Tuesday 15 October 2019

Scary things that go bump in the autumn night

Chilling tales with a touch of the supernatural are climbing the bestseller lists, and it's not just for Halloween

Domhnall Gleeson stars in Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger
Domhnall Gleeson stars in Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger

Claire Coughlan

Nothing beats a heart-thumping book in front of a roaring fire, secure in the knowledge that the bogeyman isn't inside the house. With the explosion of 'grip lit' over the past few years, the thing to be scared of was usually the person closest to you. However, tales of the supernatural may just be the thing for 2018 and beyond.

With the big screen adaptation of Sarah Waters's brilliant supernatural novel, The Little Stranger (directed by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson) in cinemas, its publisher Virago has issued a rejacketed edition of the book to tie in with the movie. There is also a slew of spine-tingling novels out this month, such as Laura Purcell's new Victorian chiller, The Corset (Bloomsbury Raven) and Sarah Perry's Melmoth (Serpent's Tail).

Much anticipated novels with a touch of the Gothic include The Familiars (Bonnier Zaffre, February), a debut novel by journalist Stacey Halls, about the Pendle Witch trials of 1612, which was won in a nine-way auction by the publisher and crime writer Erin Kelly's new novel, Stone Mothers (Hodder, April), which is a skilfully-plotted tale set against the backdrop of a Victorian lunatic asylum.

But why the sudden craze for spooky books? Sophie Orme, editorial director at Bonnier Zaffre, told publishing trade magazine The Bookseller earlier this year: "After a surfeit of psychological crime, I think readers are looking for a new kind of reading experience, one equally as thrilling, but that takes life as we know it and adds an extra - and often rather frightening - twist. In times of political and financial uncertainty, it seems natural that people should reach for new experiences to escape into."

Limerick-born novelist William Ryan, whose atmospheric new novel, A House of Ghosts, is published this month by Bonnier Zaffre (under the name WC Ryan), agrees that escapism is an important factor.

"Maybe people want to read happier fiction than they wanted to read before - publishers are talking about 'up lit', but I think Gothic fiction is riding on that same wave. Maybe Gothic is a little bit of fun for people," he says.

Dacre Stoker, who is the author (with JD Barker) of Dracula prequel Dracul (Bantam), is also the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, as well as the manager of the Stoker estate, which gave him access to Bram Stoker's lost journal, providing inspiration for this new book. The novel features 21-year-old Bram, who has "barricaded himself inside a room at the top of the tower of a long-abandoned abbey, leading him to write down the disturbing events that have brought him here".

Stoker says that the journal "gave tremendous insight into Bram as a person. It tells us what Bram thought was important in the world and what Bram thought was important enough to write down in a journal". He describes Bram Stoker as a "very complex person, who was very open-minded". He believes that his ancestor's exploration of the supernatural in Dracula still resonates with contemporary readers almost 150 years later, as the desire to understand what's beyond our comprehension is a universal, age-old human trait.

Alison Hennessey, editorial director of Raven Books, a relatively new imprint of Bloomsbury, for people who like their books "with a touch of the dark side," thinks that this new wave of fiction is a reaction to the turbulent world we live in politically.

"As people have turned away from dystopian fiction - perhaps feeling it's just too close to the world we live in now - horror/Gothic books have become more appealing, with the idea of a 'safe' scare, one that you know is safely contained within the pages of a book and won't encroach into real life," she says.

"Unlike dystopian fiction, most horror or supernatural fiction isn't bleak - unlike the real world, perhaps - but is often a really fun, safe way to get your heart racing. And these kinds of stories are often very immersive, providing a perfect distraction from the outside world. When you're scared silly, it's unlikely you're going to stop to check Twitter for a moment."

Literary agent Juliet Mushens, who represents The Corset author Laura Purcell, whose first Gothic novel, The Silent Companions (Bloomsbury Raven) was a Zoe Ball ITV Book Club pick, agrees with the theory of the 'safe' scare. "I think the success of horror on TV and film (eg American Horror Story, Sabrina reboot, It remake) has bled into books as well - it allows people to be scared in a safe way."

Mushens also represents novelist Anna Mazzola, whose second book, The Story Keeper (Tinder Press), is a haunting story set on the Isle of Skye in 1857, in the wake of the Highland Clearances.

Mazzola says: "It's well known that, in times of crisis, we turn to the supernatural. Studies have shown that paranormal beliefs often become stronger in times of stress. It's something I explore in The Story Keeper and partly why I set it when and where I did."

So, has our love for the supernatural superseded the psychological thriller? Alison Hennessey remarks: "I would personally be quite happy to see a brief respite from psychological thrillers as editors tend to be sent so many, it's hard to feel as excited when it's the 25th one you've read that month, but there will always be books published within this genre, it's just that we may see fewer of them for a while."

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