I’m not a huge fan of nonfiction, but I love learning about history. So, when I want to learn more about a historical topic, I try to find historical fiction books related to it that I can fact check with nonfiction sources as I go along. I generally try to find books that provide new, unique, or overlooked perspectives on the topic.
In honor of the Halloween season and the Aull Center’s “Haunted History Month” series, here’s a list of historical fiction with horror themes along with some nonfiction recommendations so you can learn more about the topics and eras to which the novels add a spooky twist. Here are my top picks, along with some nonfiction sources to fact check them, some bonus reads, and where you can find them all.
Black Fire is a graphic novel that opens on two soldiers from Napoleon Bonaparte’s army fleeing from Cossacks during the French emperor’s retreat from Russia in the winter of 1812. Napoleon’s men take refuge in an abandoned mining town, a place where the Cossacks refuse to follow, and find several other members from the French invasion force hiding there as well. Faced with the twin perils of starvation and hypothermia, the group’s plight becomes increasingly desperate as their time in the village continues. Their fear reaches a new pitch, however, when they begin to uncover just why it is the Cossacks refuse to come into the town.
Nonfiction Fact Check: Russia against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven (Consortium)
Bonus Read: 1812: Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia by Paul Britten Austin (Consortium)
Adapted for the first season of AMC’s anthology show The Terror in 2018, Dan Simmons’ novel follows the experiences of Sir John Franklin’s expedition in search of the Northwest Passage after its ships become trapped in the ice near the North Pole in 1846. As if a slow death by starvation or frostbite isn’t enough Simmons adds an extra bit of fear by imagining that a mysterious and powerful monster stalks the expedition, picking off its members one by one. The attention to detail is superb. Readers will get a real sense of what it meant to be a member of the British Navy in the nineteenth century and survive in the frozen wastelands of the north.
Nonfiction Fact Check: The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 by Pierre Berton (Consortium)
Bonus Read: The Voyage of the ‘Fox’ in the Arctic Seas: In Search of Franklin and His Companions by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock (Internet Archive)
In The Hunger, Alma Katsu offers readers a glimpse into the lives of the famous Donner party as it makes its way west toward the Rocky Mountains in the summer and fall of 1846. Bit by bit it becomes more apparent that something waits for them just beyond their view, stalking their wagon train as it treks across the Great Plains and approaches its ultimate doom in the snowbound mountains around Truckee Lake. As winter falls and the members of the Donner party realize the magnitude of their isolation from the outside world, something hungry closes in for the kill.
Nonfiction Fact Check: The Best Land under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifesty Destiny by Michael Wallis (Morgantown Public Library and Consortium)
Bonus Read: Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party by Kristin Johnson (Internet Archive)
Inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her own child rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved follows the tale of Sethe as she copes with life in a house haunted by the spirit of a daughter dead by her own hand. In real life Margaret Garner’s act captured national attention and ultimately resulted in her return to slavery. In Beloved, Sethe remains free in Cincinnati, Ohio but hemmed in by memories of the institution that provoked her daughter’s death and the recriminatory torments of that child’s specter.
Nonfiction Fact Check: Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child Murder in the Old South by Steven Weisenburger (Internet Archive)
Bonus Read: Reminiscences of Levi Coffin: The Reputed President of the Underground Railroad (Internet Archive)
The Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition to map the Rio da Dúvida (now known as the Rio Roosevelt or Rio Teodoro) in the Amazon Rainforest in 1913-1914 nearly killed Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, the famously hardy former president’s health never fully recovered in the five years he lived afterwards. After joining the expedition with his son Kermit on a whim during a speaking tour of South America in 1913, Teddy Roosevelt suffered a leg injury during the expedition that was so painful he at one point considered ending his own life. To add insult to injury, Louis Bayard invents several days as a captive of the Cinta Larga tribe to Roosevelt’s experience. Together, the former president and his son bargain for their freedom by agreeing to hunt down a vicious beast that has been terrorizing the Cinta Largas. What they quickly realize, however, is that the monster that lurks in the rainforest is unlike anything they have faced before.
Nonfiction Fact Check: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard (Morgantown Public Library, Consortium, and WV Deli)
Bonus Read: Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt (Hoopla)
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic follows wealthy socialite Noemí Taboada from the glittering heights of 1950s Mexico City to a crumbling Victorian mansion in the Hidalgan countryside as she unravels the nightmares that plague her newly married elder cousin Catalina. As she continues to uncover more and more about the dark past of her cousin’s new in-laws, Noemí begins to realize that not everything is what it seems. Something lurks beneath the floors, and the walls can speak.
Nonfiction Fact Check: Mexico: Biography of Power by Enrique Krauze (Internet Archive)
Bonus Read: Broken Bars: New Perspectives from Mexican Women Writers by Kay S. Garcia (Internet Archive)
Nathan Wuertenberg is a staff researcher at the Aull Center for Local History, a division of the Morgantown Public Library System. He received his doctorate in history from The George Washington University and is a co-host with Mike McClung of Aull About History, a local history podcast produced in partnership with The Dominion Post.