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October 5, 2020

5 Books Perfect for Halloween Reading

by MK French

Ghosts and goblins, witches and vampires. It's that time of year for all things spooky. Halloween might look a bit different this year, but you can still fill your weeks with scary reads. Here are 5 fright-filled reads to put you in the Halloween mood.
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Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Magic Lessons
October 2020; Simon & Schuster; 978-1982108847
audio, ebook, print (416 pages); historical fiction
Maria Owens was abandoned as an infant and raised by Hannah Owens, who teaches her about the "unnamed arts." She learns important lessons, including the value of being loved by someone that would love her back. When Maria is abandoned by the man that promised to love her, she sets in motion the curse that will haunt all of the Owens women for generations to come.

Magic Lessons is the prequel to Practical Magic, a book that I have deeply loved for years. (The movie is good, too, but changes quite a few things from the book and is pretty much its own entity.) Maria was such a cipher there, the enigmatic founder of the Owens line, betrayed by the man she loved. Here, she is front and center among all the tidbits of knowledge she collected in her grimoire. Among the lore of herbal remedies and superstition we see her growing up with Hannah Owens, who was the kind mother that shaped her childhood and stressed that this knowledge should be used to benefit others. Rebecca, the woman that gave birth to Maria and abandoned her in the name of her own passions, provided lessons of her own that Maria absorbed. As Maria continues to grow in knowledge and power, there are still elements of betrayal and pain long before she meets the man she loved.

I enjoyed getting this look into Maria, at the nuances of her life and all that she had endured before even reaching twenty. She's a young woman with incomplete knowledge, still braving the inevitable displeasure that those in charge of Salem would show her. She believes in what's right, not what's politically expedient, and we see the multiple traumas that shaped her as well as her daughter Faith. This is a story of recovery as well, the hard road back from the dark or isolation. Love of different kinds is the only way to return from those places, to reclaim the self and the future they hope for. This is perfect for Alice Hoffman's lyrical and melancholic prose, and every bit as wonderful as the original Practical Magic was.

Buy Magic Lessons at Amazon

Nightmare by Chad Nicholas

October 2020; Indie;  978-1734441642
audio, ebook, print (274 pages); horrorblo
Scott had buried the past, but it won’t stay dead. Bodies are piling up, and he fears for his family. There’s no escaping his past, however, he wants to hide from it.

The summary included for Nightmare is really vague. What is “it” that he buried and won’t stay dead? Why should we care why Scott’s life had become a nightmare? Where do the crows fit in? While we start with a prologue of a man that had been buried alive clawing his way out of a grave and then getting attacked by crows, the story proper begins with Scott’s everyday life. He has a wife and children, a therapist that alludes to something terrible that had happened, but otherwise has an ordinary life. He did have a horrific trauma as a young child, where he was tortured after being kidnapped. Crows were present, and had frightened him; even years later as an adult, they still terrify him and bring back nightmares.

With reality changing little by little around Scott, his hallucinations take on a creepier and more sinister appearance. We don’t know what “It” is until almost a third of the way through the book, and the first appearance is one where I feel bad for Scott. He went through a terrible ordeal, and his way to cope with it wasn’t exactly kind His wife knows some of the details and is just as frightened as Scott is to know that “he” is back and not buried. The diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder is very real, but there’s no procedure to “kill” an alter using an injection. Therapy can integrate personality fragments so they seem to “die,” but the procedure that Scott and Vincent talk about isn’t real. It bothered me for that to be present, though it possibly doesn’t even exist in the context of the reality in the book.

The end of the novel was certainly a surprise. I didn’t expect the ending, for all that there were hints things weren’t what they seemed. The occult book, the crows, and the hallucinations give the second half of the book a surreal quality, so it does make sense in a way. With a gory body count, some body horror and a good measure of torture throughout the story, this book is being published just in time for Halloween.

Buy Nightmare at Amazon

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow Places
October 2020; Gallery / Saga Press; 978-1534451124
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); horror
Newly divorced, Kara returns home and finds a bunker behind the wall of her uncle's home. Pray they are hungry is written on the wall, and she begins to explore the area. There are portals to other worlds that are haunted by creatures that can hear thoughts. The more they are feared, the stronger they become.

Kara's normal life is emotionally difficult in the wake of her divorce, which anyone who has experienced loss can empathize with. Her uncle is a wonderful character and is supportive of her as he gives her a place to live and a day job as she freelances as a graphics designer. This abruptly changes when the hole in the wall leads to a hallway that defies the building specifications; I immediately started thinking of House of Leaves and hoo boy, this certainly does follow in a similar vein. There is a lot of creepypasta in this other world, with eerie sensations that I can visualize very well despite my usual difficulty doing this. I'm so glad she crossed over with a friend; she has Simon to lean on in emotional moments, and he leans on her as well. As they put it, only one of them can fall apart a time, and it helps them as they explore the other world full of portals.

There's tension in each half of The Hollow Places; in the first, it's finding their way back home, and in the second it's trying to figure out why they're trying to return or what might have followed them back. That adds a layer of creepy over the ordinary world Kara and Simon are from, and they only have each other to fight it. Telepathic creatures interested in eating or unraveling people? Very no thank you! There's not much bad language in this, so any age able to handle interdimensional creepypasta creatures can read it, just in time for Halloween!

Buy The Hollow Places at Amazon

Dracula's Child by J.S. Barnes

Dracula's Child
September 2020; Titan Books; 978-1789093391
audio, ebook, print (576 pages); horror
Mina and Jonathan Harker survived the terror of Transylvania, and its shadow is falling over their marriage. As a result, Jonathan is drinking, Mina feels alone, and their son Quincey struggles to live up to their reputation. Tragedy brings them together with old friends, just as a new evil is rising.

As with the original novel Dracula, this is an epistolary fic. It's a collection of journals, telegrams, and newspaper clippings. All the survivors from Dracula are here at the outset in the prologue, and Van Helsing himself makes a dire prophecy on Quincey's twelfth birthday. As the story proper begins, we meet Maurice Hallam and Gabriel Shone, a pair of Englishmen traveling through Europe; Maurice adores Gabriel and accepts that he can't physically touch him, but can travel with him searching for new experiences. We also learn about the Council of Athelstan, which can usurp Parliament in emergencies. These seemingly disparate threads, much like in Bram Stoker's novel, appear to have little in common at first. But the traveling men are brought to Castle Dracula, the old group from the original novel are plagued by bad luck, and Quincey's behavior varies wildly. Many of the characters describe the feeling of a shadow coming in from the east, increasing the sense of dread as time goes by.

As a reader, we know what the title means and that Dracula is going to be resurrected in some way. Or perhaps we recognize the word strigoi when the Englishmen don't and recognize the odd behaviors that Gabriel begins to exhibit after they visit Castle Dracula. In a way, the second half of the book reminds me of Kim Neuman's Anno Dracula, in that vampires seed the aristocracy and entire villages are made up of vampires. Only a handful of mortals intend to thwart the Count as he tries to recreate a feudal society in England with himself at the helm. Killing the undead isn't easy, and Dracula's Child mirrors the gothic horror of Bram Stoker. Fans of the classic will love this entry in the mythos.

Buy Dracula's Child at Amazon

The Perfectly Fine House by Stephen Kozeniewski

The Perfectly Fine House
March 2020; Grindhouse Press; 978-1941918630
ebook, print (230 pages); horror 
In a world where every house is haunted and ghosts are taken for granted, there is one house that isn’t haunted. Donna Fitzpatrick works in a surrogacy agency, where ghosts can possess volunteers to feel alive again; death in this world is as common as puberty. She works herself too hard, and after a panic attack, her twin brother Kyle suggests a vacation at Jackson Manor. There are no ghosts there, which is an oddity in itself, and soon enough ghosts start to go missing.

It's fascinating to have ghosts be commonplace and so readily accepted in this world and to have their presence become aspects of business. The premise is intriguing, and it’s so normalized in the prologue, with great-grandparents escorting children home from school. It’s also a normal cultural phenomenon for people to wait to travel until after their deaths, to continue making financial arrangements, and to haunt their death sites. In fact, it’s considered a “relapse” and occurs under times of severe stress. Ghosts can also still do drugs in the form of sage and can experience some pain and sensation. Otherwise, they need a surrogate to possess for more complex tasks, including sex. I have to admit, the thought of an exorcist being an ordinary job like a plumber, complete with Donna thinking there might be plumber’s crack, made me laugh.

That being said, Donna and Leroy together were adorable. There’s awkwardness and fumbling around as they try to figure out a romantic interest in the middle of the professional, without any creepy secondhand embarrassment for me while reading. In the middle of this is the realization that there is a situation of the anti-ghost space in Jackson Manor, which slowly is spreading. Not much is known about it until people and ghosts poke at it, and that changes peoples’ perceptions of death and the afterlife. There are those that welcome a final death, some who panic, and the inevitable looters to try to avoid it, especially as the space expands exponentially. Ghosts act like people, after all, and these are very human reactions to the unknown. It’s almost sad, really, so that the ending is rather melancholy in tone. The Perfectly Fine House is less of a classic horror story where ghosts scare people, but an existential horror, where the unknown is what tears people apart.

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, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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  1. WOOT! The Perfectly Fine House is such a fun read!! Enjoy!