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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Horror: Who Started It?

Hello, friends and foes! For my first-ever blog post I thought it would be fun to do a brief timeline of horror literature and try to figure out who might have planted the horror family tree. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Horror: who started it? There are several obvious contenders; H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe. When I dove into this research rabbit hole I began as any self-respecting researcher would – I Googled it. The answer might shock you.

While this search result is hilarious, it’s not exactly what I was looking for when I set out on this quest for an answer. So I, living my armchair anthropologist dreams, decided to dig (read: Google) a little further.

The encyclopedia Brittanica defines a horror story as “a story in which the focus is on creating a feeling of fear”. This definition is important because, for the sake of keeping this a brief timeline of horror literature, I won’t be delving into the different branches of the family tree (i.e. gothic horror, paranormal horror, body horror, etc.). With this simple definition in mind, who do you picture of when you think of horror? Stephen King? Anne Rice?

Stephen King’s reign of terror began in 1974 with the publication of the now-classic Carrie. Since then he’s published over 80 books so, sure, I’d consider him as a contender for Father of Modern Horror. (For the record, R.L. Stine has published over 300 books. Just sayin’.)

Anne Rice rose to fame around the same time as King, as Interview With a Vampire was published in 1976, a whopping 26 years before Stephanie Meyer published the insanely popular vampire series Twilight. Since 1976, Rice has published over two dozen books, including both Christian and erotic literature. She even cites Stephen King as an inspiration for her work (Billboard interview, March 11, 2016). The 1970’s saw an upswing in horror literature that has led all the way to present day, but that’s not where the genre began.

Let’s talk about Shirley Jackson. You know The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix? Yeah, she wrote the book back in 1959. It’s often cited as one of the first haunted house novels in America. She also wrote We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even before that, Jackson published her short story The Lottery in 1948. If you’re anything like me, you’ll remember this as being the single most traumatizing piece of assigned reading in your middle school English class.

Jackson was also a general badass, regarded as incredibly witty, confident, and successful in a field that did not grant easy access to women at that time. She also read tarot and allegedly practiced witchcraft. Spooky. I read her biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, and you should, too. While she didn’t cite a specific author of literary influence, Jackson seemed to be inspired by the darkness of every day – sometimes hidden, sometimes right under your very nose.

I’d say it’s typical for horror writers to be drawn to and inspired by the dark intricacies of life. Take a look at H.P. Lovecraft, for example. A fellow New Englander and anti-anthropocentrist (anthropocentric: regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals). Lovecraft’s claim to fame is widely regarded as his short story The Call of Cthulu from 1926 which eventually became the staggering Cthulu mythos that most horror (or in Lovecraft’s terms, “weird”) literature fans have come to know. Lovecraft’s first known writings began in 1897, a staggering 77 years before Stephen King’s Carrie. His legacy in the literature realm is abundantly clear, as his Cthulu mythos has been adapted into film, TV, board games and more. And, while 1897 seems like a really long time ago, I wanted to know who inspired Lovecraft. So I kept digging.

Lovecraft’s influence is another pretty obvious contender for starting the horror genre as we know it: Edgar Allen Poe. Another New Englander (I blame the gloom) that became an instant success with the publication of The Raven in 1845 but had published horror shorts since the early 1830’s. Poe was a student of cosmology, another influence of Lovecraft’s work (cosmology: the philosophical study of the origin and nature of the universe). Poe is widely regarded as a pioneer of “gothic” and “gothic horror” literature. An interesting anecdote about Poe’s history that I might do a whole post on in the future (would you be interested? Leave a comment below!) is the case of Lizzie Doten in the 1860’s. Doten was an imitator of Poe’s poetry after his death and claimed to hear Poe’s spirit dictating new poetry from beyond the grave.

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s get on with it.

Poe was a popular (and ultimately very tragic) figure in horror literature, but not the first. Before him came another one of our obvious contenders: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her 1818 classic Frankenstein. Shelley ushered in the age of science-fiction and horror during what can certainly be called a “Golden Age” for spooky literature. The early 1800’s saw the Brothers Grimm collection of short stories for scaring your children and other classics, like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

At this point in my research, I truly thought I was nearing the finish line. A big boom of horror literature in the early 1800’s meant someone had started the genre in the not-so-distant past, and I was determined to figure out who it was. I made it back in time to 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. FINALLY. Several sources claimed this to be the first gothic horror novel. And it was quite controversial at the time of its publication; it was initially published under the guise of being a romance story.

Finally, I had reached the end. Or… the beginning. I made it to the first ever horror story ever written!

Just kidding. Common sense tells us that horror has its roots in folklore, superstition, and myths from all over the world for as long as history has been recorded. Even real life events have been inspiring terrifying works of literature for hundreds of years. A serial killer inspired 1697’s Bluebeard, and noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory inspired 1729’s Tragica Historia and the character Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story: Coven, portrayed by horror film icon Kathy Bates. And although we didn’t talk about Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, it’s thought that his inspiration came from the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who terrified all who knew him in the 15th century.

It wasn’t just vampires back then, either. Werewolf literature was popular as far back as the 12th Century, way before Leitch Ritchie wrote The Man-Wolf in 1831. If you want to get technical, there was a werewolf in The Epic of Gilgamesh and that dates back to 2100 BC. Werewolves were also prominent figures in ancient Greek and Roman horror stories.

Now, here’s the thing. Horror stories as we know them go back basically forever. I’m talking before the year 1000. Hell, maybe even before the year 100. Euripides wrote stories about ghosts and necromancy that inspired Mary Shelley. Pliny the Younger wrote about a haunted house in Athens over 1800 years before Shirley Jackson was even born.

I guess the conclusion is that there is no conclusion. At least, not one I could come up with on my armchair anthropology expedition into the roots of horror literature. Horror’s roots are ancient, tying back to the oldest superstitions, folklore and ghost stories from all over the world. You can give Walpole credit for the first gothic horror novel, and Shelley for the first sci-fi horror, and H.P. Lovecraft for being straight-up weird, but it’s impossible to find a single originator of horror. And, I think I like that answer better. Ghosts, witches, vampires and demons have haunted humans for as long as we’ve been able to tell stories about them. And reading a good ghost story never gets old.

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

xo Allison

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Meet Me!

Hello, friends and foes!

As you can see, I’ve finally started my book blog. This is something I’ve been considering for a few months but was too nervous to go through with. Nervous about what? Nervous about putting myself out there when I’ve been a fool on Twitter for over a year now? Nervous to talk about books when that’s almost 100% of my personality already? Nervous about over-analyzing the things I enjoy? Probably all of the above. That being said, I figured I would start it anyway because, as Beyoncé once said, “Nervous is good. Nervous means you care.”

Anyway, anyway, anyway. Let’s talk about me.

My name is Allison and I live in gloomy, small-town New England. I’m an aspiring author (currently in the querying trenches, cross your fingers for me), I have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a black cat named Sabrina. I’ve always had an affinity for the spooky, superstitious, and supernatural. It could be from having a near-Halloween birthday. It could be from staying up too late reading Goosebumps as a kid. It could be from having cable and unlimited access to horror movies not meant for my little-kid eyes and ears (lookin’ at you, Chiller TV). In any case, I’m an adult now and I can consume scary media any time I want. Even if I have to sleep with the lights on every now and then.

I’m hoping to use this blog as a platform to review and discuss horror books, poetry, films, and more. I’ll post every Friday and on the occasional Monday, as a treat. I’ll even let you (or, those of you on Twitter) choose what I read and write about sometimes. Because I value your input, and I might run out of ideas. If you have any burning questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.

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

xo Allison

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