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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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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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: The Ghosts of Sleath

Called to the remote village of Sleath to investigate a mundane haunting, psychic researcher David Ash quickly discovers that the picturesque little town hides evil at its core—and darkness will have its day.

The Ghosts of Sleath—James Herbert, 1994. Rating 4.5/5

Ash is still reeling from a previous assignment, where a trio of malicious ghosts upended all of Ash’s beliefs. (Haunted—see my review here.) Now, investigating the ghostly appearance of a little drowned boy in Sleath seems like a comparative walk in the park. Although most of the villagers are…reserved…Ash forms an instant, emotional connection to Grace Lockwood, the vicar’s daughter. Meanwhile, disturbingly violent events, catalyzed by the sudden return of foul spirits, begin to plague Sleath. Villagers are tormented by things they—rightfully—feared By the time Ash discovers that Sleath is home to a cabal of very dark arts, the village inhabitants (dead and alive) reach a cataclysmic breaking point.

The Ghosts of Sleath is a crackerjack read. One reason this title pleases me so much is because Herbert is a wordsmith. He creates an eerie village setting juxtaposing moments of simple beauty (I paused to reread twice a vision that captured a breathtaking sense of normalcy caught out of time), with uniquely disturbing imagery. Herbert balances scenes of gore and violence with glimpses of things barely seen, teasing our imaginations one moment, then fulfilling them the next. Exceptional character development makes the horror hit home. Ash is a great flawed hero. He drowns his guilt with vodka and still tries to manage his psychic powers with self-delusion and skepticism. We empathize with him, as we do Grace: an intelligent, perceptive, kind woman whose love for her father hides a secret from herself. The Ghosts of Sleath satisfies on multiple levels: it is both a ripping good ghost story with remarkable visuals (it would be a stunner of a film), and an affecting character study. Highly recommended.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder

The Ghost Adventure team has nothing on Thomas Carnacki, one of the first (albeit fictional) paranormal investigators to utilize both arcane manuscripts and scientific methods in his investigations into the macabre.

The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson, 1913. Rating: 4.5/5

Living in London at beginning of twentieth century, Carnacki is called on to examine suspected hauntings and lay them to rest. Each of the nine tales in this collection is framed by his friend Dodgson, who, along with three of Carnacki’s other confidants, enjoys visiting the detective for a comfortable dinner followed by a harrowing story of the occult detective’s most recent adventure. An “unprejudiced skeptic,” Carnacki asserts that ninety-nine out of a hundred hauntings are “sheer bosh,” then rhapsodizes, “But the hundredth!”

Carnacki sets up his physical—and spiritual—protections using both time-proven words from ancient rituals, along with his own inventions including an electric pentacle and a battery-operated color-spectrum vacuum tube defense. Carnacki relies on his intelligence and open mind during his encounters with such horrors as a whistling room, an invisible phantom horse, and a powerful monstrosity from the Outer Circle. With pluck and aplomb, Carnacki deals with possessions, hauntings, and spectral manifestations as well as his share of hoaxes.

While these stories are gloriously classic ghost stories in some ways—filled with curses and old castles and moldering English manors—they have a fresh energy about them thanks to Carnacki’s enigmatic and unique approaches to the “ab-natural.”

A body builder, sailor, and lieutenant in the Royal Artillery during WWI, William Hope Hodgson produced everything from poetry and science-fiction, to horror and sea stories before his death in 1918 in the Fourth Battle of Ypres. His 1908 horror novel, The House on the Borderland, is perhaps Hodgson’s most well-known work. It, and the bulk of his horror writing, was greatly admired by H.P. Lovecraft. The Complete Carnacki, The Ghost Finder is a gem. Wait for a nice, grey afternoon, pour yourself a cup of tea or a tot of whiskey, settle back in a comfortable armchair, and treat yourself to a Carnacki story. You’ll be glad you did.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Haunted

Haunted – James Herbert, 1988. Rating 4.5

Paranormal investigator David Ash anticipates another mundane batch of drafts and creaky floorboards masquerading as ghosts when he’s called to evaluate a down-at-heel old country house. Instead, what he experiences threatens his worldview—and his life.

David Ash is the resident skeptic at the British-based Psychical Research Institute. He’s skilled at debunking paranormal phenomena, from hoax hauntings to fake mediums. David firmly believes that everything has a rational explanation, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s simply the “irregular normal.” But never the supernatural. There are no such things as ghosts in David’s mindset. His conscious mindset, that is. David has a terrifying secret he’s been hiding since he was a child.

The Mariell family specifically requests David to come and explain the phenomena they’ve witnessed: the ghost of a young woman haunting the house and grounds of Edbrook. The adult family consists of weirdly immature siblings Robert, Simon, and Christina, and their closed-mouthed elderly nanny, Tess. David sets up his scientific equipment and doesn’t have long to wait before the inexplicable occurs. As David struggles to assign logical reasons for the mounting phenomena—which are violently directed towards him—he starts to believe the family is playing a sick game with him.

Edith, a gentle psychic medium who also works for the Institute, is convinced David has latent psychic ability that he’s been repressing for reasons of his own. When Edith receives disturbing images David in danger, she knows she must help, despite the risk to herself.

Haunted is truly one of the scariest ghost stories I’ve read in years, and that is saying a lot. To take a classic haunted house story and give it this kind of punch takes mad skill. Haunted is spare and fast-moving, dragging us into its insidious current. We suspect things at Edbrook are terribly wrong long before David admits it to himself. This dramatic irony adds to the building suspense, creating an ominous sense of unease. The tension is augmented by Herbert’s skill at creating vivid sensory images. Herbert not only revitalizes old tropes, he elevates them. For instance, Haunted contains, bar none, the most harrowing séance scene I’ve ever read—or seen.

Herbert’s character-building is equally lean yet evocative. Ash’s backstory unspools in memories of previous investigations shared by Edith and Kate, the Institute’s director. There is a poignancy to Ash’s character. He has a drinking problem. Trouble maintaining deep relationships. As the scientific tools and approaches he’s always relied on prove useless, he opens up to Christina, and we realize Ash is a scared little boy beneath the walls of rationalism he’s erected.

Haunted is already a contender for my Best Reads list next January, it is that good. I have also discovered that Ash appears in two more of Herbert’s stories: The Ghosts of Sleath, and Ash, Herbert’s final novel before his 2013 death. No guesses what’s moved to the front of my to-read list!

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Ghosthunting Ohio

Ghosthunting Ohio – John B. Kachuba, 2004.  4.5/5

Ghostly ladies in shades of grey and green and white, invisible soldiers, wispy weeping women, haunting music, disembodied voices, inexplicable fogs, rushes of cold air, hooded apparitions, sorority ghosts: you can find them all here in the great state of Ohio, and John Kachuba tells you exactly where to look.

Part of America’s Haunted Road Trip series, Ghosthunting Ohio is a highly enjoyable tour of thirty-two haunted locations around the state, all of which are open to the public. Kachuba visits each one, accompanied by his trusty camera and often his wife Mary, as well.

Not a sensitive or medium, just a self-described “average guy” with a curiosity about the paranormal, Kachuba maintains an objective and open-minded approach to all things supernatural. In the Introduction, he offers a list of ghosthunting guidelines which boil down to respect & preparation: respect the site, respect the people you meet, respect the spirit world, and take time to learn from people who are serious about ghosthunting—not the thrill seekers.

I love all the spooky stories: from the mist rising above the mummy in the Cincinnati Art Museum, to the ghost of the old brakeman stumbling after the train in the Moonville Tunnel. But what makes these, and all the stories come to life (pun intended, after I thought about it), is Kachuba’s engaging, almost conversational style. He adds just the lightest touch of humor here and there that makes me smile. He also has a deft hand with interviewing folks about their ghostly experiences. Dowsers, concierges, cleaning ladies, librarians, Kachuba quickly characterizes each individual, and humanizes each visit. As he explores haunted sites old and new, Kachuba details his perceptions and occasionally includes one of own photographs which may have captured an orb or shadow that he is at a loss to explain.

Above all, Kachuba’s respect for the history of each location shines out. In the context of his various visits he describes the importance of Fort Meigs War to the of 1812; the vitality of the canal days of the 1820s-1830s; the tragedy of the confederate POW camp and cemetery in Columbus; the prominence of the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, host to ten US presidents; the powerful memories and emotions at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton; the macabre use of Cincinnati’s Majestic Theater as a spare morgue for the hundreds of Army troops killed when the Spanish influenza decimated their training camp in 1918…the list, and the ghost stories, go on.

An afterword by renown psychic researchers Ed & Lorraine Warren emphasizes the importance for ghosthunters to protect themselves against inhuman and diabolical forces. The Warrens urge would-be paranormal seekers to know their opponents, respect their powers, and to be intelligent, not foolhardy.

Final sections offer all the information you need to follow in Kachuba’s footsteps. Addresses, phone numbers, proprietor names, hours, yearly events, even occasional menu items of each locale are helpfully listed for you. Online contacts for ghosthunting organizations in Ohio, and a short list of “ghostly people”—researchers and psychics—round out the book.

While I was just a little disappointed that Kachuba didn’t visit any sites in my own personal (o.k., pretty rural) wedge of east central Ohio, I’m hoping he’ll remedy that in his second book Ghosthunting Ohio: On the Road Again.

Ghosthunting Ohio is one of the best “true” ghost story books I’ve read in a while, which is saying a lot. You’ll get a few chills here and there, but mostly your curiosity will be piqued and you’ll leave the book with a greater, more thoughtful connection to the past.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Shadowed Souls

Shadowed Souls – edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes.  Rating: 4/5

Eleven hard-hitting stories from superstar fantasy authors evoke a surprisingly emotional response in this distinctive collection.

Now, emotional doesn’t mean these stories are wimpy. There’s plenty of magical action. Battles rage against demons, genies, angry ghosts, arctic Cthulhu creatures, and monsters human and inhuman. Two-thirds of the tales feature female protagonists, and all our heroines and heroes are struggling with their magical gift-slash-curse. They have relationships challenges. Social challenges. Challenges with rule-following. You get the picture.

Jim Butcher opens the collection strong with a story from his Dresden Files universe. As a huge Harry Dresden fan, I was excited to read this one. Cold Case features Molly, Harry’s apprentice, on her first mission for Mab as the Winter Lady. As always, Butcher’s humor and ease with his characters and their magic simply shine. The story? On the heartbreaking side.

Seanan McGuire (of the October Daye and InCryptid series fame) follows with the tale of a half-succubus betrayed by her ex-girlfriend. Sad.

Next comes a vampire PI who worries about her aging human lover and her own waning connection to humanity. Poignant.

Clearly, Shadowed Souls is the perfect title. I was beginning to think I’d need a box of Kleenex and a support group to get through the rest of the book. Fortunately, the heavy mood lightens. Or maybe I just got used to it. The rest of the stories are also top caliber. One tough thief orchestrates an escape from hell; a zombie PI assists a one-eyed newt; a double-souled healer deals with her father’s treachery; a former superheroine fights a greedy demon…the imaginative range is delicious. There are no bad apples in the bunch to disappoint. Each story resonates with its own unique voice and fantastical vision. Well worthwhile.

rating system four 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: The Haunted Air

The Haunted Air – F. Paul Wilson, 2002. Rating 4/5

Has a portal to hell—or somewhere worse—opened up in your basement? Repairman Jack’s the man to call. Jack is the ultimate fix-it guy: Anonymous. Tough as nails with a heart of gold. A New Yorker to the core.

In The Haunted Air, Jack tackles two seemingly unrelated cases. In the first, Jack assists two brothers—likeable con men running a fake medium scam who are being harassed by even more unscrupulous competitors. Oh, and they also have that supernatural basement problem along with a bona fide angry spirit haunting their home. In a parallel investigation, Jack follows a string of cold case child disappearances tied to a skeletal curio shop owner with a hand in some seriously bad magic.

As always, the Otherness is out there, an overarching darkness that is drawing Jack—and all of humanity—closer to a final confrontation.

The Haunted Air is the sixth book in Wilson’s Repairman Jack series. A beautiful thing about these stories is that you can pick one up as a stand-alone and enjoy yourself thoroughly. You’ll just get even more satisfaction if you start from the beginning with The Tomb.

Jack is just a neat character, a down-to-earth enigma. With each book, we learn more about his mysterious background. Jack’s girlfriend, Gia, also plays a welcome, larger role in the story.

Genuinely quirky characters, lots of action, a droll sense of humor and a spooky dose of the uncanny side-by-side with a behind-the-scenes look at how fake psychics work their tricks, all combine to make this a great read. Don’t miss this series.

rating system four crows