By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…
…and we’re midway through the month of October, bringing with it longer, colder nights and the scent of apple cider on the breeze. It’s the time of year for traipsing around muddy pumpkin patches, telling ghost stories with a flashlight (or a “torch,” here in the UK) balanced precariously underneath your chin—and, of course, tucking into a good Gothic novel. But let’s say you’ve read the classics. You’ve already torn through The Haunting of Hill House; you want something more modern, less familiar than Dracula. Let’s say you would like to read something fresh; something that encapsulates the Gothic sensibility while taking you somewhere entirely new.
To that end, here is a list of sumptuously creepy Gothic novels which reach into history and twist this time-tested genre into new and unexpected shapes.
(Not provided, but recommended: a thick blanket and a hot, sweet drink.)
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Written and published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Dark Descent retells the Gothic classic from the perspective of Victor’s childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth. With dark flair, White reinvents the Elizabeth we know, giving her a voice of her own and revealing that—beneath the delicate exterior—there lies a careful, calculating survivor. This retelling perfectly encapsulates the mood of Shelley’s novel, rich with pertinent detail and lyrical prose. We see this from the very first line: “Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through the clouds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.”
While it has much to offer fans of the original Frankenstein (which, incidentally, is also an excellent October read), you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate White’s tale—it’s a compelling novel in its own right, one that can be read and enjoyed by anyone—which makes it a top choice for the spooky season.
The Poison Thread / The Corset by Laura Purcell
This novel—published in the US as The Poison Thread and the UK as The Corset—weaves a gripping tale around two narrators in Victorian London. Dorothea Truelove is a young, wealthy heiress: she wants for little, yet is morbidly drawn to Oakgate Prison, where she seeks to learn about its prisoners through the emerging study of phrenology. Teenage Ruth was once a seamstress; now accused of murder, she is woefully awaiting the hangman’s noose. It’s Ruth’s belief that she can sew evil intentions into her garments, imbuing them with the power to hurt and even kill. Over a series of prison visits, Dorothea listens to Ruth’s grim story—following her stitch-by-stitch through poverty, forced labour, and cruel betrayals—but the question is, can she believe it? As the book’s cover asks, is Ruth “mad or a murderer”? Purcell writes with the intricacy of embroidery, carefully balancing possibilities in a way that will leave you guessing to the very last page.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Another novel which features the setting of a Victorian prison, Affinity is a carefully plotted and tricksy story about trust, intimacy, and betrayal. This time, our primary narrator is Margaret Prior, a troubled young lady who seeks to distract herself from her personal life by visiting the women’s wards of Millbank. It’s within the walls of this labyrinthine gaol that she meets Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who alleges that a ghost committed the murder of which she is accused. Margaret is entranced by Selina and soon begins to fall for her…but all the while, there is a nagging doubt in the back of her mind. Can she really allow herself to believe in ghosts?
Richly researched and packed with mesmerising detail, this novel takes you on a compelling journey through the dark Victorian world of spiritualism and crime.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Now we hop forward from the 19th century to the 20th, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s gorgeous 1950s reinvention of the Gothic haunted house. When the gregarious and headstrong socialite Noemí Taboada receives a panicked letter from her newly-wedded cousin, she embarks on the journey from Mexico City to High Place—a remote English household in a faded former mining town. It’s from this dreary, mushroom-studded landscape that Noemí seeks to extricate her trapped cousin, and finds herself drawn into the heart of a history so horrible she could never have dreamed it.
Moreno-Garcia’s writing exquisitely blends horrors both fantastical and undeniably real, simultaneously revitalising the classic haunted house narrative and taking a hatchet to the racist tropes of the past. For all its gruesomeness, this chilling tale has a thread of love and tenderness running through its core which will have you rooting for Noemí every step of the way.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
The last novel on this list is deeply peculiar, and deeply compelling. Drawing inspiration from Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, Perry builds a terrifying folklore around a cloaked figure who stalks the earth, cursed to witness acts of wickedness across all time. In this narrative, Melmoth the Witness—a woman, rather than the man of the original novel—seeks out those with guilty hearts and beguiles them to join her in her endless solitude. From 17th-century England to 1920s Turkey, wartime Czechoslovakia to the sticky heat of the Philippines, Melmoth the Witness wanders silently and diligently, waiting for the one person who might finally succumb.
Told partially through first-person recollections of Melmoth and partially through the modern-day tale of Helen Franklin—an ageing translator in Prague, whose own dark history is beginning to catch up with her—this story grips tight and doesn’t let you go.
Bonus: Gallant by V.E. Schwab
Just when you thought you’d seen all the twists and turns that make great Gothic stories, here comes the prolific V.E. Schwab with her own spin on the genre. Pitched by the author as The Secret Garden meets Crimson Peak, Gallant is a standalone Gothic novel, and it’s set for release in March 2022! If it’s even half as intricate and gorgeous as its cover design, then it’s not one to be missed.
Holly Kybett Smith is a femme lesbian writer based in the south of England. A keen lover of historical and speculative fiction, she specialises in all things dark, whimsical and weird. Her work has been featured in Issue #2 of the New Gothic Review. Find her on Twitter: @h_kybettsmith.