Good morning, lovelies! Did you know that Halloween is exactly two weeks away? Seriously. It’s almost Christmas.
Not really. Take a breath. You still have time.
This morning, I’m doing a little dreaming about what I would be reading this month if there weren’t quite so many pesky deadlines dive bombing my head (watch out for bats!). Here are my choices—what have I missed?
1. Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey. Dark humor. Macabre humor. Kinda-awful-but-really-funny humor. Once upon a time, my sister had a calendar featuring images by Gorey. I learned what eviscerate means. And exsanguinate. It was awesome. The Gashlycrumb Tinies reads like the most demented primer book you ever saw. Here’s the first page:
And it just goes (ahem) downhill from there.
2. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? I read it for the first time this year (gasp!) and when I got to the end, I just kept looking for the next page. Nope, no tidy conclusions here—which leaves all of that lovely mess of wtfery just there. Kind of floating over your left shoulder and ready to pounce in a solitary moment.
3. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca’s less familiar family member. Rachel takes all of the lovely menace in the lonely Cornwall landscape and reapplies it to another story. Ambrose lives quite peacefully with his cousin, Philip, until on a trip abroad he meets and marries the Countess Rachel Sangalletti. They stay to honeymoon, Ambrose sends a rambling and paranoid letter about being poisoned and dies before Philip gets there. Philip takes the grieving widow back to England, promptly falls in love with her and, just as promptly, begins suspecting her of murdering his cousin. Du Maurier builds tension minutely and steadily until it is really quite dreadful by the end. Wonderfully so.
4. The Haunted House, Charles Dickens et al. The Victorians liked their Christmas with a few spooks—many of the most familiar ghost stories from that era were published in special editions of periodicals for the holidays. So while this one is ostensibly a Christmas book, the ghosties—or the suggestion of ghosties—gives it a place here. A group of friends plan to stay the night in a haunted house and then reconvene and discuss what they saw or didn’t see. Dickens writes the framing story (the friends and their plans) and then other eminent Victorian authors (Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell) fill in with the individual stories. More than any supernatural influence, this book examines “quintessentially Victorian themes—sex and longing, nostalgia and loss.” It’s also a flat-out good read. (the quote is from the frontispiece of the Modern Library Classics edition)
6. The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne. The past is just so present in this book—in all of Hawthorne’s writing—that it seems a perfect addition to a Halloween reading list. It is, after all, the season when the walls between the living and the dead are supposed to become more permeable. (I visited Salem House, which was Hawthorne’s model for the house in the book, in 2008 with my guy. I was struck by how absolutely close to the sea everything is. –I know that sounds silly, but for those of us that live decidedly inland, the northern coast, with all of those waves, crashing incessantly into and then dragging away from the shore, is more chilling than you’d think.)
7. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. The classic. The nameless second Mrs. de Winter returns with her new husband, the mysterious and dashing Maxim, to his family estate, Manderly. There she finds a truly horrid servant problem—Mrs. Danvers is the measure by which all villains should be measured, some rather unsavory visitors of the late Mrs. de Winter, and Rebecca. Always Rebecca. Things aren’t what they seem. And then things aren’t what she thinks she figured out. And then things get a little out of hand.
8. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, Anne Llewellyn Barstow. As the subtitle indicates, this is a history of the European witch hunts, which happened roughly between 1500 and 1750. Records are, obviously, really difficult to verify in most of these cases, but the lowest estimate of deaths resulting from these hunts is 40,000. Some theorize up to 100,000. Barstow looks at not only the individual circumstances in the various European countries, but also looks at gender and power relations and how unequal power—and horrific misuse of that power—played out.
9. In the Devil’s Snare: the Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton. In my opinion, the gold standard of Salem witch trial books. She broadens the focus, providing context for the trials. She looks at the Indian attacks, the excuses the colonies’ leaders made for the shocking failure of a loving God to protect his people, and the encroaching danger represented by the joining of the French with the Indians. It’s a fascinating read. And such an interesting approach—kind of a reminder to look beyond the subject to the context when people start yelling about degeneracy and modernity.
10. Witches, Rakes and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder and Mayhem in Boston 1630-1775, D. Brenton Simons. The first portion of this book puts it in the Halloween category, though the rest should, by rights, be with the November books about early settlers as we gear up for Thanksgiving. The first section looks at records or rumors of witchcraft and possession in the early colonies. Fascinating. Legal records, transcriptions of the trials, information on who actually would inherit what once old Mrs. Whosis was out of the way—as Norton did with the previous book, Simons works to provide context to the accusations of witchcraft in the early colonies.
11. Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman. A collection of short stories about the fragile things of this world. You know, like people. All very well written, all surprising, all really creepy. I first listened to this on CD driving home in the middle of the night from Atlanta. I got so creeped out, I had to turn it off. So maybe don’t listen to it on a lonely highway, unless, you know, that’s your thing, but definitely, definitely–read this book.
12. Maybe This Time, Jennifer Crusie. A retelling of/homage to The Turn of the Screw. With a romance. I know, I know. But it’s Jennifer Crusie. Of authors “in the genre” shall we say, she’s the best, by far. In my opinion. Her women are strong and independent and none of them are eighteen with heaving beasties. She’s good and her books are smart. Andie and North have been divorced for ten years. She drops in to ask him to stop stop stop sending the alimony checks, none of which she has cashed, and instead finds herself taking a temporary job as nanny to his newly acquired—and very disturbed—wards. Archer House was moved from England to a remote location in Ohio sometime during the last century—the housekeeper, Mrs. Crumb, looks like she’s been in there since then. And she’s definitely not the only one so attached to the house.
And that’s what I’d be occupying myself with this month, were I not chin deep in research. What about you? Is your reading seasonal? Summer reviews always tout books as “the perfect beach read,” usually meaning something light and fluffy and utterly disposable, which is about right for what you want for the beach. This time of year, though, when the days start getting shorter and the nights are clear and cold, I want to snuggle up in a big armchair by a crackling fire and read long, dense, dark books.