I picked up a book from my TO READ shelf the other day and was only two pages in when I put it down, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was set at Christmastime. And just now, as the long streaks of fall sun light up my office window and the spice in the air tells me Halloween is coming, I can’t possibly read something Christmas-y.
This is my favorite time of year. It’s quiet and slow. The heat of summer blows away and the promise of costumes and ghost stories abound.
Now is the time for witches and goblins, potions and spells and for the line between imagination and reality to blur. This is our time, we lover of tales and tellers of story.
It’s time to read something wicked and fun.
My love of paranormal literature first sparked when my sixth grade English teacher let us pick books from a cart to read and review. Mrs. Czichos was brilliant and the projects she assigned were unique. A few I recall were reading Dante’s Inferno and creating our own circles of hell, and researching lines from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel and presenting our findings to the class. Great lesson plans. But the project that triggered a lifetime love was simple: pick a book from the cart, read, review.
By the time I got to the cart (my last name being Vann), it was picked over. Only a few books remained. But there, waiting for me, like a soul mate, was Double Trouble. The main characters of this book are twins. Their parents have died and the siblings have been separated, the boy entering into the foster system. But they can still be together because they have the powers of ESP and astral projection.
What I found memorable about this book was they learned how to do these things. If they could learn how to ease their souls out of their bodies and fly around, so could I. Right? For a month after I read this book, I lay in bed at night, willing my soul into astral projection. Didn’t work. But still. The book was cool. And it was much different from my usual: Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club.
Then, at a sleepover, I was introduced to the Fear Street series by R.L Stine. On my friend's bookshelf were these interesting-looking books with creative, frightening covers. I couldn’t help but wonder about them. She let me borrow one and I was immediately hooked. After that, my trips to the Waldenbooks at the mall, where I always went straight to the back to smell the new arrivals, changed. Fear Street was sold in a different section (away from the bubble-gum covers of the SVT). I felt very sophisticated.
R.L. Stine is better known for the series he wrote later on – Goosebumps. I was excited when that movie came out because it introduced my kids to one of my favorite authors. Even though I never read the Goosebumps series, the movie was a great reprise of Stine's stories. I completely geeked out when R.L. Stine passed the characters in the hallway at school. Jack Black says “Mr. Black,” to R.L. Stine and R.L. Stine says “Mr. Stine” to Jack Black. Simple, elegant, beautiful cameo that only a lover of Stine’s work would notice.
After Fear Street I read The Secret Circle, a series by L.J. Smith, about a coven of witches trying to navigate high school. If Double Trouble introduced me to this genre, and Fear Street pulled me in, it was The Secret Circle that solidified my existence in it. I dreamed of finding a coven of witches to join; powerful, snarky girls who would accept me as one of their own. At that time, there were only three of these books. But in 2012 and 2013, three more were released. I may have to go read those. Just to complete the circle. (See what I did there?)
The Secret Circle was turned into a television series in 2011 (perhaps by someone who read these books when they were younger?). Britt Robertson played the main character Cassie Blake. This adorable actress has been in a lot lately, but I mostly remember her as Steve Carell’s emotional daughter in Dan in Real Life. The real gem of IMDB crossover information, however, is in Thomas Dekker. He resurrected the tormented Adam in The Secret Circle, but really shined a few years later in the Backstrom series, as Gregory Valentine. Also tormented, but more realistically (and hilariously) so, less of a “poor-me-I-can’t-decide-whom-to-love” teenage angst kind of way.
L.J. Smith also wrote The Vampire Diaries, which – as we all know – was also turned into a television series. I never read these books and though I did binge watch the series for a while, I didn’t make it to the end. There are SO many episodes.
After The Secret Circle, I read Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersley Cusick, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn.
Though the cover of Wait Till Helen Comes looks tween-friendly, it was a really creepy read. The main character moves with her family into an old church, which has been converted into a house. This concept struck me as very cool. But also nuts, since the backyard of the old church was a graveyard haunted by a ghost. The ghost seems to have good intentions at first but then she doesn’t.
More recently, this book attained a new cover that better conveys its true level of creepy.
Pretty big difference, eh?
After reading this book, I felt I’d graduated to another level of paranormal.
At a garage sale, I bought some Stephen King novels: Carrie and Children of the Corn. And this is when my mother really started to worry. When I tried to name my cat Malachai, after a character in Children of the Corn, my mother rolled her eyes and said, “I am not calling that cat Malachai.”
She called the cat Puddin’ and eventually I did too.
In my freshmen year of high school, I was asked to write a sensory engagement essay. I wrote about being buried alive and the sensations of suffocating and trying to dig my way out.
My English teacher was also worried.
I should note, however, that my interest in the occult did not cross over into my actual life. I had no delusions of actually being a magical creature, despite my fascination with reading about them. So, while my English teacher mentioned to me she was worried, she never contacted my parents. She wasn't terribly concerned that I’d crossed over onto a dark, unreasonable path. My mother did mention I was wearing too much black a few times but I assured her I was just in it for the slimming effects, not the “I’m a witch,” facet.
Interestingly, the Harry Potter generation doesn’t feel the need to explain this for themselves. But I came from a different era and the adults in my life were leery.
But – this is important – they never asked me to stop reading.
So I didn't.
After reading The Tale-Tell Heart, Poe became a deep favorite of mine. It was a one-sided love affair in which I pondered the possibility of anyone ever loving me as he loved Annabel Lee. I also read Frankenstein and Dracula. (All assigned to me through excellent high school Lit classes).
And then, somewhere around my senior year, I discovered Jane Austen. And my reading life shifted to the magical world of 19th Century English literature. (That’s a list for another day.)
College was an exciting time for reading and discovery, but I generally didn't attend to the paranormal during those years. One notable exception to that was Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Which is a phenomenal Halloween read.
In fact, if you haven’t read it, start with that one. It’s just a novella, so it won’t take too much of your time. I found this work so outrageous and disturbing, I read parts of it aloud to my boyfriend (now husband) on a cross-country road trip. I can still taste the thrill on my lips as he drove us along and Kafka’s words dripped from my mouth like a horror story and we both marveled over the brilliance.
After college I got serious about writing my own books and curved my reading life toward research of the young adult genre. And this base, to my delight, has recently taken a turn back to the occult of my younger years. (Thanks again, I believe, to Harry Potter.) Popular series include Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Fallen, Caster Chronicles and Vampire Academy (I highly recommend this last one), and Gregory Maguire’s brilliant retellings of fairy tales from the villain’s point of view. SUCH a great concept, and one that really took off with Wicked.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Wicked, the Broadway show. But it actually started as Wicked, the fantastic novel about a misunderstood girl who somehow ended up as the villain, to no fault of her own. I loved this book so much I met some friends in NYC in March of 2003 just to see the show. We were fortunate enough to see it with the original Broadway cast and I will never forget that experience. After the show we drank coffee in the dark corner of a cafe and discussed the differences between the book and the show. We talked about the powerful chill bump-inducing voice of Idina Menzel (who would later use that power to grab the hearts of girls everywhere with “Let it Go”) and the hilarity that ensued when a set piece didn’t move the way it was supposed to and Kristin Chenoweth made a joke, tapping her wand as if it were broken, then lost her place and sent Menzel into fits of laughter.
There is nothing like live theatre, folks. Nothing.
What was the purpose of this blog post again?
Oh, yeah. What to read NOW as you wait for the mysterious fog of Halloween to roll in?
I’m currently reading the fourth Harry Potter book to my kids. We’re taking it slower than normal. I don’t want to dive into the darkness of these last four novels too quickly.
But outside of that, I want to curl up with a book on my own, warm drink in hand, snuggled into my reading chair, dreaming of witches and goblins and ghosts and ghouls. And decorate my house with black candles and pumpkins.
Here’s some I’ve read recently that I loved:
And I Darken: Brilliant retelling of Vlad the Impaler in female form. Brutal, angry and twisted. Could not put it down.
Vampire Academy: I know, I KNOW, vampires have gotten a bad rep recently. But stay with me here. The main character of Vampire Academy has a vague Katniss-ness about her that feels redeeming. I just read the fifth book in this series and I will now read anything Richelle Mead writes. Also, they made a movie based on the first book and if you find the main character familiar but can't QUITE place her, IMDB will tell you she is Lea Thompson's daughter. And the world will make sense again.
The Bookseller: Fantastic concept. The anticipation of discovering what was true and what wasn't kept me reading until I absolutely had to attend to my own life. Great read.
Station Eleven: I can't even explain the beauty of this book. The simple act of survival, the looming threat of something we all fear, the connection points of all the characters. It's well put together and poetic in its misery.
And here’s what I’m reading now:
The Witch’s Daughter: It's good so far. Sufficiently creepy. And weaves through history seamlessly.
And finally, what’s on my TO READ shelf:
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: My kids are dying to see this movie NOW. But I want to read the book first. We'll see who wins. ;)
The Witch of Portobello: by the incomparable Paulo Coelho.
The Night Circus (I actually started reading this on my Kindle a few years ago. But then my son dropped my Kindle and broke it and I’ve been meaning to get back to it since.)
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: just because it sounds awesome.
Happy Halloween Reading!