Spooky & Sublime: 43 Gothic Novels with a Strong Sense of Place

Spooky & Sublime: 43 Gothic Novels with a Strong Sense of Place

Monday, 16 October, 2023

You find yourself a guest at a majestic but secluded mansion on a cliff overlooking the crashing surf. As you make your way to your chamber — by candlelight, of course – you hear the faint shuffle of footsteps behind you, and a draft of chill air tickles the back of your neck. What do you do next?

For hundreds of years, Gothic novels have invited us to live vicariously through damsels in distress, to experience the spooky and the sublime in lonely locations, battered by portentous weather and the revelations of shocking secrets of the past.

This collection of stories spans the centuries and takes you around the world — to England and Scotland, the Arctic and Iceland, Greece, Turkey, Spain, and Sri Lanka. You’ll wall the dark hallways of dignified manors, ominous academic institutions, dusty libraries, hidden crypts, grand hotels, creaking ships at sea, and everyday homes that are just a bit too remote and a whole lot of weird.

Grab a candlestick and shore up your courage — there are things that go bump in the night.


Classic Gothic

The first Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764. It was followed by landmark novels from Ann Radcliffe, including The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian (who inspired Jane Austen to write her delightfully Gothic send-up genre _Northanger Abbey). For the next century or so, the tropes of a confined setting, dramatic weather, long-held secrets, and over-the-top emotion were combined with literary skill for spine-tinglers that also inspire introspection.

Carmilla - Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

> Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

A quarter-century before Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula seduced Lucy Westenra and Minna Harker, a female vampire named Carmilla bedeviled an innocent young thing in the Austrian mountains of Styria. Moody and romantic, this Gothic novella of perilous first love is spellbinding.

Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu published Carmilla as a serial in the London literary magazine The Dark Blue in 1871. Victorian readers were enthralled by this scandalous tale of vampirism and lesbian attraction.

Our teenage heroine Laura lives in an isolated castle with her widowed father. As a child, she’d had an eerie vision of a beautiful girl who appeared in her bedchamber, but her father — kind, but no-nonsense — dubbed that vision codswallop. A decade later, a carriage crashes nearby, and the injured young girl inside seeks refuge in their manor to recover. Her name is Carmilla, and when she and Laura lock eyes, they recognize each other from the ‘dreams’ they both had when they were children in the nursery.

Soon, Laura is sleepwalking, dreaming of terrifying cat-like beasts, and succumbing to Carmilla’s forbidden caresses. (The sexuality is pretty understated for modern readers, but back in the 19th century, this was incendiary stuff.) It’s not long before everyone in the household realizes that Carmilla might not be the wide-eyed victim she first appears to be.

The Gothic plot is seductive, as is the aura of breathless dread. There are desperate carriage rides, a costume ball, village ruins, a Baron, a crumbling chapel, and a hidden tomb — all tidily managed in 144 pages of prose. {more}

For some nights I slept profoundly; but still every morning I felt the same lassitude, and a languor weighed upon me all day. I felt myself a changed girl. A strange melancholy was stealing over me, a melancholy that I would not have interrupted. Dim thoughts of death began to open, and an idea that I was slowly sinking took gentle, and, somehow, not unwelcome possession of me. If it was sad, the tone of mind which this induced was also sweet. Whatever it might be, my soul acquiesced in it. — Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Dracula - Bram Stoker

> Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the OG vampire. He’s intelligent, cunning, polished, and entirely terrifying — the perfect foil for the pure-hearted team hell-bent on his demise.

The names of those heroes and heroines are firmly ensconced in pop culture: Jonathan and Mina Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr. John Seward, and Dr. Van Helsing. Their letters and diary entries, as well as newspaper articles and even a ship’s log, disclose the haunting story of the original bloodsucker. Getting caught up in their spellbinding accounts is as effortless and natural as slipping into a dream.

The story is a classic hero’s quest: Jonathan, a young solicitor eager to prove himself and marry his true love, journeys to a distant castle in Romania to meet his client, the mysterious Count Dracula. Despite the Count’s cordial welcome, Jonathan is beleaguered by a sense of creeping dread, and his instincts are correct. He’s soon fleeing for his life and fighting to protect his friends from unsettling symptoms: sleepwalking, unaccountable blood loss, and those curious wounds on the throat.

The Gothic plot moves at an action-movie pace. It almost seems like Stoker wrote some of the scenes — the hazardous flight from Dracula’s castle, the ghostly shipwreck off the coast of Whitby — with film in mind.

But it’s not all frantic carriage rides, harrowing escapes, and stakes through the heart. There are many moments of palpable emotion, and by the end, you realize this story about a monster was a tale of devoted friendship all along. {more}

Oh, my dear, if you only knew how strange is the matter regarding which I am here, it is you who would laugh. I have learned not to think little of any one’s belief, no matter how strange it may be. I have tried to keep an open mind, and it is not the ordinary things of life that could close it, but the strange things, the extraordinary things, the things that make one doubt if they be mad or sane. — Bram Stoker

Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

> Daphne du Maurier

Even if you’ve never read this melodramatic tale, you’ve probably heard the iconic first line: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ It’s a wistful longing for a time and place that are gone forever, spoken by the unnamed female narrator who dreamily drifts through her days on the English country estate of Manderley.

When we first meet her, we learn her life has taken a very nasty turn, then she flashes back in her memory to bring us up to speed: Swept off her feet in Monte Carlo by a wealthy Englishman, she’s now married and has found herself installed as the mistress of Manderley. She’s quickly intimidated by her new residence: its size, its staff, its decor of opulent family heirlooms.

Isolated on the estate, with only the ominous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers for company, the new Mrs. de Winter soon falls prey to her own insecurities and imagination. Does her husband really love her? How can she compete with his dead — and in death, perfect — first wife?

This is a weird and wonderful story and features a murder, a fire, a costume party, two sunken ships, and a series of betrayals, including Mrs. Danvers trying to incite our heroine to jump out a window. {more}

The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. — Daphne Du Maurier

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
> Jane Austen, Barbara M. Benedict

Diehard Austen fans will warn that this coming-of-age story is an atypical novel for the author of beloved favorites like Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and that’s what makes it ideal for this list. Austen was herself a reader of Gothic novels, including Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, a sprawling tale about a young woman locked away in an Italian castle by a ne’er-do-well brigand.

With Northanger Abbey, Austen lovingly satirizes the tropes of the Gothic frenzy of the time, while also giving us an indelible character in Catherine Morland: devoted reader, sweet-tempered naïf, and possessor of a dangerously vivid imagination. Her story begins in Bath, where she muddles through the de rigeur social scene and bumbles into a potentially romantic situation with Henry, scion of the dignified Tilney family.

When Henry invites Catherine to visit his family’s estate of Northanger Abbey, her imagination runs amok, and she halfway hopes that all of her shadowy Gothic dreams are about to come true. The abbey — complete with library, drawing room, and a dining room staffed by footmen — is just what she’d hoped. But as Catherine soon learns, while it may be true that ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,’ it’s necessary to keep one’s fantasy life in check. {more}

And now I may dismiss my heroine to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine’s portion - to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears. And lucky may she think herself, if she get another good night’s rest in the course of the next three months. — Jane Austen

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre
> Charlotte Brontë

Poor Jane! She’s routinely oppressed, thwarted, belittled, and tortured for our reading pleasure. To start, she’s orphaned and sentenced to live at the luxurious Gateshead Hall with an aunt and cousins who literally wish she were dead. They remind her every day that the books, the velveteen window seats, the pretty china plates are not hers, and she is forbidden to take pleasure in them. Then she’s locked in the red-room — a chamber little Jane is sure must be haunted — for a crime she did not commit. It’s a dark moment for our heroine, and it’s a relief (for all of us) when she’s sent to Lowood School.

Sure, it’s a barren, drafty, hard-edged old pile governed by draconian rules and inhabited by half-starved urchins from equally unwelcoming homes. But Jane’s tenacity and belief in her own inherent value help her survive the icy winters and meager meals of Lowood for nearly a decade. Ready to rise above her circumstances, she’s hired as a 19-year-old governess at Thornfield Hall, ‘a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat,’ with gray battlements, a vast meadow, and ‘mighty old thorn trees.’ At last, Jane begins to feel at home — but this is a 19th-century novel, so her tranquility is not meant to be.

At Thornfield, love is found and lost, damaging secrets are kept and revealed, and Jane is forced, again, to comfort herself and find the strength to stand on her own. Only then can she find her true home. {more}

This was a demoniac laugh—low, suppressed, and deep—uttered, as it seemed, at the very keyhole of my chamber door. The head of my bed was near the door, and I thought at first the goblin-laugher stood at my bedside—or rather, crouched by my pillow: but I rose, looked round, and could see nothing; while, as I still gazed, the unnatural sound was reiterated: and I knew it came from behind the panels. My first impulse was to rise and fasten the bolt; my next, again to cry out, ‘Who is there?’ Something gurgled and moaned. Ere long, steps retreated up the gallery towards the third-storey staircase: a door had lately been made to shut in that staircase; I heard it open and close, and all was still. — Charlotte Brontë

The Fall of the House of Usher - Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven
> Edgar Allan Poe

Many of Poe’s stories could be on this list, including The Tell-Tale Heart and The Mask of the Red Death. You’ll find them all in The Raven: Tales and Poems, edited by filmmaker and horror aficionado Guillermo del Toro. The Fall of the House of Usher is one of our favorites because the house itself is the hero — or, more accurately — the villain of the story.

The very name the ‘House of Usher’ is both a reference to the passage of the family line from sire to son and the name of the foreboding house itself. From the first page of Poe’s masterful Gothic tale, it’s clear that the house is a character to be reckoned with: ‘I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.’

The plot is simple: An unnamed, first-person narrator visits his lifelong friend Roderick Usher and finds him a diminished, haunted man. The narrator also encounters Roddy’s twin sister — the ethereal lady Madeline — drifting about in the background. Our narrator incessantly describes his sense of oppression, and we feel it, too, as the house and family line reach their inexorable demise. {more}

Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all. — Edgar Allan Poe

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
> Wilkie Collins

This story begins in the very best Gothic tradition: at midnight, on a desolate road lit by moonlit. Humble art teacher Walter Hartwright walks along the track, lost in the thoughts of his travels the next morning to Limmeridge House in Cumberland.

Suddenly, a young woman dressed entirely in white — terrified, beautiful, pleading — materializes from the shadows and lightly touches him on the shoulder. ‘Is that the road to London?’ she asks, and with those six words, Walter is caught up in a twisted world of madness, secrets, and murder.

The plot is intricately revealed through the testimony of various ‘witnesses,’ every chapter moving the story forward with a new narrator, each with their own hidden motivation. There are beleaguered women, dastardly men, sly servants, a hero with a pure heart, and Limmeridge House, the manor that isolates the characters from the rest of the world and conceals dangerous secrets in its walls. {more}

‘I am thinking,’ he remarked quietly, ‘whether I shall add to the disorder in this room, by scattering your brains about the fireplace.’ — Wilkie Collins

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

Imagine a cold and dreary Christmas Eve. An unnamed narrator describes the scene: Guests are gathered in an old house to celebrate the holiday by telling ghost stories.

One of the guests tells the tale of a governess hired to care for an orphaned brother and sister. Miles and Flora are routinely described as distractingly beautiful, oddly silent children. The poor little lambs have been sent to live at Bly House, the estate owned by an uncle who has zero interest in raising them.

The two imps lead the governess on a merrily deranged lark that leads to the question: Was the governess haunted by real ghosts, or did her sanity slowly slip away in the isolation of the mansion?

Little Miles is one of the most unsettling characters to ever grace a page; his preternatural maturity in a tiny, wide-eyed package is chilling. The governess — with her timidity and a nervousness bordering on quiet hysteria — is equally unnerving and a most unreliable narrator.

In print, this book can be a tough commitment, but the excellent audiobook — with voice acting by Emma Thompson — is a stage play for the ears. {more}

The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance — all strewn with crumpled playbills. — Henry James

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

The action kicks off when tortured artist Basil Hallward paints a full-length portrait of his latest muse, a callow, shallow, and painfully beautiful young man named Dorian Gray. As Basil works to capture Dorian’s smooth, physical perfection in oils and brushstrokes, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that spell Dorian’s doom.

Dorian gazes at his own likeness and is devastated by the knowledge that he will one day no longer resemble his perfect portrait. He makes a perilous wish that destroys his life and the lives of innocent people helplessly caught in the web of his charm and seductive debauchery.

Wilde’s wild story and florid prose explore philosophy, Romanticism, and the reverence for beauty and Beauty above all else. But grab your smelling salts because this is no intellectual exercise: There are opium dens, a scandalous novel, tawdry theater, betrayals, homoerotic flirting, murder, and a Faustian deal that seals Dorian’s fate.

We love Wilde’s words on the page, but they sing when spoken by Russell Tovey, the dreamily-accented narrator of this excellent audiobook. {more}

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. — Oscar Wilde

Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights
> Emily Brontë

Let’s make something clear: Wuthering Heights is not a love story. It’s a disturbing, grasping, claustrophobic exploration of jealousy and revenge played out in two family homes located within spitting distance of each other on the desolate moors of Yorkshire. There’s not a hint of sunshine in the tale or the setting, and that’s what makes it so potent.

The plot tells the life story of Heathcliff, a mysterious orphan who is adopted by the patriarch of the Earnshaw family. The Earnshaw’s farmhouse, called Wuthering Heights, is a hard environment for hard people: dark, cold, situated atop a windy rise. As children, Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw become inseparable and obsessed with each other — the un-love story that makes moody teenagers swoon.

Across the way, is the family home of the Lintons. Known as Thrushcross Grange, it’s the wealthiest estate in the area. Lower in the valley and closer to civilization, it’s a soft, bright, warm home for soft people. When Catherine breaks Heathcliff’s heart by taking up with the son of her civilized neighbors, Heathcliff runs away.

When he eventually returns, Heathcliff exacts his grinding, intricate plan of revenge on everyone who wronged him. Ghosts, betrayals, dramatic revelations, and unreliable narrators abound. {more}

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones. — Emily Brontë

Villette - Charlotte Brontë

> Charlotte Brontë

The story is pretty straight-forward: an orphaned girl with zero prospects pulls herself up — time and time again — to be a teacher in a fictional Belgian city called Villette. But don’t be fooled: This is a challenging and weird book. If you’re a Jane Eyre fan, prepare yourself for something completely different.

Our heroine Lucy Snowe is a slippery narrator, and though you will probably find yourself rooting for her, you may not like her very much. Many of the other characters’ motives remain murky, as well, but one young lady — Ginevra Fanshawe — is transparent as chiffon, and she is a hoot.

Brontë keeps the action moving as she gives us an intimate peek inside the walls of the school: the petty squabbles, the challenges of dealing with the headmistress, the privilege of the students, secret love letters, and assignations, and… Oh, goodness! Is that a ghost?!

There’s an unsettling dreamy quality to the narrative and archetypical gothic elements that crash into an ambiguous ending you’ll be thinking about for a long time. {more}

The attic was no pleasant place: I believe he did not know how unpleasant it was, or he never would have locked me in with so little ceremony. In this summer weather, it was hot as Africa; as in winter, it was always cold as Greenland. Boxes and lumber filled it; old dresses draped its unstained wall—cobwebs its unswept ceiling. Well was it known to be tenanted by rats, by black beetles, and by cockroaches—nay, rumour affirmed that the ghostly Nun of the garden had once been seen here. A partial darkness obscured one end, across which, as for deeper mystery, an old russet curtain was drawn, by way of screen to a sombre band of winter cloaks, pendent each from its pin, like a malefactor from his gibbet. From amongst these cloaks, and behind that curtain, the Nun was said to issue. — Charlotte Brontë


Modern Gothic

These novels, written in this century — embrace the tropes of the Gothic canon and sometimes update the timeframe to our modern era — proof that an unexplained door slam is just as unsettling in 1990 as in 1890.

Bellweather Rhapsody - Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody
> Kate Racculia

If you’ve ever been on a music-related school trip — band camp, anyone? — or joined the musical theater crowd, you will relate to the characters of this surprisingly emotional mystery.

Fifteen years ago, on a November night, a bridesmaid named Minnie Graves witnessed a murder-suicide in room 712 of the Bellweather Hotel. Now the once-elegant hotel is past its prime. In an attempt to banish the demons that have haunted her since that terrible night, Minnie returns to the Bellweather.

But fate isn’t finished with her yet. On the day she returns to the hotel, it’s assaulted on two fronts: by a deadly blizzard and by hundreds of high school students at a statewide music festival.

This book is kind of kooky — in a charming, page-turning way. It delivers unexpected depths of emotion as author Kate Racculia twists the beloved tropes of Gothic lit, locked room mysteries, musical theater, and horror films to her whims. {more}

The point is that it might open a part of you that’s always been closed. The point is you might make yourself heard. You might find you have a beautiful and terrible - you have a power… We make music to find each other in the dark. And I have to believe the point is that we don’t ever stop calling out. — Kate Racculia

Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling From Scotland - Rebecca Wojturska

Haunted Voices
> Rebecca Wojturska

This enthralling collection of gothic tales celebrates Scotland’s rich tradition of oral storytelling. It’s available in print, ebook, and audio — and we 100 percent advocate for the audiobook. It features both archival recordings and new performances that will cause delicious little tingles up the back of your neck.

Soulmates, told by Gavin Inglis, is a bittersweet story about a goth couple who frequent the paths of Greyfriars Kirkyard (a historical cemetery in Edinburgh) and a love that will not die. When you listen to the The Stolen Winding Sheet by Fran Flett Hollinrake, you will feel the wind and rain of the storm on your face.

Throughout the 27 stories, you’ll encounter shadowy demons, ephemeral ghosts, mysterious shapes in the darkness, undying love, wry humor, dramatic weather, poor decisions, well-deserved comeuppances, and the other elements that make Gothic stories so jubilantly dark and unsettling. The vocal performances are seductive and immersive, with an urgency and intimacy that can only be found when one human tells a story to another. {more}

He was sitting in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard at sunrise, watching mud creep up the cover of Descartes’ Passions of the Soul and wondering if it would be too much of a cliché to throw himself off North Bridge. She came past in clumpy boots and a velvet skirt, took her headphones out and yelled at him for letting a library book get stained. After that they were friends. — Gavin Inglis, ‘Soulmates’

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
> Elizabeth Kostova

‘Vampire librarian.’ If those two words have sold you on this book, feel free to stop reading this and get your hands on a copy of the book immediately. If you want more, try this: It’s a spine-tingling page-turner and a celebration of the unbreakable bonds we form with people in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Or this: Most of the action takes place in historical libraries, dusty archives, and mountaintop monasteries — or around tables loaded with endless cups of tea, pastries, and Balkan food.

The story begins in 1970s Amsterdam: Late one night, while exploring her father’s library, a teenage girl finds a collection of old letters and a mysterious book. She reads the letters and is suddenly more frightened than she’s ever been. When her father disappears, she sets out on a quest to find him and to resolve letters’ secrets.

Equal parts Gothic thriller, detective story, travelogue, historical fiction, and a love letter to libraries, this epic effortlessly keeps track of a large cast of unforgettable characters as they fight for light in the face of an unspeakable evil. {more}

Never before had I known the sudden quiver of understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, swim into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shed their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light. — Elizabeth Kostova

The Glass Woman - Caroline Lea

The Glass Woman
> Caroline Lea

If you find phrases like ‘reminiscent of Jane Eyre and Rebecca’ or ‘set against the backdrop of 17th-century witch trials’ or ‘Gothic-infused’ appealing, this is the Iceland story for you.

A rural village in Iceland in 1686 is not an easy place for anyone to be. But it’s especially difficult for the young, unmarried, poor daughter of a dead clergyman. Rósa and her beloved mother are in dire straits. So when a trader named Jón comes to town — gruff, intimidating, ill-mannered but financially viable — and offers his hand (but not his heart) in marriage, Rósa reluctantly accepts.

After a grueling horseback journey to his barren home in western Iceland, she receives a chilly welcome from the villagers. And soon, she’s hearing unsettling rumors. Jón’s previous wife disappeared. No, she died. Actually, they whisper, she was murdered. It doesn’t help that Jón’s best friend Pétur is thought to be feral. Or a demon. Or a changeling.

Although she lives among vast swaths of land and sea, a sense of claustrophobia infuses the story. Rósa is trapped: by snowstorms, the wind, and the vow she made to this stranger to whom she’s now connected for life. And she’s dogged in her pursuit to unravel the mysteries of her new husband, the villagers’ superstitions, and the secret upstairs. {more}

The sky was a wide blue eye above her. When it paled, near midnight, the sun would skim below the edge of the horizon, then resurface in a blink, shedding a milky half-light. In the distance squatted the upturned tabletop of Hekla. It spat smoke and ash into the sky, sometimes spewing out black rocks and lava to entomb the land and people for miles around. Hekla was known to be the open door into Hell. All in Iceland feared it, and many would rather die than live within sight of it. But Rósa could not imagine living anywhere else. — Caroline Lea

Down a Dark Hall - Lois Duncan

Down a Dark Hall
> Lois Duncan

Being a teenager is a tough business; There’s the changing hormones and the raging self-doubt and the fact that adults make all of your decisions for you. Plus, they never ever ever hear what you’re trying to tell them.

When Kit Gordy finds herself sentenced to attend a private school at Blackwood Hall, she’s angry at her mother, anxious about her new fellow students, and heartbroken to be leaving her best friend behind. And then everything gets much, much worse.

At first, it’s easy to reason away the weird dreams, nonexistent cell service, letters to family that go M.I.A., and the shadows that lurk in the dimly lit hallways of the creeky old mansion. But rumors that the school is haunted swirl around the students. Soon, Kit and her classmates begin to exhibit previously unknown talents. It’s unclear to Kit just what is happening, but she knows she doesn’t like it — and she’s terrified that she won’t found out before it’s too late.

Dragging in her breath, Kit did the only thing that she could do. She closed her eyes and screamed. — Lois Duncan

Grange House: A Novel - Sarah Blake

Grange House
> Sarah Blake

If you like your white-washed New England Victorian mansions to come with a whole lotta backstory, and you’re attracted to a Wilkie Collins/Henry James vibe, this coming-of-age story is for you.

Meet Maisie, the 17-year-old heroine of our story. It’s summer 1896, and she’s returning with her family to Grange House, a mansion-turned-hotel on Maine’s coast.

It’s the Gilded Age in America, and names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Standford have clout. This is the world in which Maisie’s family lives. Until now, her well-heeled industrialist father has been a good dad: He’s given Maisie a classical education and encouraged her to think for herself, much to her mother’s dismay. (Mother would prefer Maisie to be prim, proper, and ladylike, thank you very much.)

Now that Maisie has reached an appropriate age, all the adults are agreed it’s time for her to fulfill her destiny — to marry appropriately, make some babies, and bask in the reflected glow of her husband.

But Maisie wants none of this. And that fire is fueled by the proper spinster, authoress, and grande dame of Grange House, Miss Grange herself. She bequeaths her journals to Maisie so the young girl can start unlocking the mysteries of the past.

The story is told first-person through Maisie’s teenage voice — plucky, hormone-fueled, sometimes dreamy, often confused — and Miss Grange’s atmospheric diaries. She recounts her own experiences of being a young girl at Grange House, and there is plenty to keep the proceedings delightfully creepy.

This is a romp of a read. There are dark woods, deep fogs that play tricks on the eyes, and a raging storm that batters the coast. There are enigmatic conversations, swooning, fainting, deathbed requests, switched identities, a mysterious grave, and drowned lovers clasping each other for eternity. {more}

Here was a room in which a thought could hover and remain. It ran the length of the house, a pair of high windows at either end where the roof came to a peak, so that when one looked out, one had the sensation of standing in the crow’s nest of a clipper ship. Indeed, standing at either of the windows gave an onlooker the full glory of a sweeping view: Out the front pair, one saw the wide swath of green lawn reaching down to meet the white rock of the shoreline, and thence to the sea; and out the back, the constellation of color shifted as the sky crossed the tangle of pine trees that formed the perimeter of the woods behind Grange House, the road to the town running along this edge like the crooked parting in a small child’s hair. — Sarah Blake

If We Were Villains: A Novel - M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains
> M.L. Rio

This coming-of-age murder mystery is set in the acting program of an arts college populated by sensitive, eager young things. When drama of Shakespearean levels begins to unfold offstage, the line between acting and real life isn’t just blurred, it’s obliterated.

When we first meet Oliver Marks, he’s being released from jail after serving 10 years for a murky crime. As he and the detective who put him away spar over the old days, the real story of what happened at Dellecher Classical Conservatory finally comes to light.

When Oliver and six other students became fast friends at school, it was all quoting the classics and good-natured ribbing in drama class. But eventually, they fell into playing the same characters onstage and off — hero, villain, femme fatale, ingénue, sidekick — until some of them began to resent the way they’d been cast.

During their fourth and final year at the Conservatory, the competition and resentments among them heat up, and violence mars the opening night of the Scottish play. The ensuing police investigation leads to an arrest, but what really happened behind the scenes?

This novel is great fun and deliciously dark, and it works even if you’re not overly familiar with Shakespeare’s output. The students and faculty helpfully fill in whatever gaps might exist in your knowledge of Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and the sonnets through their conversations and performances. It’s smart and devilishly twisty — an appropriate homage to the verse that’s the benchmark for English literature.

We 100% recommend the audiobook performed by the American stage actor Robert Petkoff, known for his work in Shakespeare productions. {more}

When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. — M.L. Rio

Little - Edward Carey

> Edward Carey

This is the (mostly) true story of a tiny girl who grew up to be the diminutive but fierce Madame Tussaud, she of wax museum fame. Her story begins in a Swiss village and takes us to the Monkey House in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and a prison during the French Revolution — all in the company of uncanny figures made of wax.

After her parents’ deaths, Marie, a.k.a., Little, is apprenticed to a wax sculptor in Paris. The streets are muddy. The house creeks and is always cold. And her adopted ‘family’ is dominated by a tyrannical widow determined to exclude Little from all human comforts and affection.

As Little and her guardian, the real-life physician and wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius, gain notoriety for their waxworks, she finds herself among famous Parisians, including the author Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI. For a brief, glowing moment, Little is on her way to being the toast of the town. But fortunes change quickly when one is associated with a royal court.

This Gothic grim and grimy fairy tale of Little’s life is an inspiring one that shows what happens when a miniature person embodies a big talent and an outsized dose of grit. {more}

For this is true: Curtius, in his great hall, has abolished privilege! Curtius has dismissed all laws of etiquette. Curtius has done away with class. Where else in the world might a pauper approach a king? Might the mediocre touch genius? Might ugliness draw close — without shame — to beauty? The Cabinet is the only place. — Edward Carey

Mexican Gothic - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic
> Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Socialite Noemí Taboada should be in Mexico City, smoking Gauloises cigarettes and flirting with — but never quite falling for — her handsome suitors. Instead, she’s trapped in a moldering manor house high in the mountains of Mexico. What’s a well-coiffed, mid-century debutante to do?

When a desperate and disjointed letter from her cousin Catalina arrives, Noemí is sent to High Place, the oh-so-English estate where Catalina is now ensconced with her new husband and his mysterious family. The Doyles’ silver-mining legacy is as tarnished as the baubles in their dusty cabinets, but their arrogance and entitlement endure.

It should be a simple trip: Noemí will make sure her cousin is fine, then hightail it back to glamorous society and begin anthropology courses at the university. What Noemí doesn’t realize is that she’s living in a Gothic horror novel, and what’s very bad for her is very good for us.

Dangerously handsome man with seduction on his mind? Check. Intimidating patriarch mad with power? Check. Fevered nightmares that blur the lines between reality and fantasy? Check. Slowly increasing dread? Check. Cryptic conversations and family secrets? Check-check. Author Silvia Morena-Garcia delivers on every creaking, gaslit promise of the classic haunted house tale.

But each turn of the finely tuned plot brings surprises, and Noemí is a refreshingly modern heroine. Moreno-Garcia’s prose is an intoxicating potion brewed from fairy tales and Mexican folklore, with a hint of Rebecca, a dash of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and a whisper of Shirley Jackson. RIP to your previously sweet dreams. {more}

The town, as she saw it from her window, was peppered with winding streets, colorful houses with flower pots at their windows, sturdy wooden doors, long stairways, a church, and all the usual details that any guidebook would call ‘quaint.’ Despite this, it was clear El Triunfo was not in any guidebooks. It had the musty air of a place that had withered away. The houses were colorful, yes, but the color was peeling from most of the walls, some of the doors had been defaced, half of the flowers in the pots were wilting, and the town showed few signs of activity. — Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Shadowplay: A Novel - Joseph O’Connor

> Joseph O'Connor

This lush historical novel tells the real-life story of the mercurial friendship between Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and the two most famous actors of the time: Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Imagine the London of 1878. Its narrow streets and cobblestone alleys are dimly lit by gaslight. All those hard surfaces and thick fog play tricks on the ears, warping the near-constant sound of horse-drawn carriages and heels clacking on the streets. Beggars and prostitutes haunt the shadows, as does Jack the Ripper.

But it wasn’t all bad. As it is today, London was a cultural hub with art galleries, music halls, and theaters. In the late 1800s, the theater was the Lyceum, managed by the beloved actor Henry Irving. He oversaw all aspects of the productions, casting and directing the shows, supervising sets and lighting, and starring in the plays. Bram Stoker was his right-hand man — and Henry’s female acting counterpart and sometime lover was Ellen Terry.

Author Joseph O’Connor’s writing is the textual equivalent of a plush stage curtain; it’s rich and velvety. It also does a bang-up job of transporting you backstage at a working theater. Throughout the story, the actors Henry and Ellen explain their craft, revealing how they transform themselves into their characters, changing their voices and adapting how they carry themselves to embody another person.

Filled with sharp observations about how we define our self-image, this poignant story explores friendship and sexuality and the challenges of being a creative person — and gives you a chance to hang out in London with Oscar Wilde, famous actors, and a ghost that haunts the Lyceum Theater. {more}

A bloodstained, scarlet sky, streaked with finger-smears of black and handfuls of hard-flung gold. Then a watery dawn rises out of the marshlands, pale blues and greys and muddied-down greens, like daybreak in a virgin’s watercolour. — Joseph O’Connor

The Guest List - Lucy Foley

The Guest List
> Lucy Foley

What’s more fun than a destination wedding? A destination wedding on a rocky Irish island where everyone has secrets. Sure, it all looks like glossy perfection on the surface, but soon, a storm will break, and the possibility of happily ever after will disappear into the mist.

All of the elements are in place for a perfect day: a beautiful bride and her handsome groom, their old friends and closest family, a fairy-tale setting that includes a miniature castle ‘perched over a few shelves of rocks and the crashing sea below.’ This event was custom-made for a glossy magazine spread. Except that, in addition to traditional fish chowder and small-batch whisky, jealousy and betrayal are on the menu.

The large cast of suspects — the soon-to-be-marrieds, old school chums, troubled siblings, a wedding planner who’s wound just a bit too tight, and the island itself — are vividly drawn. And the desolate atmosphere of the island — craggy, secluded, foggy — is a marked contrast to the bubbly anticipation of the guests arriving by boat.

And then, of course, someone turns up dead. Hooray! Let’s dance! {more}

I look up and see it there: a big cormorant perched on the highest part of the ruined chapel, its crooked black wings hung open to dry like a broken umbrella. A cormorant on a steeple: that’s an ill omen. The devil’s bird, they call it in these parts. The cailleach dhubh, the black hag, the bringer of death. Here’s hoping that the bride and groom don’t know this… or that they aren’t the superstitious sort. — Lucy Foley

Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

Dark Matter
> Michelle Paver

In the vein of tales like The Turn of the Screw and The Tell-Tale Heart, this eerie ghost story turns on an essential question: Is our narrator haunted by a supernatural being, or is he slowly losing his connection to reality?

The story opens in London, January 1937. The threatening fog of World War II hangs over the city. Our hero Jack is 28 years old, poor, lonely, and in desperate need of a major change. When he’s offered a job as a radio operator on an expedition to the Arctic, he says yes. But from the outset, he has some hesitations. The other four members of the team are amateur explorers from posh families. And he is very much not that. Not any more.

He sets aside his fears and sets sail for adventure. But shortly after the team arrives at their destination for the year, tragedy strikes. One by one, Jack’s companions are forced to leave. And he’s left all alone. In the Arctic. For the winter. The long, dark, frigid, lonely winter.

Taut and atmospheric, this is a ghost story that winds chilly tendrils around your heart and slowly ratchets up the tension until its pitch-perfect ending. {more}

According to the ship’s thermometer, it’s only a couple of degrees below freezing, but it was colder on the ice. My breath rasped in my throat. I felt the skin of my face tighten. And for the first time in my life, I was aware of cold as a menace. A physical threat. The ice was solid beneath my boots – and yet, I thought, a few inches below me, there’s water so cold that if I fell in, I’d be dead within minutes. And the only thing that’s keeping me away from it is… more water. — Michelle Paver

The Harrowing - Alexandra Sokoloff

The Harrowing
> Alexandra Sokoloff

Ah, Thanksgiving. The coziest holiday of the year. The time for family and friends to gather and give thanks, to eat a home-cooked feast, and to relax together in a shared feeling of warmth and camaraderie. Unless you’re Robin Stone, and you live in Baird College’s Mendenhall dorm.

Robin thought that staying at school during the Thanksgiving holiday would give her a welcome break from her studies and her obnoxious roommate. But as the other students bail for turkey dinners at home, Robin begins to feel little prickles of fear in the empty, creaky hundred-year-old residence hall. Even that is preferable to the nightmare she’d have faced at home.

On the night of a crashing thunderstorm, Robin is about to make a life-changing decision, when she realizes she’s not alone in the hall after all. Her companions make Mendenhall into its own sort of dark-side Breakfast Club. There’s a jock, a flirt, a musician, a geek, and Robin, the emo chick with attitude and tenacity to spare.

Drunk, bored, and eager to show off to each other, the students play around with a dusty old Ouija board and circumstances spiral way, way out of control. Their tenuous trust in each other is put to the test as they work together to solve a decades-old mystery and try to understand what’s happening in their all-too-real present. {more}

People were shifting restlessly, looking up at the clock above the blackboard. A little before three, Wednesday. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, and everyone was impatient, eager to escape for the holiday. Everyone except Robin. The four-day weekend loomed before her like an abyss. Thanksgiving. Right. Thanks for what? At least there would be no roommate. She sat with the thought of no Waverly for four days, and felt a spark of something — not pleasure, nothing so life-affirming as that, but a slight relief, a loosening of the concrete band that lately seemed to permanently encircle her chest… And no one else, either, Robin reminded herself. No one at all. The anxiety settled in again, a chill of unnamed worry. Four days in creepy old Mendenhall… completely alone… — Alexandra Sokoloff

The House Between Tides - Sarah Maine

The House Between Tides
> Sarah Maine

It’s 2010, and Hetty’s life is kind of a mess. She has a boyfriend who’s just a little too controlling, and she’s still reeling from the recent deaths of her parents and her grandmother. When she inherits a ruined estate called Muirland House in the Outer Hebrides, she flees London and her day-to-day worries to lose herself in a possible new future.

She plans to transform the crumbling mansion into a 5-star hotel. But then a skeleton is found buried under the floorboards in the conservatory. The search to identify the remains takes Hetty deep into the unusual community of Muirland Island and her own family’s history.

The mansion, the dramatic landscape, and the raging weather of the island are as much characters as the people. This book has everything we want in a story set on a lonely estate: dark family secrets, passionate love that drives people to foolish acts, betrayal, loyalty, class wars, and the healing power of nature. {more}

This is how he had described Muirlan Island to her. ‘And beyond there be dragons!’ he had said, his eyes glinting in the way she had grown to love. It was his refuge, he had said, a place of wild beauty, a special place, with endless stretches of bone-white sand, vast skies, and the sea — an ever-changing palette. — Sarah Maine

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howe

This New York Times best seller embodies adjectives like spellbinding, beguiling, enchanting, and bewitching. It begins in an abandoned mansion, just as a good story set in Salem, Massachusetts, should. Our heroine Connie Goodwin (note the subtle nod to infamous Salem witch trial victim Goody Proctor), is summering in witch town to finish her doctoral research. She’s also been recruited by her mother to sell her deceased grandmother’s decaying estate.

Whilst rambling through the house, Connie discovers an antique key inside a seventeenth-century Bible. Attached to the key is an aged slip of parchment inscribed with a name: Deliverance Dane. Connie does what any alarmingly curious researcher would do: She begins a quest to learn everything she can about Deliverance Dane.

Her little detective project comes with unexpected side effects, including but not limited to, disturbing visions, library sleuthing, a touch of romance, and the growing realization that she and the legacy of the house might have more to do with Salem’s dark past than she knew. {more}

She was always puzzled that people say that darkness falls. To her it seemed instead to rise, massing under trees an shrubs, pouring out from under furniture, only reaching the sky when the spaces near the ground were full. — Katherine Howe

The Quick - Lauren Owene

The Quick
> Lauren Owen

This excellent mashup of penny dreadful and Gothic literary fiction is a blood-chilling look at what happens when good men’s intentions are corrupted by ambition and greed.

The story begins in brooding Victorian fashion with devoted siblings — Charlotte and James — abandoned by their grief-stricken father to the tumble-down walls of their Yorkshire estate. James is a tender, gentle soul, despite his sister’s efforts to toughen him up. When he eventually comes of age, he moves to London to become a poet. A few months later, he goes missing under mysterious circumstances, and Charlotte leaves the wilds of the moors for the grimy labyrinth of London to find him.

Picture London in 1892. The cobblestone streets are rife with the struggles of humanity; fog clogs the air, beggars guard the corners. But just a few blocks across town, the toff drawing rooms of high society — all velvet and gloves and impeccable manners — are the recruiting grounds for an exclusive gentlemen’s haven called the Aegolius Club. Devoted to scientific inquiry, the Club invites only the most affluent and respected members of society into its secret rooms. What they get up to inside the Club’s walls is audacious and sinister.

One of the great joys of this novel is the way that secrets are revealed to propel the story forward, so we won’t give too much away. But trust that its pages are populated by a compelling cast, including the aforementioned poet and his daring sister, a charming man-about-town, dangerous street urchins, a female tightrope walker, Oscar Wilde, and a villain known as Doctor Knife, a.k.a., Augustus Mould (a name Dickens would love). {more}

‘We don’t need words for ourselves,’ he said. ‘It’s the living we’re always watching out for.’… He said that there were few names he would care to repeat — the kindest being ‘bleaters.’ ‘Blood bag’ is another. A buxom human female, in low circles, might be termed a ‘claret jug.’ He added that amongst those with better manners, the most widespread term for [the living] is ‘the Quick.’ Then he smiled—an effort made solely to discompose me. ‘Not always quick enough, of course.’ — Lauren Owen

The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries
> Elly Griffiths

Ghosts aren’t real. Right? That’s the question our heroine Clare Cassidy struggles to answer in this modern Gothic murder mystery. Betrayal, illicit affairs, witchcraft, and secrets committed to a diary haunt this can’t-put-it-down novel.

Sure, Clare sometimes wishes she was a teacher at a more prestigious school — Talgarth isn’t exactly Oxford. But in the soft light of October, it can be easy to imagine she’s teaching at a university, ‘somewhere ancient and hallowed.’ Plus, it’s home to Holland Hall, named for its previous occupant: R.M. Holland, author of the Gothic story The Stranger and the subject of Clare’s biography-in-progress.

Then real tragedy strikes: Clare’s co-worker and best friend is murdered. The police are convinced the murderer is someone Clare knows because found next to the body is a handwritten note inscribed with a line from The Stranger.

Soon, everyone is a suspect — students, other teachers, the philandering head of the school — and their dark secrets are brought into the light, including the ones Clare meticulously scribbles in her diary every day. The structure and the judiciously doled out clues keep everyone guessing until the thrilling denouement when all the mysteries are resolved, and the ghosts are finally laid to rest.

‘If you’ll permit me,’ said the Stranger, ‘I’d like to tell you a story. After all, it’s a long journey and, by the look of those skies, we’re not going to be leaving this carriage for some time. So, why not pass the hours with some story-telling? The perfect thing for a late October evening. — Elly Griffiths

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale
> Diane Setterfield

In this exquisitely spine-tingling ghost story, terribly broken people are haunted by their memories. The atmosphere curls around like a damp fog, and when the truth of a decades-old mystery is revealed, it is very satisfying and sad, as all good ghost stories should be.

It starts with a reticent old crone — a reclusive mystery author named Vida Winter. Sensing that death is closer than it’s ever been, she invites another writer (with secrets of her own) to document Vida’s life story at her lonesome Yorkshire estate. The tale unfolds from there with plenty of surprises and an emotional wallop.

Our heroine, Margaret Lea, deeply loves books, and she lists among her favorite books several of our favorites, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White. These literary references offer a peek inside her psyche, so when she makes perilous choices like some whispy heroine in a gothic novel, her actions make a twisted sort of sense. {more}

All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you. — Diane Setterfield

The Madwoman Upstairs - Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs
> Catherine Lowell

Our heroine Samantha has a secret: She’s the only remaining descendent of literary superstars, the Brontë family. When her father dies, she enrolls at Oxford. She soon discovers that her father has bequeathed to her a literary mystery that will change everything she thinks she knows about herself and her family.

Samantha is routinely stalked by Brontë über fans who insist she must have inherited something from the famous literary sisters. Banished to a segregated dorm room in a tower, Samantha’s studies are interrupted by strange happenings. Is she being haunted by Brontë spirits? And just what did her dad have in mind with his cryptic clues?

This tightly-plotted, first-person narrative is an effusive love letter to the Brontës’ work and cheekily weaves gothic and romantic elements into its story to echo Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (You don’t need to be familiar with those works to enjoy this story.) Rich with family secrets, coming-of-age angst, romance with plenty of sparks, and a compelling central mystery, this book is fun, cute, and smart, without being twee or pretentious — and, not for nothing, includes an excellent kissing scene and a pretty surprising and terrible villain.

He looked sympathetic, as though I was a lost, poor, friendless child — for the first time, a true Brontë. — Catherine Lowell

Wakenhyrst - Michelle Paver

> Michelle Paver

Our heroine Maud — feisty, put-upon, and about seven shades too curious — lives with her father, her two brothers, and a gaggle of servants in Wake’s End, an Edwardian manse on the edge of a wild fen. It’s 1906. Her mother is dead, and her father Edmund sees demons everywhere he looks.

Outside the walls of their home, Edmund Stearn is a revered historian. But inside the house, he’s a tyrannical taskmaster with unbreakable rules. One day, while slinking about her father’s study, Maud discovers his private diaries and takes the only reasonable action: She reads them. 15th January 1911. Last night I had the dream again. WHY? Just like that, Maud is caught up in the secrets of a gruesome murder as she struggles not with the question of who did it but why.

The mystery unfolds through two narratives: Maud’s unusual and heartbreaking upbringing and the increasingly unhinged entries from her father’s journals. The story gracefully weaves together threads of witchcraft and demonology, a Hieronymus Bosch-esque painting (with ‘tiny malevolent faces’ that were ‘painted in such obsessive detail they could be alive’), the folklore of the fens, and various hauntings of both a ghostly and emotional nature. {more}

She always liked how Wake’s End looked from outside. Its bumpy roofs were splashed with orange lichen, and its dormer windows poking from the attics looked like eyebrows over its shaggy green ivy-clad fence. The ivy kept Maud safe, and now she befriended the creatures that lived in it: wasps, spiders, whole families of sparrows. She would lie in bed watching the rustly green light filter through the leaves and listening to magpies stomping about on the roof. The old house was home to thousands of wild creatures. Not even father could evict them. — Michelle Paver

Pine - Francine Toon

Like all the best ghost stories, this fleet-footed, atmospheric tale is mostly melancholy, occasionally bleak, and sometimes triumphant. Set in the Scottish Highlands on Halloween, it explores the ways that people can be haunted by guilt, by fear, by loss — and, maybe, by ghosts.

Our preteen heroine Lauren and her father live in a small village surrounded by pine forest. Lauren’s mother is gone, and the little girl’s life is a tough slog. She’s bullied at school, and her dad has never gotten over her mother’s disappearance. Routinely left in the unofficial care of neighbors for companionship and occasional dinners, she’s almost a ghost in her own life.

On Halloween night, on the drive home after trick-or-treating, Lauren and her father see a mysterious woman in white at the side of the road. Her father picks up the waif-like woman and takes her home: There is something unearthly about the fabric of this woman’s dressing gown and the colour of her hair. Unearthly and yet familiar. In the morning, the woman is gone — and a string of mysterious events follows, including the disappearance of a local girl and repeated sightings of the woman in white.

Author Francine Toon quietly, deftly threads traditional Gothic elements into the story — isolated houses and locked doors, ghostly images, unexplained phenomena that could have rational explanations, conversations that are half-started and ominously abandoned, so you hear the ellipsis hanging in the air. Reading it evokes that feeling of glimpsing something — a shadow, a movement — only to have it vanish when you turn to look directly.

The tension and suspense remain at a simmer of dread throughout. When the ending arrives, it’s both very satisfying and a bit sad, because our time in this richly-imagined world has come to an end. {more}

Sometimes another feeling creeps up her spine like fingers. She has seen the looks children give her at school, the way some keep a wide berth. She hears about birthday parties the day after they happen. She can feel the rumours invisible around her in the playground, like text messages travelling from one kid to another. Once someone asked if it was true that her house was haunted. — Francine Toon

Plain Bad Heroines - Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines
> Emily M. Danforth

Like all the best ghost stories, this fleet-footed, atmospheric tale is mostly melancholy, occasionally bleak, and sometimes triumphant. Set in the Scottish Highlands on Halloween, it explores the ways that people can be haunted by guilt, by fear, by loss — and, maybe, by ghosts.

Our preteen heroine Lauren and her father live in a small village surrounded by pine forest. Lauren’s mother is gone, and the little girl’s life is a tough slog. She’s bullied at school, and her dad has never gotten over her mother’s disappearance. Routinely left in the unofficial care of neighbors for companionship and occasional dinners, she’s almost a ghost in her own life.

On Halloween night, on the drive home after trick-or-treating, Lauren and her father see a mysterious woman in white at the side of the road. Her father picks up the waif-like woman and takes her home: There is something unearthly about the fabric of this woman’s dressing gown and the colour of her hair. Unearthly and yet familiar. In the morning, the woman is gone — and a string of mysterious events follows, including the disappearance of a local girl and repeated sightings of the woman in white.

Author Francine Toon quietly, deftly threads traditional Gothic elements into the story — isolated houses and locked doors, ghostly images, unexplained phenomena that could have rational explanations, conversations that are half-started and ominously abandoned, so you hear the ellipsis hanging in the air. Reading it evokes that feeling of glimpsing something — a shadow, a movement — only to have it vanish when you turn to look directly.

The tension and suspense remain at a simmer of dread throughout. When the ending arrives, it’s both very satisfying and a bit sad, because our time in this richly-imagined world has come to an end. {more}

Eleanor Faderman had read many books in her short life. She had read books that she enjoyed and books that bored her. She had read books that made her disputatious and books that soothed her. She had read histories and poetry, philosophy and science. And she had read novels. It was, after all, usually novels that she chose, at least when choosing for herself, and so many different kinds of novels at that—adventurous orphans and brave battle-goers; careful, teasing courtships and once-ripe friendships gone to rot.

Eleanor Faderman knew many books. But never before had she read a book that seemed to know her. By that I mean, Readers, to know her in ways she did not yet know herself, could not have named, would likely have denied, even, until Mary MacLane spoke them from her pages. — Emily M. Danforth

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Cycle

The next four recommendations on this list comprise the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He’s said that he wrote this cycle of novels to create a literary labyrinth that we’re invited to enter at any point; the characters and setting overlap, but they can be read in any order. All the stories swirl around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret library in Barcelona where beloved and threatened books are protected. Visitors to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are allowed to take out one title, thus becoming the protector of that book to ensure its existence.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s 1945 in Barcelona. The furor of the war years has diminished, but the city is still healing from its wounds. Shadowy and somewhat sinister, but not without hope, the city is home to a young boy, a good-natured family friend, a troubled author, and a mysterious book — all caught in a web of intrigue together.

When Daniel awakens on his eleventh birthday and can’t remember his mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine collection of books left behind by the rest of the world. The books on the spiraling shelves wait for someone to care about them again. When Daniel carefully pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf, he unknowingly sets in motion an adventure that will change the lives of everyone he knows.

At the heart of that story is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the magical, sinister place where the real story begins and ends. It’s a celebration of literature and what stories mean to us. How they help us cope, understand the world, and find the truth of ourselves. {more}

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel’s Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel's Game
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and ’30s — a volatile city populated by anarchists, communists, monarchists, and people merely trying to eke out a living.

Our hero, David Martin, lives in an abandoned mansion — alone — writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym and exploring the shadows of his imagination. To escape a painful past and troubled present, he hides in the words and worlds of his books.

But his home may be haunted by more than his flights of fancy: Within a locked room, he finds mysterious photographs and letters that imply the house has secrets. When an enigmatic French editor makes him an irresistible offer — money, fame, power — to write a one-of-a-kind book, David agrees, and his life takes on deeper shades of darkness. {more}

Before that, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was hidden under the tunnels of the medieval town. Some say that, during the time of the Inquisition, people who were learned and had free minds would hide forbidden books in sarcophagi, or bury them in ossuaries all over the city to protect them, trusting that future generations would dig them up. In the middle of the last century, a long tunnel was discovered leading from the bowels of the labyrinth to the basement of an old library that nowadays is sealed off, hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue in the Jewish quarter. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s a time of celebration in Barcelona. Christmas is coming. The War, over for a dozen years, is fading into a thing that happened once. Newlyweds Daniel and Bea have a bouncing baby boy, and their dear friend will soon be married. What could possibly go wrong?

On an otherwise uneventful day at the family-owned bookshop, a mysterious stranger appears and requests the rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo that sits in a display case behind the counter. He writes a cryptic inscription on the title page: For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.

These words send Daniel and his dear friend Fermín on a quest for a perilous truth that could upend all of their lives. Their investigation takes through the Gothic Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s imagination, to the 1940s and the early days of the fascist Franco dictatorship — and closer to learning a heart-piercing secret. {more}

I write these words in the hope and conviction that one day you’ll discover this place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place that changed my life as I’m sure it will change yours… I know that if you ever read these words, you’ll be overwhelmed by questions and doubts. You’ll find some of the answers in this manuscript, where I have tried to portray my story as I remember it, knowing that my days of lucidity are numbered and that often I can only recall what never took place. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In the final, epic installment of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes us back to Barcelona and Madrid, just before and just after WWII. Combining elements of fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and detective procedural, this story hinges on one of his most compelling characters yet. Meet Alicia Gris.

At just 29 years old, Alicia is already cynical and gifted with street smarts she earned the hard way. By all objective measures, she is also stunningly beautiful and a force to be reckoned with in Madrid’s secret police. The world-weary girl, suffering from an injury that won’t heal and the heavy baggage she carries in her heart, wants to get out of the business. Her boss coerces her into taking just one more case, and then he’ll let her go: She must find Spain’s Minister of Culture who just poof! disappeared from his palatial estate.

The scaffolding of this sweeping story is the investigation into what happened to the Minister. Gripping as the mystery is, it’s merely an excuse for Zafón to snare us in his spellbinding world where every conversation has subtext and truth hides in the shadows, even on the sunniest of days. And, as always seems to happen in Barcelona, the path to the truth passes through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. {more}

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands… in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón


Sunny Gothic

The classic domain for eerie events may be a blustery English countryside or a group of strangers trapped and isolated by a snowstorm. But sunny climes can get their goth on, too. These stories set in hot-and-humid locales — Sri Lanka, Thailand, Greece, Turkey, American Appalachia, and a sun-drenched fairy tale setting — prove that the brightest light only deepens the dark of shadowy corners.

Anil’s Ghost - Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost
> Michael Ondaatje

This dream-like detective story — set during the Sri Lankan Civil War of the 1980s and ’90s — addresses themes like trust and deceit, the futility of war, and the way conflict can forge or dissemble identity. And because it’s by Michael Ondaatje, it does all of that with literary flair.

The heroine of the story is Anil, a Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist returning to her homeland after a 15-year absence. She’s part of a United Nations mission to investigate suspected human rights abuses; the government has paired her with an archaeologist named Sarath.

To say trust between the two is in short supply would be an understatement. Adding to the fraught atmosphere is their work lab, an abandoned luxury liner that once carried posh passengers, but has been moored and gutted, transformed into a dark, clanking home base for their work.

When they discover a recent skeleton buried among much older bones — in an area accessible only to government reps — Anil and Sarath suspect the remains could prove publicly that the government is involved in mass political murders. The first step in this process is identifying the bones. So they nickname the skeleton Sailor and embark on a dangerous mission to find the truth.

Along the way, they fun into both friends and maybe-foes with their own interesting emotional baggage. They turn to Sarath’s former teacher. He’s fallen from grace within his professional circles and makes his home in an abandoned monastery with only his niece for company. They also enlist the help of another broken man — an artist who’s suffered devastating tragedy — and have significant run-ins with Sarath’s brother, a doctor grappling with the horrors of the civil war.

Haunting, shadowy, a bit hallucinatory — but not without glimmers of light and beauty — this story will transport you to the ghostly ship, a wartime hospital, an empty manor house, and the monastery in the forest. {more}

It is a classic building, two hundred years old, handed down through five generations. From no viewing point does the house look excessive or pretentious. The site and location, the careful use of distance — how far back you can stand from the building to look at it, the lack of great views of another person’s land — make you turn inward rather than dominate the world around you. It has always seemed a hidden, accidentally discovered place, a grand meulne. You enter through the gate with its idiosyncratic slope on the top beam and you are in a walled front garden, with sand-coloured packed-down earth. There are two locations of shade here. The shadowed porch and the shadow under the great red tree. Beneath the tree is a low stone bench. Anil spends much of her time here, under the tree bent like an Aeolian harp that throws a hundred variations of shadow textures onto the sandy earth. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Black Amber - Phyllis A. Whitney

Black Amber
> Phyllis A. Whitney

What do you do when your sister drowns under mysterious circumstances in the Bosphorous Strait? The only reasonable thing: Go undercover to Istanbul to investigate, then get caught up in intrigue and romance along the way to the truth.

Our mid-20th-century heroine is Tracy Hubbard. She works at a prestigious publisher in New York City, and she has moxie. She’s also on a mission: Travel to a beautiful villa in Istanbul to assist famous artist Miles Radburn with his book on Turkish tiles and mosaics.

To her big-city boss and her Turkish hosts, Tracey is the very definition of a promising young woman. And she is. But she will not be dissuaded from her personal agenda to uncover what really happened to her sister Anabel.

This story has all you could ask for in suspenseful escapism. Most of the action takes place in a Turkish mansion on the edge of the Bosphorous — with verandas and breezeways that allow for eavesdropping on conversations and shutters rattled by wind in a very unsettling (satisfying) way.

While Tracy settles into her new environment and explores the beauty (and danger) of Istanbul, we’re at her side to take in the sights and sounds of Istanbul — with a hint of the Gothic to enhance the experience, like a sugar cube melting into a cup of dark Turkish coffee. {more}

She slipped a coat over her nightgown, turned off the lights in the room, and parted the heavy draperies to step out upon the veranda. The landing area stood empty and quiet, water lapping gently against the steps. The rain had stopped, and in the stillness she could hear distant voices from a village on the nearby shore. A well-lighted ship went past, its engines throbbing as it made its way north from Istanbul toward the Black Sea and the ports of Russia. Overhead ragged clouds raced, a touch of faint moonlight breaking through patches of torn gray. The water drew her eyes — black and seemingly still on the surface, yet with those deep and treacherous currents stirring beneath. Somewhere in the village a man began to sing, and she heard for the first time the minor-keyed lament of Turkish music, repetitive and strange to Western ears, yet somehow haunting. Again a sense of isolation swept over her. She was out of touch with all she knew and was sure of, abroad upon currents that might take her almost anywhere. — Phyllis A. Whitney

This Rough Magic - Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic
> Mary Stewart

First published in 1964, this is the dreamy, delightfully melodramatic novel that will make you want to book a trip to Greece as soon as possible. Mary Stewart was the queen of mystery-romance, and all of her gifts are in full effect here. Grab a sun hat!

Although it’s set in the golden sun of the Greek island of Corfu, there are Gothic tropes galore. There’s a melodramatic actor, a shadowy mansion, a secret cave and underground cellars, a deadly fight on a boat in an epic storm, a missing diamond ring, a possible murder, romance, trickery, and a magical dolphin.

At this point, does the plot even matter?

We would argue that it does not. But happily, there is a cracker of a plot that takes advantage of the gorgeous scenery.

Our heroine Lucy, a struggling actress in London, finds herself emotionally adrift when her latest show closes. So she takes off to Corfu to visit her sister, who happens to be married to a wealthy husband, landlord of several large homes on the island — including one he’s rented to an iconic stage actor who retired under mysterious circumstances.

Lucy is just getting settled on the island when strange occurrences begin to happen. When two islanders mysteriously drown, she’s drawn into a perilous investigation that puts her at odds — or does it? — with the famous actor’s son, a talented but enigmatic musician.

The interpersonal hijinks and investigation into the deaths are set against the backdrop of Corfu and Greece in the late 1950s. To say anything else about the plot would ruin the fun. Rest assured, however, that there are moments of perilous danger, shocking revelations, and sweet romance. We love this audiobook narrated by British actress Helen Johns in a just-right combination of warm and breathy that embodies Lucy’s fear and bravery with equal aplomb. {more}

I shuddered, and drank my coffee, leaning back in my chair to gaze out across pine tops furry with gold towards the sparkling sea, and surrendering myself to the dreamlike feeling that marks the start of a holiday in a place like this when one is tired, and has been transported overnight from the April chill of England to the sunlight of a magic island in the Ionian Sea… The bay itself was hidden by trees, but the view ahead was glorious – a stretch of the calm, shimmering Gulf that lies in the curved arm of Corfu. Away northward, across the dark blue strait, loomed, insubstantial as mist, the ghostly snows of Albania. It was a scene of the most profound and enchanted peace. No sound but the birds; nothing in sight but trees and sky and sun-reflecting sea. — Mary Stewart

Jasmine Nights - S.P. Somtow

Jasmine Nights
> S.P. Somtow

Infused with magical realism and Thai culture, this is a tragi-comic coming-of-age story set in 1963 Thailand. You might think the American civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, and the works of Homer and Virgil wouldn’t mean much to a 12-year-old Thai boy. You’d be gloriously incorrect.

Our narrator and winsome hero is Justin, a name he’s given himself because he prefers it to his formal Thai name (Sornsunthorn) and his family’s diminutive nickname for him: Little Frog.

His parents have been ‘away’ for three years. He doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead, and neither do we. He’s been left in the care of three aunts whom he has dubbed The Fates. The sisters Ning-nong, Nit-nit, and Noi-noi bicker and backstab and love each other the way only sisters can. Wealthy and entitled, they live on a grand estate, along with their social-climbing brother and a wraith-like great-grandmother, with servants to tend to their every whim.

Justin spends his days dreamily reading sci-fi, the classics, and Greek mythology in the faded ruins of a grand library. Lost in his daydreams and visions, he sometimes doesn’t quite know what’s real and what isn’t. It’s a solitary, intellectual existence for a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Then fate intervenes in spectacular fashion. Through one life-changing year, Justin experiences sorrow, love, friendship, disappointment, and triumph. {more}

In my depression, I open the Botticelli box and gaze at the epic poem I have been composing about my parents’ absence. O Muses! the poem begins, for there is nothing nobler than an apostrophizing opening: O Muses! sing of my parents’ absence inexplicable, Which hath cast a blight upon my wretched soul; Sing of my sorrow, for the Fates are fickle, And furthermore, I’m only twelve years old. — S.P. Somtow

The Governesses - Anne Serre

The Governesses
> Anne Serre

This slim volume is a delightfully weird Gothic confection from beginning to end. You’ll devour it in one sitting, then wonder what just happened to you and to the characters that live in the country house behind the golden gate. Imagine three governesses — young and beautiful, lustful yet innocent. Inès, Laura, and Eléonore spend the majority of their time lounging about a sun-drenched garden. Like sated animals, they stretch and luxuriate in their bodies. Their wards — a group of boys of various ages — amuse themselves by playing at hoops, while the Austeur family, owners of the house, are absent, even when they’re at home.

The governesses, whose beauty and desire are a siren call to any men with eyes in their heads, attract both the old man across the street — who watches them through a telescope — and a series of nameless suitors who flirt and caress them through the bars of the garden gate. The three girls are variously muses, angels, and conniving vixens. Eventually, their true purpose at the house is slowly revealed, but the overall mystery of their existence lingers. First published in French in 1992, this erotic fairy tale by Anne Serre was on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2019. {more}

When all three are wearing yellow, anything can happen. It’s the wild color, the color that frees them, the color in which they feel naked and exposed, spellbound. You only see them in yellow at the gates, at night, or on days when they run amok in a blind fury. Yellow turns them into heartless, spiteful wretches. On days like that, they’re armed with stilettos, nurture an asp between their breasts, and cut through the tall grass like the Queen of Hearts slicing off the heads of her gardeners. — Anne Serre

She Walks These Hills - Sharyn McCrumb

She Walks These Hills
> Sharyn McCrumb

This is a big ol’ moody slice of Southern Gothic with a dollop of true-crime whipped cream on top. Set in the 1990s, this eerie, gripping story hinges on a North Carolina mountain legend.

In 1779, a local girl named Katie was kidnapped into the wilderness by the Shawnee. After her escape, she trekked hundreds of miles through the mountains to return to her family — only for tragedy to strike again. Now, her ghost walks the hills.

All of the people populating this character-driven mystery have some kind of connection to that legend.

Elderly Nora Bonesteel has the gift of the sight and regularly feels Katie’s presence in the woods around her mountaintop home. A history professor has set out on an epic hike to trace Katie’s footsteps. Forget the Appalachian trail! He’s going to plod through the wilderness. Alone. Just as Katie did. Even though he’s never hiked anywhere before.

And there’s Harm, an elderly man serving 99 years for a murder committed in the ’60s. His mind is trapped in 1967, and after his prison escape, he’s walks his own perilous journey home. Hot on his trail is Martha, a dispatcher-turned-emergency-deputy with much to prove. It’s a good thing, too, because, in addition to Harm on the loose, multiple deaths, arson, and other illegal mayhem are happening in the hills and hollers.

That’s a lot, but author Sharyn McCrumb is an expert at weaving the threads together. Her narrative is helped along by a talk radio host named Hank the Yank. A transplant originally from Connecticut, he’s smitten with the romance of Harm’s prison break.

The story is sometimes brutal, always entertaining, and ultimately, very cathartic. There are hints of hope born of the tragedies that strike this small community. {more}

The woman had been running through the woods a long time. Blood crusted in the briar-cut on her cheek. Her matted hair, a thicket of dry leaves and tangles, hung about a gaunt face, lined with weariness and hunger. A shapeless, dirt-streaked dress that had once been blue gaped over bony wrists and sagged empty at the collarbone. She might have been twenty, but her eyes were old. She was following the deer track that hugged the ridge above the river… Nora Bonesteel stood under an apple tree at the edge of her meadow, watching the woman pass by… For more than seventy years — when the air was crisp and the light was slanted and the birds were still — Nora Bonesteel had caught glimpses of the young woman following the deer track across Ashe Mountain. — Sharyn McCrumb


Top image courtesy of Stefan Grage/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

In this episode, we revel in that delicious tingle up the back of the neck, courtesy of the undead, that reminds us we're alive. Plus, candy, bonfires, costumes, and books. SO MANY BOOKS that celebrate Halloween.
We've selected our favorite literary vampires according to a very sharply honed list of criteria. They're all remarkable versions of this ancient creature, and they populate stories worthy of their dangerous charms.
The poet's atmospheric poem blurs the divide between memories and haunting. He casts the 'harmless phantoms' — who glide by our sides and sit at our fires — as silent visitors, forging our connection to the beyond.
For centuries, witches were painted with a black brush, punished for being all a woman shouldn't be: powerful, mysterious, untamed, seductive. But aren't those words really a compliment of the highest order?
The American poet Dorianne Laux weaves a spell with her word witchery, infusing this poem with humanity, light, and sorrow. Forget jump scares and unwelcome things that go bump in the night. This is a gentle ghost.
Poe's shadowy view of the world is as irresistible as it is spooky, due to his ability to weave a dark spell of words. In this poem, the winged messenger of the title is the only solace for our broken-hearted narrator.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.