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: 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.

          


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Review: Burning Girls

Burning Girls – Veronica Schanoes, 2013.   3.5/5

Witches and fairy tales, pogroms and factory fires: dark folklore meets historical fiction this genre-bending novella.

The story begins in Bialystok, Poland, just before the turn of the twentieth century. Deborah is a pious witch, like her bubbe, Hannah. From early childhood, she studies the Torah, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah to learn Bubbe’s magic. Bubbe uses her powers to help women in the village, assisting in childbirth, offering natural medicines for contraception and abortion, and making amulets and protecting infants from the demons—the lilim—who are out to snatch them.

Not pretty like her younger sister, the talented seamstress Shayna, Deborah vows instead to be powerful. At this time, anti-Semitism is on rise in Europe. When Bubbe is killed by Cossacks, Deborah learns she has made a pact with a lilit: offering Deborah’s mother’s next-born child in return for the family’s safe passage to America.

Deborah must confront the demon to save her new-born brother—but she can’t protect her family against the Russian army. Tragedy drives Deborah and Shayna to immigrate to America but they soon discover that their demons from the Old World have pursued them to the New.

Burning Girls is quick but deep. There’s a lot to unpack, from the fiery symbolism, to the purposeful (if slightly off-note) threading in of the Rumpelstiltskin story, to the story’s historical context—the Bialystok pogrom of 1906, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy of 1911. Schanoes shines in her depiction of female community and its unique networks of support. She explores the differing, but not unequal empowerments of women, from socialist writer to seamstress. The blending of religion and magic, the Old World with the New, is so nicely realized it seems natural and inevitable. Burning Girls is suffused with darkly beautiful imagery.

My greatest problem with Burning Girls is my dislike for Deborah. Schanoes didn’t do enough to convince me that Deborah actually cared about those she helped, and I found myself empathizing more with Shayna. The novella length makes for a fast read, but it also leaves me wanting just a bit more detail to round out the characters—maybe I would have appreciated Deborah more.

Burning Girls is available to read free online at Tor.com.


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Review: The Line Between

The Line Between – Tosca Lee, 2019. 4.5/5

An apocalyptic pandemic. A religious doomsday cult. A naïve heroine with the key to earth’s salvation. Lee hits all the right buttons in this breakneck page-turner.

Wynter Roth is seven years old when her mom, fleeing her abusive husband, brings Wynter and her sister Jackie to the isolated New Earth compound. The cult is led by the handsome, charismatic, and shady ex-entrepreneur, Magnus Theisen. Despite being the New Adam to his flock and preaching of end times, he maintains his worldly business influences and illicit desires.

Initially, Wynter and her family find safety and acceptance in the community—at the expense of their freedom of thought and individuality. Things deteriorate when Magnus takes Jackie as his new wife and plans to add Wynter as a second. Wynter is disgusted with Magnus’ hypocrisy and loses faith in his divine vision. At twenty-two, Wynter is cast out and taken in by an old friend of her mom’s.

The world is hard to navigate. Information is overwhelming, and Magnus’s dire prophecies and condemnation echo in Wynter’s head.

But it’s more than that. People are going crazy. Forgetting things. Killing themselves and others in graphic, violent ways. The CDC calls it early onset dementia—and it’s contagious and spreading like wildfire. The U.S. descends into chaos. Gas and supplies run out. Power grids go down.

Wynter is the only hope. Jackie escapes New Earth, bringing Wynter a case of medical samples acquired by Magnus that may hold the key for a vaccine—but not a cure. Wynter must race the specimens across the ravaged Midwest and deliver them to a researcher in Colorado.

The Line Between keeps tensions high, alternating between Wynter’s gripping memories of emotional abuse in the cult, and the mounting present-day horrors as society disintegrates around her. Everything is distressingly, immediately believable: from the nature of the disease laying waste to humanity, to the country’s nosedive into anarchy.

The thriller aspect alone makes this a standout novel, but Lee elevates the story further with layered, convincing characters, both good and bad. Wynter is beautifully drawn: she wrestles with self-doubt and her ignorance of the modern world but nurses a spark of independence and determination that even Magnus can’t destroy. On her quest, Wynter experiences tragedy and cruelty and selfishness, but also kindness, generosity, and…potential romance. The ending resolves major plot threads and sets us up nicely for a sequel. Which I want immediately, please.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Bewitched and Betrothed

Bewitched and Betrothed—Juliet Blackwell, 2019.  4/5

Lily Ivory has her hands full running her vintage clothing store, worrying what her darkly handsome and brooding fiancé, Sailor, is up to, and wrangling her grandmother’s elderly West Texas coven that’s in town for her wedding. Oh, and saving San Francisco from an evil cupcake baker who’s teamed up with a literal demon from Lily’s past. An ordinary week for good-witch Lily, and her gobgoyle familiar, Oscar.

Lily is alarmed when her friend and co-worker, Maya, finds a shirt that may have belonged to a former Alcatraz inmate. The shirt has seriously malevolent vibrations and Lily doesn’t want it in Aunt Cora’s Closet. Moments after they donate the shirt to a pair of Alcatraz National Park Service Rangers—with strict warnings to keep it in a locked display—park ranger Elena is kidnapped, and the shirt with her. Forces of good face off against forces of evil in epic battle on Alcatraz island.

This series (Witchcraft Mysteries) is a guilty pleasure. Well, not really guilty, because the books are well-written, well-plotted, and outright fun. These are cozies with teeth. In Bewitched and Betrothed, there are serious threats here to characters we’ve come to enjoy: murder, violence, demonic sacrifice, and really, really bad guys (and gals). The supernatural mystery zips along, neatly balancing the light tension of Lily’s personal predicaments with her fate-of-city problems.

For our cozy side, there’s heaps of comforting contentment: lots of fashion, girl power, offbeat supporting characters, and smoky romance, all set against the vivid, bustling backdrop of San Francisco. Start with the first title, Secondhand Spirits, and welcome to a gratifyingly curl-uppable series.

rating system four crows


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Review: Boomtown

Boomtown—James A. Moore, 2019.  3.5/5

Jonathan Crowley is pissed.

It is 1869 and he’s been killed. Again. This time by a gang of renegade soldiers while trying to defend a helpless Irish family. Now, having been prised out of the ice and mud, he’s back and out for revenge. He is so focused on revenge that quite frankly, Mr. Crowley is not interested whatsoever in helping the humans in Carson Point, Colorado fight off an ancient and powerful evil. Or in stopping the wizard Albert Miles who’s got his own dark designs on the town. Yep, Crowley’s putting his monster-hunting mission on the back burner while he goes after the men who killed him.

It doesn’t matter that the conscientious albino undertaker, Mr. Slate, is having trouble keeping dead bodies, well, dead. They’ve taken to leaving the mortuary and hanging malevolently around the edges of town. Crowley doesn’t care that a group of Native Americans (also very dead) seem to be possessed by…something…and are changing into something even worse. Or that a monster is eating folks’ horses. Or that the town deputy, in charge now because the sheriff is—you guessed it—dead, is fathoms out of his league. Crowley’s got one thing in mind: payback.

Jonathan Crowley ranks up there as one of my favorite characters. Known to bad guys as The Hunter, he’s been around for centuries protecting humankind from nameless evils. He’s an average-looking, bespectacled fellow who packs a mighty aura of menace and a smile that makes evildoers think again (if they’re smart enough). Humans make Crowley impatient. Stupidity makes him extremely irritable. And evil things that prey on humans? They elicit a violent zero-tolerance policy. Usually.

Boomtown is dark Western horror. Moore’s author’s note (“Warning Shots”) informs us up front that this title is especially grim because of—unusual for Moore—violence towards women and young children. We’ve got cringeworthy monsters and a unique, seemingly immortal adversary. There’s a lot going on between competing evil powers, gunfights, and magical battles.

Moore excels at making us feel the bitter high-country winter and gritty frontier atmosphere. We learn quickly that the book’s title is ironic. The miners, immigrants, former slaves, and merchants are all out to make fortunes in a town that is a supernatural bust.

Boomtown is a standalone Crowley tale, and I enjoyed it as a grim shoot-em up with a character I enjoy. But believe it or not, I wanted a little more of the humans’ side of the story. (Who would have thought I’d ever say that?) It’s true: I needed a little more connection to the supporting characters in order for the creepy stuff (and carnage) to be totally effective.

If you’re already a fan, you’ll like Boomtown. If you’re new to Mr. Crowley, I’m going to suggest you meet him as I did with the 3-book Serenity Falls series. Writ in Blood is first: neatly plotted, very creepy, truly great horror. I think the series is out of print, but you can find used copies, or check your library. Definitely worth it.

rating system three and a half crows