Back in the summer, I read The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. Hal, the main character, rents a boardwalk booth as a tarot card reader, like her mother did before her. Tarot features pretty heavily in the plot, even as Hal herself acknowledges that’s it’s more a tool up for interpretation than a fortune-telling device. I never would have thought to learn about tarot on my own, but it was really enjoyable for me to learn some of the basics through this book. I pass a tarot card reader on my way home from work every day, and I’ve always jokingly threathened to go in and get a tarot reading. If I’m ever on vacation or something and get the opportunity, I would try it for fun.
Right around Halloween this year, I listened to this episode of the NYT’s podcast The Argument. The podcast is mostly political, but in this epidsode the hosts interviewed author Tara Isabella Burton to discuss spirituality in America. Apparently, even though membership in organized religion here is declining, spirituality isn’t. More and more people, especially millennials, are turning to astrology, witchcraft, and other forms of the occult to satisfy their religious and spiritual needs. I found this really interesting on the heels of reading Mrs. Westaway. I’ve always said I don’t believe in ghosts or anything like that, and I don’t really, but I find it hugely enjoyable to read about people who do and other similar beliefs they have. (I celebrated Halloween by spending way too long reading the comments on this post by Ask a Manager of people telling their work-related ghost stories.)
Through November I’ve been unintentionally following this kind of occult thread. When I was in middle school, I was in a girls’ book club. We would take turns picking books to read, and one month someone picked Coraline. This book absolutely terrified me. For weeks after reading it I was petrified being the dark alone because I was afraid the Other Mother’s severed hand would come after me like it came after Coraline. I’ve always remembered that book, and so this year I finally watched the movie adaptation, both to face my childhood fear and also kind of hoping to be scared that way again. I actually found the movie really charming and sweet, but I don’t remember enough details from the book to remember what they may have cut. I might have to reread the book. Regardless, I enjoyed it.
I don’t remember what exactly led me to Shirley Jackson, but I discovered her shortly after watching Coraline. Just this weekend, I’ve consumed We Have Always Lived in the Castle, “The Lottery,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “Paranoia.” I have mixed feelings on all of these. “Paranoia” was my favorite, about a man who thinks he’s being followed on his way home from work. “The Lottery” was straightforward and chilling, but because it didn’t explain why the lottery worked the way it did, or even allude to a reason, I didn’t love this one. (Sinister motives and twisted rationales intrigue me more than people just doing strange things for unexplained reasons.) We Have Always Lived in the Castle underwhelmed me at first but is growing on me the more I think about it (why, Merricat? Poor Constance!). And finally, other reviewers on Goodreads have said that “The Man in the Woods” lacks enough details to be really creepy, and I tend to agree (although the subplot about the cats was great).
Oh yes, the cats! I love them, in case you haven’t noticed, and the fact that they feature in many of the creepy things I’ve read recently is so fun. Jonas the cat is almost a main character in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and his presence lends an even creepier vibe to Merricat’s narrative. (Part of me wants to read it again and write an essay on the importance of Jonas to the story.) A cat gets replaced by another in “The Man in the Woods,” maybe as a foil or foreshadowing to the titular man. And in Coraline, the cat is the only creature that can travel back and forth between the two worlds safely. He plays a big role in helping Coraline escape.
I’ve really enjoyed reading and watching creepy things lately. I don’t enjoy overt horror or gore (see The Bunker Diary or Stephen King), but give me all the psychological, weird, or ghostly stories right now. I’m finally dipping my toe into some new genres – we’ll see if it sticks!
Here’s a final random recommendation I’m too lazy to fit in anywhere else in this post but can’t not include: Skelehime, a horror cartoonist. She posts comics on Twitter (and a few on Instagram I think) and on her website. I enjoyed “Stanley Needs a Nest” and “The Sacker Street Ghost.”
What do you think of horror and the occult (in lit or as spirituality)? Can anyone recommend more books or short stories along these lines? Has anyone read Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or watched the Netflix adaptation?