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Picture: 123RF/MAGLARA
Picture: 123RF/MAGLARA

Black southern gothic debut

Described by the New York Times as, “Magnetic, singular and completely unforgettable”, House of Cotton by Monica Brashears is a haunting social commentary about race, class and the pressures of being black in the rural south. Magnolia Brown, a 19-year-old with financial troubles and no family to turn to, is trapped in a miserable life in Tennessee. The lingering spirit of her late grandmother, Mama Brown, serves as a constant reminder of her past.

One fateful evening, while Magnolia is working a dead-end job at the petrol station, she meets Cotton, a charismatic stranger with a suave demeanour. He offers her a well-paid but deeply strange “modelling” gig at his family’s mortuary. With the help of makeup she will be transformed into dead or missing people so their loved ones can say goodbye one last time. Driven by her need for money, she agrees. But Cotton’s demands intensify, pushing her boundaries and revealing the secrets of the funeral home. Magnolia soon realises that this unconventional job is not an escape from her troubles but a sinister trap.

A house that threatens to devour its occupants

Trang Thanh Tran’s debut novel, She Is a Haunting, is a dark and atmospheric tale set in Da Lat, Vietnam. Jade Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American teenager who travels to Vietnam to visit her estranged father, Ba, with her younger sister, Lily. If she can last five weeks with him, he’ll help pay for her studies. Ba is renovating a 1920 French colonial house to turn into a bed-and-breakfast. She’s tasked with creating a website for the place with the help of Florence, Ba’s business partner’s niece. All Jade wants to do is make it through the summer, but eerie, mystifying things start to happen, and ghosts take over her dreams.

As she learns more about the house’s dark history, which is intertwined with the legacy of French colonialism and her own family’s history, she’s drawn to the ghosts while trying to protect her family from them. She is forced to confront not only the horrors of the house, but her personal demons, her Vietnamese identity and her relationship with her father.

The novel percolates with danger from both supernatural and horribly real forces. The author digs deep into past atrocities in Vietnam and their effects on the diaspora. She Is a Haunting is a powerful and disturbing story and a must-read for fans of atmospheric fiction.

Hauntings, exorcisms, incantations, forbidden love 

Mexican-American Isabel Cañas’ The Hacienda is deeply rooted in Mexican culture and explores colonialism, social status, and the intersection of Catholicism and indigenous customs.

Set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21), new bride Beatriz finds herself alone in a haunted house. Having lost her father and home, her only option was to marry charming Don Rodolfo Solórzano. Ignoring whispers about the mysterious death of his first wife, she is drawn to the safety of his rural estate.

But Hacienda San Isidro is far from what she anticipated. When Rodolfo leaves for the capital, Beatriz is plagued by unsettling visions and the persistent feeling of being watched. Rodolfo’s sister, Juana, dismisses Beatriz’s fears but avoids the house after dark. The cook’s rituals with incense and symbols only deepen the mystery surrounding the fate of the previous Doña Solórzano.

Beatriz is convinced that the hacienda harbours a dark secret. Alone and desperate, she turns to Padre Andrés, a priest with unusual talents. Drawn to Beatriz, he uses his skills to confront the malevolent presence at the estate. But the shadows are persistent. What Beatriz hoped was a sanctuary might be her undoing.

“A childhood fear of the dark was Cañas’ inspiration for this chilling gothic novel, a sinister ghost story that will probably encourage readers to keep their own lights on,” said The Washington Post.

Some houses don’t want to be sold

In How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix, estate agent Louise dreads going home after the death of her parents. The family home is packed with the remnants of her father’s career in academia and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. Most of all, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, a loser who has never left their hometown and has been fired from one job after another. But she needs his help to get the house ready for sale.

National Public Radio describes How to Sell a Haunted House as: “Campy, unexpectedly deep — and as creepy as the dead eyes of a puppet at midnight in a gloomy room ... a tense, dark novel that looks at family trauma and a lifelong sibling rivalry while also delivering a heaping serving of demonic puppets, violence and even undead squirrels.”

A chamber of terrors 

The Reformatory by Tananarive Due is set in the Jim Crow South. Due tells the story of 12-year-old Robbie Stephens, who is sent to a reform school in 1950s Florida after kicking the son of the largest landowner in town in defence of his older sister, Gloria.

Gracetown School for Boys is a brutal and terrifying place where the boys are subjected to abuse and neglect. Robbie’s got a secret, however: he can see ghosts, or haints as he calls them. And the haints at Gracetown reveal the dark and bloody history of what’s happening behind closed doors.

Like The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead, the novel is inspired by the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, a reform school that operated from 1914 to 2011, where hundreds of boys were brutalised and are believed to have died there.

The Reformatory is a powerful and moving novel that explores the horrors of racism, injustice and abuse. It is also a ghost story, but the ghosts are not the main focus. Instead, the ghosts are used to represent the trauma and pain that the characters have experienced.

Kirkus Reviews describes it as: “A vividly realised page-turner, which is at once an ingenious ghost story, a white-knuckle adventure and an illuminating if infuriating look back at a shameful period in American jurisprudence.”

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