In Jess Kidd's exceptional debut novel, Himself, Mahony, a charming young man who can communicate with the dead, returns to Mulderrig, Ireland, his birthplace, in search of the truth about his mother’s mysterious disappearance. As he dredges up the town’s best-kept secrets, ghosts of the departed shadowing the footsteps of those still living. Kidd picks 10 of her favorite supernatural mysteries.
I like to take my mysteries with a good drop of supernatural. It’s a strong combination with a long tradition and each writer mixes them up to a different recipe. So happily there is a whole range of outcomes for the reader–supernatural mysteries unsettle, muddle, confound, and thrill. They lead us from bliss to disorientation, from disbelief to captivation. Not only do we have a riddle to solve, a plot to chase, a secret to unearth, we also have the paranormal to deal with. The otherworldly in these fictions may ultimately be debunked as smoke and mirrors, or the product of a diseased mind, or it may be left well alone. Ghosts may be nothing more than creaks and drafts and cerebral terrors, or the undead may stalk through the pages as real as any other cast member. Inexplicable happenings may have rational explanations, but they can just as soon be really real.
I compiled this list of books in a wholly subjective manner. There may be more pertinent titles but I have a fondness for these. They represent train journeys made bearable, bus trips shortened, bitten nails, and home alone nights filled with terror. Several of the books on this list are directly responsible for kick-starting stories of my own. Some of them I knocked back as a teenager and some are recent discoveries. All of them are strange brews, full to the brim with spirit.
1. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
This wicked blend of murder and the occult has Harry Angel, hard-boiled private eye, hired to investigate the case of a missing man, Johnny Favorite. A once promising crooner injured in the Second World War, Favorite has fallen off the face of the earth. Following Favorite’s trail, Angel descends into a nightmarish world of voodoo, sex, and violence where nothing is quite what it seems and he’s in danger of losing more than his life. For it turns out that Favorite kept some unusual company and had an interest in the otherworldly. Against a backdrop of 1950s New York, Hjortsberg fashions a wonderful, twisted, supernatural noir. Complete with a sharp plot, tortured humor, and moments of visceral horror.
2. The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson
This is actually a collection of stories, but I had to include the daddy of all supernatural sleuths. Carnacki is a bachelor with time on his hands, a ghost-finding toolkit (including the wonderfully named "Electric Pentacle") and a penchant for regaling the details of his cases over a glass of something after dinner. The cases may feel formulaic and the Edwardian prose might seem a little moth-eaten. But for me this doesn’t detract from the fun in figuring out whether or not a real live spook is behind the phenomenon Carnacki is investigating. Is it all smoke and mirrors, Scooby-Doo style, or are there dark and terrifying spectral forces at work?
This popular genre mash-up has a time-travelling serial killer called Harper from Depression-era Chicago dispatching of a series of "shining" victims–until he meets his match in Kirby. Kirby survives Harper’s attempt to claim her as another of his trophies and gamely resolves to find the homicidal maniac responsible for her attempted murder.
4. In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
These supernatural tales are drawn from the caseload of the fictional Dr Hesselius, researcher into all things metaphysical. Le Fanu’s classic Gothic beauties paved the way for whole legions of ghost and horror stories. They chart strange journeys through madness and hallucination, spirit-sightings, and otherworldly interventions. In the mystery "The Room in Le Dragon Volant" the suspense is of a psychological nature. Elsewhere, a demonic monkey bedevils an English clergyman, a sea captain is haunted by the phantom of past deeds, and the vampire makes an early appearance in the wonderful "Carmilla," which predates Stoker’s Dracula by decades. These stories demand to be read on a stormy night, with the windows rattling and the wind wailing and a glass of the strong stuff at hand.
5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
All manner of uncanniness kicks off when Arthur Kipps, a hardworking solicitor, arrives at Eel Marsh House to wrap up the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. Replete with repressed secrets, this is a masterful supernatural mystery with an eerie, isolated setting. All the trappings of the traditional Gothic ghost story are there and Hill ratchets up the tension throughout as Kipps’s investigation is met with a series of inexplicable events.
6. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Stoker’s satisfying epistolary novel is also a detective tale. It follows a series of different viewpoints through letters and journal entries, and has a range of iconic, evocative locations. From the desolate castle of a damned and failing aristocracy to a creepy London graveyard, we follow the Count’s diabolical trail. This book has caused generations of Goths to descend on the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby to chart Stoker’s inspiration, which is sublime in itself. It has also produced, to my mind, one of the most striking images in literature–Count Dracula crawling down the castle wall. For crucifixes, the relentless un-dead, the commodification of the souls of virgins, and bloodsucking (with all the interpretations we can heap on this) we have Stoker to thank.
In post-war England, rural Warwickshire, a doctor makes a house call at Hundreds Hall, a crumbling stately home occupied by a mother and her offspring. The class system haunts this tale too. Despite humble origins, Dr. Faraday has done well for himself, but in the wake of World War II the landed classes are floundering, they haven’t a penny to bless themselves and their estates are falling into disrepair. The literary antecedent of this book is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw–both novels toe the line between the supernatural and the psychological without stepping firmly in either. The Little Stranger is not the scariest of ghost stories, although many of the conventions are there. But I love the whole creaking, crumbling atmosphere of it.
8. Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Four old friends meet to tell each other ghost stories. One dies in mysterious circumstances. They share a secret, deep in their past, which has always haunted them and doesn’t seem to want to stay buried. Now something seems to be picking them off one by one. The book has a sprawling, sometimes slow-burning plot peppered with spikes of breath-holding suspense, as well as a snowed-in small town setting. This novel balances a twisted mystery, themes of guilt and retribution, and heaps of supernatural horror.
The real mystery in Mantel’s darkly comic novel is the protagonist’s past, which is a riddle not easily solved. Alison is a stage-show medium, traveling the circuit, picking up a dour helper, Colette, en route. While Alison gives her clients comfort she knows that the afterlife is not a place of peace. Alison has her own methods of keeping her own traumatic past at bay, but history keeps resurfacing. I love this book for Mantel’s deft use of magic realism to create vile, heckling, down-to-earth ghosts. But also for the way in which Beyond Black explores how we deal with the phantoms of childhood, especially when that childhood is deeply damaged.
10. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This mesmerizing novella from Henry James is a work of genius. Everything is perfectly pitched: the framed story, isolated young governess, closely-held secrets, strange children, and the setting itself–a creepy country estate. There are sinister sub-textual ripples, moments of profound menace, confusing, twisting, lavishly punctuated sentences and that central question–is this a case of malevolent haunting or a descent into madness and obsession?