Even if it's been a long time since you went to a haunted house or dressed up in a costume to troll the neighborhood for candy, if you're like me, this time of year still makes you long for a scary story. The leaves are turning colors, it's getting colder—what better time to curl up in front of a fire with a hot cup of apple cider and a book that will make your heart beat a little faster as you wonder if that sound you just heard was merely the rattling of the windowpane?
Of course fall is also a time when many of us decide to put aside our beach reads and delve into something more serious. But not to worry. In addition to being entertaining, these three spooky books will make you feel like you really know your American lit.
Charles Brockden Brown has been called the "father of American novel." It's a designation that seems more than a bit ironic, given that his first published novel is about a father who murders his family. Written after the American Revolution, Wieland expresses the anxiety over individualism and authority in the post-war country — the family lives apart from the community and the father listens only to himself and what he perceives to be the voice of God. Narrating the story is the sole survivor, the father's sister. It's a great, terrifying read. Call it The Shining of 1798.
As every reader of Alcott's beloved Little Women knows, tomboy Jo was a writer of thrillers. Long before she wrote her girls classic, Alcott herself wrote thrillers too, the best of which is probably Behind A Mask. Subtitled "A Woman's Power," the book has been the subject of a fair amount of feminist scholarship, but can also be enjoyed as a spooky story about a mysterious woman out for revenge. For most of the short novel, we don't know what Jean Muir has planned for the wealthy Coventry family, but we can see that she's very good at deception: call her "The Talented Ms. Muir." Soon, she has most of the family, male and female, under her spell. Ignore the melodrama; it's a ripping good yarn.
Sun-drenched islands have often proved to be perfect settings for the darkest of tales. In his early books, Typee and Omoo, Herman Melville wrote about the charms of island people, but in his novella set in the Galapagos, The Encantadas, he paints a very different picture. "No voice, no low, no howl is heard: the chief sound of life here is a hiss." In each of 10 sketches, Melville depicts another aspect of this desolate world: from the hopeless patience of the tortoise who is hunted for its meat, to the breath-taking loneliness of a female castaway whose husband and brother died before her eyes. The combined effect of these sketches is terrifying indeed.
For the last word, let's return to Charles Brockden Brown. Though he'd based his novel on a true story of a murderous father in New York, he still felt it necessary to justify his book's gruesome plot to readers. In his introduction, he appeals to those "conversant with . . . the occasional perversions of the human mind." I think it's safe to say that most of us would qualify.
Lisa Tucker's latest book is called The Winters in Bloom.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.