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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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: 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


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Review: The Night Crossing

The Night Crossing – Robert Masello, 2018.  3.5/5

It is 1895. Bram Stoker is a harried theater manager searching for a breakthrough idea that will become his magnum opus.

When he rescues a suicidal young woman, he discovers a nefarious scheme involving occult rituals, soul-eaters, and dark ties to ancient Egypt. He is catapulted into personal danger but finds great fodder for his writing. Enter Mina Harcourt, the half-Gypsy daughter of an English Egyptologist. High in the Carpathians, Mina finds the statue of a Sphinx as well as a mysterious, deadly gold box. Together, Stoker and Mina unite to put an end to a deadly plot.

The Night Crossing is an enjoyable blend of historical fiction and horror. Masello does a wonderful job recreating Victorian London with all its textures and complexity. From the British Museum, to the Lyceum theater, from séances to funerals to gentleman’s clubs to labourers’ meetings, it is clear Masello relishes the era and he passes that excitement on to us.

While Masello spends the most time developing Stoker and Mina’s characters, many other figures of the age have cameos. Among them, we meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lady Jane Wilde, the actor Henry Irving, and the famous journalist W.T. Stead.

The Night Crossing is a page-turner. The plot is intriguing and the setting springs easily to life. But there are a few hitches. I wished for more follow-through or consistency on some of the supernatural elements that Masello uses to good effect then drops—such as the monstrous creatures that pursue Stoker in a subterranean chase, and the hinted significance of Mina’s special amulet. The story also takes an odd, somewhat jarring, jump forward in time and location towards the end. While this gives Masello a great opportunity to depict another major historical event (I’m not telling you!) it initially feels like a frustrating disconnect. Masello reels us back in and we become engrossed in this second episode as well, but the plot threads feel raveled.

Those issues aside, The Night Crossing is an engaging, action-packed read. I enjoyed seeing the addition of the paranormal story line to Masello’s detailed period writing.

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 Drowning Guard

The Drowning Guard: A Novel of the Ottoman Empire – Linda Lafferty, 2013. Rating: 4/5

Intrigue and passion run rampant in this sumptuous, dark romance set during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.

Esma Sultan, the wealthy and indulged sister of Sultan Mahmud II, slakes her desires on infidel lovers– whom she enjoys for one night only, before having them drowned in the Bosporus.

Ivan Postivich—now Ahmed Kadir—a Serb captured by the Ottomans as a child and conscripted into the elite Janissary cavalry, has been demoted to Esma’s drowning guard. His skill and leadership earned him the envy of the Sultan, and now, stripped of his horses, Ivan is tasked with the clandestine executions of Esma’s discarded lovers.

When guilty nightmares begin to torment Esma, her Greek physician recommends she confess her sins to a priest—or to her giant of a guard, the only other one who shares, and can understand her guilt.

As Esma relates the story of her upbringing in the harem, and stories of her friends and father and brothers, the hostile Ivan gradually begins to see her as a person.

Like Ivan, we begin by feeling contempt for Esma, but soon realize she is a complex and relatable character. She is a fierce protector of women and their rights and truly an activist of her age. In her harem, women do not have to wear face coverings—a freedom unheard of for the time—and are treated with respect. Needless to say, Esma doesn’t quite have the same relationship with men.

Truth be told, I was skeptical about the plotline. This book has been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. But I was more than pleasantly surprised. Actually, I was excitedly surprised. The Drowning Guard is a luxurious, intelligent read.

We are expertly embedded into Istanbul in 1826: a melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity, old customs and growing globalism, yet still governed firmly by the long-seated conquerors. It is also time of suspicion and change: the Janissary revolt and its violent suppression figures strongly in the story. Lafferty excels at invoking lush sensory detail—from the wild rush of the cirit games, down to the flavors of the famous sorbets served at the Sultan’s birthday celebration. We experience it all: evil, plotting eunuchs; exotic harem life; glittering Ottoman palaces; all woven smoothly together and grounded in history. The result is a satisfying romance of unusual depth.

I can’t wait to read more by this author.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Hunger

The Hunger – Alma Matsu, 2018. Rating: 4/5

“…never take no cutoffs, and hurry along as fast as you can.”

That’s advice from an actual letter from young Virginia Reed, one of the few surviving members of the Donner Party, the ill-fated group of pioneers who both lingered too long on the trail, and took the difficult, unproved Hastings route to California. The group was snowed in for the winter of 1846-1847 at Truckee Lake, where some desperate individuals resorted to cannibalism to survive.

That quote gives me chills every time I read it.

The real-life drama with its twist of the macabre is endlessly fascinating. The story is intrinsically filled with suspense, illustrating the great range of the human condition: from heroism to depravity. The tale of the Donner Party doesn’t need much to tip it over into a horror story, which is exactly what Matsu does in The Hunger.

Matsu fleshes out the characters from history books and old correspondence and succeeds in bringing them vividly to life for us. Through shifting points of view and flashbacks to the pioneers’ pre-trail lives, we get to know Tamsen Donner, George Donner’s young and controversial wife; Edward Stanton, one of the most eligible bachelors in the group; Lewis Keseberg a sharp-tempered German immigrant, and others. Everyone is traveling to California for a fresh start. But there is no true fresh start: many of the pioneers are carrying a secret—or a sin—in their hearts. The trip becomes a type of penance. To make matters worse (!) they’re being stalked by a supernatural horror along their way.

Matsu beautifully captures the immediacy of place: we feel the vast and eerie isolation of the prairie and the punishing salt desert. We sense the magnitude of the pioneers’ undertaking. We share their ever-present (and valid) fears of the dangers that lurk everywhere. Our paranoia grows alongside theirs.

The Hunger is a slow, satisfying burn, heavy with foreboding and punctuated by sudden, shocking brutalities. By the time the group is snowed in, we readers are on tenterhooks. And we’re kind of left there. The immediate end of the story is satisfying, but it comes almost too soon after such an extensive build up. We’re left with loose ends. Or perhaps, we’re left to our imagination, or to history. It might be because I was enjoying the book so much, I just got greedy for more.

The Hunger will leave you thinking. About taboos. About what is considered unnatural—historically and today. And about the hunger of humanity: the disease and darkness in the human heart.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Man of Legends

The Man of Legends – Kenneth Johnson, 2017. Rating: 3.5/5

People who meet him think he’s an angel. He knows he’s cursed. He has been around for centuries. His mission on earth is electrifying.

Will, the mysterious man of legends, is always on the move, constantly striving to help mankind better itself, one person at a time. He is an empathetic ear, a nudge in right direction, a gift that changes your life. A savior of suicides, and protector of the defenseless. He has studied under the likes of Gandhi. He has influenced authors, inventors, and scientists; sharing ideas that have transformed the world.

The Catholic Church has been pursuing him across time. They must not catch him. And he must not give in to the sympathetic dark-haired man who appears in Will’s rare moments of weakness.

With The Man of Legends, Johnson, a prolific writer-director of both film and tv classics (including the original V miniseries) has created an intriguing genre-bender.

Johnson mashes together the thriller, historical fiction, an age-old legend, and a timeless conflict into a contemporary urban setting. It actually works. The writing moves fast, flipping between multiple points of view. We follow mainly the perspectives of Jillian, a jaded, racist tabloid reporter; Father St. Jacques, Will’s Vatican-empowered pursuer; a lover grown old; and Will himself. The story flashes back often to vividly-imagined turning points in history, then leaps back to the present where the storyline races to its crisis point. We learn Will’s secret, and a secret even more profound.

The Man of Legends is an absorbing read and one that would transfer easily to film—Johnson’s writing is so animated. Although at times the depiction of Will’s good deeds and their grateful recipients feels a little heavy-handed and cliché—edging towards saccharine—Johnson makes up for it with his evocative historical snapshots and the genuine poignancy of Will’s suffering. The Man of Legends delivers a unique, fast-paced tale that leaves you pondering the nature of redemption as well as the nature of evil—and the possibility of its salvation.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: A Brush with Shadows

A Brush with Shadows – Anna Lee Huber, 2018.  Rating: 5/5

There are no spectral hounds terrorizing the moors in A Brush with Shadows, but mysterious poisonings, a family curse, and treacherous tors more than satisfy in this deliciously atmospheric installment in Huber’s Lady Darby series.

It is the summer of 1831, and newlyweds Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, golden boy and inquiry agent Sebastian Gage, are summoned to Dartmoor by Gage’s failing grandfather. Their task: to find Gage’s missing ne’er-do-well cousin, last seen on the perilous moor. Gage, however, is less than happy to be home.

After an emotionally abusive childhood at the hands of his viperish aunt and vicious cousins, followed by the unnatural death of his mother, Gage left his family home forever.  Returning now to Langstone Manor, he and Kiera find that little has changed: the manor is heavy with lies and animosity and secrets.

Despite deceptions thrown up by the unhelpful family and Gage’s own deep-seated anger towards his cousin, Gage feels honor-bound find him. And Kiera is there to help, both with the inquiry and with helping Gage confront his long-suppressed emotions.

A Brush with Shadows ranks as perhaps my favorite in the series thus far. Huber is beautifully on point in creating a sinister—even slightly spooky—mood. The manor itself is labyrinthian, dark, and filled with secret passages. Whispers of witchcraft, possible pixie encounters, and ominous dreams add delightful shivers.

Huber uses this tantalizing mystery to further deepen her characters. We have watched Kiera’s progression across the series as she worked to transcend her past and the invectives cast at her: transforming from social pariah to self-assured partner and even a quietly strong advocate for women in an age when their rights were limited.

As a new wife, Kiera treads gently but firmly to get to root of Gage’s emotions, intuiting her way through highly relatable marital uncertainties. And the pair’s romantic relationship—yep, satisfying there, too.

I didn’t want this book to end, and I can’t wait for the next one, though Huber will have her work cut out for her to surpass A Brush with Shadows. New to Lady Darby?  You are in for a treat. But start with the first title so you don’t miss anything: The Anatomist’s Wife.

rating system five crows