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 Silent Companions

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell, 2017. 5/5

Here’s a hackles-raising, creepy little gem of a Victorian gothic that you won’t soon forget. Thank you, The Silent Companions, for getting my 2019 off to a horrific (in a good way) start.

I’m not easily scared. I want to be, badly. My problem is I get too excited about dissecting why and how something is scary. In a haunted house, I’m dancing around the guy with the chainsaw busily admiring how they strung the fishing wire to make it feel like spiderwebs brushing your face. I know. Lame.

I can honestly say, however, The Silent Companions raised actual goosebumps and made me say ooooh out loud. That’s huge. Purcell has crafted an uncommonly disturbing story. It will sneak up on you. And maybe make you put your Dutch paintings in the basement.

I’m going to keep the plot summary brief. I want you to come to The Silent Companions with as clean a slate as possible for maximum impact. In short: It is 1865. Elsie Bainbridge is newly married to and abruptly widowed from the handsome entrepreneur, Rupert. She is now heir to Rupert’s fortune and his crumbling family estate, The Bridge. Pregnant and looked at with some suspicion in London because of her sudden wealth, Elsie travels with Rupert’s mousy cousin, Sarah, to the family seat. The mansion is in disrepair, the servants are inept and contrary, the village is a muddy hovel filled with superstitious and hostile inhabitants. Strange noises, mysterious accidents, and off-the-charts macabre appearances of life-like cut-out paintings are enough to drive one mad.

The Silent Companions is beautifully layered story. With menacing subtlety, Purcell closes a series of traps around the two women: their class, gender, Victorian norms, self-doubt, and past history, each combine to render them more and more powerless against the real evil in the house.

Purcell’s writing is brilliant. Tension builds exquisitely as we readers share Elsie’s confinement in the remote locale and her increasing fear and claustrophobia. Purcell further surprises us by exploding Victorian gentility with rudely shocking events.

The Silent Companions is a deceptively quiet, chilling, stunner of a read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

rating system five crows


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Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway—Ruth Ware, 2018. 4.5

Superstitions and secrets make for a tense read in this deeply satisfying mystery.

At just twenty-one, Hal is saddled with all the responsibilities—and fears—of adulthood. Working as a tarot reader after the death of her mother, Hal is drowning in bills, soon to be homeless, and threatened by an unsavory lender. She is desperate.

Then she receives a letter that could change her life, naming her as a beneficiary in her grandmother’s will: impossible, since her grandparents died a decade ago. With no other options, Hal decides to scam her way into some inheritance money. This sounds simple in the abstract, but when she is warmly accepted by the family members, Hal is torn. As Hal works herself deeper into an ethical dilemma, she uncovers a passel of ominous family secrets and puts herself in mortal danger.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a modern take on a classic country house mystery. A closed circle of suspects, an isolated location, an old mystery slowly exposed through tantalizing diary entries from the past, all combined with a scrappy heroine who has no one to trust (who no one should trust), are well calculated to make us mystery lovers shiver in delight.

Ware’s careful plotting and lightning pacing work to maximize suspense, making you perfectly o.k. with the fact that very little action takes place until a final, movie-worthy dramatic climax. Ware does a few—good!—things differently with The Death of Mrs. Westaway that make for a surprising and welcome contrast to the feel of her other books. Here, she adds a tantalizing touch of the almost-supernatural: enticing us with the exotically arcane details and symbolism of Hal’s tarot cards and adding a rich layer to the narrative.

There is also a pleasantly unexpected warmth to the characters of this tale. We like Hal, with her helpless façade hiding her inner strength. We root for her as she simultaneously struggles with her deception yet is at the mercy of other deceptions swirling around her.

While the mystery itself is not especially tangled, Ware’s humanizing use of deeper themes make us reflect on both the nature of family and the creation of identity, all the while we’re eagerly flying through the pages to discover who done it. And just what it was. The Death of Mrs. Westaway is my favorite of Ware’s works so far.

rating system four and a half crows


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Best of 2018

There’s a little something for everyone in this year’s top five. Er, six. O.k., maybe seven. (I had to throw in the UFO thriller. And the movie.)

But these are my favorites. We’ve got a western, a Gothic mystery, demonic possession, cryptids, a freakish carnival…Some of these reads are hauntingly, existentially mind-blowing. Some are just great fun. Some will trick you. They’re all magnificent. Text links are to my extended reviews, image links take you to Amazon. Really, all of these books I’d read again, and the movie I’ll definitely watch again. So, yes, I’m glad I own them. You would be too.

Train to BusanFilm directed by Sang-ho Yeon. 2016. You’re in for a bloody and deadly ride on this train when a viral outbreak turns folks into savage, fast zombies. Awesome action sequences and even a little bit of tear-jerking make this South Korean film a gem.

A Head Full of GhostsPaul Tremblay, 2015. An unforgettably disturbing tale of a 1980’s working-class family that deals with the demonic possession of their oldest daughter by letting a reality tv show document the teen’s paranormal behavior and exorcism. But there’s so much, much, more to the story… Multiple narrators, (sort of) make us question the reality of our memories. Profoundly chilling.

Devil’s CallJ. Danielle Dorn, 2017.  Pregnant Li Lian pursues her husband’s killer from New Orleans across the badlands of South Dakota in typical revenge-western style. The difference? She’s a witch. And the killer she’s after isn’t exactly human. Great genre mash-up with a fierce female heroine.

Those Across the RiverChristopher Buehlman, 2011.  A college professor discovers that ending a southern small town’s odd ritual has horrifying results. You can almost feel the slow southern heat and the simmering malevolence of the sinister folks across the river in this sensual, evocative, surprising novel.

A Brush with ShadowsAnna Lee Huber, 2018. It is 1831. Lady Kiera Darby and her inquiry agent husband, Gage, are summoned to the ominous family manor to find Gage’s missing ne’er-do-well cousin, last seen on the perilous moor. A deliciously spooky atmosphere, ominous dreams, and whispers of witchcraft combine with some solid character building to make this Gothic mystery my favorite in the series so far.

The Rib From Which I Remake The WorldEd Kurtz, 2016. Midnight showings from a travelling picture show bring black magic, madness, and murder home to folks in a small 1940’s town. It is up to a hotel detective, Jojo, to unravel the truth. But what he finds makes him question both the very nature of reality and his own existence. Brilliantly written and deeply creepy, this is a stunner of a read.

The OthersJeremy Robinson, 2018. PI Dan Delgado takes on almost every conspiracy theory known to man—UFOs, subterranean bases, polygamous sects, cattle mutilations, the 37th parallel, nanites, empaths—in his quest to find an abducted child. I had to add this to the list just because it is sheer over-the-top, action-packed, good-hearted fun.
   


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Review: Daughters of the Lake

Daughters of the Lake—Wendy Webb, 2018. Rating: 3.5/5

When Kate’s father discovers the bodies of a perfectly preserved woman and infant washed up on the lakeshore, Kate is swept into a decades-old mystery in this is a gentle ghost story-cum-family saga.

Kate’s emotional response to the two bodies makes the police suspicious. She travels down the coast to stay with her cousin—partially to regroup from the discovery that her husband has been cheating on her—and handsome detective Nick Stone is called in to investigate her discreetly.

Staying in the old family mansion that’s been newly transformed into a gracious B&B, Kate is troubled by both dreams of the dead woman and a malevolent spirit on the third floor. She begins her own investigation into the woman’s identity and murder. A separate story line follows the life of the dead woman, Addie, from her mysterious fog-shrouded birth, to her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, to her unfortunate end. Her story and her connection to the Spirit of the Lake is inexorably tangled with Kate’s.

Daughters of the Lake is a light, comfortable mystery, almost falling in the cozy category. Characters in both storylines are warm and kind, there is plenty of good food and deep glasses of wine, a light romance, a picturesque locale. Throw in a little creepy atmosphere, a dash of madness, a grumpy spirit, and a dose of fate, and you have a recipe for enjoyable evening’s read. I also appreciate Webb’s sentimentally uplifting view of the afterlife, in which love continues forever after.

Unfortunately, it is this same near-coziness that is also a bit of a downside to Daughters of the Lake. For me, the story lacks a little supernatural edge. And while I’ve enjoyed all of Webb’s lake-inspired ghost stories, this one feels both milder than, and too similar to the others. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve read it before. It didn’t entirely have the depth of characters or great Gothic chills as Webb’s The Vanishing, or The End of Temperance Dare. That said, if you’re in the mood for a tale of family secrets with a light touch of spooky, this fits the bill quite satisfactorily.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: Deep Silence

Deep Silence—Jonathan Maberry, 2018. Rating: 4/5

Captain Joe Ledger and his team are back to save the world in what is possibly the series’ darkest installment yet.

A massive terrorist attack on Washington, DC, leaves hundreds dead. Ledger’s department, the clandestine DMS, suspects that a new baddie has refined an alien technology and is making a God machine: triggering earthquakes and causing madness, murder, and suicide in people exposed to its influence.

Even worse, the sitting U.S. president is an incompetent pawn for a far savvier foreign government. He disregards dire intelligence warnings, decides that his own DMS is a threat to his power, declares it unpatriotic, and vows to disband it. All this, despite the imminent destruction of his country.

Ledger fights the good fight for the freedoms of the average joe, battling ignorance at home and the sly and deadly machinations of a new Soviet Union. Ledger encounters everything from the evil legacies of former foes, to aliens and dark gods from a Lovecraftian universe.

I have been a rabid fan of Joe Ledger series for years, so I will warn you: Don’t pick this one up unless you’ve read the others. It won’t have the emotional impact, and you’ll be a little lost by references to past villains and their evil toys.

As always, Maberry delivers great battle action and intense fight scenes. Ledger’s military tech and weaponry put James Bond’s gadgets to shame. Rapidly changing points of view add to the tension and make you fly through the pages.

There is less character development in Deep Silence, which is mostly o.k., because by now we know these tough, true guys and gals. At the same time, I wished for a little more to soften things a bit, because this story is dark.

In Deep Silence, Maberry creates a unsettling political climate that is frighteningly, realistically close to that in America today. This realism somehow spills over onto the ideas of alien technology and Cthulhu-like monsters, making them disturbingly plausible. I very much enjoyed Deep Silence and it is a turning point in the series: but is isn’t my favorite. Maybe it is too uncomfortably close to reality. At the same time, it offers something I’m lacking a little bit these days: hope for the future.

rating system four crows


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Review: House of Bathory

House of Bathory – Linda Lafferty, 2013. Rating 4/5

In this intriguing historical mystery, an Aspen psychiatrist discovers that the brutal legacy of torture and death begun by the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, remains alive hundreds of years later.

Practicing Jungian psychiatrist Betsy Path is doing her best to keep her spirits up despite her father’s death, her mother’s distant disapproval, and her own divorce.

Betsy makes a strange connection with one of her patients, teen Goth girl Daisy, and suddenly too many occurrences of Jungian synchronicity––meaningful coincidences—start to ring her intuitive warning bells.

When Betsy’s mother disappears in Bratislava oddly close to Countess Bathory’s castle, and to where Betsy’s father died, and to where Goth girls are mysteriously going missing, Betsy and her ex-husband set out to find her.

In a separate but parallel storyline set four hundred years in the past, we follow the arrival of a handsome young horsemaster, Janos, to the tainted Cachtice Castle. He vows to end the Countess’ sick and deadly games with help of the pox-marked ladies’ maid, Zuzana.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. Dark history. Jungian theories. Dreams and coincidences. Magic and superstition. Madness and family legacies. Yet it all works.

The jumps between centuries are not jarring, because the same themes weave through both stories, converging in nail-biting endings. We are quickly caught up in Betsy’s search, but even more so with the macabre events in the Countess’s castle. Lafferty writes with rich—and at times graphic—historical detail, bringing daily life in 1610 vividly into our present.

House of Bathory is a darkly satisfying mystery with just enough supernatural suggestion to keep the pages flying.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Red Hill

The Red Hill – David Penny, 2014. Rating: 3.5/5

The favor of a sultan can be both a blessing and a curse, as English surgeon Thomas Berrington discovers when he’s tasked with finding a killer in this historical murder mystery.

Women of the harem, including one of the sultan’s favored wives, are being slaughtered by what appears to be a scimitar-wielding djinn. Despite his effort to maintain his independence and keep his own battle-haunted memories in the past, Thomas cannot refuse the sultan’s request. Together with the eunuch, Jorge, Thomas picks up where the previous investigation left off—with everyone associated basically missing or dead—and the two are soon plunged into palace intrigue and perilous political plots.

Penny does a neat job capturing the spirit of time and place of late 15th century al-Andalus. It is 1482, and the Muslim empire there is on the verge of crumbling to Spanish rule under Ferdinand and Isabella. This leaves the noble and wealthy jockeying for future positions and provides us with lots of suspects.

The Red Hill is an engaging mystery. Occasionally, the use of blatantly overlooked clues becomes a little frustrating, but the detailed setting and unusual storyline carry us over those slips. Characterization is solid. I did have disconnects a few times, when dialogue seemed at odds with the characters’ emotions, and I felt that explanations of their motivations were at times repetitive. That said, both Thomas and Jorge are unique and intriguing figures. Supporting roles such as Lubna, the sister to a treacherous concubine, and Yusuf, the Sultan’s young son also have great potential. I look forward to seeing the further development of all of Penny’s characters. The Red Hill is the first book in a series, and the second is already on my to-read list.

rating system three and a half crows