Review of The Ghosts of Ravencrest

ravencrestOn the very first page of this blog, I state that this haunted house project is a learning exercise that leads to an exploration of various genres of literature. Here in the intro I have written:

“From the stone castles of the old world to the suburban units of the new, a haunting we will go!   We will tread across various genres; unveiling the ghosts of Gothic novels, dissecting the creatures of Cosmic horror, and exorcising demons from modern film lore.”

By golly, I really mean what I say! I am exploring new things and I love it. For example, by studying a specific subgenre (i.e. classic haunted house stories), I have been turned on to Gothic literature in general.  As to the defining characteristics of Gothic literature, I am still learning. This is a topic for another article.  But even the layperson has a rudimentary understanding of some of the aspects of Gothic tales. Upon hearing the words “gothic literature,” people think of stone castles, dark romances, and wealthy heirs that are tied to their familial lineages.

Now, some might be tempted to restrict gothic tales to the 18th and 19th centuries; an era of rapid and sometimes unwelcome change (urbanization/ industrialization/modernization), for which Gothic novels had offered fanciful escape with their stories of the days or yore. (Okay NOW I’m treading too deep into the weeds. Come back!)  Thankfully, there are authors that keep this genre alive here in the 21st century. Authors such as, oh, I dunno, say…Tamara Thorne  and Alastair Cross.  They have successfully transposed the old world into the new – brick by brick, for the mansion that is at the center of their story has been relocated from old world Europe to the modern U.S.A. Included in this move are the ghosts that had been haunting the mansion. Over time, new ghosts moved in as well.  You can learn all about The Ghosts of Ravencrest  by reading their book.

Their book is filled with delicious gothic delights. As mentioned, it has the ghosts, but there is much more. There are witches and spells, misshapen creatures, and statues that come to life.  The Ravenscrest mansion has a wing that is locked away – for there are strange things afoot in this side of the building.  There is an interesting staff of characters; a charming and witty butler, and evil and jealous administrator, an innocent governess, who is the main protagonist of the story.  There are other intriguing staff members as well, and they all serve Eric Manning, widower and heir to a family business that has been operational for a couple of centuries.   In the middle of the book, the authors take us back in time to late 16th century Europe, where we meet Manning’s ancestors and learn of the origin of this terror that haunts Ravencrest.

“The Ghosts of Ravencrest” also has romance; a budding love story. Did I mention sex? It’s got that as well, in all its most erotic forms. Yes, it has BDSM.  For those that love that kind of thing, you will enjoy these parts of the story. For those that don’t, just put up with it, okay? It’s not a pervasive thing and there is so much more to the story, so please don’t let some hangup ruin this terrific piece work. As for me, I didn’t think the sex added anything to the story. But it didn’t steal from the story either, and that’s the important thing.

I say give it a try. You can sample it piece by piece if you like. It is broken up into eight novellas. All are available at Amazon for 99 cents a piece. As for me, I took the express lane to the end with no stops in between. In other words, you can purchase the whole collection as on book. But this will be “Book 1”.  The next book is “The Witches of Ravencrest.”.  Four novellas are already available for purchase, but I’m going to wait until all are available and then buy the whole collection.


I’d like to focus a little on the authors. Tamara Thorne has been writing best sellers since  thronecrossthe 1990s.  Alistair Cross came on the scene a little later.  Both are avid fans of ghost stories and gothic literature.  The two met one day and they decided to write as a team. I’ve always wondered how co-authoring worked!  Does one author write one chapter, and the other the next, continuing in this pattern until the book’s end?  The result of this method might be a “run-on” story; directionless, since each author grabs the helm at indiscriminate moments. Another method is for one author to do most of the work while the other adds a couple of ideas here and there, but they both end up getting co-author credit. But this doesn’t seem fair.

Thankfully, Thorne and Cross have found another way to work together.

During an interview, they explain their method. Via Skype, they write together in real time -electronic face to electronic face. They use Google Docs which allows them to write and edit the same document at the same time.   They spend several hours a day at this activity.

Thorne and Cross collaborate on other ventures as well. On Thursday evenings, they host an internet radio show, Haunted Nights Live.  On the show they read ghost stories and interview guest authors. Some of the guests include V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic), Christopher Rice (son of Anne Rice), and Scott Nicholson (I have reviewed three of his books at this blog).

I’ve just discovered these two, and…I don’t know…they intrigue me. Maybe they have cast a spell on me or something. They would be the ones who could do it too, for they seem to live their daily lives in the macabre, constantly surrounded by a gothic vibe –  choose a phrase, you know what I mean. Together, they have gone on excursions of paranormal investigation. The collect little toy trolls. They love cats, a gothic animal if there ever was one. They are living their passions!

So, enjoy some of the forbidden fruits of their beloved labor. Visit their blogs. I have given you several links, and here is another. Listen to their show and buy, buy buy their books!

Review of Hauntings: Three Haunted House Novellas

hauntingsSomewhere out there in Facebook land, in one of the many groups to which I belong, I came across a post that was advertising a free book!  We indie authors are forced to give away books from time to time order to gain exposure. The title grabbed me right away: Hauntings: Three Haunted House Novellas.  Now how can a haunted house guy like me pass on this? I couldn’t.  So I downloaded it, read it, overall I liked it, and now I’m reviewing it.  Thus, the authors’ giveaway campaign has bared some fruit.  Not that my review equates to an orchard of apples or anything.  At least, put me down as one single peach!

As with other anthologies, there are some stories that I prefer over others. But I’m not going to delve into the nitty-gritties of my individual preferences. They are purely subjective and would negate from the fact that all these stories have their strengths. Like the three legs of a tripod, they have a solid-enough structure to support the novel as a whole.  And it doesn’t matter so much that these legs aren’t examples of the most innovative feats in engineering!  They are standard legs, standard stories – but they do their job.  Perhaps they can use a bit of polishing here and there (another round of editing). But as an indie author myself; I know how difficult editing can be (especially when you can’t afford a professional).

What I would like to do is: very briefly, I will summarize each story and then itemize the elements that stand out; the story components that have made a lasting impression on my memory.

First there is The Haunting of Monroe House by Olivia Harlowe.  A pregnant couple rents a house in the country. Is it haunted, or is there something about Sam’s pregnancy that is making everything so – strange? Here are the things that stand out – the peacocks, that scary closet, those wall-scratching noises, the farmer and his wife; an interesting couple indeed; characters well written.

Second there is The Haunting of Briarwood Lodge by Violet Archer. Colin inherits a lodge house that is the taboo of the town. No one will go near it. Except a young woman named Juno.  Together, Colin and Juno explore the strange happenings that are going on at Briarwood Lodge.  Here are the things that stand out – The attic window,  the corridors, that circle of chairs, the poltergeist-style activity. Oh, and how the house can, at will, lock its inhabitants inside!

Third, there is The Haunting of Briarwood Lodge by Mason Graves. Tom and Rebecca move into a new home. Tom is spooked by the stories surrounding the history of the house. Rebecca dismisses them as myths.  Who is correct?  Here are the things that stand out – Tom’s journey into the crawlspace, the mystery surrounding the original owners of the house, and the weird old lady that stalks the house.

All in all, this is a fun read.  Perhaps there will be more haunted house tales to come from this trio?   There is a website that hints at this, although it is a bit empty at the moment.

http://hauntedhousenovels.com/

Also, Violet Archer has many creepy short stories (each several paragraphs long) at her blog

https://violetarcher.com/blog/

Enjoy!

Review of Smee (A Christmas Ghost Story By A.M. Burrage)

smeeGoosebumps! (Uh…what?)  You heard me. Goosebumps!  (I don’t get it). These little shits crawled all over my skin as I read this delightful tale. And when I listened to an audio arrangement of the story, with creepy sound effects and all, these bumps honked like a mudda’ goose!

The story I am referring to is “Smee” by A.M Burrage, which was originally published as part of a collection in the book Someone in the Room, 1931.

(To  read it online. Check out  http://www.scaryforkids.com/smee/ )

(To listen to the story, check out this narration from David Lewis Richardson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muJyiMMAfTk )

(Was it really so scary that if caused goosebumps?) Well, it was scary. Scarier than some, less scary than others. (Was it, I don’t know, touching?) Well, people touched a ghost now and then, it that’s what you mean. (What I mean is, “What’s with the goosebumps?!”).  The overall concept of this story gave them to me!  Twelve friends playing a hide-and-seek type game inside a huge, dark house, and then suddenly – there is this mysterious thirteenth player that hides with them!  This description alone should be enough to tickle a whole assortment of inner senses.  But then there’s more.  To complete the story is to witness multiple rounds of this game; numerous chilling adventures to court your most precious fancies.

The story takes place on Christmas Eve.  It is a story within a story.  Tony Jackson is forced to explain to his friends why he wishes not to partake in their post-dinner, hide-and-seek game. To explain his hesitancy, he relays a story of a Christmas Eve past, where, after dining, he and eleven friends play a game called “Smee!,” which is similar to hide-and-seek.  The name is based on the phonetic similarities to the phrase “It’s me!” One person per game bares the title “Smee.” No one knows the identity of “Smee” except for the one that chooses the card that assigns that person the title.   “Smee” then hides and the others seek. When a seeker encounters another player, s/he calls out “Smee?” If the other player replies with “Smee!”, the seeker moves on.  When the real “Smee” is found, s/he is silent when asked about his/her identity. The finder then joins Smee in hiding and waits. Soon, all the players except for one will be hiding with Smee.  The last player to find “Smee” (and the rest of the party) is the loser.

Poor Jackson had a frightening experience playing that game on that particular Christmas Eve.  It just so happened that a ghost had joined in the game!

At the beginning of every game, the one who is “Smee” leaves the group to hide. Now, wouldn’t the players see the one who leaves? If they were not witnesses to “Smee’s” departure, wouldn’t they still be able to deduce the identity of the absent player by process of elimination? In order for this game to work, the house had to be pretty damn dark so that no one can see each other!  And so it is in this tale. Also, the house has to be big. Once again, the house in the story meets the requirements.  There are many hiding places in the numerous rooms and corridors. The host warns that, due to certain constructional patterns, some of the areas in the house can lead to danger if one is not careful, especially when roaming around in the dark. Now, isn’t this just the perfect setting and situation to add such haunting delights?

Let me refer back to the article I wrote several days ago, Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses. In the article, while borrowing from other sources, I describe the setting of a Christmas Haunted House.  I rephrase a section of Keith Lee Moris’s article:

 “Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest slightly removed from its more harmful elements.”

Then I go on to say (in my words):

Let’s say, perhaps, that our frolicking friends are feeling “warmly vulnerable” during a ghost story session at a Christmas Eve gathering. Let’s remove the last visages of safety and allow winter’s symbolic doom to come inside. It’s warm. Festive. Have a drink. Merry Christmas! Fires. Games. Ghost stories. And then – real ghosts haunt the house. Frightful! This is what I would call A Christmas Haunted House.

In other words, A Christmas ghost story with a haunted house usually begins in a warm house where a festive party is taking place. This party distracts the characters from the darkest elements of winter – in the beginning. But as the story unfolds, the harshness of the season creeps inside (symbolically), often in the form of a ghost.

Stories of ghosts invading Christmas celebrations are perhaps reflective of our ancient ancestors’ struggle against the forces of nature at winter solstice.

In my article, I argue:

 During the festive solstice celebrations, the lingering darkness and the bitter cold continued exert their powers.  These forces surrounded their fragile, festival fires, where the celebrants sought warmth and light.

Soon the fires would be extinguished. But the darkness and the cold temperatures would remain. 

“Smee” certainly deals with the “dangers of darkness” theme.  Here we have a group of  smee-coverfriends celebrating Christmas – a holiday known for its colorful lights. They have already dined and are feeling quite cheerful. They then test their fragile bubble of festivity by eliminating the light. They find themselves in darkness, which is always present underneath the light. And with the darkness comes frightening entities.

There is very little mention of the weather in this story.  We truly don’t know if “the weather outside is frightful.”   However, during the game, one of the players mentions that she would rather play a quiet game beside the fire where it is warm. So to a small extent, cold temperatures contribute to the overall sense of gloom.

“Smee” offers the ultimate Christmas haunted house. It is dutifully dark and sprawling with passages. Complying with the archetypal Christmas ghost story irony, the frightful exploration of the house is all part of a jovial, holiday game.  “Oh what they find is frightful, but the story is so delightful.”  Yes it is! Turn on your Christmas/holiday lights, shut off all other lighting and listen to this story.  It will be fun!

Review of A Strange Christmas Game

strangechristmasgame2

Folks, we have approached a milestone.   This will be the first piece of ghostly literature for which I have listened to a narrator speak the story to me.  I followed along with the text on a website as an audio file played on.  The story is “A Strange Christmas Game” by J.H. Riddell, (a.k.a. Charlotte Riddell) 1863. You too can read and/or listen to this story.  Just click on the link below and listen and listen as famed author and storyteller Michael Whitehouse narrates the story narrates the story.

http://www.vaultofghastlytales.com/2015/12/a-strange-christmas-games-by-j-h-riddell.html

I found several versions of the telling on the internet, each varying in wording. I wasn’t sure which was the best, most true to the original source, etc. But in the end I paid it no mind and just settled on a version that is hosted by www.vaultofghastlytales.com

Followers of my blog, surely by now you have read my recent article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses? Here is in excerpt from that article:

“Let’s say, perhaps, that our frolicking friends are feeling “warmly vulnerable” during a ghost story session at a Christmas Eve gathering. Let’s remove the last visages of safety and allow winter’s symbolic doom to come inside. It’s warm. Festive. Have a drink. Merry Christmas! Fires. Games. Ghost stories. And then – real ghosts haunt the house. Frightful! This is what I would call A Christmas Haunted House.

People of days past used to tell ghosts during the cold winter. Winter was perceived as dark, dreary and scary. At Christmas Eve gatherings, celebrants would eat, drink and be merry. They would play games. And… they would tell ghost stories. Ghost stories are fun when one is beside a warm fire and in the accompaniment of family and friends; feeling all warm and cozy, while the threat of winter rages outside their windows.  A story of a Christmas Haunted House takes advantage of the characters’ fragile coziness. They are feeling festive and carefree, just like the real life folks that gather around a fire to hill a grisly take. But the doom and gloom of winter invades their celebration in the form of ghosts. Their gathering is soon invaded my scary phantoms.

Does “A Strange Christmas Game” meet these criteria? I say – Mostly.

In the tale, brother and sister inherit a manor, Martingdale, which is supposedly haunted. strangechristmasgameMany years ago, original owner Jeremy Lester is playing cards with his friend on Christmas Eve. The clock strikes midnight, Lester’s guest leaves to go home. Out against the brutal elements of winter he wanders, but it is Jeremy that is never heard from again!

Has the winter doom invaded Lester’s home and whooshed him away?  Not exactly. When one reads further into the story, a different situation arises. But at this point, the story teases us with the “wintertime ghostly home-invader” scenario. However, it does address the Christmas ghost story theme of “game time gone ghostly.”

For sure, the dreariness of winter plays out symbolically within the story – within the house.  For instance, here is an excerpt from the book that points to this:

Altogether, Martingdale seemed dreary enough, and the ghost stories we had laughed at while sunshine flooded the rooms became less unreal when we had nothing but blazing fires and wax candles to dispel the gloom.

When summer ends and winter begins, brother and sister hear footsteps in the night, along with other strange noises. Is this the doings of the spirit of Jeremy Lester?  Read or listen to the story and find out for yourself. But one thing for certain – their home is haunted by ghosts that invade on Christmas Eve. However, the ghosts are not interrupting any Christmas festivities. Brother and Sister have been a wee bit too scared to be concentrating on Christmas.

Another thing to note; at the story’s climax, a snowstorm breaks out.  There hasn’t been such a storm for forty one years. –The last winter storm occurrs on the same night that Jeremy Lester disappears – on Christmas Eve.

This is a fun story. And it mostly meets my Christmas Haunted House criteria. Now, by all means, J. H. Riddell was under no obligation to adhere to the dictates of my half-baked analysis of Christmas haunted houses in literature. Afterall, I came up with them one hundred and fifty years or more after this story was published (with the help of others of course!)

I hope you give this tale a listen, a read, or both.  It’s a perfect story to ingest on a cold, winter’s evening.

Review of The Haunting of Ashburn House

ashburn

The Haunting of Ashburn House is the third book I am reviewing from the talented Darcy Coates.  I am now officially up-to-date with the “Haunting of” series. (The other two, in   order of publication, are The Haunting of Gillespie House and  The Haunting of Blackwood House.) Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “series.”  Each book is a stand-alone story. However, there is a formula that persists in all the stories – a young female protagonist either rents or takes ownership of multi-floor house that ends up being haunted. In each case, she is not only new to the house but also to the community at large. In each house, there are mysterious items that pique the curiosity of the new occupants’. These items are related to the haunting that is to take place.

To clarify, I am not using the term “formula” in a bad way. The scenarios are the same, but the specific plot points vary from book to book with different facts and outcomes.  They are not without twists.  The Haunting of Ashburn House in particular does have an interesting turn of events.

Here’s a short synopsis.  Adrienne has inherited an enormous and ancient manor from her Great Aunt Edith, who has recently passed away. Little does she know that she has also inherited several odd duties that are necessary if she is to live safely at Ashburn House What do I mean by “safely?” I mean – guarding against the paranormal dangers that will threaten her. Little my little, she comes to understand that the house is not normal. After experiencing a succession of terrifying happenings, she must make sense of the clues that surround her in order to stop the terror.  Some of these clues include messages that have been carved into walls and tables, an odd collection of candles, cautionary notes regarding the use of mirrors, old newspaper clippings of a tragedy that took place in the Ashburn House many years ago, and a mysterious grave on the property that has the most unusual inscription on the gravestone.

Coates excels at establishing mystery. The predicaments that Adrienne finds herself in captured my intrigue.  I kept turning the pages, all while encountering new clues and developments, which in turn caused me yet more page-turning anxiety. This built-in anticipation worked well at helping me to look past some occasional dull moments. There are several interactions between Adrienne and townsfolk, Adrienne and her cat, etc. that sort of halt the story rather than move it along.  There is unnecessary attention to certain details in several places; details that do not relate to the overall mysterious tone of the story.  Conversely, I would have liked there to have been more of a background story on Adrienne.  This would help readers to get better acquainted with the protagonist, thereby allowing for further empathy as she struggles through her terrifying situation.

But, as I have mentioned, there is much in this tale that holds the reader’s interest. Coates effectively casts her “foreshadows”; the dark mysteries that surround key items within and around the house. They lurk in between the lackluster elements of the plot and effectively beckon the reader to continue; to journey on until the mystery’s end.

Of the three books in “The Haunting of..” series, I like The Haunting of Gillespie House darcy-coates-300x206the best. It also happens to be the shortest of the tree.  Perhaps I prefer Coates as a novella writer?  I would need read more of her works to be sure, and read more I will. (She has several other books about ghosts and haunted houses.  Check out her websiteThe Haunting of Ashburn House comes next on my list, followed by The Haunting of Blackwood House. However, all three are decent reads and I recommend them all.

 

Review of Dollhouse (The Dark Carousel Book 1)

DollhouseHas Tim Burton made any movies lately? Maybe he’s searching for the perfect script, one that cooperates with his flair for things both colorful and dark, one that matches his glee for taking a vanilla setting and sprinkling it with sparkling oddities. Perchance he’s looking for the fairytale that tears into a child’s most bizarre nightmare and extracts its lurid images from the mind to the page. If this is the case, then he needs to look no further than Anya Allyn’s Dollhouse (The Dark Carousel Book 1). In this book there is a huge repository of “all things Burton.” It is the perfect source to mine material for a script of his standards.

Now here’s the kicker – I am pretty neutral when it comes to Tim Burton. I neither love nor hate him. I think the reason for my indifference has to do with the fact that I sometimes have trouble syncing my imagination with the fanciful worlds that he creates. These worlds are too dark for my inner child and yet too childishly bright for my rugged manliness (I can grunt the national anthem!). The fanciful world Allyn creates for Dollhouse resembles the realms of Burton’s creations in so many ways, and yet, while reading the book, I found myself free from the kind of  dissonance that his films tend to stir up in me.

Dollhouse is a novel written for “young adults.” Could this explain why I did not notice such dissonance in Allyn’s novel? Young adults = adolescents = moratorium. Teenagers – they are not yet adults, but they are no longer children. This is why fantasy novels partner so well with the YA genre. Both deal with people that inhabit “worlds” outside the realm of normalcy. Adolescence is a period of relentless changes and challenging mysteries. Likewise with fantasy novels. By nature, such stories are intended to invoke a sense of dissonance and perhaps this is why my imagination can absorb the themes in Anya’s novel more easily than the themes of Burton’s films.

Maybe she succeeds at speaking to my inner adolescent whereas Burton doesn’t know with which of my many selves to communicate? Could be. The truth is that I really don’t know. I’m guessing here. All I know is that, for some reason, I find Burton’s films somewhere between fair and good but I view this novel of Allyn’s as excellent.

So what kinds of fanciful creatures inhabit Allyn’s story? Let’s see, there are adult-sized dolls that walk and act on their own accord. There are ghosts, shadows and men and women in masquerade costumes, which seem to be their permanent attire.

The story is as follows. A group of teenagers discover a house in the woods on a fieldtrip for school. Days later, one of their own goes missing. The group searches for their friend and decides to explore the inside of the house. In one of the rooms, they find a carousel and take a ride on it. Its circling path leads to another section of the house. The problem is they can’t go back. They are trapped in “The Dollhouse”, which is run by a strange young girl that keeps children as toys. There is a toy box, where the “bad” toys are placed. This toy box has secret passages. One leads to an outside carnival with a black castle off in the distance. One leads to another time and place. One passage remains a mystery.

Now imagine this as a Burton film. Are you hearing the music box in the soundtrack? Are you seeing the fanciful costumes the “toys” are dressed in? I know I am. If this were made into a film, by Burton or someone else, I might enjoy it but I’m sure I would prefer the book.

Dollhouse is the first book in a series of four. I look forward to reading the remaining books. If fantastic worlds tickle your fancy (hee hee!), then you will enjoy these books as well.

 

Review of The House of the Seven Gables

HouseGablesBefore I began reading The House of the Seven Gables,  I knew very little about it. Of course I had “heard of it.” After all, it has a memorable title. Wasn’t this some kind of early American soap opera that those post-revolutionary war people watched on their 19th century televisions? (I think it followed Days of our Lives) Or maybe it came on the scene later, post-Hollywood; as a biography of Clark Gable and his six brothers?

I’m kidding. I knew it was a classic American novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and that it is often acted out on the stage. But what else is it? I really didn’t know. Is it a haunted house novel that I should read and review for this blog? The short answer, I discovered, is “Yes. It is a haunted house novel.” But it is much more than that. It’s not really horror, per se. At least not in modern day terms. Hawthorne in his own preface labels his book as a “romance.” C Hugh Holman and William Harmon define “romanticism” as:

“the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism),”

After the reading, I discovered that, not only is this a romantic novel, but it is also a significant work within the American Gothic movement in literature. So, what are some of the characteristics of this “American Gothic” haunted house (besides the seven gables)? Let me begin by explaining what’s not in this book. There are no blood-curling screams in the night, no fanciful specters roaming the halls, no undead creatures rising up from the cellar.   So what haunts this house? As a young kid, I had asked the same question about Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher , another tale from the American Gothic movement (You can read about this experience here). From a young age I have been mystified by these dark romantic tales and intrigued with the symbolism that lurks within them. It is this symbolism to which we must turn in order to answer our question.

The House of the Seven Gables is haunted by the sins of the past. By guilt and greed. By sorrow and injustice. By an antiquated air of appearances. It is occupied by the old and scowling Hepzibah Pyncheon and her frail and wraithlike brother Clifford. Living in another section of this large house is the eccentric daguerreotypist Holgrave. The visiting niece Phoebe Pyncheon brings a much-needed shine of pleasantries to this dark setting, but will it last? For the curse upon the Pyncheon family is deep-seated.

Curses – sins of the past – family tensions; these are the things that haunt Gothic novels.To quote the website www.americangothic.narod.ru/america.htm:

The role of the Gothic is figuratively to embody an intergenerational tendency.

 

…demonstrates in the majority of cases that neither the personal nor cultural past is dead and that both can easily return.

A house at the center of a Gothic novel needn’t have such obvious creatures of horror as “the ghost” or “the vampire” for it to be a haunting tale. Horror icon H.P Lovecraft had a great deal of respect for Hawthorne’s works . In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he opines that The House of Seven Gables is “New England’s greatest   7 nathaniel-hawthorne-0008contribution to weird literature.” In the same essay he identifies an “overshadowing malevolence of the ancient house” that he considers being “almost as alive as Poe’s House of Usher.” Any story of a shadowy past that lingers in a new age is a tale of a haunting. When these shadows of the past are cast upon a household and immersed within the current activities inside their dwelling, that house is indeed haunted.

However, The House of the Seven Gables does have some supernatural elements. It’s a tale of feuding lineages, beginning in the 17th century with Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule and a land dispute that puts these two men at odds with each other. Pyncheon cheats Maul out of land, accuses him of being a witch and then poor Maule is executed, but not before cursing the colonel with the damning words , “God will give him blood to drink!” And so begins the curse. The house of seven gables is then built upon this ill-gotten land. In the many years that follow, certain members of the Pyncheon family meet with untimely deaths while inside the cursed abode. While sitting at a desk, while sitting in a leisure chair – the life is cast out of them.

Hundreds of years after the death of Maule, Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon, brother and sister, old and frail, live out their dismal lives inside the house. They are encased in this behemoth structure, yet they are wrought with poverty. Towards the book’s end we discover what contributes to their misfortune, but on the way we read about their miserable day-to-day lives. The journey toward their fate is enmeshed with ghostly metaphors.

The presence of the long-dead Colonel Pyncheon is continually felt via his large portrait that hangs in a sitting room.  As the book explains:

The other adornment was the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, at two thirds length, representing the stern features of a Puritanic-looking personage, in a skull-cap, with a laced band and a grizzly beard; holding a Bible with one hand, and in the other uplifting an iron sword-hilt

Through watchful albeit painted eyes, he inflicts his reverence from beyond the grave, perhaps due in part to an unconscious sense of infamy the current occupants feel toward him.

Then there is Clifford who, when he is introduced into the story, had me believing on first read that he himself was a ghost. Perhaps he is, but not literally. He is introduced from the perspective of young Phoebe, the visiting maiden cousin that brings cheer to a cheerless home. She hears him before she sees him.

She retired to her chamber, but did not soon fall asleep, nor then very profoundly. At some uncertain period in the depths of night, and, as it were, through the thin veil of a dream, she was conscious of a footstep mounting the stairs heavily.

 

Phoebe heard that strange, vague murmur, which might be likened to an indistinct shadow of human utterance.

 

Later she sees him at the breakfast table. Here is one of many gloomy descriptions of him:

..his mind and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, gray, and melancholy figure–a substantial emptiness, a material ghost–to occupy his seat at table.

With his long white hair and garments from another age, Clifford appears rather ghostly. It can be said that he is the embodiment of ghosts of a sorrowful past, a sorrow that clings to him like the sheet of a Halloween ghost. His sister doesn’t fare very well either:

above a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures.

Not a participator in the most casual of modern day affairs, Hepzibah too is but a ghost, even if figuratively so.

Then there is the harpsichord of the long since deceased Alice Pyncheon. Sometimes it makes music, seemingly on its own accord. The book is vague on whether this phantom music is made by the ghost of the late Alice or whether it is a kind of collective, symbolic hallucination – a longing for those rare but charming moments that blessed the Pyncheon family in the midst of their misfortune.

There are more metaphors and hints of a haunting throughout the book. If you wish to learn of more, I recommend reading the book. But I must say it can be a tedious read. The sentences are very long and flowery. Themes and descriptions are often repeated and drawn out. Much of the vocabulary is archaic. All this and, you know what? The more I contemplate on the story, the closer I’m pulled toward its deep heart that continues to beat a century and a half after its conception.

Sometimes a bit of effort is required to unearth something of magnitude. Although I did not realize its importance to the American gothic movement when I began the novel, I treated it with respect. I didn’t settle for a free ebook. Rather, I bought a physical book with a hard cover. I patiently read it in silent environments and uttered no complaints when I had to reread certain parts for clarification. Much of the reading took place in our newly constructed den – a room designed for reading and writing. Hell, I think on one occasion I had a brandy to go with the reading. Now that’s respect with a pinch of style!

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Review of Whisper – Whisper Trilogy Book 1

WhisperSome time ago, I posted an article titled: Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature  In this article, I write about the creepy environments in which authors and filmmakers “build” their haunted houses. I have a large section dedicated to “the forest;” a very popular landscape of myth and legend, often harboring fanciful and horrific things – elves, witches, werewolves, and ghosts to name a few. Then I give examples of popular haunted house stories that include haunted forests: Evil Dead, The House on the Moor, and The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel.

I wish I had read Michael Bray’s Whisper – Whisper Trilogy Book 1  before writing this article. It is the epitome of the “mysterious forest” archetype. I certainly would have included this modern horror novel in the article. There is more than wind stirring in the trees that surround “Hope House” – the subject of Bray’s book. Hope House is an historical abode built upon cursed grounds. There are presences lurking in the neighboring forest; perhaps as many as there are trees. One can only guess at the total. Likewise, one can only make guesses about their nature. Are they evil? What do they look like? (for they go unseen – in the beginning!)

These woodland entities make their presence known to Steve and Melody Samson, the newest homeowners of Hope House, not by sight, but by alternative sensory pathways. In the rustling of the treetop leaves, Steve hears whispers; whispers that eventually call out his name. Also, a certain “feeling” continually haunts both Steve and Melody. They feel as if they are being watched by multiple sets of eyes. For me, it is always scarier when spirits are felt before there is a direct confrontation; heard before they are seen. And this is what happens here.

The story of Hope House and its surrounding grounds unfolds in three different periods of time 1) The present time: a couple buys a house in the woods 2) 150-200 years ago – the construction of Hope House, built with slave labor on cursed grounds by an opportunist blinded by his own ambition 3) thousands of year ago – a cannibalistic tribe and a supernatural tragedy. Bray effectively juxtaposes these time periods. Never was I confused. Whenever a time jump occurs, it happens in just the right place. The storyline keeps on flowing while these jumps serve to heighten the overall suspense. These trips back in time reveal exciting clues and interesting back-stories.

There are interesting side characters in Whisper. There is a slimy real-estate agent with dark secrets, a drunken crone who knows things, a seemingly inconspicuous bartender (but things are never what they seem). All of these characters know things that our main characters Steven and Melody do not. What do they know? Read the book to find out!

The book has its flaws, some of which have to do with editing. There are some grammatical errors here and there. Aside from grammar issues, too often Bray uses “a smile” as a one-size-fits-all way of describing facial expressions. Characters seem to smile on every occasion – when they are arguing and when they are in turmoil. Then there are a couple of minor issues I had with some of the plot points. There are some areas that would benefit from further development. There are noteworthy events that find their place in the story and then stay put, never to resurface again, missing out on opportunities to establish a stronger link to the larger story. Also, some of the story resolutions are bit trite for my taste.

But overall Whisper is a good book. I look forward to reading the rest of the books in this trilogy. And here they are:  Echoes and Voices

 

Echoes
Voices

Review of Ghost Story – Book Vs. Movie

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Old, distinguished men in elegant attire sip their brandy and tell ghost stories. A mysterious woman unbound by time haunts successive generations of boys and men. The deadly consequences of secrets buried long ago are only just beginning to surface. All this and more make up Ghost Story, a novel by Peter Straub and then later a film by John Irvin.

In past reviews when I have compared a book to a movie, I have used a pseudo-ratio to show how books benefit from a structural advantage. I call this the “200 page/2 hour reel” ratio. Simply stated, there is more opportunity for story and character development in a book than a film. A film based on a book is often forced to take shortcuts, usually to the detriment of the story. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for a film to lay out all of the plot points of a story-heavy book, unless we allow for a nine-hour film. (I guess that’s where a television mini-series comes to “the rescue.” Ah but this often backfires. But this is a subject for another article.) What does one do about such a dilemma? Let’s ask Let’s ask Lawrence D Cohen, the screenwriter for Ghost Story.

Cohen is a masterful screenwriter who first “came to prominence” for penning the screenplay for the 1976 film Carrie, a fine film based on a book by Stephen King. In Ghost Story, just like with Carrie, he skillfully paves the road that leads from the book to the movie. Cohen and Director John Irvin know the limitations of the film medium and wisely do not attempt to exceed them. They carefully carve out a simpler yet equally fulfilling story from Peter Straub’s behemoth book. It has been suggested that film critic Roger Ebert prefers the film to the book. If this is so, I might just agree with him. Mind you, I said “might!”

Ghost-Story-BannerAs I alluded to earlier, Ghost Story is a long book. Both in scope as well as style, it owes a lot to Stephen King, from its epic quality of plot intricacies to its focus on small town characters and their foibles. In particular, Ghost Story bears a strong resemblance to Salem’s Lot.  Hank Wagner from darkecho.com  describes this similarity quite well, presenting quotes from Peter Straub himself to back up his claims:

 

Numerous readings reveal how much the book owes to Salem’s Lot. Straub has publicly acknowledged this debt, stating that “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters. Besides the large canvas I also wanted a certain largeness of effect. I had been imbued with the notion that horror stories are best when they are ambiguous and low key and restrained. Reading Salem’s Lot, I realized that the idea was self defeating.” On reflection, the debt to Salem’s Lot is obvious. Both feature small towns under siege from the supernatural. In both, the terror escalates until the towns are threatened with destruction — Jerusalem’s Lot is consumed by purifying fire, while Milburn is decimated. In each, a writer’s arrival in town seems to trigger disaster. Both writers strike up alliances with young teenagers whose lives are ruined by the terror, Ben Mears with Mark Petrie and Don Wanderly with Peter Barnes. Both forge an almost parental bond with their young allies, replacing those lost parents. In both, the evil lives on — Ben and Mark end up on the run, while Don, after ending the threat of Eva, presumably goes off to face her evil aunt.


I would only add one more similarity – both novels feature a house that is a home or former home to the evil presences of these books. In fact, I need to make this addition, for these reviews are part of the Haunted House themed project and therefore, the stories I review must include a haunted house, even though most of the action in these stories take Ghost Story movieplace outside these houses. (For the record, I have found Salem’s Lot and Ghost Story on sites that list haunted house films and literature – so there!) But here is the take away – the story is too broad to settle on in with just a few characters at one location at a specific point in time.

 

Like with Stephen King’s The Stand and It, there are multiple characters with story lines that encompass more than a few pages. While the primary characters consist of the five old men that tell ghost stories (Collectively known as “The Chowder Society”), the writer/nephew of one of these men (Don Wanderly), and the “ghost” in her many incarnations, there are so many others – the promiscuous wife of one of the old men, the drunk plow driver, the cantankerous sheriff, thrill seeking teenagers, and on and on it goes. The story takes place in a snowy town in New York, but the book takes readers across the country as a large chuck of one of the plots (there are a few) unfolds in California. Oh yes, the town of Milburn has the obligatory haunted house. In fact there are several! The evil goes where it wants – haunting several abodes and businesses, including a movie theater that continuously runs the film “The Night of the Living Dead.” Several of the townsfolk fall prey to the evil. They become possessed, they become the objects of their worst nightmares; they die. And it doesn’t help matters any that a series of snowstorms shuts down the town. The people of Milburn are besieged on all fronts by so many forces.

I say, if you like Stephen King’s epic and character-heavy novels, then it is highly likely that you will enjoy Ghost Story as well. I know I did.

Now, how does one turn all this into a movie? By focusing on one central plot and abandoning the side stories. By letting go of most of the characters and centering only on a handful. And this work well, with a large part of the success coming from the suburb cast:

Douglas Fairbanks Jr      John Houseman                      Fred Astaire              Melvyn Douglas

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It was the final film for Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas. Melvyn Douglas has so far appeared in two other haunted house movies that I have reviewed. (See The Old, Dark House and The Changeling.  Although I did not mention him in these articles.)

The film focus in on one plot – a young woman (as a ghost or whatever evil form you call it) returns from the dead to seek revenge on the four old men (Astaire, Douglas, Fairbanks and Houseman) who had killed her when they were young. This plot line occurs in the book as well but it is much more complicated. Normally when I do a book vs. movie review, I make a bullet-point list outlining the differences within each medium. I feel that is unnecessary here as I have already honed in on the most significant difference. Once that difference is understood and accepted (and accept it I do), an inventory of the nitty-gritty components of such a variance becomes pointless (In more ways than one: meaningless and “no bullet-points.” Get it?) The story that is portrayed is done with great care. It is better to minimize one’s focus to achieve a clear vision than to try and maximize the field of vision, only to achieve a blurry and unwatchable product.

As great as the book is, I find myself preferring the film (Or, I “might” prefer it to the book, as I said earlier). At times during my reading, I found myself lost in the tangled trails of plot. Yes, these trails do untangle and eventually lead you where you want to go, but still, it was a tedious experience at times. The film is straight forward and satisfying.

Not that I am against the complex – by no means. I enjoy books of great breadth and depth.

Perhaps such a comparison is unfair. It’s like comparing a plate of apples to a gourmet meal. It’s just that, as much as great as a gourmet meal is , sometimes I just want apples.

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Thank you for reading this article.  I invite you to check out my latest book: The House Sitter
– A writer haunted a house with his own stories.

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Review of Paracosm: Bleath: The Hauntings

ParacosmI’ll begin this review with a disclaimer: I’m not sure Paracosm: Bleath: The Hauntings qualifies as a haunted house novel. True, the main character, Zoe, inhabits the Wilmont House while she stays in the town of Bleath. Strange things are afoot in this house. Truthfully I don’t remember all the specifics, but things within the house change. Perhaps the wall paper takes on a different design, or a vase of flowers appears to her on a table, a vase that her guest cannot see. Then there is another house where séances are conducted. In this house she sees a ghost. But the houses are merely components of a larger and more encompassing milieu of eeriness. What is truly haunted in this story it the town of Bleath itself.

Zoe Cosgrove is working on a thesis. She is studying the paracosms of children. Paracosms are “imaginary worlds created inside one’s mind” (wikipedia). It just so happens that there exists a town that has an anomalous number of children that helplessly succumb to such imaginary worlds. You guessed it – the town is Bleath. Zoe embarks upon a fieldtrip to Bleath where she sets up home visitations with the households of the children that have created Paracosms. The mayor of the town is very accommodating. He permits her to stay in the Wilmont house. Its former owner has passed on, but the house is furnished and otherwise habitable. The mayor’s son, Karstan, roughly the same age as Zoe, takes a liking to her and romance begins.

Oh, did I mention that the town is a tourist attraction for ghost seekers? Did I mention that the many people in the town, including the mayor and his family, are mediums that conduct séances? Well, I’m mentioning this now.

From the very beginning, Paracosm: Bleath: The Hauntings unloads promising premises. Does it deliver on these promises? Answer: Sort of.   The characters are interesting, the themes are creative, and the description of the town, its people, stores and culture is thorough and inviting. But –perhaps – there is too much going on? There are several strands of twisting plots. Some of these twists spin the plot in dizzying directions, leaving behind several loose ends. I believe this book is the beginning of a series. Also, it has connections to another series written by Allyn. Maybe when the entirety of the series is complete, everything will fall into place. For now, I am giving this book a lukewarm recommendation. It has its finer moments, but there are several elements of plot that are rushed and not well knitted into the whole.

I am, however, anxious to try a second book of Allyn’s. The book is called Dollhouse.

Check it out: http://anyaallyn.com/project/dollhouse/