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 Fog

The Fog—James Herbert, 1975.  Rating: 4/5

A menacing yellow fog drifts across the British countryside, leaving everyone it touches violently insane in James Herbert’s 1975 classic.

John Holman is conducting a solo mission for the Department of the Environment. This time, Holman’s investigating what exactly the Ministry of Defense is doing with a very securely guarded swath of land near a little village in Wiltshire. But concerns about his mission take a backseat when an unnatural earthquake swallows half the village and Holman’s car. As he and a little girl struggle to escape the giant hole, a peculiar-smelling yellow mist rises from the depths. Holman and the girl emerge: he’s a raving lunatic, and the girl is comatose.

Miraculously, Holman recovers his sanity—which is fortunate for us readers because he’s our hero. Holman thinks (correctly) there is something suspicious about this yellow fog, which is growing denser and moving around almost as if it has its own agenda (which it does). When Holman’s boss goes insane and kills himself, and Holman’s girlfriend, Casey, tries to butcher him, Holman learns (painfully) that he’s on the right track. Bizarre, savage murders and barbarically aberrant behaviors spread like wildfire in the wake of the fog. The British government rallies medical researchers and the army to stop the malevolent mist, but it is up to Holman, the only person with immunity to its effects, to carry out the final plan.

This is not John Carpenter’s The Fog. No relation at all. Herbert’s novel is uniquely and immediately terrifying. He grabs you within the first three pages and you’re on board for the duration: The pace is unrelenting. As quickly as the authorities catch on and scramble to discover the origin of the fog, and how to stop it, London dissolves into a shadowy, nightmare dystopia. Holman must make his way through this murky killing zone, facing everything from murderous cultists to a psychotic bus driver. I was reminded—in a good way— of some of my favorites: Matheson’s I Am Legend, and the films 28 Days Later and The Warriors. A warning to the sensitive: There is a lot of graphic violence, a bit of it sexual in nature, and a massive bloody, body count. That said, the story is gripping and the characters— although many of them are short-lived—are well-drawn and their plights affecting. This my first James Herbert novel, and I can’t believe I haven’t read him before this. I’ve already added three of his other titles to my queue.

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: Boomtown

Boomtown—James A. Moore, 2019.  3.5/5

Jonathan Crowley is pissed.

It is 1869 and he’s been killed. Again. This time by a gang of renegade soldiers while trying to defend a helpless Irish family. Now, having been prised out of the ice and mud, he’s back and out for revenge. He is so focused on revenge that quite frankly, Mr. Crowley is not interested whatsoever in helping the humans in Carson Point, Colorado fight off an ancient and powerful evil. Or in stopping the wizard Albert Miles who’s got his own dark designs on the town. Yep, Crowley’s putting his monster-hunting mission on the back burner while he goes after the men who killed him.

It doesn’t matter that the conscientious albino undertaker, Mr. Slate, is having trouble keeping dead bodies, well, dead. They’ve taken to leaving the mortuary and hanging malevolently around the edges of town. Crowley doesn’t care that a group of Native Americans (also very dead) seem to be possessed by…something…and are changing into something even worse. Or that a monster is eating folks’ horses. Or that the town deputy, in charge now because the sheriff is—you guessed it—dead, is fathoms out of his league. Crowley’s got one thing in mind: payback.

Jonathan Crowley ranks up there as one of my favorite characters. Known to bad guys as The Hunter, he’s been around for centuries protecting humankind from nameless evils. He’s an average-looking, bespectacled fellow who packs a mighty aura of menace and a smile that makes evildoers think again (if they’re smart enough). Humans make Crowley impatient. Stupidity makes him extremely irritable. And evil things that prey on humans? They elicit a violent zero-tolerance policy. Usually.

Boomtown is dark Western horror. Moore’s author’s note (“Warning Shots”) informs us up front that this title is especially grim because of—unusual for Moore—violence towards women and young children. We’ve got cringeworthy monsters and a unique, seemingly immortal adversary. There’s a lot going on between competing evil powers, gunfights, and magical battles.

Moore excels at making us feel the bitter high-country winter and gritty frontier atmosphere. We learn quickly that the book’s title is ironic. The miners, immigrants, former slaves, and merchants are all out to make fortunes in a town that is a supernatural bust.

Boomtown is a standalone Crowley tale, and I enjoyed it as a grim shoot-em up with a character I enjoy. But believe it or not, I wanted a little more of the humans’ side of the story. (Who would have thought I’d ever say that?) It’s true: I needed a little more connection to the supporting characters in order for the creepy stuff (and carnage) to be totally effective.

If you’re already a fan, you’ll like Boomtown. If you’re new to Mr. Crowley, I’m going to suggest you meet him as I did with the 3-book Serenity Falls series. Writ in Blood is first: neatly plotted, very creepy, truly great horror. I think the series is out of print, but you can find used copies, or check your library. Definitely worth it.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: Suicide Forest

Suicide Forest – Jeremy Bates, 2014.  3/5

Aokigahara forest, Japan’s infamous “Sea of Trees,” is the setting for Suicide Forest, Bates’ first installment in his World’s Scariest Places series.

English teachers Ethan and his girlfriend Mel have weekend plans to climb Mt. Fuji. They’ve brought along fellow teacher, Neil, their friend Tomo, and Mel’s former high school friend and macho military guy, John Scott. But when the weather turns dicey, they’re left searching for other ways to spend the night. Two other would-be climbers, Ben and Nina, suggest camping in nearby Aokigahara, then starting up Fuji the next day. Japan is notorious for its high suicide rate, and Aokigahara is notorious as the place where many people go to kill themselves.

Although Ethan has reservations about overnighting in the “perfect place to die,” he goes along with the crowd, the majority of whom are morbidly excited at the possibility of seeing a body or a ghost. Berated by local hikers as being disrespectful thrill seekers (which they are) the group promptly ignores warning signs and leaves the main trail, following paths marked by colored ribbons.

Things go to hell quickly. They get lost. Ben vanishes, only to be discovered hanging from a tree, dead. Nina believes ghosts are the culprit. The group’s cell phones go missing. Neil contracts food poisoning and is down for the count. They begin to see movements in the trees. Hear screams in the night. Something – or someone is in the forest with them. Make that someones.

Okay. First off, Suicide Forest is better-written than Helltown. Although the action takes a while to get going, Bates does a respectable job building suspense. He succeeds in making us feel as if we were trapped in the oppressive, still silence of the strange forest. The characters have a bit more going for them in this book as well, in that I didn’t out-right hate most of them. But I did tire of the head-butting between Ethan and John Scott over Mel. Guys, grow up. That said, I also didn’t get what Ethan sees in Mel, who seems even more jealous than Ethan.

I think what troubles me with Suicide Forest is the way the issue of suicide is handled. I do believe Bates is trying to be respectful and empathetic about the subject through the dialogue and thoughts of the most sensitive character, Ethan. But Ethan’s a minority. The others show an indifference to suffering: to Neil, for example, who is in dire straits, and to those who have committed suicide or would consider committing suicide. There’s a lack of understanding. But then again, this is a horror/thriller novel, and Ethan is the voice of reason, so maybe this level of compassion is okay.

*Spoilers ahead*

The next wildly problematic parts involve ‘capturing-and raping-the-women,’ and ‘a-raped-woman’s-violent revenge.’ Um. Lots of gender stereotypes and issues to unpack around this. In a profoundly frustrating short epilogue, Ethan also declares that Mel has unexpectedly “fallen pregnant.” What? Wait! By…whom, exactly? And, really? “Fallen pregnant?” (!) The book crashes to an abrupt, heavy end with another suicide and narrowly averted suicide attempt.Sigh.

Pros: The setting is nicely realized, the plot is suspenseful and intriguing, and the baddies in the forest are definitely unique. Cons: The treatment of suicide and rape lacks sensitivity.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 800 273 8255
rating system three crows


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Review: Monster Hunter: Nemesis

Monster Hunter: Nemesis – Larry Correia, 2014. 4/5

Agent Franks is the Monster Control Bureau’s secret weapon against all manner of demons, shoggoths, renegade werewolves, etc. If it threatens humanity, Franks will terminate it with extreme prejudice. Protect and serve: that’s the agreement he made with the U.S. government—Ben Franklin and George Washington, specifically. In Nemesis, we discover that Franks’ pledge and his life story go even farther back. Like, to the war in Heaven back.

Franks is a badass enigma in previous books, so an entire volume in the Monster Hunter International series devoted to Franks? Just, cool.

But Franks is in trouble. Stricken, an underhanded advisor to the president, is using his Project Nemesis to secretly build his own harder-better-faster-stronger versions of Franks. Stricken doesn’t really care that they’re turning out to be vessels for demons who are excited to get into—and lay waste to—our world. Stricken pins a slaughter on Franks, claiming he’s gone rogue. Now Franks is on the run from Nemesis, the MCB, and a bunch of international monster hunter groups all out for his bounty. But only Franks can stop Stricken and the arch demon Kurst from taking over the world.

Nemesis is a little heavier on the political side than previous titles, which is my only quibble with the book. There are fewer monsters that need routing, but they make up for it in toughness. Correia keeps the action going with plenty of brilliant fight scenes. Franks’ flashbacks fill out his life story across history and are fascinating, fun, and thought-provoking. Old friends like Earl Harbinger, Julie, and Owen Pitt from MHI make appearances, and, awesomely, so do the gnomes. Not only that, but Franks quite possibly experiences an emotion or two: earth-shattering character development! (Really!) Great book in a fantastic series. Read ‘em.

rating system four crows


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Review: Gateways

Gateways—F. Paul Wilson, 2003. Rating: 4/5

The unthinkable happens in Gateways, the seventh novel in Wilson’s Repairman Jack series: Jack leaves his beloved New York City.

Jack is a Robin Hood of mercenaries: a fix-it man with a code of honor, a burning sense of justice, and a love of old movies. He’s also destined to take a stand against a hostile supernatural force that’s on track to annihilate our world. Jack’s a good guy. But the cops probably wouldn’t think so.

Because of his…nontraditional…job Jack stays under the government’s radar and off their computers. It would take a heck of a lot for him just to go through airport security. Like his estranged father laying in a coma after a near-fatal—and highly suspicious—car accident.

So, Jack travels to the Everglades to that find his fears are warranted. Someone’s trying to kill his father. A strange, unfriendly clan of folks is living out on the lagoon. Dad’s neighbor has secrets of her own. There’s a hurricane coming. And Jack doesn’t have enough ammo.

I love the action-adventure meets paranormal thriller combo that is the Repairman Jack series. Wilson takes time in this installment to advance the overarching storyline and ramp up tension about the Otherness, as well as do some solid character building. Jack, long estranged from his father, learns some things he never knew about his old man and gains a new respect for him. Similarly, Jack’s dad learns a few of Jack’s darker secrets.

Gateways has plenty of action. Lots of firearms. Weird supernatural stuff. Neat new characters. Wilson has a unique talent for creating people you feel like you could meet on the street and just pass the time of day with. It is also exciting to see Jack in a different locale. He may be out of NYC, but he’s sure not out of his element. I wouldn’t say Gateways is my favorite in this series—which is filled with brilliant entries—but it is great fun, as always.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Deep

The Deep – Nick Cutter, 2015. Rating: 3.5 / 5

Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts…I’m pretty sure Cutter’s writing playlist for The Deep includes this classic campfire song. Well, except Cutter’s rodent of choice isn’t a gopher. There are lots of other pertinent adjectives that start with “g” that also describe The Deep: Gruesome. Gory. Gut-churning. Gross. Gag-worthy. Gooey (in a slimy, icky way; not a happy-saccharine way). Graphic. Grim.

This is not a surprise to me. I know this about Cutter’s writing. Take Little Heaven. Awesome. Very, very graphic. So, I had to steel myself for this one. (I failed.)

In The Deep, the modern world is falling prey to a disease called the ‘Gets. People forget how to do everything–including breathing. Dr. Luke Nelson, a compassionate veterinarian, is summoned to a research station eight miles down in the Mariana Trench by his estranged genius of a brother, Clayton. Along with two other scientists, Clayton is investigating a mysterious substance that might cure the ‘Gets.

Luke and Naval Lt. Commander Alice Sykes descend into the deep and dock at the Trieste, where very, very bad things have been happening to the scientists. Luke and Alice discover that the station seems to have slipped out of time and out of reality. Things quickly go pear-shaped. In a visually explicit, profoundly visceral way.

Have problems with claustrophobia or insects? The Deep will push those buttons to your breaking point.

Animal lover and/or fond of children? No spoilers, but this not a safe book for you.

That is my personal problem with The Deep. I can’t stand animal suffering in real life, and I can’t handle it well in fiction. It is ratcheted up to an extreme in The Deep and compounded because we like and relate to Luke, a good guy who also truly loves animals. Witnessing what he does is torture for Luke, as well as for us. So readers get a double-whammy of distress. Honestly, in a few scenes I had to sort of slide my eyes past some passages I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to mentally unsee.

But, The Deep is a compelling, unputdownable story. You’re pretty sure things can’t possibly end well, but you’re not sure exactly how they will end, so you’re stuck for the duration. Luke’s character is masterfully fleshed-out (!) with flashbacks and traumatic childhood memories: personal demons that ultimately manifest. The end gave me chilly, fatalistic echoes of Hellraiser. The Deep is a darkly engrossing read.

My next book? A palate cleanser. An Amelia Peabody mystery, maybe: a nice cheerful mélange of mystery, history, romance, and archaeology. Up in the sun. Far away from Cutter’s deep.

rating system three and a half crows