I’ve always been a gothic junkie but many of my favorite books in this genre are set overseas, in crumbling castles or eerie country estates. I’m a sucker for Old World macabre, especially when it comes to historical fiction. Still, there’s nothing like coming across a gothic novel set in New England. We’ve got plenty of our own ghosts, monsters and dark secrets.
Here are five chilling Vermont novels for your TBR list:
1.The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon
When it comes to creating eerie small-town settings, Jennifer McMahon is to Vermont what Stephen King is to Maine. Her latest book parallels Mary Shelley’s famous novel and a good chunk of the story is told from Lizzy Frankenstein’s point of view in 2019. Lizzy hunts monsters and she’s so good at it her podcast and reality TV show have gained her a national following. The only trouble is the monster she’s hunting now may be her own long-lost “sister,” who Lizzy suspects is responsible for the disappearance of more than 10 girls.
The novel alternates with an earlier plotline set in 1978, so it has a definite Stranger Things vibe. While the twists aren’t as shocking as they are in some of McMahon’s other books, the sections that chronicle the lives of young Violet, Eric and the mysterious foundling Iris are disconcertingly creepy. All three children are under the care of Helen Hildreth, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic for the mentally ill. Dr. Hildreth is Vi’s and Eric’s grandmother, but who is Iris: victim or villain? Where did she come from? And what doesn’t their grandmother want them to find out about the girl?
Why You Should Read It: McMahon’s ability to entertain is indisputable but in this one she seems to push the narrative further. Yes, this is a horror story — in every sense of the word — but it has larger implications that mirror Frankenstein’s themes.
2. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
I’ve been on a Riley Sager binge-fest lately. Like McMahon, he knows how to ratchet up the suspense and to weave buried history with all-too-present threats. He also can create a unique setting out of places that have been done to death (pun intended). Enter the city-slicker couple that buys the big old house priced so low they know something can’t be right. And guess what: something isn’t right. Maybe the acres of poisonous red berries surrounding the estate should have tipped them off?
Decades later, in an alternate plotline, Maggie Holt returns to Baneberry Hall for the first time since she and her parents fled the Victorian estate in the night. She’s convinced that her father’s bestselling book about their time in Vermont was purely fictional — until the past begins to repeat itself.
3. The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
Midwives is still my favorite Bohjalian book but The Sleepwalker is a close second. Despite a slow start, the novel picks up speed and gradually reveals its secrets before crescendoing to reveal a huge twist.
Annalee Ahlberg is a beautiful architect with the perfect family. Her husband is a college professor and they live with their two daughters in a red Victorian house in a small Vermont village. There’s just one problem: Annalee sleepwalks.
After several bizarre incidents, she walks out the front door one night and disappears. Her daughter Lianna doesn't return for her senior year in college after the disappearance. On the surface, it's to help her father and younger sister, who can’t grieve but can’t move on either. On another level, she's dealing with a kind of survivor's guilt. She saved her mother once before during a sleepwalking incident but this time she slept through it. Her father was out of town for a conference so he expected her to take charge. Well, at least that's what Lianna thinks. In reality, her father blames himself.
As Lianna tries to adjust to living in limbo, she begins to learn more about the reality beneath the surface of their lives. She also forms an odd connection with a state police officer investigating the case. As it turns out, Gavin Rikert is a sleepwalker who just happened to know her mom. The question is how well did he know her? And why did he ask for permission to insert himself into the investigation?
Why You Should Read It: Bohjalian always elevates his novels above genre. The plot is suspenseful and kept me reading, but he also forced me to think about some complex moral questions (which is also true of Midwives). The Hitchcockian ending satisfies and unnerves.
Bonus: You can also read Bohjalian’s prequel, “The Premonition,” which is a Kindle Single. The atmospheric short story takes places when Lianna is a high school senior and sets up what happens in the book. It details the earlier incident when she rescues her mother and introduces some of the main characters. The opening storm imagery, complete with horses and loose power lines, is wonderfully ominous.
4. The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
This was the first Simone St. James novel I read so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The abandoned girls school where the book is set is a crumbling relic rumored to be haunted. Fiona Sheridan, a journalist writing about Idlewild’s renovation, is in no better shape. After police discover her sister’s body on school grounds in the 1990s, Fiona spends the next 20 years grieving.
As the novel unfolds, Fiona’s research leads her to discover secrets not only about a girl who was murdered in 1950, but about her sister’s death as well. Like so many gothic novels, it alternates between two timelines until the stories come together in the final chapters.
My favorite part of the novel was the earlier timeline. The four girls who attended Idlewild in the fifties are all outcasts of sorts. One is a beautiful 15-year-old whose parents send her away after a boy tries to rape her. Another is an illegitimate daughter no one wants. The third is an athlete whose uncle’s PTSD causes her to stop speaking. The final girl is a Holocaust survivor who has no one besides her three friends.
Last but by no means least, there is the original “broken girl,” a ghost clad all in black who shows people what they least want to see. By the end of the novel one thing is clear: no one really cares about what happened to these damaged girls. Except another damaged girl. Enter Fiona.
Why You Should Read It: There’s a dash of the supernatural and the four original girls' inner lives are oddly compelling. The mystery is well done and becomes more addictive with every chapter. Toward the end I could not put the book down.
5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Loosely inspired by the disappearance of Bennington student Paula Welden, The Secret History is dark academia at its twisted best. The book has become a classic of sorts and I found Tartt’s characters just as interesting as the ones in The Broken Girls. The difference is that while I genuinely liked St. James’ students, my distaste for these misfit characters was even stronger on second reading. I didn’t even like the narrator, Richard Papen, who is the least offensive of the bunch.
Ironically, their flaws didn’t put me off the book, which chronicles their time at Hampden College (a thinly disguised Bennington). Under the influence of an eccentric, arrogant classics professor, the group sets out on a quest to discover the deeper meaning of things and end up committing a violent act that unravels their snug, insular existence. As they say, violence begets violence.
Why You Should Read It: If you ever daydream about learning Greek and immersing yourself in arcane mythology, the book will give you plenty more fantasy to keep you going. Which is not to say it romanticizes erudition — quite the opposite. Nonetheless, the allure of this fictional college still drew me in years after I initially read the book.
While Maine usually comes to mind when people think of New England horror lit, Vermont more than holds its own. After all, what else could you expect from the place that served as the model for Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”?