Hello friends! One thing you should know about me is that I’m the kind of reader that can go through a novel without having a clear vision of the characters or the settings described in the novel. I’d say that I barely, if at all, visualize the characters, while I usually have a vague idea of the settings, especially the ones that appear multiple times or are well-described.
That being said, recently, I’ve been reading quite a few novels that I found to be extremely atmospheric, with captivating, easy to imagine settings. I found myself lost inside these books, experiencing these settings rights alongside the characters. This is how the idea for this post, where I’ll share some of my favorite atmospheric reads, was born. The following novels contain frightening forests, haunted houses, and magical islands, just to mention a few things and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about them.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
The Twisted Ones is one of the best, most captivating horror novels I’ve ever read, and the way I see it, there are two main reasons for that. Firstly, the characters – especially the protagonist – are well-crafted and complex. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Kingfisher has managed to create a dark, creepy atmosphere that pulled me into the story and made it extremely hard for me to put down the book. I read The Twisted Ones during the day, but nonetheless, I found myself affected and quite frightened by many of the creepy scenes. There’s something in Kingfisher’s writing that really works for me, and I say this after having read her latest horror, The Hollow Places, which is equally atmospheric to The Twisted Ones.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
Off topic, but it is pretty clear I was inspired to write this post by The Twisted Ones, a horror novel, and other darker novels, because the color-scheme of the post fits horror and thriller so much better than this light fantasy novel, lol. In any case, The House in the Cerulean Sea mostly takes place in an island where six magical (allegedly dangerous) children live in an orphanage. The descriptions of the island – as well as the children – were so vivid and lovely, I had a very easy time getting lost in this novel. Me being so engrossed was also helped along by the fantastic cast, as well as by the fairytale like atmosphere of the book. The House in the Cerulean Sea is officially one of my all time favorite novels, so I cannot recommend it enough.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
I love every single one of Riley Sager’s thrillers, but his latest, Home Before Dark is probably his most atmospheric one to date. It’s a twist on the haunted house trope, as it follows a heroine who goes back to renovate the allegedly haunted house she lived in with her family as a child. While her father wrote a book about the family’s experiences, she’s never known what to believe, as her parents are unwilling to talk to her about this and she herself doesn’t remember anything. Imagine her shock when, after she arrives at the house, she begins experiencing inexplicable things. Through Sager’s descriptions, the house came to life in my mind and made me question what was real and what wasn’t. A masterpiece.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Turns out I quite love atmospheric novels, because this post so far is filled to the brim with some of my all time favorite novels, and Rebecca is no exception. Du Maurier’s writing always manages to pull me inside her stories and part of her magic is how easy it is to visualize her settings. The novel follows our nameless heroine who is swept off her feet by a recently widowed man, Maxim de Winters. While he is attentive and charming at first, as soon as they arrive to Manderley, his estate, as newlyweds he seems to lose interest in the heroine. This means that she is stuck at an unfamiliar, hostile place that is still – in a manner of speaking – haunted by Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
We Are Okay is the only contemporary novel on this list, which is honestly already more than I expected – generally, I think it’s difficult for contemporary novels to be atmospheric. In any case, We Are Okay manages that feat just fine. The novel follows Marin, a college student who has recently lost her grandfather who, it turns out, wasn’t exactly who she thought he was. Throughout the story, we follow Marin as she grapples with her desire to stay away from her past life – including her best friend and her family – while also wanting everything to be okay between them. I loved how easy it was to imagine the dormitory where Marin was staying, as well as other settings, such as the pottery shop. These are such ordinary settings, but they were nonetheless made unique by LaCour’s fantastic writing.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
Plain Bad Heroines is a Gothic horror novel that takes place in the past and the present simultaneously. In the past, we follow some of the students and staff of an all-female boarding school, as they experience how the supernatural bleeds (or does it?) into their lives. In the present, we follow three young women involved in the production of a film based on the newly discovered sapphic history of the aforementioned boarding school. The atmosphere of the novel is deliciously dark, with the setting – a massive, allegedly haunted Gothic mansion and its surrounding area – being easy to imagine. The illustrations, created by Sara Lautman, are an added bonus that further helped me get pulled into the story.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
I went into Bird Box without knowing much about this book, and I closed it knowing that it would remain with me for a long time. This, to me, is horror done right – I couldn’t put down the book and I was properly scared by some of the scenes. There’s something utterly frightening about the idea that an unknown monster drives people to murder themselves and each other, and you can only avoid that fate by not looking at anything. But by closing your eyes you are forever suspicious of your surroundings, never knowing if the monster – or something worse – is standing right behind you. I had a very easy time visualizing the settings and the scenes, and I found the book very atmospheric.
The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
It’s been a while since I’ve read The Hazel Wood, but I vividly remember how well-done the atmosphere of the novel was. Part of the novel is about a magical – and creepy! – world bleeding into our everyday world, which is always intriguing. There is something about seeing monstrous fantasy creatures in urban settings that makes these types of stories very effective for me. I also loved that the novel was building up to the heroine going on a journey to her grandmother’s estate, from where these creatures seemed to be coming. The combination of our everyday world and the atmospheric settings was interesting and unique.
Silver in the Woods by Emily Tesh
If you are looking for a short, atmospheric novella, Silver in the Woods – as well as its sequel – would be a great choice. While these books are very short, they are nonetheless captivating and they made me want to move into the woods and live there forever, because the description of the woods was *chef’s kiss*. I’ll admit that I didn’t love the plot or the characters as much as I expected – still liked them, mind you – but the lush, vivid descriptions and the atmosphere of the novellas carried them for me.
Do you typically visualize the settings in novels? How about the characters? Do you enjoy atmospheric novels? What are your favorite atmospheric novels? Do we have any in common?