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October 4, 2019

7 Horror Novels for Halloween Reading

by MK French

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes and often make up a central element of horror novels. They sometimes arise from different mythologies eager to feast on humans or corrupt them, which is the horror element that links them all together. Monsters are the other, the things that scare us because we don't understand it and don't want to. Most of the time, monsters have horrible features, teeth and claws, scales or fur, and mystical powers that can confuse or ensnare. Humans are caught up in it, the victims in a trap they can't get out of. Some humans, however, are able to fight back. Maybe they're brave enough or have allies with powers of their own. Maybe they have special tools or skills.

Either way, it's a battle for supremacy, and only one of them will ever win.

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The Siren and the Specter by Jonathan Janz

The Siren and the Specter
September 2019; Flame Tree Press; 978-1787580053
audio, ebook, print (288 pages); dark fantasy
The Alexander House is "the most haunted house in Virginia," so the prominent skeptic David Caine is invited to investigate it. His friend's wife wants him to write about the house that was built in the 1700s to contain the depravities of a land baron's son, hoping that the hauntings will provide a tourist attraction draw. He's had his own losses and doesn't believe in the supernatural, but odd things keep happening around the house.

We start out slow, with David meeting his friend and his friend's wife, neighbors, and ruminating on his own past. He quickly dismisses his disquiet and any odd situations as his overactive imagination, or that some of his neighbors force him to recall his own problematic childhood. The neighbors are terrible parents, watching porn and having sex in front of their children, as well as hitting each other and being negligent in other ways. Nothing explicit is described, and I can't help but feel sorry for the kids. They're caught with nowhere to go, and there's little that authorities can do; it's at least comforting that the authority figures in this book are just as frustrated by it as I am.

The early creepiness of the house worsens as it progresses, and especially as we find out about the sociopathic tendencies of the owner's son about a third of the way through the book. David's sane neighbor calls him out on it, declaring that the house is trying to show off for him, and is clearly a stand-in for the reader when he reminds David about horror movie victims constantly returning to a haunted house where creepy things happen. He's too eager to concoct elaborate stories for why others would want to put together a hoax, especially with memories of his former girlfriend constantly surrounding him and fueling his guilt. This becomes more of an issue as the novel goes on, and more is revealed about the house and the people that had once lived in it. Once that happens, there continues to be even more of the supernatural occurrences at the house, as well as gruesome deaths and the corruption of well-meaning people in the face of horror.

David is a fairly self-centered character, which multiple people call him out on. This is part of why he's placed at the center of this chaos and allows us to delve deeper into the mystery surrounding the house and the surrounding town. The action moves very quickly once we hit the halfway point, and the tension continues to rise as time goes on. When we reach the conclusion, there are still some questions that are of concern, such as how they all know each other. The pat conclusion that they were all related to the original owner or the caretaker, or were possessed by ghosts isn't explicitly given and bothers me a bit. The identity of the Siren of the title is answered but is less important than the house itself. Honestly, that feels a bit of a letdown, because if it's a title spirit, you'd think all the different threads of the story would come together as important. It isn't and is entirely separate from the story about the house.

Buy The Siren and the Specter at Amazon

House of Skin by Jonathan Janz

House of Skin
May 30; Flame Tree Press; 978-1787582156
audio, ebook, print (304 pages); occult fiction
Watermere is the sprawling estate owned by the Carver family. Myles Carver is dead, as is his wife Annabel, and neither had been well-liked by the townsfolk. His nephew Paul Carver has arrived, and Annabel is willing to use him in order to live again.

There are two threads of the story that intertwine in the present, with Paul arriving and dealing with Watermere, and with Julia being attacked by men wanting something from her. She is almost too innocent and trusting, and a lot of the townsfolk that know her are protective of her. The spurts of violence where she has to defend herself are sudden and bloody jolts in otherwise slowly progressing scenes. Paul isn't necessarily a likable person, a man that drinks too much and is estranged from family members and his maybe-ex girlfriend. After finding a graveyard in the woods behind his house, he writes an entire gothic horror novel based on the real lives of his uncle Myles, his wife Annabel, and the other uncle that Annabel had been married to first. He hadn't known anything about them, yet could write an entire novel overnight starring dead relatives he never met with details he could never have known. As with horror stories, this fact doesn't faze him in the slightest. I understand that there wouldn't be much of a plot if he had run off at that point, but wouldn't an average person think that it's concerning?

The flashback chapters interspersed with the present tells the story of the Carvers in pieces, including the murders of children and Myles killing his own brother so he could have Annabel for himself instead of sharing her.  Even in those chapters, she is a little bit off and creepy, and there is no explanation given for why she behaves the way she does. The different story threads connect at the end, in a gory and bloody finish that is definitely creepy. I don't know what Annabel is, but there is definitely a high creep factor in all of the scenes that she's in.

I'm not sure if I like the book, if only because there isn't a clear explanation for why this all happens. It's like the movie Jeepers Creepers in that sense, because we never know where that creature came from, either. I like having some kind of explanation, even if the characters in the book don't find out what happened to make the horrible events occur, especially if it's cyclic. But that's a personal preference I have and isn't at all a slam against the novel. It's a creepy read, plodding inexorably forward to the conclusion.

Buy House of Skin at Amazon

Coda by Keith Knapp

March 2019; 978-1090444448
ebook, print (547 pages); occult fiction
Survivors from an earthquake that devastated Los Angeles are sent to a place known as The Town. While they're trying to find their way back to reality, a presence within The Town wants to keep them there and will use every weapon at its disposal to do so.

We start off with all the disparate characters going about their business prior to the massive earthquake. Only, the earthquake is accompanied by a reddish cast to the sky, and then survivors see strange furry creatures that are something like oversize dogs and reptilian eyes that are hungry. In this way, we rapidly get to know the characters and their relationships to each other, and the quick cuts back and forth between them only adds to the sense of urgency in the text. The mysteries laid out in this strange place, from the empty buildings in a town haunted by bad memories, the nightmares people experience while in this place, or why they were chosen, are not overtly answered as the survivors try to explore. There are theories that make sense as the novel progresses, which actually can raise the question about ranking the weight and seriousness of sins, as well as what the appropriate punishments would be.

As with any horror movie, there is a lot of anticipation and jump scares along the way, with creepy situations. The notes in the back of the book indicate that Keith Knapp had attended film school, and that kind of training really shows. The sequences have a cinematic quality to them, and this easily could be the novelization of a movie. This could also be why we're introduced to characters so rapid-fire, and why we don't really get a lot of back story until later on in the novel. It doesn't necessarily detract from the pacing, but it does mean that I'm not as emotionally invested in them as I possibly could be.

Buy Coda at Amazon

The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath by Lee Allen Howard

The Bedwetter
May 2019; Three First Names; 978-1733700900
ebook, print (246 pages); serial killer
Russell Pisarek had periods where he wet the bed, even as an adult. His mother used to make him wash his own sheets, and shaved him bald as a punishment. His girlfriend in high school had betrayed this secret to others in school, and he took out his frustration from the bullying by skinning cats. He continued into adulthood having dreams of the Piss Fairy when stressed, and hopes to find the perfect woman he can shave bald. Over time, the Piss Fairy drives him to want more than just shaving women, and it becomes more gruesome fare.

For this psychological horror, there are glaring squick warnings to keep in mind: coarse language, animal cruelty, homophobia, misogyny, attempted rape, murder, brutal and bloody fantasies. Russell is not a nice guy, and he didn't grow up in the best of circumstances. He dropped out of high school, dealt drugs for a while and sees little point in the social systems that exist. This only made him turn out even more callous than he would probably have otherwise been, and being inside his head (this is written from his POV) is likely going to be nightmare fodder for a lot of people.

This is definitely the kind of book that fans of true crime would be interested in. You're in the middle of his thoughts, and you can see exactly how little human life means to him. Or any life, for that matter, and it's rather chilling. People are objects and a means to an end, and he blames them for the choices that he makes. He understands that he doesn't follow social conventions, and generally doesn't care about them. The only thing that trips him up is his lack of education; this story is even more chilling if you think about how much damage and terror he could inflict if he was book smart.

Buy The Bedwetter at Amazon

Relics: The Edge by Tim Libbon

The Edge
July 2019; Titan Books; 978-1785650321
audio, ebook, print (336 pages); dark fantasy
There a busy underground trade in relics of the Kin, beings present on Earth that have powers and abilities that those on the black market want to exploit. The town of Longford had been the site of a nasty outbreak forty years ago, and it was flooded afterward to contain the plague. That's the cover story; it had been an intentional infestation, and not all of the residents had died. Others had been irreparably changed. With the town revealed again, the Kin have an interest in the ruins, but they're not the only ones...

This is a novel within the Relics series. The Folded Land is the last one I had reviewed, and I hadn't read "Relics," the first in the series. Angela Gough was present in the previous novel and is back again, still on the run because of a massacre that was blamed on her. She and her niece try to maintain a happy family routine, though they mourn their losses and her niece has odd talents now. This also serves as a really rapid way to introduce Angela's history from the prior books. We don't start this story with her, however. Instead, we're introduced to Bone, who had once been a child living in Longford, and then Grace, one of the Kin that had created the Fold. She is ancient and eerie, taking a (literal) bite of the Kin here and then to maintain her energy.

The first section of the novel lays out the different threads: Bone, Grace, Angela and Sammi, Vince and Mallian. We get enough of the backstory to keep going with the story in this novel if you haven't read the first two, though you would definitely miss some nuance. There is significant tension between some of the characters, the memories they carry with them, and the goals they have in exploring Longford. Grace wants to reach out and be with another fairy after being alone for millennia, and the Kin she had trapped and hunted in the Fold weren't enough. They were afraid of her, and their innate magic didn't put them on the same level as her. Part two is Ascension, the plan to expose the Kin to the world. Of course, it leads to horror and death; the Kin are inhuman and don't value human lives or property. Ripping a human in half and drinking the blood that falls out of the wound is one of many such occurrences as Ascension begins, and it's a mass of chaos for human and Kin alike.

With this novel, the Relics trilogy is concluded. As much as it does feel very final at the end, it also does feel as though there are a few teasing statements that might possibly make for another novel if this is to be a series instead of a trilogy. There are many kinds of Kin, after all, and humans aren't very good at leaving strange things alone. We're too curious, too eager to find out more whether out of fear or the desire for knowledge. If there are more novels planned, it will likely be a scary and strange world we return to.

Buy The Edge at Amazon

Grim Harvest by Patrick C. Greene

Grim Harvest
September 2019;  Lyrical Underground
978-1516108343; ebook, print (197 pages)
Ember Hollow was rocked by an especially violent Halloween last year, and this year will be just as bad. A biker gang has a spell to resurrect a mass murderer in the body of a local. Two teens have to help their friend Candace, who is convinced that her dead brother (called the Trick or Treat Murderer by the press) will come back from the dead in time for the holiday. As if that wasn't enough, Minister Abe McGlazer begins acting strangely after a secret passage is discovered beneath his ancient church. The clock is ticking until it's Halloween...

Even if you haven't read the first novel, there are more than enough references to the fatal night that it's simply back story to the current one. The title makes it obvious that this is a horror story, but for good measure, we open with Nico getting broken out of police custody in grisly fashion, his biker gang a group of transforming werewolves. Candace is deliberately mistreated by her foster parents so that her only comfort is the four-year-old girl she rooms with. Everyone else in town is living with the horrible memories of the year before, which gives them a sense of dread even as they try to achieve normalcy. The first third of the book clearly is the set up for the horrors to come.

I feel for Candace and her friends, as well as the beleaguered citizens as the biker gang starts to wreak havoc and the menacing presence starts to corrupt the reverend. The action at the end is horrific in more ways than one. The bloodshed and death is grisly and violent in one location, while in the other people have to deal with possession and infection.

This is definitely a fitting novel to read for Halloween.

Buy Grim Harvest at Amazon

Blood and Other Matter by Kaitlin Beavis

Blood and Other Matter
April 2019; ImaJinn Books; 978-1611949452
ebook, print (264 pages); young adult
Derrick Hernandez and Tess D'Ovidio have always been best friends. Tess is invited to a bonfire with one of the football players and returns home covered in blood with no memory of what had happened. Of course, Derrick is going to help her, but Tess and seven players were the only ones that made back from the party alive. As time goes on, one by one the survivors start dying under mysterious circumstances. Is Tess going to be next, or is she at the center of it all?

We start off with regular small-town life, with Derrick as the sheriff's son and Tess as the girl that everyone assumes the worst about. They have such a great friendship and really care about each others' well being. This is why Derrick doesn't call the authorities when Tess shows up looking like an extra from a horror movie, and they try to figure out what's going on for themselves. That is truly devotion, and it's something that Tess continually questions because of the disparity in their socioeconomic levels, as well as the trouble that follows.

From the moment that Tess arrives covered in blood, the book veers into horror territory. There are certainly concerns about what the football players wanted to do with Tess, considering she was the only girl there. While it didn't get to that point (not actually a spoiler, it's explicitly stated that the hospital exam indicated there was no sexual assault) if not for the horror elements, this could have been a completely different kind of book. We see all the effort that Tess and Derrick make to figure out what happened that night, especially as the deaths continue, even without of character behavior on both their parts and skirting the law. I sucked in immediately, and the book ended with a very satisfying conclusion. This one is definitely good for those that love horror and YA novels.

Buy Blood and Other Matter at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband and three young children. 

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  1. wow, look at all those beauties. love the bedwetter. i saw that before and fell in love with the creepalicious cover. LOL
    sherry @ fundinmental

  2. There is SO MUCH CREEPY in this collection of novels, for sure. Just in time for Halloween!

  3. These all sound SO good! I still haven't read any Jonathan Janz. I need to change that!!

    1. So much creepy in his books, you'll need to go to sleep with the light on!