Why you should care
Because tales of brujas, ghosts and demonic possession can be even scarier in print.
Ghost stories never seem to go out of style, and horror comedies — think Los Espookys and What We Do in the Shadows — have taken over the small screen. Meanwhile, classics like Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic and The Craft are likely popping back up on your favorite streaming services just in time for Halloween.
But campy performances aside, what exactly draws us to stories of the supernatural? “The fear invoked by fiction … somehow works to remedy the very real terrors of life,” says Matt Foley, a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and academic lead for Haunt Manchester. “Terror — particularly suspense — promises a revelation, perhaps even something sublime.”
For a taste of the sublime this spooky season, skip the same old films in favor of five books that reframe folklore, redefine the ghost story and add some much-needed diversity to witchy narratives.
BORDER LORE, BY DAVID BOWLES (2015)
Swap the shoddy Hollywood retelling of Mexican folk tale “La Llorona” for a book filled with South Texas border lore. Retold in a compellingly authoritative voice — at turns terrifying, journalistic and conversational — by author and academic David Bowles, Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas includes 25 tales of ghostly apparitions and deals with the devil that paint a vivid picture of borderland culture. Watch for appearances from folklore favorites like the chupacabra and the aforementioned La Llorona, alongside more obscure creatures of the night.
Read instead of watching: The Curse of La Llorona (film, 2019)
Also check out: Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen María Machado
MEDDLING KIDS, BY EDGAR CANTERO (2017)
Meddling Kids is like Stranger Things on speed (with a sprinkle of Scooby-Doo and a dash of Stephen King’s It). Here, the meddling kids are haunted by their teen detective past, but there’s no time to dwell on that past because something wicked this way comes … and this time it’s not a man in a mask. Edgar Cantero’s cinematic descriptions make the book read like a screenplay at times, perfect for readers in need of a film fix.
Read instead of watching: It (miniseries, 1990) and It (two-part film, 2017 and 2019)
Also check out: The Saturday Night Ghost Club, by Craig Davidson
I WISH I WAS LIKE YOU, BY S.P. MISKOWSKI (2017)
“We blamed the dead guy. People always do. It’s a way of siding with life, with energy and bouncy tits,” declares S.P. Miskowski’s sardonic 20-something narrator in this award-winning ghost story infused with elements of noir, mystery and coming-of-age narratives. Actively unlikable and perpetually underachieving ghost Greta rampages her way with a vengeance through Kurt Cobain–era Seattle, giving the unhappy living a metaphorical push in the wrong direction as she tries to solve her own murder.
Read instead of watching: The Lovely Bones (film, 2009)
Also check out: A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb
LABYRINTH LOST, BY ZORAIDA CÓRDOVA (2016)
Zoraida Córdova flips the script on White witch narratives by crafting a compelling young adult tale of a Latinx bruja coming to terms with her powers. In the first of the Brooklyn Brujas trilogy, protagonist Alex navigates classic teen dilemmas like first loves and sibling rivalry while questioning her heritage and rejecting her Deathday celebration. The real adventure begins, though, when she inadvertently lands herself in the terrifying realm of Los Lagos.
Read instead of watching: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (TV series, 2018–present)
Also check out: Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman
MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM, BY GRADY HENDRIX (2016)
My Best Friend’s Exorcism — optioned for the big screen in 2018 — takes the trials and tribulations of adolescence and throws in a dollop of Satanic Panic for good measure. Infused with ’80s paraphernalia and pop culture, from its retro VHS book cover to multiple mentions of Phil Collins, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a linguistically lively read in which the descent into full-blown demonic possession serves as the narrative hook, while the friendship between Gretchen and Abby remains the narrative heart.
Read instead of watching: Jennifer’s Body (film, 2009)
Also check out: Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix