October Bookshelf: Folklore and thrills to read this month

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By Alexander Sampson, First Year English Literature

With Halloween around the corner, this October Bookshelf delves into the heart of folklore, superstition, suspense and thrills through a mixture of fragmented novels, shocking fairy tales and haunting poems. From Joanne Harris to Susan Hill, Bram Stoker to Henry James, this collection whirls through autumnal settings as the old erupts into the present, and the future beckons with the coming of All Hallow’s Eve…

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker’s classic draws upon a deep pool of contemporary fears and ancient superstitions, conflating the two into a notorious epic of the Gothic genre. Stoker weaves through the accounts of Jonathan Harker and his associates as they struggle against Count Dracula’s designs to move to London and expand his rampage on the innocent. Just as the idea of an unsuspecting public preyed upon by an unseen, blood-sucking monster has drawn some to read the novel as a metaphor for Victorian concerns over infectious diseases, a fresh reading in COVID times offers similar parallels, dark in their implications as the modern world fights against an unknown enemy.

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
An English graduate from the University of Bristol, Carter’s collection of fizzing, reimagined fairy tales marries her studies of medieval folklore with her unique angle on second wave feminism.

The resulting assortment of stories twists from enormous castles into suffocating, dark woods and enjoys uprooting the conventional tropes of popular bedtime stories. From terrifying patriarchs to cursed female vampires, each short story melds into the next to create a highly entertaining, original and ambiguous collection which challenges and often violently tears the reader’s expectations apart. Highlights include Carter’s amusing retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in The Company of the Wolves and the wonderfully haunting narrative in The Erl-King.

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Ghost-filled and genuinely frightening, Henry James’s short novel offers a masterclass in narrative tension, leaving the reader with a sense of unshakeable unease at the sinister implications this ghost-tale holds. The story follows the account of a Governess who travels to care for two seemingly sweet children, Miles and Flora. Through the intermittent, phantom appearance of the former governess and another former employee, the children are apparently corrupted over time in a series of alarming, disorientating episodes. Ghosts circulate the mansion of Bly, but the real horror resides in the mind of the Governess and in a narrative scythed at its climax…

For a truly unsettling read, James’s account is not to be missed on the eve of Halloween.

Poems of 1912-13 – Thomas Hardy
Silent hauntings yield to hearing voices in Thomas Hardy’s set of elegiac poems. Melancholy and evocative, Hardy’s intimate collection expresses his experiences of grief as he personifies the voices of his recently deceased wife, Emma. While Hardy’s masterpiece documents a faltering journey toward acceptance of his bereavement, he is persistently troubled by ‘The Voice’ of Emma calling to him in a poignant dialogue across the veil. The Phantom Horsewoman, Rain on a Grave and The Haunter all offer absorbing insights into the different ‘voices’ grief engenders, while the collection’s final poem, Where the picnic was, speaks of a man finally understanding his loss as nature, in a metaphor for his life, rots around him.

I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill
An unsettling work from the author of The Woman in Black, Susan Hill breathes life into a novel oozing with mental and physical decay. Charles Kingshaw moves with his mother to an oppressive country house, where she will be Housekeeper for Mr. Hooper and his son, Edmund. The two boys immediately despise each other leading to a dark, claustrophobic power contest that spirals towards a disturbing denouement. The house’s deterioration, set on an estate with the murky ‘Hang Wood’ encroaching across the fields, provides the background for a deep psychological exposition on the cruel complexities of childhood.

Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris
And in a bright, gripping finale, Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players follows the theme of lost childhood love and tragedy against a present-day hunt for revenge. Harris’s thriller centres on a private school mired in scandal and the narrative skips between an abused child seeking to escape her reality, the perspective of a centurion Latin teacher and the mysterious voice of a new teacher with vindictive motives. As this page-turner moves between narrators and time, explores love, gender-identity, trauma, revenge, and the ticking of time against tradition and age, the ‘roaring lion of Autumn sweeps through the school’s trees’, ravaging Halloween’s chill and setting the scene for an explosive climax on the eve of Bonfire Night.

These recommendations twist from the opaque depths of the mind to external hauntings and unearth our capacity for dark pleasures. Through the pages of Hardy to Hill, the menace of nebulous doubt grows within, stalking the days towards October 31st and the months of Winter beyond.

Featured Image: Austin Kirk / Flickr


What books have you been reading this month?

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