Review: Within These Walls

When you move into a house where a cult murder occurred to write about the murder, it can’t end well. A review of Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn. (4/5)

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn was released in April 2015, and I read it December 8, 2017. I basically ignored all other responsibilities I had on Friday to finish this book. Particularly with horror/thriller novels I am not good at reading them in pieces as the tension doesn’t dissipate for me when I close the book to go do other things. Anyway, I binged this and it was great.

A summary from Amazon:

How far would you go for success? What would you be capable of if the promise of forever was real?

With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed-up true-crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback, one more shot at the bestselling success he once enjoyed. His chance comes when he’s promised exclusive access to death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the notorious cult leader and mass murderer who’s ready to break his silence after thirty years, and who contacted Lucas personally from his maximum-security cell. With nothing left to lose, Lucas leaves New York to live and work from the scene of the crime: a split-level farmhouse on a gray-sanded beach in Washington State whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners—runaways who were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. There, Lucas sets out to capture the real story of the departed faithful. Except that he’s not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life…and within these walls, they’re far from dead.

Warning, this is going to be slightly spoilery.

One of the strongest parts of the novel for me was Vee – she’s normal. Normal in the sense that she’s struggling, angsty, a bit morbid, and trying find where she fits in. I was especially disturbed at the role she played in the novel because she is so much younger than the people Halcomb recruited and influenced at only 12. It made sense because it meant it would be even easier to manipulate a child on the cusp of adolescence who had no life experience to give her any doubts at all. At first, I was actually disappointed in her. About 3/4 through the book I was just thinking “ugh, why? This does not seem in character.” But then when I thought about the way living in that house and the influences within it were impacting both Vee and Lucas, it made sense that Vee would not take a minute to second guess what was happening to her. Sometimes I forgot Vee was only 12, but I don’t think others in the novel did which also led to the authenticity of her voice and responses – I too, would have loved to be left alone all the time when I was 12 and was not allowed to do so.

Lucas made me feel all sorts of ways. I understood what it felt like to disappear inside writing and time passes and you don’t notice it or forget to eat or break promises. But he was so aware of it and kept doing it anyway – he knew that things weren’t right in that house, that something was wrong, and opened himself up to being taken over. While It’s clear Halcomb still had influence and was dangerous, Lucas is at fault, in the long run. He lies, he hedges, he procrastinates, and he acts selfishly. On a spectrum of good father to bad father, he lands on the bad father end of the spectrum.

The atmosphere is SO FANTASTIC. I feel a little bit shamed for my immediate love of the old school retro house with conversation pit living room that everyone made fun of, but I also felt like I could picture the house really well. I could picture why the shadows were creepy. The atmosphere was just right in terms of the house being isolated, the house being a special location that caused the characters would question if something was real or not, and the way each character’s own specific fears were well articulated. Ahlborn describes their fears in a multi-sensation way that it’s easier for the fear to come off the page, and reminds the reader that the characters are always being watched. If they are in that house, they are never alone. It’s very creepy.

Any fan of horror, who has even a passing interest in cults, will enjoy this book. I appreciated the point that people aren’t aware they are joining a cult when they do. That’s kind of the point – you don’t know what’s happening until you’re too stuck to get out.

I would also love to read about young Jeffrey Halcomb and his time in Veldt, KS. I have so many questions, and the origins of the cult leader was one of the parts of the book that intrigued me the most. I’m often more interested in the origins of the criminal than in the crimes themselves.

Overall, I give Within These Walls 4/5 for being eerie and dark and making me say “Oh no!” to the ending. And that there was an extra twist at the that I wasn’t expecting. Abandon hope, anyone who reads this, and prepare to walk into darkness. This was my first Ania Ahlborn that I got from the library, and I will be checking out the others on the shelves.

Book Talk – the Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee

The Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee came out on April 1, 2016 and I read it August 15-16, 2017.

A synopsis, from Amazon:

In a house built on truth something lays hidden. Beth and Stu Davenport moved to the English hillside town of Meadowford Bridge to give their young son, Gabriel, an idyllic, rural childhood. But in a single evening, the Davenports’ dream is shattered by a hidden, ancient darkness– and their lives are forever changed. Years later, Gabriel Davenport, now a capable, curious young man, makes the ill-fated decision to go looking for answers about his mysterious past. As soon as he begins his quest, his life becomes a place of shadows. The people he loves and trusts are acting abnormally. The strange woman who lives upstairs is even more haunted than usual. Even his most trusted friend seems to be hiding something. As one fateful night deepens, and the line blurs between darkness and light, Gabriel must confront the terrible events that destroyed his family all those years ago. He is faced with a choice: continue living the life that was never his to begin with, or give himself over to a terrifying new reality more sinister than anything he’s ever known. The darkness is watching.


This book is part ghost/haunted house, part demonic threat, and part vampire stories. It makes for a satisfying read because if you like the horror genre, a lot of boxes are ticked by this novel. I have still been itching for a good haunted house story and the almost haunted houseness of this book made that itch even worse.

But it brings me to one of my favorite things about this book: the setting. Setting is one of my own biggest weaknesses, so I pay close attention to the people who do it well. Lee does it very well. It starts with the Davenport house, but it’s also capturing the spirit of the village, of the shape of the roads, and the distance between neighbors. The real success is the Manor though; the house is a character in itself as much as it is a setting – the house itself is almost as possessed, as manipulated, and as broken as any of the people who inhabit it during the course of the story. Houses, dwellings, are always safer than we think they are, and the Manor learns that it is not invulnerable, and that secrets rarely stay buried. The Manor is also part of the character of Edward Carver, and the secrets the house reveals are either Carver’s own, or hurt him the most. This is definitely a story about secrets – the real and the supernatural kind – and the consequences for thinking keeping them is the best course of action.

The other thing I loved about this book was the eponymous Gabriel Davenport. He is a perfect depiction of that liminal space between child and young adult – he believes that he is ready to know the truth about what happened when he was a baby and that he can handle it, while simultaneously being terrified that he cannot. He’s also young enough and has lived such a life that he is aware of his emotions, aware of his fear, and sometimes he even finds the strength to overcome it and do the right thing. I enjoyed the chapters that were in his perspective the most because he was the least damaged in traditional ways (the damage we acquire upon growing up, and the loss of innocence) – Gabriel is ultimately still innocent, but has also been carrying an enormous burden and sense of blame his entire life which is a unique kind of damage. It made him easy to care for, and easy to empathize with.

The only character that ultimately frustrated me was Noah Isaacs, but I wonder what will be resolved with him in the next book, A Shining in the Shadows. One of the subtle questions that Making asks is what power faith has – and not just the religious kind, but the faith we place in other people. Noah’s religious faith is tested, even fails, and that effects the faith the other characters have in him. It’s about the faith the Gabriel has in Carver and Noah to “solve the problem” and save him, and when he begins to doubt that they can, he trusts someone that maybe he shouldn’t.

It’s a book with a very unique family unit, and it is both their strength and their vulnerability. It’s hard to see anything coming in this story, and I liked that a lot. I am definitely curious about what happens next.

If you like moody, scary, semi-violent horror novels then the Making of Gabriel Davenport is definitely for you.

 

Review: the Winter People

When Ruthie’s mother goes missing, she is pulled into a mystery and a horror more far-reaching than she can imagine. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (5/5)

“If snow melts down to water does it still remember being snow?”

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon was published in 2014 – I read it December 4-5, 2016.
As summarized on Amazon:

West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.
 
Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

It’s a mystery about grief and letting go – about magic – about ghosts – and maybe even…zombies? I definitely fall into the camp of people who would call this a zombie novel, albeit an elegant and delicately crafted one.

The novel switches between times and points of view: in 1908 we are with Sara and Martin, and in the present time we are with Ruthie, and a woman named Katherine who is pulled into the mystery through trying to understand the source of her own loss.

How things tie together is so immensely layered – all these little pieces come together to form a picture that is multi-dimensional. Things from the past effect the future of course, but things from the present shed a lot of light on the past. It really asks you to consider – how far would you go to see a loved one again? What price would be too high?

It’s interesting as well that the relationships mothers have to daughters and the bonds we form with our families play such an important role – even the peripheral characters have important roles in the plot, and in the survival of the mystery so that it stretches all the way to the present.

I cannot say enough that this novel is just expertly crafted – there are no wasted words or scenes, there’s very little exposition for its own sake, and it makes you question. Art is supposed to make you feel something, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable or wonder or doubt. I hope that anyone who reads this novel feels uncomfortable. It makes us confront the cost of our choices.

Also, it manages to be totally supernatural in a way that seems completely plausible. It plays on the unknown – just enough is revealed or explained to make you keep your disbelief suspended, but in the end you still don’t entirely understand how the magic works. You even get the feeling that you don’t want to – and I love that.

“Oh what power the dead have over the living!”

I give the Winter People 5/5 – it’s an excellent read.

Review: Be Not Afraid

Marin can see people’s pain, but looking inside a classmate’s head she sees a blackness inside that might be something…else. Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante (4/5)

Be Not Afraid by Cecilia Galante was published in 2015; I read it November 24, 2016.

This book is definitely scary, and I think very different from Galante’s other writing. In her author bio it’s indicated that this is her first YA/Horror novel, and I am curious if she will return to the genre.


Be Not Afraid is the story of a teen girl named Marin who develops the ability to see people’s pain inside their bodies after a personal tragedy. In a new town and a new school she is tricked into completing a ritual with her classmate Cassie that leads to scarier consequences than either could have foreseen. Now everyone is in danger, Marin must face her past and her present, and along with Cassie’s brother Dominic she needs to find a way to use her ability to save lives.

I do want to give potential readers trigger warnings for eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide. This book, even with a happy-ish ending, is incredibly dark. It’s also very real – I don’t think the pain is put in this novel for sadistic purposes, but to reflect real life.

If you are not into possession stories, this is not the book for you. It also relies heavily on Catholic doctrine and theology in regard to possession and exorcism, but isn’t so specific that someone unfamiliar with the religion would be confused about what’s going on. It is both a classic possession story, and one with it’s own spin given the fact that Marin’s ability allows her to not only see the demon inside, but see the physical injury the demon has inflicted.There is also a lot of contemplation about belief, blessings, and purpose. It doesn’t feel overly preachy, but like the thought and growth process someone who has been raised in a mostly devout household might experience as they grow up.

Marin’s ability to see pain is unique, and I enjoy that it’s source is only theorized and never definitively explained. Marin’s family is struggling and grieving, and is such an accurate depiction of loss that it kind of hurts to read. When people are grieving, they often blame themselves even when it doesn’t make sense, and when we’re struggling we sometimes shirk responsibilities that we shouldn’t have. I could have read a book just about Marin and her family, minus the pain-seeing and possession, because it’s compelling, and very, very real for so many people.

I was honestly scared in parts because as a person who was raised a certain kind of Catholic (I now consider myself lapsed), possession was taught to you as a real thing, and something that especially afflicted children. Even without that, some of this is just scary because the possessed character is so unpredictable, and we have a protagonist who often gives into her fear and panic and runs away, damn the consequences.

The thing I didn’t like is kind of oddly specific. I didn’t like that Marin had a crush on Dominic before all of this started. While I enjoyed their relationship, I think it would have been more powerful to me had they found romantic feelings for each other during the kind of crazy journey of this novel (because it’s about so much more than the possession.) Before the present events, Dominic was there for a really humiliating moment in Marin’s life and I just don’t see a crush being developed or sustained from that. It was nice to see how much both characters changed and learned and felt for each other, but Marin’s struggle right from the beginning about saying no to him didn’t feel totally in-sync with the rest of her characterization.

Lucy was also under-utilized. It’s a little…stereotypical for the introvert/shut off main character, and it can get frustrating to read someone who is so open and caring being denied for almost no reason.

Overall, this was a creepy read that wasn’t like other possession novels I’ve read. It’s not so scary you’re going to be afraid after, but it was a book that I wanted to read in one sitting so I had a resolution right away to process. I’m rating Be Not Afraid a 4/5, with the note to self that I would read another Galante horror novel.

 

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

When you can’t trust your head, you fight from your heart. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke.

On 10/16/16 I read a A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas, but I don’t think there’s anything I can add to the obsession that already exists around that series. Except to firmly say I am Team Tamlin, even though I have not yet read A Court of Mist and Fury. I doubt I will change my mind.

On 10/17/16 I was trapped at home after a visit with my dentist that left me with a severely aching jaw and totally unable to sleep it off. So with the beginning of Spookathon I destroyed my first book. It meets the creepy word and red cover criteria. I read Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke – it was published in July 2013.

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And I am so fictionally in love with River West. I have not been this twitterpated over a book character since Mr. Darcy in 9th grade. In my head he looks like Matt Shively.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is about Violet White and her twin brother Luke, living in their Grey Gardens-esque mansion on the coast, semi-abandoned by their artist parents. Violet puts up a post to rent out the guesthouse to make money and one day River West shows up to do so. There’s something immediate between Violet and River, and Violet also knows that River is a liar. River fits into Violet’s world faster than he should, but dark and violent things start happening. River isn’t like other people. River opens a door into another world for Violet, and it isn’t a good one.

As much as I love River, the end of this book frustrated me so much as a reader. It felt incredibly rushed and unexplained – and even though there were these small moments that were supposed to be hints at how insidious the villain is they all just felt like incomplete sentences. I had no idea how this book was going to end because things kept getting more intertwined and complicated (in the awesome way) and then the ending just kind of splat out like a drop of blood.

This book is really layered – nothing is random. Everyone is connected, everyone has a history, and the children must pay for the sins of their forebears. I loved the mood of impending doom that creeps across the entirety of the novel – it makes the good moments feel so important and fleeting.

Freddie was a fantastic character – when you’re in Violet’s head you miss her too. For a character we never really see alive on the page she is so powerful and complete; I can imagine her so clearly. I love that Violet wears her clothes, and I love that Freddie was passionate and stormy, and probably way ahead of her time. I like that we see hints of the storm inside Violet, she just doesn’t know how to let it out.

Violet is also a great character to follow – she often ignores her own feelings and tries to deal with the situation at hand, and its so tender the way she falls for River. There’s something so nostalgic about remembering the first big crush when they crushed you back. It makes you as forgiving of River as Violet is, and not because of the glow.

All the teenagers in this book – Violet, Luke, Sunshine, River, Neely, and their child companion Jack – make up a kind of group of Lost Boys. They are basically children lacking in supervision just trying to survive and figure out their lives. It’s both amazing to realize that we don’t really need parents to survive, but also painful to read how hollow that can scrape you.

I am really pumped to get Between the Spark and the Burn (and oh how cool that title is once you’ve read the first book) on my next trip to the library. I want to see what becomes of them all.

I’m giving Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and 3.5/5 for a lackluster ending – however, depending on how the next book ends I might revisit that. They are likely two halves of a whole. River ❤

 

Anna Dressed in Blood

What happens when the one boy who can kill ghosts falls in love with one?

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is the kind of book that attaches to you. My blog name has never been more appropriate because this book, Cas and Anna, are taking up residence to haunt my bookish heart.

Shortly after finishing I went down a hashtag rabbit hole and learned they’re making a movie. For the first time in ages I was actually picturing a specific actor while reading.  Tanner Buchanan was the Cas in my head, which ended up being kind of hilarious because every time I would get really anxious I’d say “Charlie Gardner!” like Maya from Girl Meets World – which was often. I am actually really happy with the casting of Cameron Monaghan (I love a talented ginger) and Maddie Hasson (the Finder was so underrated). Either way, I hope the movie is scary as shit and that I cry a little because I’m scared. Is that too high of an expectation for the adaptation of the book that scared me so bad I screamed out loud? That I thought my growling stomach was my attic door opening and I was about to be killed by a ghost? Probably.

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Anna Dressed in Blood is about Cas Lowood, who has inherited a magically imbued athame and a talent for killing spirits. Cas goes after the dead who kill – he leaves benign spirits alone. The thing is, his dad was killed by a spirit, and so Cas picks up the legacy with the hope of one day avenging his father. Cas and his mom move around for his “work” and when they head to Thunder Bay, Ontario so Cas can take out Anna everything feels different. First, Cas makes friends. Second, Cas makes enemies. Third, Cas meets Anna and knows she is unlike any spirit he’s ever faced. Just when he thinks he can save the day…his past comes back to bite him.

It took a bit for Cas to grow on me, mostly because he appeared to be kind of a weenie to his mom. However, the more you learn about them both and understand their dynamic, the more obvious it becomes that they both do this to protect themselves. Cas has to do this, even when they’d rather he didn’t. Cas loves his mom, but it hurts him to show it because it might seem like he doesn’t love her enough to stop.

The tension-building in this book is fantastic. When the start of the third act comes, wooo. Things are happening really quickly and you only have enough information to have suspicions but not enough to understand what that suspicion means and then when the scary things comes you don’t even know what the scary thing IS you just know you’re really effing scared. Blake is masterful at only giving you as much information as you need to keep you reading, so you never have a moment of calm knowing. You are always facing the unknown.

I love that she doesn’t over-explain the mythology – I have a feeling that is one of her trademarks – she assumes her readers are smart enough to make the logical leaps about what things mean. I know enough to understand why the plot proceeds the way that it does and to know when things are not going the way they planned. Exposition is used sparingly – it’s all action.  She is also really talented at getting me to feel super righteous anger at jerkfaces. Take that, Will.

At this point, I have basically become smitten with Kendare Blake. I had checked Anna out of the library and less than 24 hours after reading it I had purchased a copy (hardcovers even!) of it and Girl of Nightmares, and put Antigoddess on hold at the library. I’m sunk, y’all.

Review – Hex

A review of Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt – in which you will question, who should you really fear? (5/5)

Hex was first published in Dutch in 2013, and then re-worked and translated into English. It was released in the US in April 2016. Amazon kept recommending it to me and I kept not buying it. So what happened? The library. When I held the book in my hands and read the sleeve, I wanted it.

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For 350 years, the frightening and solid ghost of Katherine van Wyler has haunted the town of Black Spring, NY. Once you become a resident of Black Spring, you can’t leave. If you’re away too long you are overcome with the desire to kill yourself to be free. Parts of Katherine’s existence have a pattern, while in other parts she just appears in homes, in the woods, on the streets, in the stores, carrying the stench of death and the clinking of the chains that bind her body. See, Katherine was killed for being a witch, and somewhere along the way her eyes and mouth were sewn shut. And so she appears around Black Spring, a ghoulish but normalized specter, a sign of their coming doom.

Hex follows Steven Grant, father, doctor, resident of Black Spring – his sons Tyler and Matt, and his wife Jocelyn. Through Dr. Grant we see the town of Black Spring as a resident, and as someone who made the mistake of moving there. The novel also follows Robert Grim – born and raised in Black Spring, its protector, leader of HEX – the organization that keeps the secrets of Black Spring from getting out to the rest of the world. The sanest man in a town of people corrupted by darkness.

Things start changing – the teenagers of the town begin to rebel against the rules that keep them safe and Katherine from public knowledge. They begin a chain of a events that leads to destruction.

This is supposed to be a horror novel – and don’t get me wrong it is incredibly unsettling and has some very frightening moments – but what will haunt me about this novel is not the supernatural horror, but the human kind. The horror of humanity. At the end of this novel I didn’t shiver, I cried.

Because you start to guess the ending. You start to guess the truth. But it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t change the one-two punch to the face of the ending. Somehow, knowing what’s coming and why makes it worse. It is more frightening to see humanity stripped bare and find it wanting than it is to find a supernatural source of the horror. The very best horror novels are not about the supernatural itself, but what that supernatural entity either says about humanity, or become a mirror that we are afraid to look into for too long. Hex does that.

The entire premise of this novel is unique and high-concept. I have never read anything like this before, and I am going to read more work by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. He is a master storyteller, and his acknowledgements section was so enlightening to him as a person and an author. It might just be worth it to learn Dutch, or bribe a Dutch person, to read the original.

A lot of other reviews complain about some of the gendered issues in the novel – particularly regarding breasts and rape. As someone who works every day in the realm of gender-based violence, these moments felt earned and fitting given the concept of human depravity within the novel. It was not placed without genuine narrative purpose, and it wasn’t just a plot device. And except in one more metaphorical occasion, it wasn’t so overly described that it became the blending of violence and pornography either – it was not sexualized violence, just violence. Heuvelt wanted the reader to be appalled, not appealed, and did so successfully.

5/5 for a heart-rending, complex, and fantastically realized work of horror. Read this immediately.