As the nights draw in and the ghosts seep from the walls, it’s time to huddle beneath your counterpane with a suitably creepy book. I asked seven of our most brilliantly chilling writers to name their favourite Gothic reads, both a classic and a modern Gothic novel. Prepare to be frightened, repulsed, entranced…
The Gothic novel I keep returning to is My Cousin Rachel. In it, many of the traditional trappings of Gothic horror are reversed – the classic novels of the genre have an innocent young woman exploring a strange, spooky ancestral home, often with a sinister older man in the background, lurking with dubious motives.
Here, though, Daphne du Maurier gives us Philip Ashley, an idealistic young man growing up in his family seat. The tranquility is broken by his beloved guardian’s death and the arrival of his widow, the enigmatic Cousin Rachel – alternately cast as guardian angel, or devious seductress. Did Rachel really poison Ambrose? Or is it Ambrose who has poisoned Philip’s mind? Du Maurier’s genius avoids neat answers, and keeps us wavering until the last.
The Little Stranger is that most excellent of things, a really good ghost story. And by really good, I mean one that’s not only shiveringly scary, but also totally believable. Set in the late 1940s, it does what all good ghost stories do, and taps into the collective anxieties of the time to create a story that’s as much about class upheaval and the dying of a particular way of life, as it is about the supernatural.
Ruth Ware’s dark and dramatic thriller, The Death of Mrs Westaway, is out in hardback now.
Jane Eyre has it all: a lonely house with locked rooms and sinister retainers, supernatural visions, messages in dreams, the wind howling over the moors. And it has Jane. One of the features of nineteenth century Gothic fiction was that it often had a woman at the centre of the story. Jane’s agency moves the action forward and, whilst terrible things happen to her, she is never a victim.
Although I’ve said that Gothic novels often have women at the centre, The Prestige by Christopher Priest has two male protagonists. But I love books about magic and the Victorian theatre – all gaslight and faded grandeur – is the perfect setting for this story of bitter rivalry between two stage magicians. And, of course, the perfect trick requires not one illusion but two, or even three…
The Stranger Diaries, Elly’s gripping Gothic thriller, is out on 1 November.
You will struggle to find a book with more Gothic elements than Wuthering Heights: a drama of wandering ghosts, locked rooms and prophetic dreams played out on the windswept Yorkshire moors. It’s hard to believe that something with such a raw and violent narrative came from a Victorian clergyman’s daughter, but the power of Wuthering Heights is undeniable. I’ve reread it every year since I was a teenager and my fascination has not waned. It is testament to Emily Brontë’s skill that I love this book so much despite not actually liking many of the complicated, tortured characters. It is exhilarating, hypnotic and frankly, a bit mad – which is a bonus as far as I am concerned.
In Pure by Andrew Miller, as young provincial engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte begins to empty the charnel pits of Les Innocents cemetery, the unsavoury work begins to take its toll not only on his own optimism, but on the people in the city around him. You would not expect a story centred on the demolition of an overstuffed Paris graveyard to be beautiful, but this really is. The light touch of Miller’s prose is so graceful that even the bleakest, most visceral scenes somehow carry charm. The atmosphere of creeping dread culminates in some explosive scenes, and we are left with ominous foreshadowing of the French Revolution, due to arrive just four years after the narrative takes place. A delicious mixture of the dark and the literary.
The Corset, Laura’s Gothic chiller, is out now in hardback.
I love The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s got my favourite piece of character description ever, when the lawyer Gabriel John Utterson is described as god-fearing but content to “let my brother go to the devil in his own way”.
That’s brilliant – an entire character in a line. And imagine reading that twist for the first time. It must have been amazing. I’m just gutted it’s now so ubiquitous it will never surprise anybody ever again.
As for modern Gothic, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters made me edgy even when I wasn’t reading it. Another corking ending, as well. What. A. Book.
Stu’s bestselling thriller, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is out now in paperback.
My shelves are heaving with Gothic novels and, at first, my classic choice was going to be Dracula. However, on reflection, the novel that’s chilled and influenced me most is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; never quite having recovered from this psychological examination of a profoundly troubled soul. It dug its way deeply into my own psyche. It resulted in horrific dreams.
In more recent years I have been spooked by Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path, which in setting and tone has echoes of another firm Gothic favourite: Wuthering Heights.
Essie’s The Last Days of Leda Grey, which brings the flickering ghosts of silent film to life, is out in paperback now.
Emily Brontë was influenced by early Gothic novelists when she created the world of Wuthering Heights, but her book was ground-breaking, pushing the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ fiction. Its wild, desolate setting and passionate, destructive love story confirmed the template for the Gothic novel and imbued the Yorkshire moors with a romanticism that pervades in Brontë Country to this day.
My favourite modern Gothic novel has to be The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. There is no one better at bringing a fresh approach to a traditional genre and this is a masterful, subtle ghost story. The supernatural elements are gloriously creepy, building at a measured pace to an understated but impactful ending. The best ghost stories leave us with questions and, as far as I know, Waters has never clarified exactly what, or who, is haunting Hundreds Hall. Just brilliant.
The Coffin Path, Katherine’s compelling ghost story, is out in paperback now.
I’m in awe of Shirley Jackson’s Gothic novels for their suspense, superb characterization, wonderful writing, and (dark) humour, but I would also go further back to add Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as a favourite Gothic novel for his clever use of ambiguity and an unreliable narrator to create a novel that chills and makes you think and think again…
I very much enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón as a modern take on the Gothic novel. The setting of post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona is intriguing and the concept of the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books is brilliant. The Parentations by Kate Mayfield is also a great read for its wonderful writing, female characters (in particular), and a theme that leaves you thinking.
Karen’s glittery mystery Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru is out now.
As to my own favourites, it’s very difficult to choose between Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both deceptively simple and profoundly unsettling; both firm favourites with writers in the Gothic genre. Shirley Jackson’s biographer referred to We Have Always as a ‘paean’ to the author’s agoraphobia. If you haven’t discovered Shirley yet, you’re in for a rare and disturbing treat.
From the many brilliant Gothic novels of recent years, I’m opting for The Loney. Both old and new and suspended somewhere between the supernatural, the strange, and the outright horrific, Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel is, as Sarah Perry has said, a real Gothic masterpiece.
There is also a spirit host of brilliant Gothic novels out this Autumn, including a whole row of creepy houses (House of Glass, A House of Ghosts, The House on Vesper Sands) and, of course, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth. I’m a firm believer, however, that a Gothic novel is not just for Hallowe’en. I’ll be reading them all year round.
Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is shortlisted for the 2018 HWA Debut Crown awards.
Images: supplied by the author