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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Movie Review: Dead Silence

Dead Silence 2007. Directed by James Wan. Written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Rating 3.5/5

“Beware the stare of Mary Shaw / She had no children, only dolls. / And if you see her in your dreams / Be sure to never, ever scream.”

With a deliciously creepy legend, disturbing ventriloquist dolls, and a vengeful ghost who rips out tongues, Dead Silence delights viewers with classic chills. It reminds me of the horror comics I read obsessively as a kid: Fun. Retro. Atmospheric. Just enough scares.

Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) left Raven’s Fair long ago, but when his wife (Amber Valletta) is horribly murdered minutes after the arrival of mysterious package containing an old-school ventriloquist dummy, Jamie knows exactly where he needs to go for answers. Home.

We get echoes of Phantasm as Jamie drives his ’71 Olds Cutlass Supreme through his dying hometown to the old mortuary. There, the elderly mortician Henry (well-played by Michael Fairman), offers warnings and a few clues. Along with a seedy, Colombo-esque cop (Donnie Wahlberg, providing dry comic relief), Jamie confronts the ghost of Mary Shaw.

Wan indulges us with some beautiful classic horror imagery: spiraling staircases in a cavernous mansion, long halls with blowing curtains, a fog-swamped cemetery, a decaying theater filled with creepy dolls. The ominous use of sound–and silence–complements the spooky ambiance and ratchets up the suspense ahead of some effective jump scares. Charlie Courser’s eerie music-box score is equally goosebump-producing.

Dead Silence isn’t cerebral horror, here: it’s not Black Swan, or It Follows, or the original, awesome Suspiria, or Get Out. I love all of those. Dead Silence is a different beast, and I like it, too. Think: Harlequin romance vs. Jane Eyre. Both are enjoyable. It just depends what you’re in the mood for. Feel like some fun, old-school scares? Try Dead Silence.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: Helltown

Helltown – Jeremy Bates, 2015. Rating 3/5

“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean Paul Sartre, and in Helltown, that’s pretty much a literal truth.

On Halloween night in 1987, a group of self-absorbed young twenty-somethings take a road trip to Boston Township in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, aka Helltown, looking for spooks and hoping for nookie.

Legend and rumors run rampant about this isolated, densely-wooded part of Ohio. Helltown is purportedly home to a mutant python, scores of abandoned homes, a toxic chemical spill, a group of Satanists who worship in a church that is covered in upside down crosses, a crybaby bridge, ghosts that sit waiting for you in the cemetery, a road that leads straight to hell, and a haunted school bus: no kidding! Helltown has it all.

Vainly handsome Jeff gets a little cocky, decides to play chicken with a hearse, and ends up in a colossal car wreck. The group splits up (how is this ever a good idea, people?) Some stay with the badly-injured Jeff, while others attempt to take Jenny to a hospital. All become the prey of a handful mentally-challenged backwoods rednecks. These disturbed and disturbing folks intend to kill the “bucks” and rape the “does,” sacrificing them to Satan in a black mass. They succeed admirably: Helltown has a staggeringly high body count.

This is book three in Bates’ The World’s Scariest Places series and the first of them I have read. I was excited to pick it up because my grandparents lived in Peninsula—smack in the middle of Helltown—and I’ve traveled around the area since I was small. The above rumors and legends still circulate about Helltown today.

Bates remarkably manages to incorporate most of the weird tales about the real Helltown into his narrative, but there is nothing supernatural going on. The horror in Helltown is the gross desires and amorality of the men cheerfully hunting down and brutalizing their human prey. Bates shifts between characters’ perspectives to maintain tension and keeps the story moving along with plenty of violence and graphic descriptions. Characterizations are solid, if stereotypical. Fortunately, I didn’t care too much about any of the characters, so I wasn’t really upset to see them systematically and explicitly dispatched. On the positive side, I guess you could say there’s a happy ending for the scant few survivors…

Maybe my hopes were a little too high, or more likely it’s my fault not researching a bit more about the book: I’m not personally a big fan of this horror subgenre. I was hoping for a spooky read, over a violent one. All that said, I was engaged enough to finish the entire thing. If you enjoy the Wrong Turn movies, then Helltown is right up your alley. I live in the same neighborhood, just up a different alley.

rating system three crows


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Treat with a Trick: Jalapeno Peanut Brittle

This delicious and easy candy will spice up your Halloween. The jalapeños aren’t hot (unless you want them to be!) but instead give more of a warm, mellow flavor to this sweet brittle. If you do want to spike the heat—and go for more of a trick—add extra jalapeños right at the end.

Ingredients:

¼ cup jalapeño pepper, finely chopped. No seeds, no white part. Chop extra jalapeño to add at the end for more heat

1 cup peanuts. I use lightly-salted, dry roasted peanuts, because that’s what I usually have on hand, but raw nuts are classic

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, divided. Plus more for buttering the pan.

¼ cup light corn syrup

1 ¼ cups granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon almond extract

Green food coloring (optional) if you want things to look a little creepier for Halloween

½ teaspoon baking soda

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How to Make It:

Butter a 15 x 10-inch jellyroll pan. I have a silpat, so I use that instead for zero stick/cleanup problems. They’re a bit expensive, but truly worth it. Here it is on Amazon if you’re interested: Silpat Premium Non-Stick Silicone Baking Mat, Half Sheet Size, 11-5/8″ x 16-1/2″. Put the silpat on a cookie sheet.

In a skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the jalapeños and the nuts and cook over low heat until the peppers are soft.

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and corn syrup. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. This looks bizarre. It will liquefy, don’t worry. Meanwhile, have all your other ingredients at hand and ready to go.

When the sugar mixture is boiling, add the jalapeños and the nuts. Stir well and cook until the mixture reaches 290 F on a candy thermometer. This is the soft crack stage. Trust me, it is good to have a candy thermometer.

Remove from heat.

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Stir in the butter, almond, and vanilla extract, a few drops of green food coloring if you’re using it, and any extra jalapeño, if you’re adding any. Stir until everything is mixed in.

Sprinkle the baking soda over the top of your cooked mixture and stir until the mixture is foamy. Immediately pour it onto your buttered pan or onto your silpat. Use the back of a spoon to spread it out into a thin layer. Work fast, but be careful! The stuff is like napalm at this point!

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Let it cool on the pan until it is brittle and cool enough to handle, then break it into pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Happy Halloween!

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Review: The Night Crossing

The Night Crossing – Robert Masello, 2018.  3.5/5

It is 1895. Bram Stoker is a harried theater manager searching for a breakthrough idea that will become his magnum opus.

When he rescues a suicidal young woman, he discovers a nefarious scheme involving occult rituals, soul-eaters, and dark ties to ancient Egypt. He is catapulted into personal danger but finds great fodder for his writing. Enter Mina Harcourt, the half-Gypsy daughter of an English Egyptologist. High in the Carpathians, Mina finds the statue of a Sphinx as well as a mysterious, deadly gold box. Together, Stoker and Mina unite to put an end to a deadly plot.

The Night Crossing is an enjoyable blend of historical fiction and horror. Masello does a wonderful job recreating Victorian London with all its textures and complexity. From the British Museum, to the Lyceum theater, from séances to funerals to gentleman’s clubs to labourers’ meetings, it is clear Masello relishes the era and he passes that excitement on to us.

While Masello spends the most time developing Stoker and Mina’s characters, many other figures of the age have cameos. Among them, we meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lady Jane Wilde, the actor Henry Irving, and the famous journalist W.T. Stead.

The Night Crossing is a page-turner. The plot is intriguing and the setting springs easily to life. But there are a few hitches. I wished for more follow-through or consistency on some of the supernatural elements that Masello uses to good effect then drops—such as the monstrous creatures that pursue Stoker in a subterranean chase, and the hinted significance of Mina’s special amulet. The story also takes an odd, somewhat jarring, jump forward in time and location towards the end. While this gives Masello a great opportunity to depict another major historical event (I’m not telling you!) it initially feels like a frustrating disconnect. Masello reels us back in and we become engrossed in this second episode as well, but the plot threads feel raveled.

Those issues aside, The Night Crossing is an engaging, action-packed read. I enjoyed seeing the addition of the paranormal story line to Masello’s detailed period writing.

rating system three and a half crows


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The Basil Before the Storm: Walnut Parmesan Pesto

We’re well into October and my insanely wonderful garden is still producing. Tomatoes. Peppers. Greens. Zucchini. But, as House Stark knows, winter is coming…even though we’ve just had three gorgeous days in the mid-80s…and our cold snap is on its way.

For the first time, I’m going to try row covers to extend the season for our greens, but the writing is on the wall for the rest of the veggies, including our mighty basil plant, which has reached the intimidating size of a small hedge. So today I’m harvesting the rest of the basil and making pesto.

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Pesto rocks. You can use it in pasta sauce, as a topping for grilled salmon, on crunchy bruschetta, in a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich, for a delicious pizza topping, on decadent French fries, stuffed with goat cheese inside your prosciutto-wrapped chicken thighs and grilled, baked on a wheel of brie, spread on your turkey wrap, heck; pesto all by itself on crackers is a treat. Pesto also freezes beautifully and keeps for months! What’s not to love?

For this recipe, I’m using walnuts instead of the traditional pine nuts because pine nuts are 1) hard to find out here, and 2) expensive. I think you’ll find the walnut pesto tastes equally delicious, especially when you take the extra step and toast the nuts first.

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In the words (sort of) of the 17th-century poet, Robert Herrick: “Gather ye basil while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same basil that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying.” So go make pesto.

Ingredients:

2 cups (packed!) basil leaves

½ cup walnuts, toasted

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

¼ cup grated Parmesan –  Romano or Asiago would also work nicely

Salt

Pepper

How to Make It:

Toast your walnuts first. Trust me on this: it doesn’t take long, isn’t hard, and it gives the nuts a deeper flavor and crisps them up. Heat your oven to 350F and put the nuts in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet. Let them bake for 5-10 minutes and keep an eye on them, stirring them around so they toast evenly. In our oven they take about 7 minutes. Don’t let them burn: you want them to turn just a little browner. You should just be able to smell a toasty aroma. Let them cool before using them in the pesto.

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See? Easy! The rest of the recipe is a breeze as well. Add the basil, cooled nuts, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, Parmesan, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper to a food processor. Blend until the pesto is a thick paste. If you want a thinner pesto, add a touch more oil or another squeeze of lemon until it is the consistency you’re looking for.

Delicious!

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Want to freeze it? No problem. You can freeze small amounts—1-2 Tablespoons—in ice cube trays, then put the frozen cubes into a freezer bag and pop out a cube whenever you need a little pesto. Or, freeze larger amounts of pesto in small containers—little Tupperware, small jelly jars, etc. If you put a thin layer of olive oil over the top surface of the pesto before freezing, it will help keep the pesto green. Keep your pesto in the freezer for six months. I will say I’ve kept it for longer without it losing quality.  Enjoy!


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Review: One Bad Week

One Bad Week – James A. Moore, 2017.  Rating: 4/5

Jonathan Crowley, the cranky, immortal badass from Moore’s Serenity Falls series is back, making life (and death) suck for a handful supernatural villains in this brief novel.

It’s Crowley’s job as a Hunter to help rid the world of irritating and deadly forces that interfere with humanity. But he doesn’t always like his job. And he isn’t especially nice to said humanity, either.

One Bad Week is a collection of loosely-tied together adventures. Crowley returns to Serenity Falls to deal with a demonic clown out for payback. He investigates a family curse and deals with a few overly-demanding ghosts. Crowley’s vengeance turns personal when he follows up a lead on the demon that supposedly killed his family.

Because Crowley is just so darn engaging I can overlook some sub-par editing (typos, typeset issues) and the fact that maybe the tales could have used a little polishing. Then again, Crowley’s not that polished himself. The stories are violent and fun and enhanced by a wicked, dry sense of humor. We meet some old characters—good and evil—and get a glimpse into Crowley’s more personal history. If you’re a fan of Moore’s horror novels, One Bad Week is a treat.

For some masterfully-written, intense horror, I can’t recommend Moore’s Serenity Falls series highly enough. For those of us who simply need a good Crowley fix, this works just fine.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Brightest Fell

The Brightest Fell, Seanan McGuire, 2017. Rating: 3.5/5

In this installment of McGuire’s brilliant urban fantasy series, October Daye–changeling, blood-magic worker, knight, and official hero of Faerie—finds herself forced on a quest to find her half-sister. At stake? The sanity—and lives—of those she loves.

Amandine, Toby’s powerful (and sociopathic) mother, orders Toby to locate August, who has been missing for a century or so. As collateral, Amandine kidnaps Toby’s fiance, the King of Cats, and her friend Jazz, imprisoning them in their animal forms until Toby completes her near-impossible task.

The only one who can help with Toby’s search? August’s father, Simon, who happens to be Toby’s arch enemy. Along with her squire, Quentin, Toby and Simon travel deep into Faerie to find and bring Autumn home and restore what Toby holds dear.

The Brightest Fell explores Toby’s life-long issues with her mother and enables us to see the evil Simon in a different, poignant light. The latter is arguably the best part of the book.

We return to locations that Toby visited in previous adventures. Discover haunting loose ends of other quests. Confront dark, old memories. While it is neat to revisit past story lines, here it feels a little repetitive mostly because the quest itself doesn’t seem particularly challenging. The powerful sea witch, the Luidaeg, is the one who ends up solving most of the problems.

I’m conflicted with The Brightest Fell.

McGuire’s world-building is so imaginatively detailed that picking up any book in the series is like taking a vacation to an exotic locale with characters who are old, familiar friends. It’s that good. I’ve been an avid fan of the series from the first book, Rosemary and Rue. And I flew enjoyably through this title in a couple days. The writing is great. The suspense is there. When I finished, however, I was left feeling…sad. Like nothing—plot, characters—had progressed or developed. Like I came full circle back to the start of the book with everyone, me and the characters, left a little jaded. It’s still a good read. It’s still great to be able to slide comfortably into a fantasy world that seems just next door to ours. I just wanted a little more.

rating system three and a half crows