I see the ghosts and creaking floors and sharp teeth didn’t scare you off… Welcome back to Part 2 of my book recommendations based on my favorite Halloween films. Today, we’re diving deeper into the Gothic.
Tower of Terror (1997)
This was the first movie that I remember being terrified of. It used to air on Disney Channel during the Halloween season but later at night, usually nine or ten p.m. because it was little more intense than Twitches or Casper. I vividly remember having nightmares of the man in the kitchen sitting up on the service cart, headless and brandishing a knife. I didn’t make it past that part of the film until I was too old. The film was inspired by the free fall ride in Disney World, which perhaps unsurprisingly, also greatly terrified me as a kid. I think the waiting in line, being watched by eerie actors, standing in the creepy basement, was scarier to me than the actual elevator drop. I love it now, merely for the drama and beauty of that attraction. I think about it probably too much.
We have no shortage of ghost stories, or even “murdered in a hotel” stories, but the allure of Tower of Terror for me was the hotel itself, along with the cast of victim ghosts who just happened to be in the wrong elevator at the wrong time. I’ve picked books that are reminiscent of those themes.
And Then There We None by Agatha Christie
Arguably the best Agatha Christie book ever, this novel is about several strangers who are all invited, under strange circumstances, out to a beautiful rambling house on an island in the middle of the sea for a weekend. Quite unexpectedly, they begin to die one by one according to a child’s nursery rhyme. There’s the same sense of creeping dread, the same power of place, and the same childish terror apparent in Christie’s novel that freaked me out as a child in Tower of Terror. If this mansion wasn’t already haunted, it sure is by the end of the novel.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Like I said, my favorite thing about Tower of Terror is the tower itself. I just can’t stop thinking about it. It haunts me, just like Jackson’s Hill House. Full of ghosts, investigation, and paranoia, this novel is one of my all time favorites, and probably not least of all because I felt the same thing I did as a child watching Tower of Terror that I did when I read the novel for the first time. I’ll literally never be over that opening paragraph, and I’ll never exhaust myself on explanations for why things unfold how they do in the story. I was reading part of it in a busy hallway in a lecture building for my Gothic literature class and literally jump scared myself when a class let out. That scene, which I won’t divulge but I’m sure you can guess when you read it, still sends a shiver up my spine. Good God!
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
I’d do pretty much anything for Winona Ryder, including watch this film seven times in October, but that’s not exactly a sacrifice. Tim Burton is a master genius, and Edward Scissorhands is proof of that. This quirky, off-beat, off-color, bizarre masterpiece of a film follows the social birth of Edward, a man crafted by an evil genius in a castle on the hill — which overlooks a sprawling pastel cookie cutter suburbia. Taken in by cosmetic saleswoman Peg and brought to live with her family after she finds him alone in the castle, Edward flails through a year as the neighborhood’s favorite shrubbery expert and hair stylist due that his hands are, you guessed it, made of scissors and knives — his creator dies before Edward is complete and so the poor orphaned creature has to make do. It’s completely bizarre and like the contrast in the world of the living and the dead in The Corpse Bride, Burton again expertly uses color to divide the world into tidy parcels which are then eviscerated as Edward is in turn accepted, gawked at, and rejected.
Abigail’s Recommendation for $1000, Alex! This literary classic has spawned an entire genre of monster fiction since its release in 1818, including a spin-off by Tim Burton about a mad scientist who fails to finish crafting his progeny. Let’s make it a true Daily Double, Alex.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Duh. Maybe I don’t have to say anything else besides “Scientist’s attempt to craft a human from scratch goes woefully wrong as the creature is outcasted from society and the scientist is destroyed” but I live and die by this novel and you can’t stop me from saying more! I can wax poetic about how if Victor had 1) not abandoned his newborn creature to the wilds of the world, and 2) not pursued it like a wild beast then maybe things could have turned out better for my old friend the Creature, not to mention old Vick himself, but I really cannot get over the idea of the Delacey family letting the Creature sleep on their waterbed and helping him look more presentable with Mary Kay products as an act of acceptance and love. Look, I’ll never criticize Mary Shelley but maybe she could have at least considered a Peg in her original draft?
The Covenant (2005)
If I have to pick a hill to die on, and I think I’ve given you a pretty good idea in this article alone about how many I have to choose from, I’m picking the one I’ve named “The Covenant is a cinematic and storytelling masterpiece and you cannot change my mind.” I discovered this little B film during my Friday Night Lights phase in late middle school when I was ready to move to Texas and become the first and only Mrs. Tim Riggins. Taylor Kitsch was my first serious crush after Orlando Bloom and I’ve continued to carry the torch to this day (I saw John Carter of Mars in theaters, so you know I’m in for the long haul). I watched The Covenant with my mom and her best friend at the time and we literally had to restart the film about thirty minutes in because none of us had any idea what was going on because there was so much eye candy to feast upon that we forgot it wasn’t a Diesel runway show and that we had to pay attention to what they were saying in order to follow the plot. It was Steven Strait (Warren Peace from Sky High), Taylor Kitsch (THE Tim Riggins), Chace Crawford (of Gossip Girl fame), Toby Hemingway (from Taylor Swift’s “Mine” music video), and the one and only Sebastian Stan. It’s about a coven of male witches in New England, at a very creepy boarding school where apparently it is always night time. There are good looking men, ghosts, magic, romance, and some epic fight scenes. Say what you will about the plot but that film has visual aesthetic on LOCK. And I’m not just talking about the men. For this recommendation, we’re thinking moody, we’re thinking brotherhood, we’re thinking magic, we’re thinking forests…. Am I getting predictable at this point?
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My favorite series of all time — maybe if I hadn’t been exposed to The Covenant years prior this series wouldn’t have managed to get it’s barbs in me. Since I first saw the film, I’ve been such a sucker for stories about brotherhood in or around old schools with sprinklings of magic or the uncanny. This series, while much more tame, fits perfectly alongside The Covenant. There are similar character tropes — Gansey and Caleb Danvers as serious, sweet but mysterious leader boy, Ronan Lynch and Reid Garwin as unpredictable bad boys whom our hero can’t help but love, Barrington Whelk and Chase Collins as unassuming but somehow dangerous interlopers trying to infiltrate the gang, Blue Sargent and Sarah Wenham as the one girl allowed to break into the male circle to figure out what’s so mysterious and alluring about a bunch of idiots who don’t have other friends… The Covenant is like angsty Raven Boys.
Crimson Peak (2015)
When a true Gothic horror film was announced starting Tom Hiddleston, you bet your bookshelf I was already in line for a ticket. I was taking my Gothic literature course when it came out so I spent the entire film fluctuating between pointing out Gothic traditions, gazing longingly at Tom Hiddleston, and clutching my legs in terror. Like most horror films, the anticipation was the driving force behind why I was scared, but I will say those ghosts! Those ghosts. My gods, those ghosts. Visually perfect, complete masterpieces of digital effect and Doug Jones’s amazing acting skills. It was a picture perfect Gothic film, with all the right pieces. I’m still not over it. Dark brooding stranger, innocent and naive bride, a marriage for money, murder, a beautiful and terrifying house, ruin and decay, a dark double, incest, violence, ghosts, illness and wasting, a dark secret, a last minute hero — it pulled perfectly on it’s ancestors to make a truly eerie and wild film that felt like reading the Gothic did.
I could point to The Monk by Matthew Lewis or anything by Ann Radcliffe, but to put a little nuance here, I’m going to pick more modern choices.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Looking for the dark double to plague your marriage? Look no further than du Maurier’s classic Rebecca. Like Lucille Sharpe foils Edith Cushing in the film, Rebecca foils our nameless narrator in the novel. Gothic novels love wickedness and character foils, but we didn’t really get to see woman pushing into that role until recently, as traditionally our dark doubles were the evil villain trying to snatch the heroine’s wealth and his light counter part is the man she truly loves attempting to save her. We do see a semblance of that in Crimson Peak between Thomas Sharpe and Dr. Alan MacMicheal, but the contrast between them is weak (jury is still out about Thomas Sharpe folks!). The beauty of the film is in the contrast between Lucille and Edith, the ways they overlap and clash, the subsuming of space by one or the other. I’ve never seen the dark double with women so beautifully done as with Rebecca and the narrator. I love this novel for that exact reason.
Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
It is a Halloween reading list without Poe? I’m giving him to you a little differently, with Lynn Cullen’s novel Mrs. Poe which elaborates and embellishes on the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood. Thomas Sharpe reminds me a lot of Poe, morose and lanky and strange, but the real connection here for me is again in the dark double. It’s flipped here from Crimson Peak and Rebecca because the light double is trying to get what the dark double has instead of the other way around, as we see Frances falling in love with Poe and infringing upon his marriage to Virginia. I can’t resist a dark double, and this one really delivers at the end. There’s a lot of charm in Cullen’s crafting of the literary scene at the time, but I can’t get over the Gothic elements that she peppers in to make this forbidden romance a little more eerie.
Trick or Treat! I hope you found something interesting here, whether for a movie or book recommendation. Let me know what you’re going to pick up next! Have recommendations of your own based on my movie picks? Share in the comments!