Kate’s Review: “Harrow Lake”

Book: “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis

Publishing Info: Dial Books, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: Ebook from the library!

Book Description: Things I know about Harrow Lake: 1.It’s where my father shot his most disturbing slasher film. 2.There’s something not right about this town.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker–she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she’s quickly packed off to live with a grandmother she’s never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father’s most iconic horror movie was shot. The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map–and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there’s someone–or something–stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola’s got secrets of her own. And if she can’t find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Review: Even though I generally have my finger on the pulse of upcoming horror fiction, it does happen that I miss titles here and there. Because of that, I like to see various lists of horror and thriller titles that are in the pipeline. “Harrow Lake” by Kat Ellis ended up being one of those titles, as I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on a YA horror list. I was rather bummed that I missed it, as the elements of a slasher movie, a secretive small town, and an urban legend check a lot of boxes for my horror fiction jollies. Luckily the wait wasn’t too long for the eBook hold list, and I got “Harrow Lake” in a timely manner.

As mentioned, “Harrow Lake” has a lot of potential when it comes to hitting many a thing that I like in horror fiction. Our protagonist, Lola, is the daughter of a notorious slasher film director, so we get a fun and extensive look into a fictional filmography of splatter gore flicks that sound like a hoot. We also have the small town of Harrow Lake that has some strange inhabitants, a reputation because of the movie Lola’s Dad filmed there (where he met her mother, who disappeared from her life when she was little). The eeriness of the town was palpable and built slowly, which was a nice way to build unease as well. The biggest factor in the strangeness is the urban legend of Mister Jitters, a being that sounds like he has chattering teeth and who keeps haunting Lola at every turn as she finds herself stranded in Harrow Lake with her maternal grandmother after her father is attacked and hospitalized. I loved the lore of Mister Jitters, the kind of small town monster story that I never got to experience as a child given my upbringing in a bustling urban area, and I thought that Ellis really captured it well. Her writing style was also interesting, giving me a good feel for the town itself and the reasons why it was the way it was.

But as the book kept going, it became pretty clear that “Harrow Lake” wasn’t living up to the potential that was oozing from its description. Lola is an unreliable narrator in a lot of ways, but I didn’t really find myself connecting with her even as the story went on. It does start to make sense as to why she is the way that she is, but even that reveal and explanation didn’t quite make up for a cliched personality and uninteresting characterization. The ways that her background was slowly pulled out felt a little garbled in some ways, with the sudden appearance of an imaginary friend feeling abrupt while other ways that addressed her mental state not feeling well explored. I could see a few of the twists coming from a mile away, and there were a few plot points that built up mysteries that didn’t really pay off for me. And I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to go on and read it, but let’s just say that Mister Jitters didn’t live up to all that I had hoped for him. Ultimately the pay off wasn’t that scary, and I had gone in with high hopes of urban legend scares.

At the end of the day, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in this book, and that was really too bad. It may be that this book will connect with other people who give it a try, but for me it was a bit of a miss. I could see myself trying again with Ellis as her writing style was intriguing, but this one didn’t work.

Rating 5: There was a lot of interesting potential here, but “Harrow Lake” never quite clicked with me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Harrow Lake” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Small Towns with Secrets“.

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

Kate’s Review: “Secret Santa”

Book: “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, November 2020

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

Book Description: The Office meets Stephen King, dressed up in holiday tinsel, in this fun, festive, and frightening horror-comedy set during the horror publishing boom of the ’80s, by New York Times best-selling satirist Andrew Shaffer.

Out of work for months, Lussi Meyer is desperate to work anywhere in publishing. Prestigious Blackwood-Patterson isn’t the perfect fit, but a bizarre set of circumstances leads to her hire and a firm mandate: Lussi must find the next horror superstar to compete with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Peter Straub. It’s the ’80s, after all, and horror is the hottest genre.

But as soon as she arrives, Lussi finds herself the target of her co-workers’ mean-spirited pranks. The hazing reaches its peak during the company’s annual Secret Santa gift exchange, when Lussi receives a demonic-looking object that she recognizes but doesn’t understand. Suddenly, her coworkers begin falling victim to a series of horrific accidents akin to a George Romero movie, and Lussi suspects that her gift is involved. With the help of her former author, the flamboyant Fabien Nightingale, Lussi must track down her anonymous Secret Santa and figure out the true meaning of the cursed object in her possession before it destroys the company—and her soul.

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

Happy Holidays, everyone! I know that it’s kind of a weird holiday season for SO MANY reasons, but I hope that everyone is making do with the circumstances and being safe as well as finding joy and togetherness. Even if that means doing it via FaceTime. In our house we’re wrapping up Hanukkah and getting ready to have a solitary Christmas, which means I’m digging into books when I’m not eating all the latkes. If you’re like me and like it when the horror genre and Yuletide combine, enjoying movies like “Gremlins”, or “Black Christmas” (more the old one. The new one was cathartic, but also SUPER hamfisted), then “Secret Santa” by Andrew Shaffer may be the kind of book you want with your holiday cheer.

Is this a scene from “Gremlins”, or is this me stuffing my face with Christmas cookies? (source)

Shaffer is known for his satire and cheeky humor, so it’s safe to say that “Secret Santa” isn’t the scariest book you could read this time of year. Luckily, I wasn’t expecting it to be terrifying, so that worked for me, for the most part. I liked Lussi, our ambitious protagonist, as she fits the ‘ambitious woman in a man’s world’ mold in a way that adds to the story. You understand her wants and her determination to succeed in the publishing industry, especially as a young woman in the 1980s. I liked her sarcasm and her wit, and I felt that her characterization fit into the story as a whole, reflecting a snide and cutthroat time and place. The mystery as to what is going on at Blackwood-Patterson when things start to go awry is a slow build, and it reads less like a horror novel building up the dread and more like a strange whodunnit. By the time we circle back to the actual origin on what is going on (I don’t want to spoil TOO much, but do know that occultism and Nazis do enter into it. Take that as you will), the lack of scares was a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that there aren’t creepy elements involved with this tale. Let’s just say that if you don’t like dolls, you will find a lot to be scared about. But overall, the scary elements are very obviously harkening to a very specific time in horror publishing, when pulp paperbacks were the rage and strange concepts weren’t hard to come by (I seriously suggest looking into “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix if you want more information on this). This will work for some people, but it may leave others in the cold.

But what worked the most was that this book is clearly a love letter to 1980s horror fiction, be it paperback pulp horror novels or films that involve tiny beings that wreak havoc and gaslight those around them into thinking they are losing their minds. You can tell that Shaffer really loves the horror of this era, and the winks and nods to the genre are fun for someone like me who has an affection for it. Sometimes the 80s references in general got a little heavy handed, but you feel like you’re in on the joke, so I was able to deal with it with minimal eye rolling. This book is very clearly a love letter to a very specific kind of fiction, and I, for one, really loved seeing it all unfold. You can just feel the fun he was having writing this book, and frankly, that’s charming as hell.

“Secret Santa” is a tongue in cheek ode to horror paperbacks with a festive holiday bow placed right on top. If you’re looking for some holiday creeps, it could be the right book to have by the fire with a glass of eggnog.

Rating 7: Entertaining and sardonic, “Secret Santa” has some Christmas fun as well as some creepy moments if you don’t like dolls. It’s not terribly scary, but it has more than enough 80s horror nostalgia to make up for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Secret Santa” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Creepy Christmas” to be sure!

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

Kate’s Review: “This Is Not a Ghost Story”

Book: “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, November 2020

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

Book Description: I am not welcome. Somehow I know that. Something doesn’t want me here.

Daffodil Franklin has plans for a quiet summer before her freshman year at college, and luckily, she’s found the job that can give her just that: housesitting a mansionfor a wealthy couple.

But as the summer progresses and shadows lengthen, Daffodil comes to realize the house is more than it appears. The spacious home seems to close in on her, and as she takes the long road into town, she feels eyes on her the entire way, and something tugging her back.

What Daffodil doesn’t yet realize is that her job comes with a steep price. The house has a long-ago grudge it needs to settle . . . and Daffodil is the key to settling it.

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

I love haunting and eerie ghost stories of the Gothic variety, though I will admit that I sometimes find them to be predictable. The genre itself has such specific building blocks to it that a little bit of a road map is in place from the get go, which is perfectly okay. Because of this, I thought that I knew where “This Is Not a Ghost Story” by Andrea Portes was going to go when I picked it up. I was still excited to read it, mind you, but my overconfident ass thought that it wouldn’t have much new to say. But lo and behold, this story took me by surprise in all the best ways possible.

While the set up definitely seems run of the mill (money strapped college student agrees to house sit an isolated home, strange things start happening), Portes has created a Gothic ghost story that feels unique and fresh specifically because of how she has chosen to tell it. Daffodil, our first person protagonist, has a stream of consciousness and anxious voice in her narration, and as she tells the reader what is happening to her in this house and in the town around it, we have a slow build up of dread in the way that Daffodil would be experiencing it. As she tries to write off strange occurrences as they happen, we see the panic rise and rise until she is unable to deny that something very bad is happening, which I REALLY liked. From things that could very easily be explainable to the absolutely disturbing, Daffodil’s stream of consciousness builds the tension and also becomes VERY relatable as the story goes on. And all along she is cracking wise, making funny observations, and generally cracking me up, which helped cut the tension but didn’t ruin it. But along with the present bad things happening inside the house and on the grounds, we also get a slow unfolding of Daffodil’s past, and why her anxiety and unease is ever present. Most of this involves a love story with her high school boyfriend Zander, someone that she had always felt was out of her league but who loved her very much. Their high school romance felt real, and as it runs its course in her memories and unfolds in tragic ways, you see a whole other side to Daffodil that makes her all the more endearing.

In terms of scares and plotting, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” has some elements that are old hat, and some reveals that didn’t quite catch me by surprise in the way that they were probably supposed to do. But Portes still manages to write these elements and reveals in a way that made them enjoyable, and they still felt pretty fresh and convincing. I worry that if I say too much we’ll start getting into spoiler territory, but I do want to mention two aspects that worked really well for me. The first is the uncanny creepiness, of things going missing or ending up in places that don’t make sense. The other is the slow building unease with the people on and around the property, from a construction worker on the guest house named Mike to a nosy and stuffy neighbor named Penelope. We think one thing about them at first, but Portes picks away at our perceptions of them and makes them suspenseful in their own way (though I will say that Daffodil does the thing that MANY women do when it comes to men who may be threatening: she second guesses herself and her instincts. THIS was so well done that it felt like a GREAT way to show the target audience that no, your instincts should probably be listened to).

So while it may not have shocked me or really scared me too much, “This Is Not A Ghost Story” was an enjoyable and poignant ghostly tale of trauma, forgiveness, and the things that haunt us. Fans of Gothic horror should definitely check it out!

Rating 8: A haunting, bittersweet, and sardonically funny Gothic tale, “This Is Not a Ghost Story” will keep you guessing, and will stay with you.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Is Not a Ghost Story” is new and not on many specific Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Modern Gothic”, and “Not the Normal Paranormal”.

Find “This Is Not a Ghost Story” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”

Book: “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” by Holly Rae Garcia and Ryan Prentice Garcia

Publishing Info: Close to the Bone, October 2020

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

Book Description: US Army Veteran Henry Miller embarks on a hunt at the edge of the Black Forest, but strays from the path and finds himself too close to the East Cascade Mountain Range.

Something lurks in the forest on the other side of those mountains. An ancient race of Bigfoot that have kept to themselves for centuries, until one of them defies the warnings and roams too far from the safety of their home.

When these two intersect, alliances are broken and events set in motion that will leave residents of the town of Easton Falls, Washington, fighting for their lives.

Review: Thank you to Holly Rae Garcia and Ryan Prentice Garcia for sending me an eARC of this novella!

Back when I was a kiddo, along with my supernatural and ghost obsession I was also very into cryptids and cryptozoology. I would check out books from my school library about The Loch Ness Monster, The Abominable Snowman, and, of course, Bigfoot. As time went on my fascination with such things waned, but I’m still game to talk about weird cryptic stories if anyone else is (especially if we are talking about my boi Mothman!). I haven’t really dabbled into much creature feature horror in my book repertoire. Enter Holly Rae Garcia reaching out to me asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the novella “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”, which she wrote with her husband, Ryan Prentice Garcia. I was taken with the description, and said yes, yes I would. It’s been awhile since I last did a stint with some Bigfoot lore.

Nuff said. (source)

“The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” is a bloody, tense, fun horror novella in which humans have to contend with the wrath of Bigfoot, and let me tell you, I had a blast reading it. The authors do a fantastic job of fitting in relationship angst, small town drama, and a sense of foreboding and isolation, all while building up to a gory and unrepentant gore-a-thon where a couple Bigfoots enter a small town’s city limits and fuck shit up. There is a little background given to the area (being the Pacific Northwest, Bigfoot Central U.S.A.), as well as hints dropped about how the Indigenous people who had been there before connect to the Bigfoot lore. While I’m always a bit skittish when it comes to Indigenous belief systems and mythology being used in fantasy and/or horror media, I will say that in this book it wasn’t trotted out repeatedly or focused upon too much (that said, as a white woman, I can’t speak for Indigenous People). Along with a solid setting, we have some pretty solid characters too. Our protagonist, Henry, has a tough backstory which gives him a pall of sadness, and there are enough fraught and messy aspects to him and his relationship to his lover Kate that make you connect and feel for both of them. You also get a good sense about the town and how the people function within it, and how their relationships grow, change, and sometimes turn toxic. All of this is accomplished in a short novella, and I was impressed that so much was explored in the number of pages we had to work with.

And now the Bigfoot stuff. Fun as hell. I don’t want to give many spoilers, of course, but just know that the reasons behind the ‘revenge’ aspect that is promised in the title is pretty understandable. While I could sympathize with Henry, and certainly the townspeople that we encountered, ultimately I was here to see Bigfoots take out a bunch of humans, because humans are the WORST. And this book certainly delivers that. The descriptions of the various death scenes, and the aftermaths, are gruesome and over the top, and absolutely feel like they could be those you’d find in a B-schlock horror creature feature from Troma. Which makes the read super entertaining.

Halloween may be just behind us, but if you’re like me and always looking to extend the season by a hair, you should definitely consider picking up “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge”. And hey, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, just be careful when you wander into the woods. You never know what you could find!

Rating 8: A quick bit of creature feature horror for cryptid enthusiasts especially, “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” reads like a cheesy horror movie in all the best ways possible!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” isn’t featured on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think it would fit in on “Sasquatch Books”, and “Cryptids”.

Find “The Easton Falls Massacre: Bigfoot’s Revenge” at the authors’ website!

Kate’s Review: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene”

Book: “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” by Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter.

Publishing Info: Serial Box, October 2020/January 2021 (this is expanded upon in the review)

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

Book Description: Beatrix Greene has made a name for herself in Victorian England as a reputable spiritual medium, but she’s a fraud: even she knows ghosts aren’t real. But when she’s offered a lucrative job by James Walker—a scientist notorious for discrediting pretenders like her—Beatrix takes the risk of a lifetime. If her séance at the infamously haunted Ashbury Manor fools him, she will finally have true financial freedom. If she fails, her secret will become her public shame.

But James has his own dark secrets, and he believes only a true medium can put them to rest. When Beatrix’s séance awakens her real gift—and with it, a vengeful spirit—James finds that the answers he seeks are more dangerous than he could have imagined. Together, with a group of supernatural sleuths, Beatrix and James race to settle the ghost’s unrest before it strikes— or else they might not make it out of the haunted manor alive.

New York Times bestselling author Rachel Hawkins, along with Ash Parsons and Vicky Alvear Shecter, weaves darkness, death, and a hint of desire into this suspenseful mystery for fans of Sherlock Holmes and Crimson Peak.

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

We are wrapping up our Horrorpalooza reads, and Halloween is this weekend. First and foremost, Happy Halloween everyone! What better way to end the spooky reading season than with a good old fashioned haunted house story? “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is that, but with some modern lens tweaks and a unique storytelling style that I’m still kind of trying to wrap my head around. But if a fraudulent medium and an old manor on the English moors are involved, I’m going to be on board regardless of stylistic choices.

Would I do that? Can’t be sure. Would I READ about it? Every time. (source)

Since I’ve been noting the format, that’s the aspect of the story I’ll address first. “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is published by Serial Box, an organization that releases books and audiobooks in weekly episodes, each episode written by different authors. Our authors for this book are Rachel Hawkins, Ash Parsons, and Vicky Alvear Shecter. It feels like it’s a Round Robin writing exercise, which is definitely unique and not something that I’ve really encountered outside of fan fiction. I think that when you are experiencing it in this way, that is in weekly episodes like a TV show or podcast, that is a pretty cool thing. But in this format where it’s just a book that collects them all together but still calls them episodes as opposed to chapters, it feels a little strange. That is a bit exacerbated by the fact that the actual complete book isn’t going to be coming out until January, but the episodes have started dropping on Serial Box now, something that I wasn’t totally aware of when I requested this book. I think that this is confusing, frankly, and the ‘one chapter a week’ format may not appeal to all. If you want to do the whole book in one go, January will be when your time comes, according to Amazon.

But, there was a lot that I liked about this story in terms of the bare bones of the haunted house theme. The biggest stand out for me is Beatrix herself, a woman who is making a life as a medium during the time in England when Spiritualism was having its first big boom. Beatrix doesn’t actually believe in ghosts, and uses the kinds of tricks and strategies that many of those charlatan spiritualists used, like cold reading and ringers. But we also get to see that Beatrix isn’t doing this because she’s conniving or sociopathic. Rather, she’s trying to survive as a single woman during a time where options are limited. When she is invited by skeptical scientist (and charlatan exposer) James Walker to conduct a seance at an old manor called Ashbury Hall, she feels a need to prove herself to a seemingly arrogant scientist, and to protect her reputation so she can keep making a living. I loved Beatrix, and felt that she was nuanced and complicated. James, too, had some complexities and nuance to his character, and didn’t just serve as an antagonist foil who is ultimately going to be a love interest to Beatrix. He has his own personal stake in wanting to have her come to Ashbury Manor.

And yes, there is a romance between them, and yes, it feels a little unrealistic given that this story takes place in such a short time AND they find themselves in a very haunted and dangerous house. But the chemistry and banter between Beatrix and James sizzles, so I was very easy to forgive it. Along with the romance, of course, is a ghost story, and I thought that that part of it was also pretty well done. We have some fun nods to the genre, with believers and unbelievers getting in way too deep, and a house with a tragic history that goes back far beyond the time that the first brick was laid. The horror aspects have some moments of genuine scares and a little bit of gore, but I would also say that this is a friendlier read for horror lite people who may not want to be SUPER scared. A lot is crammed into this short tale (clocking in at less than two hundred pages), but I feel like Hawkins, Parsons, and Shecter are able to pull it all together and never make it feel rushed or haphazard. And going back to the format for just a moment, even though the chapters alternate between different authors, their styles meld together well enough that it always felt like a unified narrative, which isn’t always easy to do.

“The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is fun and just a little bit spooky, and a nice addition to the many other ghostly Gothic tales that came before it.

And that wraps up Horrorpalooza 2020! I hope that you all have a safe and happy Halloween!

Rating 7: A spooky and entertaining Gothic tale of (semi)terror, “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” has some good scares and some good characters, but the format seems unnecessary and the way it’s released may be confusing to some people.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Haunted Houses”, and “Historical Ghost Fiction”.

Find “The Haunting of Beatrix Greene” at Serial Box. In January, find it at your local library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Night of the Mannequins”

49246963Book: “Night of the Mannequins” by Stephen Graham Jones

Publishing Info: Tor.Com, September 2020

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

Book Description: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?

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

While the “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark” books had many stories that messed me up, the one that scarred me the most was that of “Harold”, in which two farmers create a scarecrow to be a joke of a friend, which then comes to life and wreaks havoc. The idea that an inanimate but human looking object could come to life and kill you really scared me. So doing some research into “Night of the Mannequins” by Stephen Graham Jones (beyond the appropriately vague description) got me pretty hyped for the idea of a mannequin coming to life and killing teens in a friend group. After all, mannequins are a bit creepy enough on their own, right?

giphy-3
And we can buiiiiild this thing together, staaanding strong forever… (source)

Now, it is admittedly going to be hard to talk about this novella in detail without potentially treading towards spoiler territory, and I REALLY don’t want to spoil anything for those who don’t want to be spoiled. So just be warned…. there may be hints of spoilers in this review.

Our protagonist/first person narrator is Sawyer, a teenage boy in a group of friends who like to pull pranks on each other, and who at one time found a department store mannequin that they decided to make into their mascot. They called him Manny, and brought him along on all kinds of adventures. As they grew up, Manny was left behind, but as they are nearing the end of high school Sawyer thinks that one more prank with Manny could be fun. And it is… until Sawyer sees Manny stand up and walk away. What comes next is a story that reads like a slasher movie, with a lot of weird deranged action, a very funny narrative voice, and a lot of ambiguity as to what exactly is happening to Sawyer and his friends, and whether or not a mannequin has come to life with a taste for revenge. There isn’t much dread to be found here, but what you do have is a lot of splatterpunk gore descriptions, action that reads like a movie, and a twisted up perception of what is real and what isn’t.

Sawyer is both incredibly funny to follow as well as authentic in his frenzied teenage voice, his ruminations and planning clearly leaving some logic out of his plans in his hopes to save people from Manny the Mannequin. I found myself laughing out loud, even at moments where it probably wasn’t appropriate to be doing so, but like in a slasher film, part of the entertainment is seeing the crazed and over the top kill scenes. Jones sprinkles a little bit of interesting pathos in every once in awhile, be it hints as to Sawyer’s family life or the lives of his friends, as well the fear of losing your childhood and what comes next. I also have to say that Jones does a really good job of making the reader question almost everything in terms of reliability and reality. By the time I got towards the end I thought that I had everything clear in my mind, but then Jones managed to pull the rug out from under me again! His stories have a bit of a brutality to them, but there is always a bit of wryness to go with it, and I really like that.

“Night of the Mannequins” is strange and filled with splatterpunk themes, but it definitely has some inner machinations that are intriguing to find and explore. Plus, it’s a quick read, the perfect one for a season-appropriate afternoon of horror leisure reading. Discover Stephen Graham Jones if you haven’t, and you could totally start here.

Rating 8: A weird and disturbing (but also fun) slasher kinda story. It’s a hoot as well as a trip, and it’s exactly the kind of entertainment a slasher kinda story should be!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Night of the Mannequins” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Haunted Dolls”, and “Indigenous Fiction Books”.

Find “Night of the Mannequins” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Silence of the Lambs”

Book: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 1988

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: A serial murderer known only by a grotesquely apt nickname—Buffalo Bill—is stalking women. He has a purpose, but no one can fathom it, for the bodies are discovered in different states. Clarice Starling, a young trainee at the FBI Academy, is surprised to be summoned by Jack Crawford, chief of the Bureau’s Behavioral Science section. Her assignment: to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal the Cannibal—who is kept under close watch in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Dr. Lecter is a former psychiatrist with a grisly history, unusual tastes, and an intense curiosity about the darker corners of the mind. His intimate understanding of the killer and of Clarice herself form the core of The Silence of the Lambs—an ingenious, masterfully written book and an unforgettable classic of suspense fiction.

Review: I first read “The Silence of the Lambs” when I was a freshman in high school. My mom and I were at a local drug store and they had the mass market paperback for sale, and she was kind enough to purchase it for me because she never censored what I wanted to read (even if she probably sighed to herself about her daughter’s morbid curiosities). I read it very quickly, completely immersed in the story. I saw the film shortly thereafter, and both are now very high on my lists in terms of favorite books and films. There has been a debate lately between film fans on Twitter as to whether “The Silence of the Lambs” is horror or not. Given that I watch it ever Halloween Season and my friends and I did a Netflix Party of it on one of our weekly Terror Tuesdays, I can see the argument for it being within the horror genre (though I myself flip flop between yes and no). Because of this, I decided that it was time to revisit the story in book form, and that I would include it in this year’s Horrorpalooza. And picking it up again felt like I was visiting an old friend.

But not one that I’m planning on having for dinner or anything… (source)

This book is still so good. While I think that I PROBABLY like the movie better, that is only because the movie is so perfect at bringing all of these three dimensional and amazing characters to life. Hannibal Lecter is a literary villain who stands above so many, but this book is 100% Clarice Starling’s. Harris created a ‘badass female protagonist’ who feels so real, so relatable, and so nuanced that I’m continually shocked that a man wrote her (given that sometimes male authors can miss the mark when it comes to writing lady characters). You feel Clarice’s ambition, her frustration, her smarts and her anxiety and her need to solve the Buffalo Bill case, and you completely understand why she would go to the lengths she does… like getting close to Hannibal, even though he is incredibly manipulative and dangerous. I also really appreciated the moments of misogyny and sexism that she has to endure, as for 1988 for a guy to put those in, and to make them sting and hurt without feeling overdone or corny, that’s impressive. Clarice is such an important and formative feminist icon for me, and I was worried that revisiting her might not hold up as well. But it did. Hannibal, too, is a fascinating character, and while he doesn’t have the same amount of page time as Clarice (which is just fine), his insidiousness and his charm makes him very creepy, as well as vastly entertaining. But for me, it’s all about Clarice.

I had also forgotten how well Harris slowly builds to the Buffalo Bill mystery that is the true heart of “The Silence of the Lambs”. You get small references to it here and there, but it takes awhile to realize that this story is the one that Clarice is going head first into. Seeing her slowly gather her evidence, be it through talking with Lecter or going into a storage container to find evidence, or going to an autopsy and finding a bug, we get to go along with Clarice, see the pathology unfold, and then see Bill in action. And Harris really knows how to write a suspenseful scene. Even though I have read the book before and seen the movie countless times, I found myself getting nervous and anxious during some of the action moments. Especially during the Buffalo Bill kidnapping we get to witness on the page.

I will say that Buffalo Bill, while a really well done villain (and completely under appreciated in the movie. Ted Levine is GOD TIER and gets overshadowed by Hopkins. I get why, but my GOD, every time I watch Levine just blows me away), feels problematic now given that Bill is clearly dealing with some kind of gender dysphoria. I do know that Bill is based on a whole smorgasbord of serial killers, and that Jerry Brudos is almost assuredly the one who manifests in Bill’s obsession with womanhood (as during one of his attacks he was dressed like a woman, would dress up in his victims clothing, and had a huge thing about womens shoes). But while it’s stated that Bill isn’t ‘actually transsexual’ (paraphrasing from the text here) in the book, it still feels like there are shades of transphobia with the character. I think it says more about the time it was written than much else, but it’s definitely something to think about, and stands out for all the wrong reasons today.

Overall, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a gripping, scary, and masterful classic that blurs the lines between thriller and horror. Re-reading was a joy, and I am glad I jumped back into it.

Rating 10: An enduring thriller classic that touches on real life horrors and (mostly) holds up.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Silence of the Lambs” is included on the Goodreads lists “I Like Serial Killers”, and “Best Female Lead Characters”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Plain Bad Heroines”

Book: “Plain Bad Heroines” by Emily M. Danforth

Publishing Info: William Morrow, October 2020

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

Book Description: The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

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

A few years ago I picked up the YA book “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth, as it had been put on a Pride display at the library I was working at at the time. I read it and liked it, and saw the movie and liked that as well. I told myself that I would be on the lookout for more books by Danforth, but admittedly didn’t really pay too close attention to her publications. When I saw the book “Plain Bad Heroines” on NetGalley and read the description, it caught my eye enough that I requested it and got a copy… and then when I put two and two together that this, too, was by Danforth, I was even more excited to read it!

“Plain Bad Heroines” is a mixed bag of genres, perspectives, themes, and narratives. It definitely has a horror story within its pages, but it also has some romance, some historical high strangeness, and some cheeky tongue in cheek humor, with a number of wry citations thrown in by a humorous narrator. The crux of this story is a former school estate called Brookhants, where at the turn of the 20th century a number of gruesome deaths occurred. We get to see the timeline of these deaths, and see the mysteries surrounding them, but we also get to see a modern narrative involving a movie set and crew that is trying to make a horror movie based upon a book written about the mysterious deaths and the supposedly haunted and/or cursed grounds. The past story has a focus on Libbie and Alex, two lovers who are running the school where a number of girls, who were also involved in various sapphic relationships and were obsessed with a book with lesbian themes, died in horrific ways. The modern tale focuses on three women involved in the production of a new horror movie about the school: Merritt, who wrote the book about Brookhants and framed it as a queer feminist history; Harper Harper, the superstar actress who champions her own queerness; and Audrey, a former child actress who is hoping to reinvent herself. The two timelines are interspersed together and unfold with tragedy, humor, longing, and Gothic horror.

But even with suspense, romantic drama, Hollywood nonsense, and some actual horror moments that set me on edge, “Plain Bad Heroines” is also a very earnest, charming, and funny tale. The narrative jumps between timelines but connects with a humorous and ever nudging Narrator, with citations, side comments, and the occasional period appropriate illustration ever at hand. It works so well, and while I was worried that it may take away from the ghost story (and the body horror elements, SO MANY BODY HORROR ELEMENTS), it never did. While I mostly liked the modern story more, I did like getting the background and context of the haunted school and seeing how the curse and its fallout was affecting Harper, Audrey, and Merritt in the modern day. Fair warning: if you have a thing about yellow jackets, content warnings ABOUND in this book. Danforth hits many a horror moment, which was great to see and something I didn’t necessarily expect from her given her other book. Yet she does it with ease, and pulls off lots of unsettling moments.

But it’s really the characters that propelled the story for me, both the ones from the past and in the present. Libbie, Alex, and the other characters in the past storyline were well described and grounded in historical truths that are very sad when it comes to lesbian relationships during that time period. You know that societal constraints are driving many things out of their control, and the sadness of the complications, and the doom you know is coming, made these characters very sympathetic, even when they were making decisions and choices that may have been damaging and hurtful. But (once again) it’s the modern women who really stood out, all of their complexities and nuances on display and perfectly drawn out. While Harper and Merritt have a lot of great moments of goodness and badness, it was Audrey who really captivated me, her desperation to move on from her old life and to find something new incredibly palpable. I loved watching all of them interact, and how Danforth put the power of womens’ relationships, be they romantic or platonic, at the forefront.

I really enjoyed “Plain Bad Heroines”. Danforth is such a dynamic writer, and if you want something spooky this season that isn’t too scary, this will surely captivate you as it did me.

Rating 9: A complex, wry, and genuinely creepy book about Gothic mysteries, untimely deaths, sapphic romance, and a whole lot of yellow jackets, “Plain Bad Heroines” is a pleasant surprise from Danforth and a fun Halloween read!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Plain Bad Heroines” isn’t included on many Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Sapphic Book Lists”.

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

Kate’s Review: “Clown in a Cornfield”

Book: “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, August 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Quinn Maybrook just wants to make it until graduation. She might not make it to morning.

Quinn and her father moved to tiny, boring Kettle Springs to find a fresh start. But ever since the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory shut down, Kettle Springs has cracked in half. On one side are the adults, who are desperate to make Kettle Springs great again, and on the other are the kids, who want to have fun, make prank videos, and get out of Kettle Springs as quick as they can.

Kettle Springs is caught in a battle between old and new, tradition and progress. It’s a fight that looks like it will destroy the town. Until Frendo, the Baypen mascot, a creepy clown in a pork-pie hat, goes homicidal and decides that the only way for Kettle Springs to grow back is to cull the rotten crop of kids who live there now.

Review: I am not afraid of clowns. I have friends who are, but I myself don’t really have much beef with them outside of sometimes finding them a little pointless. Even the likes of Pennywise of John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo just don’t really make me tap into my inner coulrophobic. But I do like a book that reads like a slasher story, and reading the description of “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare felt like exactly that. Throw in some Millennial resentment towards older generations that don’t quite get the road we’ve had to travel, and I was eager to dive in and see what Cesare was going to do with all of it.

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a bit of a slasher story, a bit of small town secrets story, and some ‘okay, Boomer’ memes all mixed together to create a YA horror tale. On a few levels, this works out pretty well and makes for fun reading. The very concept of a bunch of teens being slaughtered by someone wearing a clown mask is great horror fodder, but “Clown in a Cornfield” takes it a few steps further than that and works through some generational angst that is playing out in the real world. The town of Kettle Springs, the setting of this book, is having a bit of a reckoning when it comes to the older people in town versus the teenagers. The older people want Kettle Springs to stay the same, living off of good family values, hard work, and the corn syrup factory that has given the town jobs and prosperity, until recently, that is. The younger generation, specifically the teens, just want to live their lives and then move on. Cesare takes a pretty realistic conflict and pumps it full of blood and guts, and it works pretty well, with those with traditional values blaming inevitable changes in values for all the ills within the town. It could have been heavy handed, but Cesare keeps his tongue planted in cheek firmly enough that it’s a rather effective satire. I also liked a few of our main characters, namely Quinn, the new girl in town who is trying to fit in. Quinn has enough tragic backstory to give her a little bit of pathos, but also stands on her own two feet well enough that she is likable and endearing.

But that said, some of the executions of the plot points didn’t work as well for me. Besides Quinn and a couple other characters, we don’t really get to know enough about a number of the people we’re following so that it doesn’t feel like the stakes are too high when the clown Frendo (“No Country for Old Men” reference?) comes a knocking with weaponry and murderous intent. I don’t really care too much when a slasher film just has a bunch of stereotypes to act as machete fodder for a masked killer, but I think that on the page you have a little more wiggle room to give us some insight into your characters, even if it’s just a little bit. Along with that, the pacing was a little off at times, feeling a bit rushed in some places but kind of draggy in others. I bought the plot overall, as it really is just a slasher story and I know what I’m getting into there. But I think that had there been a little more focus on fleshing out some other characters and less on making super cool kills happen, it probably would have worked a little better. Especially since the satire was pretty well thought out.

Inevitable progress to traditionalists everywhere. (source)

“Clown in a Cornfield” is a pretty fun read. I think that it would have worked better as a gory limited series, but Cesare left room for a sequel, and it was good enough that I would definitely read it. If you don’t like clowns, maybe skip it? But if you’re like me, this could be a fun read for this time of year.

Rating 6: A sly premise and some fun characters keep this story afloat, though the plot is a little hasty at times and the scares feel like they’d work better on screen than on the page.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Clown in a Cornfield” isn’t included on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it would fit in on “Clown Horror”. Obviously.

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

Kate’s Review: “Ring Shout”

49247242Book: “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark

Publishing Info: Tor.com, October 2020

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

Book Description: Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

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

I have said it many a time, the horror genre can be so effective at symbolism and social commentary wrapped up in a creepy and spooky tale. You’ve seen it with such films as “Night of the Living Dead”, “Get Out”, “Candyman”, “Dawn of the Dead”, the list goes on and on and on. Books, too, do this very well, with recent titles like “Lovecraft Country” and “The Devil in Silver” being two that come to mind for me. I always love some horror that has more to say about society than just ghosts and ghouls, and “Ring Shout” by P. Djèlí Clark is a new title that scratches that itch. Sure, it looks like it’s a book about demons, demon hunters, and black magic. But it’s also a story of the very real horrors of American Racism.

I am usually nervous when I’m about to start a novella that seems like it has a lot of distance to cover and a lot of complicated themes, as it’s hard to fit all of that into limited pages. But even though “Ring Shout” clocks in at less than two hundred pages, Clark does a great job of developing his characters, building an alternative American history with mystical themes, and hitting the metaphors out of the park with biting satire and, in some cases, dark humor. We follow Marys, Sadie, and Chef, three Black women who, in post WWI America, are fighting against demons summoned by dark sorcerer D.W. Griffith that have fed upon white people’s racism and led to a resurgence of the KKK. There are Klans, who are white racists whose hate for Black (and other non-white groups) has been amplified, and Ku Kluxes, actual demons disguised under the robes. Maryse, Sadie, and Chef, with the help from a Gulluh woman with magic and insight and other freedom fighters, are hoping to stop the end of the world fueled by racism, and Maryse may hold the key to it all. What I liked best about this story was that the three main characters are Black women, and they are given a whole lot of agency, motivation, and unique characterizations that make them all very enjoyable and fun. Maryse especially has a lot of complexity, her anger and determination pushing her forward. Clark gives all of them unique voices, but Maryse’s in particular stands out.

The social commentary has a lot to work with her. While it could have been easy to just say ‘demons are the problems behind the racism in the Jim Crow South’ (something you kind of saw in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” with vampires and chattel slavery), Clark doesn’t let racist white people off the hook here. While it’s true that the demons are part of it, those who are influenced already had hate in their hearts. That hate was just used to help the demons gain power. There is also a less obvious but just as powerful metaphor in this story through the magical system regarding these demons that Clark puts in. The only people who can see the demons in their true forms are people from marginalized groups (this is mostly Black people, but there is a Jewish character in the group fighting against the Ku Kluxes that can see them as well); white people cannot. It’s a clever way to call out white people’s ‘I don’t see color’ hypocrisy, as well as a metaphor for the microaggressions that have a blind eye turned to them even when marginalized groups who are affected by them say that they are, indeed, there. I greatly enjoyed that part of the mythos.

And Clark pulls all of this together in a cohesive and engaging story in less than two hundred pages! With some pretty gnarly Lovecraftian imagery and body horror thrown in for good measure (there’s also a nod to this extremely problematic horror icon in this story, which was super fun to see). It made for a bite sized horror treat that I was able to read and enjoy in one sitting, the perfect quick tale for this Halloween season!

“Ring Shout” is a new social commentary horror classic in the making! Treat yourself to something a little more complex this ghostly season, you won’t be disappointed.

Rating 8: Steeped in sharp and biting satire and commentary, “Ring Shout” is a story of demons, heroines, and American racism.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ring Shout” is included on the Goodreads lists “Beyond Butler: Spec Fic by Authors of Color”, and “ATY 2020 – About Racism and Race Relations”.

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