Books for When It’s Dark and Cold

Books for When It’s Dark and Cold

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Mysterious, unnerving, and spooky books for long nights

I’m not especially fond of November.

The leaves are off the trees, at least in the rural Midwest where my son and I live; the sky remains a stubborn gray, like one big, low cloud. It might snow, but more often it rains. And always, it is cold. The excitement of and dressing up for Halloween are over, and I don’t know about you, but Thanksgiving for me has always meant extra work: more cleaning, a lot more cooking, and cleaning up again. And the upcoming winter holidays have their own sets of financial anxieties and emotional minefields when you’re a Solo Mom.

How can you best handle the gloom, gray, and dread of late fall?


Even after Halloween is over, I’m still in the mood for something spooky. Maybe it’s the bare trees or the colder temperatures or the fact that it starts to get dark where we live at 6:00 p.m. At night, after my son has finally gone to bed, when the dishes are dripping dry, the washing machine is whirling, and the night beats black through the windows, I want nothing more than to curl up in bed and read a book. I’m fond of page-turners in the fall, books that are a little spooky, a little mysterious or unnerving, books that maybe keep me up a tad later than I should be awake. Books that feel like misbehaving.

Here are some of my favorite fall books. I’ve read them again and again, usually around this time of year, when the leaves are crisp on the ground and we can hear coyotes howling on the ridge. All are written by women. Many of them feature mothers as the main characters, including Solo Moms, but all are welcome on these late fall evenings.

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (Wordsworth Editions, reprint edition, 1999) is the second and last novel of the youngest of the famous literary sisters. It has never quite achieved the popularity of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Both of those books are excellent reads for a spooky fall—or any time—but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is, I believe, the scariest of the Brontë sisters’ novels, in part because it feels very real and contemporary. It’s of special interest to Solo Moms, as the main character, Helen, is a widow who comes to live at the dreary mansion, Wildfell Hall, with her young son. Dark secrets shadow them, secrets that unspool in a series of letters. Some have called this one of the first feminist novels. Regardless, it’s extremely ahead of its time and a thoroughly satisfying read.
  • Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman (Ballantine Books, 2010) is about water and women. Goodman’s mysteries are thrilling yet literary. She keeps you guessing without being gory, and along with the secrets and chills, her books resonate with emotion, particularly the emotional truth of being a Solo Mom. Meg, the protagonist of Arcadia Falls, struggles to balance the needs of her teenager, Sally, with her own needs as an artist and teacher at a boarding school. This story is contrasted with a long-buried mystery that may involve a murder. Chills aside, Goodman knows the struggles of being a Solo-Mom artist. As she says in an interview on her website, “It’s difficult enough for a woman to juggle work and children. Many women who have children can’t afford to pursue an interest that may not produce money right away—or ever. I’ve often felt conflicted in my own life balancing my writing and raising a child.” The Lake of Dead Languages (Ballantine Books, 2005) is another Goodman novel I highly recommend.
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Doubleday, 1979) features Dana, a main character who is not strictly a mother but finds herself in a nurturing position for young women and the children of others. A writer, she’s gone back in time—not of her own free will—to meet her ancestors: a white plantation owner and a black woman forced into slavery. Dana moves back and forth between her own time, the late 1970s, where she is a wife, and the pre–Civil War South, where she is mistaken for a slave. Butler is the matriarch of modern science fiction, but this novel will appeal even to readers who prefer more realistic stories. Her novel boasts lyric prose, fast-paced scenes, and characters so real you will forget the world outside. The shocking ending of this book inspired one of the beginning scenes of my own novel.
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Ballantine Books, 1994) is a book I re-read at least once a year. Late fall is the perfect time for this moody, atmospheric murder mystery set in a small liberal-arts college with a classics professor and a clique of devoted (and mostly privileged) students. Tartt’s details are transporting—they make me envision a world I could never be a part of—and this, her debut novel, is the perfect introduction to her books.
  • Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (Viking Juvenile, 2008) is another example of modern speculative fiction, but don’t let that label scare you off. The stories in this collection mostly concern teenagers trying to navigate young adulthood, which is hard enough without undead girlfriends and a Boy Scout overnight where other campers get eaten. But along with magic and surprise, this book has a lot of heart. “The Specialist’s Hat” is one of the scariest stories I have ever read, a suggestive ghost story involving twin girls, a strange poet, and a house that may be haunted; but “Magic for Beginners,” reminiscent of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who, is one of the sweetest—you root for these kids. Link, author of a handful of other collections and mother of Octavia (a daughter named for Butler), is also terribly funny. The title story concerns a group of teenage girls who haze a pair of sisters (the wrong ones to tease, it turns out).
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (Gollancz, 1979) is written by one of the strongest influences on my own fiction writing, and this collection of short stories is a terrific introduction to her work. All feminist and Gothic fairy tales, loosely adapted from classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, these stories are best read by a fire, under a blanket, or with a steaming mug. They hearten you. In one of Carter’s stories, it is not the prince but the mother of a damsel in distress who comes galloping to the castle to save her. In most other stories, the women and girls save themselves.

Happy cold-weather reading! You might want to leave a light on.

If all this great reading inspires you to write, consider submitting a poem, essay, or short story to the annual ESME Showcase Awards.

Alison Stine is the author of the young-adult novel Supervision, three books of poetry, and numerous essays. A Solo Mom, she lives with her son in the foothills of Appalachia. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlisonStine.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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