Lizzie Borden: Guilty or Innocent?

“Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one!”

We all know the story of Lizzie Borden: a big house in Massachusetts, a lonely spinster woman, and two hacked up parents. Lizzie Borden took an axe… well, you know the rest. On August 4th, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found murdered in their home on 2nd Street. Andrew was napping in the sitting room and Abby was in an upstairs bedroom, presumably cleaning. What really happened on that fateful summer day? And why did it happen? Did Lizzie really do it?

She was acquitted, so legally she didn’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

TRIGGER WARNING: CRIME SCENE PHOTOS (NO BLOOD)

The Bordens

Andrew Borden was a native to Fall River, Massachusetts. He had a huge net worth – almost $10 million in today’s money (a whopping $333,000 back in the day). He came from humble beginnings but became successful later on in life. He owned a considerable number of income properties and worked on the board of several large banks. He was frugal despite his fortune; the Borden house on 2nd Street didn’t even have indoor plumbing, despite it being available to the wealthy, and it still used kerosene lamps instead of electricity. His first wife (Lizzie’s mother), tragically passed away. Two years later, he married a woman named Abby Gray.

They lived in a wealthy area of Fall River, though not the wealthiest. Much of Andrew’s family lived in a neighborhood called The Hill, where all things high and society took place. It is said that Lizzie very much longed to live there, to be a part of high society, but her father refused. Their house on 2nd Street was close to town and shops and much of Andrew’s business dealings. The area was also home to a population of Irish immigrants, which was certainly considered undesirable.

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie was born on July 19, 1860 (she’s a Cancer, of course) and she had a sister Emma, nine years her senior. When their mother was on her death bed, she made Emma promise to always take care of Lizzie, as if she was her own. This contributed to Emma’s ‘spinsterhood’, as she did not have time to marry and move away because she was raising Lizzie. She even dropped out of college after only a year to return home. Lizzie was described as a “moody” and “average” student in school. She was a sensitive child with problems meeting new people. She dropped out in her junior year of high school and spent the majority of her time involved in the local church. The Borden sisters were in their 30’s at the time of the murders, and were both considered ‘spinsters’; unmarried, childless, living in their father’s home.

This is neither here nor there, but Lizzie was also apparently a known shoplifter at the local stores in town. She would simply take things from the shelves and racks and walk out of the store without paying. The shop owner would then charge the cost of the items to Andrew Borden’s account, so technically it wasn’t “stealing”… but it still feels a lot like stealing.

The Borden sisters’ feelings toward their stepmother are recorded as being… not good. They resented Abby and never called her “Mother” or even “Mrs. Borden”, which was incredibly disrespectful at that time. Several months before the murder, Andrew Borden purchased a house for Abby’s sister, and Lizzie and Emma were reportedly irate. They hardly ate meals with their parents, which was essentially unheard of back then. Both Borden sisters would ignore Abby’s family when they greeted them in public, another act of Victorian disrespect. The Borden family maid, 26 year old Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (whom the Borden sisters called “Maggie” for no apparent reason), stated during the trial that there was palpable tension in the Borden household. She had even attempted to resign from her position because of it, but Abby paid her a hefty bonus to stay.

Lizzie is reported to have loved animals, often taking in stray cats and going horseback riding. A flock of pigeons had come to roost in the barn on their property, and Lizzie had taken to calling them her pets and feeding them. One day in early 1892, Mr. Borden killed all of the pigeons and made Bridget pluck them and put them in a stew. He claimed he did this to keep the neighborhood children from throwing stones at the birds, thus breaking several barn windows. Nonetheless, this fueled Lizzie’s mounting rage. (I have to put a note here that some Lizzie Borden scholars believe this situation to be more of a legend than reality, though I’ve come across it as part of the narrative in nearly every source I used for this research.)

The Murders

The night before the murders, Lizzie went to visit her friend Alice. She told Alice that the whole family had recently fallen violently ill… except for her. It was later revealed that Lizzie had attempted to purchase prussic acid (poison!) from the local pharmacy several days prior, but the pharmacist refused to sell it to her. Did she poison her parents (and poor Bridget) in an attempt to kill them? Or perhaps just make them ill and weak? Lizzie also mentioned to Alice that she was worried someone might want to hurt her father. The home had been broken into several days prior to August 4th, and the only things stolen were sentimental items of Abby’s (and, according to some sources, Andrew believed someone within the home stole the items). Lizzie claimed to be worried that the intruder might return.

Also, Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John Morse was visiting the day prior to the murders. He slept in the guest room on the second floor. The reason for his visit is still unknown, but he was allegedly not involved in any part of the crime.

Let’s go over the timeline for the morning of the murders:

6:00 AM : Andrew and Abby Borden and John Morse wake up, go downstairs and have breakfast.

6:30 AM : Bridget wakes up, still feeling ill, and begins her work in the kitchen

8:45 AM : John Morse and Andrew Borden leave the home to go into town for business

8:50 AM : Lizzie appears for breakfast and coffee

9:00 AM : Abby Borden tells Bridget to clean all windows in the home, outside and inside *1

9:30 AM : (this time is approximate) Abby Borden is killed

10:45 AM : Andrew Borden returns from town early, feeling ill. Lizzie tells Andrew that Abby has been called away to tend to a sick friend, and has left the home. *2

11:00 AM : Bridget is in her room, resting but not asleep

11:15 AM : (this time is approximate) Andrew Borden is killed

11:30 AM : Lizzie Borden calls for Bridget to get a doctor upon “discovering” Andrew Borden’s body

(*1 it should be noted that, at this time, Lizzie asked Bridget if she had any plans to leave the home that day. Bridget said no, because she was not feeling well. Lizzie then informed her of a big sale taking place at a local shop, and suggested Bridget leave the home later that morning to go check it out)

(*2 it should be noted that, in court testimony, Bridget reported that Andrew could not get into the home when he returned, as there were multiple latches locked from the inside that were not typically locked. Bridget had difficulty getting them all unlocked to allow Andrew inside, and during this time she reported hearing Lizzie Borden giggling at the top of the stairs)

Lizzie screamed for Bridget to go across the street to their neighbor, who was a doctor. Bridget ran across the busy street only to find the doctor was not home. Lizzie then told her to go fetch her friend Alice (the same Alice she had met with the night before) because she did not want to be alone in the home, as the intruder could still be present. Eventually a nosy neighbor noticed Lizzie standing on the porch, distraught, and asked what was wrong. Lizzie told the neighbor about her father’s demise and the neighbor hurried over to check it out. When the neighbor asked Lizzie where she was at the time of the attack, Lizzie stated she was in the barn. Then, she told her neighbor that she might have heard Abby come home, but she wasn’t sure. Abby might be inside the house!

Alice arrives to the Borden home shortly after Bridget sends for her. Lizzie immediately insists someone search the second and third floors for Abby. Bridget and the nosy neighbor ascend the stairs to the second floor. From the landing they can see Abby Borden’s feet, outstretched behind the bed in the guest room. The neighbor flees in tears to tell Lizzie that they found Abby’s body. Bridget enters the guest room to confirm, and what she finds is absolutely horrifying.

The brutality of the crime was unmatched in Fall River history. Andrew Borden’s face was essentially chopped off; he was unrecognizable. Abby was attacked from behind, wounds gathered on her upper back. And, for the record, the nursery rhyme has the count wrong: Andrew was hit ten times with a hatchet (not an axe), after Abby was struck nineteen times.

Two police officers arrived at the scene. A large portion of the Fall River police force was actually out of town, at Rocky Point in Rhode Island, for some kind of event – not really relevant, but kind of funny that they were all at the beach when this happened. They immediately questioned Lizzie, who had trouble accounting for her whereabouts during the attack. She claimed that she had been sitting in the loft of the barn on the property, where she ate three pears, then spent twenty to thirty minutes looking in the barn for sinkers and fishing lures. She then insisted to have heard a scream or groan (she couldn’t remember which) from inside and ran into the sitting room to discover her father. This point is particularly interesting because Bridget, who was inside the house, reported having heard no sound whatsoever.

Lizzie had lots of stories for the police. She said she had once come home at night to find a shadowy figure slinking around the house… but she couldn’t elaborate further than that. She was quick to correct them when they referred to Abby as her mother, too. She was Lizzie’s STEP-mother. Big difference, especially to Lizzie. When the doctor finally arrived, he took Lizzie to her room to relax with the aid of morphine (which they were just handing out back then, apparently).

The police searched the entire home and barn. They recovered two hatchets and two axes, though none were believed to be the murder weapon, as they had no blood on them. In the barn, they noticed there were no footprints in the thick sawdust in the loft where Lizzie reported to have sat during the time of the murders… interesting. That night, Lizzie, Alice, and John Morse (the uncle, remember?) stayed IN THE HOUSE where two people were just MURDERED, while their DEAD BODIES were on slabs in the sitting room. (Were all the hotels full??) A cop was watching over the house and, in the middle of the night, he saw Lizzie go into the basement and kneel beside the sink for one to two minutes, though he could not see exactly what she was doing. A few days later, Alice saw Lizzie burning scraps of a dress in the fireplace. She said, “I wouldn’t let anyone see me doing that if I were you”. Suspicious.

The funeral was held on August 8th. Emma came back to town (she was away, visiting a friend, at the time of the murders) and stayed in the house on 2nd Street with her sister and uncle. On August 10th, the police informed Lizzie that she was a suspect in the murders. She was reported to have said, “I am ready to go at any time”. (Read: “I dare you to arrest me.”) Then, on August 11th, Lizzie Borden was arrested on two counts of murder. There’s a shocker.

The Trial

Lizzie had her daddy’s money, and she bought the best attorneys it could buy. They were quick to deny Lizzie’s guilt on the basis of two main points, the first being lack of forensic evidence. They called in a Harvard chemist who claimed to have found no blood on any of the axes or hatchets that were recovered from the Borden house. There was a teeny tiny drop of blood on the hem of the dress Lizzie was ALLEGEDLY wearing on the day of the murders (was the dress she actually wore burned in the fireplace?) Further, fingerprint testing was in its infancy in the late 1800’s, and the police did not perform any kind of print collection at the scene or on any of the potential murder weapons.

Lizzie Borden during the trial, by Benjamin West Clinedinst

The second point of denial was on the basis of Lizzie’s gender and social class. Yeah, that was a legitimate defense. She was well-bred, virtuous, and in the words of the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the time, a “Protestant Nun”. In other words, she was a tiny little Victorian spinster who totally couldn’t kill her old and sick (hell, one of them was asleep!!) parents. Women’s suffrage groups turned out in droves to support Lizzie in her innocence. And Lizzie played the part of their heroine- dressed tightly corseted and in all black, a fan in one hand and a bouquet of flowers (seriously) in the other. She would sigh or act faint from time to time throughout the proceedings, just as any distraught Protestant Nun would.

The trial was a circus. The first true media frenzy surrounding a high profile trial (the Lizzie Borden case walked so the OJ Simpson case could run). Testimony was given before a packed courtroom. Bridget’s story never changed, from the initial inquest to the formal trial to follow. Lizzie’s story wouldn’t stop changing. Let’s review:

It was confirmed by the coroner that Abby was killed between 9 and 10 AM. Lizzie claimed to be setting up an ironing board at that time, but couldn’t remember how long it took. Bridget was seen by neighbors cleaning the outside windows during this time frame.

At 10:45 AM, Andrew Borden came home. Lizzie claimed she was in the kitchen at this time, reading a magazine. However, this directly contradicts Bridget’s testimony that Lizzie laughed at her from the top of the stairs! When questioned further about this inconsistency, Lizzie said she couldn’t remember if she was upstairs or not. Convenient.

Lizzie told Andrew and Bridget that Abby received a note, calling her away to tend to a sick friend. When police asked who the note was from, or for the note itself, Lizzie didn’t know and couldn’t find it. Also convenient. Even if the note was real, why didn’t Abby leave to tend to her sick friend?

The prosecution argued that it would be nearly impossible for an intruder to sneak into the Borden home, kill Abby, stay in the home for an additional sixty to ninety minutes, then kill Andrew. No neighbors saw anyone come in or out (remember the nosy neighbor from before? Yeah, they didn’t see anyone). And the pure rage used in the attacks suggested someone close to the victims had perpetrated the crime.

Lizzie’s attorney gave a five hour closing argument to a jury of twelve men – farmers, tradesmen, factory owners (and a single Irishman – not sure how he passed through the selection process). They quickly acquitted Lizzie of all charges, then waited an hour to come out of the jury chambers so it looked like they really thought long and hard about it. Women’s groups cheered! The presses of the high society were thrilled – justice was served, justice for the innocent Lizzie! Working class papers and immigrant-run papers, however, were dubious.

Either way, Lizzie was innocent. Well, she was acquitted, at least.

The Aftermath

Lack of forensic evidence and her Victorian femininity led to Lizzie’s release as a free woman. I’m paraphrasing, of course, because there are a myriad of cultural and legal reasons for her to walk free when all signs point to her guilt, and I just don’t have the time to dissect them all. I’m not even convinced there are many people reading to this point.

Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited their father’s millions and moved into a large house on The Hill. Lizzie was infamous, “Fall River’s curio”, gawked at in public and shunned by many in the town. Though she did manage a nice life of travel up and down the East Coast, dotted with fine dining and trips to the theater. She and Emma had a falling out in 1904, and reportedly never saw each other again. They died within days of each other in 1927.

Turns out, there might be more information than we once thought (by the way, all court transcripts and testimonies can be read in full online). In March 2012, researchers at the Fall River Historical Society discovered the handwritten journals of Andrew Jennings, Lizzie’s defense attorney. I haven’t been able to find the contents anywhere public online, but I have been in touch with the Fall River Historical Society to see what’s up with them. They’re only an hour away from me, and I’d be happy to make a trip out there if it means taking a look at these secret notes.

The Borden house at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts

And because Fall River is only about an hour away, I could easily stay at the Lizzie Borden House Bed and Breakfast! That’s right! It’s the original house where Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered by Lizzie Borden an unknown assailant. Under new ownership as of May 2021, they’ve apparently been going through some pretty sweet upgrades. And, of course, the house is haunted. Guests have claimed to hear voices, experience strange odors, objects moving on their own, footsteps, even full-body apparitions! You can just book a tour if you don’t want to spend the night. Rooms are around $300 a night with your choice of the Lizzie & Emma Suite, the Andrew & Abby Suite, or the John V. Morse Suite (where Abby as murdered!). You can also book out the whole house for weddings, so… that’s cool. September and October are almost fully booked, so you better hurry and make a reservation!

If you’re looking for more Lizzie Borden related media, there’s a true treasure-trove of options for you. Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2014) is the only good Lifetime film ever made, starring Christina Ricci as Borden. It was followed up by a Netflix series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015). This retelling of the murders is super fictionalized, but still fun to watch. Lizzie (2018) is a feature film starring Chloe Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan. Another retelling steeped in fiction, this one portrays Lizzie and Bridget in a lesbian affair that eventually leads to the murders.

All jokes aside, the Lizzie Borden case is a fascinating piece of American legal history. Do you think she killed her father and step-mother? If you’re looking for motive, most people claim resentment of Abby and a longing to use her father’s money to enter high society, specifically The Hill. If you’re looking for forensic evidence, it’s long gone. Though I’d love to know if Lizzie did burn the dress she wore at the time of the crimes in the fireplace. And I’d love to know what she was doing in the basement sink in the middle of the night.

I guess you could always call her up on the Ouija board on your next visit to the B&B.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

“Lizzie Borden took an axe

and gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

Andrew Borden now is dead

Lizzie hit him on the head.

Up in heaven he will sing

on the gallows she will swing”

SOURCES:

“The History: The Lizzie Borden House is Full of History.” The Historic Lizzie Borden House, https://lizzie-borden.com/history/.

Conforti, Joseph. “Why 19th-Century Axe Murderer Lizzie Borden was Found Not Guilty.” Smithsonian Magazine, 13 July 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-19th-century-axe-murderer-lizzie-borden-was-found-not-guilty-180972707/

Maranzani, Barbara. “Lizzie Borden: Murderess or Media Sensation?” History, 22 Aug. 2018, https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-lizzie-borden

“Mystery Monday Lizzie Borden: Guilty or Innocent? Part One.” Youtube, uploaded by Stephanie Harlowe, 4 Mar. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E9tIfPFVbU

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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Book Review: Imaginary Friend

“Old people and kids are invisible to the rest of the world… It makes us unbeatable at hide-and-seek.”

There’s a typo on the first page of this book. At least, that’s what I thought. I thought, “How weird that there’s a typo on the very first page in the very first line of this New York Times bestselling novel”. I kept reading, and there was no immediate answer. I even Googled it. “Imaginary Friend misprint”. Nothing. So, I kept reading. And, eventually, it all came together. But before it came together, it fell terribly and tragically apart.

This is the front cover art for the book Imaginary Friend written by Stephen Chbosky. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher or the cover artist.

I bought this book after seeing it in a book TikTok. A BookTok, if you will. The reviews were all incredibly promising; TIME, New York Times Book Review, and Emma Watson all sang its glowing praises. Though I haven’t read Chbosky’s smash hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I know enough about it through osmosis to know that Imaginary Friend is an epic (and terrifying) departure.

Stephen Chbosky is arguably best known for his 1999 coming of age novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He also wrote and directed the 2012 film version, starring Emma Watson (remember her from the book reviews earlier?) and Logan Lerman. He wrote the screenplay for 2005’s film adaptation of the musical Rent and the 2021 film adaptation of the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I was also surprised to learn that he wrote the screenplay for the live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I was surprised because, well, 2019’s Imaginary Friend is nothing like anything I’ve listed above. It’s not perky, it’s not a musical, and it sure as Hell isn’t Disney.

Imaginary Friend introduces us to a wide cast of characters, each with their own struggle in life. We meet the main character Christopher, a young boy with dyslexia and a hard time making friends, and his mom Kate. They are on the run from Kate’s abusive boyfriend and eventually take refuge in a quiet-seeming town in Pennsylvania. Kate gets a job and enrolls Christopher in a good public school, where he makes a small but loyal group of friends. Then we meet Mary Katherine, a devout Christian high schooler trying to juggle her faith and emerging sexuality. And Ambrose, an elderly army vet whose eyes are being “taken by clouds” (cataracts), and whose kid brother went missing a long, long time ago. And the sheriff, plagued by nightmares of a young girl he could not save. There are other POV’s, too- not as in depth as those listed above, though just as important. That’s a big theme with this book – everything and everyone are connected, no matter how seemingly brief or unimportant.

One day, Christopher goes missing in the Mission Street woods. He’s gone for six days. When he returns, Christopher claims “The Nice Man” saved him and helped him escape the woods, though the sheriff can find no sign of anyone else being involved. As Christopher adjusts back to life as he knew it, he knows at once that he has changed. He knows things. Awful things. Most importantly, he knows he must build a tree house in the Mission Street woods before Christmas, or the world will end. Through the tree house, Christopher can access another world- like ours, but different. It is terrorized by a monstrous woman Christopher calls “The Hissing Lady”. The Nice Man tells Christopher that he must defeat The Hissing Lady before the end of the world.

There’s a lot going on in Imaginary Friend. Much more than I can succinctly summarize (and, as a querying writer, I shudder to think of the synopsis and query letter Chbosky had to put together for this!). Multiple POV’s entwine in different plots and subplots and character arcs, and everyone’s actions effect the rest. It’s a whirlwind of nightmarish imagery and secret messages and hidden worlds that culminates into an extravaganza of tear-jerking endings (yes, I cried), horrors, and the redemption in new beginnings.

And damn, did this book hurt. It hurt my heart and soul. It made my skin crawl, it made my heart ache, thinking of helpless children in horrific nightmare sequences, facing truths and fears they should never have to face. And everything is important! How amazing it is, how the smallest actions can have the largest chain of consequences. Things you read and don’t think twice about are suddenly the most important thing that’s happened over the course of the 600+ page book. You second-guess yourself, you second guess what you read, and it’s achingly chaotic and bizarre and beautiful. There’s a confrontation of the loneliness of being too young and too old. You’re young and you want to know everything, then you’re old and you forget and you want to know everything you used to. And the power of imagination and wonder that we lose when we grow up. “Adults are bad at remembering how powerful they can be because somewhere along the line, they were shamed for their imagination.”

Underneath all the horror of this book is the pulsing strength of a mother’s love, and the perfect way children see their parents, even with all their faults. Could a mother’s love defeat The Hissing Lady, or the end of the world, or God and the Devil and everything else? Only one way to find out…

Speaking of God and the Devil, Imaginary Friend packs a bit of a religious punch. Despite it’s nightmarish imagery and body horror and general terror, there’s an underlying theme of Christianity, and what it means to have faith, and what it means to believe. “To kill in the name of God is to serve the devil.” It’s not overwhelming, though it becomes more prevalent in the last quarter of the book, and it’s thought provoking for someone like me, who was raised in religion and is now… well, this isn’t about me. Chbosky tackles big, human issues through the lens of a child stuck in what seems like a never-ending nightmare. When I finished reading, I sat and stared at the ceiling and wondered what I believe. And I’m still wondering today.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Was this book scary? I’d say absolutely yes. It has gore, body horror, and nightmare sequences that made my skin crawl and toes curl. Children with their eyes and mouths sewn shut, literal Hellish punishments inflicted unto sinners for all eternity, torture, etc. The tension of the building plot among the different POV’s, then when they overlap and the codes become clear, the puzzle pieces align – I couldn’t put it down until I knew the end. And even then, I wanted more.

“Everyone gets an ending. Whether or not it’s happy is up to them.”

Five stars overall, three stars on the scare scale.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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The Unfortunate Lives of Horror Poets

From Plath to Poe to Baudelaire; channeling a lifetime of sadness into art.

Hello, friends and foes! Today we are examining the lives of several esteemed poets and the similarities that tie them together. I’ll preface this article by admitting that I am not a poet and have failed at writing poetry more times than I would care to admit (at least 15, maybe more). While I have enjoyed reading poetry as prose (think the Crank series by Ellen Hopkins), I have never been particularly drawn to poetry collections. I’ve put together this post in an attempt to learn more about the elusive art of poetry, and hopefully come to admire it more than I already do. At the end I’ve put together a small list of poetry I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and I hope you take a moment to check out some contemporary (and perhaps very sad) poets.

*Trigger Warning: the following post contains references to suicide and drug use*

Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1863

We begin our journey into poetry with Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), a man whose life could most certainly be hailed as a series of unfortunate events. Baudelaire was a French poet of a humble background. He experienced the death of his father at a young age and gained a sizable inheritance at 21 (sounds similar to a couple of other Baudelaires I know…). His first publication came in the year 1845 – the same year as his first suicide attempt.

Baudelaire was a gothic romanticist, writing poems and prose about vampirism, Satanism, and sex. The most notable of his poetry collections is Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Les Fleurs du mal, or in English, The Flowers of Evil, made Baudelaire a household name in France. He had a propensity to write about the Catholic sense of original sin, feminine beauty and the general sensuality of women.

He was deemed a legend, a cursed poet, a poète maudit (living on the fringes of society and relatively ignored by his contemporaries). He was eccentric and morbid and kept rather odd company. He had a fascination with the American poet Edgar Allen Poe and published several meticulous translations of Poe’s most famous works, thus bringing Poe’s work to a global audience. He experimented with drugs and alcohol and died in his mid-forties, presumably of syphilis. Baudelaire’s gothic legend lives on, however. Not only did Lemony Snicket write A Series of Unfortunate Events with a family bearing Baudelaire’s name (and several other Charles Baudelaire-themed Easter eggs throughout the series!), but The Cure adapted his poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (English: The Eyes of the Poor) into their 1987 song How Beautiful You Are. Both the song and the poem speak to the tragedy of love, and thinking you know the innermost thoughts of your partner when, sometimes, you do not.

1849 “Annie” daguerreotype of Poe

This brings us to our familiar friend Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) and his similarly unfortunate tale. Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston and was tragically orphaned a mere three years later. He was adopted by a wealthy merchant in Virginia, raised with expectations of becoming a businessman and promptly sent to college. Unfortunately, Poe was forced to drop out of college because his father, though wealthy, refused to pay for it. Poe was later ejected from West Point Military Academy. Subsequently, he returned to visit his college fiancee only to find that she had become betrothed to another!

Eventually Poe found wedded bliss with his fourteen year old cousin (too much to unpack right now, but let me know if you’d like a whole article about this in the future). When his wife passed away at just 27, Poe was left devastated and unable to write for months on end.

Poe shot to literary fame with his 1845 poem The Raven, a lyrical tale of a man’s descent into madness. Annabel Lee (1849 – published posthumously) explored one of Poe’s most prevalent tropes – the death of a beautiful young woman. He also wrote a myriad of short stories including 1843’s The Tell-Tale Heart, another descent into madness after a murder has taken place.

When Poe passed away he was alone, for he had mysteriously disappeared during an outing and was found unresponsive in a bar outside of town, then taken to a hospital where he soon died. Upon his death, a literary rival wrote a defamatory obituary claiming Poe was a drunk with no respect for women or anyone else. Instead of erasing Poe from the literary realm as this rival intended, the obituary caused Poe’s sales to skyrocket (albeit, posthumously). Poetic justice?

Plath in July 1961, at her Chalcot Square flat in London

Perhaps one of the most tragic figures in poetry is Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Another heartbreaking tale that begins in Boston, Plath endured the death of her father at a young age (another recurring tragedy, it seems). She went on to excel in her studies in college but began to exhibit symptoms of depression and what is now believed to be bipolar disorder; an illness that was not understood nor medicated during Plath’s time. Plath attempted suicide at the age of 20, miraculously survived, and was subsequently institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy. This horrific series of events inspired her now-classic novel The Bell Jar (1963). Later, Plath was abandoned by her unfaithful husband and left with two small children to raise alone. She took her own life at the age of 30.

Plath’s poetry described her mental turmoil in devastating detail. She was honest about her fascination with human emotion, the idea of death, and the allure (in her perception) of suicide. Some contemporaries deemed her to be ahead of her time, fascinating, and a prolific writer of the tragedies of the human experience. Others did not appreciate her morbidity nor her blatant honesty about the fragility of the human mind, emotion, and ego. A troubled life met with a tragic end, leaving behind traces of herself in her poems and prose.

Well, that was depressing. For such creatively brilliant minds to be plagued with misfortune and mental illness is indescribably sad, as is much of the work they left behind. Check it out if you don’t mind shedding a tear or two. In my research of poetry and poets, I found a small collection that I thought I would share with all of you. Take a moment to check them out if you like horror poetry, poetry that scares you, or poems that are just straight-up sad.

Poems from the Attic by Morgan Nikola-Wren (2019). The idea that this is a collection of overflow poems, the odd ones out, the poems too strange for other projects, is intriguing and endlessly appealing as I, myself, am strange and unusual. The companion images are full of gothic whimsy, including art-deco stylized moons and stills from silent movies. The poems range from the violence and passion of heartbreak to the pain of loneliness in heartbreak’s wake. They explore the pain of being ignored – except when writing poetry. The more haunting the poem, the more haunting the companion imagery. An odd collection for an odd soul that often feels out of place.

Adrift on a Sea of Shadows by Spyder Collins (2021). Collins is a Twitter personality known for his viciously dark poems and short stories- the gore of which are well-emulated in this collection. It is brought to us by the “quaint and curious” indie publishing house Quill & Crow. Collins’ poems are achingly sad and melancholic, pining for lost loves and singing odes to ravens, blood, bones, and murder (oh my!). Depressing laments mingle with rotten descriptions of death and decay and the delight that the narrator finds in such darkness. Heart-achingly sad, loneliness seeps off every blood-stained page.

I am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland (2018). Seeping with nostalgia for all our favorite horror flicks, this collection follows the fates of famous final girls, or as Holland dubs them “horror heroines”, from their point of view. The collection questions women’s role in these bloody tales. Why do we put women through such torture – both in fiction, and reality? It’s chilling to have such an intimate look into the minds of characters now so familiar in the horror genre. While they may have been slain in their respective films (or not – hence “final girl”), these badass women live on in these poems, giving voice to the horrors that come before and after the credits roll.

Bloodhound by Marie Casey (2020). A self-published poetry collection, Bloodhound recounts a bloody tale of the beauty and horrors of love and deception. Violence and gore are peppered amid what can only be described as love poems, creating a dichotomy true to the essence of love – it can hurt, and it can bleed. The pain of being betrayed, the ending of trust, and the depravity humans are capable of are explored through poems and lyrical prose. It is a noble cause, to write through trauma and the darkest of human experiences, and Casey has shown that it is possible, through darkness, to find light. That’s what art is all about, right? Giving medium to our fears and nightmares in the hopes that maybe they aren’t so scary, after all.

What do you think about poetry? Do you have a favorite poet? If you check out any of the above collections, please let me know. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for any nightmares resulting from the reading of Collins’ work).

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“Edgar Allen Poe.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edgar-allan-poe

“Sylvia Plath.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath

“Poe’s Biography.” The Poe Museum, http://www.poemuseum.org/poes-biography

Freeman, Nick. “Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of Goths.” The Conversation, 30 Oct. 2019, https://theconversation.com/why-french-poet-charles-baudelaire-was-the-godfather-of-goths-118874

Boden, Rhiannon-Skye. “The Literary Brilliance of The Cure’s “How Beautiful You Are.” Two Story Melody, 15 Jun. 2018, https://twostorymelody.com/literary-brilliance-cures-beautiful/

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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The Original Horrors that Inspired Disney Classics

Thanks for the nightmares, Brothers Grimm.

Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re taking a look at some of Disney’s fairy tale retellings and their way-scarier source material.

Let’s get one thing out of the way – I don’t consider myself to be a “Disney Adult”, but I do consider myself to be a general fan and avid Disney animation historian. And through my obsession with the evolution of Disney animation, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about the history of the company as a whole. And what a fascinating history, it is…

This is an image of the Disney Animators strike in 1941.

It all started with a mouse. Well… kind of. In 1923, The Walt Disney Company was started by Walt and Roy Disney under the name Disney Bros. Studio. Mickey Mouse came along in 1928 and was quickly followed by Pluto and Donald Duck, etc. And the rest, as they say, is history. A history rife with wartime propaganda (Der Fuehrer’s Face, 1943; Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi, 1943; Donald Gets Drafted, 1942), racism (Song of the South, 1946, an offensive depiction of cheerful African Americans post slavery), and anti-union and low pay corporate policies (resulting in multiple strikes between 1941 and present day). It was on the backs of those underpaid animators and musicians and cast members that the corporate giant we know today was built.

Now, I’m not here to discuss Disney as a corporation (at least, not any more than I already have). The stunning artistry of the animators and musicians and writers deserves to be appreciated for what it is – moving and emotional art. Many of these stories and characters are cornerstones of our adolescence. I watched The Lion King every day for a year when I was five, and my mom fast-forwarded past Mufasa’s death scene every single time… no one tell her I run a horror blog now.

Disney applied its show stopping and jaw dropping art to many preexisting and classic tales. For example, Pinocchio. It was originally written as a serial by Carlo Collodi between 1881 and 1883 in Italy. According to Francelia Butler, scholar and pioneer of children’s literature, Pinocchio is the most translated Italian book (in over 250 languages) and the second most widely read. What’s the first most widely read book in Italy? Oh, just The Bible. Disney’s film version of Pinocchio was released in 1940 and left out just one little detail… Jiminy Cricket was supposed to be dead. Yep. In the book, Pinocchio kills him with a hammer, but little Jiminy stays with him as his conscience, teaching him right from wrong.

Turns out, this is a recurring theme of Disney’s retellings – taking out some of the gnarly, scary stuff. We here at Little Book Blog of Horrors want the gnarly and the scary. So, let’s talk about it.

Charles Robinson illustrated Cinderella in the kitchen (1900), from Tales of Passed Times with stories by Charles Perrault.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Cinderella (either the 1950 animated version or the 2015 live-action remake). The Disney film follows Cinderella, a maid to her evil stepmother and stepsisters, heckled and mistreated at every given chance. With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella gets to attend a ball – but only until the stroke of midnight. Her dance with the prince is cut short as the clock strikes midnight, and in her haste she leaves behind a single glass slipper. The prince tries to find his lost love by having all the maidens that attended the ball try on the glass slipper. Eventually it is revealed that Cinderella is the prince’s mystery girl and they live happily ever after.

The film is based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of the ancient tale (and I mean ancient – this story goes back to Rhodopis in Ancient Greece, around 7BC). Disney chose Perrault’s version of the tale because he was the first to include the glass slipper. Other versions have other calling cards like jewelry or notes. In the Brothers Grimm 1812 version of the tale, the glass slipper is gold and Cinderella’s name is Aschenputtel (literally just German for Cinderella). Also in the Brothers Grimm version and conveniently left out of Disney’s is the fate of the stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella. In their desperate attempts to fit into the glass slipper and marry the prince, one stepsister hacks off her toe and one hacks off her heel. Both times, the prince sees the blood on the slipper and says “no, thank you”. Then, at the wedding of the prince and Cinderella, pigeons peck out the stepsisters’ eyes and they were “punished with blindness as long as they lived”. Gnarly.

“Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!”

“rucke di guck, rucke di guck,
Blut ist im Schuck (Schuh):
Der Schuck ist zu klein,
die rechte Braut sitzt noch daheim”

Moving right along to another tale from those weird Grimm brothers: Snow White. The 1937 film was a benchmark for Disney; it was the first full length traditionally animated feature film EVER, and the first feature length film for Disney. In the tale we meet orphaned Snow White, living with her stepmother The Queen. The Queen forces Snow into servitude because she’s prettier than her. When The Queen’s magic mirror breaks it to her that Snow is still the fairest in all the land despite being demoted to lowly servant, The Queen orders a huntsman to kill Snow White and take out her heart.

Schneewittchen; Darstellung von Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907)

Snow hides out with the seven dwarfs, safe until she is poisoned by a cunning witch with a poison apple. She falls into a coma and the dwarfs place her in a glass coffin in the forest, standing watch beside her. Then, a prince comes and kisses her and she wakes up to marry him. The End.

The 1812 Brothers Grimm version is pretty similar, though Snow White actually dies from eating the poisoned apple and the dwarfs put her in a glass coffin because she was still so beautiful after death (the poison kept her from decaying, apparently). The prince comes across the coffin in the forest and begs the dwarfs for it, claiming, “I cannot live without being able to see Snow-White!”… weird. As the prince’s servants are carrying the coffin to the castle, one trips and jostles Snow’s position. This dislodges the poison apple from her throat and she miraculously comes back to life! She still marries the prince and they live happily ever after, after all. Oh, but not before The Queen attends their wedding and is forced to dance on burning iron shoes until she drops dead. Perhaps an early rival to Game of Thrones‘ infamous Red Wedding?

Though there are plenty more Grimm x Disney collaborations to go through (Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, etc.), let’s take a look at some different source material. Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic Notre-Dame de Paris, or, as we know it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. DISCLAIMER: this article will contain usage of the word “gypsy”. This word is widely recognized as a slur against individuals of Romani descent. It is being used in the context of this article to refer to its usage in the works of Victor Hugo and the Walt Disney Company, and is in no way intended as derogatory by the author.

Illustration from Victor Hugo et son temps (1881)

Disney’s 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably Disney’s darkest film (infanticide, murder, lust, sin and eternal damnation abound – and still rated G!). In 1460’s Paris, we meet Minister of Justice Frollo. He’s on a mission to rid the city of Paris of gypsies. He murders a gypsy woman while she pleads for “sanctuary” inside the Notre Dame cathedral. Frollo discovers a deformed baby in her arms. He attempts to drown the infant but is caught by the cathedral’s archdeacon, and is forced to raise the baby as penance for his sins. That infant grows up to be the hunchback Quasimodo (and his name literally means “half formed”… wtf).

Quasimodo has no friends – except for three cathedral gargoyles that come to life – until he meets the beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda. Frollo lusts after Esmeralda and burns down half of Paris hunting her and the other gypsies down (see Jonathan Young’s metal cover of the original Disney track Hellfire here: https://open.spotify.com/track/3VLFgFwCPediasLOXX2cUD?si=87c908a48c54404e ). Frollo tricks Quasimodo into leading him to the gypsy camp and tries to burn Esmeralda at the stake. Luckily, this is a Disney movie, so Esmeralda is rescued by Quasimodo, Frollo burns to death in a pit of molten lead, and Quasimodo is accepted into Paris society as a hero.

So, it was already dark. Especially by Disney standards. Still not as dark as Hugo’s version, however. In the original French text, Frollo frames Esmeralda for murder (he’s still lusting after her, by the way). Quasimodo tries to give her “sanctuary” in Notre Dame but she is eventually hanged for her ‘crime’. In the end, Quasimodo murders Frollo and then starves to death, clinging to Esmeralda’s lifeless body.

In short, Disney did a great job of turning terrifying children’s stories into… slightly less terrifying children’s films. I absolutely recommend checking out the source material if you want the gritty backstory to your childhood favorites. I’m thinking of doing a list of scary moments in Disney films (think Dumbo‘s Pink Elephants montage). If that’s something you’d be interested in, let me know in the comments below!

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“The Walt Disney Studios History.” Walt Disney Studios, https://studioservices.go.com/disneystudios/history.html

“Walt Disney’s World War II propaganda production”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Disney%27s_World_War_II_propaganda_production

Mattera, Philip. “Walt Disney: Corporate Rap Sheet.” Corporate Research Project, 1 Aug. 2020, https://www.corp-research.org/disney

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sneewittchen, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 53

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Aschenputtel,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales], 7th edition (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 21, pp. 119-26.

Bracken, Haley. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: novel by Hugo.” Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

All art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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Book Review: Don’t Tell a Soul

“All the best ghosts are girls…”

I was on a Young Adult “Horror” kick when I purchased this book. I’m working my way through my towering TBR pile (with the help of the blog – it’s actually working!) and I thought I’d give this Kristen Miller novel a shot. Spooky yet trendy cover, large print and short chapters. I finished it in a strange and rather anti-climactic two days. But we’ll get to that later.

Trigger warning: this book (and post) contains mention of SA and drug use.

General warning: possible spoilers.

Don’t Tell a Soul by Kirsten Miller (2021) appealed to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am an avid fan of Young Adult fiction. This point is important in the context of this article because, unfortunately, I was not the biggest fan of this book for reasons stemming from the fact that the book is bound to the limitations of Young Adult fiction (more on this later). The second reason I chose this book is simple – I love ghost stories. Period. The third and final reason is because of all the great things I’ve heard about the author.

Kirsten Miller is nothing if not an accomplished and talented storyteller. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and boasts three novels (though there are more slated for 2022) and a series co-written with author Jason Segel. Judging by her website (linked below) she’s contributed to various other projects and believes in the existence of Bigfoot (as should we all).

Don’t Tell a Soul follows the story of seventeen year old Bram after she drops out of high school following an attempted sexual assault and subsequent drug addiction. Once released from rehab she flees her expensive New York City life to stay with her estranged uncle in a manor he is renovating into a small-town inn. Bram has overcome so much in her short seventeen years – the death of her father and aunt, the estrangement of her beloved uncle that followed, and the SA that led to her drug addiction. She wants to distract herself with life at her uncle’s manor, for she knows there is a mystery to be solved there.

After the strange carbon-monoxide poisoning death of her father and aunt, Bram’s beloved uncle James disappeared. Several years later he reappears at the manor with a new wife and stepdaughter, Lark. Tragedy strikes, however, when half of the manor burns down, resulting in the death of James’ second wife and the alleged descent into madness of Lark. Lark is institutionalized for babbling about a ghost. The ghost of the manor. The ghost of a girl named Grace, whose father built the manor, who drowned in the river on the edge of town over one hundred years before.

Bram is determined to solve the mystery of the ghost of the manor despite her uncle’s strange behavior and the unwelcoming attitude of everyone in the town. They aren’t fond of city-folk in the small town of Louth, and turning the “cursed” manor into an inn is sure to bring hoards more. Are the angry townsfolk responsible for the fire? Or was it a ghost? Or was it truly a tragic and deadly accident?

That’s the thing with this book. It’s not really a ghost story. It’s a mystery. Several mysteries overlapping, actually. There is the mystery of Grace, drowning in the river (Did she actually drown? How did she escape the manor? Why did she kill herself? Or was it an accident?). There is the mystery of another “Dead Girl” of the manor, one who mysteriously died in the 1980’s (Was that an accident? Was she murdered? Who is responsible?). There is the mystery of Lark and the manor fire that killed her mother and sent her into madness. Even the death of Bram’s father and aunt is a mystery, because no one can figure out just how it happened.

There are so many interesting and exciting ideas to explore – the damsel assumed to have drowned herself in the river revisits the home in which she was imprisoned to take revenge on her horrible father – an unassuming bookish girl is lured into the woods in the middle of winter and dies of unknown causes – the “Dead Girls of Louth” might not actually be dead, after all – and just not enough time to explore them. There are also several important subplots regarding the refusal to believe trauma victims, the impact substance abuse can have on familial relations, and how money can buy innocence in the corrupt American justice system. The shortcoming here, again, is not enough time to explore all of these subplots to their fullest.

The underlying plot thread of every woman from the manor being a righteous feminist and getting revenge on the men who have wronged them is generally a badass concept, but reads as incredibly simplistic with only so much emphasis to go around. Moments that are designed to be the “big reveals” of the mystery are swallowed by the myriad of subplots and half-baked characters (illegitimate children, evil business partners, organized crime, oh my!).

There is also an incredibly important message about speaking out against your abusers even if they are more powerful than you, or have more money than you, or you are afraid that you will not be believed. This message, too, is drowned out by the spoon-fed mystery of the first Dead Girl and the misfortunes that all girls of the manor have suffered while trying to solve it.

In short, Don’t Tell a Soul is full of intriguing ideas with just not enough time to explore them. If this had ten or fifteen more chapters there could have been so much more built upon the original mystery, and the “big reveals” could have been impactful and highly anticipated, still with time to explore the impact of substance abuse and trauma and/or PTSD. Or if more time was put into crafting Bram and Jame’s relationship before it crumbled, it would be one thousand times more heartbreaking when – well, spoilers.

There is much potential to be intricate and multi-dimensional and terrifying but, unfortunately, the story falls a little flat. However, the book might be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars.

As this one is Young Adult, I’m not rating it for scares on the same scale as I would an Adult horror, as the same parameters do not apply.

3 stars overall, 1 on the scare scale.

Do you have any Young Adult horror favorite you want me to try? Is this one of your favorites and now you hate me? Let me know in the comments below!

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

SOURCES:

https://www.kirstenmillerbooks.com/

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10 Spooky Middle Grade Books

Horror: It’s for Kids!

Hello, friends and foes!

Do you remember the book that got you into reading? Or, if you’re a writer, the book that made you want to write your own stories? I remember mine, and they’re all books from my childhood – and almost all of them were scary. I decided to put together a list of ten scary stories for budding horror fans, ranked from least terrifying to absolute nightmare fuel. If this list inspires you to re-read some of your childhood favorites or share these with your spooky little kids, let me know in the comments below!

10. Bunnicula by James & Deborah Howe

We’re tarting off strong with the tamest book of the bunch. Bunnicula is a delightful seven-book series about a “vampire” rabbit that sucks the juice from vegetables. He was found by the Monroe family in a movie theater during a screening of Dracula. The stories are told from the perspective of the family dog, Harold. These are at the bottom of our list of childhood frights because, well, they’re just not very scary. There are some light horror elements like creepy noises in the shadows and the paranoid enemy of Bunnicula, Chester the cat, but nothing to keep young readers up at night. All in all, it’s still a fun read as an adult and, in my opinion, great for elementary and/or middle grade readers looking for some silly, spooky fun.

9. Edgar & Ellen by Charles Ogden

I’ve never met another person who has read these books. I don’t even remember where I got the copy of Tourist Trap that’s haunted the back of my bookshelf for over a decade. But it’s there, and I read it and re-read it faithfully as a kid, eager to follow the creepy twins Edgar and Ellen and their devilish doings. This is a six-book series about a pair of unsupervised and bratty children that live beside a junkyard in a small town and use their whimsical inventions to wreak havoc on their neighbors (especially the grown-ups). Aesthetically, these books are Tim Burton lite; ideal for young, curiously creepy minds.

8. How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found by Sara Nickerson

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I told you I can remember every book that inspired me to get into reading and writing? This book is one of them. I still consider this to be one of my favorite stories of ALL TIME. It has everything a budding horror fan could ask for – mystery, monsters, and creepy comics! The story follows Margaret and her quest to unravel a family mystery after her mother takes her to an abandoned mansion and says they’re going to sell it – and she’s not even allowed to peek inside. With help from the boy next door, Margaret investigates a charming small-town bookstore, handmade comic books about a half-man, half-rat, and the case of her disappeared dad. This story deals with heavier topics of depression and loss while remaining charming and humorous. There aren’t any jump scares, but some of the Rat Man comic illustrations live in my head rent free to this day.

7. The Ghosts of Mercy Manor by Betty Ren Wright

Another childhood favorite of mine and probably the origin of my obsession with ghost stories. There are over 30 of these paperbacks to choose from and they are all charming, spooky mysteries. Mercy Manor is my favorite one to recommend to young readers, probably because it’s a classic haunted house/ghost story where our protagonist, Gwen, must face her fears and help the ghosts reach their ultimate goal of peace on the ‘other side’. While the ghosts that appear in this book aren’t violently scary, Gwen faces other, more real haunts – she lost her parents, she’s been displaced to a creepy old house, and no one believes her when she admits to seeing ghosts. This would be a great introduction to any growing reader looking to talk to ghosts and solve a mystery. It’s also a great example of an independent young girl who faces her fears to do what’s morally right, despite the disbelief of those around her – a recurring theme in most of Wright’s books.

6. Something Upstairs by Avi

This one might bring back memories of assigned reading in English class. It’s a big part of my middle school memories because it’s set in Rhode Island and includes historical depictions of the 1700’s and, believe it or not, the Rhode Island Historical Society hosts The Avi Tour which walks guests through some of the locations mentioned in historic Providence. It also inspired me to write my first historical ghost “book” at 11 years old (the term book is used loosely here because it was only about 50 pages long and contained little to no plot, only vibes). This book is ranked higher on the scare-scale than the ones previously listed because, this time, the ghost is angry and vengeful and terrorizes our main character, Kenny. Kenny is new in town and already hates his new crummy New England house, so you can imagine his shock when Caleb, the very (and rightfully) upset ghost of a former slave, appears and demands his help. There’s time travel involved in an attempt to avenge Caleb’s death and, well… no spoilers. It’s certainly spooky and deals with some heavy historical concepts that stuck with me well after reading. And it’s been a long damn time since middle school.

5. Goosebumps by R.L. Stine

Rounding out our top 5 spooky reads for kids is the classic Goosebumps series, of course. This blog is basically an R.L. Stine fan site. There are 235 of these paperbacks to choose from, ranging from werewolves to scarecrows to ghosts and dummies (seriously, why are dummies so scary??). I consider these a must read for any budding horror fan. My favorite, one of the first ten Goosebumps books ever published, is The Ghost Next Door. Hannah meets the boy who moved in next door and slowly begins to suspect that he’s a ghost. This is sincerely one of my favorite books with a killer plot twist that’s sure to stun young and old readers alike. Some of these books are scarier than you might assume based on their colorful covers. The TV show (available on Netflix) is a faithful adaptation of the most popular stories and a great way to introduce kids to other forms of spooky media. A personal anecdote: we watched a Goosebumps movie at my birthday party every year for about a decade. We used to pile in the car and pick one out from Blockbuster. Yeah, I know. I’m old.

4. The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey

I didn’t discover this book until I was a teenager and in my “I only consume untraditional media” phase. Bellairs is widely regarded as a cooky author with a knack for strange storytelling, and this book does not disappoint. This tells the story of orphaned Lewis Barnavelt and his time living in a strange old house with his strange warlock uncle. This one ranks a little higher on the scare-scale because it deals with resurrection, black magic, and the impending end of the world. It’s delightfully creepy, even re-reading it as an adult. It’s great for young fans of mysteries, magic, and necromancy – and a ticking clock counting down to the magical destruction of the world as we know it. It’s also a great example of a young main character who makes catastrophic, apocalypse-ushering mistakes and has to face his fears to make it right. The 2018 film adaptation starred Jack Black and was surprisingly directed by Eli Roth (think Hostel, The Green Inferno) and was the first of his films not to be rated “R”.

3. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

This wouldn’t be a good list of scary books for kids if it didn’t include Coraline. Have you re-read this as an adult? It’s still scary as all Hell. It’s an unnerving tale of a girl named Coraline who finds another world (aptly named the Other World) behind a strange door. Things are perfectly lovely on the other side… until they’re not. Coraline must escape her murderous Other Mother and her plan to sew black buttons over Coraline’s eyes. It’s sort of an Alice in Wonderland plot on the surface, but the way this book is written will have you (or your child) on the edge of your seat. It’s full of creepy imagery, the impending danger of being in the Other World forever, ghosts of children who suffered the same fate and, my personal favorite, life-or-death riddles. It won a Bram Stoker award in 2002, so you know this story is sure to deliver. The 2009 film adaptation, directed by Henry Selick and produced in stunning stop-motion, is an absolute must-see. Some parenting blogs deem it too scary for children under 12 so… beware.

2. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

I know what you’re thinking. “Allison, this list is for kids. Just because you read Stephen King way too young and still can’t walk past a sewage grate without looking for red balloons doesn’t mean you can recommend his books to kids.” Well, this one actually IS for kids. It was reviewed as a children’s book by Publisher’s Weekly and everything. The story follows young Trisha as she becomes lost in the woods during a family hike with few provisions, none more sacred than her Walkman that she uses to listen to the Red Sox game and her crush, star player Tom Gordon. It’s a truly terrifying tale told in hallucinations (or are they?) as Trisha loses her grip on reality. She is in the woods for days, facing a miriad of enemies (a wasp-faced entity she dubs ‘The God of the Lost’, being one) as she tries to get home, all the while listening to Tom Gordon and the baseball game. This was a staple in most Rhode Island classrooms (enough about New England already, I know I know). It’s a really scary read, hence it’s position near the top of the scare-scale, and would be great for kids or young teens interested in psychological thrills. And it serves as an age-appropriate entry into the vast world of Stephen King.

1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell

You saw this one coming. You must have. These stories have haunted me since elementary school – the eerie rhymes, riddles and prose accompanied by the blood-chilling illustrations are absolute nightmare fuel, landing this 3 book series at the top of the scare-scale. Each story stems from established folklore and urban legends which makes them feel true – and infinitely scarier. They were the most challenged book series in school systems in the 1990’s and made the list again in 2012, citing disturbing and macabre subject matter, including but not limited to: murder, cannibalism, and disfigurement. They are truly a must-read for any budding horror fan who isn’t afraid of sleeping with the lights on afterward. I remember memorizing what pages to skip when re-reading so I could avoid nightmares as a kid (The Girl Who Stood on a Grave and The Bride come to mind). While they’re absolutely chilling and sure to terrify young readers, they’re also a whole lot of fun to read in the dark, under the covers with a flashlight, way after your mom told you to go to bed.

Well, what do you think of my list? Have you read any of these books? Do they still give you nightmares? Let me know in the comments below. Also, I feel obligated to address the Scary Stories 2019 film adaptation, even though I’d rather not. It’s a heap of wasted potential that might be worth a watch if you don’t mind an unfaithful adaptation of some of the best stories of the series. But, maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m searching for the perfection of the Goosebumps adaptations that simply set the bar too high.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

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Japan’s Vengeful Ghosts: “Nihon Sandai Kaidan”

Three classic folktales of spirits seeking revenge on their murderers.

Hello, friends and foes! This article marks the first of a continuing series exploring creepy folklore from all around the world. Through polls on both Twitter and Instagram, I allow YOU to decide what country we will visit every month. This month’s choice was Japan.

Japan is a fascinating place with a rich culture of storytelling through various mediums, including kabuki (stage plays), bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry), and song. Japanese folklore is riddled with bone-chilling tales of monstrous creatures and terrifying ghosts (and I’m not just talking about Sadako, although she does make this list… kind of). I want to explore the Nihon Sandai Kaidan, Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories. They hail from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and feature a type of Japanese ghost called onryou – vengeful female spirits who have returned to the Earthly plane to exact revenge upon their murderers.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi‘s portrait of Oiwa.

Let us begin with the story of Oiwa, also known as Yotsuya Kaidan. First staged in 1825 as a double-feature kabuki, the play was wildly successful, credited with bringing ghost stories into the lives of the common people.

We meet the masterless (read: out of work) samurai Iemon and his devoted and supportive wife, Oiwa. While Oiwa is hard at work to provide for the family, Iemon befriends a wealthy doctor who eventually gives him an offer he can’t refuse. The doctor’s granddaughter becomes smitten with Iemon and demands to marry him. The doctor promises Iemon great wealth if he would marry his granddaughter, and Iemon cannot resist this temptation. There is just one problem – he is still married to Oiwa.

The doctor gives Iemon a poison which he gives to Oiwa discreetly every day. Some versions of the tale say it was a powdered poison, others describe it to be a face cream, deceptively said to prolong Oiwa’s devastating beauty. It does the opposite, of course, and day by day it causes Oiwa’s face to become disfigured and renders her sickly and frail. It is said that upon looking in the mirror and seeing her horrifying disfigurement, Oiwa died in a fit of shock and fright. With her dying breath, she cast a curse upon her husband and vowed to haunt him for the remainder of his days.

Iemon subsequently sees Oiwa’s hideous visage everywhere after her death; in passersby, lanterns, and mirrors. It is not long before Iemon descends into madness at the hand of Oiwa’s curse. As he should.

Oiwa’s tragic tale is often regarded as the most adapted Japanese folktale, having been filmed over 18 times between the years 1912 and 1937 alone. The most notable film adaptation is Shinto Studio’s 1959 version, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost of Yotsuya), directed by Nobuo Nakagawa.

An ukiyo-e print by Hokusai depicting Okiku

Next, let’s examine the tale of Okiku. It might not sound familiar, but it will in a moment. Trust me. Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Mansion) first appeared in 1741 as a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry performed in a theater). We meet a beautiful servant girl named Okiku who works for a wealthy samurai. The samurai falls in love with Okiku for her beauty but she spurns his many advances. Tired of being rejected, the samurai deceives (read: gaslights) Okiku into thinking she has lost the precious tenth plate of a special collection – a crime punishable by death.

Okiku counts the plates again and again; one through nine, ichi through kyuu; never finding the elusive tenth plate that the samurai has hidden from her. The Samurai offers Okiku leniency for her crime if she agrees to be his lover. Okiku refuses and the samurai flies into a fit of rage, beating Okiku and casting her down a well to her death.

Legend says her ghostly wails carry over the mansion grounds… “ichi… ni… san… shi… go… roku… shichi… hachi… kyuu…” emitting an ear-splitting screech when she reaches the end of her count and the place of the stolen tenth plate. It is said if you hear the counting all the way to kyuu (nine) then you are soon to meet your own grim fate…

The most popular film inspired by Okiku’s tale is The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski (though this film is a remake of the Japanese original, Ring, from 1998). Though Sadako’s origin varies from Okiku’s, their ghostly appearance, lust for revenge, and tragic manner of death are similar. Sadako and Okiku actually get to meet in the manga Sadako at the End of the World (2020) by Koma Natsumi.

Otsuyu and the Peony Lantern

The third and final tale of the Nihon Sandai Kaidan is the story of Otsuyu, Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern). The story originates from a 17th century Japanese translation of a Chinese book of ghost stories Jiandeng Xinhua (New Tales Under the Lamplight). It begins with a young couple that has fallen madly in love, Saburo and the radiantly beautiful Otsuyu. When Saburo falls ill, he is unable to see Otsuyu for many months. When he finally recovers and attempts to contact his love, Otsuyu’s aunt informs him that she has died. Saburo feverishly prays for Otsuyu, and eventually she appears at his doorstep with her maid, carrying a peony lantern to light their path.

The lovers commune each night in Saburo’s home, making passionate love until dawn. A nosy servant sneaks a peek inside Saburo’s bedchamber and finds him sleeping with the decaying body of a woman. Another rotting skeleton sits in the doorway holding – you guessed it – a peony lantern. With the help of a Buddhist priest, Saburo is taken to the graves of Otsuyu and her maid and is convinced of the haunting truth – it is her spirit coming to sleep with him every night, not her.

Saburo and the priest ward the ghosts away with ofuda (talismans), but they still linger just outside the door, wailing for Saburo with a lover’s longing. Saburo’s health rapidly declines and his servants, fearing that he will die without his beloved, remove the ofuda to allow Otsuyu and her maid to enter the house once more. Saburo is found the next morning, laying with Otsuyu’s skeleton, dead. Legend says his face was frozen in an expression of blissful ecstasy.

I hope you enjoyed this haunted jaunt into the world of Japanese folklore and ghost stories. There are countless urban legends and shadowy creatures lurking the streets of Japan that I hope to cover in a later article. For now, I leave you with Oiwa, Okiku, and Otsuyu, Japan’s three greatest girlbosses ghost stories.

If YOU want a say in what country’s folklore I write about, look for the polls on my Twitter (https://twitter.com/allisonkrebel) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/allisonkrebel/).

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

SOURCES:

Matsuura, Theresa. “Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories.” Sotheby’s, 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/japans-three-great-ghost-stories.

“Yotsuya Kaidan”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yotsuya_Kaidan.

“Bancho Sarayashiki”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banch%C5%8D_Sarayashiki#Folk_version.

“Botan Doro”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botan_D%C5%8Dr%C5%8D.

Sacasas, Caitlin. “Japanese Numbers: Counting in Japanese from 1-100+”. Fluent in 3 Months, https://www.fluentin3months.com/japanese-numbers/.

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Book Review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

What if The Exorcist was funny?

I’m not going to lie, I bought this book because of the cover. It’s like an ’80’s VHS tape sitting front row on my bookshelf, not only reminiscent of days gone by but aesthetics that are getting a second wind (think Stranger Things, Glow, American Horror Story: 1984). I couldn’t resist. I picked it up, rolled home on my thrift-store roller skates and read it in two days flat.

Plus, the reviews were hilarious. Scary Sixteen Candles, Mean Girls but with demons, if The Exorcist was written by Tina Fey. And the reviews of author Grady Hendrix are similarly impressive. This is the first book I’ve read of his and it made me want to read everything he’s ever written. As soon as I finished it, I skated my way back over to Barnes & Noble with Pat Benatar blaring on my Walkman and bought two more of his books.

Hendrix shot to fame with his debut novel Horrorstör in 2014. The book is stylized as an Ikea catalogue and is honestly one of the coolest books I’ve ever seen. Hendrix has been publishing various works since 2012 and shortly after Horrorstör came an onslaught of instant best-sellers; My Best Friend’s Exorcism in 2016, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires in 2020, and The Final Girl Support Group in 2021, just to name a few. He won a Bram Stoker award in 2018 for his non-fiction study Paperbacks from Hell (2017) and just about every book he’s ever written has been or is currently being adapted for TV and film (including this one!). Anyway anyway anyway. Enough about him. Let’s get to the good stuff.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism follows the unlikely friendship of ’80’s teens Abby and Gretchen, two girls from wildly different backgrounds just trying to survive bullies, boyfriends, and demonic possession. Ah, high school. Their relationship begins in elementary school, bonding over roller skating and E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial“If you want to have a normal life, you have to see E.T. People are going to think you’re weird if you don’t.“… and experimenting with LSD… “Because I want to know if Dark Side of the Moon is actually profound.” It’s in the aftermath of this experimentation when Gretchen begins to act differently. Nightmares lead to insomnia lead to paranoia and terrifying outbursts of violence toward her friends and… well, you can read the title of the book.

The story unfolds to a synth-heavy 1980’s soundtrack and neon backdrop, a stark contrast to the horrific events that take place, all tied together with a pink sequined scrunchie. Trigger warning for potential readers: this book contains explicit and detailed discussion of sexual assault, suicide attempts, and eating disorders.

It’s clear the story revolves around found families and young friendships and the sometimes surprising strength of those bonds, even in the hardest and darkest of times (you know, like when your BFF is possessed by a demon and ruthlessly tormenting you and your other friends). Beneath the ’80’s song lyrics and lingo and hairspray is a heartwarming tale of sisterhood. In the book’s most touching moments, I found myself thinking about my best friend and our bond and what it might withstand. Without hesitation, I would say it could withstand anything. This book, however, made me wonder. Could our friendship defeat the Devil himself?

There are several laugh-out-loud moments peppered throughout the building terror – drunken banter between a group of high school girls, for example. But then the switch flips, and in the course of one summer night, everything changes. Drunken nights between a group of friends unravel into a hellish nightmare. Hendrix describes Gretchen’s descent into madness in horrifying detail, from her cracking skin to her matted hair to her rotting, sour smell. It’s a haunting image, and one you’re not going to easily forget.

This book was rightfully sold and marketed as adult horror (and that’s where I stumbled across it at my local Barnes & Noble). Profanity and mature themes abound. Haunting and at times straight up gory images unfold rapidly as the plot thickens and builds to the epic showdown at the finale. The fate of one of Gretchen’s friends (left unnamed here due to spoilers) left me feeling particularly squeamish. Though I might not recommend it to those with a weak stomach, it’s not unbearable.

Despite the overwhelming pop-culture references and religious trauma and demonic possession, the undercurrent of the story is clear: the power of friendship. The power of love and sisterhood binds this whole terrifying mess together like a neon trapper keeper and leaves even the most terrifying bits palatable and easier to digest. Somehow, Hendrix wove a touching and honest portrayal of friendship into this tale of demonic possession and did a damn good job of doing it. It’s fascinating how the two main themes are so drastically different and yet weave perfectly together in this Heathers x The Exorcist mashup. Totally tubular.

Abby and Gretchen made a pact as kids to still be friends by the return of Halley’s Comet in 75 years. Despite the gore and violence that took place by Gretchen’s hand (or was it the Devil?), I really wanted them to get to see that damn comet. Right up until the very last page. Do you think they make it? Only one way to find out…

My Best Friend’s Exorcism really ticked all my boxes. Found family, ’80’s music, religious trauma, and girl vs the Devil. It also gets bonus points for making me cry. Twice.

5 stars overall. 3/5 stars on the scare scale.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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