Bundle Up for “A Winter Haunting” – By Dan Simmons

A Winter Haunting 3

Have I got a haunted house book for you! It’s a very decent read,; a brilliant piece. And, it is seasonally appropriate. Published in 2002, it is called A Winter Haunting by author Dan Simmons. The action of the story begins at Halloween and ends post New Years Day. Yes I know, we already finished those holiday celebrations. To reengage in the them would require us to look back instead of moving forward. Well golly gee, isn’t that what hauntings are about, looking back?  Don’t you want to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with the slightly unbalanced professor Dale Stewart in a haunted farm house from his boyhood town?  But of course you do. Besides, it’s got the wintery stuff that targets us Midwesterners right now, including, but not limited to, snow, chilling breezes, and a house to escape the elements of the cold season (although this house must be shared with…certain things. Scary things).  Well, enough of all that, come along now.  Come on!

First a disclaimer. A Winter Haunting is the second book of a series. Technically, it’s full title is A Winter Haunting (Seasons of Horror Book 2). To date, the only other “seasons” based book by Simmons is Summer of Night (Seasons of Horror Book 1), published in 1991. Summer of Night has spawned several successive works. It is a story about the memorable summer of 1960 and the group of pre-adolescent boys (and one girl) that participated in it. Filled with the stuff of nostalgia, it successfully makes the reader yearn for those summer days of our youths. But that is not what makes the summer memorable; not for The Bike Patrol (the name of the club the boys of 1960 had formed) anyway. For those characters inside the book, it is a memorable summer because they were put in a situation where they had to spend a good deal of their time  combatting evil, supernatural forces.

Simmons follows Summer of Night with several books that contain some of these children characters as adults.  These include Fires of Eden and Children of the Night. As far as I know, these two books do not belong in the “Seasons of Horror” series. A Winter Haunting also deals with one of the Bike Patrol boys all grown up.  While I do think the book stands well on its own,  it’s probably wise to read Summer of Night first, if anything than to avoid a major spoiler that unfolds about “that summer.”

So, why am I reviewing A Winter’s Haunting before Summer of NightTwo reasons.

  1.  As previously mentioned, A Winter Haunting is seasonally appropriate at this time. For those of us who live in a wintery climate, we are more apt to relate to Dale’s walks across snowy fields when we ourselves are blanketed in a frosty climate. The holidays mentioned in this book are fresh in our memories.
  2. Technically, Summer of Night is not much of a haunted house novel. True, the school building is facilitator of the things that haunt the town of Elm Haven, so technically it is about a haunted structure (a certain part of it is any. Oh but I can’t tell you about it. Spoiler!)  But the book is more about the supernatural manifestations that spread throughout the town of Elm Haven.  The most frightening elements of the book occur in cemeteries, children’s bedrooms, nearby forests, and down country roads.

But since the school is a respected historical structure, and since some of the book’s supernatural activity does occur inside its walls, I will review the book. But I will do this at the beginning of summer 2018. Mark your calendars!

Back to A Winter Haunting, which is in some ways very different from its predecessor. Different in time, different in tone. Summer of Night, while horrific, contains elements of timeless joys and youthful freedom. It is a story of young boys. A Winter Haunting closes those chapters of our lives many years later. It is about settling rather than striving. It is about coming to terms with what you’ve become and living with the sins of the past. Professor Dale Stewart (a Bike Patrol member) in not happy with the way things in his adult life are going. He leaves his wife and children to start a relationship with one of his students. The student, in turn, leaves him. He attempts suicide. He turns a pistol on himself.  When he fails to kill himself, he seeks therapy.

Dale decides to rent a farm house in his childhood town of Elm Haven for a winter.  A Winter HauntingThere he will write a book about that memorable summer – the summer of 1960. He seems to want to revisit the past, perhaps to see how far back things had gone horribly wrong. Maybe the answers to his current problems are here in Elm Haven; here in the house. If the bullet had discharged from the gun he turned on himself, the wound he would have suffered would have been considered self-inflicted. In a way, what he experiences at the farmhouse is a self-inflicted haunting. If you dig for ghosts you just might find them. And Dale does.  The places in and around the farm house, the people he meets from his past, all of this is part of this self-inflicted haunting. Dale is romanticizing his past while at the same time – it scares the shit out of him.

It’s very difficult to describe this story without encountering spoilers.  There is some very interesting backstory surrounding this farm house, but I can’t get into that for fear of ruining parts of Summer of Night. It has an upstairs that is mostly sealed off from the rest of the house. Weird things occur beyond that plastic sealing! There is a basement with interesting books and devices.  There is something about one of these devices that comes as a shocker to Dale near the end of the story. Then there is the ghost that is most important to the story, but I cannot delve into it’s nature. This ghost is with Dale at the beginning, becomes more intertwined with his current state of affairs while he is at the house, and remains with him at the story’s end.

There is a lot of psychology at play in the book, although it is not always obvious. The overall scenario is a common one: a writer is alone with his or her thoughts trying to write a book, struggling with both fantasy and reality. We see this play out in The Shining.  This plays out in my book The Housesitter as well. But as the story unfolds, we the readers discover things that are uniquely Dan Simmons, such as his knowledge of ancient epics and religious myths.  This knowledge fits in remarkably well in what is otherwise a folksy down-to-earth tale.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is one of the bests of its genre.  You may want to give Summer of Night a read first, which is, admittedly, a long book.  But is you choose to pass on Summer of Night (And I don’t recommend skipping this book), please read A Winter Haunting. The story can be well understood without reading any previous books. Whatever you do, don’t miss it!



Review of Ghosts of Hanley House


The last review I wrote was for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a low budget film from 1971.  In that review I explain to readers about a certain kind of fear. It’s a fear that  has the potential of grabbing viewers at the very beginning of the film. It is a fear that the movie will be stink-a-roo.  It smacks viewers with its mediocrity and lays out a path of uncertainty. Will the path lead to something worthy of 89 minutes of time?  Or will this movie be a waste of time?  I then argue that viewers should march on ahead and ignore any initial signs of mediocrity. For there will be a pay off.  Granted, I never promise the readers a 5 star masterpiece, but I do argue that the film is delightfully scary and, in the end, well made. In short, I argue that viewers should overcome any stereotypes they may have concerning low-budget  films. I beg readers to give it a chance.

Today, I present another low-budget film from a similar time period. As with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, the film may not seem appetizing in the beginning. Within the first several minutes, viewers will be confronted with poor lighting, wooden acting, and a seemingly endless barrage of credits that are normally reserved for the end of the film. Once again, viewers face the question, “Shall I proceed further into this film?”  “Shall I be patient and see if Ghosts of Hanley House   has anything decent to offer?” Well, let me answer these questions.


Seriously, if this were a film student’s final project, it might be worthy of a C. But I don’t think this a student film. I do believe it was presented to a paying audience. Oh boy! There are jump cuts. There are breaches in continuity. The lighting is poor, the exposures suck. There are all kinds of film school no-nos.

It’s a simple story. A group of people spend the night in a house to see if it is haunted. It is. There had been murders on the premise some time ago. That’s about all there is to know. Well, alright, there are a few somewhat interesting scenes pertaining to the haunting. The household awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of galloping horses, that’s cool. A chandelier swings on its chain, that’s pretty neat. Clocks spin backwards, and that’s, uh, neato.  There are a couple of other scenes of that are “groovy spooky.” But it’s a waste of time sitting though this flick and waiting for the every once in a while “boo.”

There is much information available about this film. I found it on archive.com, the same place I found Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.  Wikipedia and imdb. have very little information about this film.  I did some research on Louise Sherrill, the writer and director of this film. It turns out that this is the only film she has directed. She is credited with only two more movies on imdb – as an actress. I was hoping to find something interesting about the history of this film; some unintentional milestone, some kind of hidden trivia treasure. Maybe it was indeed a school project. What if it an unknown John Carpenter worked the lighting, or a then amateur Wes Craven worked the sound.  But no, nothing like that. Perhaps this was filmed at a famous house, maybe the house where a real murder took place. Ah but that doesn’t seem likely.  I guess there is nothing about this film that is destined for greatness. Therefore I will end this review,  honoring the time-tested expression “the less said the better.” It is obscure for a reason. So let it be obscure. With that I write no more!

Review of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death



How does one watch John Hancock’s 1971 thriller Let’s Scare Jessica to Death? Let me detail the way!

Step 1) Go to Google and type into the Search Engine box “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and then hit Enter

Step 2) At the top of the next screen, click “videos” in the menu just below the search box

Step 3) Out of the 128,000 or so results that appear, find the option that comes from archive.org and click it.

Step 4) Now go back and put a line through steps 1 – 3 because you can skip those steps and go directly to archive.org and search for the title on the site ( Hey, I had to go through Steps 1-3 the first time, so you should too!)

Step 5) Click the movie’s “start” arrow, watch, and let the fears begin!

In step 5, I write of “fears.”  What fears are these? I will tell you! I am referring to paralyzing trepidation that will overtake your body when you realize that you are about to endure 89 minutes of a low-budget film from the early 1970s.  I point to those moments of bitter agony when you are first exposed to the actors’ awkward performances; moments that occur early on in the film, causing you to wonder “will this be worth it?” “Shall I abandon the ship now before I get in too deep?”  Beware of the the forced frivolity that occurs when the four main characters sit down to dinner – laughter that is supposed to be natural and lighthearted will become forced and mechanical, like the maddening giggles of an eerie doll.  By this time, your fears may be great, for you have been down this road several times before, trying to give an old, low-budget film a chance, being ever so noble, gambling a large chunk of your evening, only to endure much pain as the movie fails to improve.  Folks, I have good news for you. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death does get better.  The overall style and genuinely creepy scenes make-up for those common imperfections that are often found in low budget films.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of those creepy films that has haunted me since my childhood. It refused to stay buried, and so I saw it again in my twenties. Now, in 2018, at the ripe young age of forty-six, it was time for me to face it again. (I write of a similar experience in my review entitled Memories That Would Not Fade on Account of the House That Would Not Die)

I had forgotten most of the plot; I only knew that it had something to do with a young lady that was recently released from a mental institution (hint: her name is Jessica) and a haunted house that was waiting to welcome her back to reality. Actually I wasn’t even sure if it was a haunted house. I had remembered her being “with friends” in some kind of scary environment by a lake. Were these friends trying to scare her to death, take advantage of her fragile emotional state for some kind of ill-gotten gain?  That would have explained the title, for sure. Anyway, I wasn’t sure. Oh but I had to be sure.  If this is indeed a haunted house film, then I needed to know those details so that I could do my duty and write up a review for this blog.   And that is what happened.  In the end I say that this film qualifies as a haunted house film.  And I am glad I watched it again.  This third time I enjoyed it, despite certain shortcomings. Hopefully I will remember the details of the story for a long time to come. I can understand why I didn’t remember the details from my first viewing experience. After all I was about, I don’t know, eleven years old?  But why couldn’t I remember any specifics the second time around? Maybe I was stoned. I don’t know.

The story as to do with madness, a country house, the undead, and hippies. Jessica has been released from the asylum in the care of her husband Duncan. They are to begin a new life in the country. Along with a hippie friend named  Woody, they move to a farm house, where they will work the land. The old men in the nearby town are creepy. (No they are  not creepy BECAUSE they are old men, I’m not ageist, they are just creepy in general).  The house they have purchased has a history. Owned by the Bishop family in the 1800s, young Abigail Bishop died drowned in the nearby lake shortly before her wedding day. Her body was never found!  At the farm house, there happens to be an old silver framed picture of the Bishop family; mother, father and daughter (Abigail). Portraits of people long since dead always have something telling in haunted house movies!  And you know what else the farm house has? A hippie girl named Emily. She has been squatting there.  Duncan and Jessica invite her to stay, so now we have two couples and a total of four main characters. Meanwhile Jessica is hearing voices. She is seeing doors and rocking chairs move on their own accord. Is her madness returning or is this house really haunted?

The finer points of the plot surprised me upon this third viewing. First of all, I was wrong about Jessica living with “friends” after her release. Well yes, there is friend Hippie Woody and newfound friend Hippie Emily, but I hadn’t realized she was with a husband until the third viewing. Secondly, I was off base when I had assumed that the plot revolved around people close to Jessica trying to “scare her to death”. I won’t rule that out for you, my lovely potential viewers of this film, but there is more involved than that (if that is an issue at all).  How could I have forgotten that film involves the “undead”; also known as vampires! In fact, on Wikipedia, this film is compared to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s  1871 vampire novel Carmilla (I wrote about that novel at HorrorNovelReviews.com ) I see faint similarities but nothing more.

Throughout my synopsis, I often refer to the term “Hippie.” But it’s not just me, Wikipedia also uses the term to describe some of the film’s characters. Certainly this term dates the movie. You know what else dates this film? The background music. For me it is a good thing. There is the gentle music from an acoustic guitar mixed in with the sounds of nature. There is a piano to accompany the flowing waters. The film does have its moments of symphonic scares, but it is that natural, simple sounds of the guitar and piano that stand out and do their job well at complementing this simple movie. For some, this guitar and piano might scream “Hippie Music!!”, but not me. It is simply appropriately atmospheric.

Over the years, the film has achieved cult status. Its mixed reviews are a testament to both its low-budget style (with amateur acting at times) and simple yet effective use of a creepy atmosphere in its storytelling. One can find the filming location in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  There they can see the creepy cemetery, the stores on main street (where the creepy old men gathered) and the scary, gothic style farm house.   See for yourself!


Hmmm, what else can I say about this film? I know!  The hippie girl Emily, she is played by Mariclare Costello  who was once married to the late Allan Arbus. Arbus, of course, of course, played Psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on the TV show MASH.   1200

His famous line is “Ladies and Gentleman, take my advice. Pull Down you pants and slide on the ice.”  But to me, Mariclare Costello stands out on account of her resemblance to Jim Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson. See the similarities yourself:

                               Oh come on, they look a little alike, don’t they?  Well I think so, at least a little bit. And give this movie a try. I’m not saying that it’s a cinematic masterpiece, but it is likeable. You should like it to. At least a little bit.

A Review of Julia – by Peter Straub

“Julia Dream. Dreamboat Queen. Queen of all my dreams.” – Pink Floyd



I love “Julia Dream”, a song by Pink Floyd. I don’t, however, love Julia , a novel by Peter Straub. I mean – I like the novel. A little. Somewhat like. I guess.   Okay, okay – I’ll stop dripping out these qualifying phrases and get to the heart of the matter.

Here’s the synopsis – A woman (Julia) fleeing a troubled past finds herself living in a haunted house. She struggles to make sense of her new surroundings. Who is that young mysterious blonde girl that she keeps encountering in the nearby neighborhood? And why does Julia sometimes hear the sounds of someone rummaging around her house while she sleeps at night.

As per the synopsis on Amazon:

Julia’s first purchase upon leaving her husband is a large, old-fashioned house in Kensington, where she plans to live by herself well away from her soon-to-be ex and the home where their young daughter died.

Does the mysterious girl have something to do with her daughter’s death? Is Julia being haunted by ghosts?

Many of the haunted house novels and movies that I have absorbed follow a formula similar to this. Authors Darcy Coates and Blair Shaw, for instance, have published several stories about women who suddenly find themselves living alone in a haunted house. Often they are burdened with the baggage of tragedies past, and this only makes their haunting encounters all the more unbearable. Or maybe, these encounters are one and the same with what has haunted them in the past; maybe these are old phantoms disguised as something new. Jeffery Konvitz abides by this formula in his novel The Sentinel The story within the film Sensoria follows this pattern as well.  Yet Julia, published in 1975, predates all of these. Is it then a first of its kind? Probably not.  Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has a somewhat similar synopsis. The protagonist is not alone in the haunted house, but she does arrive with plenty of emotional baggage, so much so that she becomes an unreliable narrator.  Her sense of reality is in question, and therefore so are her perceptions. This is the same situation readers face with confronting Straub’s central protagonist. Are Julia’s experiences real or are they hallucinations; byproducts of her troubled mind? Thus, the influences of Shirley Jackson are easily recognizable.


I have no objection to an adherence of a formula, so long as it’s not a strict adherence. Julia_PeterStraub_156There needs to be ingredients of originality in the brew somewhere. Julia is not without originality. My criticism with the story has to do with its telling. At times, the events of the tale are ambiguous and vague. I found myself confused; is this event that Straub is describing real, or is it a dream. Or, is it just a section that’s poetically licensed to do whatever the hell it wants to do? I know what you’re thinking  “Well this kind of writing is to be expected in a mysterious novel that features an unreliable narrator.” To a degree I agree (hey that rhymed!). But as my great grandmother would say, “enough is enough of anything.”  When a situation is written so vaguely that comprehension is lost and the flow of the story suffers, then Houston, we have a problem.  Sometimes I wasn’t sure as to which character was  thinking/dreaming up a specific surreal situation.

It is well known that the supernatural is a staple of Peter Straub’s works. He is considered one of the masters of his genre and I in no way wish to challenge this mastery. However I learned from Wikipedia  that Julia is Peter Straub’s third novel, but it’s also his first attempt  at writing about ghosts and the supernatural. Bryant Burnette who writes for the blog Truth Inside the Lie has read Straub’s first two novels, and wasn’t all that impressed with them. He saw a marked improvement in Julia, at least in terms of character development. At the same time, he too finds his vagueness daunting.  He says:

.. failing that understanding, our lack of understanding is a part of the narrative.  Straub isn’t 100% successful at this 100% of the time — he occasionally falls back on the old trope of having a character be vague when it makes much more sense for them to be explicit — but he gets it right way more than he gets it wrong.

I would say he gets a right more than half the time.

 Having not read his first two novels, I can only compare Julia with the one other novel of Straub’s that I have read. A fitting comparison it is, because they are similar in certain ways. But the later novel, Novel # 5, (reminds me of this song, replace “novel” with “mambo”) is superior. I am referring to Ghost Story.

Both Julia and Ghost Story convey the idea of a vengeful, female spirit. Julia is a relatively short novel whereas Ghost Story is a gigantic, ambitious work. To me, Julia is the “practice novel;” an exercise Straub must perform while on the way toward the masterpiece that is Ghost Story. Straub learns from his early works. The fruits of his creative and mechanical maturity bear out symbolically, from the ghost of a young girl (in Julia) to the ghost of a fully grown woman (In Ghost Story). This time, Straub’s vagueness add to the overall eeriness of the story.

I am no expert of the works of Peter Straub. He is a favorite of many, including Stephen King. In both of the works that I have read I see talent. But Ghost Story is where his talent is fully realized.  In Julia, this talent – it’s there, but  it is still struggling to come to fruition. Therefore, alas, I can only give it a half-hearted recommendation.  But at least I put my whole heart into explaining why I  “sort of liked” and did not “love” this book, as I promised I would do way back at the end of the first paragraph. Remember? But of course you do! You rock, but not was well as Pink Floyd.