Halloween is an electric time of year, when it feels as if anything might be possible. Mischief, wild surprises, unexpected turns of events, encoded messages, second chances and nocturnal adventures. Journeys to the past, connections with the spirit world, attempted vengeance, redemptive acts and the righting of ancient wrongs. In short, many of the elements that make for great fiction.
So which novels can you add to your nightstand to evoke the wild sweetness of the Halloween spirit? Or its melancholy wistfulness? Which ones resurrect the past in ways that bring the current day into sharp relief? For us, it’s not horror stories. Or sci-fi. Or fantasy. It’s literary novels filled with unexplained phenomena, hidden identities, secret (or not so secret) super powers, wraiths and women who may or may not be witches.
Books filled with magic, and moonlight, and memory. And scattered rumors of monsters in the vicinity.
Stories that remind us of the slippery nature of time, and that force us to ask what might happen if the basic laws of physics or our inherent natures were somehow changeable – if just a couple of rules were relaxed, or if we could only speak to the departed, who might we become?
Here’s our list of 21 novels that evoke Halloween, but that are not set at that specific time of year — that capture a lovely balance of mystery and melancholy; regret and redemption; mourning and forgiveness; and love that transcends the boundaries of earthly existence. They’re the kind of ghost stories we need right now.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. In this towering novel, Sethe, born a slave, has escaped to Ohio. But eighteen years later she is still not free, haunted by her memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many awful things happened. And now her Sethe’s new home is literally haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Ghosts and memories weave their way throughout this exceptional novel, set in Detroit. Charles “Cha-Cha” Turner, the oldest son in an African-American family of 13 siblings, repeatedly sees a “haint,” (the word that many members of the black community – including all of our aunties and uncles – commonly use to refer to a ghost). The sightings bring back vivid memories of his dead father, and revive a number of troubling unanswered questions about the choices his parents made. As the city is ravaged by time and turmoil, so are the various Turner siblings, and each finds solace in a different way: spirituality, alcohol, gambling, and escape from the Midwest. The sibling relationships are acutely drawn, and the bruised metropolis of Detroit is itself one of the characters with whom we identify and mourn.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Ghosts are also among the players in this fine first novel from the acclaimed short-story writer. The tale takes its origin from the true story of Abraham Lincoln, who was mourning the loss of his young son, Willie, as the Civil War raged into its second year. In the novel, Willie has become an inhabitant of the bardo – the Tibetan conception of purgatory – suspended between the living and the dead and surrounded by ghosts who are not ready to go quietly into that great good night. A cacophony of ghostly voices is a prompt to consider the meaning of earthly love and what remains after its temporal state ends.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This lovely novel is both highly topical and timeless. It’s the tale of two young people – Saeed and Nadia – who are living in a city rocked by civil war. Nadia is spirited and tough – Saeed sensitive and devout. When they begin a love affair, they’re quickly forced to decide whether to stay or go – with each other, and with their homeland. They become refugees by passing through a metaphorical door, and their journey becomes a way to intimately understand what it means to be a refugee. We have always loved Hamid’s work – his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is incredible. Short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize, this is a must-read for those seeking to understand the currents at work in the wider world, and who want to engage in thinking through what it means to be a neighbor.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. What a fantastic read! It begins on New Year’s Eve and unfolds over the course of one year. Set in the 19th century in a small town in coastal Essex, it’s a time when England is plagued by rumors of a monstrous serpent that is causing deaths and disappearances. Into this milieu comes a brilliant and spirited woman in pursuit of scientific truth and passionate about the power of reason. She encounters the local parish minister, a man who has committed his life to the power of faith. Both are engaged in solving the riddle of the serpent — and thus begins a wildly romantic and deeply cerebral relationship that affects everyone in their lives. Somehow we come to care about every single character and to empathize with their emotional lives. This is a truly accomplished novel — the author’s first ever published in America.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry. Perry’s second novel, coming to the US on October 16th, 2018, takes as its central inspiration Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer, a collection of stories linked to the reported travels of John Melmoth, a 17th-century man who bargained with the devil for extra life and then, regretting the deal, visited the most miserable people in the world in search of someone desperate enough to take his place in the pact. This update is “a novel about knowledge stumbled on, or locked away, or leaking from one life into the next.” It’s about bearing witness, and whether knowledge of bad acts demands action, not just observation and remembrance. Which seems particularly apt for our current times. One reviewer notes: “The most striking parts of the book involve no specters. ‘There is nobody watching,’ suggests one character, ‘there is only us.‘”
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts. She marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, and becomes stepmother to his daughter, Snow. A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become – but the birth of Boy’s dark-skinned daughter, Bird, exposes the couple as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Even as Boy, Snow, and Bird are divided, they maintain an insistent curiosity about one another, as the three confront “the tyranny of the mirror” to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Sisters Gillian and Sally have endured taunts and exclusion, while their elderly aunts seemed to delight in the notion that they were a family of witches, with their old house and their crowd of black cats. The sisters make a jail break – one by marrying, the other by running away. But the like magic, inexplicably they’re drawn back toward home.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. In this new novel, four siblings visit a mysterious psychic who predicts the date that each will die, permanently affecting the way that each chooses to live.
The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce is comedic novel about a man who was dead for five minutes, and who struggles after being revived to understand what happens in the next life (he was not greeted with light, angels or any other sign of a positive reception during his brief sojourn on the other side). Oh, and he and his new wife (a young widow) are also searching for a possible ghost, with the help of his aging father.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle. This retelling of a dark classic fairy tale explores the power of parental and spousal love. When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself, and when his wife Emma commits an unspeakable act and then disappears without a trace, he’s begins an odyssey through New York that takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. One reviewer aptly describes this as a tale written by “a woke Brothers Grimm.”
What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam. Which do you want? To be able to fly or to be invisible? When confronted with this choice, Giordana – a teenager suffering the bitter fallout of her parents’ divorce – opts to become as invisible as she feels. Her aunt, newly adrift in the disturbing awareness that all is not well with her younger son, can suddenly swim with Olympic endurance. Over the course of 30 years, each member of this extended family discovers, at a moment of crisis, that he or she possesses a supernatural power. It’s a lovely tale of powers that instead of “saving” us, help us deal with the heavy burdens we bear as mere mortals.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Le Cirque des Rêves arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. And it is only open at night. Under the circus tent, a competition is underway between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. They begin a passionate love affair. But unbeknownst to them, this is a match-up in which only one can be left standing.
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg. The author of Texts from Jane Eyre returns with this collections of stories retelling several classic folktales with a decidedly feminist point of view; a mash-up of fairy tales, children’s books, ancient poems and Christian theology, it’s like nothing you’ve ever read before, and a provocative call-to-action around power and gender roles.
The Power by Naomi Alderman is an eerily prescient sci-fi novel that is directly relevant for recent headlines about powerful men and their treatment of women. Mysteriously, suddenly, inexplicably, teenage girls and women have immense physical power. With a flick of their fingers, they can cause great pain, and even death. And that enables them to flip the patriarchy upside down. It’s an alternate reality that raises profound questions: what would the world be like if women were the physically dominant gender? Would they wield their power any differently than men have? It’s been hailed as “this generation’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the great Margaret Atwood endorses it. Read it and then plan to discuss. For a long time.
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. In this debut novel, Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancée, and that very same day, she died unexpectedly. For the rest of his life, he’s sought consolation in rescuing lost objects and writing stories about them. Now, in the twilight of his life, he bequeaths his mission to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, leaving her his house and and all its lost treasures, including an irritable ghost.
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory. Once they were The Amazing Telemachus Family, performers blessed with clairvoyance, telekinesis, and other psychic abilities. But then a tragic event ended their run as TV celebrities. Since their fall from grace, they’ve been trying to lead normal lives back home in Chicago. But when the CIA and the Mafia come calling, the family is forced to put their past behind them and unite one more time to make some magic happen.
The Snow Child by Eowyn LeMay. In this debut novel, a childless young couple homesteading in the wilds of Alaska in 1918 build a child out of snow during the season’s first snowfall. The next morning their creation is gone–but they glimpse an actual girl running through the trees. She seems to be a child of the woods, somehow surviving alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As the couple struggles to understand a little girl who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn will transform them.
MacBeth by Jo Nesbo. Of course, you can easily go straight to the source and read the original by William Shakespeare. But if you’re up for a modern re-telling, have a look at this one. Set in the 1970s in a run-down industrial town, it centers on a police force struggling with a drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary; local drug lord Hecate has connections within the highest levels of government, and plans to use them. His plot hinges on manipulating Inspector Macbeth, the head of the SWAT team, who has already been proven to be violent and paranoid. You know how it ends.
Swamplandia by Karen Russell. In this brilliant novel, we follow thirteen-year old Ava into the depths. Her mother, once the headliner at the family’s gator-wresting theme park, has just died. Her sister has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost. Her brilliant big brother, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to a competitor in order to keep their family business from going under. And her father is AWOL, leaving her alone with ninety-eight alligators and the vast landscape of her grief.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Two young white New Yorkers – one a striver and the other a scion – accidentally record an unknown black singer in a park. When one of them sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920’s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw, an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real. Along with one of their sisters, the pair spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation. It’s ” a ghost story, a terrifying murder mystery, a timely meditation on race, and a love letter to all the forgotten geniuses of American music and Delta Mississippi Blues.”
One of the best micro-luxuries of the autumn is spending a few delicious hours in the days before Halloween curled up with an evocative “supernatural” novel that illuminates the most pressing matters of our own current day in provocative ways. Find a windy night when the moon is lighting up the sky, grab a blanket and one of these, and become spellbound.