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: Under the Overtree

Under the Overtree  James A. Moore, 2000.

Mark is the new kid in the tiny, tight-knit town of Summitville in the remote Colorado Rockies. He’s slightly chubby. Has low-self esteem. No surprise that he becomes the whipping boy of the local high school bullies. A bloody beating in the woods sets disturbing events in motion that will change Mark’s life forever. And may cost him his soul.

Remarkably, after Mark is physically scarred for life from his thrashing, things get better for him. He tentatively finds a girlfriend. Gets a job with the local bookstore owner who is also a popular horror writer. Makes a few friends in town. And makes friends with those odd little creatures in the forest. The people who bother him start to disappear. Get dismembered. Have the marrow sucked out of their bones.

Unbeknownst even to Mark himself, those strange little beings – that look a lot less cute to anyone else who lives long enough to see them – are changing him into something unnatural and very, very evil.

By the time the infamous Mr. Crowley comes to town, things are rapidly deteriorating in Summitville. Crowley is a reoccurring character in some of Moore’s novels: a not-very-nice, feral-smiling fighter of malicious forces. He is a treat of an antihero. It is up to Crowley to see if he can bring things back to normal. Or at least perform a little damage control.

Moore is a masterful writer. He spends time developing his place and his people. His characterization is subtle and nuanced, resulting in a wholly believable cast. The folks in Summitville could be your neighbors; you feel as if you know them and care about them – dark secrets, raw emotions and all. Similarly, Summitville, with its beautiful forest, small town main street, crisp mornings and fall trails through the woods could just as easily be your own little hometown.

Under the Overtree is a longer book with a slow build, which may turn off readers who want a quick fix of jump scares or a rapid series of bloodbaths.  Moore’s gradual increase in tension, however, makes the horror all the more shocking when it does occur because you have become so invested in the world of the book. Moore combines dry humor, a honed sense of the grotesque, and a dose of compassion for the human condition to make a crackerjack horror story.

Want more Mr. Crowley? I always do. Check out Moore’s brilliant Serenity Falls series which begins with Writ in Blood.
rating system four crows  


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Review: Sacculina

Sacculina Philip Fracassi, 2017.

An innocent fishing trip turns deadly – and gross – in this lean, whip-fast novella.

Mild Jim and his newly-ex-felon older brother Jack, together with their sad father Henry and Jack’s hulking friend Chris, charter a boat for a combination of male family re-bonding and get-out-of-prison celebration.

There are valid concerns about the seaworthiness of the tiny boat and its decrepit captain, but the symbolism of the trip and is message of reunification override caution, and Captain Ron takes the group on a nauseating trip out to deep water.

Soon, they’ve run through the beer. There are no fish.

But there’s something else. Something very bad. I won’t tell you, but the title will, if you do a little research

The trip rapidly goes to hell as the men fend off disgusting creatures invading their boat…and their bodies.

Sacculina is a lightning, one-sitting read simply because once you begin, the breakneck pace, spare writing and swiftly escalating horror suck you in. Fracassi’s characters are quick-drawn but vital.  A sense of familial connection, of childhood tensions past and present, inform their actions and personalities.  Sacculina is like reading a great episode of a disturbing television show. A wetly gruesome television show. I would have loved even more – a two-hour version, maybe – but the story is tight and complete as is.  Great read.

(They did need a bigger boat.)
rating system four crows


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Review: Mr. Wicker

Mr. Wicker Maria Alexander, 2014.

crow on books small copped super shortHorror author Alicia Baum has lost everything in her life: her husband, her talent, and most importantly, a childhood memory she didn’t even know she had.

When her suicide attempt lands her in a mysterious Library between worlds, she encounters Mr. Wicker – a strange being who takes damaging childhood memories and puts each in a book with the young owner’s name on it. This has the dubious result of scarring the children for life to an even greater extent than the harmful memory itself would have.

Mr. Wicker sends Alicia back to the land of the living and she awakens in the psych ward of her local hospital. There she makes friends and enemies and meets ally Dr. Farron, a child psychiatrist who is trying to discover why little children in his care whisper the name Mr. Wicker in their sleep. Together they try to uncover Alicia’s lost memory and save her from Mr. Wicker. Except Mr. Wicker isn’t that bad. And Alicia doesn’t seem to really want to be saved from him.

That is the gist of the plot. Really, however, it is much more complicated and at times confusing. Mr. Wicker has flashes of beauty and wonder and tantalizing dark imagery. The story is creative and fresh, but simultaneously frustrating. We don’t understand exactly why Mr. Wicker is a bad guy, or really, why what he is doing is that bad. He seems more a tragic hero than an ill-intentioned entity. The druidic backstory – where Alexander’s writing really comes into its own – paints Wicker rather to be a more of a savior of his people than abandoned by his gods. Similarly perplexing, his nemesis across time is the ostensible hero of the present-day story.

Alicia herself is a challenging heroine.  It is difficult to understand her 180-degree swings of sexual attraction and mood unless we chalk it up to her depression and lost memory.  We don’t quite know her well enough – until almost the story’s end – to care much about her. The narrative also switches viewpoints abruptly and often, making it an effort to pick out the wisps of plot threads and piece them together.

Mr. Wicker has great bones: a fascinating plot concept, lyrical imagery and potentially compelling characters.  Unfortunately, uneven development of those characters and of the storyline weaken its impact.
rating system three crows


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Alternoween 2: Dark Classical and Evocative Instrumentals for an Ominous Halloween Playlist

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Some of us may want a more atmospheric Halloween than last week’s hard rocking songs offered. Here you go. I’ve made a playlist of my favorite dark classical pieces, spooky movie themes, and other eerie instrumental snippets. Sit out on your porch at midnight on Halloween and watch the fall clouds racing by under that almost-full moon and listen to these tracks, if you dare.

Ave Satani (from The Omen) – Jerry Goldsmith. (1976) Goldsmith’s satanic version of a Gregorian chant was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in ’76.  Goldsmith worked with his orchestra’s choir-master to create a musical black mass. Highly unnerving.

Danse Macabre – Camille Saint-Saens. (1874) One of my absolute favorites.  I get goosebumps every time I hear it.  According to old superstition, at midnight every Halloween, Death appears and calls skeletons from their graves to dance for him. They dance until the cock crows the next morning. In this piece, you can hear the harp at the beginning, striking midnight, and the oboe mimicking the rooster at the end. Magnificent, wild, eerie, brilliant.

The Fog Prologue – John Houseman. (1980) “11:55, almost midnight.  Enough time for one more story…” The epitome of a creepy ghost story from the 1980 film classic. If Houseman’s voice and the deep swell and single theme notes in the background don’t give you chills, nothing will.

Theme from The Fog – John Carpenter. (1980) Followed immediately by the iconic theme from the king of spooky synthesizer himself. Carpenter considered it one of his best scores.

Carnival of Souls – Combustible Edison. (1994) Lounge-y tribute to the ’62 cult classic film.  Sticks weirdly in your head.

Suspiria (Daemonia version) – Goblin. (1997) Creepy, whispery, synthesizer-heavy theme to Argento’s horror masterpiece. John Carpenter later credited Goblin’s work on another Argento soundtrack – Profondo Rosso – for inspiring his own use of synthesizer on the Halloween soundtrack.  Cool.

The Bookhouse Boys – Angelo Badalamenti. (1990) Think: alone on a late and rainy night in a strange place. Darkly bluesy song. Eerie sax. Badalamenti won a Grammy for the Twin Peaks Theme in 1990.

Dies Irae (from the Requiem Mass in D Minor) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (1791) “Dies Irae” means “Day of Wrath” when souls are summoned for the Last Judgment and the worthy are delivered and the unsaved are damned. The Dies irae was used as part of the sequence for the Catholic Requiem Mass and funerals. Roman Catholic reforms removed it (and other off-putting texts that focused on terror, despair, punishment, etc.) from funerals and masses in 1969-1970.  Small wonder – this is terrifying!  Powerful, fast, almost violent.

Theme from The ShiningWendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. (1980) Based on Berlioz’s Dies Irae from the Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath movement of Symphonie Fantastique. Dissonant and uber-creepy.

Confession Modulation – Broadcast. (2012) From the Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack.  The British band did haunting bits of song for this mesmerizing film – a must for audiophiles.  I couldn’t find the clip for you, but here’s the movie trailer.  Trust me on the haunting part.

Two Steps from Hell – Exhumed. (2012) Two guys joined forces in 2006 to create original music for movie trailers…now they’re known for dynamic genre albums.  This one is from the Halloween album, of course.

Tam O’Shanter Overture Sir Malcolm Arnold. (1955) Read Burns’ poem first – and you can completely envision drunken Tam weaving home on his old horse Meg, chased by witches and other terrifying creatures.  Can he make it to the river and cross before they catch him? Amazing tone poem blending humor and horror.

Main Theme from Psycho – Bernard Herrmann. (1960) Herrmann used a muted, all-string orchestra to ramp up the tension in the soundtrack.  The main title gets me most of all: the speed, the rising and falling: nail-biting.  Interestingly, Herrmann only unmuted his strings in the famous shower scene, creating terrifying contrast to the rest of the score. Hitchcock later commented that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”

Funereal March of Marionette –  Charles Gounod. (1872 for solo piano, orchestrated 1879) Speaking of Hitchcock… This was the main theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Not scary, but piques the imagination.

Calliope – Nox Arcana. (2006) A “dark ambient” duo that musically depict gothic and horror fiction.  They turn out some really, really eerie albums.

Carmina Burana (O Fortuna) – Carl Orff. (1935-1936) The Carmina Burana is a series of medieval poems that Orff brought to life in music.  O Fortuna bemoans the fickleness of fortune and the inescapablem cruel nature of fate.  Absolutely chilling.  It begins ominously with deep, fast, forceful chanting, and climbs to a stunning, hair-raising conclusion.

Main Theme from The Amityville Horror – Lalo Schifrin. (1979) It starts out so innocently, yet with ominous undertones.  Happy children singing…and then, not so much.  Classic theme.

Theme to Kolchak: The Nightstalker – Gil Mellé. (1974-1975) One of my favorite television shows of all time.  Darren McGavin is a crime reporter who keeps getting sucked into supernatural encounters. I think this show singlehandedly made me spooky.  And a writer. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Ah…I can’t let go! Here are a few others without as much annotation:
Dead Silence Theme – Charlie Clouser. (2007) Creepy song, creepy film.

Béla Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. (1936)  Tense, brooding, dark tones. Excerpts were also used in the original version of The Shining.

Witch’s Ride – Engelbert Humperdinck. (1891-1892) From the opera Hansel and Gretel. You can almost see the witch herself, madly flying through the night sky. Evocative.


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Review: The Summoner

The Summoner Layton Green, 2013.

Dominic Grey, working as a US diplomatic security agent in Zimbabwe, is tasked with finding out what happened to the ambassador’s good friend, who apparently vanished during a secretive religious ritual.

Together with a fierce and beautiful local official and a world expert on cults, Grey follows a dark trail of corruption and terror.  Hunting a powerful and evil n’anga – usually a healer and spiritual advisor –  Grey sees things that defy rational explanation and shake his world view to the core.

A tough guy with a lack of respect for authority and zero tolerance for injustice, Grey survived childhood with a violent father and watched his sick mother die despite all her faith and prayers.  Now, his own beliefs – or lack thereof – are challenged by the magic and butchery he witnesses.

The Summoner is a deep book: on the surface a mystery/ thriller with a hint of supernatural, it is truly thought-provoking and disturbing on an elemental level.  Green captures the essence of the dichotomy that is modern Zimbabwe:  vitality and despair, beauty and secrecy, honor and corruption, globalism and racial tension.  This setting creates a shocking juxtaposition of contemporary urban life with primitive rituals and belief systems.

Green leaves the reader with a deep sense of unease.  What is real?  Can unknown beliefs or concepts affect one’s reality, despite one’s own beliefs?  Is magic real? The Summoner will get under your skin.


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Film Review: Get Out

Get Out  2017.

Horror is not a genre known for exploring sensitive cultural issues, but writer/director Jordan Peele brilliantly makes racial tension the source of the terror in this highly suspenseful and marvelously creepy film.

Privileged white-girl Rose (Allison Williams) is bringing her African American boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an art photographer, home to meet her parents. Rose hasn’t told her family that he’s African American, insisting to Chris that it won’t matter. Trepidatious but in love with Rose, Chris goes along and finds his fears realized, and then some.

The secluded family manor oozes wealth, and the family is study in privilege. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a voluble neurosurgeon eager to show he is “with it.” Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), raises viewer’s hackles as the eerily-calm, soft-spoken psychiatrist keen to hypnotize Chris and help him quit smoking. Twitchy, ukulele-strumming younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a med student fascinated by Chris’ racial genetic makeup. Compounding the awkwardness, the house is maintained by African-American servants Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), who are all bright smiles and sinister subservience. Chris endures the subtle racism for Rose’s sake, but is deeply disquieted.

Threaded inexorably together, the racial and horror tension ramps up at an uncomfortable gathering with the family’s older, wealthy, white neighbors who are a perfect hairsbreadth away from tipping into grotesque caricatures – which makes them even more disturbing. The party is an ordeal in thoughtless prejudice for Chris, who handles it with grace and good spirit, but can’t shake his growing unease that something even greater than blatant racism is wrong with all these people. He’s right.

The film’s creepiness derives from the cringeworthy racial tension and a magnificently-elicited sense of dread and wrongness. The cast elevates Get Out to an exceptional film: acting is spot on across the board. Kaluuya is perfect as the sensitive, strong, savvy photographer drawn into what becomes an unthinkable situation. Betty Gabriel’s performance as Georgina literally – and I mean literally – gives goosebumps. The ominously dark musical score by Michael Abels captures the film’s building sense of menace. According to an article in Splinter, Peele worked closely with Abels to incorporate blues and African musical influences in the music: the haunting theme song features lyrics in Swahili which translate into “Something bad is coming. Run!”

Get Out has distant echoes of film classics like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives, but Peele takes his film to a unique and truly shocking level. Get Out is chilling. Thought-provoking. Terrifying. Do not miss this one.


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Review: Ararat

Ararat. Christopher Golden. 2017.

Golden’s new genre-bending novel combines elements of adventure, thriller, and horror with mixed success.

Fiancés Adam and Meryam are known world-wide for their sensational adventure documentaries. When their friend and mountain guide, Feyiz, alerts them to a potential archaeological scoop the two race to Turkey to be first on site at a remarkable discovery.

In a cave exposed by a recent avalanche high on Mount Ararat, the adventurers find the remains of a giant wooden ship filled with animal stalls and both human and animal remains: what can only be the lost ark of Noah.  But there is something else amidst the ancient debris.  In a coffin-like box sealed with bitumen they uncover a humanoid corpse sporting curved horns.  A mutated human? Or… a demon?

Ben Walker, an undercover DARPA agent is helicoptered in along with UN observer Kim Seong, and Father Cornelius Hughes, an expert on ancient civilizations.  Walker’s job is to see if the unknown creature poses any threat, and if so, how the US can utilize it.

Their arrival on the site adds to the already growing tensions among the assembled team of archaeologists, mountain guides and Turkish government monitors.  Is it the remote location and close quarters bringing out the worst in people?  Or could the creature in the box be exerting some strange influence?  As project members start to disappear and unexplained violence ramps up, Walker has his hands full trying to find these answers.

Ararat is a solid read.  The premise is great.  All the right elements are here: an isolated and treacherous location, a rising storm, a collection of disparate characters holding secrets, a supernatural element…yet it could have been so much deeper.  The story feels formulaic and the reader is left wishing it had been more fleshed out all the way around: the history, the ancient languages, the potential religious conflicts and ramifications.  The characters have backstories, but not enough for one to care much about them.  There is not enough mountain climbing to make it a great action climbing story, and not quite the level of deep, creeping fear for a stunning horror novel.  Suspense builds unevenly, and even the demon ends up a bit of a disappointment, as it focuses more on wanton destruction than insidiousness.

Ararat succeeds as a quick-read adventure thriller, but had the potential to be much more.