Reading Diary – Dark/Atmospheric Books

I normally steer clear of any books or television/films that might be even remotely upsetting. However, I’m currently receiving CBT and therefore trying not to avoid anxiety as much. I’ve been reading darker novels that I’d never have considered previously. I have to say that it’s been surprisingly entertaining. Creeping yourself out can be weirdly thrilling when you’re safe at home.

Around Halloween I read some of the short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe which I plan on making a yearly event. Below are the complete novels I read.


The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

“When your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.”

the girl with

The blurb for this post-apocalyptic horror novel doesn’t tell you what’s it really about but I’m going to talk about it below because it’s pretty obvious early on and I think if you go into it expecting somehting else you may be disappointed. The book starts with ten-year old Melanie being strapped into a wheelchair at gunpoint and taken from her cell to a classroom with other children in a similar condition. Melanie has a genius level IQ and adores her only kind teacher, Miss Justineau. They are all confined to an underground army bunker in rural England. Soon, we learn that a pandemic swept through the world twenty years previously and the only civilisation left in the UK is a place called Beacon on the South Coast.


The virus turned people into ‘hungries’ (read zombies) who attack and feed on other humans, passing on the virus. We gradually find out what is really happening in the bunker and why.

This book had great reviews and there was a film adaptation starring Glenn Close in 2016. It is certainly action-packed but it is also very character focused which I imagine sets it apart from a lot of other zombie books. I didn’t find it frightening but it is rather gory. It didn’t have the literary merit and atmosphere of Station Eleven but it was hard to put down at times. 3.75/5


Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

“As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”


I’m smiled inwardly after reading the first page of Once Upon A River because I knew it was going to be just my kind of book. Darkly atmospheric, historical and gorgeously written. The book is set in Victorian England along the River Thames in Oxfordshire. One winter solstice, an injured man stumbles into the Swan Inn carrying a drowned girl. Before the night is out, the little girl comes back to life. The next day, several people arrive claiming she belongs to them, including a couple whose daughter was kidnapped two years ago.

The young girl is mute and the mystery surrounding who she really is deepens as we learn more about the various characters and their secrets. It unfolds at a gentle pace but I read the final quarter in one sitting as we start to get some answers. However, there is always a fine line between reality and myth and that’s what I love about it. It’s part historical fiction, part fairy-tale. Some aspects could be explained rationally or could be put down to the magical. That’s for the reader to decide. I look forward to reading the author’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale. 5/5

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern





“For a while I was looking for a person but I didn’t find them and after that I was looking for myself. Now that I’ve found me I’m back to exploring, which is what I was doing in the first place before I was doing anything else and I think I was supposed to be exploring all along.”

I usually 99p for my ebooks but when I heard that the author of The Night Circus was finally releasing a new book on 5th November, I pre-ordered it for £9.99. The Night Circus is not a perfect book by any means but it’s the most memorably atmospheric I’ve ever read and I’m all about the atmosphere. Fans like me have waited 8 years for a follow up. It seems to have been greeted with a raft of gushing reviews and 5 star ratings. I was ready to give it 5 stars myself until I got into it…

The Starless Sea is an ode to storytelling and indeed, their are stories within stories as well as a number of mentions of other books and authors including The Shadow of the Wind, The Little Stranger, Donna Tartt and Raymond Chandler. A short way in, our main character Zachary, who is a video games grad student in New England, not only finds a story from his own life within the pages of a book but also the fairy-tale like chapters we have just read.  Zachary finds his way through a portal to the home of these stories. It’s a magical underground library called The Harbor and his time there alternates with tales that read like fables.

On the face of it, this book ticks a lot of my boxes, it has a magical setting, good diversity, poetic writing and a clever structure. I kept wondering why I wasn’t really enjoying it After some thought, I feel it’s the lack of a cohesive plot, a nice but bland central character and a setting that didn’t captivate me. Zachary bumbles around library with no clear motivation following one vague ‘clue’ after another. There was a suggestion of a threat but this doesn’t amount to anything. Where I was desperate to visit The Night Circus I had zero desire to go to The Harbor/The Starless Sea. It didn’t possess an ounce of the previous setting’s magic. It says that its heyday is now over and boy, did I feel it. Zachary’s meanderings become more and more convoluted (I have a high threshold for weirdness but Alice in Wonderland-style bizarreness is not for me). I just didn’t care enough about him or the meaning of it all. It got to the point where I just wanted to be done with it. Very sad. 2.5/5


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons known to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate.”

burial rites

Burial Rites is historical fiction based on the events surrounding the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes was convicted along with two others of the murder of two men. While awaiting her sentence to be carried out, she was placed in the custody of a family on their farm. One of the amazing things about this novel is how the Aussie author manages to make you feel like you’re there in this poverty-stricken, almost claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone sleeps in the same room – family, farmhands and convicted murderer.

Agnes is entitled to religious counsel to help her prepare for her death and she requests a young assistant priest. He is naive and woefully out of his depth but over time he and Agnes form a bond.  After being initially horrified, even the family begin to empathise with her position and we gradually learn what happened to Agnes and the murders. At the end of the book, Hannah Kent tells us how the book came about. Apparently this was a notorious case in Iceland and people still know of it today. The novel is based on local histories and various records with meticulous research. Agnes was cast as an instigator, an inhuman witch, but here Kent restores her humanity and teaches us all a lesson in empathy. It’s slow paced and not an easy read, but a worthwhile one. 4/5


I’m not about to start reading crime novels about female victims but if you have any darker reads to recommend, please let me know in the comments.



Filed under Book Review

13 responses to “Reading Diary – Dark/Atmospheric Books

  1. Oh, I son nearly ordered Once upon a river the other day! Just based on googling ‘Top reads in 2019’. Should have waited for your post! Instead I went for two Lisa Jewell psycho thrillers that may well have female victims in them, sorry.

    One of my best dark reads ever (of both me and friend Clare) was The Tower of Silence by Sarah Rayne. She lives in Stafford and I have recently made her acquaintance – we met in a haunted cafe in town at Hallowe’en! – but I had read the book long before meeting her, having no clue she was in our town, so it is an unbiased plug. 🙂


    • Hi V,

      I feel like Diane Setterfield is going to be my new favourite author. The Thirteenth Tale has great reviews too.

      I know crime fiction with female victims is very popular, it’s just a step too dark for me 🙂 Each to their own.

      I can’t imagine anything nicer than meeting up with someone and then finding out you’d read one of their books. Just wonderful. I’ll make a note of her name.


  2. *so* nearly (typo-free)!


  3. Sophie Hannah’s psychological mysteries are immersive and insightful character studies. She has a side hustle of Agatha Christie pastiche books to support the infinitely more interesting other mysteries, those I avoid. But the others are great on relationships eccentricities and contemporary life of women particular to the atmosphere of the UK. Also Tana French if you haven’t yet read her, literary quality in this genre, so good they bear re-reading.


    • Many thanks for the recommendations. I had heard of Tana French but haven’t read any of her work. Just looked up Sophie Hannah on Goodreads. Yes, I see she’s re-done some Agatha Christie books. Another author I haven’t got to as of yet.


  4. Hamamelis

    I loved Once upon a time on a river! I began in the Glass Woman, also situated in Iceland, in 1686, and the main character has to be very careful not to be seen as a witch. I didn´t finish it, too dark and depressing….
    I read the second book of the Sevenwaters series, Son of the Shadows, and I loved it as much as the Daughter of the Forest. Perfect escape when life is too busy and stressful.


    • I’m so happy you loved Once Upon A River too! Really glad I’ve discovered her.
      Thanks for mentioning how you got on with the second Sevenwaters book. I want to get to that at some point.


  5. Lady Jane Grey

    I simply loved Burial Rites – one of the best books for the last couple of years for me !
    And I always mention it together with His Bloody Project by G.M.Burnet…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hayley

    Hi Tara
    I’m exactly the same. I avoid anything too upsetting I don’t do well with anxiety.
    I can’t really recommend dark reads for that reason. The Testaments was borderline…The Power was a good but not an easy read, I recommend it with caution.
    I’m adding Once upon a river to my list and just picked up The Night Circus so looking forward to that.


    • Hi Hayley

      I can’t believe how well I’ve got on but I guess that’s the point. If you always avoid getting anxious you don’t know learn how well you can cope. I’m doing well at the moment.
      I hope you enjoy Once Upon A River and The Night Circus. Both great for winter evenings.


  7. These sound like interesting choices 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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