Spooktacular Halloween reads

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Reads writers highlight their favorite Halloween reads and recommendations.

“Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn – Scott Stevens

What is more absorbing yet repellant, warm yet suffocating, than the nuclear family? As in, a family actually created through nuclear material. 

Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love” is centered around a traveling circus of freaks comprised of Art and Lily Binewski and their children, whom they genetically modify by means of arsenic, amphetamine and radioisotopes. We meet Arturo, a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Electra and Iphigenia, joined as Siamese Twins; Olympia, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and Fortunato, or “Chick,” the normal-looking baby of the family who has telekinetic powers.

The novel is set in present-day Portland and alternates between multiple perspectives. We follow Olympia’s daughter Miranda, the family’s experiences in the circus and Arturo (“Arty”) as he grows up and learns how to manipulate the circus audience, eventually creating a cult called “Artruism,” for which acolytes have their limbs amputated one by one in the search for “Peace, Isolation, Purity.” This is just one aspect of the disgusting yet engrossing plot of the novel.

Beyond the plot, Dunn has realized complex, fascinating characters with rich details in their behavior and thoughts. The themes of heritage, fate, human difference and the will to power (and to love) are sure to attract many readers, though the premise might come off as repugnant.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson – Maya Czeneszew 

Jackson’s last work presents a mystery about the remaining members of the Blackwood family after a fatal poisoning incident that killed the mother, father and their son. Narrated by Merricat, the youngest member of the Blackwood family, who lives with her uncle and older sister, this novel explores how alienation manifests itself within the family unit, society at large and its effects. This novel is not driven by direct action; instead, it meanders through time and plays with memory and perception. A sense of absence is highlighted throughout the novel, and the intrigue lies within what is missing. Jackson masterfully creates an atmosphere of unease reminiscent of “The Lottery,” arguably her most popular short story.  

“Possessions” by Judith Richardson – Lily Nilipour 

A haunting has a quality of irresolution to it – some place with a fraught history, still marked by the past. Ghosts, spectral or historical (or both), live in these places, invisibly nagging the present.

English lecturer Judith Richardson’s book “Possessions” investigates representations and records of hauntings in the Hudson River Valley, a central location to the formation of the United States. Of course, it is also notoriously haunted (think Washington Irving). Throughout her analysis of not only literature but also guidebooks, personal accounts, local histories and letters from the 19th and 20th centuries, Richardson argues that ghosts are social artifacts that inform the creation of local historical memory and identity. But she also points out that ghost stories confuse and challenge history by lingering, nagging and reminding us that this happened and we never solved it. This is particularly salient in considering American history, where the formation of local identity was built on conflict, violence and dispossession. 

Indeed, Richardson’s clever title “Possessions” highlights the liminal, almost paradoxical, nature of ghosts. They claim ownership, despite their invisibility; they are rooted, despite their restlessness. They become intrinsically tied to place, despite no longer being there. As Richardson puts it: “There is substance in these shadows.” 

“Shadowman: Fear, Blood, and Shadows” by Peter Milligan – Nik Wesson

These comics, by Peter Milligan, follow Jack Boniface as he is thrust into his inheritance as a protector of the Earth. Now drawn into the world of voodoo, he fights his inner demons and his legacy. The art of this book emphasizes the sheer creepiness in its many monsters, but it is watching Jack confront his dark side and seeing the history of racism in the south, all while watching our main character struggle with his own legacy that makes this series so horrifying. 

“The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie – Roberta Gonzalez Marquez

“The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd” spoils Agatha Christie’s entire novel and does so fantastically. Agatha Christie, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable names in mystery writing, has a favorite conflict: murder. This makes her, without a doubt, a skilled novelist in depicting humanity at its worst. Hercule Poirot, a genius and meticulous Belgium detective, is the protagonist of 33 of Christie’s novels, most notably including “The Murder on the Orient Express” and “The ABC Murders.” While the majority of Poirot’s stories are told in the point of view of Poirot’s closest friend, Captain Hastings, so as to avoid intruding on the detective genius’s headspace and spoiling his findings, “The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd” is refreshingly told from the perspective of Dr. Sheppard, Poirot’s neighbor, while the detective is on vacation. 

This mystery analyses the murder’s miniscule details — the way a chair was arranged, a vinyl was left on a record player and a window had been disregarded — to lengthen the intensity of each scene. Christie engages the reader, challenging them to solve the mystery for themselves, before revealing one of her greatest plot twists. Heartily recommended, “The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd” will engage, horrify, mystify and, surely, surprise you.

“Good Hunting” by Ken Liu – Shana Hadi

This tightly-hewn, evocatively rendered short story by Ken Liu deserves its accolades, Netflix adaptation (“Love, Death & Robots” Episode 8) and more. The son of a spirit hunter forms an unlikely bond with a huli jing (female shapeshifter), and as their pastoral hometown gives way to Western industrial progress in the form of new railroads, they must individually navigate the changing landscape and heightened planes of enforced social stratification. Though traditional magic may have bled from their land, steampunk — or “silkpunk,” as coined by the author — creates new opportunities for them to fight back. With a reveal that ripples like the metal coils of the new machines that he creates, this immersive work will challenge your perceptions of colonialism, robots and the shifting dynamics of power.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley – Mark York

I must confess, dear reader, that I nearly used this holiday to settle some leftover grudge from high school English class. After all, what is scarier than reading Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury” for a book report or pretending that you have anything to say about Hemmingway. But, English class was not all bad; it did reintroduce me to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

I first read this book when I was 11, and I processed nothing. Of course, this was inevitable. I could not comprehend the implications of humans playing God; I had only just discovered what a zit was. So when I found nothing about monsters terrorizing villagers or evil doctors laughing at the clap of thunder, I concluded that “Frankenstein” was pretty lame. 

But something clicked the second time around. Despite its movie adaptation kick-starting several monster movie cliches, the original “Frankenstein” is devoid of such narrative mile markers. It doesn’t need them, as I was plenty horrified by the morally corrupt human, Victor Frankenstein. And I still think about the monster, resembling more a cold, vengeful ghost haunting our main character. Then, I discovered the context. Monsters coming back to life seemed like a genuine possibility in Shelley’s time. There were several experiments involving animating dead tissue with an electric shock, which suggested that people could be brought back, and all it would take was some thunder and a nimble hand. Suddenly, the monster feels a lot more real, so thanks English class for that. 

Contact Reads Desk Editor Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Shana '21 is a former Managing Editor for Arts&Life (Vol 256) who is studying computer science, English, and their many intersections. She is also an active night owl who enjoys green tea and flights of imagination (spurred from works like Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation"). When she’s not reading speculative fiction or attempting to write it well, she wonders if books are word sandwiches and their themes are different flavors of idea jam, and if that’s why they're so nourishing to the soul.