It’s Fall! A Little Halloween Reading

A list of some of my favorite books for getting into the mood of the holiday.

 

Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

In 1889, Eleanor Bly flung herself from the tower of Five Mile House after murdering her seven children. More than a hundred years later, her ghost reaches out to Leslie Stone, a New York cop who has killed a child murderer and is haunted by her actions.

 

Smile of a Ghost, by Phil Rickman

Or anything by Rickman, for that matter. Smile is an eloquently written ghost story wrapped in a mystery, and the suspense never flags. Also see  The Cure of Souls.

Vampire Legends of Rhode Island, by Christopher Rondini

Vampires are not just the stuff of legends and fantastic literature. In the 19th century, an outbreak of belief spread throughout New England and resulted in many bizarre incidents aimed at preventing vampires from preying on their relatives.

This little book is a well-researched account of the 19th century beliefs that connected consumption (tuberculosis) with vampirism in the minds of many New England residents.  Check it out if you’d like to discover what was done to prevent the dead from stealing away the living. And yes, it did involve stakes and hearts and burning. If reading this account doesn’t put you in the mood for creepiness and hauntings, nothing will.

Food for the Dead by Michael Bell

Scarier because it’s real……

New England folklorist Michael Bell spent some time in Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, interviewing people who still have direct connections to a little known outbreak of vampire beliefs a little more than 100 years ago. Food for the Dead, admirably researched, presents a series of case studies involving the (still-common) belief that the dead can be jealous of the living and return to spirit them away.

Solstice Wood, by Patricia McKillip

Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.

Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

When Jude buys the ghost advertised on an online auction, and opens the box it arrives in, everything changes in an instant, and life will never be the same for either of them (or for the dogs!)
Heart Shaped Box is a modern ghost story full of almost believable supernatural threats. Following Jude and Mary Beth as they scour first their intellects, then their instincts, and finally their very souls, trying desperately to evade the deaths that seem inevitable.

 

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

A classic, and still one of the most chilling, and psychological, ghost stories ever told.

The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another great classic. House of Seven Gables is an eerie ghost story based upon actual historical events. Hawthorne knew Salem and its history inside and out, and he also knew how to create a haunting atmosphere and a story that stays in the mind forever.

The Darkest Part of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell

One one of those novels that is more atmosphere than adventure. If you allow it to proceed at its own pace, it will weave its web around your mind. Subtle but effective, it’s sense of threat and menace grows a bit with every chapter.  I’ll tell you, I sure wouldn’t set foot in that woods.

 

 

These should keep you busy – and nervous –  until the witching night is over!

 

 

Ghost Story: Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted.” So opens Five Mile House. Former detective Leslie Stone is also a haunted woman, plagued by her memories of countless child abduction/murder cases and of  the perp she shot down in cold blood.  She also sees the ghost of the little girl that he killed. Hospitalized for months for a complete emotional breakdown, she finally returns home to a family which, at best, treats her with wariness. Her husband Greg has accepted a restoration job in the remote little town of Wellington, thinking that a brand new start will do them all  a world of good. But Wellington is a very strange place, and from the first few days, Leslie knows something’s amiss; she may not be police anymore, but her skills and instincts are as sharp as ever. In a matter of days, she discovers that a century ago, Eleanor Bly murdered her all of her children at the mansion, before leaping out the tower window. Gwen, the local woman married to Greg’s assistant, befriends Leslie, and tries to recruit her into her Wiccan lifestyle. The town’s only business is a concrete recycling plant, which is run by a coven that has kicked Gwen out. Worst of all, Leslie views a portrait of Eleanor and is horrified to realize that she looks exactly  like her. Is that why the Wellington’s hired her husband?

Five Mile House chronicles the inner turmoil of two women who have been broken by some pretty devastating circumstances. Parts of the narrative are delivered in Eleanor’s own voice, while Leslie’s is related in the third person. It is fascinating to watch how their two individual stories come to parallel each other, although that actualization doesn’t dawn  until midway through the book. Eleanor at one point comments that Leslie isn’t aware of her presence because she is distracted by her own ghosts and demons. But she hopes that Leslie will vanquish and lay to rest the evil that resides in the very timbers of Five Mile House. The final chapters are loaded with frenzied suspense as the fates of these two women resolve themselves. Not all hauntings are supernatural.

This is a fine debut novel that prompts me to pick up Ms. Novak’s subsequent books.

Books Within Books: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, Olivia Frost’s  daughter and husband died in an accident, and she struggled to bring up her son Milo alone. Now she’s a successful novelist, and Milo’s a world famous rock star. While on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her New York agent, she’s stunned to see a Times Square headline proclaiming the news that Milo has been charged with murdering his girlfriend  at their home in San Francisco. Any mother would drop everything and fly to her child’s side, but in Olivia’s case, they’ve been estranged for the past four years. She goes anyway, hoping to find some way to help.

Olivia’s about-to-be-published novel is a unique, somewhat radical enterprise. Prompted by criticism that her books always have bleak outcomes, she decided to present the final chapter from each of her seven previous works, along with a newly composed revision that changes the ending and the  meaning of each novel.  The irony is that, having completed this new book, her son’s crisis forces Olivia to review her own past, and find ways to effect changes that will heal the breach with Milo and divert the course of her own life. Many of the chapters about mother and son are followed by one of the revised chapters, which relate metaphorically to Olivia’s current experience. For her, reality and fiction are intimately connected. There is also the mystery surrounding Milo’s guilt or innocence. Early evidence suggests that he is. Fortuitously, Ms. Parkhurst desists from turning her protagonist into a modern Miss Marple.

As with all good novels, The Nobodies Album  presents imperfect but compelling characters who struggle with the sorts of psychological upheavals and emotions that mark every life. What if parent and child are a bad fit? Is it possible to rectify mistakes?When the last page has been turned, the reader is left with much to ponder.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Thriller: The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

Human trafficking has been much in the news lately, and this crime is rampant in Eastern and Northern Europe since the demise of the USSR left such a vacuum in its wake. In The Boy in the Suitcase, it’s a three year old who’s been kidnapped. His mother fears that he will be sexually abused, but, if possible, the fate planned by the kidnappers is even worse. Red Cross nurse and humanitarian Nina Borg discovers the child stashed in a locker at the train station, and begins a quest to rescue him and return him to his home, wherever that may be. He speaks no Danish, which compounds the difficulties inherent in the situation, and it isn’t long before some terrifying events take place.

Nina is characterized as a social activist with a mission to save the world. Her long suffering family wishes she’d direct some of that energy to them. She seems to be very intelligent and resourceful, but it’s hard to fathom why she undertakes this burden on her own, not notifying authorities or even her own husband. If you manage to table that question, The Boy in the Suitcase is one of the best thrillers published in recent years. The book fits snugly into the Scandinavian noir genre, but the authors are able to build incredible tension without the gory horrors that seem so prevalent in those novels. Nina is vividly presented as a compassionate woman who has never managed to develop the professional’s ability to keep a lid on her emotions. Certainly her family relationships are problematic; paradoxically, she chooses to distance herself emotionally from husband and children. I hope the authors address this conundrum in any sequels they write. As for the denouement, it is truly unanticipated, and ultimately chilling.

Not bad for a pair of writers whose backgrounds are in fantasy (Ms. Kaaberbol) and children’s books (Ms. Friis)!

Paranormal Fiction: Thores-Cross, by Karen Perkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets paranormal in Thores-Cross, a novel set on the outskirts of a Yorkshire village that was submerged to create a reservoir. Emma Moorcroft is an author with writer’s block following a miscarriage. She and her husband have resbuilt their dream home along the shores of Thruscross Reservoir, where Emma spent many happy childhood summers. Their closest neighbors , descendants of the family that owned the village in the 18th century, tell Emma a story about Jennet, the young village wise woman who becomes known as a witch.  Soon Emma starts having strange nightmares, and it isn’t long before she begins writing again, compulsively, day and night.

Thores-Cross is less a ghost story than a haunting. Although no ghost ever appears,  Emma soon realizes that it’s the spirit of Jennet emerging through her writing. Each of the women narrates her own experiences from their own place in time, and of the two, Jennet’s is by far the most compelling. Ms. Perkins knows her Yorkshire folklore and traditions, and does a superb job of capturing rural life and customs in the moors of the 1700’s. Jennet seems real, and it’s possible to feel a strong sense of rapport with her. On the other hand, Emma and her husband and neighbors come across as vapid, her experiences, although they drive the story, mere melodrama.

While nothing especially scary ever happens,  Jennet’s tale is realistic and engrossing and gives pause for thought. A work of straight historical fiction with her at its center might have been even more effective. Emma’s ends in a predictable, rather hurried fashion.

 

Paranormal Fiction: Inamorata, by Megan Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Megan Chance creates a twist on the currently popular vampire theme in Inamorata. Struggling American artist Joseph Hannigan and twin sister Sophie travel to Venice, where they hope to find a patron interested in supporting  and championing his work. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s quite extraordinary, and are equally entranced by the beauty and inter-connectedness of the twins. At the same time,  failed poet Nicholas Dane has arrived, bent on tracing the whereabouts of Odile Leon, the enchanting seductress who left him deep in despair. Odile, it seems, possesses the powers of a muse, and while her amorous conquests produce beautiful work during their relationship, the men lose their inspiration when they part. As the Hannigans penetrate the inner circle of artists and patrons, young men begin to die in suspicious circumstances, and Nicholas suspects that Odile may be involved. The Venice of this novel, set in the late 19th century, is a dark, labyrinthine one, damp and menacing. Its plot revolves on the myth of the succubus, a creature with the upper body of an irresistible woman and the lower body of a serpent. Succubi leach away the creativity and life force from their lovers, in order to maintain their immortality. Slowly paced,the story unfolds in a fairly predictable way, but the ending brings about an unforeseen set of circumstances. It also leaves unresolved a question about the true nature of the twins’ relationship.

Considering the topic, Inamorata elicits less a sense of horror than one of desolation.