It’s late September; the long nights are creeping in and there’s a perceptible chill in the air. That can only mean one thing… autumn has arrived!
Ok, I know it’s cliché these days to love all things autumnal, but I can’t help it! I’ve lived in Canada for 7 years now* and have had to endure long, sweaty, humid summers where I have to duck from shade to shade or risk looking like a lobster (the sun is not kind to my milky skin), so forgive me if I revel in the reappearance of big woolly jumpers, thick tights, crunchy leaves, and pumpkin-spice everything.
Autumn comes with another benefit too. As the weather turns colder, it becomes more and more appealing to snuggle up inside with a large pot of tea and a giant stack of good books.
The kind of books I gravitate toward in autumn reflect the changing of the season. I start to crave darker fiction — thrillers, horrors, gothic literature, books that have a sting in the tail. I also enjoy books that remind me there’s still magic in the world because, for me at least, autumn really is the most magical time of the year.
Chilling reads for children and young adults
My absolute favourite children’s books are and always have been the ones that give me the creeps. When I was a kid, I gleefully devoured books from the Goosebumps and Point Horror series as well as a series called Creepers that I can find very little information about online, but I know for sure contained one book called The Rag and Bone Man — the cover of which still freaks me out a bit:
But my absolute all-time-favourite scary kids book has to be The Witches, by Roald Dahl.
This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.
Synopsis and cover via Goodreads.
I have a distinct memory of sleeping over at my Granny’s house and being too afraid to sleep after reading the boy narrator’s encounter with his first witch while up in the treehouse and the horrific image of the girl stuck in the painting, slowly growing older and older with each passing year. Even now, 20-odd years later, the book still has the power to frighten me — that’s some powerful writing right there.
I could write an entire thesis on why Roald Dahl was such a wonderful children’s writer, but in essence, I think it boils down to the fact that he never tried to patronize his audience. His books were often dark and unsettling and he didn’t shy away from that, but he also knew when to balance moments of macabre with humour. I think that’s why I’ll still happy thumb through a Dahl book to this day and remember what it was like to be a scared 10-year-old, afraid to keep reading but too enthralled to stop.
Another writer who manages to pull off the feat of frightening children just enough to keep them coming back for more is Neil Gaiman. He’s one of my favourite authors and I’ll read pretty much anything he puts out, but The Graveyard Book has a special place in my heart.
After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.
Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…
Synopsis and cover via Goodreads
Between vampires, ghosts, murderers, and Death itself lies a sweet story that captures that magic of childhood. It’s a perfect autumn read but, in my opinion, an even better autumn listen. Gaiman narrates the book himself and he is a WONDERFUL narrator. His voice and intonation are just perfect (I may or may not have listened to this book on one of my many walks through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetary).
Horrifying tales to read in front of the fire
You can’t think of autumn without also thinking of Halloween. And you can’t think of Halloween without thinking of horror and ghost stories. And you really can’t think of horror and ghost stories without thinking of the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King.
King has such a vast body of work that everyone can find something they like. Some of my favourite books from the scarier end of the spectrum include ‘Salem’s Lot, IT, and The Shining, but for this post, I’m going to go ahead and recommend one of his newer books — The Outsider.
An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.
An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.
As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.
Synopsis and cover via Goodreads
Be warned — this is a disturbing book (TW for descriptions of child rape/murder) and doesn’t make for an easy read in parts, but for me, this felt like classic King and a return to form after the giant “meh” that was Sleeping Beauties.
There were a few sections in particular that caused me to slam the book shut before it gave me nightmares — always the sign of a good horror.
One of my favourite authors in any genre is David Mitchell. There’s something about the simplicity of his language juxtaposed against his big, difficult-to-grasp ideas that draws me in every time. Cloud Atlas is amazing (if you’re struggling to get into it, my advice is to power through the first chapter. It gets so much better! Promise) and The Bone Clocks is my personal favourite, but for a short, creepy autumn read, I’m going to recommend Slade House.
Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.
Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents — an odd brother and sister — extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late…
Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it.
Synopsis and cover via Goodreads
Like most of Mitchell’s books, this is really a series of interconnected short stories that come together right at the end. It’s freaky as hell and although it is meant to be read as a companion to The Bone Clocks, it can definitely work as a standalone novel as well.
‘Cause this is Thriller…Thriller Night!
I’ll read a good thriller at any time of year, but in my humble opinion, there’s something about foggy evenings and rain lashing against window panes that makes reading about grizzly murders and clever detectives extra appealing.
To that end, one of my favourite series for blending the excitement of the thriller genre with beautiful, lyrical, and atmospheric prose is The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.
Ok, so the plot of the first two novels In the Woods and The Likeness require some suspension of disbelief (particularly The Likeness because wow, that plot does NOT make sense if you examine it too closely), but with writing this good, it doesn’t matter.
My personal favourite (so far — I haven’t finished the series yet) is Faithful Place.
That which was buried is brought to light and wreaks hell — on no one more so than Frank Mackey, beloved undercover guru and burly hero first mentioned in French’s second book about the Undercover Squad, The Likeness.
Faithful Place is Frank’s old neighborhood, the town he fled twenty-two years ago, abandoning an abusive alcoholic father, harpy mother, and two brothers and sisters who never made it out. They say going home is never easy, but for Frank, investigating the cold case of the just-discovered body of his teenage girlfriend, it is a tangled, dangerous journey, fraught with mean motivations, black secrets, and tenuous alliances. Because he is too close to the case, and because the Place (including his family) harbors a deep-rooted distrust of cops, Frank must undergo his investigation furtively, using all the skills picked up from years of undercover work to trace the killer and the events of the night that changed his life.
Cover and synopsis via Goodreads
One of the things that’s so great about The Dublin Murder Squad is that each book in the series is relatively standalone, featuring protagonists who were minor or peripheral characters in a prior book, so you don’t technically need to read the series in any particular order (except that you should definitely read The Likeness after In the Woods to avoid a bit of a spoiler).
It also means that, unlike other series where I really need to read all the books in a relatively short space of time to actually remember any details and not spend the first 1/3 of the story going “who’s that again?”, I can space these books out months or even years apart. This is a plus for me because I love French’s writing so much that I want to keep looking forward to the next book and not burn through the series too quickly!
Anyway, this post is long and rambling enough. I hope you found one or two books to add to your list! I’m going to go pour myself a cuppa and read for a while.
* And despite having lived in North America for the better part of a decade, I can’t bring myself to say “fall”. I just can’t.