Book Review: In the house in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

The Blurb:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.

This book read like a combination of fevered nightmare and fairytale. And I mean that in the best way possible. The story takes our heroine (?), known only as “Goody” and sets her down in a wood where magic weaves into the bark of the trees, and the stench of rot can be sensed when the wind blows the right way.

Like a traditional fairy tale, the story begins by showing us the fantastical…the sharp teeth are well hidden. But as the story goes on, the underlying menace comes to the fore, and the smile widens into a razor grin.

This isn’t your traditional horror story … but the dream-like prose and ever-fascinating subject matter make this book shine. Anyone out there looking for something a bit different for the Halloween season and the dying of the year should consider this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Blurb:

As a girl, Jack lives with her father and brother after her mother passed away during childbirth. Her father is a well-meaning construction worker who treats her more like a roommate, while her brother, Andy, is an introverted loner prone to violent outbursts, a virtual mirror to his sister who is outspoken to an extreme. The story opens on a sleepover with nine year old Jack and her close friend. While putting on a pretend show, the two girls leave a video camera running, and when Jack replays the tape the next day, she sees her friend’s toy being snatched off the end table and out the back door by a swift, nearly unseen hand. Excited and bewildered, she tries to show the tape to her thirteen year old brother, Andy who is still furious about the spat he and Jack got into the night before. Without another word, he smashes the tape of the intruder. That night, determined to catch the creature she now calls The Toy Thief, Jack sets up a series of traps, all of which fail miserably. Once she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds her friend’s toy has returned, brought back by The Toy Thief, an impossibly tall and rat-like creature with glassy eyes. Just then, Andy steps out of his room, and as The Thief flees in a panic, Andy realizes his sister is telling the truth. The two of them are able to surmise that The Thief most likely travels through a tangled section of woods called The Trails, and they go out in search of it. After returning unsuccessful, Jack awakes the next morning to find Andy missing from his bedroom. As her father informs the police, Jack knows it’s up to her to find him. Jack must venture into the dark place WHERE TOYS GO to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same? FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.

This was a fantastic horror offering! Gillespie combines those universal childhood fears of the disappearance of something beloved and the thing under the bed to give us a story that resonates viscerally with the reader.

In terms of story and plot, The Toy Thief reminds me strongly of an early Stephen King short story (Some of his best work, in my opinion) given guts and sinew pulled over the bones to form a full-length story.

Maintaining the creep factor is incredibly hard over a few hundred pages. And while there are a few spots where the story lags, in general the pacing is strong and consistent. Gillespie is also a dab hand at creating fantastic mental imagery with his writing. The weirdness and wrongness of the toy thief shine through, as does the quiet disfunction of Jack’s family.

This is a well-written, well-plotted, and original horror story. Fans of the genre will enjoy this new entry!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Hanna is nearly perfect, at least according to her daddy. So what if she still isn’t speaking at age seven? She’s clearly very intelligent, and more than capable of communicating in her own way. Those schools she’s been expelled from? They just didn’t understand her. Suzette, Hanna’s mother suspects something is wrong. Her precocious child is displaying worrying tendencies towards manipulation and violence. While her husband remains blind to Hanna’s problems, Suzette begins to suspect she may be the target of Hanna’s wrath.

Let me say at the start that my interpretation of the book may be a bit different from most. I am emphatically childfree, don’t really care for children in any case, and tend to regard most of them as tiny little psychopaths until they reach their midtwenties. Am I justified in this point of view? Probably not. But that’s the mindset I’m coming from when reading this book.

And it was nightmarish. The book is great, don’t get me wrong. It is tightly written, and the alternating points of view between Suzette and Hanna let us truly get to know the central characters. I had to take a break from the book about 100 pages in because it was keeping me up at night. The utter despair and hopelessness of Suzette’s situation is wrenching. She is trying (though imperfectly) to do right by her daughter, though years of abnormal and worrying behavior from Hanna have made her a bit ambivalent about motherhood. Compound this with her husband’s need to see only the perfect, upper-middle class family he desires, and Suzette is entirely alone to deal with her daughter. This I find terrifying: when dealing with mental and behavioral abnormalities in childhood, it is generally left to the mother to wonder where she went wrong, and what she could have done differently. And in all cases, motherhood is a condition with no escape. Someone may regret bringing a child into the world, but there are few socially acceptable ways to divorce oneself from parenthood, especially when being “a good mother” is considered the epitome of female (and especially middle class) success.

Well, enough ranting. I did, obviously, pick the book back up (and finished the remainder in one sitting). In the interests of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’m going to say little about the latter part of the book, but I will say that I was surprised by the direction the story took.

In sum, this book is a nuanced look at motherhood and psychopathy, at the loneliness of being a stay at home mother, and the frustration of being an atypical child. This book intimately describes the horror of finding out that, rather than the sweet, beautiful child you may have dreamed about, you have given birth to a monster, and are now tethered to its side.

I’d be curious to see what more maternally-minded people thought of his book? We’re their sympathies (like mine) fully with Suzette? Or do they see something redeeming in Hanna? Do they feel the horror as “that could have been me”? Or does the horror lie in “Suzette should have done x,y,z”? I would love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave me a comment or two!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Mister Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

Fourteen years ago, Alice Hill was brutally attacked by two of her schoolmates, twin girls obsessed with Mister Tender, a demonic bartender character created by Alice’s father. After the attack, her father vowed never to create another Mister Tender graphic novel again. But there are people out there still obsessed with Mister Tender, and Alice, still bearing the physical and emotional scars of her attack, slowly starts to feel he shadowy presence of someone in the background. Someone who knows everything about her past, someone who wants to own her future…

First of all: hurray! A psychological thriller that bring me back hope for the genre! If you’ve been following my reviews you’re no doubt aware that I was getting mightily sick of the damaged heroine psycho trope of most thrillers on the market now, looking to pick up some lingering success from Woman on the Train or Gone Girl. Most fall disappointingly short, but Mister Tender’s Girl has that ineffable something, a spark of real suspense and credible characters that make the genre so much fun.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is based on a true story, the Slender Man stabbing that took place in Wisconsin in 2014. It might just be me, but the fact that something this messed up has actually happened grounds the story and makes it that much more compelling.

Wilson offers us a vastly damaged protagonist in Alice, but her paranoia and PTSD seem to have been earned, rather than tacked on by an author trying to make a main character different. This is a girl who has gone through hell–and has the psychological scars to prove it–yet is trying her best to deal with her past and succeed in the present. The plot twists and turns, as it should, but Wilson is able to keep the plot twists feeling organic. Remember folks, it’s not how many plot twists you have, but how you use them.

This is a dark, occasionally grim look at the fragility of a woman who’s life is falling apart, and who may never have been in control of it in the first place. Yet Wilson is able to set this fragility against a determination and strength that may save her, or may hasten her undoing. In short, this book has restored my faith in the psychological thriller genre.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Bookish First in exchange for an honest review.

Book Box Review and Unboxing: The Nocturnal Reader’s Box – November

It’s gray and dreary here in November, the perfect time to find a package on your doorstep that promises oodles of goodies. Let’s dig in, shall we?

The books this month are two new releases. 

The first is The Wilderness Within by John Claude Smith, which sounds like a delightfully trippy tale of madness. Here’s the Goodreads description:

The forest is alive.

While visiting fellow writer, Frank Harlan Marshall, Derek Gray senses a palpable dread within Frank’s house and the forest that surrounds it; a subtle, malignant sentience. What should be a joyous event, as they await the surprise arrival of a long-lost friend, comedian “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, is fraught with unease Derek does not understand.

Derek’s confusion is upended by the chance meeting with musician Alethea, formerly of Dark Angel Asylum, a band that dropped out of sight once the leader, Aleister Blut, ended up in an insane asylum. As their relationship blossoms, Derek’s disorientation at the hands of the forest manifests as his world turns sideways…and one of Frank’s fictional creations–a murderous monster named Average Joe–gains foothold in the surreal, psychological terrain.
As the worlds of reality and fantasy meld, what transpires bounds from deeply profound to pure madness.

This promises to be an interesting read.

Next up is a collection of short stories by Ronald Malfi titled We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone.  From the Goodreads description: 

A new mother is pursued by mysterious men in black. A misguided youth learns the dark secrets of the world from an elderly neighbor on Halloween night. A housewarming party where the guests never leave. A caretaker tends to his rusted relic of a god deep in the desert… 

In his debut short story collection, Bram Stoker Award finalist Ronald Malfi mines the depths and depravities of the human condition, exploring the dark underside of religion, marriage, love, fear, regret, and hunger in a world that spins just slightly askew on its axis. Rich in atmosphere and character, Malfi’s debut collection is not to be missed.

I have been assured that I do NOT want to read this book at night!

And now, onto the goodies, those delightful little extras that are always so on the mark. This month continues Nocturnal Reader’s winning streak.

Per usual  the box included a bookmark and a pin. This month’s pin is a sliding bucket of blood ready to dump all over poor Carrie. 

This month’s art print features Butterball the Cenobite from Clive Harper’s Hellraiser series.

A Nocturnal Reader’s-themed pennant added some gray-scale whimsy to the box (and is now proudly gracing the wall in my reading room).

The remaining goodies were perfect for the colder, rainy (and possibly snowy) November days ahead

Included this month was this fantastic Shirley Jackson pillow case, which promptly swallowed one of my more abused throw pillows.

There was also apple strudel flavored coffee from The Coffee Shop of Horrors (LOVE their coffee), perfect for a cold morning

And this incredibly cozy Nights Watch hat (from GoT) that actually fits over my oversized head (yay!)

So a wonderful collection of stuffs his month. I have to say (as I have many times before) that the Nocturnal Reader’s Box has been one of the most consistently wonderful subscription boxes I’ve encountered. Visit them at their website to subscribe!

Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My best friends exorcism.jpg

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Abby has been friends with Gretchen since they were ten years old. Now high school students, they have traded in their ET posters and roller skates for the mall and parties in the woods. After one such escapade, however, Gretchen begins to act strangely. Very, very strangely. With the peculiarities mounting and the weirdness surrounding Gretchen becoming more and more disturbing, Abby must face the truth: Her friend is possessed, and Abby is the only one who can help her.

Grady Hendrix is certainly one of the bright lights (if that phrase is appropriate) in modern horror fiction. His previous book, Horrorstör, was an intelligent, hilarious, and creepy haunted house tale. In My Best Friend’s Exorcism, we find out what would happen if The Heathers also featured demonic possession. Here, Hendrix has again left his unique imprint on the genre, taking us into a friendship sundered by satan and adolescence, which really are much the same thing.

If you’re a horror genre fan, but have been looking for something a bit off the beaten path, something campy and fun while still maintaining creep factor, Grady Hendrix should definitely top your TBR.

Book Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald


Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Ryhalt Galharrow is just trying to get by. In ages past, the Deep Kings — immortal, evil, god-like beings — marched on the land, wreaking devastation wherever they went. Then, a group of powerful wizards called The Nameless blasted the world apart and created the Misery, a twisted wasteland of renegade magic and grotesque monsters, but their actions kept the Deep Kings at bay. Now, Galharrow makes his money as a mercenary for hire tracking and killing minions of the Deep Kings. Unfortunately, Galharrow has also pledged his sword to Crowfoot, one of the Nameless. When Crowfoot delivers an urgent order to save a mysterious noblewoman, Galharrow is plunged into a far-ranging conspiracy whose roots threaten to destroy civilization itself.

This is the first book in a series by debut author Ed McDonald, and it is something to behold. McDonald tosses the reader right into the Misery on page one, and keeps up a relentless pace throughout the book. Unlike quite a few “first in series,” Blackwing has avoided the awkward “getting to know you” phase that breaks up the flow of so many books. We learn about our hero and our setting in bits and pieces; enough to make sense of the plot, but little enough to leave us wanting more. The tone of the book combines the best elements of dark fantasy, steampunk, post-apocalyptic brutality, and 1930s detective noir.

McDonald has created an interesting and flawed hero in Ryhalt Galharrow, and provides enough secondary characters to allow the series to mature and expand with future books. Likewise, the setting seems like something out of a Robert E. Howard story, all dark recesses and horrifying sorcery. McDonald does a fantastic job of building this world up without sacrificing the pace of the plot, no mean feat. In fact, the only thing I have to complain about in this book is that any romance-related dialogue is awkward. I mean, Attack of Clones, George Lucas awkward. Fortunately, there’s not too much of this, so it doesn’t really impact the quality of the story.

In all, fans of darker fantasy will probably love this book. Fans of Lovecraftian stories, or the Conan and Solomon Kane stories by Howard should also check out this series. If Blackwing is the author’s debut work, then I can’t wait to read the next in the series!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we have always lived in the castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I am on a roll recently with reading these classic horror stories! The Haunting of Hill House (also by Jackson) and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill are classics in the genre for good damn reason, and I was hoping to continue the trend with We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Merricat lives in crumbling Blackwood Manor with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian. Once the Blackwoods were an admired and socially prominent family–until someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Cutting themselves off from hostile townfolk and overly nosy society ladies, the surviving sisters and their Uncle live a strange, reclusive life. Until (naturally) a distant relative with designs on the rumored family fortune comes to call. The increasing disruption of her ordered life causes Merricat to frantically try to set things right again.

As I said before, this book is a classic for a reason. There are tropes and cliches aplently, but you have to remember that this was one of the books that created those tropes. I especially love the voice that Jackson gives to Merricat, only twelve when most of her family was murdered, and growing up increasingly isolated. Now eighteen, she has developed numerous methods, both mental and magical, of keeping herself and her remaining family safe from a hostile world. There is a 1967 movie called Spiderbaby (which stars a young Sid Haig and Lon Chaney Jr.) which strongly reminds me of this book.

What I like most is how normally Merricat’s abnormalities are portrayed. She has grown up in virtual isolation, with no one but her rather insane uncle and suspected-poisoner sister to raise her. As a result, Merricat seems to perpetually exist in a limbo between adulthood and a child-like state. She is the only one in her family capable of shopping for groceries (and selecting weekly library books), but she also believes in the power of charms (such as buried marbles) to keep herself and her family safe.

This is a very short book, only 160 pages, and the perfect size for reading on some gray, drizzly afternoon (preferably with the autumn wind whistling through the thinning leaves and a hot cup of tea by your elbow). If you haven’t yet read this horror classic, I strongly encourage you to move it up to the top of your to-read list in time for Halloween.

Book Review: The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson


The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson

There’s something odd about St. Clements church in Atwelle, Cambridge researcher Margeaux Wood can feel it. When odd gargoyles are found carved into the eaves of the church during its restoration, her hunch seems to be confirmed. Teaming up with Don Whiby, the architect in charge of the restorations, Margeaux sets out to uncover the story behind the unique carvings. But then there is a murder, and soon another, and the pattern of the murders seems to echo the mysterious carvings in the eves. Furthermore, these murders seem to echo similar crimes committed during the reign of Henry VIII . . .

I really liked the concept of this book. The interplay between Tudor England and modern times was well done. Gordonson gives the reader a wealth of historical detail to work with, and I found the balancing act played by both church officials and highly placed citizenry during Henry VIII’s conflict with the Vatican to be truly fascinating. The mystery itself is original and interesting.

That being said, I found the execution of the book to be somewhat wanting. The characters of Margeaux and Don, and others central to the plot, feel a bit unfinished. There is little to the characters beyond the immediate needs of the story, nothing about wants, desires, or dreams beyond the gargoyles in the church. Additionally, the antagonists seem to have little motivation for being such. They are acting to foil or to harm our protagonists, yes, but why?

There are some nicely suspenseful scenes in this book, with a good creep factor to boot. But I did find that several opportunities for suspense were passed by, possibly to increase the pace of the book. The plot does move quickly, but occasionally feels like it’s stampeding along, sacrificing plot and character development in the process.

I guess my overall impression is one of haste. The plot gallops along, leaving us with quick glimpses of something fascinating. Taking the time to give the reader a bit more to work with, to flesh out the characters, the world they live in, and the (really quite interesting) central mystery would have given this book real punch.

In all, this is a fantastic idea, with a great amount of attention paid to historical detail. Gordonson is certainly able to craft a compelling story. But I feel that as written, we are seeing only the bare bones of a great story.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 Book Review: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

This book was included in Powell’s Indiespensable #61, and the description was so intriguing that I sat down and started reading it then and there.

The book primarily follows Jeremy Heldt, high school grad and video store employee in Nevada, Iowa in the mid 1990s. Life is fairly normal for Jeremy, he lives with his father, the two carrying on quietly after the death of his mother several years ago in a car crash. 

The peace and quiet is slowly broken apart when a customer comes into the store, saying that her rental “has another movie on it.” When a second customer comes in complaning of te same thing, Jeremy investigates. Playing the movie through, a black and white film, barely a minute long, has been inserted into the middle of the movie. Though there’s nothing concrete in the short film, it is vaguely unsettling. When other films begin appearing in other movies at the store, the creep factor goes up exponentially. Moreover, there are familiar landmarks in the background of these strange, vaguely threatening films . . .

I really enjoyed this book. Darnielle has a writing style that manages to be descriptive and stark at the same time. In addition, the book is told from the point of view of a smugly omniscient narrator who seems to delight in keeping bits an pieces back from the reader. We are instead forced to circle around the mystery behind the tapes like a vulture, seeing only the smallest parts at a time. The whole thing reminds me of  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. With that book, it was hard to pin down what exactly was so creepy, but it kept you up at night.

Fans of psychological suspense will like this book. It’s a finely creepy sophomore work from an up-and-coming author.