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 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.


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Review: The Scorpion’s Tail

A cold case turns hot for a newbie FBI agent when she runs afoul of the military while chasing clues to a murder and a long-lost treasure.

The Scorpion’s Tail—Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 2020. Rating: 3/5


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Corrie Swanson is bitterly sure that her pitiful assignment in nowhere New Mexico is a punishment for her ineptitude on her last case. Now, she is stuck with cowboy Sheriff Watts trying to figure out what a treasure hunter was doing searching the remote High Lonesome ghost town. Corrie calls in a favor from archaeologist Nora Kelly and together they discover a corpse—one that clearly died a gruesome death—and a priceless Spanish gold cross. Corrie, Watts, and Nora follow rumors of a golden fortune and uncover a decades-old military conspiracy at the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

I was poised to be super-enthusiastic about this read because I have enjoyed many (most) of Preston and Childs’ other titles; but the book fell a little flat. Here are the pros: The story is satisfying. It is a slower build, but the pacing is solid, and the tension increases nicely as our heroes get closer to solving the mystery. The authors successfully weave together fascinating historical elements from the atomic era and early Native American history. There are some fun shootouts. The desert southwest landscape is beautifully realized. I have been to several of the locations depicted in the book, and Preston & Child so exquisitely capture the colors and silence and sheer vastness of the high desert that I felt transported back, which was a lovely gift.

Now the cons. Characterization is thin. Corrie is the most well-rounded of the group, but she is so rules-based she is not easy to empathize with. The few flashbacks to Corrie’s abusive childhood do not go far enough to flesh out her character. She and Nora both struggle in typical “male” or “moneyed” professions, respectively, and their ultimate successes are empowering, but do not add the needed depth to their personalities. The rest of the cast is largely one-dimensional. The book is so plot-driven, I felt like I was missing entire scenes that would have helped me care more about these people. Early on, for instance, Watts suggests he and Corrie have lunch. Great! I expected a short sequence in a café to get some character background…Nada.

All that said, devotees of Preston and Child and all of us action, thriller, suspense, and historical fiction fans will have most of our boxes checked. Plus, Agent Pendergast makes a brief, deus-ex-machina cameo: enjoyable, if a little contrived. The Scorpion’s Tail is a quick, solid read, but does not rank among my favorites from the extensive offerings of Preston & Child.


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Review: The Reaping

Tom takes a commission at a remote English country house to paint a young woman’s portrait…but he soon discovers that the family’s ancient matriarch has other unsavory plans for him.

The Reaping—Bernard Taylor, 1980. Rating: 4/5


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Tom has all but given up his dreams of being an artist and settled for a steady career as shopkeeper to best support his young children. His relationship with his globe hopping girlfriend, Ilona, is on the rocks. Life is uninspiring until Tom gets the lucrative opportunity of a lifetime: spend a week at Woolvercombe House painting the beautiful Catherine. He seizes the chance, and he and the shy Catherine warm to each other (“warm” is an understatement). Tom’s love of his craft is reenergized and, inexplicably, so his libido…but Tom gets a creepy vibe about the rest of Woolvercombe’s inhabitants.

The ailing Miss Stewart, whose garish makeup fails to hide the sight and smells of her sour old age; the sly manservant, Carl; the too-efficient secretary, Mrs. Weldon; and the enigmatic Dr. McIntosh all make Tom highly uneasy. Then there are the five mysterious nuns living on the property, who Tom discovers are not exactly models of piety. Tom finishes the portrait and hopes he is done with Woolvercombe House for good…only to find neither he, nor his family have escaped Miss Stewart clutches.

What a fun read! The Reaping is a slow burn. Taylor takes his time letting us get to know Tom and better empathize with his frustrations. The creepy factor builds deliciously, in the best kind of country-house mystery fashion, and you’re not sure exactly what horrors will emerge. While you suspect some of Miss Stewart’s machinations, the ending is a shocker. I’m surprised this hasn’t been made into a film; it would be wildly successful. (The book is in no way related to the less-than-stellar 2007 movie of the same name.) My only quibble with The Reaping is that it does take a while for the supernatural element to slide its way into the story—ah, but when it does! The Reaping is one of Paperbacks from Hell series of horror classics originally published in the 70s 80s. I recently finished The Tribe (my review here), another from the series, and it made my 2020 Best list. The Reaping is another satisfying installment.


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Review: The Progeny

Emily Porter had her memory erased in an experimental procedure—and doesn’t know why. When danger shows up on her doorstep, she must flee to Croatia and put together her astonishing past.

The Progeny: A Novel – Tosca Lee, 2016.    3.5/5


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At just twenty-one years old, Emily has started a quiet new life in middle-of-nowhere Maine tying fishing lures. But subconsciously, the life she rejected is trying to tell her something.

A man named Rolan informs her she’s not Emily, her real name is Audra, and she is a descendant of Elizabeth Bathory. (You horror fans know her: The blood countess? The one who supposedly killed all those serving girls, bathed in their blood, and was walled up in a room in her castle for three years before she died? That one.) As Bathory’s descendant, Audra has special powers of persuasion. She is one of “the Progeny.” Rolan informs Audra that she is being hunted by an assassin from the Scions of the Dispossessed whose mission is to eradicate all of Bathory’s kin. Audra is soon on the run with Rolan from another (handsome, younger man) named Luka. But maybe Rolan isn’t so trustworthy. Maybe Luka is. Maybe they both are, or aren’t. Audra must tease out complicated loyalites; navigate the masked underground courts of Nikola, the Prince of Budapest, and Tibor, the Zagreb Prince; discover who killed her mother, a Progeny activist; unmask a conspiracy; save her new/old friends and her new/old beloved; and prove Bathory’s innocence. I think. Most of that, anyway. I lost track.

I went into this novel with great anticipation. I’ve enjoyed other works by Lee, especially her apocalyptic novel, A Line Between (see my review here), and her historical fiction titles like The Legend of Sheba. Good stuff. The Progeny is well-written: the pacing is great, there is plenty of action, the historical mystery is intriguing, and Lee weaves in a sensitive and probably (to other people) touching theme about motherhood. I was captivated by Lee’s dark vision of the fantastical, frenetic Progeny raves.

But I couldn’t get into the plot. The fault is largely mine: I have a strong aversion to amnesia and amnesia-like memory loss stories. I find them frustrating instead of suspenseful. Borderline infuriating, actually. I dislike feeling led by the nose by a plot device. In all stories, the author chooses when and how to dole out bits and pieces of info, but in memory loss stories the mechanics feel too transparent. (I have weird issues with time travel, too, but that’s another story.) Granted, Lee focuses on Audra’s journey in the present, but it still did not engage me. It also didn’t help that I found Audra largely unlikeable. Yes, Audra is stressed, doesn’t know who she is or was, and doesn’t trust anybody—these things would make anyone prickly—but they make her hard to connect with. For the bulk of the novel, she also doesn’t have a lot of empathy for any of the new/old people she’s meeting. Consequentially, I did not care much about the elaborate Progeny conspiracy. As I said, it’s mostly just me. Fans of Lee’s writing in general will not be disappointed (unless they share my bizarre issues with memory loss stories). This is the first in the Descendants of the House of Bathory series and is followed by Firstborn (2017). As much as I hate to leave a series hanging, I’ll be skipping Firstborn.  


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Best of 2020 (Yes, There Were Some Best Things!)

I’m glad 2020 is in the rear-view mirror. The year was an emotionally challenging one for me, as it was for everyone. But it wasn’t a total wash: I read a lot of great books this year. I’m thankful for the power of fiction which helped me through this time: letting me escape, letting me understand the world—and myself—on a deeper level, letting me empathize more deeply. Thanks, books! Here are some of my favorite reads of 2020. Text links go to my full reviews, image links send you to Amazon.

Intercepts – T.J. Payne, 2019.

With their personalities stripped and their senses deprived, the government-controlled human “antennas” collect sensitive info by intercepting their targets’ minds. When one antenna infiltrates Joe Gerhard, the man in charge of their care—and torture—Joe’s entire family is at risk. A horrific, gripping story of unethical experimentation and revenge.

The Library of the Unwritten – A.J. Hackwith, 2019.

Claire, the librarian of Hell, must leave her unhallowed halls for Seattle, to track down an escaped character from an unwritten novel. Along with the inexperienced demon Leto and failed muse (and library assistant) Beverly, Claire discovers that her task is much more than it appears. Representatives of both Heaven and Hell will do anything to get their…hands (wings? claws?) on the pages in Claire’s possession. My only 5/5 rating of the year. Exquisitely written, deeply thought-provoking, uniquely original.

The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson, 1913.

Nine fantastic tales about the enigmatic Carnacki, an “unprejudiced skeptic” who investigates hauntings, possessions, and all manner of “ab-natural” things in early 20th century London. What would be deliciously classic ghost stories on their own get an appealing new power from Carnacki’s strange “scientific” inventions. 

Haunted & The Ghosts of Sleath – James Herbert, 1988, 1994.

Paranormal investigator David Ash is a confirmed skeptic and skilled debunker. Gruff and flawed, he’s also in denial about his past. In Haunted, a straight-up scary haunted house story, David is called in by some creepy siblings and their old nanny to investigate a ghostly appearance. Things go very badly. Reeling from his experiences in Haunted, David next travels to the village of Sleath, ostensibly to probe the ghostly return of a drowned boy, only to discover the entire town is the imminent target of dark spirits. Darkly beautiful writing, great characters, and spooky, spooky plots make these must-reads.

Monster Hunter Siege – Larry Correia, 2017.

Owen Pitt, accountant-turned-monster-hunter, goes on the offensive, marshalling monster hunter agencies across the globe to attack the god of chaos, Asag. Owen must enter the Nightmare Realm alone to confront the supernatural bad guy and bring back lost comrades. Monster Hunter Siege is a glorious, whirlwind shoot-em-up with humor and heart.

The Tribe – Bari Wood, 1981.

When a rabbi’s son is murdered, and the murderers are later found gruesomely torn apart and covered in wet clay, police detective Roger Hawkins must investigate his old friend, Rabbi Jacob Levy. Jacob and a group of Jewish men from the same Polish town somehow survived the Belzec extermination camp. Now, in 1980s Brooklyn, Roger wonders if they had some supernatural help. A slow-burn multi-layered look at the nature of good and evil.

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell, 2018.

In 1935, psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Kosárek is eager to prove his theories about evil through his work with the Devil’s Six—a group of criminally violent madmen (and women) of Prague. While Kosárek delves into the killers’ memories, police detective Kapitán Lukáš Smolák desperately tracks an active serial killer: the infamous Leather Apron. Russell’s use of Slavic folklore and his incorporation of the growing tension preceding the rise of Hitler make this intelligent, unnerving novel a standout.


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Film Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

A guilt-ridden soldier returns to the zombie-infested South Korean peninsula to retrieve a truck full of US dollars. This’ll go well.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula – 2020  Rating: 3/5


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South Korean Marine Corps Captain Jeong-seok (Gang Dong-won) lost his sister and nephew in the initial zombie outbreak featured four years earlier in Train to Busan. Now, guilty and still grieving, he and his basically useless brother in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), accept an assignment from some Chinese mobsters. If they take a team back to the peninsula and recover a truckload of cash, they’ll be richly rewarded. Things, of course, go terribly wrong. Half Jeong-seok’s team is wiped out. He is separated from Chul-min, and quickly discovers that the zombie hordes are the least of his problems. Jeong-seok must face a rogue military unit led by the psychotic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) to get the truck and to rescue Chul-min from Hwang’s macabre zombie fight club. Jeong-seok is aided by some allies in the forms of a tough mom, possibly loopy grandpa, and two cute little girls with amazing defensive driving skills.

So.

When I see “Train to Busan Presents” featured prominently in the (ridiculously awkward) title, my expectations skyrocket. Train to Busan is an outstanding film. Outstanding. Seriously. An instant zombie classic: fresh, thrilling, scary, heartwarming…If you have not seen it, go watch it now. I just lent my copy to our neighbor in the firm belief that everyone should watch Train to Busan.

Peninsula is no Train to Busan.

It isn’t for lack of trying: Peninsula is a perfectly solid standalone action film. High production value. Impressive car chase scenes. Gang Dong-won is appealing as the handsome and strong-but-troubled hero. He wears his two expressions—brooding and fiercely brooding—well. If you haven’t seen Train to Busan, you may enjoy Peninsula.

Unfortunately, I wanted another Train to Busan. Peninsula feels like a slick video game and all the Mad Max movies rolled into one. One long car chase meets Thunderdome. The zombies are just part of the landscape in this film: a big seething mass. They lack the terrifying immediacy of the zombies in Train to Busan, and so they aren’t scary, and don’t pose a significant threat. And while the girls are adorable and capable and provide some laughs, they and their family unit are not enough to inject heart into the movie. In comparison to Train to Busan, Peninsula is “meh.” It lacks the horror and soul of its predecessor.


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Review: The Haunting of Brynn Wilder

When a young English professor visits a quaint coastal town to emotionally regroup, she finds that her boardinghouse is haunted and falls for a handsome stranger with a mysterious secret.

The Haunting of Brynn Wilder—Wendy Webb, 2020.  Rating: 4/5


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Brynn Wilder is feeling fragile after a country-song worthy litany of losses (her mom to cancer, her beloved dog, and her twenty-year relationship). She decides to summer in the tourist town of Wharton on upper Lake Superior, where her friend Kate and Kate’s police chief husband (both characters from Webb’s previous novel, Daughters of the Lake, 2018) now live. Brynn loves the historic and luxe boardinghouse, run by quirky LuAnn and her bartender partner Gary. There, Brynn starts to relax and befriend her fellow boarders. She bonds with Jason and his husband Gil, and Jason’s ex-wife from before he came out, Alice, who suffers with early Alzheimer’s. Brynn also forms an instant, electric connection with the devastatingly handsome Dominic. Covered in vivid tattoos that oddly seem to change from day to day, Dominic is a literal “illustrated man.”

Brynn begins to have eerie dreams about past lives, and about the single locked room at the inn, where the body of an elderly lady was discovered. As the summer passes, Brynn begins to heal, she and Dominic fall in love, and the two do their best to support Gil and Jason and Alice as Alice’s symptoms rapidly progress. As Brynn learns more about herself—and Dominic—she begins to think her connection to him transcends time.

The Haunting of Brynn Wilder is a gentle supernatural romance. There are lots of leisurely meals, picnics, happy hours, and conversations with friends—all in a beautifully captured sense of place. You feel as if you are spending the summer with friends at the edge of the glorious—and eerie—Lake Superior. Suspense takes a backseat in The Haunting of Brynn Wilder. The story shines both as a character study, and in its loving treatment of the difficult emotional issues it raises. The story of Alice, transitioning between worlds, offers a poignant look at the devastating effect of Alzheimer’s on patient and loved ones. The novel makes you reflect that family is deeper than blood: connected instead by love, support, and compassion. Webb ultimately offers readers a positive, affirming vision of what happens to us after death.  

Although the ending (no spoilers) borders on being a little over the top for even my generous suspension of disbelief, it provides satisfying, touching closure. A comfortable, and comforting read.


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Review: Devoted

When a preternaturally intelligent golden retriever makes a telepathic connection with an autistic boy, their bond presages an evolutionary step forward for man and canine-kind—if they can survive the evil plans of a crazed killer.

 Devoted – Dean Koontz, 2020. Rating: 4/5


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Kipp is a member of the Mysterium: a scattered group of goldens who possess human intelligence but lack the ability for human speech. They communicate telepathically over the ‘wire.’ Some of their humans know their secret, others do not. Kipp’s guardian, Dorothy, is aware of how special he is. When she passes, Kipp is devastated, but is now free to find the one boy—the only human—he’s ever heard on the wire.

Miles away, eleven-year-old Woody Bookman, a genius high-functioning autistic boy who has never spoken, finishes his report on the murder of his father. Unknown to Woody, his investigation unleashes retribution: a wetworks team heads toward Woody’s home to cover up any incriminating evidence—including people. As Kipp races towards Woody, so does Lee Shacket. An executive at a secretive research installation, Shacket escapes the lockdown and destruction of his top-secret lab. Infected with experimental archaea, devolving into a monstrous creature, Shacket becomes violently fixated on finding and dominating the woman who got away from him—Woody’s mom, Megan. Forces of good and evil gather for a showdown.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a heartwarming animal story. Koontz, master storyteller, that he is, effectively pulls all the heartstrings in this one. If you’re a dog-lover, you don’t need to read any more of my review. Just get the book.

The story moves like wildfire: There are many anxious and alarming moments, and lots and lots of teary—in a beautiful way—moments.  While some plot points stretch even my completely willing disbelief, and the deus ex machina ending is very convenient, I don’t care. I care about Kipp, Woody, Megan, and the good and helpful strangers who join their fight. Things are hard in the world now. People are isolated and lonely, and all of us wish for truth and magical connection with those we love—dog and human. Devoted offers us that connection, if only in our imagination. Devoted is emotionally affecting: a suspenseful, thoughtful, lovely read.


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Review: The Tribe

A rabbi uses his arcane knowledge of the Kabbalah to protect himself and others during the Holocaust but starts down an ethical slippery slope when he later uses the power for revenge in The Tribe.

The Tribe – Bari Wood, 1981. Rating: 5/5


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A group of Jewish men from the same Polish town miraculously survive internment the Belzec extermination camp. When finally liberated, those in their barracks are the only ones in camp with food, even though the Nazis themselves were starving. Rabbi Jacob Levy keeps the secret of their survival and the “tribe” goes on to flourish in 1980’s Brooklyn, raising families and remaining good friends. But their tight-knit neighborhood is changing. Levy’s son, Adam, is murdered by a gang of teenagers and Black police detective Roger Hawkins vows to bring the culprits to justice. Hawkins is equally devastated by the murder: Adam was his friend, and Jacob is like a surrogate father to him. After Hawkins admits he cannot guarantee an extensive punishment for the teens, the five boys are found gruesomely murdered, the crime scene covered in wet clay. Hawkins suspects Jacob is involved, and their relationship deteriorates. Later, Adam’s wife, Rachel, believes that Jacob and his friends are involved in the brutal killings of a Black family. Together she and Hawkins join forces to uncover the relentless supernatural force that Jacob has hidden from them.

The Tribe is a brilliant, multilayered read. On a philosophical level, it delves deeply into the nature of good and evil. Men who not only survive unspeakable atrocities but transcend them, are simultaneously so deeply scarred that they end up using evil to do what they believe is good: protecting their own threatened identity at the expense of others. On a societal level, Wood explores differing forms of prejudice. Hawkins is discriminated against and feared by most of Levy’s friends, and by other Black officers on the force who are jealous of his position. Rachel comes to realize that her own religion is exclusionary towards women. The lifeblood of the story is Wood’s characters, which simply shine. Complex, flawed, and wonderfully human, filled with joy, humor, and heartbreak, their private lives are as rich as yours or mine. The Tribe invites the reader into the Jewish community, immersing us in cultural detail, but as with Rachel and Hawkins, we are only visiting: we can never fully comprehend what the tribe endured, nor can we ever completely be included in their inner circle. But through Hawkins’ and Rachel’s growing romance, Wood softly urges readers to both honor the old and embrace the new.

The Tribe is relentless: beautiful, dark, and thought-provoking. I just got a copy for my brother for Christmas. (Don’t tell him!)


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Review: The Haunted Forest Tour

Tourists become tasty treats for a myriad of monsters in this gleefully gruesome romp in the woods. And yes, discussing this book absolutely require an abundance of alliteration.

The Haunted Forest Tour—James A. Moore & Jeff Strand, 2007. Rating: 4/5

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When a giant forest violently erupts out of the New Mexico desert—unfortunately impaling most of the townsfolk—the land, along with the werewolves, insect-like things, aliens, mold monsters, demons, ghosts, and other beasties it contains is quickly snapped up by an entrepreneurial individual. In a true capitalistic spirit, H.F. Enterprises turns the deadly demesne into a tourist destination. They hire cryptozoologists to analyze the dangerous denizens and run (perfectly safe!) tram tracks through woods for the ultimate in (safe!) scares. Needless to say, safety protocols are colossally compromised on the Halloween Day Tour, stranding formerly eager monster-aficionados deep in the woods. Monsters rejoice. Tourists die. And they die in lots of creative ways involving copious amounts of blood, goo, and unnamed fluids teeming with wormy things. A handful of survivors escape deeper into the woods: Eddie the tram driver; Barbara, the pretty young guide; soon-to-be-unemployed Chris and his mom; an elderly hoax debunker, Lee; and six-year-old Tommy. Can anyone make it out alive? Can anyone stop the forest from spreading? Don’t look at me: I’m not to spoil it for you.

Moore and Strand obviously had a blast writing this one and their macabre delight is infectious. You read The Haunted Forest Tour with a big grin and a wince of revulsion plastered to your face. There are lots of “eeeew” moments, but they’re lightened by how frankly flat-out funny the story is. Even the characters find a dark humor in their precarious plights.

Now, we’re not talking National Book Award nominee, here. The plot is straightforward: monsters. Though there are some neat little surprises along the way. Still, the characters are fleshed out enough— well, enough that they’ve got plenty of flesh to be removed—but also in that we root for them. I was genuinely (briefly) disappointed when a certain character died on me. That said, The Haunted Forest Tour is all about the monsters. Reading it is like reveling in a big old box of disgusting chocolates (ones filled with different creepy things). You never know what you’re going to bite into—or what’s going to bite you. Bon appétit! (Bonne lecture!)