Small Angels is engrossing, a haunting tale that gave me shivers. The shivers were half because of the eeriness that drips from every page, and half because of the beautiful writing. The past and the present melded into a single story, one that kept me glued to my seat.
There once were four girls growing up at the edge of Mockbeggar Woods in a small town. No one went into the woods- except for them. These four knew the rules of the Woods and they knew what would happen if they didn’t follow them. There was something angry residing in Mockbeggar, something that only played nicely if they followed the rules.
The four girls helped their mother keep the history of Mockbeggar at bay, protecting the town (even though the people living there looked down on the family and avoided them). But when four becomes five, Mockbeggar takes notice. The history of Mockebeggar is a circle, and what goes around comes around.
That is one narrative. The story of the girls and their life, how everything revolves around the mysteries of the Wood and how it affects their characters and relationships. The second narrative takes place in present-day when a bride decides to have her picture-perfect wedding in a church that belongs to the Woods (at least, to the thing residing in the Woods). There is no way I can be vague enough to avoid spoilers for that part of the storyline, and it’s best to go in unknowing. Suffice it to say, it’s creepy as all get-out. Which is, of course, the point.
Usually, I can pick out one aspect of a book that I enjoyed most: the setting, the characters, etc. With Small Angels, though, it was a perfect marriage of characters, setting, tone, and plot development. The story behind Mockbeggar Woods, and the way it developed slowly throughout the book, lent an aura of uncertainty and a sense of paranoia that the best horror writers would envy.
The setting was perfect: eerie but believable. It’s easy to picture a quiet, wooded area hiding something less than benign. The descriptions were beautifully done and given in a way that felt like the sort of story told in the dark on a gloomy night. I loved how one character saw a quaint beauty to the church (known as Small Angels), but their viewpoint changed throughout the book until Small Angels resembled something threatening to them.
And the characters! They each added something to the book, although the four daughters reminded me in some ways of the sisters in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, so cut off from anything resembling a normal life that they almost seemed unreal (for those wondering, there is no suicide in Small Angels). My favorite character was Lucia the Bad. She was headstrong yet fearful and was inadvertently the catalyst for the events in the book.
The book, while never slow in pace, ramped up at the end, giving a sense of urgency that was breathtaking in a way. I loved how it ended. Small Angels never quite crossed into horror territory, instead remaining an eerie ghost story, the sort I love to read toward the latter half of the year (I have no idea why Fall becomes the creepy read season for me; it doesn’t get cooler where I live, just goes from “hot” to “hot with a chance of hurricane”).
Small Angels is lyrical and uncanny, a perfect spooky read. Grab a hot drink and give it a go.
Witches in literature have changed quite a bit over the years. From the sinister and mysterious, to the flat-out evil; from the magic-for-good to the naturalist who is one with nature, you can find a book for every type. I am far from an expert in the inclusion of witches in books, but I’m a reader so I have my own experience with witches. Here are a few books with witches of different sorts.
These are the ones that often look like hags, live in huts in the middle of nowhere, have a penchant for eating naughty kids, or just like to cause trouble.
Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm- I just had to include at least one Grimm story and this one fits the bill.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare (I would argue that they are bit more like the Three Fates, but…)
The Witches by Roald Dahl- Well, this book is terrifying.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum – Here for obvious reasons.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis- This book contains one of, if not the most evil witch I’ve read in a book to date.
Good witches: The term “good” is subjective, especially when it comes to magic users in books. Still, I think the witches in these books can at least fall vaguely in this category.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
TheHarry Potter series by J.K. Rowling- Without getting into the author at all, Hermione definitely qualifies as a good witch.
A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow- No spoilers given.
Small Place by Matthew Samuels – She’s technically good. Okay, she has some questionable anecdotes but for the adventure in Small Places, she is considered good.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede- I loved these books when I was younger! Morwen the witch is the least witchy witch ever and it’s fabulous.
Witches as naturalists: I’m seeing books that are going this route more and more often lately. While I don’t have quite as many titles for this section, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one example.
Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece- This book was wonderfully written. The prose was gorgeous and flowed beautifully.
It’s complicated: These books have witches that aren’t witches, witches as representative of other things (such as women’s rights), and other complex females characters with more than a hint of magic about them.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow- This book is brilliant! It follows three witches who are, more importantly, three women in search of respect and freedom. This book is chock full of fierce, justifiable anger and I loved it.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller- I’m pretty sure that, by now, the hysteria that gipped communities during the Witch Trials is well known. I remember seeing this play and being fascinated.
The ManningtreeWitches by A.K. Blakemore- This one was a bit harder for me to get into, but I enjoyed it once it got going.
The Witching Hour by Anne Rice- What can I say? It’s Anne Rice. That means the trilogy is incredibly complex, incredibly messed up in parts, and incredibly engrossing.
Time to add to my already-teetering tbr list! What else should be on this list?
I had high expectations for this one. I’m a sucker for a good haunting, and The Death of Jane Lawrence promised to be something new. The novel follows Jane, a practical woman who decides to marry as a business arrangement: respectability in exchange for a fair amount of autonomy. She decides the reclusive Dr. Lawrence is the perfect candidate. He has zero expectations and his only request is that she stay away from his dilapidated family estate. Of course, that is the one thing she doesn’t do. When Jane finds herself stranded at the manor late one night, it sets in motion events both strange and haunting.
I have to admit that I didn’t end up loving the book the way I thought I would. I struggled to really become invested in the characters or to really care about what happened to them at all. I felt Dr. Lawrence had potential, but instead he became simply a cutout-version of a stereotypical martyr. He seemed determined to give in to his “fate” without a fight, despite there being no reason for him to do so. Long-suffering characters such as that tend to grate on me pretty quickly, so I wasn’t a huge fan. Meanwhile, Jane sort of confused me. She seemed to be constantly angry but forgiving, even if no apology was offered. She is lied to, but decided it’s okay because so-and-so is compassionate toward others. Someone tries to kill her, but it’s okay because they weren’t themselves. Information withheld leads to extreme danger, but it’s okay because the person felt ashamed about it. I wanted to shake her for a good chunk of the book. I suppose the author did get me invested enough that I was almost constantly irritated at Jane’s character, so that is something.
The house itself was the perfect blend of intimidating and lonely. It felt like entering the house caused one to surrender their grip on reality. It was mysterious and dark, and wonderfully atmospheric. The descriptions of the apparitions gave me delighted shivers and the dark, rainy weather was used to great effect. Ultimately, the house sort of became a character in its own right.
The way the book unfolded didn’t quite work for me. I felt that some parts were needlessly drawn out, while other important moments were rushed. It was very odd. I could never quite get a hold on the pacing. However, that disjointed pacing could have been intended as a way to keep the reader off balance and to add to the feeling of “wrongness” that pervaded the story.
I could balance out what I liked and didn’t like about the book, but at the end of the day, The Death of Jane Lawrence just wasn’t for me. Have you read this one? What did you think?
I suppose October is when all the ghosts and ghoulies come out to play. I’ll be honest: I’ve never been big on Halloween. More power to people who are, but it’s just not my jam. I am a fan of a good spooky book, though, and my youngest went through a phase when he loved all things Halloween related (it was an odd choice for a three year old, but…okay?)
Here’s a roundup of some spooky and not-so-spooky books for fiends of all ages. Enjoy!
For little monsters:
Most parents are familiar with the Sandra Boynton books. There are about a million of them, all with cute little critters and fun storylines. The number of times I sang the Pajama Time song with the kids is truly astonishing! Spooky Pookie is another sweet little story, this time about a pig who can’t figure out what costume to wear. It’s great for three years old and under.
The Ghost-Eye Tree
This book scared the snot out of me when I was young! This is a perfect cuddle-up-and-read-aloud kind of book, and the illustrations are amazing.
The Monster at the End of this Book
This has all the trappings of a good horror book: monsters, tension, a twist at the end! All it’s missing is the spookiness. Instead, it has something better: a great sense of humor. This one is so much fun! It’s one I think all parents should read with their littles.
For older elementary ghoulies/ middle grade ghosts:
I love this book so, so much! The Bunnicula books are a blast! They are clever and creative, full of some of the most memorable pets in print. I have fond memories of this book and I loved reading it with my oldest for the first time a few years ago.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Ah, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark! I think every adult of a certain age read these when they were young. This is the sort of book that begs to be read while eating s’mores.
The Beast and the Bethany
This book is such fun! It reminds me of nothing so much as a lighthearted, kid-friendly take on The Picture of DorianGray. The characters are delightfully nasty, the Beast is brutally entertaining, and the illustrations are a perfect addition. Plus, there’s a sequel coming before too long! Review
For Young-adult vampires:
House of Hollow
If you’re looking for eerie, this dark fairy tale/ horror is for you. It actually creeped me out a little, which is not an easy feat. I didn’t love the wrap-up at the end, but the rest of the book was great. Review
Tales from the Hinterland
Tales from the Hinterland is a creepy and clever book of shorts stories that take place in the world of author Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood. While I didn’t like the final book in the Hazel Wood duology (at all), this collection of fairy tales that take place in that world are fantastic. You don’t need to read the original series to understand or enjoy this book at all, which makes it even better. Review
The Devouring Gray
Uncanny happenings, monsters, and townsfolk who are not who they seem make The Devouring Gray a fun-filled, creepy book. It’s a quick read too, which makes it a great palette-cleanser after a heavy book. Review
For adult zombies:
Meddling Kids is a love letter to the Scooby Gang, the Goonies, or the Hardy Boys. It’s a mystery-meets-supernatural book that answers the question: what happens when those meddling kids grow up and return home to solve one last case?
In the Garden of Spite
I think books about serial killers fall into the “spooktastic” category. I was enthralled by this book from page one. I knew nothing about the Widow of La Porte before reading this and I was shocked to learn that it was based on a real person. Yikes! Review
Nothing but Blackened Teeth
While this never managed to flat-out scare me, Nothing but Blackened Teeth was nonetheless an interesting read. It had a bit of a Shirley Jackson vibe (though with gore). Review
I read this for the first time not all that long ago and holy crap! I still find myself uneasily examining it. It is engrossing and thought-provoking. It’s also believable, which makes it even more unsettling.
Of course I had to have Frankenstein on this list! There’s nothing quite so scary as watching a human play God.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
I generally prefer thought-provoking gothic horrors to gore-fests, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best examples of a smart gothic horror that I’ve read. If you haven’t picked this one up yet, I highly suggest you do.
There are many other great spooky reads that didn’t make this list, mainly because it would be way too long if I added everything. What are some of your favorite spooktastic reads?
Remnants is a collection of stories about a world ravaged and left for dead, with only a few leftovers- remnants, if you will. Instead of focusing on the horrific monsters that have violently changed life as humans know it, these tales focus mainly on how the few survive and who they become. The stories showcase tenacity, an unwillingness to lay down and die, and the best- and very worst- of humanity. Although, in some cases, humanity has long since left the building.
The concept behind Remnants is not a new one; post-apocalyptical stories like this have been created before. However, where this anthology is different is in its execution. Instead of full stories, there are short vignettes, brief glimpses in time. Some stories are touching, others incredibly brutal. Like humanity itself, the stories have a sliding scale of morality, with some unwilling to cross boundaries that other characters don’t even see as existing.
I found the examination of humanity to be fascinating. Like most anthologies, some stories worked better for me than others, but this was a collection that I consistently enjoyed. While some readers might wish for a little bit more focus on the monsters themselves, I really liked that following the survivors were the main event. Although in some cases, I could argue that not all the characters alive had actually really survived.
Each story added something to the overall atmosphere of the book. The first story, “Resistance” by Stephen Coghlan, set the tone for Remnants. It’s also a good lead-in, preparing the reader for stories that range from bizarre to emotional to disturbing or almost grotesque. The main storyline might be centered around one event, but the way each author tackled it was completely unique. I was never in danger of losing interest at all.
There were a couple of stories that were really unique in their telling. “Heatwave” by Aaron Lee takes a rather coldblooded look at the fallout, in which there is a blog that keeps tracks of death “statistics”, that the blogger utilizes to try to understand the nightmare that they’re living in. I thought this one was both fascinating and chilling.
“First Swarm” by J.D. Sanderson followed two photographers and their experiences, which left me mulling over whether viewing something through a camera lens helps expose truths otherwise denied, or if it allows the photographers to separate themselves from the reality of what they’re seeing. Short yet powerful, this was one of my favorite stories in the collection. The creativity behind both “First Swarm” and “Heatwave” are what elevated them above some of the other stories in this collection, although they were all well written.
Remnants is one of the stronger additions to post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read recently, with the grimdark and horror aspects working incredibly well. Thought provoking and just flat-out cool, this is not a collection to miss. I highly recommend it.
Review originally published in Grimdark Magazine, found here.
House of Hollow is one of those rare books that actually managed to creep me out a little. Oddly enough, it’s technically not a horror novel. Or is it? There are definitely elements of horror and it has a fairy tale feel- and really, what are the original fairy tales if not a little bit horrific?
The book follows three sisters: Grey, Vivi, and Iris (I’m not going to lie: I found their names to be a little bit much). When they were young, they disappeared without a trace, only to be found weeks later with no memories of where they were or what happened to them. That’s scary enough on its own. Add to that the fact that they were changed and the hints of creepiness start to sneak in. Ten years later the unthinkable happens, and one of the sisters disappears again, leaving the other two- Vivi and Iris- to try to figure out where she is and how she got there. To do that, they will need to figure out what really happened to them all those years ago.
Interestingly, House of Hollow starts out seeming like an unsolved mystery that will turn into a thriller. However, what came next completely surprised me. Suddenly, I was thrown into an incredibly eerie story, one that was unsettling and disorienting. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. They threw me off balance and left me wondering whether to cheer them on or hope they failed in their search. This is the sort of book that made me wonder if the main characters were actually the villains. It was delightful.
The descriptions added to the creepy atmosphere of the book and some of the details were seriously messed up. The fact that I didn’t expect the book to go in that direction when I picked it up definitely added to the dark atmosphere.
I didn’t particularly care for the add-on to the ending, mainly because it didn’t seem to fit the rest of the story the author was telling. The rest of House of Hollow was a spooktastic blast, though. This would be a great late-night October read, if you go for unearthly books around Halloween.
Brooding and dark, Nothing but Blackened Teeth drew me in and kept me off-balance. Always on the precipice of scary, it never quite tipped over. Instead, it stayed an eerie book, one that has crawled its way into my head. I’ll be thinking about it for a long while, reliving bits and pieces of the creepy story.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth follows a group of friends who decide to rent a Heian-age mansion for an odd sort of wedding celebration. The thing is, they’ve heard it’s haunted. That’s the draw for them: they’re hoping to experience the otherworldly and the disturbing. Well, wish granted.
The story goes that originally a woman’s fiancé died on his way to marry her at the mansion. She decided to be buried alive so that she could wait for her husband like one does, I suppose. Women continued to be sacrificed, one per year, so that the buried bride wouldn’t be lonely. In all honestly, the origin story for the haunting is the part that I found to be the weakest. It just didn’t inspire that anticipatory shiver that I was hoping for.
None of the characters are particularly likable and at first, I found myself viewing them through the slasher-film lens. You know: this one will die first because they sleep around, this one next because they don’t believe in the danger, etc. However, such was not the case. The tropes became jumping-off points for complex, multi-faceted characters, each with their own flaws and fears. Half of the fun of Nothing but Blackened Teeth was watching the complicated relationships fray and slowly dissolve as the characters’ pasts caught up to them.
The story begins with Cat, a woman who is still coming to grips with an unspecified mental illness. It has affected her past and she is still in the midst of learning to cope with it. There’s Phillip, the charismatic and super rich sponsor of the mansion rental. There’s Faiz and Talia, the engaged couple. Cat and Talia have beef, and their issues with each other add to an already tense situation. Last, there’s Lin, who is a master pot-stirrer. It’s these tangled relationships and hidden emotions that really elevate Nothing but BlackenedTeeth to the fascinating tale that it is.
Author Cassandra Khaw played with motifs of relationships and mental health in ways that felt a little reminiscent of Shirley Jackson (if Jackson had a penchant for gore). There were times when I wondered what was happening and what- if anything was being imagined by one character or another. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a riveting book, perfect for fans of creepy tales with a little extra bite.
This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. You can find that here.
I just want to warn everyone that there will be major spoilers below. I’m sorry about that, but I need to discuss this disturbing little story somewhere. I am really hoping for comments on this one because I would love to hear other ideas on “The Lottery”. I need to be able to unpack this thing! This is my first read-through and, knowing Shirley Jackson, I really should have expected it to be disquieting. It completely sucked me in and I can’t stop thinking about it.
——HUGE SPOILERS BELOW——
“The Lottery” takes place in a small town, the sort of place where everyone knows each other. It follows the story of a lottery which the reader finds out is drawn annually, the winner ultimately being the loser, as they are stoned to death. I found it to be unsettling and engrossing, easily the best Shirley Jackson work I’ve read, and one that’s kept me thinking. There are themes of casual acceptance of violence and apathy toward change or improvement, which are chillingly still applicable today.
In the beginning of “The Lottery” the tone is almost lighthearted. The reader is given no clue that the story will end in such an upsetting way. The men talk about their crops; the children talk about school and eventually even start playing. The story says that “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones” . With the picture the author has painted of a lighthearted ceremony, I wondered at first if the boys are grabbing stones to skip across a lake, or to use as a fort. Only at the end is it revealed that those very stones gathered by the children were to be used to stone someone to death- possibly even one of the very children who gathered the stones. The lottery has taken on a familiar feel to the participants, and almost seems to signal the beginning of a season. Certainly, no one seems to be upset or even reluctant to participate.
Despite the chilling violence that has taken place for years and years, no one questions or objects to the sacrificing of a life. In fact, when one woman points out that some places have stopped having lotteries, a man claims that there’s “nothing but trouble in that”. This is where I started to see a little beyond the surface, and felt rising tension. This “turn”, so to speak, is one that has served Jackson well in her other works, and it worked wonderfully here. The villagers accept the violence without argument, even encouraging their children to participate. There is almost a duality shown in the neighbors. They can talk about doing dishes one moment, and plan on stoning someone to death in the next. However, the ultimate protest of the person who has “won” the lottery, coupled with the relief of those who have not, shows that no one is quite comfortable with the situation. Not one of them steps in, says anything against it, or even foregoes the chance to throw a stone, though. This shows an apathy and unwillingness to take steps to change or improve. The keeping of tradition is the most important thing, no matter that the tradition is violent and wrong. Even the disheveled state of the lottery box, which has not been fixed, shows a stoic acceptance and indifference- perhaps even an active resistance- to changing or stopping the violence.
“The Lottery” isn’t just a creepy little tale: it’s a commentary on the acceptance of violence, and an unwillingness to question the status quo. This unwillingness to change anything, or even examine whether change needs to happen is still echoed today. Seen through that lens, “The Lottery” becomes at once both fascinating and disturbing. Can you see why I can’t stop thinking about it?
Have you read “The Lottery”? (I kind of hope so, if you’ve read this post, seeing as I posted spoiler after spoiler). What did you think? Did you get the same things out of it that I did?
The funny thing about The Hazel Wood (and its sequel) by Melissa Albert is that, for me, the best parts weren’t the main storyline. Nope. The best parts were the undeniably eerie fairy tales come-to-life that bled through into the pages of the books. I told my husband that if a collection of Hinterland tales was every published, I’d be super excited to read it. So, of course I had to snag a copy of Tales from the Hinterland!
These completely original fairy tales were about characters that crossed over from the fictional world into the real one in The Hazel Wood books. And they were as creepy as it gets without descending into full-on horror. Let’s just say that the majority of them did not end well for the “hero”. In fact, most of them didn’t have a hero per se. What they did have was a ton of creativity and a darker tone that sent shivers down the spine.
One thing that stood out to me was that the main characters were all female. There were naïve females, clever ones, even evil ones. But males were always in a supporting role. It was an interesting choice. It didn’t change my enjoyment of the book, either positively or negatively; it was just something I noticed.
Another thing that I really liked was that not a single tale seemed even remotely like an existing fairy tale. There were no Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Little Red Riding Hood didn’t make an appearance. The stories were 100% original. It was refreshing to see entirely new ideas (not that I mind a good fairy tale reimagining).
There wasn’t a single story that felt lesser than or out of place. My main complaint, in fact, is that the tone was similar in several tales. I am not even sure if that should be a complaint: that the stories fit well together. Hmm…something to think about.
There were three stories that stood out to me. One was The Door that Wasn’t There, which was equal parts creepy and sad. It’s about two sisters who were locked in a room to starve and what one of them does to survive (no, there’s no cannibalism. Ew!). The feeling that Melissa Albert created in this story was a little bit gothic and a whole lot of unearthly.
The second story that kept me enthralled was The Mother and the Dagger. This felt like your usual tale told to scare kids into coming home before dark- but with a twist that was uncanny and creeptastic. The way this one was written, like someone is talking to you, stood out from the other stories and drew me in. I loved the ending, which had an abrupt finality to it.
Finally, was Twice-Killed Katherine. That character was one of the bits of fairy tales that showed up in The Hazel Wood, and the one that I found the most intriguing. While the story didn’t go the way I expected, it was nonetheless fascinating and really cool to see the backstory the author had for her. That one also felt different in that what was left unsaid could have been stretched and expanded on to create an entirely separate novel in its own right.
Tales from the Hinterland was by far my favorite book that takes place in the Hazel Wood universe (so to speak), even though it’s not a straight-through narrative. It was eerie and intelligent, and definitely not a book to read alone at night. I wouldn’t necessarily call it horror- maybe horror-adjacent. Either way, it was really stinking good.
Thank you to the editor for providing me with the first issue of The Common Tongue magazine in exchange for my honest opinion. Issue number one will be available on March 31st. Please be aware, readers, that while my review is appropriate for everyone, this is a horror and dark fantasy magazine. As such, younger readers might not be suited to its content.
Wow, this is a strong first issue! The tone of the magazine was well established from the first story, and it continued in a consistently creepy vein throughout. Every story brought its own brand of chilling (up until I got to the nonfiction pieces). I was very impressed at the variety of entries. Not only was there fiction; poetry and nonfiction opinion pieces also made an appearance.
While I thought every piece was very well written, there were three that stood out to me. DeeperIntoDarkness by J. Porteous was incredible. It had an eerie vibe to it, and a tension that made me almost hold my breath. It followed a Beastman, a monster hunter, who was sent to a small town to catch and kill a vampyre. The story was told with enough detail to paint a vivid picture of a small place peopled with terrified folk demanding an answer, while equally scared of the one sent to provide it. I loved the way the ending cut off after giving just enough information for the reader to know what happened next. It was skillfully told.
“Everdeath” by Qril was brilliant! A poem that basically describes a total party kill from the perspective of the demon that did the deed, it was phenomenally told. I loved that it rhymed without feeling forced. Each member of the deceased fantasy party (cleric, minstrel, wizard, etc) had their own stanza. It was witty, dark, and altogether a great read. Absolutely genius.
Last, but most certainly not least, I was fascinated by the editorial piece “Differences in Dark Fantasy Subgenres”, written by Kade Draven. I was actually discussing dark fantasy, grimdark, and horror with a friend the other day and how the lines between them can get a little blurred. I really liked reading Kade Draven’s knowledgeable and well researched take on it. It was also a really smart addition to a magazine that will feature a little bit of each subgenre. I’ll be gnawing on this piece for quite a while.
The Common Tongue will be a great magazine for those who enjoy a macabre read, who appreciate that darker area and the things that often lurk in it.