Enter at Your Own Risk: Five Novels Featuring Houses that Will Haunt You

What comes to mind when you think of haunted houses? Growing up, whenever I heard those words, I’d immediately conjure up images of a county fair attraction. I’m sure many of you have spent time touring one of these places and know what I’m talking about—sometimes it was a walk-through event, and other times it was an actual ride. I always found a sense of comfort in those spooky attractions, and was actually more frightened by the “Funhouse”, with its mirrors, dead-ends, and a swirling tunnel at the exit…and let’s not forget that there always seemed to be a clown. Clowns belong in the haunted house, in my opinion.

Over the years my definition of a haunted house broadened, thanks to the countless films and books in the sub-genre. There are many different monsters that can live in a haunted house. Many are of the supernatural variety, but sometimes the monsters are human. Other times, the house just takes on a life of its own. The books I’ve listed here are some of my favorites in this category, and they each feature a unique spin on the classic haunted house tale. Some of these houses require an extended stay, as their horrors are gradually unleashed. Others require no more than a foot inside the door before their sinister nature takes hold. Either way, you won’t leave the same as when you entered. Whether you enjoy quiet horror that gets under your skin, or prefer a house to display its horrors loud and clear, I think you’ll find something enjoyable on this list.

 

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

To me, this is one of the defining pieces of literature in the “quiet horror” realm. I saw the movie first, several years prior to reading the book. I think if this one works for you, it won’t matter which order you follow with the book vs. the film. But I typically prefer to read the book before watching the film, so I’d recommend that if you have the option. As is the case most of the time, the book is better, but the film is well done and really amps up the creep factor. (Just a note: both the book and the film are from the early 1970s).  It’s unfortunate that this book didn’t get more attention upon its release, and that the author really didn’t put out more horror fiction afterward. If you like a slow burn that will get under your skin, check this one out. You can read my full review here.

 

Murder House by C.V. Hunt

This is the story that I’ve referred to as “Great Lakes Grit”, and I’m dying for more horror stories set in Detroit. I’d call this a bit of a mind-bender that will leave you with questions. Everyone I’ve discussed it with had different ideas regarding the answers to those questions. The atmosphere weighs heavy in this one and I was left thinking about it for days after I finished my read. Want to hear more about what I loved? Check out my review here.

 

House of Blood by Bryan Smith

This was my first read from this author and I was not disappointed. This book is the only one on my list that I’d consider “extreme horror”, but don’t let that put you off if you’re new to that realm of the horror world. It starts off with a group of friends in a broken down car, and not long after, the reader is introduced to the “House of Blood” and its inhabitants. Yes, there’s some gore and sex, but there’s more to the story here. I haven’t read more from Smith with regards to novels, but I’m planning to, and I’m going to bet that if you’re new to his work as well, this is a great place to start. Click here for my original review.

 

Remains by Andrew Cull

One of my Top Reads of 2019, and it’s still on my mind. I’ll never forget the house in this story or the emotional gut-punch that followed once I started reading. I’ve sadly not read this author’s short fiction collection, but it’s on my list, and I can only imagine the quality stories that await based on this novel. It’s frightening and deals with grief. If you’d like to know a bit more on why I loved it, you can find my full review here.

 

House of Skin by Jonathan Janz

This is one of my favorite books by Janz. It was actually his first novel, and it’s one of the books I credit with waking me up to the fact that haunted houses are one of my favorite horror tropes. You really can’t go wrong with any of his books. Read my full review here for more information if you’d like. To sum it up for you, this book features a memorable cast of characters and an evil abode that has a lasting effect on its inhabitants. I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but I’m going to now: Janz writes some of the best steamy love scenes in horror. If that’s your thing, check it out based on that alone, and then be amazed when you discover everything else his writing has to offer.

Book Review: MURDER HOUSE by CV Hunt

(My review for this book was originally published as a guest post on High Fever Books)

I think we can all agree that setting plays a major role in a story. In some ways, it can take on a life of its own and become a character of sorts. This is especially true when the reader is familiar with the place, whether it be from a past visit, or the fact that they’ve spent a portion of their life in that location. Setting often sparks the mood, creating an atmosphere that saturates every other aspect of the story. C.V. Hunt’s MURDER HOUSE is one such story. Propelled by the setting, and carried along by authentic moments of darkness, fear, and despair—this one creeped into my mind and crawled under my skin.

 

There’s a reason I want to discuss setting first. It’s always a part of my connection to a book, but in some cases it’s more intense than others, and that’s what happened here. This story is set in Detroit, which leads me to this assumption (one I feel safe to make): if you’ve never been there, one of the first thoughts to pop up in your mind when the city’s mentioned is urban decay. Even if you’ve spent a fair amount of time in the city, you’re aware of its overlooked positive qualities, but you can’t deny this reality. As someone who has experienced Detroit firsthand, I always feel the need to point out that there are many wonderful aspects of this city that you won’t learn about from the media. That being said, the urban decay and the accompanying feelings it evokes make for one hell of a setting for dark fiction. As soon as I opened this book and realized it was set in Detroit, I was intrigued.

This story pulled me in from the beginning, with a snippet of the “Murder House” history, and then I was drawn in further by the dysfunctional dynamics of Brent and Laura’s relationship. The tension between these characters coupled with the description of their arrival at the house gave me a sense of unease that continued throughout the story. I developed empathy for Laura’s character early on, and I felt a sense of authenticity in the writing, which means a lot to me when connecting with a story. Some parts of this story contain simple and straightforward descriptions of the unfolding events, but it’s also peppered with deep insight into the main character’s mind, exploring topics such as mental illness and poverty.

The creep factor is high in this story, but it’s not all in-your-face. Sometimes it’s subtle. There are some detailed descriptions of the house’s condition and some scares that stood out. Let’s just say that between the basement, attic, and tunnels, I was left with some serious unease (even more so after finishing the book and thinking it through). While there are moments of gore and intense shock, these are well-balanced with more subtle psychological horror woven into the entire thread of the story. I found some ambiguity in the meat of the story and at the ending. Earlier on this left me wanting more insight into Brent’s experience and his mindset. However, by the end, I felt like the unknown aspects added to the reading experience and made more of an impact on me.

I will tell you this—I think readers will do well by taking their time with this story. Don’t rush it, and take in all the details. At the end I found myself flipping back to review earlier parts of the story, and I had little “Ah ha!” moments where some of the pieces fell into place. I’m still not quite sure exactly what led to the madness, but I’m not sure we’re meant to have all the answers in this one, and it works. This story has been swirling around in my head for a couple of days now, ever since I put it down. To me, that’s one sign of a job well-done by the author.

I’m such a big fan of stories in which setting plays a big role. Subgenres within horror such as southern gothic and Appalachian noir really get under my skin in the best of ways. I think with MURDER HOUSE, we have a tale of what I’ll call “Great Lakes Grit”, and I’m here for it. It’s raw and real in the best way, and an excellent portrayal of madness and decay in both a physical and mental sense. After basking in the book hangover that this one provided, I think it’s safe to say that I give it 5 stars.

Book Review: DEVIL’S CREEK by Todd Keisling

This review was originally shared as a guest post on the Kendall Reviews site. Link to the original post is here

I’m just back from a literary escape to the town of Stauford, Kentucky, and let me tell you something: this was one unforgettable trip. If I close my eyes and listen closely, I can still hear the children singing. Their lyrics may sound holy, but beneath the surface, there’s something sinister in their sound. They’re begging me to join in on the chorus, but I know better. The only hymn I’ll be singing today is one of praise for this superb piece of horror fiction known as DEVIL’S CREEK.

We’re only four full months into the year, and I can confidently claim that this novel has a place on my Best of 2020 list. It was my introduction to Todd Keisling’s writing, and I’m blown away. There were so many things I loved about this story, but what first caught my attention was the visual aspect of the cover and the internal formatting. Both are stunning. The cover lured me in, and aside from the words within the pages, I was taken with the illustrations scattered throughout the book. The design definitely adds to the haunting atmosphere throughout the story.

DEVIL’S CREEK was tough to put down once I started. You know those reads that settle into your bones and you’re left with an ache every time you have to set them aside? This is one of those books. Keisling drops the reader right into the action from the beginning, giving us a full glimpse into the church’s history. I was hooked immediately by this flashback, and then eased right into the present-day portion of the novel, feeling like I was along for the ride as Jack made his way back home. Speaking of this, I loved reading about this character’s return to Stauford after many years away. It seems like a simple thing, but the author’s descriptions of Jack’s return really moved me. Keisling perfectly portrayed the feelings one has upon arrival in their hometown after a long absence. I loved the reminiscence and the descriptions of what it’s like to experience new growth but also decay in a place where you’ve grown up. As Jack cruises around town, the moments of nostalgia are both relatable and gripping at times. This is where those early chapters lay solid groundwork for the ultimate small-town horror experience to come.

The author tackles important topics throughout the novel, one of which is organized religion and the negative aspects that can accompany an overzealous group of people. The reader witnesses the hypocrisy, racism and bigotry that sometimes breed faster in small towns. There are clear messages in the writing, but it’s never preachy (no pun intended) and seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story. Another aspect that I loved was the slow-building dread. The author did an excellent job providing just enough nuggets of information from the characters’ past to keep me guessing about the future and flipping those pages. The excellent pacing and the setting were two main factors in the success of this story. Keisling’s descriptions of the surroundings are so well done—you don’t need to be from the south or have traveled there to feel the setting come alive. But if you have been to this region, it will only enhance your reading experience and immersion into the story. When I was a teenager, I actually traveled to southeast Kentucky one summer, with a youth group of all things (you’ll get this when you read the book), and we stayed at a campground. Having been to this region before really made the images in my mind come to life as I was reading.

This is another book that I’d love to see adapted as a film. There were so many moments that actually frightened me, and that’s a rare occurrence. Jacob Masters, the leader of the Church of Holy Voices, is as creepy as they come, especially in his later form. The description of his image and even his voice is terrifying at times. As things begin to go south in the town, the creepiness and gore intensifies, and it’s some of the best I’ve read in a while. I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that and allow you to experience it firsthand. As I visualized this story in my mind, some scenes, while original to the story, were vaguely reminiscent of some favorite horror films, and I loved that aspect as well.

I’m so excited to read more of Todd Keisling’s work, and hopefully soon. Those of you who are familiar with my reviews often hear me talk about that “triple threat” of horror, humor, and heart. These are the factors that propel a read to the top of my list. If it feels authentic, I connect with the characters, and I can feel the emotions coursing through the story, then I’m sold. Sometimes the balance of these three things is not equal, but they are all there in some measure in my favorite reads. This novel has a heavy dose of horror, and it comes in both human and supernatural forms. It also has a heartbeat that carries the reader along as they experience a range of emotions—fear, anger, grief, nostalgia, and even joy at times. This one left me both haunted and exhilarated. If you’re looking for the thrill and adrenaline rush that accompanies a solid horror experience, be sure to book a trip to DEVIL’S CREEK.

 

 

The Forest of Feelings: Drag Me Through Discomfort

Welcome to the inaugural edition of my new monthly feature.  If you’ve been following my reviews and social media posts, then you already know that I sit in my feelings often. I’m not always reveling in melancholy either, despite the way it seems based on some of my reviews. I’ve made a joke a time or two about filing certain books in the Forest of Feelings, and now I intend to do just that within this monthly post. Each month I’ll focus on a specific emotion and discuss books that gave me that feeling.

Let’s talk about DISCOMFORT.

I love books and films that take me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes my reading or viewing experiences in this realm lead me to discover new interests and favorites, and other times, I find that I do have some boundaries I’d rather not cross in the future. Either way, it’s always a learning experience.

Here are some books that made me uncomfortable, along with my thoughts on each reading experience:

MONSTERS AND ANIMALS by JF Gonzalez & Wrath James White

SURVIVOR by JF Gonzalez

I’ve listed these two together, because the first one is a prequel to the latter. Monsters and Animals are two novellas bound together which introduce the reader to some of the characters found in the world of Survivor. Let me tell you, I struggled with the first one, but I was still intrigued enough to pursue reading Survivor, because I’m a fan of the author’s work, and I’d heard so much about how it was a seminal work in the extreme horror genre. There are scenes in both of these books that I will never ever erase from my mind. I will not give spoilers, so please read the synopsis if you’re planning to dig into either book. I’ve never talked much about either, as I found it hard to formulate a review or any kind of rating. I can understand why others consider Survivor to be an important piece of fiction, but it was not for me. There were two or three points in the story when I almost DNF because it crossed some boundaries I was unaware I had until then. Despite that, I kept reading, because I felt compelled to know how it ended. It’s an effective piece of fiction, because it leaves a lasting impression on the reader, and makes you wonder how much of the depravity in the story goes on in the darkest corners of reality. This story takes you through many emotions, most of which hurt. Despite these things, I struggled to find deeper meaning to it. I honestly don’t think I’ll keep it on my shelf, but I also can’t imagine donating my copy anywhere, so for now it stays in my book piles.

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS by Bryn Greenwood

This book is why I don’t read many reviews until I’ve finished a read myself. Based on the synopsis, I knew it touched on taboo topics, and I was intrigued. I read some reviews on GoodReads prior to reading this book, many of which were unfavorable. I felt like it was affecting my view of the story before I even started, so I went ahead and jumped in and decided to form my own opinion. I ended up loving this story. It’s still one of my favorite non-horror novels ever. Again, you can read the synopsis and see for yourself why it’s controversial, but I’d recommend going into it with an open mind if possible. There are many uncomfortable moments, but the payoff is worth it with this unforgettable story.

BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

It’s been a few years since I read this, but this is another book that I still think about on occasion. It’s mainly focused on relationships between the characters, and it put me through a range of emotions. What starts as a tale of friendship between two women from different sides of the tracks delves into much more. This is also a great summertime read, as it takes place during the main characters’ summer break from college.

BY BIZARRE HANDS by Joe R. Lansdale

This was my first Lansdale read, and a great place to start with his work. It’s a collection of short fiction, and several of the stories left me stunned and feeling complicit in the characters’ actions. He’s an author that is not afraid to take his characters to dark places. I loved that it made me uncomfortable, yet there was depth and purpose to each story. In my review for this book, I wrote the following, which sums it up:

“The stories in this collection are memorable. The writing is unapologetic, and a perfect blend of great storytelling elements. The dialogue and setting are often characters in their own right, and the human characters themselves are what seal the deal in each of these tales. Most of the stories in this book have no hint of the supernatural, and are further proof that it’s not a necessity in order for horror to be effective. In this collection, Lansdale has written some of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, with the majority of them based on human monsters. The characters are real, raw, and often downright vile. In these tales, I’ve come across some of the most memorable antagonists I’ve ever encountered. As I was reading, I often felt like I was watching crime unfold from the sidelines—like I couldn’t stop watching in horror, and I was helpless to stop it.”

ODD MAN OUT by James Newman

An uncomfortable read that will break your heart and open your eyes to some of the bullying and injustice that goes on in real life. It’s a novella, so it’s a quick read, but it packs a punch. I squirmed in discomfort, wishing I could do something to help the protagonist. Newman’s writing is top-notch, and this is one readers can’t erase from their mind once it’s there.

GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN by Kristopher Triana

My most recent review was for this book, and it’s easily accessible, so I will give you a quick rundown on this one. As with the other books on this list, this one dragged me through many moments of discomfort, but I could not turn away. It’s heavy on grief, guilt, and shame. You won’t leave this story unscathed, but if you’re like me, you’ll be left stunned at its effectiveness in making you feel.

So, there you have it—this month’s trip through my feelings, with a closer look at some reads that dragged me through discomfort. In most cases, it was well worth the ride. For September, I’ll be tackling the topic of FEAR. I hope you’ll join me as I discuss the books that left me frightened.

 

 

Book Review: GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN by Kristopher Triana

It’s no secret that this past month I’ve been in a reading and writing slump. This past week or so, things have been ramping up, but I was still missing that spark needed to ignite the fire. That all changed once I read GONE TO SEE THE RIVER MAN, and now my passion for reviewing is back to full-blown bonfire level.

At 70% through this book, I told myself I’d sleep, and finish reading in the morning. That didn’t happen, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, I finished it all in one evening, and I’m not sorry. This story grabbed me and did not let go. It’s heavy. At one point, I felt like I was going to choke on the emotion within its pages. I mean that as a compliment to the author in every way. I want books to make me feel, no matter the emotion, and this one left my shoulders heavy with the weight of grief, shame, and guilt.

 

Kristopher Triana has developed a strong cast of characters in this novel, but none leave an impact like Lori. No spoilers here—let me just tell you that I felt complicit in her actions, as I looked on, unable to turn away. This book went beyond my expectations based on the synopsis. The “River Man” and every other character will linger in my mind for some time to come. This story is terrifying in its portrayal of humanity. It’s saturated with secrets and shame, all of which take a toll on the characters as well as the reader. This book is an experience in the best sense of the word.

While I found some of the scenes to be gut-wrenching and uncomfortable, none of the content ever felt gratuitous. There’s depth and intent to this story. I love how it alternates between past and present in a seamless fashion, giving the reader a glimpse into the characters’ past, but only in small doses. As you read, you peel back the layers of the past. On the surface, this seems like a tale of obsession, but what begins as such becomes so much more. Delving into the characters’ motives and their psychological damage kept me hanging onto every word.

This was my first read from Triana, and what an introduction! The horror of humanity is often more frightening than any creatures one can conjure with the mind. This book is heartbreaking and haunting from beginning to end, and has claimed a spot on my Best of 2020 list.

Book Review: THE RAVEN by Jonathan Janz

Sometime last year, I caught myself moving too quickly through the work of Jonathan Janz. In fear that I’d run out of reads, I slowed my roll. I think it’s now safe to catch up, as he has several new releases on the way. Instead of opting for one of the unread titles still on my shelf, I decided to start back up with THE RAVEN, Janz’s upcoming September release.

I was a bit hesitant to take on a post-apocalyptic story, as they aren’t usually my favorite. However, Janz is one of the authors that I trust can write in any genre and create something special. I was pleasantly surprised at the unique spin he placed on this topic. The apocalyptic event and its aftermath are unlike anything I’ve read before, so that got things started on the right foot.

As with other books by this author, I enjoyed the infusion of heart and humor that flows within the horror. Right away I was drawn to the character of Dez and enjoyed getting to know his backstory. There were several other memorable characters along the way– some favorable and others downright vicious, and they all came to life among the pages. I liked that the villains in this world were not all alike. The apocalyptic event created many different predators, each with their own set of skills and traits that made them feared by others.

My favorite parts of this novel were those in which Dez was on the move and making connections with other people. The reader witnesses his strong survival skills in action but also sees a softer side as we’re given access to his thoughts and memories. I struggled a bit with a portion of the book leading up to the climax; it was just a bit drawn out for my liking.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It’s creative and entertaining, with all the features that make Jonathan Janz a master at his craft. Time spent in the worlds he creates is always comfortable, exciting, and worthwhile.

 

Publisher: Flame Tree Press

Release Date: September 8, 2020

*Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an advance e-book copy for review consideration.

TBR Talk: August 2020

I’m back after a bit of a hiatus, with some TBR Talk for this month. By now, everyone knows that I’m not great at sticking to a designated reading list each month. However, I    still like to create a stack with the intention of reading the books I’ve selected. I’m definitely a mood reader and often select something completely off of my list. This month I’ve decided to select only novellas, in an effort to get out of my reading funk with with some shorter books. Aside from these, I’ll be working my way through my shelf of review copies, which have been neglected far too long.

This month I’m back with a new rock-themed challenge. I  love music as much as books, and I’d like to incorporate more of it into my bookish world. That means you’re going to see more challenges as well as blog/social media posts marrying these two things. August’s challenge is called ROCK ‘N READS 2020, and it’s an homage to 80’s and 90’s rock. I’d originally planned to do a separate challenge for each decade, but in the end I   decided a combination was best for now. If you read my posts on Instagram, you will learn more about the challenge. The basic rundown is that each day features a song title and a bookish prompt derived from that title. This one has had some great reception, and I  am very much looking forward to seeing what everyone posts throughout the month.

Here’s a photo of this month’s TBR stack…along with my “glamour shot” with Tommy Lee:

 

That’s the rundown for this month. I’m happy to be back to reading, reviewing and posting. I’ve made a few changes for my mental health, and this year has been rough, but  it’s teaching me many lessons. For those who have been waiting on a review from me, I    apologize for the delay and appreciate the understanding. If you’ve sent a book my way for review, I  will get to it as soon as possible.