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: The Rust Maidens

I am back after a long hiatus; dealing with a lot of emotions and worldly minutiae after the death of my father. But life goes on, and so does the blog. The Rust Maidens is an especially apropos read for this memory-crowded time. Like the main character, I was born in Cleveland and grew up in the area during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

The Rust Maidens—Gwendolyn Kiste, 2018. Rating: 3.5/5

Decades after graduating from high school, Phoebe returns to her tired old Cleveland neighborhood. The nearby steel mill, once a source of both jobs and pollution, is closed and deteriorating. One-by-one, the homes on Phoebe’s block are being razed for condos. The narrative switches between past and present as Phoebe recalls the summer after her graduation, when a handful of her friends, including her cousin and BFF, Jacqueline, began slowly transforming into creatures of glass and metal. How Phoebe was the only one who stood up for them. How angry she was at the gossipy ‘80s stay-at-home moms and hard-working but hidebound steel working dads who unjustly reject the girls. How much Phoebe wanted to shatter stereotypes and go to college.

The girls, now known as the rust maidens, become a freaky phenomenon, drawing the FBI, doctors, and gawkers to their street. Phoebe faces a losing battle to defend the girls from public ostracization and stop their metallic metamorphosis.

The Rust Maidens leaves me conflicted. The gritty, economically-depressed setting resonates with my childhood–the polluted Cuyahoga river infamously caught fire the year I was born. Kiste’s descriptions, especially of the girls’ transformation, are exquisite: poetically capturing both the beauty of decay and poignantly highlighting the girls’ sole—if uncanny—opportunity to buck stifling cultural expectations. It is Phoebe’s self-righteous anger that emotionally misses mark for me. It feels one-note, as do many of the characterizations of neighbors and family members. The storyline is pat in some ways yet leaves readers with dissatisfying holes. I wanted the book to be not longer, but deeper. That said, The Rust Maidens is undeniably original, thought-provoking…and bleak.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Library of the Unwritten

When Claire, Hell’s librarian, pursues an escaped character from an unwritten novel, she inadvertently retrieves scraps of the Devil’s Bible and sparks a conflict that spans realms and realities.

The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith, 2019. Rating: 5/5

Hell’s Unwritten Wing houses all the books that authors never finished. It is Claire Hadley’s job to keep the volumes asleep and in good repair. Occasionally, however, they awaken and escape back to earth to find their author or to strike out on their own. With the awkward demon Leto, and her assistant, the failed muse, Brevity, Claire sets out for Seattle to retrieve a dashing escapee. They collar Hero but run afoul of Ramiel, a fallen angel. Ramiel was a Watcher: His job protecting lost human souls led to his part in the Fall. Now, the fanatical angel Uriel offers him a chance to return to his former heavenly glory if he catches Claire and retrieves the Devil’s Bible. But Claire has no taste for politics. The Library is neutral. Her devotion is solely for her written charges—some of which are her own. Claire, Hero, Leto, Brevity, and the sly demon Andras, race against Heaven to prevent a second cataclysmic war.

Bibilophiles, storytellers—everyone who appreciates a great story will love this book. Fellow librarians will rejoice. Though admittedly, we rarely reject a book about books or heroic librarians, The Library of the Unwritten stands apart and above. The premise is fresh, yet centuries of literature, mythology, and history permeate its pages. The characters shine. Each reflects our own fragilities, regrets, and longings. Their realism makes the novel’s fantastical elements wholly believable—and enviable. The Library of the Unwritten is both fantasy and philosophical adventure. It is a self-reflective story about stories, about the act of writing and creation, but it also raises questions about reality and the construction of self. What makes something real? What makes us autonomous? During her journey, Claire faces one of her own characters, forcing her to acknowledge aspects of herself. As we follow the heroes and villains (though the lines between the two are muddied) from the West Coast to Valhalla, from Heaven to Hell, we share in their journey of self-understanding and forgiveness.

I rarely give a perfect rating. The Library of the Unwritten deserves it.

rating system five crows


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Review: The Ghosts of Sleath

Called to the remote village of Sleath to investigate a mundane haunting, psychic researcher David Ash quickly discovers that the picturesque little town hides evil at its core—and darkness will have its day.

The Ghosts of Sleath—James Herbert, 1994. Rating 4.5/5

Ash is still reeling from a previous assignment, where a trio of malicious ghosts upended all of Ash’s beliefs. (Haunted—see my review here.) Now, investigating the ghostly appearance of a little drowned boy in Sleath seems like a comparative walk in the park. Although most of the villagers are…reserved…Ash forms an instant, emotional connection to Grace Lockwood, the vicar’s daughter. Meanwhile, disturbingly violent events, catalyzed by the sudden return of foul spirits, begin to plague Sleath. Villagers are tormented by things they—rightfully—feared By the time Ash discovers that Sleath is home to a cabal of very dark arts, the village inhabitants (dead and alive) reach a cataclysmic breaking point.

The Ghosts of Sleath is a crackerjack read. One reason this title pleases me so much is because Herbert is a wordsmith. He creates an eerie village setting juxtaposing moments of simple beauty (I paused to reread twice a vision that captured a breathtaking sense of normalcy caught out of time), with uniquely disturbing imagery. Herbert balances scenes of gore and violence with glimpses of things barely seen, teasing our imaginations one moment, then fulfilling them the next. Exceptional character development makes the horror hit home. Ash is a great flawed hero. He drowns his guilt with vodka and still tries to manage his psychic powers with self-delusion and skepticism. We empathize with him, as we do Grace: an intelligent, perceptive, kind woman whose love for her father hides a secret from herself. The Ghosts of Sleath satisfies on multiple levels: it is both a ripping good ghost story with remarkable visuals (it would be a stunner of a film), and an affecting character study. Highly recommended.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: The Turn: The Hollows Begins with Death

How exactly did a tomato decimate humankind and cause vampires, witches, werewolves come out of hiding? Find out in this prequel to Harrison’s bestselling Hollows series.

The Turn: The Hollows Begins with Death—Kim Harrison, 2017. Rating 3/5

Trisk, a dark elf, is a top-notch geneticist but the glass ceiling keeps her from getting a plum job. Her bitter nemesis, elf Trent Kalamack—“Kal”—has had his way smoothed by his parents’ name and money. Trisk lands a position in a human lab as part researcher and part elven corporate spy. While keeping an eye on fellow scientist, Dr. Plank, who is working on a tactical virus, Trisk develops a genetically modified tomato that promises to end world hunger. Kal, out to discredit Trisk’s research and steal her ideas for himself, links the tomato to the weaponized virus and unleashes a killing plague that rips through the human population.

Trisk and Dr. Plank hop trains, avoid weres, escape the police, and race pell-mell towards Washington, DC to warn humans not to eat tomatoes. But the Inderlander species who have been in hiding for years (witches, pixies, werewolves, vampires, and elves) aren’t so sure they want humans to survive. Political infighting ensues.

I am an enthusiastic fan of Harrison’s Hollows series. While The Turn offers interesting detail on the backstory of series heroes and villains like Kalamack, the demon Algaliarept, and security guard extraordinaire, Quen, the novel is a disappointment. It runs long, takes a while to get going, feels repetitive, and would have worked better as a novella. Believe it or not, even those issues didn’t irritate me too much: The characters are the major turn off. Trisk and Kal are egoistic, selfish, petty, and prideful. I know that’s Harrison’s point, but it makes for a downer read. You don’t care about either of them. The two throw fits of pique, worry about each other stealing their thunder, loathe each other, deceive each other, lead each other on (while totally aware they’re being led on)—and then have sex. Please. I also realize that Harrison is making a stand for women’s rights in the male workplace: Trisk is more competent than Kal, yet her skills are dismissed. Trisk longs for geneticist glory, but it is hard to relate to her struggle when she is as self-serving as Kal—to the point of summoning a demon to thwart him. Fortunately, Trisk has a modicum more empathy than Kal and genuinely wants to warn people about her tomato. But on the whole, The Turn is just meh.

If you’re new to the Hollows, don’t start with this book. Pick up Dead Witch Walking (2004), the first in the series and you’ll enter a beautifully realized world where the supernatural exists alongside the mundane; one that is filled with well-rounded characters and great stories. Save The Turn for last.

rating system three crows


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Review: Mycroft & Sherlock

Mycroft Holmes and his younger brother, Sherlock, become entangled in an insidious case of ritual murders. Their investigations pull them deep into the shadowy world of the London opium trade in this first-rate Holmesian pastiche.

Mycroft & Sherlock – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, 2018.  Rating: 4.5/5

For those not quite as steeped in the Sherlock Holmes canon as some of us uberfans, Mycroft is seven years older than Sherlock, enjoys a mysterious position in the British government, and is reputed to have even greater powers of deduction than his famous brother. Mycroft plays a role in only four of Conan Doyle’s sixty (4 novels, 56 short stories) original Sherlock Holmes tales.

Abdul-Jabbar, a Sherlock enthusiast since 1969, brings Mycroft into the limelight in his new crime series. Mycroft is recovering from the betrayal and loss of his fiancé and a traumatic adventure in Trinidad (Mycroft Holmes, 2017). Now, his good friend Douglas, the successful African American owner of a high-end tobacco and spirits shop, needs his help. Douglas runs Nickolus house, a home for orphaned boys. When one of the boys dies from a suspicious drug overdose, Douglas and Mycroft suspect something even more nefarious is at play. Sherlock thinks so also. To Mycroft’s irritation, the nineteen-year-old runs his own clandestine investigation, and Mycroft can’t keep him out of danger.

In Mycroft & Sherlock, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse hit all the notes a Sherlockian desires: a twisty mystery, lots of brilliant deduction, realistic period detail (you can almost feel that choking yellow London fog) and above all, excellent characterization. Mycroft emerges as an intriguing, well-rounded character in his own right. He struggles to find direction in his own life, while trying to guide his precocious, acerbic younger brother. We empathize with Mycroft’s frustration and increasing isolation as he devotes himself to the War Office and service to the Queen. There are some genuinely poignant moments as the two brothers struggle with emotions they refuse to reveal to each other. Douglas is a strong investigative partner and Mycroft’s best (and one of his only) friends. Although independent, intelligent, and savvy, Douglas nonetheless is a victim of the racism of the era. He must employ an elderly white couple to pretend to be his shop owners and poses as the forward face of a fictional white owner of his orphanage.  While never losing the thrust of the mystery, Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse delicately explore the marginalization of African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and women.

Mycroft & Sherlock is a terrific addition to the body of Holmes literature. Fans of Conan Doyle will approve, and if even you’re not familiar with his work, Mycroft & Sherlock stands very successfully on its own merits. I look forward to reading next in the series: Mycroft & Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage (2019).

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: The Book of the Dead

Shoggoths are popping out of sinkholes, Cthulhu is clawing its way out of some other dimension, and mankind is on track to be enslaved and devoured unless ancient languages professor and reluctant hero, Matt Kearns, can save the world. Beck pulls out all the stops in this entertaining homage to Lovecraft.

The Book of the Dead – Greig Beck,  2015. Rating: 3.5/5

Matt Kearns is a good-looking professor, a bit of a ladies’ man, who is currently jockeying for a tenured job at Harvard. But the position is contingent on a short, easy trip to Syria to help the military translate some ancient tome. No problem. Except the book is a copy of the original Necronomicon, and a planetary convergence is just days away when a cult of Cthulhu worshippers will open the gate for the Old Ones. Plus, tentacled slimy things are eating people. Matt and a tiny elite team made up of a couple SEALs, two military officers, a young anthropologist, and a formidable one-woman army in the form of an Israeli Mossad agent, must decipher the Necronomicon and stop the madness.

The Book of the Dead does not require a lot of brain power but does demand a lot of suspension of disbelief. One little sinkhole and a Shoggoth quickly ramps up to world-wide earth-falls and a full-out army of slimy monstrosities that is subjugating the population. Salvation comes down to the woefully outnumbered (and rapidly dwindling) little strike team. If you can avoid rigorous logic—actually, any logic—for a while and accept Beck’s wild premise, you’ll get a kick out of the book. Kearns is a likeable hero who doesn’t take himself too seriously (except when dealing with viscid monsters). A good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor balances out the military action. Lovecraft groupies will appreciate the abundance of black goo and floating eyeballs while thriller fans will enjoy the tale’s shoot-outs, knife-outs, and all numbers of battles versus both humans and octopus-like things. In his concluding Author’s Notes, Beck reveals his own love of the Cthulhu Mythos, and explains a few allusions for those of us who aren’t quite as well-versed.

The Book of the Dead rockets along and will make for a fun, escapist beach read. Wait. Make that a porch read, it’s safer. Who knows what might suck you down into that sand?

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder

The Ghost Adventure team has nothing on Thomas Carnacki, one of the first (albeit fictional) paranormal investigators to utilize both arcane manuscripts and scientific methods in his investigations into the macabre.

The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson, 1913. Rating: 4.5/5

Living in London at beginning of twentieth century, Carnacki is called on to examine suspected hauntings and lay them to rest. Each of the nine tales in this collection is framed by his friend Dodgson, who, along with three of Carnacki’s other confidants, enjoys visiting the detective for a comfortable dinner followed by a harrowing story of the occult detective’s most recent adventure. An “unprejudiced skeptic,” Carnacki asserts that ninety-nine out of a hundred hauntings are “sheer bosh,” then rhapsodizes, “But the hundredth!”

Carnacki sets up his physical—and spiritual—protections using both time-proven words from ancient rituals, along with his own inventions including an electric pentacle and a battery-operated color-spectrum vacuum tube defense. Carnacki relies on his intelligence and open mind during his encounters with such horrors as a whistling room, an invisible phantom horse, and a powerful monstrosity from the Outer Circle. With pluck and aplomb, Carnacki deals with possessions, hauntings, and spectral manifestations as well as his share of hoaxes.

While these stories are gloriously classic ghost stories in some ways—filled with curses and old castles and moldering English manors—they have a fresh energy about them thanks to Carnacki’s enigmatic and unique approaches to the “ab-natural.”

A body builder, sailor, and lieutenant in the Royal Artillery during WWI, William Hope Hodgson produced everything from poetry and science-fiction, to horror and sea stories before his death in 1918 in the Fourth Battle of Ypres. His 1908 horror novel, The House on the Borderland, is perhaps Hodgson’s most well-known work. It, and the bulk of his horror writing, was greatly admired by H.P. Lovecraft. The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder is a gem. Wait for a nice, grey afternoon, pour yourself a cup of tea or a tot of whiskey, settle back in a comfortable armchair, and treat yourself to a Carnacki story. You’ll be glad you did.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: The Whisper Man

When a writer and his young son move into the local village “scary” house, the boy becomes the target of an insidious child killer. This creepy thriller will ensure that you don’t leave your doors half-open…or “soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken…”

The Whisper Man—Alex North, 2019.  Rating 4/5

Tom Kennedy and his son, Jake, are grieving the death of wife and mother, Rachel. Tom is an introvert, and still suffering from childhood memories of his alcoholic father. Now, Tom struggles to understand his own quiet boy. Jake is hard to reach; preferring to draw and talk to what Tom thinks are imaginary friends than to interact with other kids. Tom hopes the move to their new house will be a fresh start for them both. Tom has no idea that they have moved to the village where years ago, the infamous Whisper Man abducted and butchered a string of young boys—and the abductions seem to be starting again.

Career Detective Pete Willis is credited with capturing Frank Carter, the Whisper Man, twenty years earlier, but remains haunted by the memory of the one boy he never found. Now, with a new boy gone missing, Pete worries that either Carter had an accomplice, or a copycat is on the loose. Time is running out to find the new killer, who is already grooming lonely Jake to be his next victim.

The Whisper Man is a lightning-fast read. Alternating points of view between Tom, Jake, and Pete builds the tension to nail-biting levels as the threat to Jake incrementally, but relentlessly increases. North incorporates the barest touch of the supernatural into the story—just enough to give you chills. Characters are solid. Jake, especially, is relatable (well, to a fellow introvert) and sensitive. This makes his vulnerability more acute, and his danger more nerve wracking. Frank Carter, now a prison kingpin, is terrifyingly slimy. Tom, working through his own father-issues and grief, has both selfish and whiny tendencies, but knows he is a flawed father. At the same time, his love for Jake is complete.

North adds layers of complexity to the plot by skillfully exploring father-son relationships and deeper issues of forgiveness, self-worth, and self-acceptance. The only off-note in the book is the change in perspectives: Tom and Jake both narrate from the first-person, while the stories of Pete and lead investigator Amanda Beck are told in the third person. The switches are just jarring enough that I never quite got used to them. That cavil aside, The Whisper Man is both a satisfying, if disturbing, thriller, and an affirmation of the power of love.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Devil Aspect

Everyone has the potential for evil, according to Carl Jung. Psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Kosárek agrees. He has revolutionary plans to expose this Devil Aspect in six of Czechoslovakia’s most notorious serial killers. But will Kosárek’s findings come in time to help the police stop a madman’s bloody spree? Keep a light on: This intelligent, profoundly disturbing thriller will have you physically looking over your shoulder while intellectually pondering the true nature of evil.

The Devil Aspect—Craig Russell, 2018. Rating: 4.5/5

Young Dr. Kosárek is eager to begin his new position at the remote Hrad Orlů Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The asylum, located in a forbidding castle with a dark history, has always attracted evil. Now it houses the Devil’s Six, the most violent madmen—and women—of the modern age. Kosárek ignores the unfriendly attitude of the of local villagers as well as the castle’s ominous legends and begins his narcosynthesis sessions. Kosárek fully intends to restore each criminal’s memories of their evil side, unify their dichotomized selves, and if not cure them, at least ease their “great sadness.”  Kosárek’s quest intersects with that of experienced police detective, Kapitán Lukáš Smolák, who is desperately tracking the infamous Leather Apron–a killer who is literally butchering German women in Prague.

The Devil Aspect is an exceptional read. On one level, the novel is a fast-paced police-procedural crossed with a psychological thriller, but Russell weaves in many other threads that add depth and color (dark, dark color) to the story. The setting is 1935, and Russell integrates the growing tension—fueled by the rise of Hitler—between the Sudeten Germans and the Czechs. Kosárek’s Jewish transcriber, Judita, foresees the coming cataclysm, and fears becoming a victim. Compounding the real unease of the political situation is the growing menace of sinister figures from Slavic folklore which assume terrifying reality as motivators for the Devil’s Six. Both Kosárek and Smolák also struggle with memories of traumatic childhood incidents that now inform their adult lives. What have they—and we—walled off to protect fragile psyches? An electric, unnerving read.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Intercepts

Intercepts: A Horror Novel—T.J. Payne, 2019. Rating: 4.5/5

Joe Gerhard works for the Company. He’s in charge of painfully forcing vegetative, sensory-deprived human “antennas” to gather intel on international bad guys. But one of the antennas tunes in to Joe’s family, intent on making Joe’s life as hellish as their own.  Payne’s uniquely arresting thriller is unputdownable.

The antennas were once human. Maybe a tiny part of them that isn’t insane is still human. Now, trapped in padded cells in a high-security underground laboratory, breathing gas that takes away all feeling, the antenna exist only to lock onto the Company’s targets. When sensation is briefly, excruciatingly returned to the antennas, they achieve a kind of focused remote viewing. Joe doesn’t know if the shadowy Company is military, government, or private, but they have the funds and the chilling ability to red flag—and disappear—people.

For years, Joe has chosen work over his family, although his work was always for his family: his ex-wife Kate, and his teenage daughter Riley. Joe has become inured to the suffering of the antennas, accepting their condition as a tradeoff for the greater good. Motivated by hatred and vengeance, one antenna, Bishop, has painstakingly fought her mental imprisonment, intercepted Joe’s mind, and found his weaknesses. Bishop drives Kate to kill herself and starts working on Riley. The teen struggles to fight the suicidal suggestions that Bishop plants in her mind. Joe will do anything to save his daughter.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because Intercepts is exceptional. You must read it and discover it for yourself—trust me, you will never forget it. The story rockets along—the suspense is agonizing because you have a bad, gut feeling of how things must end. (You might be wrong…a little bit.) Payne also doesn’t sacrifice character development for plot. You are emotionally conflicted because you empathize with both the antennas—even the vindictive acts of Bishop—and with good-intentioned dad Joe and his sensitive teen daughter.

Payne hits a contemporary nerve in Intercepts: His shocking vision is all-too possible. Horror, here, is the justification of man’s inhumanity to man…and what happens when the products of ethically immoral science strike back.  Intercepts is the first book this year to earn a place my end-of-the-year top five list.

rating system four and a half crows