Each day, a new post celebrating the spooky season will appear below. Check back every day for another way to countdown to Halloween!
So the best part of Halloween is all the free candy, right?
Well, maybe dressing up to get the free candy is the best. It’s certainly enjoyable to look back and see all the homemade costumes people used to create. Maybe it’s the sepia, but so many of these look much creepier than the ones we wear now.
Sometimes the creepiest thing is a gaping unknown. Whether it’s a disappearance or a mysterious death, there are plenty of books about unsolved events to keep you awake at night. From a deadly hike in the Soviet mountains, to a real life case championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to a lost city under the sea, these are some of the most interesting and odd mysteries.
Can you solve these?
Despite the title, this delightful tome is nearly 500 pages of salacious details of crime and murder in Victorian England — plus almost 100 pages of notes, bibliography and index.For someone like me, it’s a treasure trove of the ignoble and infamous. I admit, I got a little giddy when the book arrived. It is stuffed from cover to cover with minute details of not only the crimes, but the criminals, the culture and the era that surrounded it.
Delight in the Invention of Murder.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “For the female of the species is more deadly than the male,” in his 1911 poem. It was not warriors or kings that need be feared, he suggested, but the women who worked in mischievous ways. Here editor Graeme Davis brings together ghostly horror stories penned by women from the long 19th century.
Hail the Queens of Horror.
In the midst of popular schlocky Hammer horror productions, director and producer Jack Clayton set out to make a creepy, slow, psychological horror film with The Innocents (1961). James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” is the story of an unnamed narrator who recounts the strange summer of the governess and her two charges, Miles and Flora. What makes the book and this adaptation so effective is how it walks a razor-thin edge between imagination and reality.
Who are the Innocents?
Since ancient times, accounts of supernatural activity have mystified us. Ghost stories as we know them did not develop until the late nineteenth century, but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms, as recorded in historical narratives, theological texts, and personal letters. Some of the least known supernatural stories are included in the various Penguin Classics collections. From Scandinavian sagas, to witch trial transcripts, to ancient legends, these books are edited and curated to span centuries of lore and history.
Explore the classics.
It was a dark and stormy night, during a summer with no sun, on the banks of a lake at an Italian villa… Two hundred years ago, a young woman — barely more than a teenager — wrote a daring novel that questioned the limits of science and discovery, and challenged notions of agency, self, family and moral obligation. Her character created a monster, but she fabricated something much more complicated.
View the step-by-step manual of Making a Monster.
In the early 20th century, consulting with spiritualists became de rigueur. Everyone from socialites to scientists would sit with mediums in hopes of connecting with the dead. The era was also the early days of photography. The two met in interesting ways.
Some used it as a way to prove the presence of spirits. Others used it to debunk the goings-on during a seance.
More about The Perfect Medium.
By focusing on the two decades around Poe’s most prolific years, readers of The Reason for the Darkness of the Night can really get a sense of the disparate ideas and turbulent scene among scientific thinkers. When the world was enraptured by Arctic exploration, Poe was inspired to write The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. As scientists worked to collect, categorize, and classify the natural world, Poe was hired to write The Conchologist’s First Book, an illustrated guidebook to oceanic shells. When the theory of phrenology claimed to predict criminal behavior, Poe penned his tales of ratiocination.
Read my interview with the author.
The Gentleman by Forrest Leo is a madcap Victorian adventure and is hysterical from beginning to end. Third rate poet Lionel Savage has been unhappy since getting married. One night, he escapes the masquerade party his wife is throwing for a few minutes of quiet in his study, when another man joins him. Assuming he is a fellow trapped soul, the two strike up a conversation. Soon, the man reveals himself to be none other than Old Scratch himself. This book is both snort-out-loud funny and tickle-your-brain funny.
Join the literary frivolity.
Lindsey Fitzharris gives us an unflinching look at the difficult, unsettling world of early medicine through the lens of Joseph Lister’s career. He made his way through medical school, focused on surgery, which was a risky undertaking. Surgeons did not wash their hands, or tools, between patients. Such attention to detail took time, something they couldn’t afford. They earned the nickname “sawbones” for a reason. Lister was different. He began to focus on the problem of infection post-surgery. Despite significant pushback from leading minds of the day, Lister managed to prove that cleaning surgical tools, keeping wounds in clean bandages, and sanitizing hospital spaces greatly improved patient outcomes.
Explore the history of The Butchering Art.
What The Uninvited does so well—both book and film—is strike the perfect balance of spookiness, mystery, humor, and romance. It is, at its heart, a ghost story, but Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as brother and sister bring a grounded presence to the adventure. They aren’t doubtful, but they apply logic to the haunting and try to figure out what might be bothering the spirit.
Let in The Uninvited.
When medicine advanced in the 1800s, scientists and doctors needed more bodies to study. This inspired a new fear for Victorians — being dug up for medical research. To guard against bodysnatchers, people took a number of measures, including inventing and patenting special coffins and burial devices. These designs were increasingly complicated and seem ridiculous today. Two words: COFFIN TORPEDOES
View the designs and diagrams.
For the Victorian, science fiction was not so much about alien invasions or robots taking over the human race (although there was some of that too). The writers applied the tenets of naturalism and newfound knowledge to a little bit of imagination. In this way, these stories are more like speculative fiction, exploring the “what-ifs” of the natural world. Using Mary Shelley’s seminal work, Frankenstein, as a starting point on the timeline, readers are given a glimpse into the mindset of the day.
Explore Frankenstein’s Dreams, an anthology edited by Michael Sims.
When Alfred Hitchcock was searching for his next film idea, he came across the book She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. He inquired about the rights and found someone had beat him to it. It was already being adapted for the big screen by Henri-Georges Clouzot. It would become the intense classic Les Diaboliques. But now the writing team knew Hitchcock was interested and they wrote D’entre les Morts. Not to be caught off guard, he snapped it up and made the simmering mystery Vertigo.
Read about the Boileau and Narcejac adaptations.
Cora is recently widowed, and not nearly as sad as her society dictates she should be. She decamps London, with son Francis and friend Martha in tow, for rural Essex. There she can pursue her study of fossils and lost creatures. She also soon learns the villagers believe there is a monstrous creature lurking in the tidal shoals — just waiting to attack. Of course, the hunt for a mysterious creature is not what the book is really about. It’s a study on what paranoia and suspicion can become, and what wonder can inspire.
Read about The Essex Serpent.
How interesting can a book about wallpaper be? Extremely. While Regency decoration favored more muted color palettes, the Victorians embraced bright, gaudy and electric hues. This included the rich fabrics used to make women’s ball gowns and the impressively printed papers hung in parlors and bedrooms across England. Lucinda Hawksley has written a brief, approachable history of the use of wallpaper and arsenic in the Victorian era.
Learn about the killer pigment in Bitten By Witch Fever.
What if your ancestor were a famous ghost? One that people claimed to see in their room at night or on tours of local places? Hannah Nordhaus’ great-great-grandmother Julia is said to haunt the hotel (once her grand home) in Santa Fe. A rather stereotypical weeping woman in a black dress has been noted since the 1970s and is assumed to be the unhappy spirit of Julia Schuster Staab. A researcher and reporter by trade, Nordhaus sets out to discover her grandmother’s story, and the wider story of her family’s emigration from Germany.
Read my review of American Ghost.
I am fascinated by tales of the ocean, mysteries of the sea. The ocean is just so vast and for centuries uncharted. It was the greatest adventure anyone could embark upon. But even with maps and coordinates and best laid plans, ships disappear. What’s significant about the Mary Celeste is that she reappeared. Her cargo was untouched, no damage was found and no one ever heard from anyone who was aboard ever again. All of this is true.
Read my review of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste.
Never go to the dog park. Don’t intern at the radio station. If you see something, say nothing and drink to forget. And don’t even get me started on Steve Carlsberg. This is the harrowing tale of a mother who must remember the man in the tan jacket, avoid a choir of angels who are most definitely not angels because they do not exist, and ignore the faceless old woman to rescue her son.
My review of the book Welcome to Night Vale.
A grief vampire. A hoaxer. A snake oil salesman. People claiming to be mediums have a number of epithets, especially ones who target the mourning. The seance is often called an attempt to bring closure or to offer some peace to those left behind. To others, it is nothing more than preying on the most vulnerable.
Kit is a bit of both. But then she begins to notice some of her readings are frighteningly accurate. Read my review of the new book The Summoning.
Poe’s death remains a mystery fit for one of his stories. He left home in Richmond, Va., headed for Philadelphia. He was found a week later in Baltimore, Md. Details vary, but he seems to have been delirious and in ragged clothes not his own. He was taken to a nearby hospital. He remained largely insensbile those four days and died on October 7. On the somber anniversary of the silencing of a great American voice, I offer my primer on Poe.
Do you Know Your Poe?
Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions, Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of any Colour, is a real title of a real book. Published in 1865, the book uses “afterimage” to create optical illusions or “spectres.” Interestingly, the book says it is trying to disprove the existence of spirits by showing how easily the eyes, and mind, can be tricked. Either way, the experience is an enjoyable one.
View and download the book for free.
I stumbled upon Val Lewton during a Turner Classic Movies marathon several years ago. After that, I began to take a closer look at his films until I eventually studied them in detail for my master’s degree. As a writer, director, and producer, he understood how to do a lot with a small budget. He boiled creepy tales down to their emotional essence, relying on storytelling rather than shock value. I highly recommend watching any of his classic horror movies.
Read my piece for DVD Netflix about Val Lewton.
In the late Victorian era, scientists began to investigate psychic phenomena. Spiritualism as a movement had spread across the world, and gained adherents from all walks of life. It became impossible to ignore. And during an era when scientific inquiry sought to answer all of nature’s mysteries, claims of telepathy, spirit mediums, and other communications from the dead were subjected to serious scrutiny. Famously, Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were investigators (and sometime debunkers). One of their most famous cases brought them to Boston.
Read my review of The Witch of Lime Street.
Ghosts of taverns with pewter mugs. The distant sound of shod horses and creaking carriages. Early American cemeteries with grinning skull tombstones. Wood beam buildings with low ceilings. Winter nights buffeted against gaping brick hearths. Old maple trees that creak in the wind. Colonial American ghost stories were a mixture of superstitions from the Old World meeting a brand new landscape. I highly recommend this well-constructed collection of short stories and essays.
Read my review of Colonial Horrors.
Key to any holiday is throwing the must-go party. And as long as people have been hosting parties, there have been guides. Dennison’s Bogie Book was a popular publisher of handbooks suggesting parlor games, decorations, recipes, and more. It also marks the evolution of Halloween celebrations in the early 20th century.
View a Dennison’s Bogie Book.
Walking in cemeteries is one of my favorite things to do. Wandering among statuary, reading epitaphs, imagining the lives of others. It’s a rare day when I don’t go out of my way to find the nearest old graveyard when traveling. Thomas Gray wrote the famous poem that meditates on the quiet memories that are found in these beautiful corners.