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: 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


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Best Books of 2019

O.k., folks! I’m back after a brief hiatus and kicking off the New Year (albeit a little late) with my top five recommendations from all the books I reviewed for 2019. And yes, this time I actually kept it to five. Wonders never cease. All of these are great reads: inspiring, scary, funny, thrilling, oddly beautiful…they run the emotional gamut. Enjoy.

Text links go to my full reviews, cover images link to Amazon.

Afterlife

FBI agent Will Brody is dead: killed pursuing a shooter. But Brody quickly learns that there are bad guys in the afterlife, too, and they’re threating the living—including Brody’s soulmate, Claire. Non-stop thriller action meets a thoughtful, deeply touching exploration of death, and love.

Discount Armageddon

Cryptozoologist, parkour queen, and almost-professional ballroom dancer, Verity Price carries on the family business of protecting the monster communities in New York City from the humans. And vice versa. If that’s not challenging enough, things get complicated when Verity and a handsome enemy must work together to save disappearing cryptid virgins. Fast-paced and filled with fun characters and great monsters.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

A suspenseful, whimsical, stunningly beautiful Victorian mystery about a musical telegraph operator who is befriended by a Japanese watchmaker. There are secrets. Bombs. Clockworks. Gilbert and Sullivan. And magic. Exquisite.

The Line Between

Violence and panic erupt as a pandemic sweeps through the US. Only Wynter Roth, who has lived most of her life in a doomsday cult, has the key to a vaccine. As society rapidly deteriorates, Wynter must cope with present-day lawlessness and past traumatic memories of the cult while she rushes the precious medical samples across the country. Gripping read.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Down-on-her-luck Hal is barely scraping by as a tarot reader when she learns she’s listed as a beneficiary in her recently deceased grandmother’s will. Impossible, since her grandparents died long ago. Despite pangs of conscience, Hal decides to scam her way into the inheritance. Gathered with the family in the lonely country house, Hal uncovers family secrets and finds herself in deadly danger. Engaging, classic mystery with well-drawn characters and a touch of almost-supernatural.


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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