Book Review: Near the Bone by Christina Henry

Title: Near the Bone
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A woman trapped on a mountain attempts to survive more than one kind of monster, in a dread-inducing horror novel from the national bestselling author Christina Henry.

Mattie can’t remember a time before she and William lived alone on a mountain together. She must never make him upset. But when Mattie discovers the mutilated body of a fox in the woods, she realizes that they’re not alone after all.

There’s something in the woods that wasn’t there before, something that makes strange cries in the night, something with sharp teeth and claws.

When three strangers appear on the mountaintop looking for the creature in the woods, Mattie knows their presence will anger William. Terrible things happen when William is angry.

There is a menacing, eerie feel to Near the Bone right from the start, and the cover absolutely nails it. Near the Bone is the story of Mattie, a 20-year-old woman living in isolation on a snowy mountain with her husband William. Mattie cooks, cleans, checks the snares — always under William’s watchful eye. Every night, she does her other wifely duties, because as William reminds her each day, a man has to have sons.

The plot bursts into action when Mattie finds the body of a fox on a trail near their cabin. It’s been killed and mutilated, but not eaten. What predator would do such a thing? When Mattie explains her find to William, he takes her with him to explore further, and they find tracks and claw marks huger than anything a bear might leave behind. What new animal has shown up on the mountain?

As they soon discover, it’s something other, not just a monster. It’s enormous, dangerous, and sentient. It has rituals and territories, and seems to have left them a warning to stay away.

But as the author so deftly illustrates, the creature isn’t the only monster on the mountain.

I should pause here for some content warnings, which I tend not to include, but feel like it’s essential for this book.

Content: Includes kidnapping, rape, assault, emotional and physical abuse. And yes, those are all human actions.

When it comes to the creature, we see horror-story elements such as eviscerated and dismembered bodies — but honestly, if you read horror, this isn’t going to be the most shocking part of the story. Gross, yes, but not terrible the way the human-induced horror is.

The arrival of strangers on the mountain escalates the action. Mattie knows that she’ll be punished if William thinks she’s been talking to the strangers. They’re a trio of college friends exploring a “sighting” of a “cryptid” that they’ve read about online. They think this will be fun — but Mattie feels compelled to warn them away.

Meanwhile, memories start to return for Mattie — memories of her childhood, an earlier life where she had a mother and a sister and was happy. With the help of the outsiders, who recognize her from news coverage, she’s able to piece together the awful truth of the last twelve years of her life, and begins to plan her escape. But can she get off the mountain when there are two dangerous predators hunting her down?

I feel like I could talk about this book for hours, but at the same time, I’m already skating at the edge of spoiler-ville and don’t want to go too far. Near the Bone is incredibly upsetting and scary and utterly enthralling. I tore through this book in about a day and a half — I felt so personally invested in Mattie’s story and absolutely had to know if she’d find safety.

The story of her life with William and the ongoing abuse — captivity, control, beatings, sexual assault, withholding of food — is very, very hard to read. It does have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, bringing up memories of the recent cases in the news of women escaping their captors after many, many years. Mattie considers herself a mouse, weak and powerless, but over the course of the novel, as her memories return, she finds an inner strength and determination that helps her finally take action.

This book is not going to be for everyone. As I said, the more traditional horror elements aren’t the parts that were hardest for me to read. It’s been a couple of days since I finished, and I still can’t get Mattie’s story out of my head.

I think the only thing that leaves me a touch unsatisfied is the lack of clear explanation of the creature. By the end of the book, there have been glimpses, but not a full look, and we’re left not knowing exactly what it was. I know this is intentional, but I wanted to know! There’s a message there about heeding warnings and staying away from places you shouldn’t go — my impression is that the creature only went after the humans when they disturbed its territory, and then of course there was hell to pay.

Ultimately, the true monster on the mountain is William. We can understand the creature as “other”, with behaviors and patterns that make sense for it, even though they’re deadly to whoever crosses its path. William, though, is human, and we’re left with a picture of evil that’s hard to shake.

Near the Bone is a fantastic read, very disturbing but impossible to put down. Mattie is someone to root for, and while I felt enormous sympathy and sorrow for her, I also was left with high admiration for her ability to survive, help others, and keep going in the face of terrible circumstances. The book ends on a high note, despite all the horror, and I was happy to be able to leave the books with a sense of hope after all the awful things that occurred.

I strongly recommend Near the Bone, but with the caveat that the content won’t be for everyone.

Book Review: Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

Title: Whisper Down the Lane
Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
Publisher: Quirk
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Psychological thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.

Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .

Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.

Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies. 

If you’re of a certain age, you remember hearing about the McMartin preschool scandal of the 1980s, in which the staff of a family-run preschool was accused of hundreds of counts of abuse and of participating in Satanic rituals with the children in their care. It was horrifying, gross… and untrue. All of the accused were acquitted… but do we remember the acquittals? Or do we remember the accusations? I think the answer is self-evident.

In Whisper Down the Lane, Richard is an elementary school art teacher, newly married to another teacher, and hoping to adopt the stepson who’s also one of his students. Richard comes across as kind but a little odd when we first meet him, with his mind often wandering away, not really fond of small talk or collegial chitchat with coworkers.

Richard is also Sean, but his memories of being Sean have been repressed down to nothingness. As Sean, at age five, he first confirmed his worried mother’s suspicions about his kindly kindergarten teacher, and eventually became the star witness in the hugely publicized case against several teachers accused of horrifying abuse and Satanic practices. And as in real-life, the case eventually fell apart, but the damage done to those accused was indelible.

Richard’s memories of Sean start creeping back after some weird, unexplainable incidents begin to occur around him, starting with an eviscerated bunny on the school field and escalating from there. Finally, as Richard himself faces accusations of abuse, we readers have to wonder whether the tightly sealed borders between Richard and Sean have finally eroded enough to push Richard over the edge into madness and unspeakable acts.

There is a lot going on here, and plenty to challenge and disgust the book’s readers. As the Sean pieces of the narrative make clear, the children who provided witness testimony during the Satanic panic were pushed and manipulated by the adults in their lives — parents, police, and psychologists — to deliver the answers the adults were looking for. The author skillfully places us inside Sean’s mind, so we can see how his desire to please his mother led to statements later used to condemn his teacher in the court of public opinion.

It’s horrible, pure and simple, to see the lives destroyed, and equally horrible to see how these young children were introduced to topics well beyond their ability to digest, being spoon-fed details that led them to confirm drug-fueled orgies, sacrifices, graveyard rituals, and more.

As Richard’s memories intrude into his daily life, he does act in ways that would appear crazy and even dangerous to those around him. As I read the book, I couldn’t see how there could possibly be another answer but that Richard had had a breakdown and was actually responsible for the events happening around him… and I won’t say whether I was right or wrong!

I did go into Whisper Down the Lane expecting a horror story, and while there are elements that shade in that direction, this book is more a story of psychological terror than out-and-out horror. I thought the ending was clever and surprising, and I did not see it coming.

That said, because I expected horror, I felt a little let down by parts of the story and the solutions to the central mysteries, but that may be due more to the marketing and positioning of the book than any fault of the book itself.

Certainly, Whisper Down the Lane is a fast, compelling read. Once I got started, I just could not stop. The jumps back and forth between Sean and Richard are so disturbing, and the recounting of the Satanic abuse case and Sean’s role in it is truly awful to read about — even more so knowing it’s based on real cases from the 1980s.

Whisper Down the Lane is a creepy tale that’s impossible to put down or stop thinking about. Be prepared for a dark, sleep-interrupting read. Highly recommended, but not if you’re looking for light entertainment!

Shelf Control #259: Wayward Pines trilogy by Black Crouch

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Book 1: Pines (2012; 303 pages)
Book 2: Wayward (2013; 298 pages)
Book 3: The Last Town (2014; 294 pages)

What it’s about (synopsis for Pines – via Goodreads):

Wayward Pines, Idaho, is quintessential small-town America–or so it seems. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke arrives in search of two missing federal agents, yet soon is facing much more than he bargained for. After a violent accident lands him in the hospital, Ethan comes to with no ID and no cell phone. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but sometimes feels…off. As days pass, Ethan’s investigation into his colleagues’ disappearance turns up more questions than answers

WHY CAN’T HE MAKE CONTACT WITH HIS FAMILY IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD? WHY DOESN’T ANYONE BELIEVE HE IS WHO HE SAYS HE IS? AND WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF THE ELECTRIFIED FENCES ENCIRCLING THE TOWN? ARE THEY KEEPING THE RESIDENTS IN? OR SOMETHING ELSE OUT?

Each step toward the truth takes Ethan further from the world he knows, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive…..

How and when I got it:

I grabbed the entire trilogy during a Kindle price drop a few years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I never watched the Wayward Pines series while it was on TV (two seasons) and was only vaguely aware of it, but after reading Blake Crouch’s fabulous Dark Matter in 2016, I knew I needed to read more by this author. The Wayward Pines books sound eerie and mysterious. What is going on in this town? Why is it cut off? I love how sinister (and potentially King-like) the plots sound, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading the books.

This could be another series to add to my goals list for 2021!

What do you think? Have you read these books or seen the TV adaptation?

Please share your thoughts!



__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #257: Thinner by Stephen King

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Thinner
Author: Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Published: 1984
Length: 188 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Billy Halleck, good husband, loving father, is both beneficiary and victim of the American Good Life: he has an expensive home, a nice family, and a rewarding career as a lawyer…but he is also fifty pounds overweight and, as his doctor keeps reminding him, edging into heart attack country.

Then, in a moment of carelessness, Billy sideswipes an old gypsy woman as she is crossing the street–and her ancient father passes a bizarre and terrible judgement on him.

“Thinner,” the old gypsy man whispers, and caresses his cheek, like a lover. Just one word…but six weeks later and ninety-three pounds lighter, Billy Halleck is more than worried. He’s terrified. And desperate enough for one last gamble…that will lead him to a nightmare showdown with the forces of evil melting his flesh away. And away. And away…

How and when I got it:

I picked up a used copy about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

Sooner or later, I want to read everything by Stephen King! I remember hearing about Thinner for years and years, and after reading King’s more recent book Elevation, I saw a lot of reviews comparing it to the concepts from Thinner. I need to see what I’ve been missing all these years!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #255: Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook
Author: Christina Henry
Published: 2017
Length: 292 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a familiar story with a dark hook—a tale about Peter Pan and the friend who became his nemesis, a nemesis who may not be the blackhearted villain Peter says he is…

There is one version of my story that everyone knows. And then there is the truth. This is how it happened. How I went from being Peter Pan’s first—and favorite—lost boy to his greatest enemy.

Peter brought me to his island because there were no rules and no grownups to make us mind. He brought boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper than a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Our neighbors are pirates and monsters. Our toys are knife and stick and rock—the kinds of playthings that bite.

Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy via Book Depository about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read three books by Christina Henry so far. My first was The Girl in Red (a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood), which I loved. Then I read The Mermaid, and I loved that too. I immediately ordered a few earlier books, including Alice and Lost Boy.

Unfortunately, I lost a bit of steam after reading Alice, which I didn’t enjoy. The story was too messy and violent for my taste, but I think one obstacle to my enjoyment is that I’ve just never gotten into Alice in Wonderland stories (and there are lots of retellings out there). And if you don’t enjoy the original story story, how can you enjoy a remix?

This is why I’ve been a bit hesitant about reading Lost Boy. I’m just not a bit fan of Peter Pan, and I’ve picked up and then put down a couple of retellings over the years too. Still, I know I’ve really liked the author’s writing and approach to storytelling in other books — and I do like the idea of telling the Peter Pan story through Captain Hook’s perspective.

What do you think? Have you read this book? Would you want to?

And how do you feel about Peter Pan stories in general?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Title: The Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication date: July 14, 2020
Length: 310 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A tale of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Best friends Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabe grew up together on a Blackfeet reservation. Then, in their 20s, they went their separate ways, after an even they refer to as the Thanksgiving Classic. One week before Thanksgiving, the friends went hunting in forbidden territory and illegally brought down many elk, before getting caught by the game warden and being forced to throw away all the meat they’d claimed as their prize.

Now, ten years later, strange events begin to occur. First, Ricky is killed in what the newspapers call a bar fight, but it’s much more involved than that. Next, Lewis appears to have a mental breakdown, in which he seems to be hallucinating visions of an elk in his living room and experiencing violent episodes that he may or may not be responsible for.

Up to this point, I wasn’t sure whether the characters were actually having supernatural experiences or if Lewis in particular was having some sort of psychotic break. But, it soon becomes clear that this is not all in their minds. Cassidy and Gabe are also soon the victim of a vengeful spirit coming back to punish the men for their part in slaughtering a vulnerable member of the herd.

The Only Good Indians is both a terrifying horror tale and a sad, straightforward look into the lives of Native Americans on their reservation as well as the lives of those who leave. (I can hear Gabe laughing right now — to him, “Native American” is an affectation of the younger generation. He considers himself Indian.)

It’s really questionable whether any of these men deserve what happens, and there are certainly some innocent victims as well — although to the elk spirit, I suppose none of the two-leggeds who hunt the herds are actually innocent. We get inside the spirit’s head as well as the main characters, and it’s all quite sad and disturbing.

One of the best characters in the book, in my opinion, is Gabe’s daughter Denorah, a middle school basketball star who takes over for the final section of the book, and is pretty astounding with her skill and courage.

I don’t feel like I’m capturing how powerful this book is, yet I don’t want to disclose too many details. The writing is evocative, sometime funny, and the characters are sharp, well-drawn, and memorable. Be warned that there are some very violent and gruesome aspects to the story, so if you shy away from books with blood and guts, this might not be a good choice for you.

Tammy at Books, Bones & Buffy wrote one of the best reviews of this book that I’ve seen, and I think she says it all better than I do! Check out her review (here), which is what convinced me that I needed to read this book.

I’m so glad my library hold finally came through! I’ll definitely want to read more by this talented author.

I never considered elk scary before… but I’ll never look at them the same way again.

For more, check out this NPR interview with the author:

Visit the author’s website at https://www.demontheory.net/

Book Review: The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie

Title: The Children of Red Peak
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: November 17, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bram Stoker Award-nominated author Craig DiLouie brings a new twist to the cult horror story in a heart-pounding novel of psychological suspense.

David Young, Deacon Price, and Beth Harris live with a dark secret. As children, they survived a religious group’s horrific last days at the isolated mountain Red Peak. Years later, the trauma of what they experienced never feels far behind.

When a fellow survivor commits suicide, they finally reunite and share their stories. Long-repressed memories surface, defying understanding and belief. Why did their families go down such a dark road? What really happened on that final night?

The answers lie buried at Red Peak. But truth has a price, and escaping a second time may demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Reading The Children of Red Peak gave me serious chills — but I’m not sure whether this story needed the horror/supernatural element to have that effect. How can a story about childhood survivors of a death cult be anything but horrifying?

In The Children of Red Peak, we meet the three main characters — David, Beth, and Deacon, at the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily. Emily has committed suicide, leaving a note that says simply “I couldn’t fight it anymore”.

Fifteen years earlier, these four people, plus David’s older sister Angela, were the sole survivors of a brutal yet mysterious mass suicide out in the desert at a location known as Red Peak. A religious congregation, led by their pastor, endured weeks of starvation, hard labor, and mutilations before finally drinking poison (and murdering those who balked) — all with the goal of gaining eternal life in heaven, leaving behind the rest of the world to suffer the end times.

The survivors were all teens at the time, and after their rescue and extended psychological treatment, they eventually went their separate ways and made lives for themselves. But none are truly happy, and none can really explain what happened on that terrible day at Red Peak.

Through chapters that alternate between Beth, David, and Deacon’s perspectives, we learn about their varied current lives — Beth is a psychologist, Deacon an up-and-coming rock star, and David a cult exit counselor. We also see the characters start to allow their memories to resurface, so we get the backstory of the Family of the Living Spirit, its road to ruin, and the events of the final day in bits and pieces, until they eventually add up to a disturbing, terrible whole.

While there is a mysterious supernatural (religious?) element that comes into play, for me the true impact of this book lies in the description of the Family of the Living Spirit’s trajectory toward destruction. When we’re introduced to this community, they are a peaceful, religious, spiritual group living off the land on a small farm, devoted to the worship of the Living Spirit, but also living a joyful, celebratory life.

It’s only when the pastor discovers a miracle in the desert that the group’s emphasis on gaining eternal life kicks into high gear. With growing fervor for the apocalypse and their crossing over, the congregation evolves quickly into a doomsday cult. Choices are removed, blind obedience is emphasized, and increasingly destructive behaviors are held up as testaments to faith. It’s horrible, especially as we see these events through the eyes of people who were children at the time.

I’m not sure that I loved the climax and conclusion of The Children of Red Peak. The story of the cult and its destructive power is the true horror — for me, the addition of a supernatural element seems almost beside the point. Yes, it’s all very scary and horrifying, but even if this story were just about the delusions and failings of a group of brainwashed people, it would be just as scary and horrifying.

Maybe even more so?

The ending gives us a way out, so to speak. It allows for the possibility that the group’s beliefs might actually have had some sort of fulfillment, in its own awful way. And truly, there are no excuses. Whether the events were the work of a supernatural or divine being, it still resulted in suffering, death, and the permanent psychological damage done to the children who survived.

The Children of Red Peak is thought-provoking and utterly devastating. I came to really care about the characters, and found the entire story and the characters’ various endings heart-breaking and tragic.

This is a powerful read, and I just wish I had someone to talk about it with! Craig DiLouie is a gifted writer, and I will gladly read whatever he writes next.

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:
One of Us
Our War

Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Hollow Places
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel from the author of the “innovative, unexpected, and absolutely chilling” (Mira Grant, Nebula Award–winning author) The Twisted Ones.

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.

With her distinctive “delightfully fresh and subversive” (SF Bluestocking) prose and the strange, sinister wonder found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthThe Hollow Places is another compelling and white-knuckled horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

One word review: Creepy.

Five word review: Scary. Snarky. Weird. Nightmarish. Un-put-downable.

But let me expand a little…

In The Hollow Places, Kara (known as Carrot by her uncle and close friends) is recently divorced and without a place to live. Her uncle Earl runs a totally awesome-sounding small-town museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy). It’s a mish-mosh place full of (yes) taxidermied animals, fossils, relics, weirdness, and whatever people choose to send him. Earl is a sweetheart of a man, a total believer in whatever strangeness he comes across, but also kind-hearted and accepting and unconditionally loving when it comes to Kara.

Earl invites Kara to come live in the spare room at the back of the museum and help him with cataloguing and inventory. With so many positive memories of her time with Earl during her childhood, Kara is happy to accept. The taxidermy in the museum feels like being surrounded by old friends (and does not creep her out in the slightest, like it would for me!).

When Earl has to leave for a few weeks to get knee surgery, that’s when the weirdness starts. One day, Kara discovers a hole in a section of the drywall, which she attributes to clumsy tourists. Enlisting the help of Simon, the friendly and slightly odd barista next door, she plans to repair the hole… until they look inside it and see not the expected boards and plaster, but a corridor.

And it’s a corridor that should be impossible. Kara knows the layout of the building perfectly, and there just isn’t room for a long hallway like this. Naturally, they decide to explore, and end up in a bunker that opens onto an island in a river… in another world.

The world they discover is immediately disconcerting. There are willow trees everywhere, and the river is filled with small humped islands that appear to all contain bunkers. The sand has weird funnel-shaped holes, and there’s something just completely otherworldly and alien about this place.

The more they explore, the more horrors they discover, and they soon realize that they may not be able to get back to their own world.

I won’t go into too much more detail about the terror of this willow world, or what happens next, but it’s SCARY AF and gave me nightmares, for real. And despite the nightmares, I loved this book.

T. Kingfisher’s writing is funny and snarky, even when the circumstances are creepy and horrible. I love how Kara looks at the world, and some of the descriptions are laugh-out-loud hilarious, even in the midst of the terror.

Kara is a freelance graphic designer, and her worldview is amazing. Even while dealing with her disillusionment over her failed marriage and her jerk of an ex, she’s funny:

Dammit, I can’t believe I spent so much of my life on a man who would unironically post the line “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” And in Papyrus, too.

Simon is really fun too, and I love how he throws himself into the adventure with Kara, even while reminding them both how bad an idea this could be.

Come on, let’s go back to the coffee shop and I’ll make us Irish coffees and we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie.

Even as hideous danger looms, Kara is still Kara:

It sounded slow. If I got to my feet and grabbed my cane, I could hobble away, and then we could have the slowest chase scene ever.

I read a good portion of this book in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, and that pretty much guaranteed that I’d never be able to sleep again! Well, at least not that night.

The writing and the pacing are terrific, and the plot is weird and terrifying. The willow world is baffling and yet horrible, and there are certain descriptions that made me feel that I would drop dead of complete and utter fright if I found myself in Kara’s place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that besides the awesomeness of Kara, Simon, and Uncle Earl, and of course the museum itself, there’s also a Very Good Cat named Beau who is all sorts of amazing in the most cat-like ways possible. I’m guessing the author is an animal lover, because her previous book, The Twisted Ones, had a Very Good Dog as an important character. (Rest assured, Beau is just fine by the end of this book. Beau is a bad-ass.)

The Hollow Places is a crazy disturbing read, but I mean that in the best possible way. A perfect read for the creepy-reading month of October!

Book Review: The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman

Title: The Remaking
Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
Publisher: Quirk
Publication date: October 8, 2019 (paperback publication 9/15/2020)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Inspired by a true story, this supernatural thriller for fans of horror and true crime follows a tale as it evolves every twenty years—with terrifying results.

Ella Louise has lived in the woods surrounding Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, for nearly a decade. Publicly, she and her daughter Jessica are shunned by their upper-crust family and the Pilot’s Creek residents. Privately, desperate townspeople visit her apothecary for a cure to what ails them—until Ella Louise is blamed for the death of a prominent customer. Accused of witchcraft, both mother and daughter are burned at the stake in the middle of the night. Ella Louise’s burial site is never found, but the little girl has the most famous grave in the South: a steel-reinforced coffin surrounded by a fence of interconnected white crosses.

Their story will take the shape of an urban legend as it’s told around a campfire by a man forever marked by his boyhood encounters with Jessica. Decades later, a boy at that campfire will cast Amber Pendleton as Jessica in a ’70s horror movie inspired by the Witch Girl of Pilot’s Creek. Amber’s experiences on that set and its meta-remake in the ’90s will ripple through pop culture, ruining her life and career after she becomes the target of a witch hunt. Amber’s best chance to break the cycle of horror comes when a true-crime investigator tracks her down to interview her for his popular podcast. But will this final act of storytelling redeem her—or will it bring the story full circle, ready to be told once again? And again. And again…

Are you ready for a ghost story? How about a ghost story within a ghost story within a ghost story?

Welcome to the weird and chilling world of The Remaking, now out in paperback, in which an urban legend refuses to die, no matter how many times the story is retold.

In 1931 in the lumber-rich town of Pilot’s Creek, Virginia, a mother and her nine-year-old daughter are burned at the stake by vengeful townspeople (men, of course). For years, it’s been an open secret that Ella Louise Ford can cure what ails you, and her young daughter Jessica appears to be even more gifted. But witches living in the woods can only be tolerated for so long, and when Ella Louise’s treatments are suspected of causing a tragedy, the men of the town want the witches to pay.

In 1951, an old man tells ghost stories around a campfire, always coming back to the story of Jessica Ford, the Little Witch Girl. Ella Louise was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere deep in the woods, but little Jessica was buried in hallowed ground, in a reinforced coffin with cement filling in the grave and a fence of crucifixes to keep her in. Now, legend has it that the Little Witch Girl wants out, and she just needs someone to help her find her mother.

In 1971, a man who heard the ghost story as a child is determined to make a movie about Jessica — a shlocky horror film called Don’t Tread on Jessica’s Grave, filled with standard horror movie tropes, and starring an eerily perfect young actress named Amber. But something happens on set, and it’s the legend behind the movie that makes this a story that becomes a horror cult classic.

In 1995, Amber is a drug-dependent has-been who never had a career after her early disaster, but who instead has found fame of sorts on the horror convention circuit. When an up-and-coming director decides to make a remake of Jessica’s story, Amber seems like the perfect choice to play Ella Louise — until on-set tragedy strikes again.

And finally, in 2016, a podcaster who debunks urban legends decides to tackle the story of the Little Witch Girl and prove it’s a hoax once and for all… but is he ready for what he’ll find in the woods?

I realize I’ve just outlined the entire book, but trust me, you have to read it to get the full creepy experience. The story of Ella Louise and Jessica starts with tragedy. Ella Louise is different, a disgrace to her society parents, and it’s implied but never explained that she became pregnant with Jessica as the result of a sexual assault on the night of her debutante ball. But rather than being supported as a crime victim, she’s shunned by her parents and the town, and makes a new life for herself and her daughter, out in the woods where no one can harm them.

I had a hard time getting over the origin story of Ella Louise and Jessica, because it’s so harrowing and awful. But from there, we see how the tale takes on a life of its own… and how something that may be just a story has doomed the town and everyone connected with it. Is it truly a witch’s curse, or is it the story that haunts the town and brings destruction to everyone who encounters it?

Amber’s tale is chilling in very different ways. Forced into pursuing her big break by a mother who never realized her own dream of stardom, Amber is way too young to be able to handle the horror of shooting Don’t Tread on Jessica’s Grave. From the movie’s storyline to seeing herself transformed through makeup and prosthetics into a burned corpse, this is clearly something that will scar her forever — and that’s before she has a nearly deadly encounter in the woods.

Jessica had become a cinematic ouroboros. A serpent devouring its own tail, coiling round and round for an eternity. The longer I imagined that snake infinitely spinning, the more its scales slowly took on the shape of celluloid frames. The sprocket holes along either side of the film strip formed scales. When this snake shed its skin, the translucent husk would be fed through the projector. The images trapped within each scale caught the projector’s light and made their way to the big screen. Jessica filled that vast canvas, reaching her hand out to me.

This film would never end. It continued to play on its own endless loop. Jessica’s story would be told over and over, forever now. She found a new audience.

Fresh blood.

That was exactly what Jessica wanted.

To find new blood.

A ghost story, a consideration of urban legends, a look at the need to endlessly remake movies into something new for each generation — The Remaking provides so much to think about, even while being a chilling, creepy, intensely haunting read.

Much like the endless remakings and retellings of Jessica’s story, The Remaking will be sticking with me for a long time!

And now, if only someone would make a movie version of The Remaking, so Jessica’s story could live on…

The Remaking was released in paperback this week. Check out this perfect cover:

Also, be sure to listen to this interview with the author for insights into the origin of the Little Witch Girl:

NPR: The Remaking interview