Review of The Haunting of Ashburn House

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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 three.  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/

Review of The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel

 

 

ThehauntingoflakeManorHotel-COVEROnce upon a time (more specifically, on several occasions back in the fourth and fifth grade), our teacher gave us creative writing assignments. The procedure was as follows: Mrs. Rickman would pass out copies of a drawing that had a written scenario underneath the panel. I remember a drawing of a bowl of soup that had letters rising from underneath the broth. There were question marks hovering over the bowl.

The written out scenario went something like this: “You go into a restaurant and order a bowl of alphabet soup. The waiter places the bowl before you. Suddenly, the letters in the soup form a message. What does the message say?” Our assignment was to answer such a question with a one page, handwritten story.  After all the stories were handed in, the teacher would read each of them out loud to the class. It was indeed a very rewarding experience. Among other things, we learned of the different directions to which one could lead a story.  We relished in each other’s creativity. At least I did. Some kids dreaded “Creative Writing Time.” Not me.  I loved the writing and the listening and I looked forward to hearing the stories written by my fellow peers.

Thank you Nathan Hystad and all the authors that contributed to The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel for bringing me back to my grammar school creative writing exercise. No, I’m NOT saying that the writing in this book is juvenile.  Let me explain.  Hystad created something that triggered the creativity of others – similar to the way Mrs. Rickman gave her students the tools to expand our imaginations. For The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel, Hystad came up with a back-story and scenario. Then he invited thirteen authors to write stories based on his depiction. The results are interesting indeed.

The back-story is as follows: through unscrupulous means, the wealthy Charles Hamblin, owner of Lake Manor, acquired farms and properties from victims of a drought, to later sell for a profit. Meanwhile, most of the swindled suffered another tragedy – they were victims of a plague. Hundreds of bodies were dumped in the nearby lake.  The ghosts of the victims began to occupy Lake Manor and haunt Hamblin’s descendents.

Here is the current scenario, set in modern times – , Lake Manor is converted into a hotel. Rumor has it that it is haunted. Is it? If so, by what? By whom?  It was the job of the authors to answer such questions. Each author was assigned a room number and instructed to write a story based on the experiences of the guests that stayed in the assigned suite.  These authors then got busy haunting this hotel, leaving none of their characters/guests unscathed. All are haunted in one way or another.

Some authors focus on the lake and the woodsy trails that surround it. They write about TheHauntingofLakeManorHote;bannercreatures that come out of the waters and prey on their victims. They tell tales of ghosts that arise from the watery depths to lure guests into the deadly lake. They speak of strange things lurking along the trails.  Other authors focus in on the ghostly goings on within the walls of the Manor. They unleash bizarre beings of their mind’s creation and let them roam the corridors. They haunt rooms with ghostly children. They install secret panels and passageways for their characters to uncover and explore.

There are several reoccurring characters and themes throughout the book. Members of the hotel staff find themselves in multiple stories. There’s Lissette the desk clerk, Clay the bartender and Hank the bellhop. If I were you (“you” the reader or soon-to-be-reader of this book), I’d watch out for this trio. They can be…suspicious…at times. There are other crossovers as well.  There’s an offhand reference to a certain guest in one story. This guest ends up being a main character in another tale. So pay attention, readers! Oh, and watch out for the strange dishware you and the guests will encounter along the wooded trails throughout several stories – they are labeled with the names of different body parts.

All the stories are well written. As an added bonus, they smack of style; each one different, each one delightfully unique. There weren’t any bad stories. Some were better than others. One in particular was both intriguing and puzzling, so I read it twice. I’m still not sure I understood everything even after a second reading. But hot damn, I love this author’s style! (The story is Jumbled-up Jack by Christopher Bean). Alas, there were a couple of stories with non-endings. Seriously, it seemed as if some authors were nearing the climax but then decided to step out and have a smoke, only to forget to finish the story. But overall, this book is an enjoyable read and wonderful exercise in creative collaboration. “Creative Writing Time” lives on at it is beautiful, man!

 

Review of Archie’s Haunted House (Archie & Friends All-Stars)

 

 

Archie Haunted House CoverThink real hard – what’s the scariest work within haunted house literature?

Think even harder – what is the funniest work of the haunted house genre?

Think harder than “even harder” – which haunted house book best captures the spirit of today’s youth?

Think so hard that your brain bleeds – which haunted house novel has the best graphic illustrations?

Tired of all this thinking? Good, because I am going to give your brain a rest by dumbing things down a bit as I get into the subject of today’s review – Archie’s Haunted House (Archie & Friends All-Stars), which, by the way, is not the crowning achievement for any of the above categories. Truth is, I don’t know which haunted house novel is the scariest, funniest, trendiest or “graphiciest” (the superlative of “graphic.” See I.. oh never mind, just read on!) But it’s not Archie’s Haunted House, but we love Archie anyway. Why? Because he is Archie! (circular reasoning notwithstanding)

Maybe some of you don’t know what an “Archie” is. Archie is the star of fictional comic book series about teenagers who do “teenage-ish” things in the small town or Riverdale. He’s been around since – My god! Really Wikipedia? Since 1941? And here I thought he was the byproduct of the late fifties and early sixties with all that soda- shop/sock hop kind of humor. The all-American teenage Archie, with red hair and all, had a side kick named Jughead, known for his laziness and addiction to junk food. Archie dated either blonde Betty ,the sweet, girl-next-door, or brunette Veronica, the snobby rich girl. Then there was Reggie the conceited one, Big Moose the dimwitted but good-hearted jock, Dilton the brainy nerd. The list goes on.

Archie has survived over the decades, has gone through various incarnations for multiple publications. As previously mentioned, there’s the “sock-hop” era Archie, there’s “Little Archie” (the teenagers as children), there was even “Christian” Archie. Archie tried (but in my opinion, failed miserably) to stay with the times. In the 1980’s he was saying no to drugs, in the 1990’s he was listening to grunge rock – you get the idea. In a parallel universe of Archie (the Life with Archie series),the Archie gang appear as superheroes, secret agents. They marry each other. In one story, poor ol’ Archie dies. But he lives in one of the other 2,343,120 Archie publications (number may be slightly exaggerated.)

As a birthday gag-gift, my friend and colleague gave me this haunted house issue of Archie from 2010. He knows I dig haunted house stuff and he also knows that I am familiar with The Archie comics. I read it and thought “why not ‘review’ it.” But the sum of the review is as follows – “It’s Archie” – more of that circular reasoning for ya!

In the first story, a costume store opens in Riverdale. The costumes are special in that the person who puts them on becomes what they are wearing. Archie is running around Riverdale as a werewolf, Reggie a vampire, etc. It takes nerdy Dilton to break the spell of these magical costumes and return the gang back to normal

The second story is about the oldest house in Riverdale. It’s supposed to be haunted, but Archie Haunted House - Forefathersthe city council sees it only as an eye sore and wants it torn down. But wait! Archie discovers the house is an important piece of history and wants it preserved. But wait again! It really does turn out to be haunted and Archie changes his mind and wants it torn down – after convincing the council to preserve it. Oh brother!

In the third tale, the girls are having a “girl-only” Halloween party and the boys come to scare them. It turn out that the boys become the ones who are scared when they mistakenly conclude that Veronica’s aunt is an axe murderer.

Finally, there’s my favorite story! Archie and Jughead, dressed as vampires, miss Veronica’s Halloween party, and so they are invited to another party – at a haunted house. In attendance are real monsters. There are mummy ladies and werewolf women, There are things with many eyes, there are ogres. There’s even a medusa. When these monsters discover that Archie and Jughead are not real vampires, they are in trouble!

Archie Haunted House - Monster Party

If you want to know the truth, I prefer the Archie comics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. My older sisters had a bunch of these lying around the house when I was growing up. I read em’ and dug em’. I cringe when the comics go out of the way to show how much they have moved with the times. In Archie’s Haunted House, Veronica and Betty discuss a Pearl Jam concert. In 2010 I think it would be a little late for that. Later, they succumb to a magic spell, and the writers compare the trance they fall into to the reactions the girls typically have after watching Brad Pitt on the screen. I would think B and V as teenagers of 2010 would go more for Robert Pattinson of Twilight. That would definitely fit – since these are horror-themed stories.

Ah but oh well. My colleague has told me that Archie comics have always thrown in references to real people and places aimed at referencing the “current times.” I’ll take his word for it; I just don’t remember the older issues being so obvious about it while simultaneously being a decade off track.

Anyway, this is a fun comic book. Not really scary, not “ha ha ha” funny, and I’m not sure who the target audience is. It can’t be today’s millennials, they won’t go for this. And I would guess that many middle-aged folks (like me) and beyond would prefer the older issues. The drawings are decent. That’s good, right? Despite the shortcomings, it’s an enjoyable read. I don’t know why. Oh wait, yes I do – it’s fun because it’s “Archie”

Archie Haunted House Nightview

 

 

 

Review of Sker House

SkerHouseWhat is an epic? When I think of “epics,” I think of kingdoms, knights and warriors. I think of castles and magical caves. I think of a fictional place from a long time ago in a place far away. I think of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. All that said; let me move on to the book under review. There’s something about C.M. Saunder’s novel Sker House  that has me classifying it as an epic and yet, it has none of the aforementioned items. I need some help. Let me consult the ever-reliable online dictionary of Merriam-Webster.

 

Yes!  The dictionary came through like a charm!  It gave me a definition I can use:

 

Extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size and scope.

The definition fits. Sker House is a rich tale goes beyond the ordinary.

It’s not that it’s a long book (amazon has it a 299 electronic pages). There’s just so much packed into this tale. And nothing is crammed in hastily. Saunders gives the characters the necessary space to grow. As he giveth unto the characters, so doth he giveth to the plot (how do you like my Shakespeare impression?), which thickens into a filling story capable of satisfying any reader’s hunger for intrigue. Take for instance, the house at the center of the story – Sker House, which is a seaside inn located in South Wales. The inn and its surrounding property are not content to toss a mere ghost or two at the reader. The book has multiple hauntings and ghosts, including the mysterious Maid of Sker and the creepy shadow people. Then there are the strange ghost lights from ships of another day. Readers will encounter hidden passages, secret gardens, mysterious scribblings, possessions of the body, and unexplainable power outages.

Any good house haunting tale, especially one of epic proportions, is in need of a telling backstory. Saunders explores the history of Sker House from multiple avenues, including the firsthand tales from a strange old codger, the revealing dreams that manifest in the sleep of the protagonists, and the image provoking photo of doomed seamen.

A strong sense of place is important to epics. Although this is not a story from a time long ago in a place far away, the author does take a foreign setting (foreign to me here in the U.S.) and make it relatable. By and large, this is accomplished through the richness of the characters with all their prides, prejudices and patterns of speech specific to this locality. Saunders seems confident describing the mannerisms of his characters. The same is true concerning descriptions of the terrain and geography. He uses his knowledge of local history and legends, borrowing loosely from these stories. But in the end, his tale is his own.

SkerHouseOriginal

(Read about the original Maid of Sker and the real Sker House. Picture above is the original house, taken from this site)

 

Here’s a little more about these colorful characters. They include Dale and Lucy, two young and adventurous journalist-wannabes who stay at the nearly abandoned inn because they wish to learn more about the ghostly legends that are associated with Sker House in the hopes of publishing an article concerning such accounts. There is the landlord/proprietor of the Inn – Machen – a suspicious curmudgeon who is both goodhearted and endearing at the same time. Then there’s Old Rolly, Sker House’s only resident. He is a quiet and mysterious man who sits at bar of the inn day after day. Even background characters such as Ruth and Izzy, the mother and daughter maid team of Sker House, are well-rounded and personable.

The only failings that I came across have to do with some of the specifics within the wide breadth of material. At times I felt the author had too much on his plate and therefore neglected to fully explain certain happenings or resolve particular issues. I don’t want to identify these exact moments for fear of giving away too many spoilers. But if you read this book (and you should!) perhaps you will notice them as well. Despite this criticism, I admire the epic quality of this work – very much so. So a few details are sacrificed in the creation of the larger picture. The point is that the larger picture fairs well. Therefore, I strongly recommend this book

Review of The House on the Moor

The House on the Moor CoverThere’s an accepted adage that one should ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ Sorry Mr. Adage, but that is exactly what I am going to do. Not only am I going to judge the cover, but I an going to evaluate the paper, fonts, and even the box it came in.  I am going to offer my opinion on the illustrations as well. And my opinion is this = Saul Goodman. (it’s all good, man!)  Oh and the story is all right as well.

Why all this mumbo-jumbo about the physical book? Well see, I stumbled onto Author William Meikle’s thread on Goodreads.com.  He posted a link to Dark Renaissance Press –the publisher for his book – The House on the Moor.   Unfortunately,  the Dark Renaissance website is down at the time of this post.  But Meikle describes exactly why I was attracted to his book in his blog.  I’ll leave it to the author to tell you about it:

The Deluxe Hardcover Edition is bound in smooth black leather, and the front cover stamped with a haunted house in red foil, further enhanced with solid black headbands and a red book ribbon. The book will be protected by a black slipcase and deluxe hardcover edition will be signed by the author and the artist.

The Signed and Numbered Hardcover Edition is bound with the printed front cover art. It is furthered enhanced with black headbands, and a black book ribbon. The signed and numbered hardcover edition is signed by the author.

From – https://williammeikleblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/the-house-on-the-moor-signed-hardcovers-in-stock/

 

Now how could a lover of haunted house literature such as myself not be interested in something like this! Then, after seeing the illustrations of the talented M. Wayne Miller , I was sold. See some of Mr. Miller’s work below:

In the age of digital downloads, I am impressed that authors such as Miekle take the time and effort to publish a well designed, hardcover book. Not that there is anything wrong with ebooks – I read the all the time! I publish them myself!  But the pleasure of holding a book, flipping through the paper pages and then storing it on a cherry wood shelf cannot be replaced. The House on the Moor is joy to multiple senses.  I have already expressed how attractive the book looks.  But there is more. The cover is feels smoothly sensual when an open hand glides across its surface. And it seems to have that new car smell! Ah but it is a book – so the olfactory pleasure is, perhaps, more intellectual?

As for the other senses, I wouldn’t know how it sounds; this is not an audio book. I have made no attempt to eat it so I wouldn’t know how it tastes. But what about that other sense, the one called “imagination” which yields the power to bring all the senses together inside the brain?  The plot certainly stimulates the imagination.  It is a simple yet engaging story, filled with mood-setting charm.  John and Carole visit a mysterious old man named Blacklaw in his house on the moor.  John’s grandfather Hugh was a dear friend of Blacklaw’s in the olden days. In their prime, both men, bold and dashing, were celebrated for their feats and adventures, until one final act of daring caused Hugh’s demise. This act occurred in the cellar of the house on the moor. John is ready to hear the tale. Cautiously, over the course of several sittings, Blacklaw tells the tale as his energy is slowly drained.  It is a story of the occult and magical spells.  It is a story that explains the haunting that is occurring inside the house during present time Now readers, cue in the imagination – this power that brings together all the senses inside the brain.  I could almost taste the Scotch that guests and hosts of the house drink during the tellings. I The House on the Moor Spine 2could almost feel the warmth from the fireplace and nearly hear it crackling.  Could my mind hear the eerie chanting rituals that arise from the cellar? I think so. Could it see all the way up to the top of the library tower, where hidden in the shadows of the rafters was some kind of phantom? I believe so.

This is a book to cherish, to read by the fireplace in your favorite sitting chair with a sifter of brandy at your side. When not in use it belongs on the bookshelf in its protective black case, with a spine of shiny-red etching that spells to each and every onlooker: The House on the Moor.