Kate’s Review: “The Dead Zone”

28254557Book: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Viking Press, 1979

Where Did I Get This Book: An audiobook from the library!

Book Description: When Johnny Smith was six-years-old, head trauma caused by a bad ice-skating accident left him with a nasty bruise on his forehead and, from time to time, those hunches…infrequent but accurate snippets of things to come. But it isn’t until Johnny’s a grown man—now having survived a horrifying auto injury that plunged him into a coma lasting four-and-a-half years—that his special abilities really push to the force. Johnny Smith comes back from the void with an extraordinary gift that becomes his life’s curse…presenting visions of what was and what will be for the innocent and guilty alike. But when he encounters a ruthlessly ambitious and amoral man who promises a terrifying fate for all humanity, Johnny must find a way to prevent a harrowing predestination from becoming reality.

Review: During the Great Stephen King Binge of Eighth Grade, I hit a lot of classic King stories that have endured the test of time. But interestingly enough, one of the titles I skipped during that time was “The Dead Zone”, King’s fifth book (not including a few he wrote under Richard Bachman), and therefore still SUPER early in his writing career. It’s also one of his first books in Castle Rock, now a staple setting for a lot of the King Mythology. Looking back I have no idea why I skipped it; it’s about a man who becomes a psychic after an accident and has to deal with having horrible visions as well as deal with how his new powers affects his relationships. Perhaps at the time it sounded too tame, but now I know that psychics are some of my favorite tropes in dark fantasy/horror/what have you. Suffice to say, I decided to give it a go, and now I am sorta kicking myself for waiting so long to pick it up. Because not only does “The Dead Zone” include one of my favorite tropes of all time, it also has a villain that feels incredibly relevant to today: a malignantly narcissistic politician who garners a fervent following in spite of (because of?) his brash, callous, and cruel nature and false promises.

giphy9
That’s a political hellscape that sounds AWFULLY familiar… (source)

John Smith is our protagonist, a humble and serious school teacher who, after a car accident that leaves him in a coma for years, suddenly gains the power to touch someone or something, and get an impression about the past, or the future. King writes John in the way that I think most people would be if they gained this power: unhappy with the burden of it, but also unable to make himself ignore it should the consequences be grave and also potentially malleable. While this is a fairly standard recipe for modern ‘psychic who wants to be normal’ characters, John was probably one of the earlier iterations of the now familiar trope, and I enjoyed watching his character have to grapple with the responsibility. While it may feel a little old hat now, when this book was published in 1980 I wonder if the idea of ‘reluctant psychic’ was as prevalent as it is now. King really emphasizes the pitfalls of this gift, be it because of people who will harangue you as a fraud, or the people who will be desperate for you to give them answers to things that may not have easy, or wanted, solutions. Multiple times John has to weigh the pros and cons of telling people what he has seen, and King makes it clear that the emotional exhaustion and fallout oftentimes takes serious tolls on him. There are multiple moments in the story where I felt so badly for John, because he gains very little from this gift, even when it does positive things. In fact, if he does predict an outcome, usually those he helps are then completely terrified of him because of his supernatural abilities.

But I think that while John is a perfectly fine person to follow, I believe that the greatest strengths in this novel are the supporting cast of characters, in particular John’s old girlfriend Sarah, and the villain of the piece, Greg Stillson. Sarah and John are very tragic in a muted way, as while John survived the crash and eventually did wake up, Sarah, assuming he never would, moved on with her life. She has a husband and a child by the time John wakes up, and while she never stopped loving him she thought that she could never actually be with him. When confronted with the reality of what COULD have been is desperately sad. But at the same time, Sarah isn’t mired down by her sadness. I like that she takes the agency and little control she does have over the situation and is able to find closure in some ways (though admittedly I did roll my eyes a little bit at one aspect…. It felt weird and schmaltzy, but no spoilers here). She is a very steadfast character who feels deeper than just the old girlfriend who has lingering regrets. However, the strongest supporting character is assuredly Greg Stillson, the aforementioned politician whose power comes from a slowly growing cult of personality. Stillson and John spend much of the novel separate, but while we see John’s eventual rise as a reluctant psychic, we see Stillson’s rise in the political world (gains made mostly through violence, extortion, and intimidation). While I was at first wondering just where Stillson was going to come into all of this (as I went into this book with very little knowledge about it), King does a great job of carefully and slowly bringing them together at the most critical time in the novel. By the time John and Stillson do meet on the page, you have been given enough info about both of them that you know it’s the meeting of two powerhouses in their varying ways. Stillson scares the hell out of me, if only because Stillson feels like our reality…. Except there was no reluctant psychic to step in and stop his mad reign.

I listened to this on audio, and oddly enough it was read by James Franco. My guess is this was recorded around the time he was starring in “11/22/63” and the tie in was too good to pass up, but while it was odd to hear him at first he did a pretty okay job with the material. He varied his voices appropriately and emoted enough without feeling over the top. He’s no Will Patton, but I was overall satisfied with how he did (though, hilariously, one of the characters calls for a Polish accent, and so I just kept imagining Franco as Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” whenever the Polish Neurologist was around).

“The Dead Zone” was a dark and unsettling novel, but it is SO classic King that my nostalgia meter was off the charts. While it felt a little too real at times, I greatly, greatly enjoyed finally reading it.

Rating 8: A classic King book with a newly relevant feel, “The Dead Zone” is an unsettling read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dead Zone” is included on the Goodreads lists “Theological Weird Fiction”, and “Conspiracy Fiction”.

Find “The Dead Zone” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Night Games”

89795Book: “Night Games” (Fear Street #40) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1996

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

Book Description: Living on the edge…

Diane loves sneaking out in the middle of the night. Her friends do, too. They have the town all to themselves. Every night they come up with a new prank to play.

But then Diane’s boyfriend, Lenny, wants revenge on a teacher, and the pranks turn to murder. Now Diane and her friends are in too deep.

Much too deep…with no way out.

Had I Read This Before: No.

The Plot: We meet Diane, Cassie, Jordan, and Lenny as they are walking home from Red Heat Dance club. They are outside the house of their most hated teacher, Mr. Crowell, who has decorated his front lawn with tacky and bright Christmas decorations. These friends are shocked that their teacher has a life outside of being a dick who teaches math, as if teachers aren’t humans too. Diane’s boyfriend Lenny ESPECIALLY hates Mr. Crowell because he has a victim complex and thinks that Mr. Crowell is extra hard on him. Diane assures the reader that Lenny may look like a tough guy, but beneath his abusive and asshole-ish demeanor is a ‘marshmallow’, and ho boy, he’s one of those. As they continue to walk they suddenly see a figure crawl out of a window. Is it a burglar? No, it’s their old friend Spencer Jarvis! They has him why he’s crawling out of some stranger’s house, but he says that his family lives there now. When Diane asks where he’s been this past year (as she’s called him and called him, since they were besties until she started dating Lenny), he asks her if she got his letter. Apparently his Dad’s store closed and his grandmother in DC got sick, so they moved out there to care for her. But they’re back now, and while he’s not at their high school he’s at St Ann’s, a hop skip and jump away! And he’s sneaking out to play some ‘Night Games’. He invites them to come along, and since it’s past midnight and they’re all no doubt already breaking curfew, why not keep the fun going? They see a car with a couple inside, making out, and Spencer pretends to be a police officer and gives them a good scare. Hm, impersonating a police officer, we’re off to a great start. They all run away when the couple figures it out, and Spencer invites the group to come back that Monday after midnight to play more Night Games.

That Monday in Mr. Crowell’s class, Lenny is caught snickering and Mr. Crowell calls him out. He’s kind of like a worse and more abusive version of Mr. Northwood in “The Dare”, because while I felt bad for Mr. Northwood Mr. Crowell probably shouldn’t be teaching children. That said, Lenny actively starts to take a swing at the guy, so there are no winners in this horse race. Luckily, Diane’s horror at Lenny’s action makes him stop (oh yay! She’s even being painted as ‘the one who can quell his violent urges’ like that’s her fucking job or something), and he stomps out of the room. Diane assures us that Lenny doesn’t look for trouble, it just happens to find him, and to that I say

giphy1
(source)

I’m really not here for characters like this anymore. Unless you give me a tragic backstory or a reason for emotional problems, I don’t want to hear it. After class Cassie says that Lenny should be careful because Mr. Crowell has a heart condition and his antics may very well give the man a heart attack, but Diane doesn’t buy that, and I don’t really buy it either. Spoiled kids ain’t nothing but nothing. Cassie asks if Diane is still going out that night, and Diane says yes, so Cassie says she’ll go too because it’s nice seeing Spencer again even if his idea of fun is kind of, uh, ‘odd’?

They all meet outside Spencer’s house that night, and tell Spencer about Lenny’s run in with Mr. Crowell. Spencer says he never liked Crowell either, and they being their Night Game. Spencer leads them to Mr. Crowell’s house, and suggests that they peep inside his window and see what he’s up to. These games are pretty felonious I must say. The other’s are a little nervous, but all agree, and Diane even finds it a little exciting. They watch him lead a pretty depressing existence of drinking a soda and looking at his Christmas tree, but that doesn’t last long because suddenly Spencer is destroying the lawn decorations. Mr. Crowell hears the ruckus (and I’m sure half of Shadyside does too), and they all run off, with Mr. Crowell shouting ‘I saw you!’ They all run back to Spencer’s house, and the guys LOVED this. Cassie is horrified that they vandalized his property, but Lenny points out that Mr. Crowell could never prove it was them even if he DID suspect them. Spencer asks if they want to go out again the next night. The guys are in, Cassie says she doesn’t want to, and when they ask Diane she says that she does want to, BUT Spencer has to tell them if he’s going to do something crazy like that again. That’s the WORST stipulation ever, but they all agree. When Diane sneaks back into her house and into her room, her phone is ringing. She picks it up and it’s some guy named Bryan, who she used to date before Lenny. He begs her to take him back, and she says no. She hangs up, and the phone rings again. This time the caller says ‘I saw you tonight, Diane, and I know all about your Night Games.’ Diane thinks it must be Bryan. I think that Bryan’s middle name is ‘Red Herring’.

We do a time jump backwards to the past winter. Spencer has invited his friends up to his uncle’s ski cabin in the mountains. He is excited but also apprehensive since they’ve all paired up and he doesn’t have a girlfriend (especially since they give him grief over it. They also tease him because he’s fat in this timeline). He had hoped that when Diane and Bryan broke up she would have asked him out, but instead she started going with Lenny. His friends arrive and Jordan deliberately makes his car kick up snow in Spencer’s face. And also Spencer hadn’t even invited Lenny to the cabin, Diane had just assumed that he was invited since they were dating now, and that’s a pretty bold assumption, Diane. As his friends all go pick their bedrooms, Spencer overhears Lenny bitching about having to be here this weekend (SO WHY DID YOU COME, ASSHOLE?!), but Jordan eases the tension, which makes Spencer mad because Jordan used to be close to HIM, but now he’s close to Lenny. While they’re all hanging out the weather outside causes a power outage, and Lenny continues to bitch and Diane tells him to go sit in the car if he hates it inside so much. Spencer invites Diane to go with him to get more firewood. They go to the shed, and she confides in him that Lenny is a real jerk and she hates that they fight all the time. Spencer and Diane then start to kiss, but Lenny is there! He punches Spencer in the face and literally drags Diane back to the cabin. Spencer thinks that he can’t let Lenny get away with what he’s done….

Back to the present timeline! Cassie and Diane are splitting a pizza at Pete’s Pizza and talking about the night before. Diane tells Cassie that Bryan called her and that he was threatening her about the Night Games. Cassie asks how he could possibly know about that, but Diane is off on the next topic: Lenny being a hotheaded jerk off (my words, not hers). She wishes that people would just give him a break, as if LENNY isn’t the common factor in all the trouble he gets into. Cassie wants to talk about Spencer and how much he’s changed. He used to be a dork, but now he’s fit and self assured! Before they can talk for too long, Lenny bursts into the pizza parlor, his hand bleeding! When they ask what happened he says that it was Mr. Crowell that did it! Though actually it was because he punched his own locker because Mr. Crowell told the basketball coach that his grades in math were failing. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOURSELF, LENNY. He was kicked off the team because policy says you have to have passing grades to play sports and I think that’s pretty common, but to these guys it’s ‘so unfair’. Jordan shows up and says that he heard about Lenny getting kicked off the team, and Lenny almost attacks Jordan because he’s ever so reasonable. They change the subject, and confirm that they’re going to Night Game it up that evening. And Lenny says that tonight he’s really going to get his revenge on Mr. Crowell.

Diane assures the reader that she knows it’s nuts that she, sensible and practical Diane, participated in these things. But she explains that to her, Night Games are Freedom, because during the day you have all these responsibilities, like homework, and school, and not vandalizing teacher’s homes. But there’s also the fact that Spencer is now confident and thin and can somehow make her do things that she normally wouldn’t do. All of the friends are waiting for Spencer, who is late, and Cassie wants to bug out. But the Spencer crawls out of his window and joins them. Lenny tells him that he wants to go back to Crowell’s house and do some ‘real damage’, and even Spencer is like ‘whoa there buddy’. He says that Night Games aren’t about revenge, they’re about fun! Lenny says that revenge IS fun. And Spencer is a little quiet, and then says that they should go if they’re going to because it’s getting late. They go to Mr. Crowell’s house, and all the lights are off and his car is gone. Lenny says he’s going to destroy all the decorations on the lawn, but Spencer has a better idea: they’re going to break in. Cassie is horrified, but allt he boys are down for it and climb in the window. Diane tells Cassie she can stay outside if she wants, but she’s going in too, and Cassie joins her. Lenny turns on the light saying they should break all the things, but Spencer turns it off and tells him to actually THINK for once in his life. He suggests that they just move some things around. That way, Mr. Crowell will be freaked out, but it may not be enough to call the cops about. And hey, it was cute and quirky when Amélie did it. A mean teacher DEFINITELY equates to a bigoted grocer who makes fun of disabled people. Anyway. They start to mess with his stuff, and Diane decides to explore the house. When she gets to his bedroom she freaks out, thinking Mr. Crowell is on the bed, but Spencer shows her it’s just a pair of pajamas laid out. He relief is short lived, though, as Mr. Crowell returns home! They wait for him to go up the steps as they hide in the kitchen, and then make a break through the door that’s in the kitchen. Spencer also steals one of Mr. Crowell’s CD players, which was NOT part of the deal, guy! And Diane was especially shocked that he looked EXCITED about it! She runs all the way home and climbs into her bed just as her mother checks on her. She pretends that she was asleep, and her mother says she thought she heard someone walking around, but is satisfied and leaves. Diane thinks she dodged a bullet, and Cassie calls her. They agree that it was fun (FUN?!), but Spencer went too far when he stole the CD player. I would argue the breaking and entering was going too far. After hanging up, Diane tries to go to sleep, but the phone rings again. This time it’s the same mystery caller she assumes is Bryan. This time the caller says that she’s going to pay for what she did.

In Mr. Crowell’s class the next day they are all paranoid that he knows they were in his house. When he asks Diane to stay behind after class she almost panics, but he just wants to ask her how her midterm project is going. She meets up with her friends and says she thinks that the Night Games need to stop. Cassie agrees, but Jordan and Lenny think she’s overreacting, after all, Mr. Crowell has NO idea it was them! Diane tells them about the phone calls she’s been getting. She doesn’t mention Bryan’s name because Lenny would probably beat him up, but now that she’s been threatened Lenny is also ready to stop. Jordan is mad, but agrees. They go to Spencer’s house after school, but he doesn’t answer the door. Figuring his still at St. Ann’s, they agree to talk to him later. Diane has dinner at Cassie’s house and studies, and then walks home. But then she’s grabbed by someone! Turns out it’s Bryan, who followed her. He tells her that he needs to protect her from Lenny, and she tells him to back off and to stop calling her. Bryan is confused about the phone calls, and says he only called her the one time. He grabs her arm trying to stop her from leaving, but a passing car makes him lose his nerve and he runs away. Diane’s parents aren’t home, and she looks forward to having some time for herself, but then Lenny shows up on her doorstep. Turns out his parents caught wind of his bad grades and he’s in deep trouble. And whose fault is it according to him? MR. CROWELL, OF COURSE! He says that he’s having fantasies of killing him, and Diane kisses him to try and calm him down. There’s another knocking on the door, and this time it’s Cassie. She shows them a note that was left in her bag, telling her to stop the Night Games or she will be the ‘loser’. Lenny thinks it’s Mr. Crowell. Diane thinks it’s Bryan. Cassie, however, thinks it’s Spencer. Lenny dismisses her, as the Night Games were Spencer’s idea. But Diane agrees that Spencer has been weird lately. Then Spencer shows up and shows off a threatening note that he got.

AND WE GO BACK TO LAST WINTER! Spencer is still feeling bitter about the whole ‘getting punched in the face’ thing. The snow from the night before has stopped, and they all decide that a snowball war could be fun. Spencer makes some ice balls to throw at Lenny, but Lenny calls him out on it and Jordan thinks that a real CORKER of an idea would be to bury Spencer in the snow. So they hold him down no matter how much he protests, and start to cover him in snow. The girls tell them to stop but Lenny says it’s just a joke, though Spencer is starting to have a hard time breathing. They bury him so deep he can’t move, and then Lenny says that they should drive back to Shadyside. Diane says that they can’t just leave Spencer in the snow, but Lenny says he’ll be fine, he has a car, and they all leave Spencer buried in a snow drift.

giphy2
That’s some sociopathy kinda shit. (source)

Present time again! At lunch the next day Diane, Cassie, Lenny, and Jordan are talking about their predicament. They don’t know who is sending the notes, but they really do want to stop the Night Games. They didn’t tell Spencer when they saw him, but they say that they have to stop. Diane thinks that Bryan is sending the notes, but that’s neither here nor there. Lenny goes to talk to Mr. Crowell after school, but the teacher doesn’t have any sympathy for him and apparently called him a loser, and that’s not great, Mr. Crowell. Lenny is incensed, and he and Jordan say that they need to have one more Night Game for revenge.

That night they all tromp toward Mr. Crowell’s house under cloak of darkness. Lenny is ready to do just about anything, and they arrive at Mr. Crowell’s house and climb in the window. Lenny shows them be brought spray paint. He starts to spray all over the house. Diane has had enough, and she goes and finds Cassie, telling her she is ready to go. Cassie agrees, and they go to find the guys. But when they do find them, they see what the guys have found. Mr. Crowell is DEAD ON THE FLOOR!!! Jordan says that THEY didn’t kill him and they have to go, because if the police found them inside this house they’d be DEAD. Diane wonders if Lenny did this when no one was looking. Lenny is freaking out because he spray painted ALL OVER THE DAMN PLACE, and now he can’t find the spray can, like an IDIOT. They start to look, and headlights make them panic. COULD IT BE THE POLICE? No, it’s just a neighbor’s car pulling into the driveway next door. Jordan finds the spray can and then get the fuck outta dodge. As Diane runs home she sees a blue Toyota, much like the car that Bryan drove. Is it Bryan following her? If not, why is he out so late!? She gets home and dives into bed.

The next morning Cassie calls. Mr Crowell’s housekeeper found his body, and the police say he died of a heart attack. BUT they think that the intruder who spray painted his house was the one who gave him said heart attack, so they aren’t off the hook! Diane asks Cassie if maybe the police are right, that they DID give Mr. Crowell a heart attack, and Cassie says she doesn’t know. They hang up, and Diane stays home from school. That evening, while her parents are at a play, there’s a pounding on the door. Diane ignores it until it stops, but when she opens the door there’s a rolled up banner on the stood. She unfurls it and finds a spraypainted note that says “you die next”. She calls Cassie and Lenny, but they are already on the way to her house. When they arrive, they have notes too. Diane tells them that she saw Bryan’s car, and they wonder why he would be doing this. The decide to go find Jordan, who is off with a friend. They eventually see his Jeep by a coffee shop, and he’s with Bryan! They demand why he’s with Bryan, but he says they’re lab partners and what is the problem? They show him the notes (in front of Bryan because FUCK IT I guess), and say that HE found the spray can and did he write the notes? He says no, Spencer took the spray can. They decide they need to go talk to Spencer, but Bryan says that this isn’t HIS business and they leave him behind. Smart man, that one. Stalkery, but smart.

They go to Spencer’s house. They knock on the door but he doesn’t answer. Diane looks through the window into the dark house, and then screams. She opens the window, and they enter the living room. Spencer is lying dead on the floor. They wonder if they should call the police, but no, then they would be connected to this AND Mr. Crowell and that’s murder! They try to turn on the lights, but they don’t turn on. In fact, the entire room is empty too, and not only is there no electricity, there’s no heat! And then… THEN… Spencer sits up. But he says that he IS dead! He then floats up off the floor!! HE’S A GHOST! A SOMEHOW SOLID GHOST! That last winter he smothered under the snow! He’s been dead the whole time! When they ask him how he came back from the dead, he says that it was his hatred that kept him here, and once again, we have no use for magical systems in THIS book! He’s the one who killed Mr. Crowell by scaring him to death, knowing that the Night Games would make it so they’d be suspected of murder. But he wants to kill Diane first because she’s his ‘favorite’, aka she didn’t want to fuck him and instead wanted to be with Lenny. He starts to strangle her. As he does so, Diane’s friends do nothing to stop it! She starts to pass out, and fades to black… but then starts to fight  back! By hugging him?! She puts her arms around him saying that she loves him because he’s her friend and that they missed him, and the others do it too. And this makes Spencer melt into a pile of goo. Which then disappears. Cassie, Lenny, and Jordan celebrate! The evil has been defeated! But Diane isn’t celebrating. Because Spencer DID kill her when he strangled her! And her friends didn’t even try to stop him. And now Diane says that she may want to ‘play some Night Games of [her] own’. The End.

giphy3
Laaaaame. (source)

Body Count: 3.

Romance Rating: 2. And I only give it a 2 because Cassie and Jordan seem to have a semblance of a normal teen relationship. Lenny is just AWFUL to Diane, Bryan is a stalker, and Spencer, uh, killed her.

Bonkers Rating: 7. It would have been higher but it pretty much just repeated the twists that “The Perfect Date” did so it wasn’t exactly shocking, and just as lazy.

Fear Street Relevance: 2. Once again, I don’t think that Fear Street is mentioned once in this book in terms of locations, but I will admit that I could have missed it because my eyes glazed over so many times, so I’m upping it just in case.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“The moon came from behind a cloud and washed eerie, white light through a window. It glinted off the metal in Lenny’s hand. A gun? No! Not Lenny. Not a gun.

‘Lenny!’ I cried. ‘Are you crazy? What are you going to do with that?'”

… And it’s not a gun, but a spray paint can.

That’s So Dated! Moments: At one point there is mention of the potential to watch the “Lethal Weapon” movies (as opposed to the newish TV show).

giphy
This encapsulates my experience more and more as I read these books. (source)

Best Quote:

“He studied his slice of pizza with a small frown. He glanced at Cassie. ‘You ordered this, didn’t you?'”

I honestly think this captures the quiet exasperation/endearment that happens between a long term couple when one does something incredibly predictable when it is to the other’s chagrin.

Conclusion: “Night Games” was boring and felt like a rehashed remix of “The Perfect Date” and “The Dare”. You are better of just reading those two (and “The Perfect Date” is also pretty bad). Up next is “The Runaway”! (NOTE: my regular “Revisit to Fear Street” posts will be back in November, as we have a couple of fun surprises in their stead for the rest of October)

Kate’s Review: “We Sold Our Souls”

37715859Book: “We Sold Our Souls” by Grady Hendrix

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: A new novel of supernatural horror (and pop culture) from the author of Horrorstor, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and Paperbacks from Hell.

In the 1990s, heavy metal band Dürt Würk was poised for breakout success — but then lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom as Koffin, leaving his fellow bandmates to rot in rural Pennsylvania.

Two decades later, former guitarist Kris Pulaski works as the night manager of a Best Western – she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Everything changes when she discovers a shocking secret from her heavy metal past: Turns out that Terry’s meteoric rise to success may have come at the price of Kris’s very soul.

This revelation prompts Kris to hit the road, reunite with the rest of her bandmates, and confront the man who ruined her life. It’s a journey that will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a Satanic rehab center and finally to a Las Vegas music festival that’s darker than any Mordor Tolkien could imagine. A furious power ballad about never giving up, even in the face of overwhelming odds, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul…where only a girl with a guitar can save us all. 

Review: A special thanks to NetGalley for sending me and eARC of this book!

My musical heart deftly belongs to New Wave and Punk music, but I have indeed dabbled in the wonders of metal, specifically Norwegian Black Metal bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone. So with my slight knowledge of some history of the evolution of black metal (thanks, Last Podcast on the Left!) I was all the more intrigued by Grady Hendrix’s new horror novel “We Sold Our Souls”. Given how much I thoroughly enjoyed “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”, I had high hopes that his newest work would be a similar reading experience.

giphy6
But with more corpse paint. (source)

We follow Kris, a former heavy metal musician whose life has gone off the rails. She used to be a founding member of gritty club band Dürt Würk that was on the edge of stardom, only for one night that has haunted her ever since to throw them all off track. Now Kris is working at a Best Western, and her former friend and bandmate, Terry Hunt, has found stardom through Nu Metal with a band called Koffin. Kris is a fairly typical Hendrix protagonist, in that she is flawed and damaged, but scrappy as hell. Her passion for metal is apparent from the get go, but Hendrix never falls into any familiar tropes that other less skilled authors may have implemented. Kris isn’t a sexy bad girl with dyed hair and a snarly attitude, nor is she too edgy for her own good (because ‘edgy’ is obviously how a woman metal head would be). On the contrary, she’s older, she’s a bit used up, and she’s somewhat unlikable, but she also has a heart and a soul and a drive to reclaim her past and the success that she assuredly is owed. Her love of the genre is thrown into every page, with quick and dirty history lessons tossed in here and there to give her a serious grounding within her place and her motivations. Hendrix is great at tossing in the pop culture without being overt about it, so it feels organic and natural as opposed to slapped on for the sake of it. Her journey of reconnecting with her bandmates, and then figuring out that they are in danger because of an ever present dark force that goes back to the night the band broke up, is a fun journey that has a lot of moments of pathos, be it about lost friendships, the unfairness of the music industry, or loving something so much and just not quite achieving a life within in no matter how hard you try. Kris’s story in this regard absolutely worked for me.

What didn’t work as well were the actual horror aspects of this book. As it says in the description, Kris’s soul was sold to a demonic entity so that Terry could succeed. It isn’t as simple as a Mephistopheles kind of deal, as Hendrix makes his own mythos and runs with it. While I appreciate the creativity here, I think that Hendrix does falter a bit when it comes to the horror elements of his books. There were scenes with various demonic beings, creatures, and forces that were meant to scare and unsettle, but every time we interacted with them it felt a little bit forced. Some of the scariest moments had nothing to do with the demons, and more to do with everyday horrors that felt plausible and completely realistic. For example, there is a scene where Kris has found herself in an underground pipe system, and can’t go backwards, only forwards, not knowing if the pipe is going to dead end out, or if she is going to get stuck. THIS was the part of the book that had my heart racing, not seeing someone get torn to pieces by possessed followers of Terry. Hendrix’s true strength is within the heart he gives his characters, and if this book had just been about a former band member confronting the person who did her wrong, without the supernatural elements, it would have been just as lovely and effective. But that doesn’t say much about the horror elements, now does it.

All that said, I did enjoy reading “We Sold Our Souls”, and think that Hendrix has once again delivered an entertaining and heartfelt book. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go blast some Darkthrone on a loop for a bit and just get lost in the music that he so lovingly brings to life within the pages of this book.

Rating 7: A fun love letter to heavy metal, “We Sold Our Souls” has a lot of strengths, but also falls into familiar traps when Hendrix tries a little too hard to be scary.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We Sold Our Souls” is fairly new and not on any Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you are interested in metal music, “Lords of Chaos” may be of interest to you, and it would also fit in on “Books for Metalheads”.

Find “We Sold Our Souls” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Boy Next Door”

176473Book: “The Boy Next Door” (Fear Street #39) by. R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1996

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This guy’s got killer looks…

Lauren and Crystal think Scott has it all. He’s handsome. He’s the new star of Shadyside High’s football team. And he’s moved in right next door! Both girls will do anything. Say anything. Try anything to get the chance to go out with him. That’s all either of them want.

But that’s all Scott’s last girlfriend wanted, too—and now she’s dead.

Had I Read This Before: No.

The Plot: We open with an as of yet unnamed narrator who is attending their girlfriend Dana’s funeral. It’s first person POV, and the narrator is talking about how they convinced Dana to sneak with them into the backyard of their neighbor so they could go swimming after dark. They convinced Dana to do a swan dive off the diving board, and she did… but joke’s on her, the pool was empty, and since it was pitch black apparently (light pollution or other lights from neighboring houses nonexistent) she didn’t realize it and crashed headfirst into the cement. Our narrator muses about how they pulled her out and waited for her last breath before calling out for help. Apparently this was all done because they didn’t like that Dana started wearing short skirts and make-up because that’s ‘no way to behave’, but they say that they REALLY hope their next girlfriend doesn’t make them commit murder like Dana did.

Wow. Wow wow wow. You know, I’d say something snarky, but given that I feel like this is how incels actually approach women I just am kind of saddened by how ‘too real’ this prologue is.

Jump to Shadyside, specifically Fear Street, where Crystal is on the phone with her BFF since third grade Lynne as they talk about make-up and boys (NOTE: her name is Lynne, not Lauren, and boy was THAT a significant typo to be on the back cover of this book). Crystal notices that a moving truck has pulled up to the house next door, and who should jump out but a very CUTE BOY! Crystal gives Lynne the play by play as she watches the cute boy walk into the house, and then into the room across from her window. As Crystal watches him take his shirt off (at Lynne’s insistence, natch), she panics as he spots her. She drops the phone and disconnects from Lynne, and by the time she calls back he’s pulled his shade down. And, wouldn’t you know it, this new boy next door was our previous unnamed narrator. His name is Scott, and boy does he think Crystal looks like a TRAMP for wearing make up and a low cut LEOTARD, my GOD! He swears to himself that he won’t get so close to her that her wantonness makes him kill her.

giphy6
We aren’t even twenty five pages in and the misogyny is already trying the LAST of my patience (source).

Sometime later there is a knocking on Crystal’s front door, and while she hopes it’s Scott it’s just Lynne, whose blonde hair is now in ‘a thousand tiny braids’ in an effort to look like Bo Derek but really just looks like cultural appropriation. They split some ice cream and gossip about Scott (who is now Tailback for the Shadyside Tigers), and when Crystal’s Mom walks in the room Crystal internally laments that her mother is SO pretty but isn’t intersted in dating and isn’t that sad? I mean, Crystal, I get you want your Mom to be happy,  but maybe she is still a little bummed that your father died in that car accident a few years back? THEN Crystal’s sister Melinda walks in, and BOY IS SHE DRAB, with her sweaters and glasses and non polished nails! MAN! Then Lynne brings up some boy named Todd who asked Crystal out even though Melinda liked him, and Crystal can’t help being pretty and popular, Melinda, so why so upset about that blatant betrayal? Lynne asks Melinda what SHE thinks of Scott, and Melinda just blushes, which Crystal finds ‘sad’, because if she’s so SHY around boys she’ll NEVER get a boyfriend. Lynne states she’s going to ask him out, but Crystal says that SHE wants to ask him out, and they make a pact that whoever gets to go out with him (Melinda included, though Melinda isn’t too hopeful it would happen), rules need to be followed. 1) Be happy for whoever gets him, and 2) don’t try to sabotage the others to get an upper hand. They all agree, and Melinda goes off to read (NERD, amiright?), and Lynne goes to use the bathroom, but tosses a new tube of lipstick to Crystal. Crystal applies some, and then looks out the window to see Scott staring at her. Then he looks REAL mad about something, and hits the ground with the hoe he’s holding.

You’d think the Hoe Incident would have been a big ol’ red flag to Crystal, but at lunch later that week she and Lynne go to talk with Scott and another football player named Jake in hopes he’ll notice one of them. Lynne flirts relentlessly, but Scott seems more interested in talking to Crystal, and Crystal tells herself his garden tantrum must have been because of a fight with his parents or something. Lynne invites Scott over to her house that coming Sunday for a party (right in front of Jake, who has a thing for Lynne, so she cordially invites him too), but Scott says he can’t go. Lynne places her hand on his arm, and he raises his knife up in the air! Crystal thinks he’s going to stab Lynne, but he’s just pumping his fist for the sudden flash mob of a pep rally the cheerleaders are doing. She wonders if she’s losing it, and I’m thinking someone needs to give her “The Gift of Fear” STAT.

That Saturday Crystal goes into Melinda’s room in hopes of getting information on Scott (since Melinda shares a class with him). She also thinks about how lame Melinda is, what with her re-reading “Jane Eyre”, but I guess Melinda has her own prejudices because she rolls her eyes at her sister’s nail polish fetish. Melinda thinks that Scott is ‘sad’ about something (yes, very sad about murdering his girlfriend no doubt), and Crystal says that she thinks Lynne is going to win the contest because she is SO FLIRTY AND OUT THERE, and Crystal hasn’t gotten any phone calls from any guys in the past few weeks (except one, but that barely counts). Melinda isn’t exactly weeping in sympathy, and Crystal concludes that she’s jealous because Melinda is such an introvert and boys don’t pay any attention to her. She asks Melinda if she likes Scott too, and Melinda says she doesn’t even KNOW Scott so how could she like him? Crystal doesn’t accept that, but then Lynne calls so the sister conversation screeches to a halt. Lynne is bummed because Scott hasn’t called her either. Crystal mentions that Jake said that Scott is a good guy and a good football player, and Lynne decides that she should immediately hang up and pump Jake for information about this guy. Which seems a bit insensitive because Jake likes Lynne and Lynne knows it, but oh well. Crystal goes to get the mail and finds some that belongs to Scott’s dad, and sees this as the perfect opportunity to go ask him out. Meanwhile, Scott wakes up from a dream or something, thinking that he dreamed about killing the dog of a woman who ’embarrasses’ him by making kissy faces at him as he walks by. She’s described as having peroxide blonde hair and a nose ring, and could it be Suki Thomas?! I miss Suki!!! But then he looks at his hands, and realizes that there’s blood all over them. So maybe it wasn’t a dream after all. Luckily he has time to bury the dog!

After gathering the courage to go ask Scott out, Crystal walks up to the door (this has to be later…) and knocks on it. No one answers, but the door is open, so Crystal takes this as an invitation to walk inside. After all, if she doesn’t ask him out, Lynne certainly will! She climbs the steps, thinking her hears voices, and when she gets to the top she calls out for Scott. Someone then jumps out from behind a door and grabs her, but it’s just Jake playing a trick. Hardy har har, Jake. She follows him into Scott’s room, and Jake points out that they can see her bedroom from his bedroom. When he implies that Scott could spy, Scott gets SUPER offended and only calms down when Crystal says she knows he’d never do that. The doorbell rings, and Scott goes to answer it. When he comes back, Lynne is there! She claims that she was looking for Jake, but then looks VERY surprised and perturbed perhaps to see Crystal. Jake asks why she wanted to see him, and she says she needs help with her homework. So when Scott kicks them all out, Jake literally picks Lynne up and says he’ll help her right now. This is played for laughs, but given all the other creepy sexist stuff in here it just sticks out even worse than I probably would have before. Crystal doesn’t quite get the hint, but Scott asks her to leave too. Then he reiterates that he wouldn’t spy on her. Crystal hopes that he will kiss her, but when he doesn’t she leaves, humiliated. And then Scott is really mad that Crystal has been tempting him, and tries to calm down by reading the American Family magazine that she brought over… But then there’s a woman model in tight jeans, so he stabs himself in the hand. Like I said. Incel.

Later that week Crystal is determined to go ask Scott out, but when she gets to his house she sees Lynne parked on his porch with a bag of chips and a six pack of soda. Then Jake and Scott walk up, and once again they have an awkward hang out day in Scott’s house, watching TV together. Crystal not so subtly asks Scott if he has a girlfriend, and he says that he doesn’t anymore. Lynne asks why he hasn’t asked anyone out then, and he says he’s not ready. Crystal can tell that Scott seems upset, and wonders if Melinda was right about him. She crosses to sit next to him and asks why he doesn’t feel ready, and his weird flinchy reaction (so sexy, right girls?) makes her think that Melinda IS right. Lynne asks what the fuss is about and Scott says that he’s NOT ready to talk about it, and Crystal feels bad for being so ‘pushy’ with him because he probably has a broken heart and this is driving him crazy. Lynne suggests that they all go bike riding (though she implies that Crystal should go off with Jake), but once again Scott kicks them out, saying he has homework to do. The three of them start to leave, but then Lynne says she forgot her backpack. When she comes back out a few minutes later, Crystal can tell something happened. She waits for Jake to leave her house before asking Lynne, and Lynne says that she’s the winner because she kissed him. Crystal is mad, and Lynne reminds her of the first rule of the pact. Crystal says one kiss does NOT mean going out, but Lynne says she and Scott are going to be the talk of school. Meanwhile, Scott is so angry about her having the audacity to kiss him, he decides that she has to die.

So Scott goes to Lynne’s house and sneaks in, and finds her in the kitchen. He suggests that they go for a ride, and she says sure. He takes her to a cliffside under guise of looking at the view, but Lynne says she’s more interested in the view in the car. She tries to make a move, but he isn’t keen on it, and she says he’s weird because he broke and entered into her house and NOW he won’t even look at her, so what gives? She starts to kiss at him, and he’s about to smash her face into the dashboard, but then a random deus ex machina man knocks on the window asking for directions. Lynne gives them to him, and Scott knows he can’t kill her now. He thinks that she knew that he was going to kill her, but instead she comments on his ‘wild side’.

A week later Crystal and Lynne are hanging out at Lynne’s house and she’s SO upset that Scott hasn’t called her since their ‘date’. Crystal reminds her that he said he wasn’t ready to date, and maybe he tried but changed his mind. Lynne, so obsessed, doesn’t think that’s true, and for some reason they decide to call his with terrible French accents? For some reason? First two times it’s his mom. On the third time Lynne takes over, but Scott answers, and she panics. She admits that it’s her, and asks him if he wants to come over that night because her parents are out of town. Crystal is actually rooting for her now. But he says he has to clean up his room, and HONESTLY, LYNNE, at this point you need to just take the hint that he isn’t interested! I’m not siding with a psychopath, but if he was just a usual guy this would be really obsessive stalking behavior and it’s totally inappropriate. Scott hangs up and his Mom calls him to dinner. She complains about the prank calls and says that he shouldn’t hang out with ‘a girl like that’, and now we kinda get a glimpse into where his psychosis comes from.

giphy7
Mommy issues are truly an old reliable in horror! (source)

As she scolds him he decides that her weird anger at him over a dumb prank call is all Lynne’s fault, and imagines her guts spilling out.

Sometime later Crystal is calling Lynne but not getting an answer. It’s really late and she wonders where Lynne could be. She goes up into the attic, as Melinda likes to read up there, and they have a sisterly heart to heart about how different they are. Crystal says she doesn’t get how Melinda can be so comfortable being alone, but Melinda says that she doesn’t need other people to feel comfortable with herself. I like Melinda. Crystal is so worried about Lynne she goes to her house to check on her. She lets herself in with a spare key, noting a strange smell outside, and goes upstairs. She doesn’t find Lynne, but she does find a suicide note in which Lynne says that she had been acting in a way that was ‘no way to behave’!!! She realizes that the strange smell was exhaust, and runs out of the house and to the garage. She hears a car running, but can’t get the door open! When she jumps up to look in the window, she sees Lynne in the running car, dead!

At the funeral Scott thinks it’s dumb that Crystal is crying about Lynne being dead. After all, Lynne is dead because she ‘couldn’t behave’. He forced her by knifepoint to write the note and then locked her in the garage. He doesn’t like Crystal still because she had been throwing herself at him, but now that she’s stopped she’s a little better. He DOES, however, like Melinda, because MELINDA DOES know how to behave. He’s so relieved that Lynne is dead because now he won’t have to kill anyone ever again! Unless, of course, Crystal can’t behave…

A while later Melinda and Crystal are having another sisterly heart to heart, spilling their feelings and working out their differences. Melinda admits that she was jealous that Crystal and Lynne were so close. They are considering going to Jake’s house for a party when Scott calls! Crystal answers and they chat, and he says that he’d really hate for what happened to Lynne to happen to her. Crystal chalks it up to him just being worried about her, but then she’s floored, FLOORED when he says he actually wants to talk to Melinda! So Crystal hands the phone off, and Melinda talks to Scott… He then asks her to come over to the party at Jake’s! Melinda is freaking out, unsure of what to do or how to act, and Crystal encourages her to wear something cute and not like her dumpy usual clothes. Melinda isn’t sure, but Crystal says she will get her looking good, what a good deed she’s doing! And under normal circumstances, yes, but…..

At Jake’s party Scott is disgusted by all displays of women feeling confident in themselves. And when Melinda arrives, he is horrified to see her in a SHORT SKIRT!!! SO EVIL! But he does like that she waits to be invited in, so her manners are impeccable and that’s enough to grant a stay of execution for now. Later that night when Melinda gets home Crystal wants to hear everything. Melinda says that he didn’t kiss her goodnight, but he DID tell her about his old girlfriend, and that she died. He even cried about it. And then he asked her out for a movie that Saturday night. Crystal is wary about this, and she wonders if she’s just jealous, or if something else is nagging at her…

That Saturday Crystal is ‘helping’ Melinda get ready for her date. Melinda isn’t interested in wearing fancy clothes or make up, and refuses to let Crystal put any on. When Crystal protests, Melinda says that this is the way she dresses and she doesn’t want to gussy up! Crystal forces some blush on her, and there’s no time for Melinda to take it off because Scott is there to pick her up. Of course, when he sees her wearing MAKE UP he is FURIOUS. He takes the highway to the movie, and considers throwing her out the door! He almost does it too, but then changes his mind because he REALLY likes her, so he’s going to give her one more chance! Ugh. When Melinda gets home from her date she laments to Crystal that Scott doesn’t like her because he was quiet the whole time. Crystal says that that’s because Melinda is giving him mixed signals! SHE NEEDS TO DRESS SEXY AND WEAR MAKE UP, DAMMIT!

giphy8
(source)

Guys, I’m so frustrated. Like, okay, Scott is disgusting because he is a violent misogynist, and girls can wear make up and sexy outfits because him valuing purity is ridiculous and it does nothing but reduce women to objects, and this objectification of them when they don’t live up to his standards allows him to see them as less than human, and therefore okay to kill. BUT IN THE SAME VEIN, if Melinda doesn’t want to wear sexy outfits and doesn’t want to wear make up, THAT IS OKAY TOO!!! Why are we trying to make this into a value thing by saying that ‘oh no, Crystal wanting to gussy her up is going to get her killed!’, when in reality SCOTT IS GOING TO KILL HER BECAUSE HE’S NUTS!? Fuck this book.

Crystal makes Melinda go to school dressed up in full makeover mode, and Melinda says she isn’t comfortable. Crystal brushes off her sister’s lack of comfort, and spots Scott down the hallway. When she approaches him he’s slamming his fist into his locker and screaming about ‘no way to behave’, but when he sees her he tells her that he forgot his combination. Crystal is relieved because she was certain he was losing it (YA THINK?!), and then drags him down the hall to see Melinda. She’s convinced that his sudden look of shock is a positive thing.

A few days later Melinda is getting ready for her date with Scott, asking Crystal for advice on clothing. Now she’s apparently into fashion. Crystal is taking her sister’s relationship with Scott like a champ, and is going out with a friend that night to take her mind off of it. But she keeps thinking about ‘no way to behave’, because that was the phrase Lynne used in her suicide note, how weird! YES CRYSTAL, IT IS WEIRD! Meanwhile, Scott is pissed that Melinda is so dressed up, and she can tell that he’s upset. She tells him that she and Crystal have been trying to hard, what with her new look and all, and then Scott realizes that it’s CRYSTAL that’s been making her change her look! He tells her that he likes her the way she was, and that this is all Crystals’ fault! So now he thinks he has to kill Crystal! Melinda gets home and yells at Crystal about all the clothing, certain that Crystal was trying to sabotage her, and when she uses the phrase ‘no way to behave’, Crystal FINALLY gets it! She tells Melinda she thinks there’s something VERY wrong with Scott, and reminds her of the locker thing and the fact his girlfriend died, but Melinda doesn’t want to hear it and locks herself in her room. Crystal goes to HER room and looks out the window at Scott’s room, and sees him with a knife in his hand! She turns off her light so he doesn’t see her, but then he’s gone…. and heading outside and towards their house through the rainstorm that’s going on outside!! He rings the doorbell, and Crystal tells Melinda not to open it, but Melinda doesn’t listen and lets him inside. He then proceeds to chase Crystal up the steps, knife in hand!! He tackles her and is about to stab her, but Melinda at the bottom of the steps claims that THAT is Melinda he’s attacking (see, they look a LOT alike now that she’s all made over and shit). Scott is confused, but falls for it, and goes back DOWN the steps, now chasing Melinda! He attacks her, but Crystal smashes a vase over his head. The phone is dead because of the rain storm outside, and so the sisters run up to the attic. They hide in the steamer trunk, and Scott comes up into the attic. He realizes they have to be in the trunk, and knocks it over. They fall out, but he can’t tell them apart in the bad light, so he’s going to just have to kill them both…. but before he can he falls through the attic floor (I guess it was established earlier in the book that there was a hole, but I missed it). We get one more jump scare with him grabbing Crystal’s leg when she goes to investigate, but then he passes out.

Three months later Melinda and Crystal are thick as thieves. Melinda is still wearing cooler clothing, but is also still true to herself because she still likes books or something. Scott’s parents moved away and he’s locked up in a mental institution. As the sisters are getting ready to watch an old movie, they notice that a moving truck has pulled up to the house next door. A cute boy jumps out of the car. Melinda says that she ‘saw him first!’ The End.

giphy10
Gross. (source)

 

Body Count: 3, kinda. We got Dana off page, a dog, and Lynne.

Romance Rating: Zipola. Fuck that.

Bonkers Rating: 5, mostly because Scott’s psychosis was all over the place.

Fear Street Relevance: I’ll give it an 8! Both Scott and Crystal live on Fear Street and lots of the important action takes place there because of it.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“She tugged open the door. Saw someone standing there. Saw someone staring back at her. And started to scream.”

… And it was a mirror!!!

That’s So Dated! Moments: Well Stine is making references to Demi Moore movies again, since Crystal thinks that if she makes her voice husky like Moore she’ll be more desirable. Also, she and Lynne think that Scott looks like Keanu Reeves, but honestly I’m looking at that cover and I am NOT seeing that at all.

Best Quote:

“‘I’m not like you,’ Melinda told her. ‘I’m quiet. I don’t want to go out just to go out. If I enjoy someone’s company – great. But I don’t want someone around whose main purpose is to keep me from being alone.'”

That is actually the most introspective moment I’ve ever seen in a “Fear Street” book, so props to you, Melinda!

Conclusion: “The Boy Next Door” wasn’t exactly promoting violent misogyny, given that Scott is clearly the bad guy in this, but it was still a little too hard to read given the higher awareness of violence towards women because of ideas of purity and chastity and owing men things simply because they’re women. So this is a hard, hard pass. Next up is “Night Games”. 

Kate’s Review & Giveaway: “The Good Demon”

38945097Book: “The Good Demon” by Jimmy Cajoleas

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC from NetGalley and a printed ARC from Amulet Books.

Book Description: True Detective meets The Exorcist in this gripping YA mystery debut about one girl’s exorcism—and her desperate quest to reunite with her demon

Clare has been miserable since her exorcism. The preacher that rid her of evil didn’t understand that her demon—simply known as Her—was like a sister to Clare. Now, Clare will do almost anything to get Her back. After a chance encounter with the son of the preacher who exorcised her, Clare goes on an adventure through the dark underbelly of her small Southern town, discovering its deep-seated occult roots. As she searches for Her, she must question the fine lines between good and evil, love and hate, and religion and free will. Vivid and sharp, The Good Demon tells the unusual story of friendship amid dark Gothic horror.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to both NetGalley and Amulet books for sending me an eARC and a print ARC of this book.

I know that Halloween Season isn’t QUITE here yet (though honestly, once Labor Day hits I’m thinking about ghosts and ghouls and all things horror), but I just couldn’t wait for Horrorpalooza to pick up “The Good Demon” by Jimmy Cajoleas. I was fortunate enough to get approved for a copy on NetGalley, but then imagine my extra delight when I was at Serena’s and she said that we’d received a print ARC of it as well.

giphy5
Me flailing in glee when I got this book. (source)

I’d been hearing about this novel since this past summer, when it was all over my twitter feed during BookExpo. While I’m not usually someone who is super into demonic possession/exorcism stories (with a FEW exceptions, as you guys probably remember), the idea of a girl wanting her exorcised demon BACK was one that piqued my interest. The demonic possession stories I like usually buck some of the familiar tropes that are associated with the genre, but ultimately they usually still maintain the demon=bad concept. “The Good Demon” sounded like it was going to take that down as well, so picking it up I went in with some lofty expectations.

What struck me most about “The Good Demon” was Clara, our main character who is desperate to find her demon, Her, again. In many demonic possession and exorcism stories, the person being possessed is usually passive, and a secondary character that the main character is trying to help. Clara defies these trends, as not only is she the main character, she is incredibly active and entrenched in ‘doing’ within the narrative. Her reasons for wanting Her back are understandable because of how Cajoleas has written her: her father’s death was a traumatic moment in her life, her mother is an addict who has effectively picked her new husband over her own daughter, and Clara has no other friends or support systems in her life now that Her has been exorcised. While there were ample opportunities for Clara to fall into stereotypical traps of a ‘bad girl’, Cajoleas always kept her from teetering, and kept her grounded in a realistic personality. She always felt like a realistic teenage girl who has seen some shit, and her voice was authentic and natural. As she uncovers the mysteries of the small, closed minded town that she is living in, you see her go up against obstacles that aren’t always because of supernatural or occult driven issues; many of the problems she faces are because of misogyny and prejudice that is entrenched within an Evangelical culture. I liked seeing her interact with basically all of the characters, be it within flashbacks to her friendship with Her, to the fraught and sad relationship with her mother, to the complicated and bittersweet relationship she takes up with Roy, the son of the preacher who performed the exorcism. Roy is a particularly interesting foil to her, as her sullenness is matched with his fundamentalist driven optimism, and her bitterness towards his father is in stark contrast to Roy’s submission to him. It was a relationship that felt very teenager-y, with both of them making decisions that feel right in the moment, but may have fallouts that they cannot see.

I had more mixed feelings about the actual possession story. I loved the flashbacks to Her, and I liked seeing Clara and Her interact, and have a complex relationship. It sets a groundwork that makes it very believable that Clara would go as far as she would go to get Her back. That was a very fresh take on possession, that perhaps this ‘demon’ wasn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. But by the end, it becomes pretty clear that the full deconstruction of the ‘possession’ story isn’t going to happen. It gets part way there, I will give it that, but ultimately it didn’t take a bold stance on redefining ‘demons’, and why people like Roy’s Dad might conflate something that empowers or emotionally supports girls and women as ‘demonic’.  I appreciate that ultimately Cajoleas is promoting the idea that you should feel secure within yourself and to be able to stand on your own, but I think that this message ultimately undercuts the positive female friendship message that I was hoping we would get from it.

While it didn’t QUITE live up to my expectations, “The Good Demon” was a fast and fun read, and it’s absolutely one that dark fantasy and horror fans should pick up during the upcoming spooky season. And I have good news, because it’s your chance to own this new dark fantasy novel! We’re giving away the print ARC of “The Good Demon”! This giveaway is open to U.S. Residents only, other terms and conditions are within the giveaway information in the link below.

Enter the Giveaway Here!

Rating 7: An interesting take on the possession/exorcism story with an interesting protagonist, “The Good Demon” deconstructs common tropes to a point, but falls a little short in it’s deconstruction by the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Good Demon” is coming out on Tuesday, September 18th, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists yet. That said, I think it would fit in on “Demons, Mystics, and Black Magic”, and “Small Towns and Secrets”.

Find “The Good Demon” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Confession”

2870109Book: “The Confession” (Fear Street #38) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, 1996

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five close friends…one murderer.

All Julie’s friends hated Al. They all wished Al were dead. But that doesn’t mean one of them killed him. Julie knows her friends. She knows they are innocent…

Until one of them confesses.

Julie and her friends promise to keep the killer’s secret. After all, they know he would never kill again.

Or would he?

Had I Read This Before: No

The Plot: We meet Julie, our first person narrator, and she immediately starts waxing philosophical about what you would do if a friend of yours confessed to killing someone? Would you call the police? Tell his parents? Try to convince him to tell his parents? Tell your OWN parents? Or keep his secret? After all, at seventeen she thought she knew all the answers, but now, she sees the world is a bit more nuanced than that (and Julie, if you had seen ALL Twitter takes on the day of John McCain’s funeral, you’d realize that adults ALSO have a terrible time with nuance, so don’t get excited for knowledge with age). We then jump back in time to May, when it all began. Julie was hanging out with her friends Hillary Walker (intense, kind, smart) and Taylor Snook (new girl, cultured, a total bitch) at Julie’a house, sitting around the table drinking Mountain Dew, eating chips, and gossiping about boys. There’s Vincent, another member of their friend group, whom Julie has a HUGE crush on, and has for a long time… But that’s another story, she says. Then there’s Sandy, another friend who is a bit quiet and geeky, but whom Taylor has been dating (which is why they are friends with Taylor now). No one knows why Taylor likes him so much, but apparently that TOO is another story, and I get the feeling that they are going to be stories within this story. Then the final cog in this friendship machine, Al Freed, barges into the house and starts irritating all of them. Al USED to be friends with them, but then he started dressing in black and hanging out with some “hard dudes” from Waynesbridge (NOOOOO), who drink beer and cause trouble. Hell, he even brought a beer to her house! He starts berating Julie for twenty dollars, and when she says no he threatens to tell her Mom that he saw her smoking at the mall that past weekend. This is especially bad because Julie promised her Mom she’d never smoke in high school again, and her Mom bribed her with a thousand dollar reward if she kept that promise (DAMN, are we in North Hills?!). Apparently she gave him twenty dollars previously to not tell. He threatens to burn a hole in the table with his cigarette unless she coughs up the money, and when Hillary speaks up he threatens to tell the world that she cheated on an exam (an exam HE gave her the answers to, mind you) unless SHE gives him twenty bucks, and she hands it over. UMMMM, honestly girls, if this kid has such a bad reputation, why not just say that he’s lying? Do you think people would believe that kid who dresses in black and hangs out with those hard dudes from Waynesbridge of all places? As Al is leaving Julie’s Mom comes home and finds Al’s beer can in the sink and finds his cigarette on the floor, and so she grounds Julie on the spot, which means Julie can’t go to a hot party. This seems a bit unfair on her Mom’s part, since Al is out of control and Julie doesn’t seem to be able to control if he walks in and out of her own home, but oh well.

According the Hillary the party was amazing, much to Julie’s chagrin. A week later, though, as they are meeting their friends at Sandy’s house after school, Hillary is telling Julie that Taylor was being very cruel to Sandy during said party, barely paying him any attention as he fetched her drinks, and making out with other boys when he wasn’t looking. Hillary’s afraid that Sandy is going to get hurt, but Julie still thinks that they make a good couple (?????), and thinks that Hillary is jealous. They go to Sandy’s house, and Hillary confesses that she lent Al her car because she’s afraid he’ll tell about the chemistry exam, and Julie agrees that they’re in the same, blackmail-y boat. But honestly, Al is doing this like a chump, he should have taken tips from Adam from “The Cheater”, oh, but wait, that creep is dead, rightfully so. Julie says that he’ll eventually get bored with blackmailing them, and listen Julie, that’s not how blackmail tends to work. Sandy lets the girls into his home and asks them if they heard about Al, and Taylor tells them that Al was suspended! Apparently he picked a fight with one of the school wrestlers, and lost. Vincent says that if Al’s gonna mess up someone’s life it may as well be his own. As everyone is basking in Al’s downfall, Taylor (who oddly had time to change clothes, according to Julie) asks why they ever hung out with Al, and then proclaims she’s hungry, so Sandy hops to it to get her some chips and salsa (though he can’t open the lid, and Hillary has to do it. Instead of her just being naturally stronger we find out her Dad has a LOT of work out equipment in the basement). Then there is a pounding on the door, and Al is demanding that they let him in. He’s also super drunk (or ‘skunked’, or ‘totaled’, as the slang is here), and throwing himself against the door. Instead of calling the cops on his violent and drunk ass, Sandy lets him in. He goes straight for the fridge, and starts looking for more beer. Sandy tells him to stop, but Al goes on on all of them, asking why they think they’re better than him, and saying that Taylor only pretends to like them. Sandy tries to get him to leave the fridge, but Al starts roughing him up. Luckily, Hillary is ready for a fight, and SHE is the one to knock some sense into him. Al, drunk and humiliated, leaves.

Al is suspended for two weeks, and Julie is happy that she doesn’t have to see him in the halls. She’s meeting Vincent at his house to work on a chemistry project, sporting a cute new outfit, but Vincent is too wigged out to notice. He tells her that he lent Al his mom’s car, because he’d taken the car out that previous Saturday night without permission, and got a speeding ticket! And who had seen the whole thing go down? Al. And Al threatened to tell. Now he’s late bringing the car back. And when he DOES bring it back, it has been crunched up in the front! Al says that it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t see the stop sign because of the leaves on a tree! Vincent snaps, and attacks Al, and after Julie pulls him off Al runs away.

Later that week Julie calls Vincent to see if he’s going to the Roller Rink, as he’s a goof on skates. I totally, totally get why Julie has a crush on this kid, the descriptions that Stine gives him make him sound like the most appealing guy that he’s ever created. Gangly, kind, funny, awkward, I love Vincent as much as Julie does! Sadly, he can’t go, as he’s been grounded because of the car. Not only is he grounded, he has to work off the money it’s going to take to fix the car, and that means that he won’t be able to apply for his dream job this summer, which is, get this…. SUMMER CAMP COUNSELOR! He wants to help kids have fun this summer!!!

giphy
High school Kate would have been in love with this kid! (source)

Julie and Vincent are both bummed out that he can’t go, and Julie says goodbye. When her other friends pick her up, she relays what happened. Hillary and Taylor are infuriated, but Sandy is oddly quiet… They get to the roller rink, and Sandy is doting over Taylor and her skates because she can’t figure out how to lace them (seriously?), and Julie is further saddened that Vincent isn’t there because he would have made a funny joke about it. They skate awhile, but eventually the group tapers off; Taylor and Sandy go off somewhere after making out, and then Hillary runs into some friends from Waynesbridge (who AREN’T hard dues, I assume), so Julie decides to skate awhile longer before bussing home. She cuts out through the back alley, as it’s a shortcut to the bus stop, but when she gets out there she sees Al. And someone has strangled him with rollerblade laces, AND shoved a rollerblade INTO HIS MOUTH!!! Julie freaks out, and as she’s standing over his body some shrimpy brats she used to babysit for see her and scream that she must have killed him!

Well the police don’t think she did, of course, but they still have to question her at the station. The lead detective doesn’t understand why Al was murdered, as he doesn’t see a motive as he wasn’t robbed. When he asks Julie if Al carried large sums of money that could have gone missing, she tells him no, he was always bugging her for cash (her parents are there, rightfully so, and they are surprised by this revelation). The detective asks her who might have had a grudge against Al, Julie DOES bring up the Waynesbridge creeps he’s been hanging out with (good, good), but then also says that Al was irritating to ALL of her friends (BAD, BAD).

At the funeral there are lots of rumors swirling around, and Julie is certain that none of her friends could have done it. Afterwards, the friends all go back to Sandy’s house to try and relax, have time together, blah blah blah. Vincent offers to get everyone sodas from the kitchen, and Julie follows him. He asks her how SHE is doing, since she was the one who found the horrifically brutalized body, but before she can really get into it Sandy calls everyone into the living room. Once everyone has gathered, he says that he has something to tell them: he’s the one who killed Al! Taylor starts to scream, insisting it isn’t true, but he says that it is. Hillary is mad that he told them, because now he’s involved all of them in it, and Hillary, if Vincent is the nicest coolest boy Stine has ever written, you are probably the most pragmatic and excellent girl! Sandy is pissed that she’s pissed because he did it ESPECIALLY for her, he says, and points out that they ALL hated Al and he did them a favor! Hillary says that now they are obligated to tell on him, and Taylor says NO WAY, and Julie tends to agree with Taylor, because Sandy is their FRIEND, and his life shouldn’t be ruined over this. Because HEY, if you murder someone you don’t LIKE, it’s TOTALLY okay, right?

giphy1
Detective Tutuola would like a word… (source)

Julie is having nightmares about Sandy now, and at graduation rehearsal she tells Hillary that she’s having second thoughts, and wishes that he hadn’t told them at all. Hillary agrees, as she feels especially bad because Sandy thought he was doing it for HER. They then realize that Taylor was watching them, and as she walks away they wonder if she heard them expressing their doubts. As they are walking back to Julie’s they are paranoid that someone is following them, but they don’t see anyone. What they DO see, however, is the police cruiser in Julie’s driveway, and it’s Officer Reed, the detective to questioned her the night she found Al’s body. Julie wants to run, but she and Hillary walk up to the door calmly. Julie, having no chill, blurts out that her parents AREN’T HOME, even though they totally are. Officer Reed says that he has a couple more questions for her. And then her Mom pops her head out the door, so there is no excuse not to have him question them. He runs some names by Julie and Hillary, but the girls pretty much remain clamped up, even though they WANT to confess. Eventually he leaves, and the girls look out the window and see SANDY HIDING BEHIND A TREE! Was he the one following them earlier?! They try to confront him, but he runs away before they can.

Later that week Sandy is still acting funny. He and Vincent get into a huge fight, and Julie is convinced that they will never look at Sandy the same way again because of what he did. That Saturday Hillary and Julie are going to go to the new Jude Law movie (though I hear tell in the original printing it was Keanu Reeves, which has funnily enough become more plausible again!), and Julie calls Vincent to see if he wants to come, He says that he can’t, and Julie is sad that their group is falling apart! She gets to the theater a little late, but Hillary has her ticket ready to go. Julie tells her to save her a seat, she wants to stop at the bathroom. She then bumps into Taylor, who starts to berate her for being such a bad friend, because Sandy is NOT a killer and he’s hurt that Julie has turned her back on him. Julie asks Taylor if she overheard what she and Hillary were saying at graduation rehearsal, and if she told Sandy. Taylor denies it, but Julie doesn’t believe her.

After another graduation rehearsal, Julie gets home late, and when she gets out of her car and closes the garage door, she sees someone duck under and inside. It’s Sandy. He asks her why she’s been talking to the police. She says that Officer Reed just showed up, and why was he following her? He says he just happened to be in the neighborhood, but Julie calls out that blatant lie. She says she thinks the police are close to solving it, and he freaks out on her, saying not to believe that. He then says he wants things to go back to how they were, and that he’s having a pre-graduation party at his house that next Friday, and that she better come, or else. When Julie confides in Hillary about it the next day, Hillary says that he threatened her too. They deign NOT to sit with Sandy and Taylor at lunch, and Vincent sits with them, saying that he was threatened by Sandy as well. Sandy and Taylor stare menacingly at them the entire time, which no doubt makes for an awkward meal.

Taylor confronts Julie and Hillary again, and this time she and Hillary come to fisticuffs. The fight ends with Taylor vomiting all over the place (why?!), and Hillary getting scratches on her neck. They never thought that Taylor cared about Sandy so much, but Hillary says that she’s done, and she’s going to tell the police everything. Julie tries to convince her that Sandy’s life will be ruined, but Hillary shuts that shit down. She points out that Sandy didn’t HAVE to confess to them, but he did because he wanted them to admire him for it, and because he wanted to impress Taylor. Julie says that he won’t kill again, but Hillary isn’t convinced, given his new predilection for threatening them. Hillary thinks on it a bit, but then says that she wants to talk to Sandy before she goes to the cops, and asks Julie to drop her off at his house. Julie obeys (ARE YOU NUTS?), and Hillary tells her to go home, she will call as soon as she is done. Julie is tempted to wait for her, but decides to do as she’s told.

Julie waits impatiently for Hillary to call, and gets even more nervous when Hillary’s mom calls asking her if she’s seen Hillary. Julie says no, and they hang up. She is now convinced that Sandy did something to Hillary. But Hillary does call a few hours later. And when she does, she has her own confession. SHE KILLED SANDY!

Julie drives to Hillary’s house, and when she gets there she finds Taylor and Vincent are there as well. Hillary tells Julie that she hasn’t told them yet, and then has them all gather so she can tell them everything. As soon as he confesses, Taylor loses it. Hillary says that she went to confront Sandy, and he attacked her. She hit him with a sculpture in self defense, and it killed him. She says that she’s going to turn herself in now. Taylor screams at Hillary asking her why Sandy had to die? Because Sandy didn’t kill Al!! TAYLOR DID!!! Because she had been going out with Al BEHIND SANDY’S BACK! And apparently she stole some money from her parents to give to him, and he started blackmailing her over it. They got in a fight behind the skating rink, and he got rough with her, which made her snap. She ran to Sandy, and he said that he would confess for her. So now she’s enraged that Hillary killed an innocent man!! But wait, what’s that? A ring of the doorbell? Who could it be? When Hillary opens the door, it’s SANDY!!!!!! When Hillary confronted him that afternoon, it wasn’t about going to the police, it was because she’d figured out that he was covering for Taylor!! And they thought that the best way to get Taylor to confess was to fake his death!

giphy2
(source)

A couple weeks later, Vincent and Julie are walking home. He then says he has a confession to make: he’s had a crush on her since they were in third grade. Julie screams with glee. The End.

giphy3
Not bad, Stine! Not bad! (source)

Body Count: 1. And no one was sad.

Romance Rating: I mean, it averages out to a 5. Julie and Vincent are adorable when they finally get together, so those marks are high. But Sandy willingly throwing himself under the bus for Taylor were low marks to be sure.

Bonkers Rating: 4. It wasn’t totally crazy, outside of a rollerblade shoved into Al’s mouth, because OUCH.

Fear Street Relevance: 2. Julie lives there, but this fact is thrown in haphazardly near the end of the novel.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“The next night – Friday Night – I killed him.”

… Except no she didn’t, and she explains

“Well, SOME people thought I killed Al…  But of course I didn’t.”

Oh fuck yourself, Julie.

That’s So Dated! Moments: Well for one thing, look at that RAD ROLLERBLADING ENSEMBLE on the original cover! For another, Julie says that her Mom says that she looks like Demi Moore.

Best Quote:

“‘Why’d they suspend him?’

Vincent grinned at us. ‘Al rolled up his English term paper and smoked it in front of Mrs. Hirsch.’

Hillary and I both gasped. ‘You’re kidding!’ I cried.

Vincent’s grin grew wider. ‘Yeah. I’m kidding. He got into a fight.'”

Vincent is the best.

Conclusion: “The Confession” was actually pretty okay!! I kind of figured out the ending but I loved the way that it was executed, and I liked the characters in this one more than I have in other “Fear Street” books. Next up is “The Boy Next Door”!

 

 

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

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

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

giphy8
Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!