That’s the term I would choose if I were to give a one-word definition for Grady Hendrix’s latest offering: I had first encountered this author with The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, a story I enjoyed very much, and I expected this new work to be equally engrossing, but How To Sell a Haunted House surpassed every expectation I had for it.

When Louise receives a succinct phone call from her brother announcing the sudden death of their parents in a car accident, the past she had kept at arm’s length, by going to live in California and keeping away from her family, suddenly comes rushing back.  Grudgingly leaving her five-years-old daughter in the care of the child’s father, she flies to Charleston and immediately clashes with her brother Mark about funeral arrangements and, later on, about the dispositions of the will, which leaves everything to Mark, with the exception of her mother’s beloved puppets.

As the fights between the two siblings become more and more heated, something weird seems to be happening in the house: dolls change places without anyone having touched them, strange noises come from the attic and other, far more creepy phenomena plague the home: Louise and Mark will have to overcome their differences if they want to understand what is truly happening and to prepare the house for a sale that seems more and more difficult as the eerie happenings point to some haunting presences…

As it’s clear from the title, the family home where Louise and Mark grew up is plagued by something otherworldly, but I don’t want to dwell too much on the details because it will be far better if you discover them on your own. What’s really creepy here, and in a major way, is the presence of an enormous amount of dolls and puppets that the siblings’ mother hand-crafted for pleasure and for her activities in the puppet ministry.  Which is not something invented for the novel but a real thing – the definition I found online says that it’s a team dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with your church community and the world using stories, songs, and humor through the art of puppetry.  Louise’s mother was very active in these circles, as shown during the funeral where other puppeteers make an appearance, turning the ceremony into something of a show where the memories of the departed are linked to many puppet-related events.

Apart from the quirkiness of this detail, a good portion of the dread that permeates the story comes indeed from the plethora of puppets literally filling every nook and cranny of the house, including two life-sized dolls that represent the child versions of Louise and Mark. Many horror stories – and movies! – have played on the scary factor offered by dolls (or mannequins) whose apparent lifelessness is used to great effect as a fear-inducing prop. Here this factor is employed very effectively because at first Louise is convinced (or tries to convince herself) that the apparent motions of the various dolls come from Mark’s attempts at scaring her away – that is, until a hair-raising encounter with a Nativity set made with squirrels shows her that something other than human malice is at play here. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous, alarming Pupkin which brings back nasty memories from Louise’s childhood and sheds some dreadful light on a very important, quite ominous sentence:

[…]puppets. Put one on and your posture changes, your voice alters, and you can feel what it wants, you can feel what it’s scared of, you know what it needs. You don’t wear the puppet. The puppet wears you.

And yet the spooky happenings, which slowly but surely turn from creepy to life-threatening, take second place in respect of the unfolding discoveries about the siblings’ past – a long journey down memory lane that reveals layers within layers like one of those dolls (what else?) that nest one into the other. At first Louise and Mark appear as well-defined characters: she the reasonably successful woman rearing a child on her own, dependable and responsible and with a firm grasp of what she wants from life; he the eternal Peter Pan, flitting from one job to another, never making much of himself and often acting as a jerk when dealing with his sister.

However, as the present unfolds with its mystery to be solved, we get to know the family’s past through a series of incremental flashbacks, which shed their light on Louise and Mark’s childhood and the roots for their antagonistic attitude: at first I was ready to despise Mark – his uncouth manners, the way he related to Louise and their relatives, the details of his life as shared by his sister, all added up to a very unlikable personality, but one of the flashbacks I mentioned made all the difference, revealing an important detail that changed the scene completely.  No spoilers here, but keep in mind that both Louise and Mark might have a foot in Unreliable Narrator territory….

The family dynamics are completed by the appearance of a good number of relatives, some of them exhibiting peculiar personality traits (Aunt Honey more than others!) that helped add a note of humor to a steadily darkening atmosphere that toward the end of the book turns into downright horror – a compelling, bone-chilling finale that kept me on the edge of the seat until the end.  It was a hard journey, because at times the evil that had taken hold of the house seemed inescapable and I have to acknowledge Grady Hendrix’s skill in his ability to maintain the razor-edge tension for so long and through so many truly horrific manifestations and long-buried family secrets.

This is one of those rare books where the border between reality and fiction becomes so permeable that characters and situations become quite real and I lose myself completely in the story: well done indeed, Mr. Hendrix!

My Rating:

Horror · Reviews

GHOSTWRITTEN, by Ronald Malfi

My exploration of Ronald Malfi’s works continues with this collection of four short stories that are loosely linked to each other through the mention of an element present in the previous one and also through the common denominator of books, since all four of them revolve around a book in some way.

THE SKIN OF HER TEETH focuses on the frantic attempts of book agent Gloria to bring to completion a movie script adapted from a successful novel. Not having heard any news from the writer, McElroy, she decides to visit him in his remote retreat and here she finds the man well beyond the verge of madness because he’s convinced that the original book possesses an evil will of its own and does not want any of its narrative details to be changed.  With the deadline looming ever closer, Gloria decides to take the matter into her own hands, only to discover that probably McElroy was not crazy at all….

Cursed books are nothing new in fiction, but The Skin of her Teeth (the fictional book that gives this story its title) is something quite different, and the way it manages to assert its own will is both creepy and intriguing, although I have to admit that I was even more appalled by Gloria’s attitude toward any obstacle on her path and the way she manipulates people with little or no though about their feelings, particularly where her life partner is concerned.

For me the true horror in this story did not come from the “things that go bump in the night”, although there is a good measure of that in here, but rather from the callous way in which Gloria goes about in life practically steamrolling over other people – and here I have to admit that I would not have minded seeing her getting her just deserts….

THE DARK BROTHERS’ LAST RIDE was a weird, almost psychedelic experience: it tells the story of Danny and Tommy Drake, petty criminals who are hired to deliver a rare, precious book to a mysterious client in a remote location, following a precise – if circuitous – itinerary. The warning they receive about not opening the briefcase containing the book, ever, does not agree with Tommy, the more volatile of the two, so that when he finally gives in to the temptation things start going from bad to worse for the two of them, transforming the trip into something of a journey to hell.

Where the strange, freaky places visited and events witnessed by the two brothers are the “meat” of this story, its backbone is represented by the exploration of Danny and Tommy’s personalities and of their shared past, which also includes a drug-crazed, abusive father who still looms like a specter just out of the corner of the eye.  The relationship between them is not an easy one, what with Tommy always being on a short fuse and often compromising their “jobs”, and with Danny who does care for his wayward brother but still feels like his weight is dragging him down.  There is a poignant quality in this relationship that at times feels more important than the actual task at hand and the oh-so-outlandish discoveries the brothers make on the journey.

THIS BOOK BELONGS TO OLO focuses on the creepiest kid I even encountered on my bookish travels: Bartholomew (“Olo”) Tiptree is a 10-year old child clearly suffering from the neglect of his super-busy parents and left to fend for himself in the vastnes of Helix House.  When he approaches other kids at a nearby park inviting them to his birthday party, we understand immediately that something is terribly wrong with Olo and with the strange “book” he put together himself.  It’s therefore surprising to see a good number of these children accepting the invitation, and the atmosphere becomes all the more disturbing thanks to the strange mannequins adorning Olo’s lawn and the news about the recent disappearance of his at-home teacher.  What happens during the birthday party, however, takes on the shades of a veritable nightmare.

I must confess I struggled with my feelings about Olo’s character because if on one side I could sympathize for his loneliness and the detached way his parents interacted with him, on the other his actions are those of a consummated psychopath who turned his loneliness into a form of self-centered absorption that left me thoroughly chilled – not to mention claustrophobic: read the story and you will understand why…

THE STORY does not focus on an actual book like its predecessors, but rather on the concept of storytelling – although in a unique way. Taking inspiration from the famous “choose your adventure” games it takes main character Grady into a spiral of disorientation and madness as his life seems to unravel before his very eyes.  An unexpected call informs Grady that his friend Taryn took her own life: trying to understand what happened to her to bring her to such an extreme act, Grady discovers her involvement into The Story, a sort of real-life game where the players’ choices impact the reality of their existence; determined to understand what happened during Taryn’s last days, Grady enters the game as well (or rather, the Story finds him…) with unpredictable results.

It’s impossible to say more about this story without incurring in spoilers, but it’s one of the mind mind-bending tales I happened to read, one where you end up questioning the fabric of reality and the worth of personal choices – provided that such a thing exists… 😉

Another demonstration of Ronald Malfi’s creative skills, this collection is an incredible journey through the fantastic and the scary, blended with some intriguing human elements. To be sure, not the last of my forays into this author’s production.

My Rating:


INFINITY GATE (Pandominion #1), by M. R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Every book I read, so far, from M.R. Carey proved to be an intriguing, engrossing journey, so when I saw Infinity Gate showcased on the monthly Orbit newsletter I requested it without even taking a look at the synopsis. Once again I found myself totally immersed in a story whose only downside was that it ended too soon.

Infinity Gate starts from the premise of the existence of an uncounted number of Earths, a multiverse where each iteration can be either quite close to the reality we’re familiar with, or so wildly different as to be unrecognizable.  Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal lives in what we might consider as our primary Earth, but one where resources are almost depleted and wars are being fought for whatever’s left.  Finding herself practically alone in the university complex near Lagos, in Nigeria, she spends her time perfecting her studies and one day stumbles on an amazing discovery: the possibility to jump from one reality to another – and therefore a chance for a better life, even for a way to save her own dying planet.  

With the help of Rupshe, a self-aware A.I. residing on the university grounds, Hadiz starts exploring the almost infinite versions of Earth, but in so doing she catches the attention of the Pandominion, a coalition of Earth-like worlds linked by the discovery of the Step plates, the means of jumping from one reality to another.  The Pandominion is at war with another aggregation of worlds, the Ansurrection: these are planets ruled by machine intelligence and so far the war has claimed many victims and many worlds; fearing that Hadiz’s jumps might be related to the Ansurrection’s encroaching, the Pandominion sets its armed force, called the Cielo, on her tracks.

Hadiz’s storyline runs parallel to that of Essien Nkanika, living in a world not much different from hers, and the meeting between them will change Essien’s life – one that has already seen much suffering and deprivation – in a very dramatic way.  The third main character in the novel is that of  Topaz Tourmaline FiveHills, a young girl living on Ut, an Earth-like planet where the dominant life form descends from rabbits: Topaz – or Paz as she likes to be called – will see her life upturned by a devastating event and will have to make some hard choices she was not prepared for.

Curiously enough, for a story told through multiple POVs, Infinity Gate chooses the unusual way of following these three characters in a linear way instead of alternating chapters between them: at first this choice felt weird, because each time the reader must start anew with a different perspective that seems to have no connection with the previous one, but in the end it was revealed as a very clever way of making the reader invested in each character’s journey and at the same time of exploring the Pandominion in its many facets without need for long and distracting info-dumps.

The Pandominion looks, on the surface, as a conglomeration of advanced worlds graced by an utopian life-style, but as soon as the focus moves on its inner workings it’s easy to see that it’s not like Star Trek’s Federation at all: some of the people at the top are quite ruthless and the existence of the Cielo, the inter-planetary army whose armor-clad soldiers elicit apprehension with their sole presence, points toward a rule that’s quite far from benevolent.  The Ansurrection, on the other hand, seems driven by an apparently unthinking drive to replicate its machines and the discovery of several worlds where any form of life has been obliterated does not bode well for their intentions.

The characters who move on this intriguing – if slightly unsettling – background are wonderfully depicted and fully fleshed: Hadiz Tambuwal looks like a single-focus-driven scientist who is more at ease among the instruments of her laboratory than among people, and yet there is a poignant streak of vulnerability in her that comes across in the course of her meeting with Essien Nkanika, a young man who has learned to stop at nothing to ensure his own survival, like accepting to join the Cielo where his humanity risks to be taken away from him piece by piece.  My favorite character, however, remains Paz, a young girl (rabbit-shaped, granted, but still a girl) who finds herself dealing with exceptional events she was not prepared for: the way she finds a well of courage and resiliency she did not know she possesses, while still remaining true to herself, gives way to a character journey I found both compelling and heart-wrenching.

It’s not going to be a spoiler when I say that these three are destined to meet: the greater attraction in this novel stands in the expectation of that encounter and in the different, often difficult paths they travel before that can happen.  This first book in the series merely lays the ground for what will develop into the main story, and yet it does not feel like a simple setting of the playing field because you can almost hear the various pieces clicking into place, each new addition boosting the tension level to new heights, particularly where Paz’s experiences are concerned: there is a long, tense segment dealing with them, toward the final part of the novel, where I was literally unable to put the book down because the various moving parts were in such a state of flux that anything could happen and failure seemed like a chilling possibility.   It’s difficult to describe this book without giving away precious – and spoilery! – details, but trust me when I tell you that reading it without any prior knowledge is indeed the best way to go.

Infinity Gate closes with the equivalent of a “…to be continued” but at the same time it ends this part of the story neatly: previous experience with M.R. Carey’s other series tells me that the next books will come along with infallible cadence, and I already look forward to seeing where the story will take us next.

My Rating:


STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St.John Mandel

This book has been mentioned quite often in the blogosphere and it was also recommended to me by a friend, but for some reason I kept sliding it down the TBR list – which is far from unusual for me, since I tend to be easily distracted by other titles. Now that I finally read it, I wonder if my constant delay was not in part due to a sort of “warning” from what I call my “book radar”, because while I did not dislike Station Eleven, it also failed to completely captivate me.

The book’s premise is that a virulent strain of flu wipes out something like 90 percent of Earth’s population and the story follows some of the survivors in the post-apocalyptic world left after the flu’s passage.  These characters all have some sort of link to renowned actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage, during a representation of King Lear, happens on the eve of the pandemic outbreak: Kirstin is a young actress who was somehow befriended by Leander and witnessed his death – a scrapbook containing the highlights of the actor’s career, and a couple of issues of a graphic novel written by one of his wives, titled Station Eleven, represent the only link Kirstin has with a past she struggles to remember; Jeevan, a former paparazzo, is a paramedic in training who unsuccessfully tries to save Leander’s life  and later on watches the world unravel from the window of the building where he and his brother are holed up.  Then there is the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians moving from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare’s dramas for the survivors,  and trying to keep civilization alive, somehow; and lastly, in the flashbacks sections of the novel, we learn about the life of Miranda, Arthur Leander’s second wife and author of the Station Eleven graphic novel that also gives the book its title.

First things first, let’s deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: it’s possible that if I had read the book when it came out, its premise would have had a different impact on me, because now that global pandemics are not a thing limited to speculative fiction, I don’t find it so easy to look at this theme dispassionately. Granted, what recently happened worldwide did not turn into the extinction event portrayed here or in similarly themed books like King’s The Stand, but still, knowing the possibility exists makes for some very uncomfortable reading – at least for me. St.John Mandel does not dwell too deeply on the details of our civilization’s unraveling, preferring to focus on the emotional and psychological impact it has on the characters, and while this choice makes for a more muted narrative, it also detaches the reader from the end of the world as we know it, so that taking away most – if not all – of the tragedy of such an end also robs the story of any dramatic impact.  Even the appearance of a self-proclaimed Prophet and his vicious adepts fails to introduce an element of real danger and fear into the story – my perception here is that it was another missed opportunity.

Which brings me to the characters: sadly, most of them failed to capture my attention, adding to the unwelcome sense of detachment I experienced throughout the novel. Kirsten is robbed of a past she hardly remembers, at the same time depriving the readers of any details of the fracturing of civilization, and her journey through the deserted country as she tries to reconnect with the Symphony fails to convey the real sense of loss of a whole civilization. The Traveling Symphony members are further divested of any individual traits including their names, since most of them are identified by the name of their instrument of choice: granted, their valiant effort to keep culture and civilization alive in the wasteland is admirable and it brings some touches of poignancy to the story, but for me it was not enough to help me connect with them, either individually or as a whole.

The only character that managed to gain some relief is that of Miranda, thanks to her efforts at making a life for herself out of the all-encompassing sphere of a very self-centered Arthur Leander: the graphic novel she works on for most of her life is the representation of an idealized existence and it also works as a bridge between the “before” and “after” thanks to the hopeful outlook it offers to those fortunate enough to get hold of some copies, but that’s all and it’s not enough to offer some much needed strong characterization to the book, a situation hindered by the fact that she’s a figure from the past and therefore lost forever in the “present”.

I realized that I’ve depicted this novel in less than enthusiastic tones, and in its defense I have to acknowledge that the writing is fluid and at times poetic, particularly when describing the vast expanses of empty land where nature is repossessing the last traces of our civilization, but if I have to be honest I would have preferred a grittier portrayal of this end – a “bang” rather than the melancholic “whimper” threaded through the story.  It’s not the book’s fault, of course, but simply a matter of personal preferences….

My Rating:


THE SEVENTH BRIDE, by T. Kingfisher

It is now my firm conviction that I can’t go wrong with any T. Kingfisher book I pick up: this is my third foray into her stories and once again I’m amazed at the way she can weave drama and humor into compelling tales that keep me riveted from start to finish.

The Seventh Bride is a reimagining of the Bluebeard myth, but it adds many intriguing elements to the classic fairy tale, turning it into something delightfully new. Rhea is the daughter of the village’s miller, her only troubles in life coming from the slight drudgery of repetitive work and the fierce battles she wages with a bellicose swan fixed on depriving her of her lunch.  When the local ruler, Lord Crevan, asks for her hand in marriage, Rhea is both surprised and worried, because royalty never marries into the common folk, so something must certainly be wrong with both the proposal and the man.  Equally startling is Crevan’s invitation to visit his castle before the wedding; once there (and not before gathering an unlikely companion in the form of a very special hedgehog) she makes an awful discovery: there have been six other wives before her, and some of them have been either killed or horribly mutilated.  For his part, Crevan sets Rhea a series of tasks: failure to complete them before each dawn will lead to the inevitability of marriage – something that Rhea now completely dreads.

Rhea’s horrific journey toward Crevan’s castle and her sojourn there, not to mention the increasingly difficult tasks that also reveal the depths of cruelty of her future husband, make for a very immersive read, one that reveals the girl’s strength of character: instead of succumbing to the fear of what future might have in store for her, she grows in her determination to avoid the fate of her predecessors while safeguarding the life and livelihood of her family, not-so-subtly threatened by the intended groom.  I enjoyed Rhea’s show of courage, her practical nature managing to tame the primal fear engendered by the horrific discoveries she makes in Crevan’s house, her willingness to face head-on the man’s cruel, manipulative attitude.

Where the book truly excels, however, is in the strong bonds Rhea forms with some of the surviving wives, and her feelings of compassion for the one who seems to have fully embraced a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with their captor.  Once she realizes that she’s not alone in the plight of becoming a victim to Crevan’s nasty plans, she finds the courage to defy him, and even challenge him on his own playing field.  Unlike other fairy tales’ protagonists, the miller’s daughter does not wait to be saved but rather goes on the offensive, armed with even more tenacity than we witnessed at the start of the story when battling that dastardly swan in defense of her lunch.

The subtle humor pervading this novel effectively counters the sense of horror the readers feel through Rhea’s reactions when she witnesses the brutal, callous injuries perpetrated on some of Crevan’s wives – the ones still alive, that is –  and yet that humor is not enough to erase our anger at the man’s inhuman treatment of them. Lord Crevan becomes the embodiment of every abusive husband we learn about in the real world, and more than once I wondered if the author chose that name as the scrambled version of “craven”, because that’s what he ultimately is, an empowered coward who steals women’s choices (together with their magic, or their sight, or their voice) simply because he enjoys doing so.  Which makes Rhea’s rebellious and proactive choices all the more worthy of cheering on.

A special mention goes for the oh-so-cute hedgehog that acts as Rhea’s unlikely but effective companion: once again T. Kingfisher chooses to pair her protagonist with a representative from the animal kingdom, in what seems to me like a recurring theme – and one that I hope will be present in her other stories as well, since I enjoy them immensely.  The hedgehog is not only a delightful creature or a sort of talisman for the young girl, who seems to draw courage from its presence in the pocket of her dress, it’s also something of a conduit for help when Rhea most needs it, and a charming, sunny element in the overall darkness of the tale.

Despite that darkness, however, The Seventh Bride is a refreshing story of courage and determination and of the strength that can come from bonds of friendship and – in this specific case – of sisterhood forged in adversity.  It will leave you with a satisfactorily pleasant taste, and the urge to explore more of this author’s works – at least it did for me…

My Rating: