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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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: Ghosthunting Ohio

Ghosthunting Ohio – John B. Kachuba, 2004.  4.5/5

Ghostly ladies in shades of grey and green and white, invisible soldiers, wispy weeping women, haunting music, disembodied voices, inexplicable fogs, rushes of cold air, hooded apparitions, sorority ghosts: you can find them all here in the great state of Ohio, and John Kachuba tells you exactly where to look.

Part of America’s Haunted Road Trip series, Ghosthunting Ohio is a highly enjoyable tour of thirty-two haunted locations around the state, all of which are open to the public. Kachuba visits each one, accompanied by his trusty camera and often his wife Mary, as well.

Not a sensitive or medium, just a self-described “average guy” with a curiosity about the paranormal, Kachuba maintains an objective and open-minded approach to all things supernatural. In the Introduction, he offers a list of ghosthunting guidelines which boil down to respect & preparation: respect the site, respect the people you meet, respect the spirit world, and take time to learn from people who are serious about ghosthunting—not the thrill seekers.

I love all the spooky stories: from the mist rising above the mummy in the Cincinnati Art Museum, to the ghost of the old brakeman stumbling after the train in the Moonville Tunnel. But what makes these, and all the stories come to life (pun intended, after I thought about it), is Kachuba’s engaging, almost conversational style. He adds just the lightest touch of humor here and there that makes me smile. He also has a deft hand with interviewing folks about their ghostly experiences. Dowsers, concierges, cleaning ladies, librarians, Kachuba quickly characterizes each individual, and humanizes each visit. As he explores haunted sites old and new, Kachuba details his perceptions and occasionally includes one of own photographs which may have captured an orb or shadow that he is at a loss to explain.

Above all, Kachuba’s respect for the history of each location shines out. In the context of his various visits he describes the importance of Fort Meigs War to the of 1812; the vitality of the canal days of the 1820s-1830s; the tragedy of the confederate POW camp and cemetery in Columbus; the prominence of the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, host to ten US presidents; the powerful memories and emotions at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton; the macabre use of Cincinnati’s Majestic Theater as a spare morgue for the hundreds of Army troops killed when the Spanish influenza decimated their training camp in 1918…the list, and the ghost stories, go on.

An afterword by renown psychic researchers Ed & Lorraine Warren emphasizes the importance for ghosthunters to protect themselves against inhuman and diabolical forces. The Warrens urge would-be paranormal seekers to know their opponents, respect their powers, and to be intelligent, not foolhardy.

Final sections offer all the information you need to follow in Kachuba’s footsteps. Addresses, phone numbers, proprietor names, hours, yearly events, even occasional menu items of each locale are helpfully listed for you. Online contacts for ghosthunting organizations in Ohio, and a short list of “ghostly people”—researchers and psychics—round out the book.

While I was just a little disappointed that Kachuba didn’t visit any sites in my own personal (o.k., pretty rural) wedge of east central Ohio, I’m hoping he’ll remedy that in his second book Ghosthunting Ohio: On the Road Again.

Ghosthunting Ohio is one of the best “true” ghost story books I’ve read in a while, which is saying a lot. You’ll get a few chills here and there, but mostly your curiosity will be piqued and you’ll leave the book with a greater, more thoughtful connection to the past.

rating system four and a half crows


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Review: One Bad Week

One Bad Week – James A. Moore, 2017.  Rating: 4/5

Jonathan Crowley, the cranky, immortal badass from Moore’s Serenity Falls series is back, making life (and death) suck for a handful supernatural villains in this brief novel.

It’s Crowley’s job as a Hunter to help rid the world of irritating and deadly forces that interfere with humanity. But he doesn’t always like his job. And he isn’t especially nice to said humanity, either.

One Bad Week is a collection of loosely-tied together adventures. Crowley returns to Serenity Falls to deal with a demonic clown out for payback. He investigates a family curse and deals with a few overly-demanding ghosts. Crowley’s vengeance turns personal when he follows up a lead on the demon that supposedly killed his family.

Because Crowley is just so darn engaging I can overlook some sub-par editing (typos, typeset issues) and the fact that maybe the tales could have used a little polishing. Then again, Crowley’s not that polished himself. The stories are violent and fun and enhanced by a wicked, dry sense of humor. We meet some old characters—good and evil—and get a glimpse into Crowley’s more personal history. If you’re a fan of Moore’s horror novels, One Bad Week is a treat.

For some masterfully-written, intense horror, I can’t recommend Moore’s Serenity Falls series highly enough. For those of us who simply need a good Crowley fix, this works just fine.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Haunted Air

The Haunted Air – F. Paul Wilson, 2002. Rating 4/5

Has a portal to hell—or somewhere worse—opened up in your basement? Repairman Jack’s the man to call. Jack is the ultimate fix-it guy: Anonymous. Tough as nails with a heart of gold. A New Yorker to the core.

In The Haunted Air, Jack tackles two seemingly unrelated cases. In the first, Jack assists two brothers—likeable con men running a fake medium scam who are being harassed by even more unscrupulous competitors. Oh, and they also have that supernatural basement problem along with a bona fide angry spirit haunting their home. In a parallel investigation, Jack follows a string of cold case child disappearances tied to a skeletal curio shop owner with a hand in some seriously bad magic.

As always, the Otherness is out there, an overarching darkness that is drawing Jack—and all of humanity—closer to a final confrontation.

The Haunted Air is the sixth book in Wilson’s Repairman Jack series. A beautiful thing about these stories is that you can pick one up as a stand-alone and enjoy yourself thoroughly. You’ll just get even more satisfaction if you start from the beginning with The Tomb.

Jack is just a neat character, a down-to-earth enigma. With each book, we learn more about his mysterious background. Jack’s girlfriend, Gia, also plays a welcome, larger role in the story.

Genuinely quirky characters, lots of action, a droll sense of humor and a spooky dose of the uncanny side-by-side with a behind-the-scenes look at how fake psychics work their tricks, all combine to make this a great read. Don’t miss this series.

rating system four crows


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Review: The Kingdom

The Kingdom – Amanda Stevens, 2012.  Rating 3.5/5

Only hallowed ground can keep the ghosts away from Amelia Gray, but even that can’t protect her from her past in this spooky sequel to The Restorer.

Glad for the chance to leave Charleston and distance herself from memories of the dark, handsome, and haunted cop she fell hard for, Amelia takes on the job of restoring the Thorngate cemetery.

From the moment of her arrival in all-but deserted Asher Falls, Amelia senses something is wrong. And it’s not just the ghosts that she has the dubious gift of seeing: here she senses pure evil.

As she uncovers and repairs the old cemetery, she also unearths secrets the town has kept buried for a long time–including secrets of Amelia’s own past.

The Kingdom is one of those guilty pleasure reads, kind of like eating a piece of chocolate: quick and tasty. The story flies along, the supernatural elements and truly eerie imagery have a fresh feel to them, and the romance—which borders on hot and heavy—is enjoyable. The graveyard restoration aspect of this series is fascinating. Stevens weaves in old cemetery symbolism, burial traditions, and regional superstitions to make this series unique.

Intrigue, black magic, ghosts, hidden graves, and a handsome heir make The Kingdom a scary-fun read. Amelia is a gutsy heroine and while her interior monologue sometimes feels a bit repetitious, the story moves along to a breakneck climax that will leave you eager for the next installment.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: Little Girls

Little Girls – Ronald Malfi, 2015. Rating: 3.5/5

After the violent suicide of her elderly father, Laurie returns to her childhood home to handle the aftermath. She hasn’t had a relationship with her father since she was young and has no positive memories of the massive old house. Laurie plans to sell the place, sell her dad’s stuff, and go back to Hartford as quickly as possible. But Laurie, her writer husband, Ted, and their ten-year-old daughter Susan end up staying longer…bad idea.

Like the house, Laurie has a shadowed history and unpleasant, long-buried memories soon begin to surface. It doesn’t help that the creepy little girl next door, Abigail, happens to be the spitting image of Laurie’s sadistic childhood friend who was killed in a freak accident on the property. Laurie begins to worry about the uncanny Abigail’s influence on Susan.

Questions arise about her demented father’s seemingly straightforward death and the longer Laurie and her family stay, the more Laurie’s tension, her fear of little girls, and her frustration with Ted grow. Is the house haunted? Has Sadie somehow returned? Is Laurie losing her mind?

Malfi nails the classic ghost story atmosphere. A creepy house filled with sounds. Shadows under locked doors. An abandoned well. A shattered greenhouse. Slightly off-kilter neighbors. Remnants of her father’s madness carved into the house. Shivery! Tension builds nicely as two seemingly disparate storylines intersect—albeit awkwardly—in a stormy climax and gut-punch ending. My biggest difficulty is that I didn’t really like the characters all that much. Laurie, perhaps understandably, is a wet blanket, and Ted comes across as whiny and condescending. The most interesting character is the sick, dead father, whom we get glimpses of through flashbacks and second-hand accounts.

Little Girls is a fast read with some unique, creepy-gross touches. It will satisfy your summer ghost story craving, but personally I enjoyed the chilly suspense and dark weirdness of Malfi’s Bone White much more.

rating system three and a half crows


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Review: In the Still of the Night

In the Still of the Night David L. Golemon, 2017.

The Supernaturals are back.

This time, we find the ragtag group of paranormal investigators facing prison for their unpopular work debunking haunted house reality shows.

Released by the FBI, Professor Kennedy and the team are tasked with saving the president of the United States.  The unpopular leader is in a coma, tormented by an entity – or entities – far more powerful than even the team’s old nemesis, Summer Place.

To rescue the president before an angry power is released on the world, the team must unravel ties to insidious Nazi experiment and investigate a contaminated California town that died in the 60’s but has been showing…unnatural…signs of life. They must also follow the memories of a young blind girl, whose death long ago is part of the puzzle.

Having just read The Supernaturals – fantastic, see last week’s review – I was thrilled to get this book for the holidays. Unfortunately, it left me a little disappointed.

In the Still of the Night feels rushed: it lacks polish, detail, and depth. It would benefit from a tighter editorial review.

The characters that Golemon built so carefully in The Supernaturals – Leonard, the tech whiz, tough cop Damian, and Jenny, the possessed professor to name a few – all return here, but attain no further development. Golemon relies significantly on what we know of the characters from the previous book, and consequently they feel flat.

We don’t get the same level of nail-biting suspense, either, because In the Still of the Night charges largely down a single path: there aren’t as many diverse story threads coming together for an intense finish.

There are some great bits, however. The plot is uniquely imaginative. Gloria, the blind girl, is a beautifully developed character and the most interesting one in the book. The power of dream walking is expanded in the story – largely for flashbacks – and offers an intriguing shift of perspective. We also get a nostalgic look back at ‘50s and early ‘60s rock music classics, that will leave a few oldies stuck in your head at the end of various chapters.

In the Still of the Night is a good book: fast-paced and entertaining, and I am glad I read it. I enjoyed following Professor Kennedy and his team on this adventure. The Supernaturals is simply better-written. I would very much like a third book featuring these characters. Just, one that’s as masterful as the first.

rating system three crows