I love to cozy up with a good spine-tingling tale any time of year, and especially during Halloween season. Yes, season. At Casa Kurt, it lasts around six weeks beginning with decorating the house over the first weekend of autumn and extends through the Day of the Dead in early November. That provides a lot of time for reading. My IRL book club also gets into the spirit with an annual spooky themed October selection. This year, we’re reading The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror classic, which inspired the iconic film that I still can’t watch alone. For this Halloween reading list, however, I compiled a list of ten scary good new releases from 2021, that range from keep-you-up-all-night thrillers and haunting mysteries to a bewitching rom-com and a modern reimagining of a 19th century gothic ghost story. Read at your own risk…
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
The Hamilton lyric “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” echoed for me while reading this one. A killer is stalking the members of a therapy group for the sole survivors of mass murders whose stories were made into film franchises. The final girl archetype has been having an extended eponymous literary moment, but the latest by Grady Hendrix keeps it fresh by going old school with clever easter eggs and insider references to classic 80s and 90s horror franchises that genre superfans will love. More than a plot device, Hendrix also leverages the FGSG concept to make a post-#MeToo statement on the status of gender-based violence and other people’s trauma as entertainment, while at the same time racking up his own fictional body count. Fast-paced, campy, and filled with damaged and flawed, yet complex and relentlessly resilient characters, FGSG incorporates extras like “case files” and “news articles” to tease out plot points and add more dimension to the story. Who has a grudge against the final girls? Why? And how did the fate of a houseplant literally bring me to tears?
The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman
I’ll admit, I fell in love with the film version of Practical Magic long before I read the book that inspired it and launched the NYT best-selling Magic series. The two follow-up albeit ‘prequel’ novels focused on character development and delved deeper into the history of the enchanted and enchanting Owens women. Now their saga comes to a close in this globe-spanning fourth installment that takes readers on a mystical journey alongside beloved aunties Jet and Franny and the younger Owens generations as they race to break the centuries-old curse that has brought them so much heartbreak. Family secrets and bonds, witchcraft, the concept of fate, and love abound. “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.”
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
The mysterious disappearance of her aunt 35 years earlier drives an otherwise aimless young woman to uproot her life, follow her aunt’s footsteps, and seek answers. Told from alternating points of view and timelines between present day and the early 1980s, The Sun Down Motel is a twisty page-turner that weaves supernatural elements across a gritty landscape. The suspended-in-time mid-century motel becomes as much a character as the namesake setting for this… ghost story? Noir thriller? Nancy Drew meets Ted Bundy crime narrative? Yes, yes, and yes.
Survive the Night by Riley Sager
There’s quite a bit of 80s and 90s nostalgia for me in some of these picks, and Survive the Night checks that box yet again. Harkening back to the soundtrack from my own college years, Nirvana songs set the stage for a campus rideshare gone horribly awry. Did Charlie accept a lift from the campus killer who murdered her own roommate? Is the movie reel in her head actually real? What is in the freaking trunk? Will she survive the night? You’ll never see the clever meta-media ending coming. This one kept me up turning pages way past my bedtime.
These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall
A felt mouse wearing a gold foil crown. An engraved music box that plays “You Are My Sunshine.” A teakwood hedgehog keychain. A gold hairclip. Are these curiosities merely keepsakes from a client’s travels and life filled with meaningful memories, or are they connected to something more sinister? Is a long dormant serial killer suddenly active again? Why is her own mother being so evasive lately? Twenty-something digital scrapbook curator Mickie Lambert finds herself with more questions than answers and on the receiving end of terrifying threats as she builds an augmented reality memory box (imagine Alexa regaling you with tales of your own life while projecting holographic images) and becomes increasingly immersed in the life of recently deceased shop owner Nadia Denham.
Haunted Hibiscus by Laura Childs
If cozy mystery series are your cup of tea, Childs’ Tea Shop franchise set in Charleston will have you sipping with delight. Featuring leading lady Theodosia Browning, amateur detective and proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop, and her sleuthing sidekick and tea sommelier, Drayton, the 22nd installment, Haunted Hibiscus, opens the week before Halloween at the launch of a literary and historical themed haunted house to raise funds for the local Heritage Society. When an author present to sign copies of her latest book turns up dead, true crime and local legends merge for a murder steeped in myth, mystery, and southern charm. Each book in this series can be read as a standalone story, and all include recipes and a list of tea party theme ideas and resources. Faves from Hibiscus are the Chai Cupcakes, Crab and Avocado Tea Sandwiches, Herbed Chèvre Butter, and Haunted Hibiscus Cooler. And I will for sure be hosting an Agatha Christie Tea!
Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar
While I use the terms genre-defying and meta to describe aspects of other books on this list, Chasing the Boogeyman is a masterclass in both concepts. It’s Capote’s In Cold Blood meets Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In the Dark meets Stephen King at his narrative best. With pictures. The imagery bridges the imagined story with true crime on a whole new level. A novel that tells the story of a series of grisly small-town murders in the late 80s, Boogeyman breaks new ground in fiction the way The Blair Witch Project did with film. Comparisons aside, for its sheer literary originality, this one will make my overall “Best of 2021” list.
Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost by Lindsay Marcott
In this modern reimagining of the gothic classic Jane Eyre (and also borrowing a few themes from Rebecca), an out-of-work screenwriter named, um, Jane, takes a gig as a summer school governess and finds herself enamored with charismatic tech entrepreneur Evan Rochester, suspected of murdering his missing wife. Suspenseful and layered with revealing scenes from the past told from the POV of the titular Mrs. Rochester, the mystery of what really happened the day she disappeared begins to unfold. Is it her ghost haunting the grounds of the sprawling Big Sur estate, or is what lurks in the fog someone much more corporeal and dangerous? What’s up with the Modigliani? Why is Evan digging into to Jane’s own family secrets? Well-plotted but a little thin on overall character development, Jane’s relationship with Evan’s 13-year-old daughter, Sophia, is a highlight of this story for me.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Not for the faint of heart, Jones’ latest novel masterfully combines homage to 80s slasher films (and horror genre and mystery references galore) with the equally wrenching inner and external worlds of indigenous high school-aged outcast Jade Daniels. The result brilliantly defies categorization and every customary genre convention. Jade is a would-be/could-be /doesn’t-actually-wanna-be final girl literally praying for a bloody deliverance. Interspersed with “homework” addressed to her state history (or as Jade calls it, Brainwashing 101) teacher Mr. Holmes, Chainsaw’s moments of cinematic exposition are treats for genre fans, deftly laced with character insights and plot point razor blades. The denouement is a flaming roller coaster ride of twists and turns that culminates in a hauntingly beautiful metaphor so thematically revelatory and timeless that it made my heart ache. And be sure to read the Acknowledgments. Jones is a genius, and even his endnotes tell a great story.
The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
Prefer your Halloween with a side of Sex and the City? Then you’ll love this spellbinding rom-com, complete with a handsome heartbreaker, dishy BFF banter, swoon-worthy footwear descriptions, cocktails, canoodling, and even a black cat named Sir Purrcival. Ok, maybe Carrie Bradshaw didn’t have a feline familiar, but don’t hold that against Sir Purrcival. When a harmless little hex on her betrothed-to-someone-else ex stirs up a cauldron full of trouble, Vivi Jones must summon all her strength to save her town and keep herself from falling back in love. Note to self: never mix vodka and witchcraft.
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