At the beginning of October, I was stumped for Halloween reading. Then I realized I had both of local author Will Alexander’s books, and they were rather breath-taking. Then I picked up a copy of The Graveyard Book that I had bought a couple of months ago, and was pulled right in. And then another book I was waiting for came in at the library, and I found a copy of The Phantom of the Opera in the spare room.
All that to say, there’s plenty to be had for spooky reading, folks. I’ve previously done up lists that included children’s books and a classic. I came up with a classic, but no children’ s book this year – if only because I found too many recent YA and adult titles that I wanted to read.
Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
I saw the stage show here years ago, and of course the music is haunting. But I’d never read the book. I’m glad I did. While yes, this is a dated novel, and yes, it is undeniably a romance underneath it all, it is still spell-binding and suspenseful. Even having seen the stage show, I couldn’t remember all the plot elements that give this story its power. It has all the trappings of a good story: a glamorous setting at the Paris Opera (plus, it’s Paris!), and the mysterious below-decks world under the Opera, plus opera singers, counts and exotic foreign characters. And a mysterious dark man.
It’s all delivered in that typical turn-of the century style, addressing the reader directly (as is done in Dracula and Frankenstein). Which can detract from the modern enjoyment of the story. But it’s a classic story, and the dramatic style of the narrator can be overlooked, or might even add to it for you.
In addition, there’s that peculiar gaslight element, which is described so well – a hundred black butterflies flying just out of the corner of your eye. I think that the gaslight era was what gave us some of these great horror stories. It was certainly a factor in Dracula. Because the world looked different by gaslight. There were more shadows, more unknown things. Even the state of the Phantom is part of that. What really is his condition? Why must he wear the mask? How did he get that way? He is in the shadows, he is only half revealed ever – as anyone with any deformity was in those times. That is another element of the story that would have scared people back then – without so much of an understanding or a tolerance for the Other as perhaps we have today.
But it is still a good ghost story.
Two by William Alexander
Goblin Secrets (Zombay #1) and Ghoulish Song (Zombay #2)
Goblin Secrets, Alexander’s first novel, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That’s a tough act to follow. But in Ghoulish Song, he has done this delicious thing. He has used some of the same characters, and shown the scene from a different perspective, and then enlarged it so that we are seeing the whole day from someone else’s point of view. This serves to remind us that the world belongs to everyone, and our bit is only a small part of it.
In Goblin Secrets, there is Rownie, a sad orphaned boy who wants only to be reunited with his brother. This boy has the gift for wearing masks, which his brother had also. Sadly, that is illegal in Zombay. The gear-work guards will come cart you away if you so much as put on a fake nose. The boy is taken in by some goblins, and he hopes that they will not Change him. This boy, he has a lot to worry about.
In Ghoulish Song, we see the same days, most of them, from the point of view of a girl, who has somehow lost her shadow. And the different ways that a ghoul is dealt with are interesting – in some areas, they are burned. In others, they are dismembered and buried in separate pieces. And if you’ve lost your shadow, you’re a ghoul. This book has a lot to do with music, which tames real ghouls, and may just help her get her shadow back. In the meantime, she ends up stranded on a beach, trapped in a museum and facing a ghoul in a burned out house. This girl, she too has a lot to worry about.
I loved the duality of the same things meaning beginnings and endings: waving good bye and hello; the Name Day song and the funeral song; what holds it together can also tear it apart. True of so many things. Firmly grounded in worldwide folklore, both of these books are worlds built that you will somehow recognize but that are so original and surprising that you will just want more.
And the one thing these books are full of, other than imagination and a love of language, obviously, is truth.
Two by Neil Gaiman
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Sort of like a macabre version of Mary Poppins, which is to take nothing away from its originality. Except our young boy has run-ins with ghouls and witches and Hounds of God, among sundry other beings. But in the same way, he is shown an alternate, a parallel world, and this is where the original bits come in. Not only do we get that delicious British turn of phrase every so often, but the plight of the poor boy, whose family is murdered prior to the first pages, is bittersweet, and at once heart-breaking and heart-warming. His name is Nobody, Bod for short, and he is being raised in a cemetery by an assortment of ghosts and other-worldly creatures that give him quite a unique take on the world – and life. The illustrations are beautiful, spare and dare I say, haunting. This book just goes to show that not everything that looks scary is bad, not everything stupid is harmless, and not every monster is evil. This is one book that I wanted to revisit almost immediately, the kind that makes you sad that no, you can’t go back again and read it for the first time.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Okay, sue me, two Neil Gaimans. But I read this first, and it was scary! It is honestly no children’s story. There are beings in here that we cannot even fathom – and that can’t be explained. It is frightening, it is mind-blowing, and highly, highly magical, lovely and original. In this latest outing, Gaiman explores memory, childhood wonder and sacrifice, among other issues. I read this months ago, and the confrontation in the field still makes me shrink back. I loved our little hero, and I loved his darling friend, and we should all be so lucky as to have an ocean at the end of our lane.
The Ghost Story that Isn't
Help for the Haunted by John Searles
I was probably more affected by what I expected from this book than from what actually happened in it. The ‘Don’t go down in the basement’ vibe will definitely feed you some chills, as will the inexplicable always-burning light bulb and for sure the creepy doll Penny. Searles is a bit too vague as to what actually goes on sometimes, though, in terms of the spooky stuff. It’s all a matter of being afraid of what you don’t know. The real story here is a murder mystery compounded by a young girl whose parents had a rather unusual occupation, and who left her dealing with the aftermath of it. The scariest part involves a very real psycho, but I will leave it to you to discover just who that is. It’s a sad story that is highly charged with all the right particles to make a believable masquerade as a ghost story.
Recommended but Not Read
This House is Haunted by John Boyne
I did not get a chance to read this one, but it goes on my list due to a wonderful review by a mystery writer that I respect very much, as well as other good buzz. It's a good old-fashioned Gothic ghost story, complete with isolated manor, intrepid governess and things that go bump in the night (in Victorian England, of course). I do wish that I had read it for this year’s column, but it will have to wait for next year, along with House of Leaves, Mrs. Poe and some others.
To find out more about what I’m reading, look for me on GoodReads. Sometimes my reviews there are lengthy, and sometimes they are really my notes for writing reviews elsewhere. But my To-Read shelf overfloweth. You can also find me on Tumblr as Imagining Things at whilas.tumblr.com.