Kate’s Review: “The Queen of the Cicadas”

Book: “The Queen of the Cicadas” by V. Castro

Publishing Info: Flame Tree Press, June 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: 2018: Belinda Alvarez has returned to Texas for the wedding of her best friend Veronica. The farm is the site of the urban legend, La Reina de Las Chicharras – The Queen of The Cicadas.

In 1950s south Texas a farmworker—Milagros from San Luis Potosi, Mexico—is murdered. Her death is ignored by the town, but not the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. The goddess hears the dying cries of Milagros and creates a plan for both to be physically reborn by feeding on vengeance and worship.

Belinda and the new owner of the farmhouse, Hector, find themselves immersed in the legend and realize it is part of their fate as well.

Review: I don’t remember when I first heard about “The Queen of the Cicadas (La Reina de las Chicharras)” by V. Castro, but I know that it was definitely early in 2021. I made sure to put myself on the request list at the library, hoping that I would be getting it in my hands around the time it came out this summer. So I waited. And waited. And by the time it was autumn and it was still ‘on order’ (supply chain issue? COVID backlog?), I decided that I didn’t want to wait anymore and just bought it. After all, Horrorpalooza was coming up, and I really wanted to have this one on hand for it. It’s an urban legend horror story, guys! You know I’m all about that! And after reading it, I can say that a lot of “The Queen of the Cicadas” worked for me. And then other things didn’t.

But I will start with the good, and there is definitely more good than meh. The first is that Castro has created an effective and believable folklore/urban legend with La Reina de las Cicharras. The doomed story of Milagros, murdered by racist white women for the crime of being a brown girl who caught the unwanted advances of one of their husbands, captures a well done ghost revenge story that has origins in horrific violence steeped in hate. And adding in some Mexican mythology and folk lore elements with the role of Mictecacíhuatl, the Aztec Goddess of Death, brings in a unique twist as well as a way to address the violence of colonialism that continues to oppress people centuries after the Conquistadors came and committed crimes against humanity. And as a someone who has been obsessed with both the Bloody Mary game/legend AND La Llorona since I was in grade school, I liked the elements that kind of paid homage to both, while still being original and deep into its own world building. And man, the horror elements are great. The descriptions of La Reina de las Chicharras are absolutely horrific, and you feel genuine dread reading how she takes her revenge on those who deserve it just as you would were you hearing the story around a camp fire.

But I do think that “The Queen of Cicadas” gets a little lost in the weeds as the story progresses, which I would say is probably due to the length of it vs the breadth it tries to cover. If we had been following a story that was solely looking into the fate of Milagros and the fates of those who murdered her (as well as anyone else that was complicit in any way shape or form), I think that would have been a decent amount to cover in the 220some pages we had to work with. As it is, though, “Queen of the Cicadas” also hopes to dive into Mexican folklore, a look at worship and faith, and a story of a woman lost who finds herself through a urban legend turned folk deity. Along with a look into the past of Milagros, as well as her ancestors and how they all fit into this as well. Like I said, it’s a LOT to cover, and when you try to cover it all in only 220some pages it feels like none of it gets enough attention, and ends up unfolding through straight narrative telling vs action and plot progression on the page. This kind of narrative telling works SUPER well for the parts that have to do with the urban legend of La Reina, as well as some of the folklore involving Mictecacíhuatl. After all, folk tales, legends, and myths have been passed down in a structure like that through telling others by word of mouth. But as the book went on and things really started expanding outward, the sparse and matter of fact style worked less and less for me.

But overall, “The Queen of the Cicadas” was a creepy urban legend spin filled with body horror, social justice sensibilities, and a strong sense of self. I’m glad that I finally grabbed it instead of waiting, and it feels like a good book to end this year’s Horrorpalooza! I hope that everyone has a safe and Happy Halloween!

Rating 7: Creepy, emotional, and expansive, but it gets a little bogged down by everything it wants to do.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Queen of the Cicadas” is included on the Goodreads lists “Latinx Horror/Fantasy”, and “Feminist Horror”.

Find “The Queen of the Cicadas” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Where They Wait”

Book: “Where They Wait” by Scott Carson

Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Recently laid-off from his newspaper and desperate for work, war correspondent Nick Bishop takes a humbling job: writing a profile of a new mindfulness app called Clarity. It’s easy money, and a chance to return to his hometown for his first visit in years. The app itself seems like a retread of old ideas—relaxing white noise and guided meditations. But then there are the “Sleep Songs.” A woman’s hauntingly beautiful voice sings a ballad that is anything but soothing—it’s disturbing, really, more of a warning than a relaxation—but it works. Deep, refreshing sleep follows.

So do nightmares. Vivid and chilling, they feature a dead woman who calls Nick by name and whispers guidance—or are they threats? And soon her voice follows him long after the song is done. As the effects of the nightmares begin to permeate his waking life, Nick makes a terrifying discovery: no one involved with Clarity has any interest in his article. Their interest is in him. Because while he might not have any memory of it, he’s one of twenty people who have heard this sinister song before and the only one who is still alive.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

At one point I requested the Scott Carson horror novel “The Chill” from the library, and when it came I waffled about starting it, and then only got a couple chapters in before giving up. I wasn’t sure if it was the book itself or something that was gelling with my reading needs at the time, but I returned it and went on to the next. When I saw he had a new book coming out called “Where They Wait”, and that it involved a mindfulness app that could have deadly influence, I decided to bite. After all, as an anxious person who has barely been getting by during a full on global pandemic, I’ve done my time with meditation apps on my phone. So why not scare the piss out of myself in regards to some of the things that actually calm me down during an anxiety spiral?! That’s a joke. Kind of. Anyway, I was fully in, expecting full on tech horror. But “Where They Wait” took me by surprise.

“Where They Wait” is a slowly building horror novel that makes you think it’s going to go in one way, but it takes you in a completely different way instead. The mystery surrounding the Clarity app and Nick’s connection to it are slowly revealed as the book goes on, and it builds at a good pace and ratchets the tension up accordingly. As Nick dives deeper and deeper into the various sleep and relaxation programs on the mindfulness app Clarity, strange things start to happen, from bad dreams (dreaming being something he was never able to remember until now) to shady and cagey interactions with the makers and associates of the app. One of whom is his teenage years friend Renee. But what I thought was going to be fully tech and corporate conspiracy horror was a bit more complicated than that. In that realm, the book hits a lot of beats we’d expect it to. Nick clearly has an unknown connection to Clarity, specifically the strange song that he keeps hearing, and the song that, he finds out, has done some serious damage to other people just by listening to it. I loved following Nick as he started to piece together the origins of the song, and how they connected to him, and where those origins eventually took us in terms of setting and horror type. Again, I thought that we were going to be going into science fiction tech horror, but Carson surprised me by taking us down a different path. Well, at least in terms of the origins of the song. Those behind Clarity have the obvious motivations to harness a song that has a violent fall out, and it definitely references recent ‘in the news’ themes of things like Havana Syndrome, and how something like that could be unleashed on a tech hungry populace.

The first thing that came to mind outside Havana Syndrome. God I miss “The Venture Bros” (source: HBOMax).

So yes, there are definite tech horror aspects to this book, but there are also more primal horrors about what happens when we dream, and how vulnerable we are when it comes to our subconscious. When Nick is in what is possibly a dream (or is it?), there is a sense of ethereal dread that Carson just nails in tone and eeriness, be it the way that the song is written out or the descriptions of visions of a dead woman that is guiding Nick through his dreamscapes. But along with that are the fears of what we may do without realizing as our subconscious takes over, be it lost time, manipulated memories, or full on inability to control ones actions. Nick is the one bearing the brunt of this, though his experience is a bit of an exception to a rule that makes him a very sought after player for those who are pulling the strings. This whole aspect of the book was very unnerving in terms of the psychological manipulations, and I found these parts, especially in his dreams, to be very trippy and intense.

Overall I enjoyed “Where They Wait”. It makes me want to go back and give “The Chill” another try, as Carson taps into some basal fears and makes them very, very unsettling.

Rating 8: A creepy horror novel that goes places I didn’t expect, “Where They Wait” is eerie and unsettling and made me side eye my mindfulness apps.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where They Wait” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror To Look Forward To In 2021”.

Find “Where They Wait” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Silence in the Woods”

Book: “Silence in the Woods” by J.P. Choquette

Publishing Info: Self Published, April 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the author.

Book Description: In 1917, four friends and photojournalists set out in the woods looking for answers. Why have so many hikers and hunters gone missing in the area of Shiny Creek Trail?

The two couples anticipate a great adventure, one they’ll tell their kids about someday. No one imagines the evil lurking in a remote cave. A horrifying discovery leaves one person dead and two others missing.

Two months later, Paul, one of the four, returns to the forest to find his wife. But will he find her before someone-or something-finds him?

Silence in the Woods is the long-awaited prequel to Shadow in the Woods, and delves into the frightening territory of the supernatural and the human mind.

Review: Thank you to J.P. Choquette for sending me a copy of this novel!

I remember there was one time that I was at my previous library job where I got a text from an old coworker from one of my previous museum jobs (libraries and museums, you know that’s right). One of the sites I used to work at was Fort Snelling, which had a state park nestled next to the old fort with lots of nature and trails. My old coworker told me that there were honest to God Bigfoot hunters in the park that day, and sent me a picture of their truck that boasted as such. While Minnesota isn’t exactly known for Bigfoot sightings (the closest we get to interesting cryptid beasts are Dog Men and a Monster in Lake Pepin), I was utterly charmed by the idea, as I love the idea of a gentle ape like creature like Bigfoot (and yes, I prefer GENTLE Bigfoot tales, as a rule). So when author J.P. Choquette reached out to me asking if I would be interested in reviewing any of her horror novels, when I saw that Bigfoot was a plot point, I was eager to read “Silence in the Woods”! I mean, you got Bigfoot, AND you have two couples going for a hike in the woods to investigate missing person reports… only to run afoul nature themselves. Sign me up! Especially since they also run into Bigfoot!

I want to believe. (source)

I’m focusing a lot on the Sasquatch elements of this story, but “Silence in the Woods” is also a survival horror tale that brings in other supernatural elements and threats, and I was super entertained the entire time I was reading it. It’s told though different third person perspectives, and jumps a bit through time to tell of two couples, Paul and Jane, and Deidre and Allan, who go hiking along the Shiny Creek Trail. From the get go we find out that this trip did not go well, and that Paul was the only one to leave the woods, but has found himself in an asylum because of what he says happened. Then we see him try to find his way back to look for Jane, as well as seeing how everything fell apart for the group of friends. The narrative structure is complex but not overly so, and we get a fair amount of time with each of the characters that we get a feel for who they are. I found myself easily invested in Paul’s search for his wife, as well as invested in Jane and the strange things she is seeing on their initial walk in the woods.

And in terms of plot and horror elements, “Silence in the Woods” implied that it was going in one direction, but ended up going in another, which worked pretty well. Now I know that this is a labeled as a ‘prequel’ to the next book in the series, “Shadow in the Woods”, and I wonder that had I read that one first that I may not have been as surprised by that, but as it was I liked being red herring’d in terms of what the horror elements are in this book. Mysterious human like creatures aside, there are other, more insidious things lurking in the woods. And even worse, we also have nature to contend with on top of all that! Choquette pulls a lot of scares and thrills from numerous places in this book, and I was kept on the edge of my seat as I read, wondering who would survive, and what would happen to those who didn’t. And yes, Bigfoot plays a role, and I don’t want to spoil anything for those who want to seek it out, but I really liked the moments that this cryptid was on the page, as well as the ways that our various characters interacted with it.

We’re still in the thick of Halloween season, y’all, and if you are looking for a quick and breezy creature feature to read “Silence in the Woods” may be a good match! I’m definitely going to look into reading more of Choquette’s “Monsters in the Green Mountains” stories, and this was a good place to start, chronological or not.

Rating 8: A quick read with survival horror, supernatural scares, and Bigfoot, “Silence in the Woods” is an entertaining page turner!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Silence in the Woods” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Cryptids”, and “Lost in the Woods”.

“Silence in the Woods” isn’t available at any libraries as of yet, but you can find a copy through various retailers at J.P. Choquette’s website.

Kate’s Review: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth’

Book: “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.

A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company. It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.

But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novella!

While I’ve seen and read a fair number of Japanese and Japanese inspired horror things, I know that there are many, MANY stories out there that I haven’t come across as of yet. I don’t have a very vast knowledge of Japanese folklore in general, and therefore I’m definitely game to read anything that would broaden my horizons in that manner. Enter “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” by Cassandra Khaw, a new horror novella that takes place in a rural Heian-Era mansion in Japan that is super, super haunted. I’m no stranger to various Japanese haunted house stories, from “Ju-On” to “Hausu”, but the cover alone of this book caught my attention. And hey, haunted house stories? Absolutely my jam. I held onto “Nothing But the Blackened Teeth” for what was supposed to be a stormy night, and though we didn’t get the rain we were promised I still found myself reading the book at night, which was, perhaps, a mistake. Because it’s SCARY.

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is a novella clocking in at around 120 pages, but Khaw has no trouble building a plot, pulling out everything they can from their characters, and leading them to a terrifying ending. It never feels rushed to get to that point, it never feels like we could have learned more about our cast or the house itself, and it is engaging and definitely terrifying. Khaw has a gift for description and atmosphere, as I could see the mansion as it goes from abandoned but docile home to an incredibly disturbing hellscape. While Cat is definitely the character we get to know the best, we still get to know enough about most of her friends and all of the tenuous relationship strings between them to fully buy into the choices they make, from the good to the bad. It feels like a slow burn at first, but the tension starts to build from the get go and when it finally releases it’s SO unnerving and scary.

And a lot of the scares come from the Japanese folklore that the horror elements derive themselves from, namely the Ohaguro-Bettari, a spirit that takes the form of a bride whose facial features are only a mouth filled with black teeth. I know a little bit about Japanese folklore and ghosts, specifically the Onryō, so seeing another yokai (spirit) at the forefront was refreshing and new to me. It made me do some independent reading on more Japanese folklore regarding ghosts and entities, which was really fun for me as a horror fan who likes lore of all kinds. And boy does Khaw really make this the stuff of nightmares. Cat is the first to start seeing this yokai, and given that she has a history of mental problems we get the usual ‘is this really happening or am I going crazy’ questioning that comes with such a history in stories like these. But what I liked is that for the most part Cat isn’t portrayed as hallucinating to the reader, and instead of an unreliable narrator we get a woman who is seeing something VERY wrong, and therein slowly sending shivers up our spines every time she sees something. Until, that is, it goes full gonzo bloodsoaked horror show. Khaw nails every part of the horror here, and the end was so incredibly disturbing that I had to flip back to re-read a few things to make sure that THAT was what had happened. I think that I would have liked even more suspense before we got to the gory ending, and maybe a little more easing into the wrap up, but overall it was enjoyable as hell and a sinister ghost story soaked in viscera and blood. And very easy to read in one sitting (though maybe not late at night, a tip from me to you)!

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is an enjoyable novella that set me on edge. Halloween is almost here, and if you haven’t read this one yet you should make it a part of your reading list before the holiday passes us by!

Rating 8: Disturbing, atmospheric, and brimming with Japanese folklore and yokai, “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is the perfect short read for this Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Nothing But Blackened Teeth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Celebrate Horror 2021”, and “Diverse Horror”.

Find “Nothing But Blackened Teeth” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Chasing the Boogeyman”

Book: “Chasing the Boogeyman” by Richard Chizmar

Publication Info: Gallery Books, August 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The New York Times bestselling coauthor of Gwendy’s Button Box brings his signature prose to this story of small-town evil that combines the storytelling of Stephen King with the true-crime suspense of Michelle McNamara.

In the summer of 1988, the mutilated bodies of several missing girls begin to turn up in a small Maryland town. The grisly evidence leads police to the terrifying assumption that a serial killer is on the loose in the quiet suburb. But soon a rumor begins to spread that the evil stalking local teens is not entirely human. Law enforcement, as well as members of the FBI are certain that the killer is a living, breathing madman—and he’s playing games with them. For a once peaceful community trapped in the depths of paranoia and suspicion, it feels like a nightmare that will never end.

Recent college graduate Richard Chizmar returns to his hometown just as a curfew is enacted and a neighborhood watch is formed. In the midst of preparing for his wedding and embarking on a writing career, he soon finds himself thrust into the real-life horror story. Inspired by the terrifying events, Richard writes a personal account of the serial killer’s reign of terror, unaware that these events will continue to haunt him for years to come.

A clever, terrifying, and heartrending work of metafiction, Chasing the Boogeyman is the ultimate marriage between horror fiction and true crime. Chizmar’s writing is on full display in this truly unique novel that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: I was describing “Chasing the Boogeyman” to my mother during one of my parents weekly visits, where we inevitably start talking about what we are reading at the moment. She basically asked ‘so wait, is this a fictional book or a nonfiction book?’, to which I paused for a beat or two and said ‘I…. don’t know?’ And at the time I didn’t feel like I did. I knew that Richard Chizmar had written horror novels, as I’ve read him before, and I knew that people were describing it as ‘metafiction’. But surely this book that read like a narrative nonfiction story was nonfiction, right? I mean, there was a whole introduction by James Renner who talked about a previous edition and how he always wondered what happened to the Edgewood Boogeyman case! But it’s catalogued as fiction! IS THIS ACTUALLY REAL?!

No, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is not a true story, at least not the meat of it. And that is a testament to Chizmar’s writing and set up that I found myself questioning if it was a true story or not in spite of many pieces of evidence and flat out statements that it is, indeed, not. This book definitely reads similar to Michelle McNamara’s personal “I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”, as a fictionalized version of Richard Chizmar investigates a hometown serial killer and finds himself not only obsessed, but also perhaps on the killer’s radar. The setting of Edgewood, Maryland is real, and Chizmar does take anecdotes and community locations and people who exist or existed in the 1980s (when the bulk of the story takes place) to make the story even more realistic. It makes for a very engaging and realistic tale, and it makes the town of Edgewood just as much a character as Chizmar and his mirror-universe self and counterparts. The set up is unique, and the details that Chizmar puts in, from that tricky intro to staged photographs and documents are so great and just add to the narrative nonfiction feel. It’s easily one of the most ambitious works I’ve read this year in how it combines two completely different takes on literature and creates a fictional story that reads like a real one.

The plot itself isn’t terribly ambitious to the naked eye. A serial killer preying on young women in a small town is, unfortunately, all too familiar within the true crime world. The mystery is well set up, and by the time we got to the reveal I was legitimately surprised by the whodunnit solution (and we also get a very unsettling interview between Chizmar and the perpetrator, which just gave me CHILLS). But I think that what makes it stand out the most is that by framing it as Chizmar having this personal connection to the community, and an obsession with this dark reality that is functioning in it, it makes the story more about the darkness of small town America, and how sometimes we have to reckon with the dark realities of our childhoods. While Chizmar (both fictional and real world) has happy memories about growing up in Edgewood, he also has to ruminate on the fact that really bad things happened to women in his community, and how even beyond that there are definitely imperfect and dangerous things in small town America that are hidden behind the veneer of tight knit community and traditional morality. But as more girls and women are attacked and killed, the paranoia, gossip, and fear starts to show that people are capable of destructive things that aren’t limited to murder. It feels a lot like a Stephen King deconstruction of small town values, but since Chizmar has made it personal, it has its own spin. And his affection for his real small town of Edgewood makes it so that it feels more bittersweet of a revelation, as opposed to a Derry-esque complete take down of Americana.

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and ambitious, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Part horror, part thriller, part faux (but also a bit real) memoir, it is truly a book that stands out this year.

Rating 8: An ambitious dive into metafiction that explores true crime through a fictional lens, “Chasing the Boogeyman” is unique and entertaining, and unsettling as well.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Chasing the Boogeyman” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror With an Author As the Main Character”, and “Mystery & Thriller 2021”.

Find “Chasing the Boogeyman” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess”

Book: “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” by Andy Marino

Publishing Info: Redhook, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: From an electrifying voice in horror comes the haunting tale of a woman whose life begins to unravel after a home invasion.

Possession is an addiction.

Sydney’s spent years burying her past and building a better life for herself and her young son. A respectable marketing job, a house with reclaimed and sustainable furniture, and a boyfriend who loves her son and accepts her, flaws and all.

But when she opens her front door, and a masked intruder knocks her briefly unconscious, everything begins to unravel. She wakes in the hospital and tells a harrowing story of escape. Of dashing out a broken window. Of running into her neighbors’ yard and calling the police.

The cops tell her a different story. Because the intruder is now lying dead in her guest room—murdered in a way that looks intimately personal. Sydney can’t remember killing the man. No one believes her.

Back home, as horrific memories surface, an unnatural darkness begins whispering in her ear. Urging her back to old addictions and a past she’s buried to build a better life for herself and her son. As Sydney searches for truth among the wreckage of a past that won’t stay buried for long, the unquiet darkness begins to grow. To change into something unimaginable. To reveal terrible cravings of its own.

Review: Thank you to Redhook for sending me an ARC of this novel!

It isn’t super often that you find a demonic possession story in my book pile when it comes to horror. I’m not against it, really, as I have certainly enjoyed a few stories that involve such things. But there is always an undercurrent of religious fervor that goes hand in hand with possession tales, and I have no problem with that as a concept. It just doesn’t really connect with me. But something about “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” by Andy Marino caught my eye when it read the description, and I felt compelled to pick it up. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book with possession at its heart, and one that looks at it through the lens of addiction seemed like a take that I hadn’t encountered before in the subgenre.

I will say that in terms of the possession angle of this story it goes to unpredictable places. In general that is usually a good thing for me, because as a rule I am not as able to connect to traditional possession tales due to a serious lack of belief in demons and devils. If you take that and go to more interesting places, however, be it by examining a priest’s loss of faith a la “The Exorcist”, or a professional skeptic’s slow descent into turmoil a la “The Last Days of Jack Sparks”, I will be more on board. And in this book we go in unexpected and unique territory regarding Sidney’s ‘swimmer’, as she refers to whatever it is that is making her black out and is always lurking at the edges of her consciousness. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the reveal as to what is going on is definitely unexpected, but didn’t quite work for me. Nor did the rapid time jumping and choppy structure. My guess is that it was supposed to add to the confusion and disorientation that Sidney is feeling as she is losing time and memories and then pulling them back out of the ether, but I found it disruptive more than effective.

What did work was how Marino brings the theme of addiction into the story. Sidney has been sober for nine years when we meet her, and as this ‘swimmer’ starts to slowly encroach upon her consciousness, it tempts her to fall back into old and destructive habits. As Sidney starts to lose her grip on what is up and what is down, she starts to lose the will to remain sober. Marino has a lot of dark and uncomfortable moments when it comes to Sidney’s fight against addiction, both in her past and in her present, and it feels raw and relentless in how he portrays the slow slipping back into an addiction spiral. While the theme of ‘addiction as possession’ is kind of obvious (and ultimately, not the biggest issue when it comes to Sidney’s personal possession problems), Marino makes it feel very powerful and emotional. Part of the dread is wondering how badly Sidney is going to fall. There are also some really gnarly moments of body horror in this book. You probably need a bit of that in a possession story, to be honest, and this book has it in spades.

“The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” went to places I wasn’t anticipating. While it didn’t quite break free from my general apathy towards possession stories, the human and very real world emotional notes are great and will leave the reader unsettled.

Rating 7: Intense, strange, and unique on how it looks at ‘possession’ stories, “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” is a gory slow burn of a horror novel that has some powerful insights on addiction, but a structure problem and some out there revelations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” is not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Demonic Possession”.

Find “The Seven Visitations of Sidney Burgess” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Cackle”

Book: “Cackle” by Rachel Harrison

Publishing Info: Berkley Books, October 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I used to be terrified of spiders. It was a phobia that I eventually outgrew, and now I usually do okay with arachnids (unless they are too big, as well as too big AND inside my house. Then I’m not as fine). I’ve talked about eventually getting a tarantula as a pet, though my husband has nixed that idea. So when I saw that Rachel Harrison had a new book coming out that touted not only the story of a witch, but also an adorable spider pet named Ralph, I was absolutely interested. That is “Cackle”: the story of a woman a bit lost, a witch friend, and a kind and supportive pet spider.

If I’m going to have a spider gif, it’s going to be a cute one. (source)

Is “Cackle” a terrifying follow up to the highly enjoyable “The Return”? Not really. But what it may not have in terror, it has oodles of in charm and feel good lady pal narrative. Our protagonist, Annie, has found herself newly single after he long time boyfriend Sam breaks up with her due to no more ‘spark’ in their ten year relationship. She takes a teaching job in the small town of Rowan, and immediately befriends Sophie, a charming, mysterious woman whom the rest of the town seems terrified of, or at the very least wary. Annie is a relatable (though admittedly a little sad sack-y) main character who feels lost, and Sophie is properly mysterious and perhaps a little intimidating. You blend that together and you find a story that has some familiar notes and beats of one woman helping another become self actualized, but is still framed in a novel way. After all, I can’t think of other lady friendship stories that have a jovial spider named Ralph. Yes, I’m obsessed with Ralph. I loved seeing their friendship slowly grow and blossom, and how said friendship helps Annie become a strong and confident person, even if with that confidence comes a little bit of darkness that she never anticipated (as well as questions about whether or not Sophie is dangerous… she is a witch, after all). Oh, and a spider infestation, a set of angry ghosts, and newfound powers that may be running a bit amok.

I went in expecting something a little more toxic, just because of how Harrison’s previous novel went, but “Cackle” is actually a really lovely story about two women who feel alone and isolated and then find joy in each other’s company. It just so happens that one of them is a witch. I really loved Sophie, from the way that she looked at the world to how Harrison addresses her past traumas (being a witch makes you a target, after all), to how supportive, but also lonely, she is. True, there are questions about her actual intentions and motivation, but it becomes clear that this is less a toxic friendship story, and more a woman discovering herself story. Annie is the less interesting character, but as she starts to believe in herself, she starts to take her power back. In some cases, literally. As Annie believes in herself more, partially due to Sophie’s cheerleading, she starts to develop powers of her own. And THIS is where some of the ‘horror-esque’ moments happen. There are definite gnarly moments that involve spells, bones, blood, and more, but it never feels too scary and is always rooted with a tongue firmly in cheek. True, I think that Harrison kind of leads us down a primrose path with some red herrings, but by the end I just had a smile on my face as two women go on a journey find friendship and self sufficiency in a society that has told them they have to tamp down their true selves. It’s cathartic and enjoyable.

“Cackle” isn’t the scary book I thought it would be, but it’s a good choice for a Halloween read if you want something a little spooky, but not terribly horror filled. Why not spend the Season of the Witch with Sophie?

Rating 9: A fun witchy tale about friendship, finding yourself, and the joys of spiders as pets. “Cackle” is a bit of light horror for his Halloween season!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cackle” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (cis and trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”, and would fit in on “Witchy”.

Find “Cackle” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Last House on Needless Street”

Book: “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a shocking and immersive read perfect for fans of Gone Girl and The Haunting of Hill House.

In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three. A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time. A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory. And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.

An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Welcome to HorrorPalooza 2021!!! I cannot wait to showcase and review all horror, all the time for the month of October, as is tradition, and right off the bat we have one of the most hyped horror novels of the Fall: “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward! I had been thinking about this one as a solid HorrorPalooza choice for so long that I completely forgot that it actually came out in September (hence I missed it on my highlights that month), but by no means does that mean I wasn’t eager for it. And I’m here to report that while it was much anticipated by me, it wasn’t as compelling of a story as I expected. But who doesn’t love the idea of a cat being a character with perspective chapters?

“The Last House on Needless Street” follows a man named Ted, who lives a fairly solitary life outside of his cat Olivia and his daughter Lauren. They all live on Needless Street, and Ted is dealing with an angry teenager, as well as an unreliable memory that is causing him some problems. His cat Olivia is constantly watching over him, her devotion true but starting to wane as she starts to see changes in his behavior. And then there is Dee, a new neighbor who has moved to Needless Street with one motivation: she believes that Ted was responsible for her sister Lulu’s disappearance a number of years ago, and wants to find out what he did with her. As Dee tries to untangle what is going on with Ted, Ted seems to be shifting into a more and more unstable emotional state as daughter Lauren comes in and out of his life and Olivia observes. Ted’s chapters are haphazard and have a disjointed and unreliable feel to them, which made for a character that I desperately wanted to know more about, for the good or the bad. Olivia’s are VERY funny and feel super cat-like, with both loyalty to her owner/friend Ted as well as an aloof above it all snark. Dee’s are probably the most linear which kind of tie one of the mysteries into the larger story, which then plays into the rest of the story too. I liked all of the voices and found them varied, especially Olivia’s. I mean, a cat being a narrator of a scary story is just so fun. Ward really gives them their own personalities and they all feel pretty realistic for what they are and what their arcs are like.

The plot itself had some bumps, however. Not the tension or the suspense, that was all on point! Ward really knows how to build up atmosphere and wring out every ounce of creepiness and discomfort, no question. There were multiple scenes that just had me on the edge of my seat. However, one of the things that I was seeing about “The Last House on Needless Street” was that it had really surprising twists and turns. I will certainly agree that it does have a couple of those! One even totally took me by surprise, even though looking back there were hints here and there as to the truth of the matter at hand, and I love finding the hints after the fact. But as for the others, I think that there were some desperately laid red herrings that just screamed out that they were red herrings. And I really don’t want to give anything away in regards to some of the reveals, but to really address one of the twists I feel like I have to get into at least a little of the nitty gritty. So here is your SPOILER ALERT! Skip down past the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled.

So what I will say is that one of our characters has Dissociative Identity Disorder, aka DID, aka Multiple Personality Disorder (though this name is out of favor). Generally those who have DID suffered a horrific trauma and in an effort to cope the mind creates ‘alters’, or other personalities. While I thought that Ward did this in a way that didn’t feel shaming or stigmatizing in a ‘all mentally ill people are dangerous’ kind of way (and even listed a number of sources into the research she did about DID, which was good to see), it’s still a bit of a trope in thriller and horror stories these days, having seen it in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, “Fight Club”, “Psycho”, and others. And the problem with turning a mental condition into a ‘twist’ is that, even with the best intentions (and I do think that Ward has them here!), it can come off as gimmicky at best and dehumanizing at worst. I myself don’t think that Ward treads into dehumanizing territory, BUT I also don’t have DID, so I’d bet I’m not the best judge of that.

Overall, “The Last House on Needless Street” has its ups and downs! I didn’t find it to be as excitingly twisty as others have, but I did overall enjoy a fair amount about it. Especially Olivia the Cat!

Rating 7: A creepy and somewhat bittersweet story about a man, his cat, and coming to terms with guilt and trauma. But one that relies on a trope that is a bit overdone and becoming more and more controversial.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last House on Needless Street” is included on the Goodreads lists “Brilliant Dark Fiction”, and “Books To Get You in the Halloween Mood”.

Find “The Last House on Needless Street” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow”

Book: “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry

Publication Info: Berkley Books, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows about the Horseman, but no one really believes in him. Not even Ben Van Brunt’s grandfather, Brom Bones, who was there when it was said the Horseman chased the upstart Crane out of town. Brom says that’s just legend, the village gossips talking.

Twenty years after those storied events, the village is a quiet place. Fourteen-year-old Ben loves to play Sleepy Hollow boys, reenacting the events Brom once lived through. But then Ben and a friend stumble across the headless body of a child in the woods near the village, and the sinister discovery makes Ben question everything the adults in Sleepy Hollow have ever said. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I’ve definitely mentioned it before on this blog, but I will do it again and again: I really love “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. I’ve enjoyed it ever since I was a little kid who watched the Disney adaptation, and I eventually got around to reading the short story, just in time for the Tim Burton adaptation that totally changes the story, but in the best way. The last adaptation I read was “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”, which I reviewed here and really loved. So quite obviously I was interested in “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” by Christina Henry. For one, I’ve heard good things about Henry as an author and wanted to give her a try. And the other, of course, is the setting of Sleepy Hollow.

When a Halloween Party involves this kind of shenanigans, I definitely am going to love the place that throws it. (source)

“Horseman”, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to my high hopes for a new Sleepy Hollow story. But, as always, I am going to start with the things about this book that did for for me, and that is mostly our protagonist, Ben. Ben is the grandchild of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel, important characters from the original story in that Ichabod Crane was pursuing Katrina, and Brom Bones was almost assuredly the ‘horseman’ that chased Ichabod out of town. We now see that they have married and Brom is still the town hero, as well as being a successful farmer. Ben is short for Bente, as while Ben appears to be a girl, Ben actually is a boy at heart who wants to live life as his true self. I really liked seeing how Christina Henry had a trans character at the forefront, and how it was presented in a way that felt rooted in the time period as how Ben saw himself. It was also really nice seeing Ben’s relationships with his grandparents Brom and Katrina, as he was orphaned at a young age and Brom and Katrina raised him. I liked how Brom nurtures Ben’s gender identity (though this is most likely because he misses his dead son Bendix, but still, the genuine love he felt for Ben was really good), and while Katrina has a harder time, it’s less based in Ben’s identity and more based in the fact that she wishes that she could have the same relationship that Brom has with Ben, and during this time period gender roles make it so that she can’t connect with Ben as easily. All of this felt pretty genuine and novel to me. Big caveat here, however: as a cis woman, I could be totally off base about how Henry decided to portray a trans character. If there are problematic things about this depiction, please let me know.

But here’s the thing: “Horseman” stumbles in a lot of ways for me when it comes to the things that I like about the “Sleepy Hollow” stories. For one, it’s difficult for me to see Brom Bones as anything other than an antagonistic force. I clearly can’t say that Irving meant for him to be something other than a somewhat bullyish but ultimately ‘boys will be boys’ kind of character, but he has ALWAYS come off as a loutish asshole to me ever since I was a little girl watching the Disney version. I especially have little to no patience for men who do very cruel or abusive things and then have no consequences, or get painted as perhaps tricky but certainly not malevolent. To me, Brom Bones is a villain in the original story, as while Ichabod’s intentions towards Katrina are probably dubious at best, taking advantage of his superstitions and throwing a flaming pumpkin at his head because you are mad he likes the woman you like is pretty gross. So I didn’t like how Henry decided to make him this ‘well boys will be boys’ character, especially given how some things shook out for characters from the original story (no spoilers here, though). Along with that, I thought that the reveal of what was behind the new murders involving headless victims didn’t have the resonance that it needed. Henry didn’t really lay the foundation well, and then by the time we found out what was going on, it didn’t have the emotional impact it should have had. And the biggest issue I had with this? The Horseman plays VERY little role in this book. Ben has a mysterious emotional connection to him, but again, the reasons for it aren’t constructed terribly well, and once THAT whole thing plays out, that, too, felt like it didn’t get to the narrative punch it wanted, and needed, to have.

So while I liked the main character quite a bit, as a “Sleepy Hollow” tale “Horseman” didn’t work very well for me. I am not opposed to check out other books by Christina Henry, but perhaps my next move will be with a story I’m not as connected to or picky about.

Rating 5: I love me a good “Sleepy Hollow” reimagining and Ben was a good protagonist, but “Horseman” didn’t have enough Horseman and was a little too kind to characters who probably didn’t deserve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”.

Find “Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery”

Book: “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, September 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and a preview from Tor Nightfire via a giveaway.

Book Description: A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel, as well as Tor Nightfire for sending me a preview with illustrations.

I’ve crowed on here about how much I love the historical horror film “The Witch” probably dozens of times. If you are sick of it, sorry! But I really love the story of a Puritan family being tormented by a coven that lives in the woods by their farm…. Or is it their own hubris and mistreatment of their teenage daughter Thomasin that is the true horror of that movie? Who can say? Best movie ending EVER. When I was reading up on “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” by Brom, I was getting serious “The Witch” vibes, which made me super eager to get my grubby little paws on it, and I sat down one night thinking I’d start it, and enjoy the first few chapters. But then the ol’ Soup Brain happened, because I basically read this book in one sitting.

Jumping for joy at this book, truly. (source)

I never knew that I needed a “Beauty and the Beast” meets “The Witch” story, and yet here we are and “Slewfoot” gave me LIFE. Brom has created two compelling main characters who are isolated, angry, scared, and in need of companionship, and makes you care about both of them so, so much. Our first is Abitha, an Englishwoman who was sent to The Colonies to become a bride for a farmer (at a price, of course, as her father had no need for her but need for drinking cash). Abitha’s husband Edward is caring and a little awkward, and while they aren’t really romantic there is an intimacy there that is lovely, as well as short lived. When Edward dies tragically, Abitha takes over the farm, lest his nasty brother Wallace take it over and take her in as an indentured servant. And then we have a nameless forest spirit who awakens after a slumber, hungry and egged on by other spirits to kill and feed, in hopes that a mysterious Pawpaw tree will rebloom and recapture the magic of the forest. When Abitha and this being meet, thus begins a slow burn friendship, quasi-romance that both their worlds don’t approve of.

For me Abitha’s story was the more compelling one, as she is a headstrong woman in a Puritan community, and tales of this kind of strife are always my jam (especially if there is hope for the woman taking her freedom… and maybe a little revenge). Abitha is very easy to root for, and watching her slowly start to trust ‘Slewfoot’ (as her community calls The Devil, and she isn’t so sure this being she befriends ISN’T a devil of some kind) and come into her own ‘cunning’ powers through his assistance and friendship is so, so gratifying. You want her to remain powerful, you want her to get the best of Wallace as he plots against her and turns the town against her, and you want her and Slewfoot to just be together, be it romantic or platonic or a third kind of love that transcends both.

I also liked seeing Slewfoot slowly learn that he can be more than just a slayer and avenger for nature, which is what the wildfolk Forest, Creek, and Air have told him he is. Slewfoot has no memory of what he was before he went into this stasis, and while he starts out hungry and violent and frankly a bit terrifying, he starts to yearn to be more than this, and to connect with Abitha as they tentatively begin to interact with each other. I did find some of the folklore stuff to be interesting, though it KIND OF also felt a bit appropriative as Brom does take stories from Indigenous cultures of the region and applies them to this tale in some ways. It sounds like he did a lot of research and also spoke to members of the Pequot community to be as accurate and respectful as possible, which is definitely good, but there were some elements of the story that felt glossed over in regards to themes involving Indigenous people and their role in the narrative.

And the horror elements of this story are pretty on point, though they are few and far between until they are REALLY front and center. I would almost consider this more of a dark fairy tale or fantasy than a horror story, but that said I’m going to keep it as horror because there are definitely moments of body horror and just the horror of terrible humans that set me on edge. Slewfoot has his moments (especially when he’s still in the cave at the beginning of the book), but it’s really more the horrors of a fanatical community that will commit terrible acts in the name of God that really made me uncomfortable. As this kind of story always does. Abitha is so beaten down and abused by most of the town (with a few exceptions), that by the time she has to make a choice about mercy or revenge, you almost assuredly will be rooting for revenge. But that is also interesting, because as the story goes on and Slewfoot’s true identity is slowly parsed out, it becomes clear that sometimes the things we see as evil are actually neutral in the big scheme of things, and the things we consider righteous and good are deeply insidious. It’s a direction that I am all for, and I was wholly satisfied with how everything in this book gets wrapped up.

And finally, I have to mention the illustrations. The eARC that I received from NetGalley didn’t have any illustrations, but I was lucky enough to win a giveaway of a preview of the book from Tor Nightfire, which had a written sample of the story and a sampling of some of the artwork that Brom has included in the book. It’s haunting and feels very traditional in its design, and I know that when I do eventually get the book in print (as I need this to be a part of my home library) I will be excited to see what other images there are beyond the handful in the preview.

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year to be sure. If you like “The Witch”, this book will probably be a good fit for you. It’s just so damn good.

Rating 10: Magical, dark, angry, and wondrous, “Slewfoot” is a fantastic tale of witchcraft and finding out where you belong.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”, and would fit in on “Witch Hunts”.

Find “Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!