In 1978, Violet and Eric Hildreth are being raised by their grandmother, the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth. The children are self sufficient and home schooled and mostly left to pursue their own interests. And their interest is monsters. Vi and Eric are the only two members of the Monster Club, which is writing its own survival guide. “There are two main types of monsters,” they write. The first know they are monsters and the second have no idea and pass as human. Violet and Eric are distracted from their usual summer schedule of monster hunting, library trips, and sneaking into the local drive-in when Gran brings home a girl. A girl who wears a hat to hide scars on her head and who Gran tells them to treat as a sister.
In 2019, Lizzy Shelley has left her childhood name and identity behind, having no desire to be associated with the most famous true crime story in Vermont, but she has never lost her interest in monsters. In middle age, she is a successful monster hunter, reality TV star, and podcast host. She lives in her van, pursuing tips about monsters all over the continental US, minus Vermont. One particular monster plagues her. A monster that abducts young girls during a full moon. A monster she suspects to be the sister she hasn’t seen in decades.
The Children on the Hill was my favorite read of Spooky Season 2022. It’s a bit hard to classify, being a blend of gothic, suspense, and horror. Scaredy cats like me don’t need to avoid this book though. While Children on the Hill could be classified as horror, it’s an old fashioned kind of horror like Frankenstein or Dracula, and there are nods to both of those novels here. This novel is classic in every way from the tension between madness and the supernatural, and the warning against scientific progress at the expense of human morals. Much like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the primary question here is, “What is a monster?”
Like with every good suspense novel, there are twists even when you think all has been revealed. Fans of mysteries, horror, and both classic and modern gothics will find Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel to be irresistible.
Fall French 77: A cocktail inspired by The Children on the Hill
In The Children on the Hill, Gran loves gin. So much so that she distills her own, with the same patience she gives to her scientific discoveries. So naturally a gin drink would be ideal to accompany this book, so I created an autumn variation on the classic French 77.
Circe is an outsider among gods, goddesses, and minor deities. Her voice, unlike that of any other immortal, sets her apart, as does her witchery. The gods decree that Circe be exiled to the island of Aiaia for the rest of her immortal life. On her beautiful and lonely island, Circe learns her craft, interrupted by the occasional mortal or immortal visitor. When Odysseus’s ship lands on her island, everything changes for Circe. The most literary book on this list, Circe is a myth beautifully retold. Miller fleshes out a minor character in mythology, imagining a powerful, clever, and passionate woman who made her own way when she proved different from any other mortal or immortal to walk the earth.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (historical)
In 1865, Elsie Bainbridge, recently widowed after her husband’s sudden death, inherits her late husband’s English manor. The Elizabethan home was once a grand estate, but by Elsie’s day, it is in a state of decay. Elsie’s new home contains silent companions, wooden cut outs that resemble people. At first, she is merely spooked by the silent companions, but she soon suspects that they can move of their own accord. Elsie’s story is intertwined with that of Anne Bainbridge, the lady of the manor in the 1600s, who turned to witchcraft to conceive a child. Anne’s child, a mute girl named Hetta, is misunderstood in Anne’s view and evil in the eyes of others. This one is a must read for all fans of Gothic literature, as it contains creepy English estates, hints of both madness and the supernatural, and Victorian asylums. As a note, it is quite creepy and as close to horror as I, a total scaredy cat, am willing to read.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow
Seven years earlier, the Eastwood sisters–bookish Beatrice Belladonna, beautiful Agnes Amaranth, and impulsive James Juniper–are separated, and each sister blames her other sisters for the betrayal. In 1893, Juniper heads to New Salem when fleeing the law. There, she is reunited with her sisters and they awaken dormant magic. An alternate history where Salem village was burned to the ground with the witchcraft trials and a new town–New Salem the Sinless City–was founded, The Once and Future Witches tells the story of witches and witch hunters, suffragists, and workers’ rights movements, blended with folklore. This was possibly my favorite book on this list. As a history nerd, I enjoyed spotting fictionalized versions of real historical figures and events, and I appreciated the intersectional feminism of the story.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Sally and Gillian Owens were shaped by three forces: the witchy aunts who raised them in a small Massachusetts town, the isolation of going to school in a town where they were also believed to be witches, and cautionary tale of the drug store girl, who acquired a love potion from the aunts, only to regret her decision once she was a married woman with a husband who followed her everywhere. Sally grew up cautious while Gillian grew up wild, but the Owens sisters agreed on two things: to avoid magic and love all of their days. Gillian left town as soon as she became an adult, to chase men that she didn’t love. Sally forgot all about the warning of the drug store girl and devoted herself to creating a family. When the sisters are in their thirties, Gillian shows up at Sally’s house with her dead boyfriend in the car, and Jimmy’s unnatural death proves to be the one problem they cannot solve without magic. In this beautifully written novel, Hoffman has created a world where life and love are mysteries even to witches.
What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine
Maisie is not permitted to touch or be touched by anything living. If she touches a living thing, whether it is a leaf or an animal, it will die instantly. If she touches a dead thing, it comes back to life. She grows up in her ancestral home, raised by her father, Peter, and their housekeeper, Mrs. Blott, governed by an endless list of rules. As she has not been permitted to interact with others, she assumes her condition is part of being a child and that when she’s an adult, she too will be able to touch things without consequence. It is not until she spies, outside the gates of her home, a line of schoolchildren holding hands while walking that she realizes she is alone in her condition. After the death of Mrs. Blott and the disappearance of Peter, Maisie goes searching for both her father and the story of the woods behind her home, where women in her family have gone missing for centuries. A boy and a young man join her in her quest, and Maisie is thrilled to experience male interest for the first time, but only one of them is trustworthy.
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (historical)
When Beatrice Dunn arrives in New York City in 1880, she seeks employment at a mysterious tea shop. The tea shop is a favorite with society ladies who dabble in spiritualism, but Beatrice quickly learns that the owners, Adelaide and Eleanor, have real magic and so does she. As Beatrice begins to explore her powers, religious zealots wage an anti-magic campaign that threatens the tea shop. Throughout Manhattan, women rumored to have magical powers are going missing. When Beatrice becomes one of the missing, Eleanor and Adelaide must go in search of their protégé. McKay’s portrayal of late 19th century New York is compelling and original, and the story is an enjoyable fall read. Content warning: If you will be bothered by a negative portrayal of organized religion, skip this one. Every professing Christian in this novel is a jerk and one is a serial killer.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (1st of the All Souls Trilogy)
Diana Bishop, eager historian and reluctant witch, orders a rare alchemical book from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, not knowing that this book is coveted by the three supernatural races – witches, vampires, and daemons – or that the book had been missing over a century until she requested it. Once Diana, a hereditary but non-practicing witch, unlocks the magic of the text, she’s being pursued by supernatural beings, befriending a vampire, and learning about the mysterious death of her parents. The trilogy has many things going for it: a dark academia vibe, a love story, and a whimsical supernatural world that is as compelling as Harry Potter’s. Its primary weakness is a fairly generic vampire hero. Matthew is wealthy, well-dressed, patriarchal, possessive, and just not that interesting. In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable series.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A shy and friendless young boy meets Lettie Hempstock, the girl at the end of the lane, after a local tragedy and she becomes his first friend. Like him, Lettie is a solitary child without friends her own age and a little strange. She refers to the pond at the end of the lane as her ocean, and the boy is unsure of whether she believes the pond to be the ocean or if it is simply make believe. Unlike the boy, Lettie is well loved at home, and the narrator is drawn to the Hempstock house, where everyone is kind to him. The boy begins seeing magic around him, in the practices of the Hempstock women and in strange events around town. When the boy begins to suspect that his new nanny is actually a supernatural being, and his family won’t believe him, he turns to his new friends for help. This was my first time reading Neil Gaiman, and it reminded me a little of the Roald Dahl books of my childhood, but with more grown up content. A great read if you enjoy child narrators and fantasy.
Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA mystery)
La Cachette, Louisiana 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. Seventeen years ago in La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer, a first for an island with only 100 full time residents. They call themselves the Summer Children. Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before. A few months before Grey returns to the island for her seventeenth summer, her best friend, Elora, goes missing. Grey returns determined to learn what happened to Elora, only to find that 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.
Beautiful Creatures (YA series) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (YA)
Gatlin, South Carolina is a town of churches, debutantes, and Civil War nostalgia. Experience a tragedy and everyone will bring you a casserole. Step outside the prescribed order and become an outcast. High school student Ethan Wate, who is mourning his mother’s death, cannot wait to leave Gatlin and no longer be known as the boy without a mama. When a new girl, Lena Duchannes, arrives in town, Ethan recognizes her as the girl who has been haunting his dreams. The two lonely teens are drawn to each other, and Ethan is drawn outside ordinary Gatlin and into a new world of the supernatural. Lena comes from a long line of Casters, and Ethan has no idea about the family curse that will change her upon her sixteenth birthday. With interesting main characters and excellent writing, the series is haunting and atmospheric and–most unfortunately–problematic. The books would have benefitted from a Black editor or beta reader to prevent racial stereotypes that shouldn’t have made their way into print in the 21st century. Which is sad because the books are otherwise gorgeous Southern gothics.
The Secret Circle (trilogy) by LJ Smith (YA)
When Cassie Blake moves from California to her mother’s childhood hometown of New Salem, Massachusetts, Cassie finds that the teens who live on her street somehow run the high school. Some are kind and idealistic while others are bullies, but none of them have ever been held accountable for their actions. Fascinated by these teens, Cassie becomes a member of their group, only to learn that she–and the rest of the children of Crowhaven Road–are the last in a long line of witches. In full disclosure, this is 100% a comfort read from my adolescence and as ‘90s YA as you can possibly get (supernatural love triangles!). In general, supernatural stories that are rooted in the Salem witchcraft trials can go very wrong in that they can minimize both what happened to perfectly innocent people and lessons that should be learned from these events. The Secret Circle somehow manages to build off the real history without minimizing the tragedy of what actually occurred. On the less positive side, no one talked about consent in the ‘90s, when this trilogy was written, and it shows here in the treatment of love spells.
Harry Potter (MG series) by JK Rowling
What can be said about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said? Unless you have been living under a rock since the late nineties (and if yes, I’m so sorry, climate change has made weather bonkers since then and current events are even worse, so return to your rock asap), you know the Harry Potter series is about a young boy who learns he is a wizard and grows up to battle the most evil wizard of his age. Drawing from mythology, Arthurian legend, and historical events, Harry’s story is an epic tale. Whether you love Harry Potter or love to hate it, JK Rowling has created a magical world that lives on in the modern imagination. I cannot say enough good things about the series, even though I have beef with Rowling’s stance on trans rights.
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.
Haunting of Hill Houseby 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.
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
Combine the wine, maple syrup and vanilla in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium and add pears.
Simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove pears and set aside.
Turn the heat up on the remaining wine sauce.
Reduce the wine sauce to half.
Serve pears with wine sauce and your preferred toppings.
Sundae Bar Toppings:
Ice cream. Suggested flavors include vanilla, caramel, and cheesecake
Pictured is my poached pear with sea caramel Halo Top, chocolate chips, and crushed praline pecans.
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
Preheat oven to 375°F.
If you don’t own an oven-safe skillet, spray a medium casserole dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add the red bell pepper, celery and sweet onion and cook until the onions are translucent.
Add the chopped shrimp, garlic, and creole seasoning and cook until the shrimp are opaque.
Stir in cream cheese, Greek yogurt, scallions, and lemon juice.
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.
If your skillet is not oven proof, pour the shrimp and cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ¼ cup of parmesan.
Bake for 15 minutes and then broil for an additional two minutes.
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.
Thin sliced ham
Provolone cheese slices
¾ cup mixed and sliced olives (I used a castelvetrano/kalamata blend)
1/2 cup mild giardiniera
Preheat oven to 425.
Slice baguette and brush each slice with olive oil and top with a light dusting of garlic powder.
Arrange sliced bread on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sliced olives and giardiniera.
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.
Press down on each crostini slightly to smush the olive mixture into the toasted bread.
Turn on broiler. Broil your crostini for 1 to 2 minutes.