My Haunted Library

All things spooky. Your source for paranormal and supernatural book and movie reviews, strangeography, Halloween crafts and a little cozy fall baking.


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Review: Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Ghost of the Bamboo Road—Susan Spann, 2019. Rating 4/5

A murderer stalks an isolated Japanese village. Is the culprit a vengeful spirit or an all-too-human killer? It is up to Master ninja Hiro Hattori, and his companion, the Jesuit priest Father Mateo, to find the truth in Spann’s latest historical mystery.

Wintertime finds Hattori traveling to Edo, warning other ninja along his way that that their hidden identities may have been compromised. One kunoichi, or female ninja, is stationed at a village tea house on the mountainous travel road. Closed by a landslide for many months, the reopened road is almost deserted, as people prefer the less challenging detour. Hattori, along with Mateo, his housekeeper, Ana, and their cat, Gato, brave the cold and difficult journey only to find the village almost abandoned.

Things get off to an ominous start at the ryokan when the proprietor’s wife fearfully warns them not to stay the night. The inn’s owner, Noboru, urges them to stay; a decision they soon regret. The kunoichi Hattori seeks is nowhere to be found, Ana is accused of theft, and Noboru’s mother, Ishiko, is murdered—posed to look like a yūrei, an angry ghost. The villagers believe the spirit of Noboru’s dead sister is the yūrei, responsible for murdering those who wronged her during her life.

As Hattori and Mateo work to clear Ana’s name, find the kunoichi, and uncover the truth behind Ishiko’s death, they find themselves untangling a mesh of lies, jealousies, and old grievances involving everyone from the village samurai, to a half-mad mountain ascetic, down to the teahouse entertainers.

Ghost of the Bamboo Road is a unique spin on a closed-circle mystery. The snowbound village, a finite group of suspects, and just a tease of the supernatural makes this a satisfying fireside read for a winter’s night. Spann brings the largely unfamiliar but fascinating world of 16th century Japan to life with rich cultural and historical detail. Hattori, with his cool logic and refined warrior skills, nicely complements Mateo, with his faith and warm nature. The two make for an unusual, but successful detective duo. Ghost of the Bamboo Road is the seventh in Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series. After Ghost of the Bamboo Road, I look forward to starting the series at the beginning, with Claws of the Cat. Full disclosure: I received a publisher’s copy of the book for my honest review.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Invited

The Invited—Jennifer McMahon, 2019. Rating: 4/5

Adding a little history to a brand-new house also introduces some restless spirits in this well-plotted supernatural mystery.

When Helen’s father dies and leaves her a sizeable inheritance, she and her husband, Nate, follow their dreams and move to the Vermont countryside. They are drawn to a large tract of rural land next to a fertile bog. Surprisingly, they get the acreage for a song, and begin construction. But Helen, a former history teacher who loves historical research, worries that a freshly built home will lack a connection to the past.

Helen begins researching the local good witch, Hattie Breckenridge, who lived—and died—on their land generations ago: hanged by a mob in 1924. Helen feels a strange connection to Hattie and starts incorporating physical pieces of Hattie’s family history into their new home: a wooden beam from a burned-down school, bricks from an old mill, and other things. Unfortunately, these items represent the tragic deaths of Hattie and her descendants, who begin to make themselves known. Helen believes the spirits have a task for her.

The folks in the small town are suspicious of Helen’s sudden interest in the occult, and Nate heartily disapproves. As the house gets nearer completion, Nate begins to change, spending hours pursuing an elusive white doe in the treacherous bog. Helen’s quest to trace Hattie’s lineage is connected to the story of Olive, a teenage girl on the neighboring property who is searching for Hattie’s lost treasure. Olive is certain that if she finds it, her runaway mother will return…until Olive begins to suspect that perhaps her mother never left town after all.

McMahon is a fine storyteller: she seamlessly weaves together the histories of generations of Breckinridge women with a modern-day disappearance—making both characters old and contemporary spring vividly to life. McMahon has a great eye for natural detail and one can easily imagine themselves out in the remote Vermont backwoods. The only slightly off-note in the story is Nate. He comes across as a foil character for Helen as she avidly pursues her obsession with Hattie and her new life.

For those of you looking for a nail-biting, scary haunted house story with lots of terrifying imagery, this is not that. The Invited is undeniably suspenseful. There are some clever red herrings and a few spooky moments—most notably in the crumbling old hotel where the spirit circle meets—but ultimately this is a story about family, history, and the continuation of the past into the present, wrapped around a solid mystery and aided by some ghostly guides.

rating system four crows


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Review: Baby Teeth

Baby Teeth  Zoje Stage, 2018. Rating 4/5

A picture-perfect family reveals evil at its core: an icily intelligent seven-year-old who wants her mother gone. One way or another.

The Jensens live an upscale life in urban Pittsburgh. Alex is a highly sought-after architect, and his wife Suzette, is a talented artist and interior designer. Their young daughter, Hanna, seems perfect too, except that she has chosen not to speak, and no amount of testing reveals why. She communicates nonverbally, using sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. Hanna and her father are a mutual adoration society of two. In Alex’s eyes, Hanna can do no wrong. In Hanna’s eyes, only Suzette stands between her and a perfect life with Alex, whom she intends to marry when she gets older. Suzette is a “bad mommy.”

Suzette has been homeschooling Hanna because certain…incidents…resulted in her explusion from other schools. Suzette is at the end of her rope. Before Hanna, Alex and Suzette were the stars in each other’s worlds. Now, Suzette misses her freedom, her creativity-—and Alex. She laments that she doesn’t seem to have Hanna’s love, or really any bond with her daughter. Suzette’s own dysfunctional relationship with her mother may have something to do with her emotional distance from Hanna. Or, it could just be the fact that Hanna is a murderous psychopath.

Hanna plots to make Suzette go away. She gaslights her mother, speaking—only to Suzette—in the persona of a French witch who was burned at the stake. (Hanna, unbeknownst to her parents, has mad Internet skills). Alex begins to doubt Suzette’s stability when she tells him of some of Hanna’s malicious exploits. Suzette’s stance is further compromised by her low self-esteem and her ever-present fear of her Crohn’s disease. When Hanna (mostly) fails to drive a wedge between Suzette and Alex, Hanna ramps up her efforts and plots to make Suzette go away permanently.

Baby Teeth is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel. Alternating perspectives between Hanna and Suzette works to build tension. But, while I enjoyed hearing from both adversarial females, Hanna’s point of view is much more engaging, in an deliciously evil way. Hanna is an imaginative, creative, manipulative little terror. I was intrigued to see how her vicious machinations would unfold. Unfortunately, the book bogs down a bit with Suzette’s repetitive complaints and guilty self-recriminations. It takes a lot for Suzette to realize the threat her daughter poses and to react. Frankly, I wanted more of an edge. More psychological terror. That said, Baby Teeth did leave me thinking about it for a long time after I finished reading: the sign of a good read.

rating system four crows


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Bacon Jalapeno Poppers

Need an appetizer for Thanksgiving? A great snack for the big game? Try these poppers – you won’t be disappointed!

My pepper plants went above and beyond this year: we’re talking pounds of peppers. Many, many pounds of peppers.

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So, okay, maybe I over-compensated from years of unsuccessful harvests and I planted a few (a lot) too many plants: Anaheim, Poblano, Serrano, and Jalapeno. I have roasted and frozen them. Pickled them. Made jalapeno jelly. Added them to endless salsas (aided by our equally-prolific tomatoes). I’ve eaten them on everything from eggs to tacos. Stuffed them. Made spicy peanut brittle. I even tried to give them away—free!—at a little table at the end of our country driveway. But, we’re in Ohio. Peppers, apparently, aren’t quite so popular here as our old home state of Colorado. Oh well! More for me.

Here’s an easy recipe we’ve made…three times this season?  Four times? That even my not-too-big-a-fan-of-spicy-things husband really enjoys. I think we adapted it from a Pioneer Woman recipe long ago. Non pepper-lovers, don’t be afraid: all the heat comes out of the pepper when you scrape out the inner white membrane and the seeds and the peppers have a mild, almost fruity flavor. Want more heat? Leave in the membrane, or some seeds. These poppers are fabulous right when you make them and they also warm up fine the next day. If you have any left. (You won’t!)

Ingredients

8oz package cream cheese

10 slices regular bacon, cut in half

10 fresh jalapenos

20 toothpicks

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How to Make Them

Preheat your oven to 300F. You’re going to cook these low and slow. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and place a wire rack over it.

Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scrape out the white membrane and the seeds—unless you want your poppers really hot!

 

Spread about a tablespoon of cream cheese into each pepper half.

Wrap a half-slice of bacon around each jalapeno. Stick a toothpick horizontally through the center of the pepper to hold everything together. Set each pepper on the wire rack.

 

Bake for 35-40 minutes at 300F. Keep an eye on them: They may need a little more or a little less time for the bacon to get brown and delicious.

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Eat them. Be happy.


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Review: Afraid

Afraid – Jack Kilborn, 2008. Rating:  3.5/5

A helicopter crash in a remote Wisconsin town releases five highly trained, psychopathic terrorists who lay waste to the hapless citizenry as they single-mindedly pursue their mission.

These “red-ops” soldiers were “recruited” from death rows and psych wards. Each has been behaviorally modified and is controlled by a microchip implanted in their brain. The five are programmed to torture, kill, rape, and instill fear in civilian populations—and they enjoy it. Several even boast signature methods of inflicting pain: Taylor has an…oral fixation…and giggling Bernie has a fondness for fire.

The ironically named town of Safe Haven doesn’t stand much of a chance against them. Their peace officer, Sheriff Streng, is an aging Vietnam veteran on the verge of retiring. Young firefighters, Josh and Erwin have yet to fight a fire. The U.S. government sends in Dr. Ralph Stubin, brain surgeon and expert in behavior modification, along with some military troops to recapture the red-ops team. Stubin is accompanied by his genius—thanks to another microchip—capuchin monkey, Mathison.

Needless to say, the military doesn’t quite arrive safely. At all. It is up to Streng, Josh, Erwin, single-mom Fran, and a handful of determined townspeople to either stop the red-ops team or successfully escape them. Both are impossible. And, the more Streng learns about the team’s mission, the more he realizes there is a connection to his estranged brother, Warren. Things are not quite what they seem.

Full disclosure: I almost quit reading after the first fifteen pages. Torture flicks and books are just not my thing, and this one opens with a very unsettling scene. Plus, there’s a kid and two loyal animals involved. I don’t do well with stories that hurt kids and animals. I was worried.

That said, I’m glad I persevered. Although there is a ridiculously high body count, disturbing mutilations, bear traps (!), and lots of dirty fighting, there’s actually a warm heart to this book. I’m serious. I’m also trying to resist gory jokes about warm hearts. The book rubbed off, a little.

The characters (though subject to a low survival rate) carry the story. We root for Sheriff Streng, who turns out to be one tough old lawman. We’re cheering for Fran who goes all Sarah Connor when her bright, caring son Duncan and his beagle, Woof, are threatened. There are some poignant moments of self-sacrifice near the end that truly choked me up. Afraid does have heart: a living, beating one.

Afraid is a highly suspenseful read. You’ll fly through the book. It has a couple of crafty twists, lots of bloody battles, and just enough family love and a whisper of romance to humanize it.

*Minor spoiler alert ahead for sensitive souls who are waffling on this title*

The animals and the kid make it through safely. You can read it.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Fog

The Fog—James Herbert, 1975.  Rating: 4/5

A menacing yellow fog drifts across the British countryside, leaving everyone it touches violently insane in James Herbert’s 1975 classic.

John Holman is conducting a solo mission for the Department of the Environment. This time, Holman’s investigating what exactly the Ministry of Defense is doing with a very securely guarded swath of land near a little village in Wiltshire. But concerns about his mission take a backseat when an unnatural earthquake swallows half the village and Holman’s car. As he and a little girl struggle to escape the giant hole, a peculiar-smelling yellow mist rises from the depths. Holman and the girl emerge: he’s a raving lunatic, and the girl is comatose.

Miraculously, Holman recovers his sanity—which is fortunate for us readers because he’s our hero. Holman thinks (correctly) there is something suspicious about this yellow fog, which is growing denser and moving around almost as if it has its own agenda (which it does). When Holman’s boss goes insane and kills himself, and Holman’s girlfriend, Casey, tries to butcher him, Holman learns (painfully) that he’s on the right track. Bizarre, savage murders and barbarically aberrant behaviors spread like wildfire in the wake of the fog. The British government rallies medical researchers and the army to stop the malevolent mist, but it is up to Holman, the only person with immunity to its effects, to carry out the final plan.

This is not John Carpenter’s The Fog. No relation at all. Herbert’s novel is uniquely and immediately terrifying. He grabs you within the first three pages and you’re on board for the duration: The pace is unrelenting. As quickly as the authorities catch on and scramble to discover the origin of the fog, and how to stop it, London dissolves into a shadowy, nightmare dystopia. Holman must make his way through this murky killing zone, facing everything from murderous cultists to a psychotic bus driver. I was reminded—in a good way— of some of my favorites: Matheson’s I Am Legend, and the films 28 Days Later and The Warriors. A warning to the sensitive: There is a lot of graphic violence, a bit of it sexual in nature, and a massive bloody, body count. That said, the story is gripping and the characters— although many of them are short-lived—are well-drawn and their plights affecting. This my first James Herbert novel, and I can’t believe I haven’t read him before this. I’ve already added three of his other titles to my queue.

rating system four crows


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The House with a Clock in Its Walls and Beyond: Thank You, John Bellairs

When young, shy, recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan, Lewis discovers that his uncle’s big old mansion holds some secrets. Well, a lot of secrets. First are the clocks: dozens of them, everywhere, endlessly tick-tocking and chiming away—all to hide the spectral ticking of one deadly timepiece hidden somewhere in the walls by Isaac Izard, an evil sorcerer. Second is Uncle Jonathan himself: he’s a warlock, the good kind. And his best friend next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, chocolate-chip cookie baker extraordinaire, is a powerful good witch. Lewis comes to love his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman but struggles to make friends in school. He is new, overweight, and nerdy and has trouble fitting in. In a misguided effort to impress a popular classmate, Lewis accidentally raises Izard’s sorceress wife from the dead. The clock in the walls starts to tick faster, signaling that time is running out to stop the evil Izards before they destroy the world.

Published in 1973, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (who later illustrated twenty more of Bellairs’s and Brad Strickland’s gothic children’s novels), this book terrified me as a child. It is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. There are scenes that even day give me a little chill: being pursued down dark country roads by a single ghostly car with blinding headlights; a moth fluttering sickly-stickly into Lewis’s hair; a ghostly figure materializing down a long hallway, pacing closer and closer… Shivery. And as much as I enjoy Jack Black movies, I have no plans to see the recent film adaptation of this classic. I’d like my spooky memories to remain as they are: nicely dark and creepy.

Bellairs was probably the most formative horror author in my young life. I read each spooky, mysterious adventure as fast as I could get my hands on them. And then read them again. And again. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978) featured a new character, Anthony Monday, and is the only title with no supernatural elements: but it’s a great story. Before his death, oddball millionaire Winterborn builds a castle-like town library and hides clues inside to a priceless archeological treasure. It sounds like a godsend to Anthony, a loner who worries about his family’s finances. He and his friend, the elderly librarian, Mis Eels, battle a wrath-of-god storm and an unscrupulous bank manager in their efforts to find the prize. 1983’s The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces Johnny Dixon, a quiet boy who lives with his grandparents because his father is a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Johnny discovers an accursed ushabti and falls under the spell of an evil sorcerer. Both characters star in additional titles.

Bellairs died an untimely death at the age of 53, but his characters live on. The Bellairs estate hired Brad Strickland to complete two of his unfinished manuscripts and write two books based on one-page synopses Bellairs left behind at his death. In 1996, Strickland wrote The Hand of the Necromancer, featuring Johnny Dixon. This marked the first of his own stories using Bellairs’s characters.

Gothic horror fans, if you haven’t read a John Bellairs book, you’re missing out. And so are your friends. And your kids. And your grandparents. Everybody.

Because Bellairs’s stories are good.

They’re suspenseful and spooky. Our heroes face down such occult horrors as sorcerers, ghosts, mummies, zombies, and necromancers. Bellairs also gives Jeremy Robinson and Dan Brown a run for their money with the sheer volume of weird occult lore and arcane religious references he weaves into each story. Not to mention the history: most of these creepy tales are set in 1950s and are rich in historical detail from a time when people still listened to radio shows and went down to the sweet shop on Main Street to share a hot fudge sundae.

Above all, Bellairs’s stories are well-written. Bellairs spends a lot of time developing his characters and it shows. You like them. You want to have these adventures—scary as they are—with them. In his books, shy kids with glasses are heroes. Not only that, kids can be—and are—great friends with older adults. Bellairs is a master at creating memorable elderly sidekicks for his heroes: from Miss Eels, to Professor Childermass and Father Higgins, to Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. They’re funny, kind, cranky, clumsy, plucky, spry, and…magical. They can bake a mean Sacher torte, wield a tire iron against an approaching zombie, enchant a coat rack, face down the spirit of an evil priest, and travel with you back in time to the siege of Constantinople. Lewis will eventually find a good friend in Rose Rita (The Figure in the Shadows 1975), and Johnny meets and befriends Fergie at Boy Scout Camp (The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt 1983), but even so, Bellairs shows that not only do old folks rock, but they have a lot in common with their young friends.

When I was little, I couldn’t get enough of these eerie, disturbing, yet oddly comforting stories. When October puts a chill in the air and darkness falls a little earlier each night, I sit down with Anthony and Miss Eels, or Johnny and Professor Childermass for a walk down a haunted memory lane. And I find I still love these books. Thank you, John Bellairs.