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: The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from  the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father.  When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter.  From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……

The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses  categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar.  Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction?  Grace is soon to know the whole truth.

This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation.  And possibly a sequel?

Thriller: The Cold Calling, by Will Kingdom

The Cold Calling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For DI Bobby Maiden, life after death is hell. Resuscitated after a hit and run, he’s haunted by dark, eerie dreams of being buried alive. Before the accident, he knew he was being fitted up by his supervisor, a crooked administrator who works hand in glove with the local hoods. When the supervisor visits him in the hospital, Bobby knows he’d better disappear before he’s forced to die another death.

The nurse who brought Bobby back to life is an alternative healer, and she hides him out with a friend, Marcus, who lives in the ruin of an ancient castle across the Welsh border. Marcus’s elderly housekeeper experienced, during childhood, a vision of the Virgin Mary at Black Knoll, the prehistoric burial mound above his home. Enter Cindy Mars-Lewis, a cross dressing entertainer who believes he has shamanic powers, and American journalist Grayle Underhill, looking for the sister who has disappeared somewhere among these ancient hills. When it appears that a serial killer is marauding, all hell breaks loose.

Will Kingdom is a pen name of Phil Rickman, the British novelist better known for his Merrilee Watkins series. There is no one writing today who is better at unrolling stories atmospheric with history and folklore, populated by magnetic characters, both good and bad, and topped with a credible dollop of the paranormal. Cold Calling has a multi-layered plot written tightly enough that the reader discovers the identity of the killer only when those in the story do. Green men, stone circles, and ley lines all play prominent roles, drawing the reader into the mystery.

I’ve said this in others of my Rickman reviews and it bears repeating: Phil Rickman is an author who deserves a wider audience in America. He’s outstanding. Check him out.

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Almost Heaven: Near Death Experience, 19th century style

This is a true story about a woman by the name of Anna Mathewson, who was born in Coventry, CT in 1810. Anna grew up healthy and strong, but at the age of 24, things took a turn for the worse. Her health was described from that time on as delicate, and from 1841-44, Anna was confined to the house, often to her bed, unable to rise without assistance. Dr Norman Brigham attended Anna all this time, and finally, things grew so serious that often she could not speak. It was necessary to prescribe opiates for the pain (no diagnosis is provided in the record), and Anna herself claimed to be suffering “all the pains of death”. Death, she said, had “commenced at her extremities”, and when it reached her heart, she would fade away.

Apparently it did reach her heart, because on Tuesday, May 20, 1844, Anna’s spirit left her body and soared to heaven. The doors of heaven opened upon the “abode of the blessed”, and the most delightful singing was heard. Alas, Anna was welcomed but not permitted to enter. She was instructed to return to earth, and was given a divine mission, to “warn Christians to wake up, that the churches might be revived and sinners converted.” Only when her task was accomplished could she return to Paradise.

Imagine the reaction of her friends and family when Anna’s “corpse” sat up and spoke to them! There were even more surprises to come. Although Miss Mathewson had had difficulty speaking, and certainly had never sung, her voice suddenly “came to her and she would sing continuously for hours”. She told everyone that the angels were singing with her and she longed for all to hear them.

Mr. S. Bliss of nearby Tolland heard of this wondrous miracle, and decided to pay a visit. He published an account of his meeting in the Boston newspapers, fully corroborating the story. The rush was on. Seven hundred people descended upon little Coventry in seven days, and before all the excitement settled, more than 2000 made the pilgrimage. This in an era when travel was an arduous, lengthy process. One hardy and zealous soul trudged on foot 150 miles, “that he might see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears” the woman who had been to heaven and back again.

[from The History of Tolland County, JR Cole]

At the Crossroads: folk beliefs and superstitions

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

Paranormal Fiction: The House of Lost Souls, by F.G. Cottam

The House Of Lost Souls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve years ago, journalist Paul Seaton visited the derelict Fischer House on the Isle of Wight, in the course of his research into the life of a woman photographer famous during the 1920’s. What he encountered there nearly destroyed him, and haunts him to this day. Now a quartet of college students has made a similar visit, and all are on the verge of insanity and suicide. The brother of one of them requests consultation from Paul, and though he dreads the task, he reluctantly agrees.

Around this premise, F.G. Cottam has spun a gripping tale of malevolence, reminiscent in tone and aura to Henry James’s classic The Turn of the Screw. The suspense is tangible from the very first page, and Cottam employs a very effective mechanism, that of popular music, which the characters hear playing of its own accord whenever something significant is about to occur. Among the characters are renowned occultist Aleister Crowley, horror writer Dennis Wheatley, and a young Hermann Goring. At time, it is difficult to tell the dead apart from the living. This is a relatively complex story that is truly scary, but it also requires reflection about the nature of evil and the question of whether a place can itself become imbued with evil when such acts take place in them. At time, it is difficult to tell the dead apart from the living. Rich with atmosphere, evocatively written, The House of Lost Souls is a novel you won’t soon forget.

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It’s a Mystery: The Wine of Angels, by Phil Rickman

The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Merrily Watkins is a widowed mother and a brand new Anglican priest. She is assigned to the village of Ledwardine, near the Welsh border, once the center of English cider production, but now little more than a weekend getaway for rich folk from London. Jane, her teenaged daughter, is perplexed by her mum’s career choice, but delighted because the rambling old vicarage has room enough for her to have her own apartment. Merrily is hoping for a peaceful transition, but her first week is anything but auspicious. Some of the residents are into reviving ancient customs, such as dancing around the “Apple Tree Man” to encourage the recovery of the orchard and cider business. Some of the newcomers (aka outsiders) are bent on presenting a church play in which “the truth” about a medieval minister is subject to dramatic examination. And Jane has fallen in with both the local folklorist and the village wild child. Then there’s the disaster at the installation ceremony….

Phil Rickman is an outstanding writer, skilled at working credible plots, dialogue, characterization, and ambience. In the Merrily series, he expertly and seamlessly blends superstition, folklore, and a touch of the paranormal into the problems of modern day living. Ledwardine is a timeless place steeped in tradition, and filled with colorful inhabitants reminiscent of the traditional English “types”, but most definitely real. Merrily and Jane so engaging that the reader begins to pull for them from the first chapter, as they struggle with the realization that there’s much more here than meets the eye. And much of it isn’t as pretty as the landscape….