Trick or treat? It's the question that copywriters the world-over are currently milking for all it's worth, 'cause it's Halloween, baby! Nothing bites much like that topical content, does it? Granted I can't throw stones - while my income might never allow a glass house, I still wouldn't risk it with the damp on these walls.
Anyway, it's a pity Halloween hasn't quite taken up in South Africa as it has elsewhere. It's a pretty damn cool holiday, all things considered. We all get to dress up and ask strangers for sweets, or cuddle up watching bad horror films from the 90s - where women were inexplicably incapable of both running and wearing a bra. That's a solid evening in my books, and I don't think life otherwise affords us enough opportunity for either activity. Why not grab the chance by the tail-end of it's sexified animal costume? Why the hell not, indeed!?
In this spirit (ha!), I'm about to equip you with a masterfully-chosen reading list comprised of the very best spooky stories that were within grabbing distance on my bookshelf at the time of writing. And this, I should mention, says less about my level of commitment to the project than it does about the amount of terrifying written works I have around me at any given time.
Jokes aside, these are some truly thrilling (ha, ha!) pieces of literature, and will get even the most casual can't-be-bothered Cape Town babe in on the ghoulish, Halloween action. Let's jump (scare) right in! From left to right we have:
1. The Shining Girls (2013), Lauren Beukes
Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, murder, gender-based violence
Scare type: A gritty thriller with equal parts realism and science fiction.
A leading South African author, Lauren Beukes never forgoes concerns of social justice in order to tell a well-executed, horrifying, more-than-a-bit-fucked-up story. The Shining Girls is no exception, with Beukes writing about a time-travelling serial killer who must murder young women to keep up the Doctor Who shenanigans, and the kick-ass survivor who wants to take him down.
2. A Murder is Announced (1950), Agatha Christie
Trigger warnings: Xenophobia, antisemitism, murder, 50s era ageism and sexism.
Scare type: A classic whodunit.
I became interested in Agatha Christie a few years ago, but only followed through with anything more than mild curiosity after watching And Then There Were None (2016), which you HAVE to watch, like, now. To be fair, it's been said that the novel the miniseries is based on was heavily influenced by other writers like Gwen Bristow, and Arthur Conan Doyle. So, I'm not sure how many square metric tonnes of kudos we can give to the odd woman who originally named her story 'Ten Little N*ggers' - yes, really. If you can compartmentalize that then Christie is still a great go-to for a good detective story. A Murder is Announced centers the underestimated genius of Ms Marple as she helps law enforcement solve the mystery of a murder that follows its announcement in the local paper of a small country town.
3. Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion (2011), Janet Mullany
Trigger warnings: Violence.
Scare type: A proper old Halloween scare story featuring long-time favourites - vampires.
In the vein (ha, ha, ha!) of scifi and romanticism mash-ups popular a few years back, Blood Persuasion is Janet Mullany's second book featuring the brilliant Jane Austen as a vampy vamp. Not much in the way of truly creepy scenes, but still packed with enough bite (I'm done, I swear) to keep you cosy come Hallow's eve.
4. Perfume (1985), Patrick Suskind
Trigger warnings: Murder, gender-based violence, sexism, suggestions of incest, suggestions of sexual assault, heavy sexual themes.
Scare type: An out-there, historical thriller with realistic and fantastical elements.
I love this book. I do. But I started loving it a while before I woke up to things like the non-existence of virginity and the very many ways this concept has fucked up women's lives across history.
So, would I still love it if I read it for the first time today? Maybe. With a pinch of salt, Suskind's work is still a gorgeous, sensual book on the nature of the least-recognized but arguably most primal of our senses - smell. It gazes through French history from the frame of the protagonist's nostrils, and sells a decent thriller, even if it relies heavily on a shared misanthropy between said protagonist and reader.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the 1700s with an incredible sense of smell, and a talent for sniffing out the best sources of olfactory pleasure. When Grenouille realises that the best scents come from so-called 'virginal' women, he is led down a path of serial murder, culminating in a run-in with a questionable father and his daughter, as well as town-wide orgy. Best not to read this one out loud, if one can help it.
5. Broken Monsters (2014), Lauren Beukes
Trigger warnings: Murder, gender-based violence, graphic violence, suggestion of pedophilia.
Scare type: A dark, noir thriller a la True Detective (S1, 2014), but one that asks the question that so few do - 'What about the poor?'
Detective Versado tries to uncover the mystery around the grizzly, half-human, half-animal dead left behind by a decidedly disturbed individual, while her daughter dabbles in the dark potential of online spaces, and Thomas Keen (or 'TK'), does what he can to keep his homeless family safe on the increasingly-hostile streets of Detroit. For tough minds only.
6. An Interview with a Vampire (1976), Anne Rice
Trigger warnings: Violence, suggestion of pedophilia, sexual assault, gender-based violence, race-based violence.
Scare type: Old fashioned Gothic horror, again, with vampires.
The story of An Interview takes place between the slave-era and the present, and eloquently displays the very human folly of it's fanged characters through its concentration on complex and problematic social needs. Anne Rice wrote this novel at a particularly turbulent time in her life, and it shows. A must-read for Gothic horror newbies and fans alike.
7. The Big Book of Grimm (1999), Jonathan Vankin
Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, gender-based violence, graphic violence, pedophilia, incest, murder, child abuse, cannibalism. Almost everything, really.
Scare type: Fantasy horror, the OG of twisted tales.
The Grimm's brothers collected some screwed-up stories, mind you. And you probably knew that already from what you've read. But, have you read the versions that weren't neatened-up for children's stories? Probably not. They're hard to come by - much like a happy ending as far as old Germanic people were concerned, it seems. Grab this page-turner and be prepared for the worst.
That's it, folks. Have yourself a spooky Halloween!
Why put trigger warnings?
'Trigger warnings' as they are commonly called, are small labels put in front of content that might be disturbing to some people, detailing it as such. The reason for these are many and they are all important. Personally, I like to add trigger warnings to my work because I suffer from a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that makes me replay horrifying images of a certain nature repeatedly in my head. To this day I remember things I wish I hadn't seen as a teenager - in a film, in a book, or heard in a song.
With the help of medication and the patience of those close to me, the worst of it has passed over, but there were times when these images kept me awake, ruined my relationships and self-image, and made me suicidal. I should think that any way I can stop someone from having the same experiences as I had is a path very much worth taking.
I know that you can't put a trigger warning on life entirely, and it's true that different people react to different things, but I think the 'toughen-up' chain of criticism is a ridiculous product of a society that frequently misunderstands the nature of the mind, asks people to be more resilient than they can reasonably be, and often ignores the side-effects of its Spartan-like aims.
Whether you agree with the use of trigger warnings or not, please respect that they are welcome here, and be mindful of this when you visit TOOFUFU.