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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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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Film Review: Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

A guilt-ridden soldier returns to the zombie-infested South Korean peninsula to retrieve a truck full of US dollars. This’ll go well.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula – 2020  Rating: 3/5


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South Korean Marine Corps Captain Jeong-seok (Gang Dong-won) lost his sister and nephew in the initial zombie outbreak featured four years earlier in Train to Busan. Now, guilty and still grieving, he and his basically useless brother in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), accept an assignment from some Chinese mobsters. If they take a team back to the peninsula and recover a truckload of cash, they’ll be richly rewarded. Things, of course, go terribly wrong. Half Jeong-seok’s team is wiped out. He is separated from Chul-min, and quickly discovers that the zombie hordes are the least of his problems. Jeong-seok must face a rogue military unit led by the psychotic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) to get the truck and to rescue Chul-min from Hwang’s macabre zombie fight club. Jeong-seok is aided by some allies in the forms of a tough mom, possibly loopy grandpa, and two cute little girls with amazing defensive driving skills.

So.

When I see “Train to Busan Presents” featured prominently in the (ridiculously awkward) title, my expectations skyrocket. Train to Busan is an outstanding film. Outstanding. Seriously. An instant zombie classic: fresh, thrilling, scary, heartwarming…If you have not seen it, go watch it now. I just lent my copy to our neighbor in the firm belief that everyone should watch Train to Busan.

Peninsula is no Train to Busan.

It isn’t for lack of trying: Peninsula is a perfectly solid standalone action film. High production value. Impressive car chase scenes. Gang Dong-won is appealing as the handsome and strong-but-troubled hero. He wears his two expressions—brooding and fiercely brooding—well. If you haven’t seen Train to Busan, you may enjoy Peninsula.

Unfortunately, I wanted another Train to Busan. Peninsula feels like a slick video game and all the Mad Max movies rolled into one. One long car chase meets Thunderdome. The zombies are just part of the landscape in this film: a big seething mass. They lack the terrifying immediacy of the zombies in Train to Busan, and so they aren’t scary, and don’t pose a significant threat. And while the girls are adorable and capable and provide some laughs, they and their family unit are not enough to inject heart into the movie. In comparison to Train to Busan, Peninsula is “meh.” It lacks the horror and soul of its predecessor.


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Review: The Tribe

A rabbi uses his arcane knowledge of the Kabbalah to protect himself and others during the Holocaust but starts down an ethical slippery slope when he later uses the power for revenge in The Tribe.

The Tribe – Bari Wood, 1981. Rating: 5/5


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A group of Jewish men from the same Polish town miraculously survive internment the Belzec extermination camp. When finally liberated, those in their barracks are the only ones in camp with food, even though the Nazis themselves were starving. Rabbi Jacob Levy keeps the secret of their survival and the “tribe” goes on to flourish in 1980’s Brooklyn, raising families and remaining good friends. But their tight-knit neighborhood is changing. Levy’s son, Adam, is murdered by a gang of teenagers and Black police detective Roger Hawkins vows to bring the culprits to justice. Hawkins is equally devastated by the murder: Adam was his friend, and Jacob is like a surrogate father to him. After Hawkins admits he cannot guarantee an extensive punishment for the teens, the five boys are found gruesomely murdered, the crime scene covered in wet clay. Hawkins suspects Jacob is involved, and their relationship deteriorates. Later, Adam’s wife, Rachel, believes that Jacob and his friends are involved in the brutal killings of a Black family. Together she and Hawkins join forces to uncover the relentless supernatural force that Jacob has hidden from them.

The Tribe is a brilliant, multilayered read. On a philosophical level, it delves deeply into the nature of good and evil. Men who not only survive unspeakable atrocities but transcend them, are simultaneously so deeply scarred that they end up using evil to do what they believe is good: protecting their own threatened identity at the expense of others. On a societal level, Wood explores differing forms of prejudice. Hawkins is discriminated against and feared by most of Levy’s friends, and by other Black officers on the force who are jealous of his position. Rachel comes to realize that her own religion is exclusionary towards women. The lifeblood of the story is Wood’s characters, which simply shine. Complex, flawed, and wonderfully human, filled with joy, humor, and heartbreak, their private lives are as rich as yours or mine. The Tribe invites the reader into the Jewish community, immersing us in cultural detail, but as with Rachel and Hawkins, we are only visiting: we can never fully comprehend what the tribe endured, nor can we ever completely be included in their inner circle. But through Hawkins’ and Rachel’s growing romance, Wood softly urges readers to both honor the old and embrace the new.

The Tribe is relentless: beautiful, dark, and thought-provoking. I just got a copy for my brother for Christmas. (Don’t tell him!)


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Review: The Haunted Forest Tour

Tourists become tasty treats for a myriad of monsters in this gleefully gruesome romp in the woods. And yes, discussing this book absolutely require an abundance of alliteration.

The Haunted Forest Tour—James A. Moore & Jeff Strand, 2007. Rating: 4/5

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When a giant forest violently erupts out of the New Mexico desert—unfortunately impaling most of the townsfolk—the land, along with the werewolves, insect-like things, aliens, mold monsters, demons, ghosts, and other beasties it contains is quickly snapped up by an entrepreneurial individual. In a true capitalistic spirit, H.F. Enterprises turns the deadly demesne into a tourist destination. They hire cryptozoologists to analyze the dangerous denizens and run (perfectly safe!) tram tracks through woods for the ultimate in (safe!) scares. Needless to say, safety protocols are colossally compromised on the Halloween Day Tour, stranding formerly eager monster-aficionados deep in the woods. Monsters rejoice. Tourists die. And they die in lots of creative ways involving copious amounts of blood, goo, and unnamed fluids teeming with wormy things. A handful of survivors escape deeper into the woods: Eddie the tram driver; Barbara, the pretty young guide; soon-to-be-unemployed Chris and his mom; an elderly hoax debunker, Lee; and six-year-old Tommy. Can anyone make it out alive? Can anyone stop the forest from spreading? Don’t look at me: I’m not to spoil it for you.

Moore and Strand obviously had a blast writing this one and their macabre delight is infectious. You read The Haunted Forest Tour with a big grin and a wince of revulsion plastered to your face. There are lots of “eeeew” moments, but they’re lightened by how frankly flat-out funny the story is. Even the characters find a dark humor in their precarious plights.

Now, we’re not talking National Book Award nominee, here. The plot is straightforward: monsters. Though there are some neat little surprises along the way. Still, the characters are fleshed out enough— well, enough that they’ve got plenty of flesh to be removed—but also in that we root for them. I was genuinely (briefly) disappointed when a certain character died on me. That said, The Haunted Forest Tour is all about the monsters. Reading it is like reveling in a big old box of disgusting chocolates (ones filled with different creepy things). You never know what you’re going to bite into—or what’s going to bite you. Bon appétit! (Bonne lecture!)


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Review: Monster Hunter Siege

Owen Pitt is tired of waiting for the end of the world. Now, he and a crew of elite international monster hunters are taking the fight to the chief baddie himself, Asag, the god of chaos, in an effort to preempt humanity’s holocaust.

Monster Hunter Siege – Larry Correia, 2017. Rating: 4.5/5

Once an accountant, Owen Zastava Pitt, or “Z”, is now a top-notch monster hunter and the Chosen One, destined to save the world or die trying. Now, about to be a father, Owen knows he needs to go on the offensive and stop letting ultra-powerful and mysterious entities call the shots. Owen convinces his werewolf boss, Earl, to mount a massive attack on the City of Monsters, located on a remote Russian island where intel suggests there is a portal to the Nightmare Realm—and Asag. While MHI and their allies hold the island against all kinds of creative monstrosities, it is Owen alone who can travel to the Nightmare Realm and not only take the fight to Asag, but bring back seven hunters who have been trapped there for months.

Monster Hunter Siege is exactly what I’ve been needing: a warm-hearted, breakneck shoot-em up with lots of monsters, good and bad, and characters that shine. There is never a dull moment—or even a slightly less exciting moment—as Owen achieves détente between the orcs and elves at a local barbeque (open bar), establishes fraternal relations with a Russian mobster as they battle a child-eating vodyanoy, and goes on to fight sky squids, evil Fey, and legions of Asag’s minions. We’re talking sheer fun and lots of firepower, here.

Correia writes with a droll sense of humor and doesn’t compromise on characterization; two reasons I love the Monster Hunter International series. Owen’s relationships with his father, and with the lost hunter and ex-nemesis, Lococo, are authentically moving. The novel’s poignancy and the dark nature of its conflict are offset with brilliantly sweet and funny scenes like Owen’s meeting with Poly, the one-eyed, comic-book loving cyclops. The series is a treat.

If you’re new to Owen and MHI, you can certainly jump in with this installment, but I recommend starting with the first title, Monster Hunter International: pure enjoyment.


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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 Book of the Dead

Shoggoths are popping out of sinkholes, Cthulhu is clawing its way out of some other dimension, and mankind is on track to be enslaved and devoured unless ancient languages professor and reluctant hero, Matt Kearns, can save the world. Beck pulls out all the stops in this entertaining homage to Lovecraft.

The Book of the Dead – Greig Beck,  2015. Rating: 3.5/5

Matt Kearns is a good-looking professor, a bit of a ladies’ man, who is currently jockeying for a tenured job at Harvard. But the position is contingent on a short, easy trip to Syria to help the military translate some ancient tome. No problem. Except the book is a copy of the original Necronomicon, and a planetary convergence is just days away when a cult of Cthulhu worshippers will open the gate for the Old Ones. Plus, tentacled slimy things are eating people. Matt and a tiny elite team made up of a couple SEALs, two military officers, a young anthropologist, and a formidable one-woman army in the form of an Israeli Mossad agent, must decipher the Necronomicon and stop the madness.

The Book of the Dead does not require a lot of brain power but does demand a lot of suspension of disbelief. One little sinkhole and a Shoggoth quickly ramps up to world-wide earth-falls and a full-out army of slimy monstrosities that is subjugating the population. Salvation comes down to the woefully outnumbered (and rapidly dwindling) little strike team. If you can avoid rigorous logic—actually, any logic—for a while and accept Beck’s wild premise, you’ll get a kick out of the book. Kearns is a likeable hero who doesn’t take himself too seriously (except when dealing with viscid monsters). A good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor balances out the military action. Lovecraft groupies will appreciate the abundance of black goo and floating eyeballs while thriller fans will enjoy the tale’s shoot-outs, knife-outs, and all numbers of battles versus both humans and octopus-like things. In his concluding Author’s Notes, Beck reveals his own love of the Cthulhu Mythos, and explains a few allusions for those of us who aren’t quite as well-versed.

The Book of the Dead rockets along and will make for a fun, escapist beach read. Wait. Make that a porch read, it’s safer. Who knows what might suck you down into that sand?

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: Intercepts

Intercepts: A Horror Novel—T.J. Payne, 2019. Rating: 4.5/5

Joe Gerhard works for the Company. He’s in charge of painfully forcing vegetative, sensory-deprived human “antennas” to gather intel on international bad guys. But one of the antennas tunes in to Joe’s family, intent on making Joe’s life as hellish as their own.  Payne’s uniquely arresting thriller is unputdownable.

The antennas were once human. Maybe a tiny part of them that isn’t insane is still human. Now, trapped in padded cells in a high-security underground laboratory, breathing gas that takes away all feeling, the antenna exist only to lock onto the Company’s targets. When sensation is briefly, excruciatingly returned to the antennas, they achieve a kind of focused remote viewing. Joe doesn’t know if the shadowy Company is military, government, or private, but they have the funds and the chilling ability to red flag—and disappear—people.

For years, Joe has chosen work over his family, although his work was always for his family: his ex-wife Kate, and his teenage daughter Riley. Joe has become inured to the suffering of the antennas, accepting their condition as a tradeoff for the greater good. Motivated by hatred and vengeance, one antenna, Bishop, has painstakingly fought her mental imprisonment, intercepted Joe’s mind, and found his weaknesses. Bishop drives Kate to kill herself and starts working on Riley. The teen struggles to fight the suicidal suggestions that Bishop plants in her mind. Joe will do anything to save his daughter.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot because Intercepts is exceptional. You must read it and discover it for yourself—trust me, you will never forget it. The story rockets along—the suspense is agonizing because you have a bad, gut feeling of how things must end. (You might be wrong…a little bit.) Payne also doesn’t sacrifice character development for plot. You are emotionally conflicted because you empathize with both the antennas—even the vindictive acts of Bishop—and with good-intentioned dad Joe and his sensitive teen daughter.

Payne hits a contemporary nerve in Intercepts: His shocking vision is all-too possible. Horror, here, is the justification of man’s inhumanity to man…and what happens when the products of ethically immoral science strike back.  Intercepts is the first book this year to earn a place my end-of-the-year top five list.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: Infernal

Infernal – F. Paul Wilson, 2005.  Rating:  3/5

After years of separation, a family tragedy brings Jack together with his waster brother, Tom, who wants Jack to help him start a new life, under a new name. Tom is, to put it nicely, an opportunist. A crooked judge, he’s been taking bribes and working the system to benefit himself for a while. Now, the Feds are after him. Tom’s only hope is to recover and sell the Lilitongue, one of the Seven Infernals, which is supposed to grant protection from one’s enemies. It also happens to be a cursed artifact that the Catholic Church tried to dispose of (for good reason) centuries ago. Jack has no love for Tom’s crooked ways, mooching personality, and his crush on Jack’s girl, Gia, but family obligation wins out. The two sail to Bermuda, successfully find the Lilitongue and bring it back to New York. When Vicky, Gia’s young daughter touches the creepy thing, a dark stain appears on her back and she has only hours left in this world—unless someone takes the stain from her. While Jack desperately searches for a cure, he tries to track down the terrorist group responsible for a mass-slaughter at La Guardia that took the life of someone Jack loved.

I’ve been a big fan of the Repairman Jack series since Book 1, The Tomb. The gritty under (and upper) belly of New York City, the supernatural weirdness, and the characters—especially Jack, a seriously tough guy with big heart who loves classic horror films—all click. Everything works. With each book in the series, I look forward to a tight, realistically paranormal (!) thriller with NYC attitude. That’s why it hurts to say that Infernal falls short. While I enjoyed learning more about Tom (kind of) and Jack’s family, the plot lacked its usual tension. Events felt a little too pat, and the end was not a surprise. The trip to Bermuda read long and was a believability stretch even for a series in which some weird stuff happens all the time. The Lilitongue? Not so scary. The vengeance-against-terrorists subplot was another disconnect. That said, Wilson’s writing style is great, as always, and Infernal did inch the overarching storyline along, and best of all, I got my fix of Jack and Abe. Yep. I’m still a big fan. I’m looking forward to the next title, Harbingers, and hope Wilson, and Jack, get back in the groove.

rating system three 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