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: Later

Jamie Conklin can see and talk to ghosts—a dubious talent that endangers his soul in Later, King’s new supernatural crime thriller. 

Later – Stephen King, 2021.  Rating: 4.5/5

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Jamie’s had encounters with the newly dead since he was a young child. By some cosmic rule, spirits are compelled to answer any of his questions. Jamie’s mom, a single, successful literary agent, is worried and unnerved by this uncanny ability. She adopts a don’t ask, don’t tell approach—until she needs his talent to save them from financial ruin. Her girlfriend, jaded cop Liz Dutton, covets Jamie’s skills, too. And an evil spirit haunting Jamie wants the most of all. Little Jamie finds out “later” as he comes of age, how limited his childhood understanding really was.   

It is hard to write a review for a novel by Stephen King, the “genius” and “Master of horror.” All the superlatives—spellbinding, superb, surprising—are stale.

Today, unable come up with fresh, clever compliments, I’ll resort to basic understatements. King is great. He takes everyday life and cants it into the realm of the macabre. Or maybe he makes the macabre a little more normal. Or both. King’s greatest gift is his deep understanding of humankind. He reads our hearts and hopes, our capacity for evil and good. He brings life to life though his writing. King gets people. And he gets scary.

Jamie’s voice pulls us into the story as he looks back on his childhood and adolescence from the grand old age of twenty-two. He’s a regular—mostly—kid, dealing with regular family issues. Aside from the whole talking-to-ghosts issue, Jamie could be your buddy, your boyfriend, your kid—or you at a younger age. His relatability, and our connection to all the characters, makes the horror all the more effective when lurches into the familiar.

Later is a cop story. A coming-of-age story. A ghost story. It reads as smooth and easy as driving on a freshly paved road. It seems straightforward, but it is a journey that you’ll think about unexpectedly weeks later. Later. As Jamie says, “Check it out.”


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Review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Susan journeys to the big city to find her father and learns that Old World magic is very real—and very dangerous—In Nix’s enchanting new fantasy.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London—Garth Nix, 2020. Rating 4.5/5

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When she turns eighteen, Susan begins a quest for the father she never knew, leaving her country home and vague, artist mother for bustling London. It is 1983, and Susan only has a few meager clues about her father’s identity. One of these clues leads her into a sticky supernatural situation. Enter Merlin St. Jacques, a left-handed bookseller. Flamboyant, dashing, and currently a ladies’ man—though he is “somewhat…shape-shiftery” and is contemplating changing gender—Merlin is one of the fighting booksellers. Right-handed booksellers, of course, are their cerebral counterparts, excelling at mental feats of power.

Merlin introduces Susan to the extended booksellers’ family organization. Their mission is to maintain a peaceful balance between creatures of magic and the clueless human world. And sell books. Merlin realizes that Susan is being targeted by beings from the Old World when goblins dance them into an other-worldly May Fair. He and his sister Vivien (a right-handed bookseller) also begin to suspect that Susan’s father is a rather important Old World figure, and they intuit a connection with the murder of their mother. With outside help from long-suffering police liaison Inspector Greene, the trio battle Cauldron-born; encounter water-fay, a Fenris and a host of other magical beings; and face betrayal and human corruption.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a magical hug. Funny, bright, and brilliant; packed with magic dark and light. I couldn’t put it down. Nix’s unique London is the world we fantasy-lovers wish we lived in—hazardous though it may be—where creatures of myth and legend live (mostly) seamlessly alongside our ‘real’ existence. Though there is gunplay and assassination-by-hatpin and plenty of genuine gruesomeness (Merlin is left-handed, after all), Nix takes time to explore themes of identity and heritage as Susan comes to terms with her unique family background, and Merlin learns more about himself. A fantastical, cozy, satisfying gem.


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Review: Where the Sun Goes to Die

Antisocial monster hunter Jonathan Crowley and his companion, the albino former undertaker Mr. Slate, canvass the Old West, giving what for to werewolves and schooling shapeshifters in Moore’s darkly enjoyable collection of tales.

Where the Sun Goes to Die—James A. Moore, 2019. Rating: 4/5

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Where the Sun Goes to Die follows events in that occur in Boomtown, (see my review here), where Crowley and Slate’s efforts to fend off reanimated corpses, a malevolent wizard, and a group of possessed Native Americans leaves the town of Carson Point, Colorado a bit worse for wear. As in, well, decimated. I.e., bloodbath. Where the Sun Goes to Die stands successfully on its own gruesome feet, so you don’t need to read Boomtown first, but it does give a little more background on Slate and Crowley’s odd relationship.

Mr. Lucas Slate, once a genteel mortician, is becoming…something else. Judging by others’ terrified reactions to his gaunt and growing frame, whatever he’s changing into is the antithesis of his normally soft-spoken self. Slate is travelling with Crowley to discover the nature of his transformation. Crowley is keeping a weather eye on Slate, coolly ready to dispatch his companion if—when—Slate becomes a monster.

On their journey, they encounter a demon train and a parasitic preacher. They get caught in a conflict between soldiers, Apaches, and a Skinwalker who looks remarkably like Mr. Slate. In a story co-authored by Charles R. Rutledge, Crowley, Slate, and a fellow hunter rescue a stagecoach from werewolves.

Where the Sun Goes to Die is flat-out fun. That is, if your idea of fun involves supernatural throwdowns, gunfights, and general carnage. The grimly charismatic Crowley, as always, carries the tales. Crowley is just…cool. He has magical powers and does not appear to age. He is compelled to aid (fellow?) humans if asked for help. He is irascible. Unimposing. He revels a little too much in a fight. And he doesn’t suffer fools—or really anyone—gladly. But every now and then, there’s just the slightest whisper that there may be, or was, an iota of heart under that tough, techy hide. Mr. Slate complements Crowley nicely. The two remind me vaguely of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever with their formal addresses and occasional dry banter. But Mr. Crowley and Mr. Slate are good guys. Mostly. Fans of westerns and the paranormal will appreciate this genre-bending treat.


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Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Horror meets chick-lit in spectacular fashion when a group of housewives unite to save kids from an old evil in this piquant new novel by the author of Horrorstör.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires—Grady Hendrix, 2020. Rating: 5/5

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In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Patricia Campbell enjoys a comfortable, safe life in a comfortable, safe neighborhood outside Charleston, South Carolina. She spends her days caring for her family: teen daughter Korey, younger son Blue, her psychiatrist husband Carter, and Carter’s cantankerous, senile mother, Miss Mary.

Patricia occasionally misses her pre-housewife career as a capable, respected nurse, but Patricia’s family and comfortable lifestyle make her sacrifice worth it. When Patricia scandalously fails to read her snooty book club’s literary selection of the month, she and a diverse group of women form their own book club—focusing on true crime. Fastidious Grace, outgoing Kitty, the Yankee Maryellen, and Slick Paley (who tells her husband their group is a Bible study) form lasting friendships over Charles Manson and Ted Bundy.

True crime and true horror become real when the charming James Harris moves into the neighborhood. Bizarre attacks and odd deaths—especially of young Black children in a nearby neighborhood—make Patricia suspicious about James Harris, even though she is strangely drawn to him. Together with the help of Ursula Greene, Miss Mary’s caregiver, the friends explore the outwardly impossible idea that James Harris is not what he seems. Their task becomes extra tricky when James Harris hoodwinks their husbands and becomes “one of the boys”.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires rocks. The horror is very real and very visceral. Cringeworthy and darkly humorous moments abound, and the climax is deeply unnerving. Hendrix gives us a unique (and deliciously revolting) take on the vampire legend. It is Hendrix’s characters, however, that make this story a standout. While the friends smilingly make sure the silver is polished, the clothes ironed, the dogs/kids/husbands fed, they have their own hidden troubles, including infidelity, abuse, and financial woes. They are belittled. Taken for granted. Patronized. We empathize with their fears and frustrations, so much so that we experience a different, equally terrible, kind of horror when Carter challenges and exerts control over Patricia’s mental health. Patricia and her friends are pulled out of their comfort zones. They awkwardly confront racial disparity. Their bond is tested by distrust and betrayal. Friendship + self-empowerment + a vile vampire = awesome. The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a must-read.


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Review: Dead Things

Necromancer Eric Carter returns to L.A. to avenge his sister’s vicious murder but runs afoul of powerful gangsters—alive and dead—who plan to finish him off for good.

Dead Things – Stephen Blackmoore, 2013. Rating 4/5

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Carter is a talented mage like his deceased (i.e., murdered) parents, but Carter’s specialty is dead things. Conjuring them. Controlling them. Chatting with them. It involves a lot of blood, usually his own. Another not-perk is that Carter sees ghosts everywhere—Haunts, Echoes, you name it—and they see him. Carter uses his unenviable talents to eliminate magic power-abusing bad guys. After a friendly warning from some Haitian death loas to be careful whom he trusts, followed by a call from his old friend Alex, Carter knows something nefarious is up. He’s right: His sister Lucy is dead.

Carter’s quest for revenge is complicated by personal issues (his ex-girlfriend is now Alex’s fiancé); business issues (both the ghost of the mobster who murdered his parents and the baddie’s living successor are out to kill him); and weird supernatural issues (La Muerte, the death goddess, wants to own Carter and make him her enforcer). Plus, the food at his old favorite hangout has gone to hell. Things are stacked against him, and Carter needs to find out who is setting him up before he becomes one of the dead himself.  

This dark urban fantasy has a lot going for it. Blackmoore’s love for L.A. in all its splendor and squalor shines in his detailed snapshots of the City of Angels. Carter is a tough, bad-boy antihero with plenty of emotional baggage and a burning sense of justice. His voice is dryly humorous, self-deprecating, and…reveals a sensitive side buried somewhere in all that cynicism. Seedy motels, cheap bottles of booze, and thick-headed thugs give the whole novel a noir feel. It works. The action sequences are intense, including everything from magical combat to fisticuffs with the aforementioned thugs. A battle with a fire elemental at the Port of Los Angeles is a standout.

My biggest criticism is that there is arguably too much focus on action vs. story—I love the premise and the characters and wanted more of them, while I lost count of how many times poor Carter was knocked unconscious, threatened with a taser, or had his nose rebroken. That said, Dead Things is a fun, fresh take on a…different…branch of magic coupled with an agreeably world-weary hero. Fans of the Dresden Files, you’ll want to check this one out.


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Review: The Book of Koli

Deadly molesnakes, killer trees, and fearsome faceless men are nothing compared to the chilling secrets that Koli learns about his post-apocalyptic world.

The Book of Koli—M.R. Carey, 2020. Rating 5/5

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Fifteen-year-old Koli desperately wants to be a Rampart: one of the privileged few in his village who control the old tech that keeps them all safe. And decades after humankind played fast and loose with science, there are lots and lots of things in the woods that want to hurt people, like rogue drones, choker seeds, and tree-cats. When Koli fails to become a Rampart and must settle for life as Koli Woodsmith, he is overcome with jealousy of his friend Haijon, who not only became Haijon Rampart, but won the girl Koli fancied. When Koli learns a shocking truth from a traveling doctor, he grows even more determined to “wake” the old tech. The result is both marvelous and devastating, and changes Koli’s life forever.

I could not put this book down.

Carey’s worldbuilding is superlative. We are tantalized, recognizing remnants of our own world; fascinated by tech even we don’t have yet; and sobered by this vision of things gone wrong, propelling humankind back to a pre-industrial society. We experience a poignant awarenes of things lost, a feeling shared by Koli and other characters. Carey brings his world to life with distinctive speech patterns, cultural traditions, and even conflicting religious doctrines, all unique, yet all with recognizable ties to our contemporary society. The result is brilliant: We feel a close connection to Koli’s world but remain just off-kilter enough to feel a sense of wonder and uncertainty.

Koli bridges the gap for us. He is both deeply wise and heartbreakingly naïve: fundamentally human. Sensitive, kind, and self-aware, Koli knows the pitfalls of his choices but is subject to his youthful emotions. I don’t want to give too much away about this incredible book. It is a journey of discovery for reader as much as it is for Koli: An apocalyptic Bildungsroman filled with harrowing adventures, humor, and hope. Highly recommended.


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Review: The Reincarnationist Papers

Professional arsonist Evan Michaels remembers all of his past lives. Now, he has the chance to enter a rare society of immortals in The Reincarnationist Papers.

The Reincarnationist Papers—D. Eric Maikranz, 2008. Rating: 3/5

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Lonely and isolated, Evan lives out of a seedy motel working as an arsonist-for-hire. He has contemplated suicide, but knows it is pointless because he will just come back to life again: He was a Bulgarian farmer who fought in WWI, and a six-year-old boy in Georgia, where he developed his fascination with fire. Evan thinks he is alone in the world until he meets the beautiful, mysterious Poppy, who has a taste for heroin and creative sexual encounters. Poppy recognizes that Evan is a reincarnationist like herself and offers to be his advocate and help Evan join the Cognomina, a secretive association of reincarnationists. But Evan must first pass an exhaustive interview process to authenticate his past lives. Whisked away to Zurich, Evan meets others like himself and becomes enamored with their lavish, deviant, “epicurean” lifestyle. When the wealthy Samas offers Evan millions to steal a portrait for him, Evan leaps at the chance.

Conceptually, The Reincarnationist Papers shines. Maikranz incorporates a wealth of historical detail into the past life stories of the characters. The reader travels in time from Coronado’s expedition to the New World to the era of Louis XIV and beyond. Maikranz successfully brings less-familiar historical periods to life for the reader. Maikranz also takes a compelling, in-depth look at the cultural beliefs surrounding transmigration. These aspects of the novel are great.

Connecting with the characters, however, is a sticking point. It is hard to feel much for the reincarnationists. Maikranz intimates that we should pity them, trapped in their endless existences, but that is challenging, because they are, overall, rich, selfish, hedonistic snobs. Evan actually rejects the one character who lives a simple life, convinced he is mad for living in such—to Evan—discomfort.

The reincarnationists offer a well-argued case that religion is pointless—simply a big hoax perpetrated on mankind that forces people into living unnaturally restrained lives. The reincarnationists know this because they have experienced nothing after death except rebirth into another body. They would agree with Karl Marx that “religion…is the opiate of the masses,” but they prefer their opium straight up for personal painkilling purposes. This nihilist perspective could be a bit off-putting for some readers.

The Reincarnationist Papers offers a fascinating look at history and a provocative philosophical exploration of reincarnation. Personally, I had difficulty making character connections. Full disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.


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Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares

A series of deadly bombings and sightings of a terrifying, futuristic creature stalking the streets of London have the city on edge. Holmes and Watson must hurry to foil a dastardly plot that could plunge England into anarchy.

Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares—James Lovegrove, 2013.  Rating: 4/5

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With London reeling from the latest bloody terrorist attack on Waterloo Station, Mycroft Holmes entreats his brother, Sherlock, to investigate. Sherlock reluctantly agrees but is more interested in pursuing an apparently unrelated phenomena: Baron Cauchemar, an otherworldly vigilante who is wreaking havoc on London’s criminal enterprise. Thieves and pickpockets live in terror of the figure with its glowing eyes, insectile carapace, and advanced weaponry. When Watson and Holmes encounter the mechanical avenger, Watson also leans towards a supernatural explanation—but Holmes knows better.

As the bombings circle closer to Buckingham Palace, endangering the Queen, Sherlock and Watson add names to their growing list of suspects: malevolent Professor Moriarty; the wealthy French emissary, De Villegrand; and “One-arm” Torrance, former sailor turned human trafficker. Together, Holmes and Watson discover the connection between Baron Cauchemar and the evilly ambitious individual behind the attacks.

I am a die-hard Sherlockian. I am not so much into steampunk. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking two would combine about as well as orange juice and toothpaste. Happily, I was wrong! The combination is as satisfactory as bacon and eggs. (I mean that as a good thing. If you’re not into bacon and eggs, substitute your own copacetic combo.)

Lovegrove stays true to tradition while breathing new life into beloved characters. We are treated to Holmes’s brilliant deductions (though a little too fallible in spots for me), disguises, pursuits, pitched battles, Watson’s engaging and drily humorous narration, lovely period detail, and an enjoyable if not particularly twisty mystery. Holmes fans will find all their boxes ticked (and we’re picky fans). The sci-fi element—using Victorian steam technology for then-radical inventions, a la Jules Verne—teeters on the edge of fantastical, especially in grand finale, but adds an imaginative, future-forward layer that meshes with Holmes’ own practices. The Stuff of Nightmares is a fun addition to Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I look forward to reading the second in series, Gods of War.


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Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

A brilliant monster child, a teacher, a doctor, a seasoned soldier, and a green recruit brave packs of zombie-like hungries and lawless Junkers in an attempt to reach safety…if it exists.

The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey, 2014. Rating 5/5


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Melanie loves attending school: She has a genius IQ and especially enjoys stories from Greek mythology. She is devoted to her favorite teacher, the empathetic Miss Justineau. What Melanie does not understand is why she and the other kids are shackled to their wheelchairs every time they leave their cells, in full head, arm, and leg restrains. It turns out, Melanie is a hungry: one of the fungal-controlled zombies that have destroyed civilization outside of their small military base. Melanie and the other kids are the only hungries who still maintain a human awareness. Or do they?

Dr. Caldwell believes Melanie is inhuman, a mere host to the mind-controlling fungus, but she is also the key to the future. Caldwell cannot wait to dissect Melanie’s brain, find a cure, save the world, and wallow in the accolades that follow. Gruff Sergeant Parks sees Melanie as a monster, pure and simple. Miss Justineau views Melanie as a sensitive, human child. They’re all right, to an extent. And young Private Gallagher, who never knew the world “before,” shares Melanie’s awe as they observe the wrecked marvels of human ingenuity for the first time.

When the base is overrun by a horde of hungries, the five make a dangerous journey across the countryside and through London, seeking shelter in one of the last surviving communities.  

The Girl with All the Gifts is magnificent, and I don’t wax hyperbolic lightly. The novel is simply stunning. I don’t know how I have not read this book until now, but I am richer for finding it. The story hits you hard on two fronts. On one level, it is a consummate post-apocalyptic tale of horror. Fans of this genre will find the story frighteningly plausible and filled with gripping, knuckle-biting scenes. Action-packed. Intense. But The Girl with All the Gifts is also a journey of self-awareness for the characters—and you, the reader. Each character explores and re-evaluates their beliefs, achieving knowledge that both frees and dooms.

The story is deeply affecting. Melanie is sensitive and self-reflective, struggling to reconcile her gentle and intelligent personality with the lurking monster inside herself. Her efforts reflect something each of us must do to in a more abstract way. Carey gives us scenes of stark brutality and great beauty, leaving us to consider, on a visceral level, the future of the human race. The Girl with All the Gifts is a story of endings and beginnings: like life. Read this one.


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Review: The Devil and the Dark Water

An insidious force stalks passengers and crew on a perilous ocean passage in this genrebending gem.

The Devil and the Dark Water—Stuart Turton, 2020. Rating 5/5


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It is 1634 and the abusive and power-hungry Governor General of Batavia, Jan Haan, is making the long voyage to Amsterdam aboard the United East India Company ship, the Saardam. Accompanying him are his wife Sara Wessel, their too-intelligent inventor daughter Lia, and Haan’s mistress Creesjie and her sons. Also aboard are the legendary sparrow and the bear: Sammy Pipps, a dapper English detective facing execution in Amsterdam for reasons unknown, and Sammy’s protector and friend, the massive mercenary with a conscience, Lieutenant Arent Hayes. When a tongueless leper impossibly pronounces that the ship is cursed and then promptly bursts into flame, Hayes and Pipps are rightfully convinced someone is trying to sabotage the voyage. Everyone aboard has secrets: some of which are more Machiavellian than others. Fellow traveler, the Predikant Sander Kers, is convinced that the demon Old Tom is aboard. Soon, Old Tom begins to whisper to the volatile blend of musketeers, sailors, and passengers, offering them infernal bargains. Demonic symbols, unholy miracles, and mysterious deaths plague the ship. It is up to Arent, Sara, and Sammy to uncover the truth.

The Devil and the Dark Water is a treat. It is a seafaring tale, with knife fights and killer storms and desperate conflicts in reeking cargo holds; it is historical fiction, in that it takes place long ago; it is a romance; it is a tale of friendship and family and betrayal; it is a philosophical puzzle about the nature of good and evil and revenge; it is suffused with supernatural suggestion. In short, it’s lit.

As the story rockets along we become helplessly, deliciously caught up in the myriad of mysteries and superstitious paranoia until we are nothing but a twitchy, hand-wringing ball of anxiety. One that tersely—but lovingly!—tells one’s significant other to leave us alone so we can finish this book. Glorious suspense! But as clever and brilliant as the plot is, the characters carry the novel. The diverse cast is nuanced and profoundly human and relatable despite 400 the years separating us.

In a closing author’s note, Turton hints at a keen understanding that makes The Devil and the Dark Water such a successful genre-defying tale. Turton explains, “You see, I believe a book is whatever you decide it is” (454). Everyone reads a story differently, taking away what they need and want. It speaks to Turton’s immense talent that The Devil and the Dark Water is so widely satisfying.