The Fiction Fox
Suspiciously Specific #3: Melancholic Ghosts
Suspiciously Specific is a new bi-weekly series of assorted book recommendations, inspired by the subreddit by the same name, as well as a short video-series by BooksandLala on Youtube. In short-form, I’ll recommend ten books across genres, that happen to have something very specific in common. Whether it be a very niche trope, a cover-trend, or a theme that is só specific you’re surprised there’s more than one book that includes it. Requests for a list are always welcome if you happen to have a specific trope you love, but think is too niche to find recommendations for.
Most of us will think of poltergeists and scares in the night when the subject of ghosts comes up. Personally, I’ve always imagined a haunting to be a little more like the ones in the books on this lists. These ghosts don’t haunt, taunt or scare. Instead they lament and linger; melancholically ruminating about times gone by and making sure the living don’t forget. An alternative way to describe this very specific brand of ghosts is just “my favourite kind of ghosts”, as it’s a personal bookish catnip for me. These eleven books and a bonus entry (because I couldn’t pick) haunt me in the best way, without keeping me up at night. I hope they will do the same for you.
1. Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour
Genre: magical realism One-line synopsis: Having aged out of the foster system, an 18- year old girl takes on a live-in teaching job at an isolated farm on the North Californian Coast. During the daytime she finds connection and friendship in her colleagues and the foster children she tutors, yet during the night the lingering sea mist is filled with ghosts. Ghosts of Mila’s past, and that of the others, that won’t let her leave her past trauma behind. Why it’s haunting: the ghosts that roam these farmlands don’t even interact with our protagonists throughout most of this story; instead they live out their own repetitive patterns and movements, unaware of the effects they have on the living. They are memories, trauma’s, desires and reminders of things to never forget. In that way that only Lacour can, these ghosts left me in tears, but also strangely comforted, rather than scared.
2. We Speak in Storms by Natalie Lund
Genre: magical realism, contemporary One-line synopsis: The small town of Mercer, Illinois is plagued by rumours of ghosts and storm-spirits ever since a tornado destroyed the lives of a whole generation over 50 years ago. When a new tornado touches down in the exact same spot once again, three teens find these rumours might be more than that. A ghost of sorts subtly infiltrates each of their lives, and in the end, they find that might not be such a bad thing. Why it’s haunting: the ghosts that Callie, Josh and Brenna encounter aren’t out to scare or harass them. Instead, they’re here to help. Each of the teens is struggling with a big event in their lives; one they feel utterly alone in. In their interaction and research of the ghosts that haunt them, they find not only friendship in each other, but that (even separated by time) you are never alone in an experience.
3. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: literary fiction One-line synopsis: this phenomenally woven literary story interlinks the two seemingly unrelated events - a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea – and traces the lives of the key players back to a single day at an isolated hotel on Vancouver Island years ago. Why it’s haunting: the ghosts in The Glass Hotel are both literal as well as metaphorical. They are memories for some, glimpses of a counterlife (a life not lived) for others. At times they are even the characters themselves; feeling like “ghosts of their formers selves” after a life-altering event.
Genre: literary fiction/magical realism One-line synopsis: Ghost Music tells the story of young Chinese woman desperately trying to fit into the mould of the perfect spouse and future mother, yet experiencing the dissonance of that mould mismatching her own dreams. When a delivery of mushrooms from an unknown sender arrives on her doorstep and triggers a strange sort of haunting, it sets her off on a surreal journey. A literal one through the streets of Beijing, and a psychological one past the hopes and dreams she gave up on. Why it’s haunting: similar to the ghosts in The Glass Hotel, this one represents a very specific type of grief; the grief over a life not lived, chances not taken and the idea we can be haunted by a future that will never be. It’s a brilliantly written story that may seem surreal and strange on the surface, but offers a lot of depth and heart if you’re willing to stick with it.
Genre: magical realism, novel in verse One-line synopsis: this novel in verse is part coming of age-, part ghost- story about two grieving teens who embark on road trip that has them chasing ghosts and searching for ancestors. Why it’s haunting: without spoiling such a short book, ghosts are everywhere in Me: Moth. Both our protagonists are “haunted” in a way; Sani by the grips of his clinical depression, and Moth by the recent loss and trauma of losing her parents in a car accident. Packed to the brim with elements of Native American folklore and symbolism, this one will also haunt your mind long after you’ve finished it.
6. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejide
Genre: magical realism One-line synopsis: Nephthys Kinwell is a taxi driver of sorts in Washington DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car: a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage her grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris, who was murdered and dumped in the Anacostia River. Why it’s haunting: The ghosts in Nephtyhys’ trunk isn’t the only lingering spirit in here. I’ll quote the books backflap, as it perfectly summarizes why this is such a haunting read: Creatures of Passage beautifully threads together the stories of Nephthys, Dash, and others both living and dead. Morowa Yejidé's deeply captivating novel shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans, and reluctant ghosts, and brings together a community intent on saving one young boy in order to reclaim themselves.
7. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Genre: magical realism One-line synopsis: following the sudden and unexpected death of her mother, 17-year old Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has turned into a bird. Determined to chase and find that bird, half Asian-half white Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. All along the way she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. Why it’s haunting: Leigh’s ghostly encounters are different from any other upon this list. They’re often tactile, sensory and filled with color and feeling rather than just a visual picture of a person. These experiences help Leigh not only process the grief over her mother, but also connect to the family-history she never knew about.
8. Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Genre: literary horror/dystopian One-line synopsis: Vern - seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised - flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world. Yet even in the forest, Vern cannot escape her past. Hunted by the cult she’s escaped, haunted by visions she cannot explain, and , her body wracked by uncanny changes, Vern must face the past to protect herself and her small family. Why it’s haunting: Sorrowland is probably my least favourite novel out of all of these, as it tries to do too many great things with the hauntings, and cancels itself out at times. The hauntings, both the physical and mental ones, are manifestations of Verns trauma, both personal, generational and institutional. Although they are at times frightening, Vern regards them with mostly sorrow and a powerful will to overcome what has happened to her that dominated this novel.
9. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Genre: magical realism, middle-grade/YA One-line synopsis: Elatsoe tells the story of a Lipan Apache teen, who lives in an America quite similar to our own. This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. When Ellie’s beloved cousin becomes the victim in a horrible crime, she sets off on a journey for answers, using her well-honed inherited skill of raising ghosts. Why it’s haunting: Strangely enough, the haunting part of this novel is the reality of it, not the ghosts. Darcie Little Badger creates a fantastic world that uses elements of magical realism to bring light to (in more ways than one) heavy topic such as racial violence, bigotry and grief. The ghosts, especially Ellie’s ghost-dog companion, add an element of whimsy, comfort and love to balance out this novel in an unexpected way.
10. Come With me by Ronald Malfi
Genre: horror One-line synopsis: Aaron Decker's life changes one December morning when his wife Allison is killed. Haunted by her absence--and her ghost--Aaron goes through her belongings, where he finds a receipt for a motel room in another part of the country. Piloted by grief and an increasing sense of curiosity, Aaron embarks on a journey to discover what Allison had been doing in the weeks prior to her death. Why it’s haunting: although this is a horror novel, the ghosts isn’t the source of the scares here. Allison’s spirit assists Aaron in his search for answers, and helps him ease into the realization that she’s really gone forever. On top of being an excellent murder-mystery-horror novel, this is one of the best and most heartfelt portrayals of grief I’ve seen in horror yet.
11. The Curse on Spectacle Key by Chantel Acevedo
Genre: middle-grade mystery One-line synopsis: A sweetly spooky ghost story about a Cuban American boy who befriends a pair of spirits and tries to break the curse on his island home . . . only to discover a seemingly lost piece of his family's history in the process. Why it’s haunting: I had to include at least one middle-grade story on this list, and what better book to take that place than one that starts out with a boy discovering his new home is haunted by a crying ghost amongst others. After being initially scared, Frank soon learns that the ghosts that haunt Spectacle Key aren’t out to hurt them. When he finds that some of them are sad, lost or troubled themselves, Frank doesn’t hesitate to offer his help.
my current read that I’m hoping to add to this list as soon as it releases/I’ve finished the ARC.
12. The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts by Soraya Palmer
Genre: literary fiction One-line synopsis: Folktales and spirits animate this lively coming-of-age tale of two Jamaican-Trinidadian sisters in Brooklyn grappling with their mother’s illness, their father's infidelity, and the truth of their family’s past. Why it’s haunting: I’m not quite sure yet, as I’m only a few pages in, but I’m feeling a beautiful family story, haunted by memories of its past.