Want a low-cost gift whose beauty is that it reminds you winter is a time of shadowy, gothic dread? We've got seventeen seasonal depression books you'll want to read next to the fire.
These books are mostly very easy to find, and make for excellent, bargain gifts (nearly all are under $20, and most under $10). More importantly, they all contain elements that are as mournful as the season itself. I've put together a selection of new and classic novels that will help you escape the darkness of winter - by taking you to even darker places.
Note: If you're in Australia or New Zealand, you should go surfing or something and ignore all this northern hemisphere emo stuff.
Released this year:
The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia (Prime Books)
A most unusual tale of artificial intelligence, this beautifully-written novel follows the tragic adventures of porcelain-faced robot Mattie in an otherworldly industrial city. As a female robot, she neither fits into the scientific community of her maker, nor among the working-class revolutionaries led by her lover. All she wants is to pursue work as an alchemist, and save an ancient race of gargoyles - but her (synthetic) life is being torn apart by a class war that is reducing her city to ruins.
The Host, by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown and Co.)
The first adult novel by Twilight author Meyer, The Host is straight science fiction about aliens who insert themselves into human brains. They cure cancer and stop war, but the price humans pay is the (literal) loss of their minds. Our heroine and her brain parasite hide out with a human resistance movement, learning more about what it means to be alien and human at once. Of course, having an alien in your head also makes romance sort of automatically like a menage a trois. Did I mention this is an adult novel?
Steampunk, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (Tachyon Publications)
While not all the stories in this definitive collection of steampunk-accented tales are dark, many have a kind of gothic industrial flair. Featuring stories from steampunk master James Blaylock, as well as from the celebrated Ted Chiang, Michael Chabon, and Paul DiFillipo, this collection is a must-read for anyone interested in twisted history.
Watermind, by M. M. Buckner (Tor Books)
A nerd family melodrama set against the story of toxic trash that has gained sentience, Watermind is both action-packed and intelligent. As the narrative weaves dizzyingly between several different perspectives, an MIT dropout and her Cajun musician boyfriend chase a Blob-esque monster across the country.
Shadow of the Scorpion, by Neal Asher (Night Shade Books)
This politico-military space opera tells the story of a soldier, Ian Cormac, coming of age in the smoking remains of a war between the human-dominated Polity and the alien Prador. Cormac is the hero of several other Asher novels, but this is a stand-alone book and can be read without knowing much about his universe. What pleases about Asher is that he's not afraid to put his "hyperfit" hero into hideously murky ethical situations - and his casual cynicism is a welcome respite from the usual straightforward military tale.
Pirate Sun, by Karl Schroeder (Tor Books)
While Pirate Sun came out this year, this final novel in Schroeder's Virga trilogy should be enjoyed after reading the first two action-packed tales of life inside a massive bubble of atmosphere floating in space. Filled with evil plots, heroic pirates, absolutely stunning technologies (people live inside spinning cylinders, heated by artificial suns), and a society headed towards revolution. Pirate Sun is ultimately all about how the most precious resources - heat and sunlight - are allocated in a world where neither occurs naturally.
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Ballantine)
Newly released this year as a quality paperback, this collection of classic horror tales by the creator of Conan is packed with amazing tales of pulpy horror. Beloved by his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft, as well as Stephen King, Howard is a master at finding the broody gothic in everything. While these tales range across the world, his very best are set in his home, the United States: His infamous "Pigeons from Hell" is about a haunted Southern plantation.
Wieland, by Charles Brockden Brown
This late-eighteenth century horror classic is a precursor to science drama like The Mentalist or Fringe - it's about a family man driven mad by a ventriloquist and con artist. Believing he's heard the voices of spirits, and haunted by the strange religion practiced by his father, the man kills his family. But a little detective work reveals that there is a scientific explanation for all the seemingly supernatural horror. If you love Edgar Allen Poe, you'll be excited to dig into the very first gothic writer to turn America into a haunted place. Plus, it's free online.
From Hell, by Alan Moore (Top Shelf)
This is probably the best version of the Jack the Ripper story ever conceived. Alan Moore's classic graphic novel plunges us into a London ruled by supernatural powers - and all-too-real aristocrats who consider murdering the proles to be just another little amusement.
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman (Yearling)
Ignore the hideous movie adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first book in this superlative YA trilogy about a parallel Earth ruled by corrupt religious leaders. Instead, pick up the trilogy and plunge into a tale about a young woman and man who pass between several parallel worlds in order to lead a revolt against God and build a democracy in Heaven.
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (Picador)
This amazing, depressing, and brilliant biography of celebrated science fiction author James Tiptree Jr. explores what drove former CIA intel expert Alice B. Sheldon to take on a male identity and publish stories that blew away the entire science fiction community in the late 1960s and 70s. From her childhood exploring Africa with her mother, to her stints as a psychological researcher and CIA analyst, Sheldon led a fascinating life. Often plagued by depression and self-doubt, she nevertheless found the energy late in life to turn the scifi world on its head by writing about the speculative side of gender - and then becoming an example of speculative gender herself.
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith (Del Rey)
This is the action-packed tale of a woman astronaut who finds herself adrift on an untamed planet where no men can survive. A native virus attacks only men, leaving many parts of the world to groups of tribal women who take our hero in during the dead of winter - and teach her the true meaning of womanhood. Awesome and brutal, this is a novel you won't be able to put down until the oddly fanciful ending.
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin (Ace Books)
Another tale of winter on an alien world, LeGuin's late-1960s classic is about first contact between a representative of the advanced Ekumen cultures, and the people of the genderless planet Gethen. Our hero winds up trapped in a conflict between two cold warring groups of Gethenians, and must make a long, arduous escape through a frozen winter landscape with one companion - a Gethenian, whose alienness becomes more and more obvious the closer the two become.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
An instant classic, this dark urban fantasy novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars in an alternate nineteenth century England. In this version of England, magic is a lost art that has passed into the realm of non-applied philosophy. Suddenly, two genuine applied magicians appear - the staid, bookish Mr. Norrell and the wild, romantic Jonathan Strange. In an elaborate, memorable tale of war, love, and colonialism, Clarke explores what it means to seek an end to tyranny without becoming a power-hungry tyrant. Haunting, packed with whimsical footnotes, and bibliophilic in the extreme, this novel will keep you warm and melancholy all winter long.
In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker (Tor Books)
The first in Baker's beloved Company series about time-traveling cyborg scientists, this is a simple story of first love during an icy cold British winter in the sixteenth century. Of course, things are a little complex when one of the lovers is a reluctant British free-thinker, and the other is a cyborg time-traveler who was almost killed during the Spanish Inquisition - and who was sent to this particular spot in time to gather rare plant species, not to mess around with the natives. Full of well-observed historical detail, wry humor, and (of course) tragic love.
Dark Ladies, by Fritz Lieber (Orb)
If you've ever visited San Francisco, or simply dreamed of it, Lieber's classic novella Our Lady of Darkness (one of two novellas collected in Dark Ladies) will please your brain with its dark figures, strange music, and voluptuous decadence. Set in 1970s San Francisco, where Lieber himself lived at the time, this novel is a glorious melding of urban history and supernatural weirdness. A pulp writer discovers that his residential hotel room is part of an ancient curse set in motion by a group of literary rebels, including Clark Ashton Smith and Jack London. A bizarre mix of hippies, queers, haunted architecture, and pulp lore come together to create one of the greatest works of urban fantasy ever written.
Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear (Ballantine)
If you prefer not to be haunted by ancient curses, how about being mutated by ancient codes in our DNA? That's the subject of Bear's popular novel about what happens when the so-called junk DNA in our genomes suddenly starts expressing itself in response to the "crisis" of human life at the turn of the century. Slightly silly but nevertheless satisfying and action-packed, Darwin's Radio is a fun take on the idea of superpowered mutants and a society that isn't quite ready for them.