The Spookiest Novels I’ve Read

Halloween is just around the corner, and inquiring minds around the book-o-sphere are asking, “What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?” Lists of scary stories are being passed out like Halloween candy. LitReactor even has the “5 Scariest Grammar Issues.” Adding to that festively dark spirit, here are a few of my favorite spooky novels.

1. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird boxI reviewed this back in July, and it still stands out as one of the scariest books I’ve read in quite a while. I highly recommend listening to this as an audiobook, as it features a world in which people go mad by catching a glimpse of otherworldly creatures.

In Bird Box land, you hunker down at home, hiding behind windows covered with with mattresses and blankets. You need to protect yourself from seeing whatever thing is outside. When you must go out for supplies, you go out blindfolded, fumbling, and very afraid. This book is agonizing in some places, as it presents characters with countless fears they must face blinded.

2. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

house of leavesThe best kind of spooky novel doesn’t make sense in places, and MZD’s House of Leaves creates a world in which nothing is quite right. There are layers here, and each one of them hangs like a crooked picture on a wall of madness.

First, we meet photojournalist Will Navidson and his family, who have moved into a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He films his ventures into the home’s more bizarre aspects.

In the second layer of the story, Navidson’s film is analyzed by Zampanò, a blind academic who devoted much of his work to studying the documentary “The Navidson Record.”

The third layer is that of Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon Zampanò’s notes, and thus the story of Will Navidson and his home, and begins to assemble those notes into a narrative, often including his own story and thoughts.

Got all that? As Truant falls deeper into the house, you’ll find yourself falling too…

3. The End of Alice and Appendix A by A.M. Homes

the end of alice collageNot all spooky things are creatures or possessed houses, and The End of Alice is more terrifying than any ghost story precisely because it talks about human evils.

A pedophile (nicknamed Chappy, a reference to a childhood love of Chapstick) has been locked away for years, and begins receiving letters from a catty young woman who claims to also be a pedophile. Through this young woman’s questions and her own stories, Chappy walks us through his long and dark hall of memories, each one building up to a more brutal, sad, and sadistic result than the last.

Appendix A, for those of you who really want to get freaked out, is a collection of (obviously fictional) evidence surrounding Chappy’s crime: his confession, some self-portraits he created, evidence bagged from the crime, and photos of his very disturbed family.

A.M. Homes is a beautiful, lyrical writer, so the concept manages to work without being unbearable to read. However, this is the most disturbing book I’ve read, and it definitely doesn’t have a happy ending. If you aren’t looking for something gruesome and grim, choose another from the list.

4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThis is my current spooky Halloween read, and thus far it is not disappointing. It is, in fact, totally epic. It is thought to be the best haunted house story ever written, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Montague hopes to investigate the paranormal activity at Hill House, a ghost hunter before his time, and he invites three young guests to stay in the house with him. Shirley Jackson is a master of creating mood, and the suffocating, nauseating mood in Hill House as its first new resident steps in, summoned in a letter by Dr. Montague, is unforgettable.

Those who have seen the movies know it all goes downhill from there.

5. Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez

syndrome eI’m going to be talking about Franck Thilliez’s Syndrome E more in the next coming months as there is a sequel coming out in January, Bred to Kill.

I think this book hasn’t seen its peak in popularity yet, as there’s some buzz about it being made into a movie by writer Mark Heyman, who penned Black Swan. Uhm, amazing.

If there’s something spooky in a book and it isn’t a house, you can bet it is going to be an old film. In Syndrome E, an old film is blinding people who watch it. Two detectives converge on the case from very different directions; they uncover all sorts of dark and twisted stuff all over the world. I’m not going to give it away here.

Go get your read on, you dark and twisted children of the night!


Spillover vs. Ebola: Which David Quammen Book Should You Buy?


A few months ago, Africa’s Ebola epidemic was the worst in history and infected physicians were being moved to America for treatment. My Facebook feed was filled with trending topics and endless questions about Ebola, and I wrote a post recommending David Quammen‘s enlightening Spillover as the important book of the day.

Spillover focuses on zoonotic diseases, those which make the jump from animals to humans in events called spillovers, thus the title. Ebola is one of these, as are Rabies and Lyme Disease. In Spillover, Quammen clearly weaves an in-depth narrative through rough African terrain, seeking the history of the Ebola virus in small villages and sick apes.

Now, as Ebola has made it to America in a less controlled setting, David Quammen has released a second book, called Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. It is explained as “extracted from Spillover by David Quammen, updated and with additional material.”

So, which should you buy? If you’ve already read Spillover, is Ebola worth buying for the additional information?

The short answer is: no. If you’ve read Spillover, don’t spend your money on Ebola. You’ve already read it. It is more than 80% of the exact same material, edited slightly so as to not be in discord with current events. If you haven’t read anything yet, however, Ebola has all the information you need on this history of and basic information surrounding Ebola, without all the other zoonotic disease information of Spillover.

Ebola contains a new introduction and epilogue that are, as rapidly as things are changing, now out of date. The epilogue does contain a brief history of outbreaks in Africa (Quammen traces them back to December 2013, in the Guéckédou prefecture of Southern Guinea), but it doesn’t contain any information about the events in Dallas. The summaries here are nothing like the research done examining previous outbreaks, and Quammen makes it clear in a disclaimer that he hasn’t traveled to the areas experiencing the epidemics currently.

If you want to learn about the Ebola virus and diving into Spillover‘s nearly 600 page, detailed history of zoonotic diseases doesn’t sound appealing, then Ebola is the perfect book for you. It is the ideal book for the non-reader and the person in a rush, as Spillover‘s very long chapters have been broken up into very brief chapters. All the necessary information is there, in digestible bites, in a brief 128 pages.

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus on’

If you aren’t at all bookish and CNN’s “We’re all going to die” style of journalism has you holed up in your home with a gas mask, there are some other great resources out there as well.

On Twitter:

David Quammen, author of Spillover and Ebola.

Vincent Racaniello, Professor of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

Paul Duprex, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Director of Cell and Tissue Imaging, National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory Institute at Boston University.

Elsewhere Online:

  • Kim Yi Dionne has her own great list of people to follow, on Twitter and elsewhere, at the blog Haba Na Haba. She also explains that in some African countries, Twitter may not be as heavily used as Facebook.
  • This Week in Virology has some great science-based articles.
  • Science Magazine, in light of the epidemic, has made a special collection available to the public for free. This includes many of the research studies Quammen refers to in his books.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series Recapped

Tana French is one of my favorite living mystery authors, as her literary mysteries elevate the genre to a new level. Each of her new Dublin Murder Squad series grabs a character from the last and spins off, in a wildly different environment but with an equally ominous tone.

As The Secret Place was released yesterday, the fifth in the series, I’m going to devote this week to Tana French, starting with a summary of all the books today, for those starting The Secret Place and realizing they need a refresher on all the past drama, or for those hearing some of the hype surrounding The Secret Place and wondering what the Dublin Murder Squad books are all about. At the end of this week I’ll do a second post, for those eager to know more about the new book, with a more detailed The Secret Place review.

A big part of the suspense surrounding each new Dublin Murder Squad book is wondering who French will choose to write about next, as her characters rotate through the books in an addictive style—detectives touched upon in a previous book will grab an unseen wand and take their turn as protagonist as if French is having them all run a relay race. Much like real life, this shows how easy it is to put people in boxes until we take a look under their skin, and see what exactly makes them tick, or see what makes them quake in bed at night.

in the woodsWhat I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.

Characters to know: Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox.

Setting: The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises— rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle.”

In the Woods, French’s first novel and the first of the Dublin Murder Squad series, was released in 2007. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate a girl murdered in the woods. Ryan has history with these woods. When he was a boy, the woods ate up three of his friends, leaving him terrified and holding onto a tree like the world was shaking around him, wearing blood-filled sneakers.

People make so many complaints about this book—mainly its main character is unlikeable, its mysteries are left unsolved, and the story itself is too long. To those complaints, I say this is a great introduction to the world of Tana French. This isn’t a story designed to please the reader. This is a story. It has too much heart of its own to care about yours. The questions French raises are those so often overlooked in mystery novels, and they take so much of what mystery relies on and remind us why it doesn’t make sense. Detectives are, perhaps, just as flawed as the criminals they seek to catch; some mysteries, and some chunks of time, may be lost and unknowable.

the likeness“When you’re too close to people, when you spend too much time with them and love them too dearly, sometimes you can’t see them.”

Characters to know: Detectives Cassie Maddox (Rob Ryan’s partner from In the Woods) and Frank Mackey.

Setting: “Then the drive gave a little twist and opened up into a great semicircular carriage sweep, white pebbles speckled through with weeds and daisies, and I saw Whitethorn House for the first time. The photos hadn’t done it justice…Every proportion was balanced so perfectly that the house looked like it had grown there, nested in with its back to the mountains and all Wicklow dropping away rich and gentle in front of it, poised between the pale arc of the carriage sweep and the blurred dark-and-green curves of the hills like a treasure held out in a cupped palm.”

French’s second novel, The Likeness, pivots to feature Detective Cassie Maddox. A woman who looks strikingly similar to Maddox is found murdered, and legendary Detective Frank Mackey (“still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever”) thinks the cops would be foolish not to jump on the likeness. Mackey asks Maddox to slide back into the murdered young woman’s life, baiting the murderer. Thus, a surreal setup: Maddox becomes Lexie Madison, graduate student. She inserts herself back into Madison’s life, as if the murder was an unsuccessful attack, returning to the house she lives in with four close friends. In an echo of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the group of four friends Madison lives with is very, very close; they shift from charming to suspect and back again.

faithful place“Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game. It’s more cunning than you are, it’s faster and it’s a whole lot more ruthless. All you can do is try to keep up, know your weak spots and never stop expecting the sucker punch.”

Characters to know: Faithful Place introduces a bunch of names to remember, all surrounding Detective Frank Mackey (Cassie Maddox’s boss from The Likeness). Make note of Holly Mackey (Frank’s daughter), and Detectives Stephen Moran (a floater who works with Frank on the case) and Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis).

Setting: “Faithful Place is two rows of eight houses, old redbricks with steps going up to the main hall door. Back in the eighties each one had three or four households, maybe more. A household was anything from Mad Johnny Malone, who had been in World War I and would show you his Ypres tattoo, through Sallie Hearne, who wasn’t exactly a hooker but had to support all those kids somehow. If you were on the dole, you got a basement flat and a Vitamin D deficiency; if someone had a job, you got at least part of the first floor; if your family had been there a few generations, you got seniority and top-floor rooms where no one walked on your head.”

Faithful Place, the third in the series, was my least favorite of the Dublin Murder Squad series thus far. This surprised me, as I was so eager for a book featuring Frank Mackey after we were introduced to his character. Mackey is called back to Faithful Place, the rough and tumble neighborhood of his youth, where his broken family still resides, when a suitcase is found in an old building. It isn’t Frank’s suitcase, but that of his high school sweetheart, Rosie. Mackey and this girl, they were in love. They were all ready to ditch Faithful Place together, get married, make it big somewhere far away from the poverty of their childhoods. And then Rosie disappeared. The discovery of the suitcase brings Mackey back to a home he’d like to forget, to an unsolved mystery which left his heart broken, and to a community which no longer trusts him.

broken harbor“I’m the least fanciful guy around, but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.”

Characters to know: Detectives Scorcher Kennedy (Frank’s nemesis from Faithful Place) and newbie Richie Curran.

Setting: “As we got deeper into the estate, the houses got sketchier, like watching a film in reverse. Pretty soon they were random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window; where the housefronts were missing the rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe, rotting cement bags. Every time we turned a corner I expected to see a swarm of builders at work, but the nearest we got was a battered yellow digger in a vacant lot, listing sideways among churned-up mud and scattered mounds of dirt…No one lived here. I tried to aim us back in the general direction of the entrance, but the estate was built like one of those old hedge mazes, all cul-de-sacs and hairpin turns, and almost straightaway we were lost.”

Broken Harbor was by far my favorite book of the series, again surprising me as I hadn’t thought I’d enjoy a book focusing on Scorcher Kennedy after his introduction in Faithful Place. The concept here was bizarre, but very, very scary. Ocean View intended to be a development of premier homes, designed with childcare and a leisure center, but economic downturn left the project half-standing and abandoned, a wasteland of construction and aspirations. The Spain family purchased and moved into their home before the project ran into trouble, expecting to join a thriving community rather than an unkempt and graffitied construction site. But none of that matters now–the Spain children and their father have been found murdered, and Jenny Spain, wife and mother, is in the ICU. Scorcher Kennedy is put on the case, and finds large holes smashed into the Spain’s home’s walls, baby monitors watching corners instead of children. This family was haunted, but by what? Or whom?

the secret place“Teenage girls: you’ll never understand. I’ve got sisters. I learned to just leave it.”

Characters to know: Remember everyone from Faithful Place? Here they are. Holly Mackey (Frank Mackey’s daughter), Detective Stephen Moran (still eager to make it onto the Murder Squad), and the firecracker Detective Antoinette Conway.

Setting: “On the first Sunday afternoon of September, the boarders come back to St. Kilda’s. They come under a sky whose clean-stripped blue could still belong to summer, except for the V of birds practicing off in one corner of the picture. They come screaming triple exclamation marks and jump-hugging in corridors that smell of dreamy summer emptiness and fresh paint; they come with peeling tans and holiday stories, new haircuts and new-grown breasts that make them look strange and aloof, at first, even to their best friends. And after a while Miss McKenna’s welcome speech is over, and the tea urns and good biscuits have been packed away; the parents have done the hugs and the embarrassing last-minute warnings about homework and inhalers, a few first-years have cried; the last forgotten things have been brought back, and the sounds of cars have faded down the drive and dissolved into the outside world. All that’s left is the boarders, and the Matron and the couple of staff who drew the short straws, and the school.”

I was not expecting French’s next novel, her next police procedural, to feature a bevy of adolescent girls at a boarding school. But French always pleasantly surprises me. The Secret Place alternates between Holly Mackey’s past at St. Kilda’s, her all female boarding school, and the present, in which Detectives Moran and Conway are investigating the murder of a male student from the neighboring all-male school on St. Kilda’s grounds. This was released yesterday, and in my next post I’ll go into more detail, for those who want to know more.

A Few Of My Favorite Things

People often ask me about my favorite books. As a reader, I could (and often do) talk for quite a while about what favorite means and why it qualifies a thing as important. When I was younger, stumbling upon an author that forced me to read differently, and then as a result think differently, was a memorable and revelatory experience. I think of the books that have influenced my reading habits in some way as important.

I found refuge in diatribes of feminism during adolescence, reading essays over and over that spoke to me, tearing them out of books. I especially loved the essay “Blood Love“, from Christina Doza, in the book Listen Up. I tore it out of the book and folded it up and still have it today, nested in a box with old letters and pictures and other such memories.

i was amelia earhartOne of the first books I stumbled upon at the Sandy, Utah library which made me think of writing as something I totally understood, something quietly settled through its words despite the tragedy in its story, was the tiny novel I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, published in 1996. A surreal memoir of Earheart’s fated last flight, it begins: “The sky is flesh. The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It’s a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.” Reading the Goodreads reviews now, I can see the overwriting they describe. But then, all I saw was a quiet unreality so clearly created I could melt into, losing myself completely to the story of a desperate Amelia and her alcoholic navigator.

bloggerrebeccaIn middle school, the first book I read for a class and truly loved (maybe even truly read all the way through) was Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

four books squareNow, I have a handful of books that I look to as favorites, most by authors with many books I adore. Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled is haunting and distant, like trying to read a book as it bends down a dark hallway away from you. The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert tells what appears to be the saddest, simplest story, with ends that begin to unravel as you flip the pages. Walbert writes the style of story I enjoy reading the most, of a seemingly innocent narrator relaying an enchanting past, details blurring and fading as the tale continues. Margaret Atwood is a master of this style as well, with both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake illustrating the dangers and oddities of memory, as narrators enchant themselves more than their readers while relaying their histories. A.M. Homes‘s This Book Will Save Your Life puts the brakes on life’s cruise control as its main character begins to connect with the people he sees every day. In Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, the wreckage of the tech age is a teenage sex offender.

by bloodFinally, Ellen Ullman‘s By Blood is all the right things–slightly insane and drawing the reader into that insanity, bursting with what seems like too much story in incredibly contrived situations that just might be believable, exploring worlds within worlds of heartbreak and loss. Any book exploring San Francisco’s darker moods is a book after my own heart. This one does so beautifully, as its narrator rides the empty N-Judah line through the fog and towards the wind and chill of Ocean Beach.

But for me, there’s always one book that is undoubtedly my favorite, which stands above the rest. What is it, you ask? More on that this weekend…


Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793.

Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793. via

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

At an old, slow, snail’s pace, I am reading xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Although I am tempted to say Bernheimer is a leader of the modern fairy tale and myth renaissance, I think this would be misleading, as fairy tales and myths resonate throughout our lives like wallpaper lining the rooms of all the stories we create and live through today. No renaissance is needed for something that never left us in the first place. Reading xo Orpheus is like reading myths with 3D glasses on, taking a fresh look at something already intimate and close. Like the best books, it gives me cultural pause and reminds me how often I forget the limits assumed within traditional storytelling.

No book of myths retold would be complete without maybe the most timeless and revisited of all myths, that of The Odyssey. Not only do several stories take on Odysseus, but one also gives voice to his dog, the faithful Argos. xo Orpheus‘s exploration of The Odyssey made me think of the other stellar reinterpretations of that myth:

    • The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. It may be a requirement, if you are a young woman alive today, to be in love with everything Margaret Atwood. One more reason for my devout membership to the church of Atwood is her beautiful parallel novel to The Odyssey, which gives Penelope her own voice. Penelope tells us of Odysseus’s drinking problem, his tendency to tell tall tales about his adventures, and her own limited opportunities in life (“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold.”)  Atwood’s version of the story reminds us how much of Penelope is left out of Homer’s tale.
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad,
by Margaret Atwood

    • The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich. My expectations for The Suitors weren’t very high, but I fell in love with it right away. It reminded me of both Chris Adrian’s The Great Night and, oddly enough, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. Ehrenreich doesn’t spend time explaining logistics, instead he draws up ruthless and modern images of Odysseus (aptly renamed Payne) and Penelope (Penny) which make the story all the more relatable, stark, and scary. Ehrenreich is an uninhibited writer, and the book blasts passed its deeply meditative bits (“The wisdom of the streets holds here too: everybody’s got a hustle, even fog. And love’s a hustle like any other grift.”) not pausing for contemplation before Penny throws a tantrum or Payne wants to fight something. The power lies in the story’s inability to pause and question the insanity of the world Ehrenreich writes it into, part timeless utopia and part hipster wasteland.
The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich

The Suitors,
by Ben Ehrenreich

Finally, The Boston Review posted a beautiful poem by Dan Chelotti on their website yesterday, “Odysseus Amongst the Swine Glances Towards Ithaca”, in celebration of April as National Poetry Month. Happy Reading!