Ah, December. A time of things-slowing-down, the official start of Summer, and oh, that Christmas thing as well. With the warm* weather, many people going off on holiday, and the end of the year rolling around, I always start to feel nostalgic. And my nostalgia often manifests as reserving a bunch of my favourite books to re-read.
*Warm-er? Warm-ish? Not-as-much-rain?
Now I’m sure I’ve mentioned before my love for The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, and my almost-constant-need to be listening to one of the audiobooks**. So if you haven’t read or listened to those you should immediately go and do so! These books are wonderfully written, full of complex and real characters, political machinations, some excellent god/human interactions, complicated relationships, and very good depictions of characters dealing with trauma. But they’re also funny and all the characters tell stories to each other and care a lot about their people and ugh, they’re just so good.
**Yes, I really like them as audiobooks. I have had conversations about this with Teen Blogger Grimm who just cannot get into the audiobooks because magnificent narrator Steve West pronounces the names differently to how she says them in her head, but while we cannot agree on this point, we do agree that these books are Excellent and Everyone should read them.
Why am I telling you about these books again? Well, mainly because the books I tend to get nostalgic for are not books like this series***. I get the itch to go back and re-read some of those (dare I say it) simpler adventure stories**** I enjoyed when I was younger. But whenever I venture forth into the stacks to retrieve these particular books, I’m always surprised by how dark and grim they are, and by the unsettled feeling I’m left with.
***But I still wanted to tell you all about this series again! Go read them. Seriously.
****Ok, ‘simpler adventures’ maybe, but still often a bit twisty.*****
*****I apologise for the footnotes? Not sure why so many are creeping into this particular post.
So, obviously, I’ve decided to share some of these books that I love with you, in case you also want something to read over the summer that is vaguely unsettling, enjoyable, and not too long. So read on for books about bone porridge, many discreet murders, horrible family members, and a fair share of malignant spirits.
The stolen lake / Aiken, Joan
This is always the first one that comes to mind. Joan Aiken wrote a fantastic series of books that started with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase about an alternate history version of England where the Stuarts kept the throne, and it was never passed on to the Hanovers. Different books in the series focus on different characters. The Stolen Lake features Dido Twite, a girl who was swept out to sea and picked up by a ship in a previous book. She’s slowly navigating her way home, and in this book her ship is called to aid fictional New Cumbria in South America. Dido finds herself in a very grim place, where giant birds carry people off and the queen eats bone porridge (sourced from the bones of young girls she’s had thrown to the piranhas) to maintain her youth. Brilliant stuff!
Is underground / Aiken, Joan
Another in the same series as The Stolen Lake! No bone porridge here, just some pretty awful child labour. Children, including the Crown Prince of England, have been going missing in London and another young Twite is tasked with figuring out what’s going on. And what’s going on (and this is not a spoiler given the cover illustration) is that they’re being kidnapped and transported up North to work underground in a coal mine. And a foundry. And there may be accidents involving molten metal.
The owl service / Garner, Alan
Why yes, that character probably did murder that other character in the past. But what can you expect when a fragment of tale from the Mabinogion amplifies itself throughout history and keeps repeating and repeating and repeating? Owls are bad, flowers are not, but both are still creepy. I could say SO MUCH about this book, but that might put you off. Just let me tell you this: you don’t need armies of ghosts or witches with ovens to create something truly spooky and (I can’t forget my keyword here!) unsettling. Just some plates found in an attic, some pebble-dash, and a whole lot of interpersonal angst.
Under the mountain / Gee, Maurice
Ah, my most-read book in my primary school library. It’s set in Auckland and has been made into both a TV series and a movie over the years and is full of volcanoes and weird-worm/slug-mud-aliens that are set on total world domination and annihilation. It’s just one of those fun adventures with some red-haired twins with special powers, right? Err, not quite. It’s slightly scary, very unsettling, and not everyone comes out unscathed in the end.
Tripswitch / Gordon, Gaelyn
Another New Zealand author who has written something that is both kinda fun, and very unsettling the more you think about it. Three orphaned cousins are brought together to live with their aunt (coincidence? Or multiple sororicides on the aunt’s part?), and she’s just so …evil? Mean and nasty yes, but when you find out the reason she had her twins everything just gets much more serious. But there’s also a lot of humour in it (the sports team who just decide to steal a bus??), which possibly makes the grim details stand out a bit more.
Black Maria / Jones, Diana Wynne
Diana Wynne Jones is WONDERFUL. She’s written some marvellously fun and twisty books for children full of weird magic and quirky characters. But she’s also written some truly chilling books. This is one of them, and there’s just so much going on. From buried imprisonment, to not-really-dead fathers, a sweeter-than-ever Great-Aunt with a will of iron, to an entire town under one person’s thumb, it just makes you look at small town life in a different way. And Great-Aunts.
The time of the ghost / Jones, Diana Wynne
More Diana Wynne Jones creepiness. This time, we learn what happens when some kids mess with something beyond their ken or control. When the ghost comes back in time she knows that something awful is going to happen, so we also know this, but all the characters that the ghost is watching don’t know this so as they creep closer to disaster we just know that something will go wrong, but we don’t know what will go wrong… So there’s a lot of tension and trying to figure things out, and let me just say that I will not be going near any soft toys left outside to grow mildew after reading this!
The changeover / Mahy, Margaret
Margaret Mahy’s another author who can write joyful and fun, adventure and excitement, and also haunting and chilling. And this book is the latter. Laura’s day starts with a warning, and ends with her younger brother getting his soul slowly sucked out of him through a stamp on his hand. This is very understated horror, but there’s just so many very normal things in there that what happens really sticks in your mind. They even made a movie of it, set in post-earthquake Christchurch!
And I’ll even add a bonus book in, because how can you talk unsettling childhood stories without delving into the Brothers Grimm?
The complete Grimm’s fairy tales / Grimm, Jacob
We all know some of the Grimm’s fairy tales, but there are a whole lot more that not many people stumble across. And a lot of them are VERY weird!
Below, I have written out one of the shorter unsettling stories from this particular collection, under the Read more. If you want to feel incredulous that such a story was written, and really put the grim in Grimm, well then, just read on…