2021 Halloween Reads: Gothic Novels

2021 Halloween Reads: Gothic Novels

Gothics are one of my favorite genres. If you like to be spooked, but don’t quite have the stomach for horror, gothics can be an excellent choice for a Halloween read. The genre ranges from the literary (Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, etc.) to ’60s and ’70s novels of young women terrified in spooky old homes, as seen in the graphic below. Gothic signatures include wealthy old houses, sins of the father living on through the generations, gloomy weather, the supernatural, decay, and madness.

A tweet that amused me a little too much.

Given the range of the genre, there is something for everyone from the most analytic literature snob to the person who just wants to turn off reality and get lost in an atmospheric book. I’m probably both of those reader types at different times of my life, and here are my absolute favorites:

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

The Cemetery of Lost Books is a secret library hidden in Barcelona. It exists so no book can ever be fully removed from existence, but can still be discovered by readers, long after it has gone out of print.

A young boy named Daniel is introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books by his father while they are both mourning the loss of Daniel’s mother. Per policy, Daniel is allowed to take one book as it is his first visit, and he selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. As Daniel falls in love with his selected book, he learns the writing of Carax is rare, specifically because someone has been destroying all copies of his work. As Daniel searches for the truth, his life begins to mirror that of Carax and also become as strange and mysterious as the plot of The Shadow of the Wind. Quite possibly the best gothic since The Haunting of Hill House, Shadow of the Wind portrays a post-Civil War Spain where the real world horrors, the supernatural, and madness blur together in an intricate plot.

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager.

Maggie Holt restores historic homes for a living, always looking for the story behind the house. But the story that has always eluded her was that of Baneberry Hall, where she and her family lived briefly when she was five before fleeing in the middle of the night. Shortly after, Maggie’s father wrote a memoir about their supernatural experiences at Baneberry Hall, a book the adult Maggie always dismissed as a money making opportunity until she inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death and realizes she cannot explain the things that go on there. There are nods to Hill House and The Shining here, but Home Before Dark moves beyond that to become its own contribution to gothic literature. It contains the classic scares, constantly makes the reader question what is real, and then comes to a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Shortly after World War II, Dr. Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall to care for a young maid. The maid expresses her dislike of the once-grand house to him, but Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family, has been a source of fascination and envy for Faraday since childhood. As the son of a maid, Faraday has risen in the world, while the respected Ayres family has lost most of its wealth. Dr. Faraday becomes the physician of Roderick Ayres, who was injured in the war, and a suitor to Caroline Ayres, a partnership that would not have been possible a decade prior. As Dr. Faraday becomes essential to the Ayres, he can’t help but notice a shadow of evil in Hundreds Hall and that tragedy keeps coming for the Ayres one by one.

Classic Gothics:

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

After caring for her mother through a long illness and putting her own life on hold, Eleanor receives a cryptic invitation to take part in a research project at a long abandoned house called Hill House. At Hill House, she meets people just like her–people who have had supernatural experiences–as Dr. Montague tests his theories of the paranormal with his new assistants. The temporary residents first find Hill House to be unsettling and then terrifying. In many ways, Haunting of Hill House is the classic haunted house story, but it’s ghosts are never seen. In fact, it seems to be the house itself that is the source of the evil.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland is delighted when her neighbors invite her to visit Bath with them. As the frequently ignored daughter of a clergyman,Catherine has experienced no excitement in her own life, only in the plots of the gothic novels she prefers to read. When Catherine makes friends with the elegant Eleanor Tilney at Bath and is invited to stay at Eleanor’s home, Northanger Abbey, she feels that her life has truly begun. But the longer Catherine is at Northanger, the more concerned she becomes that something is wrong, specifically concerning the death of Eleanor’s mother. Could the intimidating General Tilney be a murderer? Jane Austen’s parody of gothic novels is a perfect Spooktober read for all the people who want something spooky but not actually scary.

Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

The Turn of the Screw opens with guests telling ghost stories at a Christmas Eve party. One guest tells the story of a governess who saw ghosts after moving to a remote country estate to care for two orphaned children named Flora and Miles. The uncle of the children was not interested in raising his niece and nephew and left all of the children’s care to the governess. Once in her role, the governess begins seeing a strange man and a woman on the grounds, and from things she has been told by the housekeeper, she decides they are the ghosts of Quint, the late valet, and Miss Jessel, previous governess to the children who had also recently died. Like with many other gothic stories, it is unclear what is real and what is imagination in the Turn of the Screw and as its narrator is a young man amusing partygoers with a ghost story, it adds an additional layer of distance and doubt.

Witchy Poached Pears

Witchy Poached Pears

Poached pears are easy, delicious, very seasonal, and they make your house smell like heaven. I don’t know if Yankee Candle makes a poached pear candle but they really should. 

If you are a Michigander, I have a shortcut for you: Poach your pears with Leelanau Cellars Witches Brew, which is a spiced red wine. If you have a Costco membership, you can buy an oversized bottle for $9.99, although if you buy the oversized bottle, you will want to use 3 cups for this recipe, not the full bottle. Out of state with no access to Witches Brew? No problem. Just add either mulling spices or two chai tea bags to the red wine of your choice.

I strongly recommend making your poached pears sundae bar style. Everyone likes to customize their own dessert, and poached pears are quite versatile.  My sundae bar suggestions can be found directly below the recipe.

  • 4 to 6 pears, peeled
  • 1 bottle of Witches Brew (or other red wine with either mulling spices or 2 chai tea bags)
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Combine the wine, maple syrup and vanilla in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat to medium and add pears.
  3. Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
  4. Remove pears and set aside.
  5. Turn the heat up on the remaining wine sauce.
  6. Reduce the wine sauce to half.
  7. Serve pears with wine sauce and your preferred toppings.

Sundae Bar Toppings:

  • Ice cream. Suggested flavors include vanilla, caramel, and cheesecake
  • Caramel sauce
  • Chocolate sauce
  • Nuts 
  • Chocolate chips
  • Crushed toffee

Pictured is my poached pear with sea caramel Halo Top, chocolate chips, and crushed praline pecans.

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Seventeen years ago in the tiny Lousiana island of La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer. They call themselves the Summer Children.

La Cachette is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. In addition to the approximately 100 human residents, La Cachette is home to venomous snakes and a 13-foot alligator named Willie Nelson.

Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before, but she looks forward to her high school graduation, as it will allow to move back to La Cachette full time to spend time with her closest friends, the other Summer Children, especially her best friend, Elora. However, a few months before Grey returns to La Cachette for her seventeenth summer, Elora goes missing.

When Grey returns to the island, she is determined to learn what happened to Elora, but no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.

Ginny Myers Sain’s debut novel is the perfect read for spooky season. I’ve read several books over the last month trying to find the perfect October book to review, discarding many along the way, and this was the only one that wowed me. The appeal is due to several factors: the rich Southern gothic tradition this is part of, the appeal of island fiction, and of course, a well-crafted mystery.

Dark and Shallow Lies is a very atmospheric novel. I have had a soft spot for gothic fiction set in Louisiana ever since my teenage years of binging Anne Rice, and this novel makes the most of its setting. With the very first pages, the reader is given the impression of a wild and dangerous world, endless humidity, and secrets. Beauty and the grotesque live side-by-side in La Cachette. Part of La Cachette’s mystique is that it is an island. Novels set on islands from And Then There None to Lord of the Flies create tension simply through isolation, as each islander lives only at the mercy of the other islanders, with the outside world feeling almost unreal.

The mystery is intricately plotted with many twists and turns along the way. As this is a YA mystery, there are no characters so drunk that they become accidentally unreliable narrators, which is a bonus. (If you have read a lot of mysteries/thrillers marketed for adults, you have stumbled into many an alcoholic narrator along the way.) I’m assuming the missing girl plot gives this away, but in case it doesn’t, this book is definitely for the older end of the YA spectrum, not for your 10-year-old niece. There is violence, drinking, drug references, etc. It’s ideal for teens beginning to age out of YA and for adults. I’m planning to buy a copy for my 17-year-old stepdaughter who reads mostly adult fiction these days.

As La Cachette is an easy day trip from New Orleans, the ideal book club menu would contain New Orleans specialities. This month’s book club menu consists of hot Cajun shrimp dip and muffuletta crostini.

Hot Cajun Shrimp Dip

This is a mash up of three recipes I found, plus it’s slightly lightened up with extra veggies, Greek yogurt in place of mayo, and reduced fat cream cheese. Given that this recipe is pretty much cheese upon cheese, my attempts at lightening it up are probably the equivalent of having Diet Coke with a Big Mac meal to save calories. But I feel like a Louisiana grandmother would still judge me for trying to lighten it up at all. My hypothetical grandma is known as Miss Dominique in her neighborhood and she tells me that when your time is up, your time is up, so just eat the cheese.

This dip can be served with crackers and bread. If you have club members who can’t or don’t eat carbs and/or gluten, raw veggies, plantain chips, and Nut Thins are also good dippers.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup celery
  • ½ sweet onion, chopped
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb shrimp chopped
  • 1 tb creole seasoning
  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese (⅓ reduced fat)
  • 5 oz nonfat Greek plain yogurt
  • ½ lemon juiced
  • 1 cup pepper jack shredded
  • 1 cup cheddar shredded, divided
  • ¼ cup parmesan shredded
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. If you don’t own an oven-safe skillet, spray a medium casserole dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
  3. Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add the red bell pepper, celery and sweet onion and cook until the onions are translucent.
  5. Add the chopped shrimp, garlic, and creole seasoning and cook until the shrimp are opaque.
  6. Stir in cream cheese, Greek yogurt, scallions, and lemon juice.
  7. Add in the 1 cup of pepper jack and ½ cup of cheddar one handful at a time. Once the cheese is evenly incorporated, add the next handful.
  8. If your skillet is not oven proof, pour the shrimp and cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
  9. Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ¼ cup of parmesan.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes and then broil for an additional two minutes.

Muffuletta Crostini

Muffuletta sandwiches are an Italian contribution to New Orleans cuisine. Full of ham, cheese, and olives, they are the type of sandwich that gets better as it sits. While I don’t doubt the transformative power of marination, I opted to transform it into a crostini here because appetizers are more fun for book club meetings. Plus it gives us an excuse to put the cheese under the broiler because melted cheese > room temperature cheese.

If there are dietary restrictions, just customize your muffuletta. For vegetarians, omit the meat for an olive melt. For lactose intolerant friends, omit the cheese. For keto friends, omit the bread and do a meat, cheese, olive roll up.

  • A baguette
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic powder
  • Thin sliced ham
  • Salami
  • Provolone cheese slices
  • ¾ cup mixed and sliced olives (I used a castelvetrano/kalamata blend)
  • 1/2 cup mild giardiniera
  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Slice baguette and brush each slice with olive oil and top with a light dusting of garlic powder.
  3. Arrange sliced bread on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sliced olives and giardiniera.
  4. Once you remove the toasted baguette slices from the oven, top each bread slice with a spoon of the olive/giandiniera mixture, a slice of ham, a slice of salami, half a slice of provolone.
  5. Press down on each crostini slightly to smush the olive mixture into the toasted bread.
  6. Turn on broiler. Broil your crostini for 1 to 2 minutes.

Enjoy!