With Halloween almost upon us, Wales Arts Review selects fifteen books from Wales which will have you gripped with their tales of ghosts, psychological thrillers, gothic landscapes and fantasy worlds.
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters (2009)
Sarah Waters’ 2009 gothic novel, The Little Stranger, offers a carefully woven ghost story set in a rundown mansion in Warwickshire in the 1940s. As country doctor, Faraday, is drawn into a friendship with the family who own the mansion, a sequence of chilling events begin to happen within the house. With a series of disasters unfolding around the family, Faraday begins to question the cause of all these eerie incidents, but feels powerless to stop them. Eventually, Faraday is forced to stand by as events build towards a tragic conclusion. Shortlisted in Wales Arts Review’s run-down of the Greatest Welsh Novels in 2016, the novel’s “perfectly crafted gothic spook story” makes it an ideal read for those dark autumnal evenings.
A masterclass in writing the supernatural from, arguably, one of Wales finest fantasy writers of all time. The novella centres on the life of Helen, a girl who is feared in her hometown for her strange behaviour and a series of disturbing events involving her. The novella continues to follow Helen’s life as she leaves a trail of chaos and mysterious deaths in her wake. As the narrative reaches its dramatic conclusion, events of the past come back to haunt those around Helen. Machen claimed that he was inspired to write the novel after visiting a pagan temple in Wales. Considered shocking because of its subject matter and veiled references to sexual content, the novel was widely denounced when it was first published, only gaining wider recognition in the twentieth century. Machen’s writing has since been cited as an influence on a range of fantasy and horror writers, including H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King.
Figurehead – Carly Holmes (2018, republished 2022)
One of the more recent entries on our list, but also one of the most lyrical and visual texts. Reviewing the collection, Isabel Roach described how Holmes uses the “beautiful, rhythmic prose Figurehead weaves a sequence of stories that are strange, captivating, and unforgettable”. In this debut collection of stories Carly Holmes peers into every corner of the strange fiction genre: from rural gothic through to traditional ghost stories and the uncanny. Mothers turn into trees when the sun goes down; Russian Dolls mourn their missing sisters in rotting houses; men offer sacrifices to the monsters who embody their inner wildness; and murderous demons protect young girls’ virginity.
You can read Wales Arts Review’s interview with Carly Holmes about Figurehead here.
The Dark Philosophers – Gwyn Thomas (1946)
Perhaps the most famous of Gwyn Thomas’ fictional works, The Dark Philosophers sees a group of grimly humorous philosophers gather in an Italian café to tell a tragic tale of revenge and manslaughter that they engineer. Published in 1946 alongside two other novellas by Thomas, Oscar and Simeon, The Dark Philosophers took readers into a world of intrigue, conspiracy and dark humour. Thomas’ writing has stood the test of time and was republished as part of the Parthian Books’ Library of Wales Series.
Read John Gower’s reflection on The Dark Philosophers here.
The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies – Rhys Davies (1955)
Okay, so Rhys Davies might not be the first writer to come to mind when compiling a list of Halloween-themed books. Yet Davies takes us on a rollercoaster though comedy, tragedy and almost every emotion in between. The stories in this seminal collection are set in a mining town in Wales, a setting familiar to Davies , and use the everyday surroundings to evoke tales of grief, family feuds and, occasionally, corpses. Writing on the 40th anniversary of Davies’ death, Nigel Jarret recalled Davies ability to “flush meaningful local colour, or easy suggestions of it, from his work”, creating the kind of atmosphere which has made Davies’ synonymous with the short story form.
Too Dark to See – Chloe Heuch (2020)
After the death of her mother, 16-year-old Kay is on a mission to self-destruct. Unhappy at home and school, she only finds peace with the semi-wild ponies on the moors. She meets Sion up there, also looking to escape. They are drawn into a secret, intense love, but they cannot hide from their lives for long. Chloe Heuch’s Young Adult novel offers an alternative to a traditional, scary Halloween read. Instead, Heuch’s evocative use of imagery and language come together to tell a tale of grief and love, set against the backdrop of a sprawling wilderness. A spellbinding Halloween choice for younger readers.
Congratulate the Devil – Howell Davies (1939)
A lighter entry on our list, Howell Davies’ 1939 novel is a comic novel, with a fantasy twist. Congratulate the Devil is a story of power, passion and corruption by an author who was largely forgotten until the novel was republished as part of the Library of Wales series. Acknowledging the absurdity of the novel, John Gower has written about the fact that the narrative is “based on a crazy, hard-to-credit premise. And yet, in that way that whimsy and eccentricity can eventually win one over, it does manage to keep the reader with it”. This crazy premise centres on chemist Roper’s creation of a new drug which gives all who ingest it telepathic control over anyone within a two hundred yard range, a plot which manages to be both sinister and farcical in equal measure.
Tales of Fenest (Series) – D. K. Fields (2019 – onwards)
It might be cheating to include a whole series, but the Tales of Fenest books really do come as a package. The first book in the series, Widow’s Welcome, draws us into the alternative world of Fenest, a place where dead bodies aren’t unusual in the alleyways – especially not in an election year, when the streets swell with crowds from near and far. Detective Cora Gorderheim thinks she has seen it all, until she finds a Wayward man with his mouth sewn shut and realises that there is more to his murder than meets the eye.
DK Fields is the writing partnership of novelists David Towsey and Katherine Stansfield. You can find out more about their writing partnership here.
Yma O Hyd – Angharad Tomos (1985)
Yma O Hyd is a confronting read, described as offering “an unpleasantly honest account of life in a women’s prison and the mixed, painful feelings of the young Welsh women in such a place”. The novel went on to secure the Academi Gymreig award and was inspired by Tomos’ own experience of being imprisoned at Risley Prison for her actions whilst campaigning for the Welsh language. A confronting read, grounded in reality, the chill factor in Yma O Hyd is palpable in its prison diary format and exploration of the psychological impact of life in prison.
Creed – Margiad Evans (1936)
Marking Honno Press’ reissue of Creed in 2018, Sue Absee argued that while “Creed may present a bleak view of life in the wicked, dissolute Mill End part of the fictional town of Chepsford where the novel is set, the wickedness is depicted with energy”. This energy carries the novel as it tells its tale of a fictional border-town which is characterised by drunkenness and brawls. You won’t find any marshmallow ghosts or gory machete scenes in Evans’ novel, but the powerfully bleak depiction of life in Chepsford should be more than enough to leave you feeling unsettled this Halloween.
The Golden Orphans – Gary Raymond (2018)
The Golden Orphans was the second novel from the pen of contemporary author, and Wales Arts Review’s own Executive Editor, Gary Raymond. Likened to the work of Grahame Greene, the novel weaves a tense literary thriller, set on the island of Cyprus. Tracing the life, and death, of Francis Bentham, The Golden Orphans delves into the long effects of the island’s 1974 partition and life in the abandoned resort of Varosha. In the wake of its publication, Welsh performance poet and hip hop artist Rufus Mufasa created a musical response to the novel, just right for atmospheric listening as the nights draw in.
The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer (2015)
Psychological thriller, The Girl in the Red Coat, quickly became a must-read book of 2015 with its gripping story of Carmel, an 8 year old girl who is abducted from her mother at a storytelling festival. What unfolds in this pacy novel, is a narrative packed with twists and turns as the real motive behind Carmel’s abduction is finally revealed and a race against time to find her gets underway.
You can read more about how Hamer went about building the suspense within the novel in her conversation with John Lavin here.
Broken Ghost – Niall Griffiths (2019)
The winner of the 2020 Wales Book of the Year Award, Broken Ghost paints a picture of a Welsh community drawn together and blown apart by a strange vision in the mountains: the huge spectre of a woman floating over a ridge. As the people of the town battle with their own demons, the question of what this spectre means builds in intensity. Questioning whether what they saw was a collective hallucination, or something altogether more sinister, the characters are forced to confront their worst fears as they try to piece together what the vision means for their own lives and the future of their town.
With a distinctly dystopian feel, read Griffiths’ reflections on the process of writing the novel here.
A Welsh Witch – Allen Raine (1902, republished 2013)
A powerful and evocative novel from one of the bestselling Welsh writers of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. A Welsh Witch charts the life of Catrin, a young women stoned and shunned by her village on suspicion of being a witch. Catrin’s life changes when she develops a close friendship with Goronwy, with whom she shares her knowledge of the mysterious underground waterways which lie beneath their village. At its heart, this is a tale of intrigue, romance and prejudice.
The Party Wall – Stevie Davies (2020)
Another novel which may not immediately scream Halloween, The Party Wall is something of a slow-build, which gradually tightens its grip on readers. The novel features a tight, psychological narrative about a Freya, a woman who initially finds comfort in the support of her neighbour, Mark, as she mourns the death of her husband. As the novel unfolds it gradually becomes apparent that Mark’s motives may not be quite what they first seemed, threatening Freya’s safety. Reviewing the novel in 2020, Emma Schofield found much to like in this story of obsession and manipulation.
Halloween Halloween Halloween