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 Invited

The Invited—Jennifer McMahon, 2019. Rating: 4/5

Adding a little history to a brand-new house also introduces some restless spirits in this well-plotted supernatural mystery.

When Helen’s father dies and leaves her a sizeable inheritance, she and her husband, Nate, follow their dreams and move to the Vermont countryside. They are drawn to a large tract of rural land next to a fertile bog. Surprisingly, they get the acreage for a song, and begin construction. But Helen, a former history teacher who loves historical research, worries that a freshly built home will lack a connection to the past.

Helen begins researching the local good witch, Hattie Breckenridge, who lived—and died—on their land generations ago: hanged by a mob in 1924. Helen feels a strange connection to Hattie and starts incorporating physical pieces of Hattie’s family history into their new home: a wooden beam from a burned-down school, bricks from an old mill, and other things. Unfortunately, these items represent the tragic deaths of Hattie and her descendants, who begin to make themselves known. Helen believes the spirits have a task for her.

The folks in the small town are suspicious of Helen’s sudden interest in the occult, and Nate heartily disapproves. As the house gets nearer completion, Nate begins to change, spending hours pursuing an elusive white doe in the treacherous bog. Helen’s quest to trace Hattie’s lineage is connected to the story of Olive, a teenage girl on the neighboring property who is searching for Hattie’s lost treasure. Olive is certain that if she finds it, her runaway mother will return…until Olive begins to suspect that perhaps her mother never left town after all.

McMahon is a fine storyteller: she seamlessly weaves together the histories of generations of Breckinridge women with a modern-day disappearance—making both characters old and contemporary spring vividly to life. McMahon has a great eye for natural detail and one can easily imagine themselves out in the remote Vermont backwoods. The only slightly off-note in the story is Nate. He comes across as a foil character for Helen as she avidly pursues her obsession with Hattie and her new life.

For those of you looking for a nail-biting, scary haunted house story with lots of terrifying imagery, this is not that. The Invited is undeniably suspenseful. There are some clever red herrings and a few spooky moments—most notably in the crumbling old hotel where the spirit circle meets—but ultimately this is a story about family, history, and the continuation of the past into the present, wrapped around a solid mystery and aided by some ghostly guides.

rating system four crows


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The House with a Clock in Its Walls and Beyond: Thank You, John Bellairs

When young, shy, recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt comes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan, Lewis discovers that his uncle’s big old mansion holds some secrets. Well, a lot of secrets. First are the clocks: dozens of them, everywhere, endlessly tick-tocking and chiming away—all to hide the spectral ticking of one deadly timepiece hidden somewhere in the walls by Isaac Izard, an evil sorcerer. Second is Uncle Jonathan himself: he’s a warlock, the good kind. And his best friend next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, chocolate-chip cookie baker extraordinaire, is a powerful good witch. Lewis comes to love his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman but struggles to make friends in school. He is new, overweight, and nerdy and has trouble fitting in. In a misguided effort to impress a popular classmate, Lewis accidentally raises Izard’s sorceress wife from the dead. The clock in the walls starts to tick faster, signaling that time is running out to stop the evil Izards before they destroy the world.

Published in 1973, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (who later illustrated twenty more of Bellairs’s and Brad Strickland’s gothic children’s novels), this book terrified me as a child. It is deliciously creepy and atmospheric. There are scenes that even day give me a little chill: being pursued down dark country roads by a single ghostly car with blinding headlights; a moth fluttering sickly-stickly into Lewis’s hair; a ghostly figure materializing down a long hallway, pacing closer and closer… Shivery. And as much as I enjoy Jack Black movies, I have no plans to see the recent film adaptation of this classic. I’d like my spooky memories to remain as they are: nicely dark and creepy.

Bellairs was probably the most formative horror author in my young life. I read each spooky, mysterious adventure as fast as I could get my hands on them. And then read them again. And again. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978) featured a new character, Anthony Monday, and is the only title with no supernatural elements: but it’s a great story. Before his death, oddball millionaire Winterborn builds a castle-like town library and hides clues inside to a priceless archeological treasure. It sounds like a godsend to Anthony, a loner who worries about his family’s finances. He and his friend, the elderly librarian, Mis Eels, battle a wrath-of-god storm and an unscrupulous bank manager in their efforts to find the prize. 1983’s The Curse of the Blue Figurine introduces Johnny Dixon, a quiet boy who lives with his grandparents because his father is a fighter pilot in the Korean War. Johnny discovers an accursed ushabti and falls under the spell of an evil sorcerer. Both characters star in additional titles.

Bellairs died an untimely death at the age of 53, but his characters live on. The Bellairs estate hired Brad Strickland to complete two of his unfinished manuscripts and write two books based on one-page synopses Bellairs left behind at his death. In 1996, Strickland wrote The Hand of the Necromancer, featuring Johnny Dixon. This marked the first of his own stories using Bellairs’s characters.

Gothic horror fans, if you haven’t read a John Bellairs book, you’re missing out. And so are your friends. And your kids. And your grandparents. Everybody.

Because Bellairs’s stories are good.

They’re suspenseful and spooky. Our heroes face down such occult horrors as sorcerers, ghosts, mummies, zombies, and necromancers. Bellairs also gives Jeremy Robinson and Dan Brown a run for their money with the sheer volume of weird occult lore and arcane religious references he weaves into each story. Not to mention the history: most of these creepy tales are set in 1950s and are rich in historical detail from a time when people still listened to radio shows and went down to the sweet shop on Main Street to share a hot fudge sundae.

Above all, Bellairs’s stories are well-written. Bellairs spends a lot of time developing his characters and it shows. You like them. You want to have these adventures—scary as they are—with them. In his books, shy kids with glasses are heroes. Not only that, kids can be—and are—great friends with older adults. Bellairs is a master at creating memorable elderly sidekicks for his heroes: from Miss Eels, to Professor Childermass and Father Higgins, to Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman. They’re funny, kind, cranky, clumsy, plucky, spry, and…magical. They can bake a mean Sacher torte, wield a tire iron against an approaching zombie, enchant a coat rack, face down the spirit of an evil priest, and travel with you back in time to the siege of Constantinople. Lewis will eventually find a good friend in Rose Rita (The Figure in the Shadows 1975), and Johnny meets and befriends Fergie at Boy Scout Camp (The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt 1983), but even so, Bellairs shows that not only do old folks rock, but they have a lot in common with their young friends.

When I was little, I couldn’t get enough of these eerie, disturbing, yet oddly comforting stories. When October puts a chill in the air and darkness falls a little earlier each night, I sit down with Anthony and Miss Eels, or Johnny and Professor Childermass for a walk down a haunted memory lane. And I find I still love these books. Thank you, John Bellairs.

          


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Review: Jane-Emily

Jane-Emily – Patricia Clapp, 1969.  5/5

The vengeful spirit of a spiteful little girl torments the living in this deliciously shivery gothic ghost story.

It is 1912 and summertime in Massachusetts. Eighteen-year-old Louisa isn’t thrilled to leave her boyfriend and spend the glorious summer months chaperoning her orphaned niece, Jane, at the austere home of Mrs. Lydia Canfield. But Louisa agrees, knowing it will help Jane to bond with her grandmother, and maybe cheer her up after the untimely death of her parents.

Louisa and Jane bring laughter and light to the gloomy old Canfield house but can’t escape the malevolent memories of Mrs. Canfield’s spoiled daughter Emily. Beautiful and sweet when she got what she wanted, cruel and vindictive when she didn’t, Emily literally died for attention. It seems that Emily’s not done getting what—and whom—she wants. Now, she wants Jane.

As the summer progresses, Louisa meets the handsome young Dr. Adam, and Jane begins to blossom. Everything would be perfect, except for the sinister presence of Emily shadowing the household. Creepy and inexplicable things start to happen. The reflecting ball in garden glows impossibly on moonless nights, and Jane develops an uncanny connection to the dead girl. The frightening incidents escalate as Emily’s power grows in strength, climaxing in a truly chilling, unforgettable scene.

After coming off a couple of “meh” books I needed a palate cleanser. I first read Jane-Emily when I was in elementary school and it terrified me then. Now I re-read it every other summer or so and appreciate its depth, from the intricate period detail to the budding romance: things that child me didn’t notice, and adult me now appreciates. Plus, the ghost story is still legitimately terrifying.

Jane-Emily is pitch perfect. You can feel the sweltering summer heat, smell the dust in the airless old house, envision the beautiful garden, and shiver at the lurking menace of the reflecting ball. The rising tension builds like a coming summer storm: slowly and oppressively, at first just a distant rumbling, then finally rising to a crash of wind and thunder.

Sit on your porch or out in your garden and read this gem of a ghost story and you’ll get chills, no matter how hot it is outside. Really. I’m a gardener and I’m a fan of flowerpots and garden paths and stone statues and ornaments—but I will never have a reflecting ball, thanks to Jane-Emily.

Jane-Emily is still in print and paired with another of Clapp’s novels, Witches’ Children. It is also available to borrow free (hooray!) online at the Internet Digital Archives. Treat yourself to a superb summer scare.

rating system five crows


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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: The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls—Simone St. James, 2018. 4/5

Obsessed with investigating the murder of her older sister, journalist Fiona uncovers an unsolved homicide and a malevolent ghost in this supernatural mystery.

Even though her sister’s murderer is in jail, Fiona returns again and again to the grounds of the abandoned girls’ school where her sister’s body was dumped. Now a crumbling ruin, Idlewild was once a school for social embarrassments and undesirables. When a wealthy patron decides to restore and reopen Idlewild, Fiona seizes the chance to explore and write about its history. As she digs deeper into the past, Fiona discovers another murder and an ominous specter that has terrorized students at the school for decades.

The Broken Girls is an interesting departure from St. James’ previous ghostly tales in plot and setting: this book reads as more of a cold case police procedural complemented with a supernatural element. Which is not a bad thing.

St. James’ writing is, as always, suspenseful and atmospheric. She tells a good tale. We eagerly follow two parallel stories–that of four teenage roommates at Idlewild in 1950, and Fiona’s contemporary investigation and her complicated romance with her cop boyfriend—to their ultimate intersection. The book especially shines in St. James’ poignant characterizations of the four close roommates. The drama of boarding school life is rich in both detail and emotion.

As mystery, The Broken Girls works great, but I’m on fence about supernatural element. The ghost of Mary Hand prowling through the story is shivery and dark, but almost superfluous. I wanted more of this spooky legend and kept thinking it must have a greater connection to the murder-mystery. Mary Hand could command a book of her own! That said, all of the threads do come neatly together, and The Broken Girls delivers a gripping read.

rating system four crows 


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Review: The Kingdom

The Kingdom – Amanda Stevens, 2012.  Rating 3.5/5

Only hallowed ground can keep the ghosts away from Amelia Gray, but even that can’t protect her from her past in this spooky sequel to The Restorer.

Glad for the chance to leave Charleston and distance herself from memories of the dark, handsome, and haunted cop she fell hard for, Amelia takes on the job of restoring the Thorngate cemetery.

From the moment of her arrival in all-but deserted Asher Falls, Amelia senses something is wrong. And it’s not just the ghosts that she has the dubious gift of seeing: here she senses pure evil.

As she uncovers and repairs the old cemetery, she also unearths secrets the town has kept buried for a long time–including secrets of Amelia’s own past.

The Kingdom is one of those guilty pleasure reads, kind of like eating a piece of chocolate: quick and tasty. The story flies along, the supernatural elements and truly eerie imagery have a fresh feel to them, and the romance—which borders on hot and heavy—is enjoyable. The graveyard restoration aspect of this series is fascinating. Stevens weaves in old cemetery symbolism, burial traditions, and regional superstitions to make this series unique.

Intrigue, black magic, ghosts, hidden graves, and a handsome heir make The Kingdom a scary-fun read. Amelia is a gutsy heroine and while her interior monologue sometimes feels a bit repetitious, the story moves along to a breakneck climax that will leave you eager for the next installment.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: The Supernaturals

The Supernaturals David L. Golemon, 2016.

The last time parapsychology professor Gabriel Kennedy set foot in Summer Place, one of his students disappeared.  Kennedy turned from a cocky skeptic into a believer: Something evil lives in Summer Place.

Badgered by a cutthroat television producer – and his conscience – Kennedy agrees to return to investigate Summer Place for the filming of a live Halloween special.

But Kennedy isn’t going back to investigate, he’s going back to fight. And Summer Place plans to win.

Kennedy assembles a team of friends with unusual talents including a psychic, a young computer maven from the ‘hood, a Native American dream walking sheriff and a possessed paleontology professor – trust me, this all works somehow – and together they prepare to face down Summer Place.

Golemon based his story on a personal encounter: after visiting a beautiful three-story mansion for a total of two minutes he fled with the disturbing sense that the house was aware of him, and not thrilled he was there. Golemon vowed never to return. In The Supernaturals, Golemon neatly creates this lurking sentience in Summer Place and crafts a deep mythos for his fictional house of horrors.

The Supernaturals is flat-out a great haunted house story. The tale starts strong and builds suspense to nail-biting levels by the tense climax. Standard ghostly tropes are taken to the extreme and freshened with unexpected twists.

We also get a fascinating, behind-the-scenes perspective of all those popular paranormal investigator shows. For as the story progresses, we see Summer Place through the eyes of Kennedy and his crew as well as through the eye of the tv camera. This cinematographic aspect adds an immediacy to events – putting the reader front and center in the supernatural mix along with the camera people. It also gives a deeply visual facet to our reading experience.

Kennedy’s crew battles deceit, entertainment industry egos, disbelief, and dark secrets in their fight against the malevolence that imbues Summer Place. Can they win? Can they survive? At what cost? Don’t miss this one.

rating system four crows