the eponymous short story and the rest of this collection. Then read Link’s other books, Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters. Her tales are addictive and unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
- Orlando: A Biography, by Virginia Woolf
This classic novel of the gender-shifting, seemingly ageless and immortal Orlando is a fascinating, dreamlike trip. What could be more Octoberish than living for centuries and watching those around you age and die? Woolf’s prose is gorgeous, and her moody spirit can’t help but leak through.
- Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand
I’m telling you: Elizabeth Hand looked inside my head and then whipped up the ideal short novel for me. To get away from fans and other distractions, a folk rock band rents an old English manor in order to record an overdue album. Trouble is, the manor is haunted. Any fan of 1970s British rock will find Easter eggs aplenty in this fascinating tale.
- The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman
Again, another novel that could have been commissioned for my birthday. It combines so many of my favorite things! Haunted house + Hudson Valley + writers + unreliable narrator = happy Luisa.
- The Elementals, by Michael McDowell
A haunted house story in high Southern Gothic style. You think your family is dysfunctional? Read this book, and you’ll feel like you’re part of the Brady Bunch. Images of the mansion Beldame, sitting on a desolate beach in Alabama, will stay with you.
As I look over the list, I see interesting patterns — lots of English novels, mostly books by women. I go more for the atmospheric than the graphic. Many of the books are set in England; those by Americans take place on the east coast or in the south. There doesn’t seem to be much of what I like set in here in the West. Clearly, I need to invent California Gothic….
I also find that in trying to encapsulate the essence of these books, I want to re-read all of them. Ah, Happy October to me! And to you. Let me know what you would add to the list. I’m always up for a new Octoberish read.