Autumn is my favorite time to read. It is the beginning of the cozy season — perfect for snuggling under the blankets with a sweater and a hot cup of something (tea or hot chocolate for me). It is also the time of Halloween, when the threshold of the living and the dead, of stories and reality, gets blurred. It is also a time of learning. School is starting for many, and there is a scholarly air about the place. The possibilities of growth and knowledge begin once more. I wake up craving the written word, and indeed craving to write my own.
It is my favorite time. The stories I read feel more alive, and the possibilities they promise all the more endless.
I wanted to share the types of books I love to read during this season, and what each genre and its books adds to my own Autumnal atmosphere. Perhaps you will find a book or two to make your Autumn cozier, spookier, or to add to your never-ending quest for knowledge.
*Note: many of these genres and aesthetics overlap, so I will cover what specifics I can.
1. The Cozy Mystery
For peak coziness, there is nothing better to curl up with than a cozy mystery. Give me Autumn, small town, unexpected intrigue, and maybe a hint of magic, and I am ready for a crisp Autumn day. There’s something about these types of novels that gives the reader a sense of hope. Often in these mysteries, the protagonist is a young adult who has moved somewhere new, started a new business, started a new school, etc. Someone who has started something new and who, with much trial and error, succeeds in the end. I think this is what we all hope life could be. Add the mystery and the intrigue, and you not only have the start of a new life, but the start of a new adventure. And several of my favorite adventures start off in the Autumn — The Lord of the Rings begins with Bilbo and Frodo’s birthdays, on September 22, the very start of Autumn.
The cozy mystery is not an invitation necessarily to go find your own adventure or mystery (though you may certainly do so!), but an invitation to start off the season with wonder, to see the miraculous in the mundane. Personally, I use these cozy mysteries to inspire a sense of adventure in my own home — when I am not sitting all cozy and reading the mystery, I will be starting new projects or creative pursuits (often trying to emulate the protagonist of the story I’m reading, who might just be a witch or a bookseller or some sort of artist: all things I want to be). I won’t go all out on these projects necessarily, but I will start them one step at a time, enjoying the figuring-it-out stages.
And that figuring-it-out portion is a crucial stage for the protagonists. Not only are they figuring out their new place in life, but also who they are and who they want to be. They are learning to be grounded within themselves, which is an essential part of the cozy season. I would like to talk more about this when I do an essay on reading in the Winter time.
Here are a few cozy mysteries I recommend that make me appreciate the cozy start to the season, with an added anticipation of new beginnings and the start of new endeavors:
— A Dark and Stormy Murder by Julia Buckley
This was my introduction to the bookish cozy mystery as an adult. I read it while I was completing grad school, which was the perfect time for me to need to feel like a cozy mystery protagonist. I was doing my degree in ancient literature, and our protagonist was moving to a new town to work with her favorite author on a new book — if that isn’t the dream of a lifetime! While I was not working with my favorite author on a new book, I was making valuable connections and writing meaningful things, and reading about someone starting a grand adventure helped me to value my own work just as much. All I was missing was the dark and stormy atmosphere of this mystery, though I was happy to do without the murder!
— In the Company of Witches by Auralee Wallace
It isn’t Halloween without some witches! Even the good kind, like the three witches in this cozy mystery. Think Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets Murder, She Wrote, though the main character in this is not as wise as Jessica Fletcher yet. This is a book about finding oneself again, about going back to one’s roots, and, of course, it’s about communicating with the dead. What better way to go back to one’s roots than to talk to the roots themselves?
— The Haunting of Aveline Jones by Phil Hickes
I know I have talked this book to death, but it remains one of my favorite books of all time! Hickes combines the atmosphere of a cozy mystery with the wonderment of childhood, which I think a lot of other cozy mysteries could use (and I will come back to this idea in the Academia section). Aveline is starting a new adventure, but gets pulled into someone else’s story, and if she does not know herself, and trust her closest friends and family and the knowledge she has gained, then she may not survive the figuring-it-out stage of her own life.
2. Ghost Stories and the Haunted House
The Haunting of Aveline Jones is a good segue into my real favorite genre of the Autumn season: ghost stories! These stories often take the protagonist of the cozy mystery and add danger to their journey. This is where self-reflection becomes crucial to survival, and, while wonderment is encouraged, it does not do to second-guess.
This is where the line between the living and the dead, between stories and truth disappears. It sends the heart racing, makes you feel the most alive. I have talked about ghost stories and their importance so often, as you my readers will know, and I will never stop. Ghost stories are vital. They become fodder in the Winter time, but in this, the Autumn time, they are the gateway into that strange land that Ray Bradbury calls the “October Country.”
The haunted house is that place in which all the terrors and strangeness of the Autumn are kept and maintained. It is where the threshold can physically be seen, and those who cross it do so with warning. But they can’t help it. The sense of wonder, of possibility that there might be something there that we haven’t encountered, is too tempting to resist. Often, the protagonists who enter these houses do so without a proper sense of the self, which is the most dangerous thing to lack for fear of it being stolen away by powers beyond our control. And if they try figuring themselves out along the way, it is often too little too late. But not always!
I love to spook myself with these stories. They make me so curious in ways I would not be with any other type of story — even sci-fi could not spark my sense of wonder like the possibility of ghosts and other worlds within our own. I know I’ve spent a lot of this essay talking about the figuring-it-out part of the self, but sometimes I like to read these stories to get a sense of things outside myself, especially if I am trying to be cozy or if the state of my mental health means that I cannot seek the unknown in all the ways that I want to. Even without a physical adventure, these books are doorways to the unknown, and they are just as real.
Plus, who wouldn’t want to be spooked out of their wits near Halloween? Below are a few books that I recommend with the spookiest of atmospheres, the most haunted of houses, and those protagonists who cross the threshold into the dangers of the unknown. Do they fail on their quests? Read to find out!
— The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
This is a classic, I’ve talked about it lots, and I’m sure most of you have read it. But it is the classic haunted house story for a reason. It is one of those ghost stories that never confirms whether the unknown beyond the threshold is real, which, in my opinion, is one of the truest terrors. Is it the ghosts of this house, or is it the haunted mind of the protagonist? We’ll never know, and the house wants to keep it that way.
— Gallant by V.E. Schwab
Gallant is as if Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House encountered the haunting force of the house and overcame it. The orphan Olivia finds out she has an ancestral home and goes to live there. But that home has secrets, both about her and that which threaten her very life. Again, the house, Gallant, is the driving force of this story, guiding Olivia through the thresholds into the world unknown, and into unknown dangers. What I love about this particular haunted house story is that it is not only the house that is haunted, but the very land it stands on. The house, it seems, maintains the haunting force (n.b. by haunting force, I don’t always mean ghosts or dead people).
— Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Another classic! This story is less about a haunted house, but there are forces that haunt. In this book, Bradbury emphasizes the fact that the Autumn time ushers in the Autumn people, those who live just beyond the threshold of reality, those who might bring darkness to the waking world. I love the way Bradbury illustrates the effects of Autumn and its many forms on his characters — the dangers that can and will follow you, the temptations that come with it, same as any haunted house. The carnival that comes to town promises wonder, but crossing that threshold and mingling with its people may bring terrors that stay with you. I love it. I love how unsettling this book paints the season. No other book illustrates the haunting atmosphere of Autumn as well as this one.
3. Dark Academia (and academia in general)
What better time to start reading Dark Academia (and any literature in the academia aesthetic) than in the Autumn, the start of the school year and the darker months. This genre often uses elements from both our cozy mystery category and the ghost story. The protagonist is in the pursuit of something new, but crosses the threshold into a place that will either take them to some great adventure, or will lead them into danger.
If you have been reading my book reviews, you’ll know that I don’t read (Dark) Academia books in which the protagonists are, to put it bluntly, terrible people (see The Secret History) and don’t actually try to learn anything. In all of the Academia books that I like and that inspire me, the protagonist is working to overcome trials, to gain knowledge, and they usually come out better for it. And many of these trials, of course, are of the spooky or Autumnal variety.
— Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Kiki’s Delivery Service meets Monty Python (sort of). If you want cranky witches who criticize the education system of elite wizards, then this is the book for you. This has all the elements of Dark Academia — facing obstacles at a university, overcoming dark academics (in this case, discovering and overcoming an unknown dark magic), friendship, etc. While this book doesn’t make me want to go to Unseen University to study with the wizards, you bet that I want to go study with Granny Weatherwax. She is a witch that takes no nonsense, that pushes for equal education, but who will also tell you to pace yourself so you don’t explode. All Dark Academia books need a Granny Weatherwax.
— The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This amazingly intricate story does not take place in a school, but has its beginnings in a secret library! Our protagonist goes to this library to choose a book that will shape the rest of his life. The rest of the book is about this young man trying to discover what happened to the author of the book he found. There is intrigue, mysteries, and hidden knowledge, and those who would keep our protagonists from learning the truth. What I love about this book is that the protagonist’s thirst for knowledge is insatiable. Reading this book makes me want to go discover new things, secret things, which definitely aligns with my love of studying folklore.
— Uprooted by Naomi Novik
There is no complete list of academia-themed books that doesn’t include the pursuit of magical knowledge, and that is Uprooted in a nutshell. This book is all about the protagonist, Agnieska, learning about magic, all while trying to figure out a way to deal with the growing threats of the woods (which happens to be very Autumnal!). In this story, Agnieska learns magic, but also learns about herself, what her role in the world is. I can almost think of her story as the origin story of Granny Weatherwax, for they are both no-nonsense witches whom I want to befriend.
I want to recommend a couple more books that have to do with Academia, but in that they are academic books themselves and are meant for learning and study, but no less share that Autumnal atmosphere.
The first is The Ghost by Susan Owens, which is a survey of the idea of the ghost in many different cultures and time periods. Want to know why the ghost treads that threshold between life and death? The Ghost can tell you why the ancients thought so!
The second is not a reference, but it is an ancient work: The Aeneid by Vergil. This epic poem, through the mythology of their origins, illustrates the cultural and historical aspects that were important to ancient Rome. My favorite is Book 6, in which Aeneas, our hero, must make a journey down to the Underworld. Are there ghosts? You bet! In addition, you will be reading something from the pinnacle of academic cannon that has to do with death in the ancient world, and what could be more Dark Academia than that?! (And if you can read it in Latin, that is even better!)
This is the best time to start with learning something new, so that the momentum of learning stays through the Winter. In addition to reading new books, Academia or no, I also want to learn new things, academic or no. I love taking the Autumn time to learn new recipes, to work on my target language (which happens to be French right now, yay Canada), or to learn a new craft (right now I am working on watercolor painting!). Learning is not restricted to Academia, though it is a nice reading genre to get you in the mood for learning! And if it gets you in the mood to learn about the spooky season, so much the better!
*Also remember that Academia does not have to be dark, it does not have to be hard, or elite. What it does have to be is an interesting way to gain knowledge for everyone.*
And there you have it, these are my favorite genres and atmospheres to experience in the Autumn reading season. These are by no means the limit to what the atmosphere of Autumn should be like, but these are what I like and I feel I come out all the better because of them.
I hope you all get inspired to find enjoyment in being cozy, starting a new adventure — whether it is learning something new or starting a new project — or seeking the unknown thresholds of the worlds beyond our world, even if that threshold is simply the written word.
But most of all, I hope you have the best reading season! Let me know some of your favorite books that capture the different atmospheres of Autumn.
Support me on Patreon.