Readers, this time of year I always enjoy talking scary books with a guest—but my conversation today goes far beyond spine-tingling reads as I chat with today’s guest about the perils and pleasures of exploring a new-to-you genre.
Margaret Prinzing knows what she likes when it comes to her favorite genres, but she’s struggled to find books she loves in sections of the bookstore that aren’t so familiar. She’s recently enjoyed reading thrillers and scary stories, and now she’s curious: how scary can she go?
Margaret and I chat about haunted houses and the push and pull of deliciously creepy stories, but we also discuss ways to manage stories that may trigger difficult feelings, and how to gently tiptoe into a reading experience that feels unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable. I even challenge one of Margaret’s strongly-held opinions on genres that aren’t for her!
Whether you’re looking for atmospheric reads or need your own gentle nudge toward trying something new, I hope you’ll find some encouragement in my conversation with Margaret today.
MARGARET: And I will say that I think that I like haunted house stories more than I dislike YA, so I will give this one a shot. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 303.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, our 2021 Modern Mrs Darcy Gift Guide for Book Lovers is here! It feels early to start talking about gift guides, but with this year’s disruptions in supply chains and our shipping delays, we’re trying to minimize the stress for everyone by making it a little easier to shop a little earlier than usual. This is especially true for small businesses and independent bookstores, which are feeling the crunch even more than usual this time of year.
I had so much fun putting together this year’s gift guide, and whether you’re shopping for your loved ones or treating yourself, I think you’ll find something you will love. Check it out on my blog: modernmrsdarcy.com.
Readers, this time of year, so many people are looking for spooky reads—but finding the right type and level of spine-tingling books can feel like a challenge.
Today’s guest Margaret Prinzing has read widely in non-fiction and literary fiction, but she’s recently embarked on a journey to delve into a new genre for her: the genre of legit scary books. For many years Margaret shied away from books that might induce nightmares, but now that she’s started to explore, she wants to know: how scary can she go?
Margaret and I chat about the push and pull of deliciously creepy stories, the difficulties readers face when reading books that can bring up chilling themes, and a few tips on how to manage the emotional rollercoaster that often comes with trying not just more frightening tales, but any story that’s off your beaten path. Along the way I share my favorite tips and two tried-and-true methods for branching into new genre territory—whatever that may look like for you.
I hope my recommendations today will help Margaret enjoy her exploration of new-to-her genres, now and in the future, and that she (and you) will leave feeling excited about what she hopes to read next.
Let’s get to it.
Margaret, welcome to the show.
MARGARET: Thank you, Anne. I'm happy to be here.
ANNE: Oh, I'm so excited to talk books with you today. Margaret, where are you this morning?
MARGARET: Well, I actually grew up fairly close to where you are, just an hour or so away in Dayton.
ANNE: Oh really?
MARGARET: Yeah! In Dayton, Ohio. That's where I grew up. But now I live pretty far away in Berkeley, California with my husband and our little dog. If I were to identify my major interests in life, two of the big ones would be reading and politics. Reading was first. My parents were great about reading to us when we were little, but politics came along a lot earlier than you might think. Way back in 1979 [ANNE LAUGHS] I was nine years old and the Iran hostage crisis started and somehow, someway, I was fully drawn in. I remember watching the news and trying to watch these newspaper articles that I really didn't understand. I had a diary back then and it's really quite remarkable because I'd have entries that would start out like a perfectly normal child's diary, something like I went to a slumber party at Jennifer's house, but then the next line would be it's day 134 of the hostage crisis. I sure do hope they come home soon. [LAUGHS] So I was a weird kid.
But I held that interest years later when I went to college, I declared political science early on and I never looked back. Just days after I graduated from college, I moved to Washington D.C. and eventually started working on Capitol Hill for a couple different members of Congress, and then I moved to California almost 25 years ago for law school, and now I'm an attorney who practices election and government law, so I guess you could say that I'm really lucky to have found my path early in life. But I think my reading life has been a little bit less of a straight line. I've had what I think of as three different reading lives over the years.
I imagine most people who listen to this podcast were huge readers when they were little kids, and I was no different. I read tons of books as a little kid, almost always fiction. That stuck all through college and those early post-college years. I really liked literary novels back then. But once I got to college and I was studying government, starting to work on Capitol Hill, I just wanted to be the kind of person who read nonfiction. I wanted to be that person who knew all the history and all the complexities of these issues that I was working on, so I'd go to bookstores and pick out all these great books and bring them home, you know, books about Constitutional history or the Cold War, but then almost without fail, I would just let those books gather dust while I picked up another novel.
But I had this colleague in one of my Capitol Hill offices and I told him about my little struggle, my little bookish struggle, and he said oh, Margaret, you have to read No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and it changed everything. It's this wonderful history book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and how they navigated the depression and World War II, but it's so well done. It reads like a novel, and you get this sense of suspense since the war is coming, and you get these great character details, like about, I don't know, how FDR would throw cocktail parties at the end of the day to try to handle all the stress that he was under, and Eleanor didn't want a cocktail. She wanted to talk about New Deal programs. Anyway, that was it. From the time I finished No Ordinary Time and for maybe the next fifteen years, I read almost nothing except nonfiction, mostly American political history. So I just became a real nerd.
Just one example: when I finally got to see the musical Hamilton, my sister asked if I'd been listening to the soundtrack, and I said no, but I had read that huge biography of Hamilton [LAUGHS] that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda to write the musical. So I didn't know the music, but I knew some of the stories behind those songs. And that was all great for a while, but I eventually realized that I just wasn't reading that much anymore. Maybe a handful of books a year, and I figured out that the kinds of books that I was reading, those dense history books, were just too close to the kind of reading I had to do for my work as a lawyer. It's been so many work days just reading this dense factual information and I just didn't want to spend my downtime in the evenings or on the weekends reading fairly dense factual information.
ANNE: Oh, that's so interesting. Margaret, I actually know the next part of the story, and I'm wondering if you even remember this, do you recall in 2016 putting in a submission for What Should I Read Next?
MARGARET: [LAUGHS] Oh my gosh, I do! I do! I was so ... I needed help trying to figure out what to read, and I had just started listening to your podcast and I thought ah, Anne should come to my rescue. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well here's what you said.
MARGARET: Oh no! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: This was December 22, 2016.
MARGARET: [LAUGHS] Oh wow.
ANNE: 9:51 PM. "Lifelong reader who is just in the past few years started reading novels again after 15 years of focusing almost entirely on nonfiction. But when I turn back to novels, I realized I honestly didn't know what I liked anymore!" I love having those conversations. Let's figure it out. So, Margaret, I know that you did manage to find your way there. Does everything you said about your 2016 self ring true now, five years later?
MARGARET: I figured out a lot between then and now. I really do have almost an endless supply of books that I want to read in my go-to genres.
ANNE: 'Cause now you have go-to genres!
MARGARET: Now I have go-to genres.
ANNE: Look at you.
MARGARET: Right, like I figured that bit out. Now I know what I tend to love. I call it sorta medium weight literary fiction [ANNE LAUGHS] and I love mysteries and thrillers and I read some contemporary fiction mixed in there, but here I am again, I've been trying to break into new genre and I'm not very good at that, and that's scary stories, and so I entered another submission for your show, but this time it got picked up.
ANNE: It's truly all about the timing and we're glad that you caught us at the right time, Margaret, because I'm so intrigued by your request. I’m wondering two things, what it is about breaking into new genres that appeals to you? I mean, I can see the appeal, but I don't necessarily know what it is for you here, and why scary stories?
MARGARET: So I read a lot of books now. [BOTH LAUGH] Once I figured it out I just went on a tear and I read a lot of books. I love most of what I read, or well, at least like most of what I read, but it feels like there's so much out there in the world. So many different kinds of books, and so I feel like I should be able to pick up more, but I find it kinda frustrating. Typically when I pick up something in a new genre, it's just hard to find that book that I like when I know that if I go to literary fiction, I really know what I'm probably going to like, so it's easy to pick one that's going to be good rather if I'm trying to pick up something in a new genre. I don't know how to do it as easily, so it takes a bit longer.
But I have had some luck with scary books. It didn't start out [LAUGHS] as having luck with it because I've always had this push-pull with scary things, right. The pull is that the scary stories tend to have an element of mystery, you know, something's off, but what is it? So I'm always really curious, but the push is that the answer to that mystery can sometimes take you in a fairly unsettling direction. So I would frequently regret having gone through with whatever the scary thing may have been. There's one example that I always think of from when I was just a little kid, maybe six or seven years old. My parents announced that they were taking us to Disney World. I was so excited, you know, I had this haunted mansion game. I wanted to go see the haunted mansion.
Then we get to Disneyland, we get in line for the haunted mansion, and the closer we get to the entrance, the more nervous I got and finally we're inside, and back then as I remember it, you walked into the entryway of the mansion and there was this creepy butler saying creepy things to all the visitors. [ANNE LAUGHS] While the portraits hanging in the entryway start to grow and change and the portraits of monsters. So I just lost it. I didn't just start to cry. I was making a bit of scene, and meanwhile the creepy butler is going on with his spiel [ANNE LAUGHS] while suddenly working his way over to me and whispering into my ear, kid, stop crying, everything's fake. None of this is real.
But that push-pull just kinda remained a pattern, you know, as a teenager, I'd hear about a scary movie, like The Exorcist or The Shining, and I'd get very curious. I'd watch the movie, and then I'd regret it afterwards.
ANNE: For - for what reason? What was it afterwards?
MARGARET: I would just be scared. [LAUGHS] So for example ...
ANNE: That simple.
MARGARET: Yeah, that simple! So you know, later in life, when I'm a full grown adult, no excuses, a friend wanted to go see The Blair Witch Project and I know that this movie hits very differently for different people. I don't know if you ever saw it.
ANNE: No, I'm a scaredy cat. I have not seen this one.
MARGARET: Okay. Well for me, this movie was the pinnacle of scary, and my husband and I had plans maybe a week after that to go camping in Oregon, but I just put my foot down. I refused to go camping. [ANNE LAUGHS] Camping is what the kids in The Blair Witch Project had done, and it hadn't turned out at all well for them, so I insisted that we stay in hotels. We were in graduate school at the time and trying to grab last minute hotel reservations in late summer is never cheap, but that's what I made us do. So my poor husband, he asked me if I would agree to not see any more scary movies after that, and I have to admit that was a pretty reasonable request since my reaction to a scary movie had upended his vacation. [ANNE LAUGHS]
And so that was just a status quo for years. I just avoided all things scary, no scary movies, no scary books, but what eventually shifted things for me was the podcast Snap Judgment. I suspect a lot of your listeners know this show. It's just a great storytelling podcast and every fall they do a spook series where they tell spooky stories and that old pull kicked in and I got curious and I started listening and I loved it. It was just pure fun. No regrets. All pull, no push. So I decided to read a spooky book, nothing too extreme, nothing too horrifying, just a nice ghost story. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.
MARGARET: And that book was so fun. It's about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny in a remote Scottish mansion and finds what might be a malevolent ghostly presence, or maybe it's something else, like the house is very wired with all this super modern technology, so maybe it's the technology running amuck, but I enjoyed that book so much and I recommended it to quite a few friends who took me up on it and a couple of them thought that it was pretty spooky, and that made me happy because [ANNE LAUGHS] I had taken it all in stride, so I thought maybe, finally, I was brave enough to start reading some scarier books. And here we are. I've started reading a little further and it's going well, but like I said, I find it challenging to break into a new genre, so I guess that's where you come in.
ANNE: As you described literary fiction, you mentioned that you know that genre really well. You know what to expect. You know the conventions of the genre and that makes it easier to choose books unfamiliar to you because you do have a pretty good idea based on what you know of what to expect from that next book you may pick up, and it sounds like what you're saying is you just don't have that knowledge in but a few genres, and so when you're branching out, you're having to build your knowledge base from scratch. Is that what has made it tricky for you to venture into books that are right now unfamiliar with you?
MARGARET: That's it exactly. I mean with literary fiction, I now have a whole bunch of authors that I really like so I know that I'll probably like to read their books, or maybe books that they've blurbed, and then of course I know the different kinds of stories within that that I like. You know, I like something that's a little more plot driven. I like a book that maybe talks about art or the life of artists, but when I try to break into a new genre, I don't know any of that. I don't really know the writers. I don't know which storylines that I'm going to like, although I've already figured out with scary stuff, I definitely like a good ghost story. I like a haunted house story, so I'm starting to figure out a little bit, but for the most part, I don't really know so it's hard to know what to reach for next.
ANNE: What has made it easier for you to break into new genres in the past? This is something you've successfully done. Did you have a method, or [LAUGHS] is there a little more luck involved than you would like?
MARGARET: Oh, it was luck. You know, when I was trying to figure out how to go from all that nonfiction I'd been reading for so many years to fiction books, what really helped were what I think of as two bridge books. First, my sister recommended the American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is a fictionalized account more or less of Laura Bush's life, the former first lady, and that book was perfect for me in that moment. It was enough like the political biographies I was used to to hold my attention, but it was a novel, so I could enjoy the different way that the story was told.
And then around the same time, another friend recommended 11/22/63 that Stephen King book about time travel and the assassination of JFK, and again it had that history hook for me, but it was wildly different from what I'd been reading, so those two books gave me my pathway back into novels. Now these days I rarely read books with political themes, but that was what I needed back then.
ANNE: Interesting. So, Margaret, you found these bridge books accidentally, but I think when you're branching into a new genre, there are two ways to do it, and one is straight into the deep end which really works for some people who think oh my gosh, I never would have considered picking up a book like this because it seems so unlike what I previously read but I just didn't know what I was missing. This is fantastic. Why haven't I been here all along? That works [LAUGHS] just to throw arbitrary numbers, I'm going to say 20% of the time, that works great for readers, but the 80% of the time, they need to tiptoe their way in.
And as we talk about branching into new genres, new sections of the bookstore, what I think about all the time is I'm not a technology person, but an explanation a tech friend gave me many years ago about the adjacent possible, which means that possibility, that could-be future reality hovering right outside the bounds of your reading experience, like it's right there, you can almost touch it. We were having a late night conversation about technology and he was describing how, you know, we didn't go from the abacus to the iPhone. There are a million iterations in between that take us step by step. You don't go from a message pad to a tablet. You can only go a little bit at a time or the brain can't make the leap, the technology can't make the leap.
ANNE: So what you did with your bridge books, that's a great term, is drawn on all the elements you knew you liked plus a few you weren't as familiar with. That's a wonderful way to get acquainted, and it's worked for you before.
ANNE: So today we're talking about getting more familiar with scary stories. Where do you feel like you are in that progression?
MARGARET: Well, I think I've started figuring a little bit out. I still haven't read that many, but I think I know on some very basic level what I like, what I'm looking for, and what I'm not looking for. What I really like about the scary books that I've enjoyed is that they're just fun. My husband made a pretty good observation the other day, he said it's no wonder that I've come to like scary stories because I love rollercoasters. And that actually makes some sense because with rollercoasters, you know, you'll sometimes have that moment when you're nervous, maybe even a little bit scared as you're getting close to the front of the line or climbing that first hill, but then once you go over that first hill, it's just, it's pure fun, and I think a really good ghost story can be like that. If you get caught up in the story, it can make you a little nervous, a little on edge, but ultimately, it's just a lot of fun, but what I don't like in a ghost story that at least I've been able to identify so far ...
ANNE: You're reading my mind. Tell me.
MARGARET: Bleakness. A couple weeks ago I started watching a movie called The Woman in Black and there's a lot of good in this movie. It's really atmospheric. It's got Daniel Radcliffe. The haunted house details are terrific, these shadows darting around, little spooky hands appearing in the windows, but it was so bleak. All the characters are depressed, it feels kinda hopeless. So even though the haunted house aspects of it were great, I just didn't finish watching it because I don't like things that are bleak.
ANNE: Right, and that's something that you would easily be able to identify if you were looking at your midweight literary fiction, you'd be able to tell, like this looks depressing and that is not for me, but you're getting familiar with the different personalities of the books you're finding amongst these scary stories as well now it sounds.
MARGARET: Exactly, and I think with a lot of the scary books, I mean, they definitely can deal with some serious topics. I mean, let's face it with some scary books, I mean, you know, people die. Bad things happen. [LAUGHS] But it really depends on the whether the whole atmosphere of the book is bleak, or whether there's more there and it can still be fun.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That noise you're hearing is me scratching off some bleak titles that 10 minutes ago I thought you might enjoy.
MARGARET: Oh, no! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Margaret, what are some genres that you really enjoy besides literary fiction?
MARGARET: Mysteries are a lot of fun. This year I've been reading some more thrillers. That's something that always kinda popped up every now and then, but I think I've been learning my way around thrillers too, so I pick up those a little more often. Sometimes I'll pick up contemporary fiction. That's really it. I mean, those are the books that I really focus on that I really enjoy.
ANNE: Okay. That sounds good to me. Something that's important to any discussion about scary stories is that different things are scary for different people. In fact, there's a past episode of the podcast with Mallory O'Meara. She loves a good horror novel. All your conflict is externalized, it's you vs. the monster, it's fine. It's more physical. The ghost is right there dread, or the werewolf I think she talked about.
ANNE: And not deep psychological angst, which is why I just crossed a few books off my list that are definitely scary, but in part scary because they seem so realistic. Not just physical distress, but emotional distress. So you love haunted house stories and ghost stories, that's good to know, but listeners, as we get into this conversation, I just want you to consider what's scary for one reader might not be scary for another, and just because Margaret or I say it's okay doesn't mean it's okay for you. Anything you'd add to that, Margaret, as someone who has gotten bitten by her forays into the horror realm before? [LAUGHS]
MARGARET: [LAUGHS] I think that's exactly right. I've heard of people who practically laugh their way through the Blair Witch Project. They thought it was ridiculous, but for me I think, it ... You know, it's hard to articulate this exactly but for me what's too scary, what's not too scary, if I read a ghost story, you know, if you're caught up in the story, you have that moment where you're nervous, you're just really enjoying it, you might be nervous or even a little bit of afraid when you're reading it, but when I put down that ghost story, that's the end of it. I'm not worried about ghosts lurking out there in the world trying to do bad things to people, right. That's just not something that worries me in my daily life, but with something like The Blair Witch Project, you know, when I walked out of that theater, that movie is about this witchy woman living in a woods, trying to do bad things to people after she toys with them in these horrific ways, so I can walk out of that theater and put aside the supernatural concerns, you know. I'm not worried about witches, but there are bad people in the world [LAUGHS] who want to do bad things, and so that movie could be scary on different levels.
ANNE: A frequent coping strategy for a scaredy cat like myself is to see what it is exactly that the author is externalizing. How are they doing that? How does it advance the plot? Just to break it down and give yourself a critical distance, like oh this isn't terrible. This is plot device. It's fine. It's fine. So readers, if you ever find yourself in the midst of a scary book and you think I really want to know what happens but I'm not sure I can handle it, maybe that little bit of critical distance will help you through. Margaret, we're about to get into the books you love and I really want to know, how did you choose these today? Are we gonna hear about scary stories?
MARGARET: We are. I've heard a lot of your guests talk about how difficult it is to choose the three books that they love, but this was really easy for me because I decided [LAUGHS] to just choose three spooky books and I just haven't read that many of these. So this may be my top third, or my top fourth [LAUGHS] in the genres, so not that challenging.
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ANNE: Tell me about your first book.
MARGARET: Okay. I'll start with a ghostly book, maybe just a tiny bit spooky. The Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella. So this book follows Cadence Archer as she starts her freshman year at Harvard, but she hasn't chosen Harvard for the typical reasons that people choose it. She's going so she can learn more about what happened to her brother, who went to Harvard first, but died while he was on campus. As Cadence starts to go through his writings and investigate his circumstances, she starts to hear voices from various ghosts at Harvard. One from hundreds of years ago, others from the less distant past, but all of this raises the question, is Cadence truly hearing ghosts communicate with her? Or is it all in her head?
I like this one for a few reasons. First, you know, as we've been talking about, I've learned that I just like a good ghost story, and I like that suspense over whether the ghost’s real, or is there some other explanation for it? A bit of mystery, but I also like that there's a lot going on in this book. It's a long one, almost 500 pages, and in addition to the ghost story, it explores Cadence's grief and guilt over her brother. It's a family story as Cadence navigates things that are happening with her parents. It's a campus novel. I know a lot of people love campus novels. And then of course there's the mystery of what was happening in her brother's life, you know, I picked it up for the ghost story, but there was a lot more there to keep my attention, and I do want to note that there are some trigger warnings here. I've gone very light on some of the details, but maybe folks should do some research before picking it up.
ANNE: This is a pretty new book, how did you end up picking it up?
MARGARET: I have Overdrive where I listen to my audiobooks and Sundays I just go scrolling through to see what's available, and this one just happened to be available. Because I had in my mind that I wanted to read more ghost stories, I just checked it out and listened to it.
ANNE: And it stuck.
MARGARET: It stuck.
ANNE: That's The Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella. Margaret, what's your second spooky story that worked for you?
MARGARET: My second book is Little Darlings by Melanie Golding.
MARGARET: And this one is downright creepy.
ANNE: Uh huh. [LAUGHS] Yeah.
MARGARET: It's about changelings, which really appealed to me because I certainly heard of changelings, but I can't remember ever reading a story or seeing a movie about them, so that was interesting right off the bat. The book begins with Lauren Tranter becoming a brand new mom to twin boys, so she's still in the hospital. She's had a difficult delivery, and then this witchy woman appears in her hospital room in the middle of the night with her own set of twins, and she tells Lauren that her babies are cursed, while Lauren's twins are blessed, and she tells Lauren that if she doesn't exchange one of her blessed babies for one of the cursed babies, the witchy woman is going to take both of Lauren's twins.
So Lauren is terrified but she escapes the woman for the moment, and no one else believes that this witchy woman is real except for maybe this detective, a woman who gets involved. And then of course one day the worst happens and Lauren's babies disappear. They're soon found, but Lauren is convinced that the recovered babies aren't her babies, but changelings who have been bewitched by this witchy woman to look like her twins.
I listened to this one on audio too and I highly recommend the audio. When the witchy woman appears and speaks and sings, the recording uses this whispery spooky voice and there's other interludes with spooky music and voices so it adds a lot to the atmosphere of the story.
ANNE: Speaking of reading books on two levels, this is another novel that very much operates on two different levels. You have this scary story on the surface about the changelings, but there's so much more going on there psychologically, probably a bit of a stretch to call it an allegory, but almost.
MARGARET: One element in this story that is very interesting and that some readers, or listeners are already probably picking up on, is it's about all the angst of new motherhood. This woman has just had these not just one baby, but two babies, and she's struggling with the exhaustion and the anxiety that comes from that so I think that's another level that this novel works on.
ANNE: The way she does that with her almost supernatural, you know, mythical story is really deft.
MARGARET: Yeah, that's exactly right, and I think that is something that can be satisfying about a scary book and you've kinda eluded to this, that it can be a safer place to kinda explore some anxious issues, right, because there's going to be a supernatural element but you still get to think about some of these bigger, broader issues as you're reading this story.
ANNE: Yeah, and something that's interesting about some of these spookier books is they can feel so much safer to some readers, including myself, than the more realistic ones, like Little Darlings reminds me so much of the very real, realistically written, The Push by Ashley Audrain. It's a psychological drama. It's not a horror novel, but ugh, I found that just terrifying.
MARGARET: Well that was one that I had one my TBR list for a while and then I pulled it off and I always wondered if I should put it back on or not? I'm not sure.
ANNE: It's fantastically done. There's so much she does well, like she sells her story and that's what makes it hard to read.
MARGARET: Mm, yeah. That's one that I might get around to reading one of these days.
ANNE: One of these days. Okay, so that was Little Darlings by Melanie Golding. What did you choose to complete your favorites list?
MARGARET: My third and final book may actually be a horror novel, though to be honest, I really don't know what qualifies a book as a horror novel, so I'm not sure, but let's just say that if a monster doing gruesome things qualifies as horror, this one is horror. [ANNE LAUGHS] I don't know how I ended up reading this, but my third and arguably scariest book is The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix.
ANNE: Oh yeah. That's horror.
MARGARET: [LAUGHS] Okay. All right. Then I've read a horror book. So this book revolves around Patricia Campbell. Patricia has an affluent doctor husband and she's a stay at home mom in a southern suburb who isn't particularly satisfied with her life. I describe her as fairly isolated at the beginning of the book, but she finds her way to a book club with other women which focuses on books about murder and serial killers like Ted Bundy, but then a new charming man moves into the neighborhood and Patricia kinda gets pulled into his world, his strange world, and lo and behold, he turns out to be a monster. A vampire. And Patricia sets out to convince her book club to help her fight back. From there spins out all kinds of events with Patricia and her book club friends dealing or sometimes not dealing with this monster in their neighborhood in their midst. But you can make the argument that the vampire is not the most interesting thing about the book because it has this very sharp sense of time. It takes place in the 1990s and gender politics are front and center in this book, the women in the book club have husbands who impose their very different views of the vampire on their wives. They just see him as this charming guy in the neighborhood, and racial politics also play a troubling role because the vampire preys on people in the community who have less power and less visibility. It's all quite heavy and hard to take at points to be honest, but it leaves you with a whole lot of monstrous stuff to think about while you're reading the book. I was really surprised that I liked this one, but I absolutely did.
ANNE: There has been a lot of discussion amongst scaredy cat readers about whether The Southern Book Club's Guide is too scary for scaredy cats. I actually just saw Valencia Taylor, and Grady Hendrix actually, at the Bookmarks Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Valencia is a What Should I Read Next alum, and we talked about tiptoeing your way into spooky reads if you are a dyed in the wool scaredy cat. And she said I could do it, I enjoyed it, and I only had to skim through a few parts. [MARGARET LAUGHS] I'm glad that one worked for you, and that also gives me a bead on how to think about books you may enjoy because that book is a little bit gruesome in places.
MARGARET: It is. And that's one of the reasons that I was surprised that I liked it because I usually don't like gruesome. I would never for example pick up a thriller about a serial killer. Never, ever. But of course a vampire is a serial killer and I just read that. But this one also I knew, it had some scary elements.
MARGARET: Scarier than the other books I've described but it wasn't too scary for me, so I think I'm braver than I thought I was.
ANNE: Braver than you thought you were. Oh, I love that. I love the way you put that, and as for horor, I don't know if that's specifically what we're looking for today. We may find some books that have scary elements but are not necessarily horror stories. Many literary folks define it as any kind of work that's intended to scare, to horrify, to disgust, and of course there's all kinds of difference of genres, like you've learned your way around what those are in your go-to genres, but there are gothic books and paranormal books, there are survival stories and science fiction-y kinda horror. There are many different kinds of novels that do have scary elements, and some may work for readers who tend to be kinda wimpy, like myself, and some just really may not, and that gruesome factor, like how bloody, how gorey, that does matter, that's all I'm going to say about that because it does kinda skeeve me out, but those are all factors to consider when picking up books. So that was The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. Margaret, tell me about a book that did not work out for you.
MARGARET: Well, I thought about this one because I tried to think of a scary book I could put in this category, and I just couldn't think of one because I haven't read that many as I've said and I at least liked all the scary books that I've read. So what I came up with was A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson. I want to be clear. I think this is a perfectly good book. I can see why a lot of people like it, but it really drove home the point that young adult books are not my genre. I actually enjoyed being a young adult, [LAUGHS] so you'd think I'd enjoy revisiting that phase of my life, but I don't. [LAUGHS] I'm now a mature adult and I like being a mature adult and prefer my books to hang out with me in that phase of life. Or the next phase. I like books about older characters too.
ANNE: I mean, I kinda want to take this as a challenge, though.
ANNE: Like do you know your way around the YA genre? What subgenres have you tried? What different elements? What worked for you? What didn't? Like was there anything that did work for you in this book?
MARGARET: It was a fun mystery in that, you know, you were kept guessing that kinda thing, but there's just something in the young adult genre and to be fair, to be fair, I haven't read that much, but there tends to be this almost sorta angsty element where you sorta turn up the emotional heat on things that just doesn't really agree with me.
ANNE: 'Cause adults don't do that.
MARGARET: Never, never. [ANNE LAUGHS] Never a drama queen. Nobody has ever called me that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: All right. So not for you, A Good Girl's Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson because you're sketpical of YA.
ANNE: We're getting emails that say but Margaret just needs to try ... [MARGARET LAUGHS] fill in the blank.
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ANNE: So we are on the lookout for scary stories, and if we happen to tiptoe our way into other fields, because that would really be my best advice, to tip ... If you're scared of the deep end just to gently tread towards the thing that you wish you were reading more of. Do you have other genres in mind that you're particularly interested in getting better acquainted with?
MARGARET: Hm. It seems like fantasy could be fun, but boy, that just seems like a whole nother world. I don't even know where to begin with that one. [ANNE LAUGHS]
You know, I have a lot of friends who really enjoy it, but I just ... I don't know. I have an intimidation factor with that one.
I did try a few years ago to dip into science fiction and just really didn't like it, you know, almost every book in that genre that I picked up, I either actively didn't like or just found dull, and fantasy feels a little science fiction adjacent, so every now and then, the thought enters my mind that I should try fantasy and then it leaves [LAUGHS] because I don't even know where to start.
ANNE: Margaret, I've been talking about the deep end and how we're not going to do it, and since you are already firmly of the opinion that you do want some spooky, scary-ish books in your ... I said scary-ish. Am I trying to water it down? Scary. Some scary books.
ANNE: In your life.
MARGARET: I don't think I need it watered down. Let's go scary.
ANNE: Okay. But we're going to go scary with purpose and the book I'm thinking of is one that I know we've discussed on the podcast before — I don't know if I've recommended it to a listener — is The Hike by Drew Magary. Is this one you've encountered in your scary explorations thus far?
ANNE: Ooh. I like it for you. There's a lot to like here. It does get a little, okay more than a little gory in places, but readers, if you need to skim, you can skim those parts. You will be fine. This definitely has a fantasy element. It's got elements of folktale weaved in and this has some of the things you're looking for. So it is definitely scary. It is a horrifying Alice in Wonderland kind of adventure element of folktale, video game references, tropes. It begins ... Oh no, Margaret. It begins on a hike into the woods. Can we do this?
MARGARET: I think we can try. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. Well Blair Witch is long behind you. [MARGARET LAUGHS] Married father, happy guy takes a business trip and he stays at this inn that seems like a little blah, but fine in rural Pennsylvania. Checks in, there's a, you know, cute little girl. There's the host at his BNB, or it might be a hotel, luckily that's not the important part. He's got time to kill before his meeting so he goes on a hike in the woods and quickly he starts seeing terrifying visions ... They're not visions. They seem very real -- of twisted elements of things that he just saw in the inn where he was checking into.
ANNE: The sweet little girl who was icing cupcakes ... She wasn't really icing cupcakes, but she was doing something innocuous, is suddenly like standing there with her feet cut off.
ANNE: He recognizes other things that look a little familiar, but have turned gruesome and not just scary elements, but fantastical elements there like there's a giant talking crab completely bizarre creatures, bugs that are the size of himself, and he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the woods realizing the only way out is through and it is weird and scary. Again, Alice in Wonderland is a very apt comparison here. This is a survival story here.
I like that for you because it has some of the elements you're looking for but I really like it for you because believe it or not this is a profoundly hopeful story. The ending is just brain bending, head exploding, are you serious, what just happened, and I'm talking about the last chapters, but then the last two pages are amazing. The whole thing shifts in a way that is so elegantly and brilliantly done, very true to the story. I'm already excited for you getting to read the ending. I'm not one who says, like oh, I wish I could have the experience of reading the ending for the first time. This is an ending I might want to read again for the first time. How does that sound?
MARGARET: Ooh, I love a good ending. I love a lot of what you said about this. It sounds terrific.
ANNE: That is The Hike by Drew Magary. Next I'm strongly tempted to give you a YA ghost story. What do you think?
MARGARET: [LAUGHS] It's a bold choice. It's a bold choice.
ANNE: Yeah, it is, but is it obnoxious? Is it obnoxious or could it be interesting?
MARGARET: Let's call it interesting. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Let's talk about it and we'll give you a backup plan. Tiffany Jackson writes realistic YA thrillers most of the time, but something I didn't know until she started doing interviews for her new book called White Smoke, it just came out in September, is that she is a longtime horror fan, and her new book White Smoke, that just came out in September, is a horror novel. What makes me anxious about this for you is it is definitely YA, but it has so many elements that you do enjoy and I think that may help you articulate clearly what is working for me. I feel like the elements of her horror story are on full display here. So this is about a girl. Her name is Marigold. She and her newly blended family are moving from California back to a midwestern city, so this is your own journey in reverse. They're going home.
ANNE: Jackson actually said that she took a trip to Detroit and that is what sparked the idea of this haunted house story that she visited the city, she heard about urban legends, and whispers of like ooh, is that abandoned residence haunted? She's a stranger in a strange land. She feels very out of place, fish out of water, something bad has happened in California. They don't super go into it but you know something bad has happened. She feels rejected by the community [LAUGHS] and not quite at home in her family and rejected by the very house that she is living in, and at the very beginning of the story, someone, something, some presence, has the narration and says like this is my house, and I want you to leave. And then you launch into the family story. So Mari and her family move into the house, she's got a history. She has a lot of anxiety she's dealing with. She has a phobia of bedbugs. Listeners, if you have a bedbug phobia, let me just tell you, this is not the book for you. [MARGARET LAUGHS] This would be ... This is a whole lot of exposure to bedbugs. Ooh, Margaret, how are you with bedbugs? Can you read about bedbugs?
MARGARET: I can. I can.
MARGARET: I've never lived in New York. I'm fine. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: For some people that is going to be the scariest part. But these increasingly creepy things keep happening in her house. She feels like she's not alone. Everybody's out of the house, they come home, and the furniture is completely rearranged. She sees shadows in the hallway when there is nobody there. Or her friend says, why did you Facetime me 30 times last night? And she says what are you talking about? Oh, it's creepy stuff.
MARGARET: Oh, that sounds like good stuff. Yes.
ANNE: Good stuff. Good stuff in a YA package and I'm really curious to see how it goes for you. Jackson really builds the suspense and intensity really well. This poor girl has a lot going on in her life, and this is a great way to look at how a horror novel is put together and how yeah, she's dealing with emotional issues and also those emotional issues are externalized into this creepy house story. That is White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson.
MARGARET: That sounds very good and I will say that I think that I like haunted house stories more than I dislike YA, so I will give this one a shot. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That's what I'm banking on. [MARGARET LAUGHS] If you as a reader find out that a genre truly is not for you, that is fine, but I want to give you the opportunity to feel like you know, so that you don't miss out on haunted house stories.
MARGARET: I will take that opportunity.
ANNE: Okay. And I was thinking about a couple of different books, but since you said the haunted house, I like this haunted motel story for you. This is a book we have discussed on What Should I Read Next before, but we need to talk about it again in this context, especially because I think it is perfect for you. This is The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. It's a back and forth in time story. Something terrible happened in the past to the protagonist. I think her name is Viv and she's bewitched. She's fascinated. She wants to know what happened then, so she moves back to the town of Fell, New York. There's a symbolic name for you. Takes a job at the same dumpy motel where her aunt worked all those years ago when her aunt was disappeared, no one's quite sure what happened then. There is an occasionally smell of cigarette smoke that our modern day protagonist realizes is some of the only evidence she has of an invisible guest who has unfinished business at the motel that becomes clearer over time, and she doesn't know what she's going to do about it but she is getting more and more unsettled with every passing thing she discovers.
It's got those mystery elements you know you enjoy. There's a mystery that is solvable and also some supernatural elements that are harder to pin down or write off for our character. It is sad in places, obviously, but Viv is on a mission to figure it out because figuring things out, uncovering the past, is how so many characters, you know, we've seen do find some level of peace and healing that is unavailable to them until those doors are closed. I really want to say right now as the door to the motel keep closing automatically when she's not looking, but that's not actually I think part of the haunting. [MARGARET LAUGHS] How does that sound for you?
MARGARET: Oh, that sounds fantastic. That sounds really good. The invisible guest, the haunted motel, I'm all in.
ANNE: Margaret, we can't end our conversation without me throwing in that I really think you might like the horrifying mermaid story that I know since I've read it. I've talked about on the podcast repeatedly but you're looking for possibly fantastical scary books, or science fiction-y scary books and Into The Drowning Deep by Mira Grant would tick those boxes. Terrifying mermaids, not like Ariel, they're called Sirens and they are inescapable monsters in the ocean where this film crew is sailing in to make a documentary into near certain doom. I'm not sure if I've said this on the podcast, but I was reading this book on the couch watching something terrible about to happen and when I reached the moment, I went [LOUD GASP] and Will goes, what are you ... [MARGARET LAUGHS] I was like no, no, it's good. I mean, bad, but it was good. It was really good. [MARGARET LAUGHS] But so bad. And he's like Anne, [MARGARET LAUGHS] what are you reading? I was reading Into The Drowning Deep by Mira Grant.
I read a book last year, I listened to it on audio that creeped me out, not because the house was haunted or you know the ghosts were coming to get you, but because actual terrible people were scheming terrible things and I was very concerned about how it was all going to shake out. This is by Wendy Walker who's written scary stuff in the past. She's a thriller writer. This one is called Don't Look For Me, though I think Emma in the Night would also be a good pick for you. This is about a woman who apparently walks away from her life. She goes on a trip in the pouring rain. She stops for gas, she disappears, and her family believes she has left forever but it is more complex than that. Something terrible has happened. Her daughter, thank goodness, is determined to learn the truth but oh, just so many scary people doing terrible things, holding out terrible fates for these poor women.
MARGARET: Oh no. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: This is one of those stories that can be really hard to read as a reader because you are a couple steps ahead of the characters on the page and you're yelling at them, you just need to ... ! No, why don't you ... ! Ah, can't you see... ! [MARGARET LAUGHS] But no they can't because they're in the story and you are outside it. So there's something about watching the scary unfold in real people's lives and being powerless that is both thrilling and also really, really horrible as a reader. [MARGARET LAUGHS] So you can decide how you feel about that but I think you would enjoy this book. It's called Don't Look For Me by Wendy Walker.
MARGARET: Ah, I think that sounds good.
ANNE: Margaret, of the books we talked today, they were The Hike by Drew Magary, White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson, The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James, and then we tossed Into The Drowning Deep by Mira Grant, Don't Look For Me by Wendy Walker. I'm still curious what you think about The Push by Ashley Audrain? You think you might or maybe not?
MARGARET: I'm going to have to read the description of that one again and really decide.
ANNE: Read the description. We'll talk. Of those books, of those numerous books, what is calling your name? What do you think you'll read next?
MARGARET: Well I think I'm going to read all of them, but The Sun Down Motel might be first.
ANNE: Margaret, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
MARGARET: It's been a lot of fun. Thank you, Anne.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Margaret, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/303 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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•No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
•Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
•The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
•American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
•11/22/63 by Stephen King
❤ Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
❤ Little Darlings by Melanie Golding
•The Push by Ashley Audrain
❤ The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
△ A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
•The Hike by Drew Magary
•White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson
•The Sun Down Motel by Simone St James
•Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
•Don’t Look For Me by Wendy Walker
•The Blair Witch Project movie
•Snap Judgment podcast
•The Woman in Black
•WSIRN Ep 176: Books in the freezer & other horror stories with Mallory O’Meara
•WSIRN Ep 255: Spine-tingling reads for a confirmed scaredy-cat with Valencia Taylor
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