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11 MAGICAL BOOKS TO READ THIS HALLOWEEN

Hello my dear friends,

I’ve been silent for a while, but mindflayers never sleep, we simply dream in our dark labyrinths to wait out the aeons until it’s time for us to reclaim the surface world.

As it’s Halloween, which is my favourite day of the year, a magical time of year in which anything is possible, I have 11 magical and horrifying book recommendations for you! Some of these are recently-reads, and some are oldie-goldies. Either way, they’ll ensure you have a spooktacular Autumn and Winter. These are not in a particular order, so without further ado, here they are…

1. Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

Okay, I’ll admit I’m quite late to the Ligotti party, but I’m so glad I’ve arrived. Ligotti combines psychological insight, impressionistic and poetic prose, and cosmic horror in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft to produce his own unique brand of darkness that is as addictive as it is unsettling. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is a collection of short stories—each one allowing the reader a glimpse into the blackest of unknowns, exploring existential questions of love and being. If you’re not a regular reader of short stories (in which case you’re not alone as I prefer longer mediums) I’d still recommend this compelling collection. Venture to the further reaches of the human psyche, to places where alchemy is not merely about the transubstantiation of matter but also of spirit. Glimpse the darkest worlds where only the truly mad can find their home. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is like an acid trip into the heart of darkness, one that cannot leave you unchanged.

SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER

2. Witchopper by Dan Soule

Dan Soule has written many books, all of which I love, but Witchopper is a very special tome. This story explores the relationship between father and son, between light and dark, between faith and chaos, between atavism and restraint, and explores what it means to grow up. It’s a story of post-Edenic loss of innocence told with tremendous passion, fierce intelligence, and fearless honesty. It’s a book not afraid to challenge social mores, sensibilities, or traditional ideas of morality. But at the same time it’s a hopeful story of redemption and love conquering all. The scope of this book is such that no brief review can do it justice, you’ll simply have to travel to the rural town of Southwell, and find out for yourself…

WITCHOPPER

3. All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve reviewed All of Me previously on this site: it’s probably one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. This is a story of Faustian pacts, body-image, and the near-impossibility of self-love. It’s a harrowing and surprising tale that had me riveted from page one to its emotional, moving finale. Whilst it bills itself as body-horror, and there’s plenty of that to go around, the aspect of the book that will stay with me is the powerful psychology explored through its principle characters, a psychology which is as believable and sympathetic as it is unnerving.

ALL OF ME

4. Petite Mort by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes

Over the last year or two I’ve reviewed several works, both long-form and short-form, by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes, including a novella they wrote together called Algorithm of the Gods and the short story #DeadSealChallenge. Mendes and Noir are an awesome writing team—their styles blend effortlessly—and some of the ideas they come up with would make a bizarro author jealous. What I truly love about their work is how rich it is with symbolism, so that each sentence, image, or event feels loaded with meaning and purpose. While there is plenty of gross-out for even the most diehard fan of gore, and sex to satisfy the porn addict, the guts and orifices are never pointless titillation but a mechanism to explore deeper themes. Petite Mort is a collection of Mendes and Noirs’ shorter collaborative fiction, including Cucumbers and Comforters (which I reviewed here) and other horrifying wonders. If you’re curious about Mendes and Noir, this is the place to start.

PETITE MORT

5. We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Those who know me knows how much I adore Grady Hendrix. He is an incredible writer who manages to combine the humour and humanity of life with a rich texture of darkness. Of his many books, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is undoubtedly my favourite. However, one book by Grady Hendrix that is often overlooked when I see discussions about his body of work is We Sold Out Souls. This is a fundamentally occult tale that explores conspiracy theories, Faustian bargains, and the intimate connection between rock ‘n’ roll and the dark powers. Balanced against feisty heroines is the ever-present malignancy of the dark eye, which is at once Sauron-like but also something altogether less fantastical and more disturbing. Several scenes in this book are so vividly described they will never leave you (if you’re claustrophobic, then you’ll probably want to tap out of this one), and the plotting is elegant and cunning in how it dovetails. This is a story of the pitfalls of success, the injustice of the world, and the timeless struggle between good and evil.

WE SOLD OUR SOULS

6. Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

I reviewed this book fairly recently, but you will have to forgive me for recommending it again, because Brian Bowyer is simply a genius. Flesh Rehearsal shares some similarities with We Sold Our Souls, it’s a book about heavy metal, occultism, powerful women, and the darkness dwelling in human hearts—but it’s also surprisingly a book about love.In many ways it’s a deranged novel, written with feverously intense prose that cuts to the heart of matters with the precise brutality of a sacrificial blade. Flesh Rehearsal embodies the wisdom of John Ruskin, “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

FLESH REHEARSAL

7. Incarnate by Steve Stred

Almost every single book by Steve Stred would be appropriate for Halloween reading, but I think Incarnate is one of Stred’s most disturbing and accomplished books. Incarnate is particularly potent because it takes on so many horror tropes—holidaying in a remote location, a haunted house, a séance gone wrong—and yet remakes them into new, weird, and wondrous forms. Just when I thought I could predict what was going to happen, Stred throws a curveball. And the unconventional way Stred approaches writing horror scenes—sometimes narrating from bizarre or unexpected perspectives—casts a deeply unsettling spell over the reader. Stred is one of the few authors who can make me feel dread, and Incarnate succeeds in doing just this. If Shirley Jackson had lived to write a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, this might have been it.

INCARNATE

8. Inside Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Continuing the theme of haunted houses, Lee Mountford’s introductory novella to his Haunted series is a sublime masterclass in epistolary or “found footage” horror. Written from the perspective of a paranormal investigator obsessed with an ancient, malevolent house, Mountford inveigles us in the occult and disturbing history of Perron Manor to the point where we begin to lose our sense of reality. The aim of all good verisimilitudinous horror tales is to destroy the reader’s perception of the truth and make them believe, against all odds, in the reality of the tale, and Mountford succeeded so well in this I actually googled “Perron Manor”… Do you need any more encouragement?

INSIDE PERRON MANOR

9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In recent years, I’ve largely found myself preferring indie and self-published books to traditionally published ones—they take more risks and they explore unchartered territory—but there are exceptions to the rule, and Susanna Clarke is one of them. Piranesi is a phenomenal book that explores occult ideas, including the dissolution of the Self, the presence of other planes of existence, and much, much more. The horror here is subtle—a horror of not knowing one’s own mind, of doubting reality to the utmost extent. The tale is told in a style that is hauntingly imagistic, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. There are a number of surprises in this story, but even if you work out the true nature of things, the journey to get there is so thrilling, so heroic, so mysterious that you will want to re-read it again the moment it finishes.

PIRANESI

10. Oblivion Black by Christa Wojciechowski

This may seem an odd choice, as it is less fantastical and overtly “horror” than the other selections on this list. But likePiranesi, the horror in Oblivion Black is subtle yet no-less present. Oblivion Black is at its heart a novel about addiction and beauty, and how the two interrelate. It explores the story of a recovering heroine addict who takes up a job modelling for a legendary sculptor—erotic tension and unspoken desires ensue. However, beneath the sculptor’s charismatic facade lies darkness and trauma, just as our heroine, Ona, stills feels the draw towards her addictive past. Both are liberated by the creation of art, but even art can be corrupted when it is made with ill-intent. Oblivion Black is shocking, provocative, seductive, beautiful, and horrifying all in equal measure. And it’s sequel, Hierarchy of Needs, which I had the pleasure of beta-reading, is even more so. Don’t miss out.

OBLIVION BLACK

11. Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Four years ago, I wrote a ridiculously long article about Melmoth The Wanderer. My feelings about the book have not changed since then, I still regard it as the underrated masterpiece of Gothic fiction. What stands out about this novel is the style in which it is written, which is at once poetic and precise yet also labyrinthine and haunting. Maturin ensnares the reader in the runnels of Melmoth’s mind until we begin to think like the deranged anti-hero who threads his way through the complex layers of this book’s framed narrative. Imagine Inception written by Mary Shelly and Christopher Marlowe and you have a sense of the warped genius of Melmoth The Wanderer. Everyone should try reading this book at least once—though be warned those who succeed may end up mad!

MELMOTH THE WANDERER

Well, that’s my 11 recommendations for this spooky occasion. Have a terrifyingly joyous Halloween my dear friends. And stay classy!

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Review of All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve long been a fan of Iseult Murphy. She writes with extraordinary clarity, intelligence, and wit. Best of all, she always ventures deep into her characters’ psyches. These are not two-dimensional plot devices, but living and breathing beings with vast emotional interiors.

All of Me is unquestionably the best book that Iseult Murphy has ever written. It not only shows massive growth as a writer but also reaches the highest level of art: transcendence.

One doesn’t need to know Iseult Murphy to be able to tell that All of Me is written about an issue that is deeply personal to the author. The compassion Murphy shows for her protagonist, Margaret, a 390 pound woman struggling with self-love and self-image, is palpable and heartrending. This doesn’t mean Margaret is spared, however, from Murphy’s ferociously sharp observations on the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of humans struggling to desperately improve themselves. Though she describes this book as "body-horror", and there's certainly an element of that, I think the real horror is in the human mind, which Iseult Murphy excavates expertly. 

Murphy’s development of her theme is masterfully expressed in the repetition of the phrase “Eat the elephant one bite at a time”. There is triple perhaps even quadruple entendre in this. Margaret is mockingly called Miss Elephant by her coworkers due to her weight. Yet, in the original saying, the elephant represents the big problems in life we have to break down into little bite-sized chunks in order to overcome. It’s also ironic that Margaret uses a metaphor for eating in order to describe the gruelling and slow process of weight-loss!

Margaret is desperate to lose weight, to change. And one day, someone makes her an offer that is simply too good to be true. Eating the elephant is laborious, painful, and taking too long. What if there was a quicker way to shed the weight? Desperate people will do desperate things. Margaret accepts the offer, a Faustian pact, and this is what truly kickstarts the narrative into the next level, because Margaret gets a great deal more than she bargained for.

I don’t want to give too much away—though what comes next is on the back-cover of the book—but suffice to say Murphy enters Freudian territory in which suddenly three facets of Margaret become independent. There’s Dot, who functions like a merciless and rational ego. There’s Peggy, who is always trying to look after other people but at the expense of all else, a kind of super-ego. And then there’s Daisy, eternally frightened, and only capable of eating her problems away, the primitive id. These three “aspects” also represent more personalised facets of Margaret. Dot is Margaret’s hardworking attitude. Peggy is Margaret’s caring side. Daisy is her defensive mode. By blending the individual and personal with the archetypal and psychological, Murphy achieves a compelling interplay. The fates of these “three” women who are really one matter to us, we care about each of them, even when they start doing despicable things.

Murphy writes the whole book in first person, heading the chapters with names so we know who is speaking. The genius of this is how it relates to the plot. We are reading about one woman divided into three, so it makes sense that the book is first person and not third. Yet, at the same time, Murphy reflects the differences between the characters with subtle changes in the narrative style. They all feel like they are part of the same person, yet we also begin to see the deviations between them. The skill it takes to do this is jaw-dropping.

Structurally this book works like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. At times, it is unputdownable narrative. Each chapter ramps up the weirdness, the tension, and the stakes. Yet, despite the increasing strangeness, Murphy somehow manages to keep the whole thing grounded. Even when we receive a certain revelation about who a character truly is—which is masterfully done—we still remain in the realm of the believable. Perhaps this is because the novel remains so psychologically true.

Murphy uses her central plot device to explore so many ideas: the effect of low self-esteem on our lives, solipsism and how self-criticism can be a form of poison, our defence mechanisms (whether they be eating to avoid problems or attacking those we perceive to threaten us), and what it truly means to love oneself.

The ending of All of Me is my favourite ending Murphy has ever written and deeply moving. This is where the “transcendence” element comes in, because I felt like the book not only emotionally stirred me but also caused me to reflect upon my own life and desire to improve it. In fact, Murphy’s denouement ranks up there with the finale of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is some of the highest praise I can offer.

All of Me is an amazing horror novella—one of the best I have read in a long time—and in truth it deserves to be on the Richard and Judy best-seller list. At once horrifying, funny, empowering, and viciously self-deprecating, it’s a true expression of the human spirit in all its glory and shame, and something that you absolutely have to read.

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