Fall! Finally, an excuse to pretend we’re inside by choice. Cozy blankets, hot cider, and the kind of scares that stay safely within the frame of a TV set or the pages of a book. If you’re looking to feel a chill down your spine that pairs well with the spooky season and maybe some pumpkin spice, here are two books to start October off uncannily well.
The Companion by Katie Alender
This isn’t twist-based horror but a slow and creeping surety of wrongness. I prefer this form of slow build to twists, and the dread here accumulates at a steady pace until it’s absolutely suffocating. It’s a nice twist on a haunted house, since the haunting is being done by a living girl—a barely-responsive heiress who needs a companion. A sprawling manor mirrors the sprawling, unspoken rules of the Suttons’ WASP way of life, full of hidden dimensions and unexpected pitfalls. Margot, an interloper in this buttoned-up world, just wants to do enough to survive, but that’s much harder than it first appears.
I loved Margot’s narrative voice, which ranges from flat, low-key humor to complex introspection. Her reactions to grief are realistic and meaningful, as are her attempts to move past it. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the romance, since the setup felt like it should be contrived. But fanfic-y or not, it works very well. Margot is a very sincere person, and I found her eagerness and forthrightness refreshing—she’s not sitting at an ironic remove from things, she’s trying her best to engage.
That doesn’t mean she’s naïve, though. Margot doesn’t go in for dumb horror movie tropes; she’s trying to navigate a situation in which she has very, very little power with as much wit and bravery as possible. She’s also a quietly compassionate heroine: her care for Agatha is a note of sweetness that she never lets sour, no matter how weird and uncomfortable things get. It’s a good counterpoint to the sad, bitter realities she slowly uncovers and eventually has to outright battle.
Horrid by Katrina Leno
This was my first time reading Katrina Leno, but it definitely won’t be the last. Horrid is an absolute gem of atmosphere: a dilapidated old house in Maine, a smart and eerie conceit centered around roses, and what felt like a town made up of subtle, silent glances almost more than people. Jane, our heroine, longs to be back in sunny LA, but instead she’s stuck with gloom and mystery. And ordinarily she’s fine with mystery—she’s a big Agatha Christie fan—but broken windows and creepy noises might be too much for her mind to bear after the death of her father.
Leno also speaks frankly and poignantly about grief throughout, imbuing the narrative with a realistic portrait of long-term mourning in its various aspects. Jane isn’t just sad, she’s angry, tired, and distracted. But she’s also eager to get into life, wants to make friends, and wants to fill up her world again. She’s a very whole and complex person. I particularly liked her anger, not just a symptom of her grief but a strong aspect of her personality with which she struggles.
Her mother is also complex and interesting, very much against the grain of the nefarious caretaker trope. Their relationship has a strong foundation but is fraught with understandable tension, given their recent loss and financial situation. The slips and frays due to other factors really do seem like they could be nothing. At first. But as things get weirder, Jane has to question everything. Her relationships. The house. The whole town. Herself.
Well-written and well-paced, Horrid is a creeptastic delight that, bonus, also starts in September and comes to its conclusion as Halloween arrives.