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Choose your Monsters

It’s that Samhain time of year again when I pull out my stripey leggings and think about foggy nights in front of the fire.

Not that I have a fire. I have radiators, not quite the same effect so I tend to have to go out into the garden and light the fire basket, which is where the fog creeps in as I pull up a cobwebbed deck chair and start reading. Of course, at Halloween it has to be something spooky.

I’ve long been a fan of Alice Hoffman and Practical Magic is one of my favourites. It has everything, a vast Gothic style mansion in New England, an undead ex-boyfriend and broomsticks. It’s filled with rich everyday magic and an idea of not messing with the occult unless you know what you’re doing. I like my magic doings to have a solid foundation in reality. In Practical Magic the sisters have a deep and troubled connection to their home town and their witchy powers and the book is about family and accepting who you are. The most gifted sister hides her witchcraft and only through a crisis does she finally realise how much a part of herself this gift is and that it was a mistake to try and tamp it down.

Another big favourite is M R James. Be careful. You have to ration yourself on these short stories. Their quiet, sinister quality will make you jump at every creaking floorboard and see figures moving at the edge of your vision. Again it is that basis in the everyday, in reality that makes them somehow more spooky.

That’s the key I think, you have to choose your monsters. The most obvious firebreathing Godzilla is scary but it’s only a surface terror, like a rollercoaster ride, you know you are strapped in and along for the loop the loop. Once you make the monster have a human face you are really plugging into the primal fears.

I make no bones about the fact that my two Desert Island books are (chuck out the Bible) Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf with, as its companion volume, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  It is no surprise then that another go-to for spookiness and delight is The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke. I love Clarke’s writing and this collection of stories is one I am always turning to in a moment of reading need. I love the title story, exceptionally spooky and also feminist/empowering. A close second is ‘Mrs Mabb’ in which poor forlorn and forgotten Venetia takes on quite a powerful fairy. That makes it sound like high fantasy but again, these stories are rooted in reality, albeit an historic 18th century folkloric one. For spooky humour turn the page to ‘Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower’. Conan Doyle’s Cottingley fairies were never like this. I have read this collection a thousand times and never tire of it.

A long ago read that has stayed with me and is always a good one for a Halloween, is Ira Levin’s  ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Again we’ve got darkness seeping into the everyday. I first read this as a teenager. I was terrified aRosemary's Babynd yet I could not put it down. You think you’ve got bad neighbours? Think you can trust a kindly little old lady? Think you can trust your own ambitious husband? Think again. This novel makes even pregnancy into, well, spoiler alert.  To this day whenever I see anyone wearing a little pot-pourri style silver pendant round their neck the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Read the book, you’ll understand. That’s the power of words, imagination and Tannis root.

I know, I know, this is a lot of wordage and there are only 24 hours in Halloween. Probably wise to open a portal and skim through several different Hallow…Wait. Did you hear that? Is there someone there? Hello?

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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