Book Review: American Midnight

American Midnight: Tales of the Dark is a collection of nine short stories selected and introduced by Laird Hunt. They are described as classics of supernatural suspense from authors who have inspired generations of writers to explore the dark heart of the land of the free (America). I found the collection decidedly mixed in terms of chill factor or even engagement.

I had heard of a fair proportion of the authors whose work was selected although am familiar with the writing of only one, whose story turned out to be my favourite. The style of a couple of the tales was too dated for my tastes. Another adopted a local vernacular that was apposite but still grated.

The opening two stories offer dread tales with moral undertones. The settings were interesting, featuring darkly imaginative touches, but plot development failed to inject any spine tingles or even, really, sense.

The first is set in a castle where a wealthy prince has shut himself away with a large number of his friends and those who can serve them, in order to avoid a virulent plague.

“The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.”

After several months a masked ball is held, in rooms that seem designed to bring trouble down on those who use them.

The second story is set in and around Salem which piqued my interest. I ended up feeling sympathy only for the protagonist’s wife.

The Eyes, by Edith Wharton, is excellent. A group of friends gather around a fireplace and start to tell each other ghost stories. Their host is reluctant to join in but eventually shares a tale of time spent abroad where he ended up supporting a young writer of questionable talent. Alongside the spooky elements is the horror of feedback on mediocre writing.

“At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head the detestable delusion that it held a brain. […] The stuff he turned out was deplorable”

“I had sent his stuff to various people – editors and critics – and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it”

“At first it didn’t matter – he thought he was ‘misunderstood’. He took the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another to keep it company.”

This story is followed by The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers, which is set amongst wealthy artist friends. A sculptor has discovered a chemical mix that turns living things to stone in an instant. The reader is asked to consider: if a thing is preserved is its life taken – is its essence destroyed? The sculptor compares the potential for producing perfect sculptures in this way to the challenge photography presents to painters. Between the friends there is a hint of ménage à trois along with the dubious morality of killing creatures for art. Despite these interesting threads I was less than taken by the tale, especially its denouement.

Home, by Shirley Jackson, is skilfully written and nicely developed but with a somewhat vanilla ending. A couple move into their new home on the outskirts of a remote village and the woman sets out to become an important part of the local community. Unbeknown to her the property has a tragic history. Even her strong personality cannot control its consequences.

There follow some fairly uninspiring entries – the only other story in the collection that I would rate is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is quite a slow burner – not ideal in a short story – but vividly portrays a wife whose agency has been taken by her husband – for her own good of course – and the damage this causes. The tension builds gradually and there is an excellent denouement that suggests a more subtly layered tale beneath the repetitive descriptions.

The final story, An Itinerant House by Emma Frances Dawson, did not appeal particularly except for the idea that places continue to harbour the more shocking experiences of those who have passed through.

“Houses seem to remember,” he said. “Some rooms oppress us with a sense of lives that have been lived in them.”

When a group of men take extreme measures to save the life of a woman, they do not expect to be cursed by her. Neither do they believe at that point that curses have power.

Whatever one may think of the contents, this is a gorgeously produced little book with a wonderful cover by artist, Joe McLaren. It is smaller than most paperbacks making it pleasing to hold and read. The French flaps and quality paper add to the aesthetic appeal.

Perhaps my disappointment with too many of these stories stems from my expectations of dark, supernatural writing born from the work of writers such as Michelle Paver. None of the tales in this collection is shoddily written. They simply failed to provide sufficient disturbance.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Keep Me Safe

Keep Me Safe, by Daniela Sacerdoti, is a tale of romance with a  touch of the supernatural. Its protagonist is Anna, a newly qualified nurse living in London, whose live-for-the-moment partner, Toby, decides to leave her and their six year old daughter, Ava, to start a new life for himself in Australia. Traumatised by the abruptness of her beloved father’s departure, Ava neither speaks nor eats for three days. When she comes around from this episode she starts to mention memories that make no sense. She recalls a life by the sea and, although acknowledging Anna, asks for her other mother and to be taken home to a place called Seal.

Anna has had a difficult upbringing. She spent much of her childhood in and out of foster care, eventually becoming estranged from her alcoholic mother. She is determined to provide her daughter with the love and stability she herself craved. Anna does not miss Toby but feels that she has failed Ava by not keeping their little family together. She tries to ignore Ava’s desire for this other mother, refusing to explore the reasons behind the impossible recollections. Anna believes that her daughter belongs to her, not appearing to understand that people cannot be owned, that they are individuals with emotions and free will.

When Ava’s school starts to suspect that the child needs help Anna finally investigates what her daughter has been telling her. She discovers that Seal is a small island off the west coast of Scotland. She decides that they will travel there for a holiday in the hope of putting these issues to rest.

Anna and Ava are readily accepted by the small, island community. There they discover love, and heartache, and the source of Ava’s memories.

I rarely read romances as I find them too simplified and predictable. The supernatural elements of this tale, although of interest, could not season it sufficiently for my tastes.

What grated most though were issues in timeline and continuity, plus abilities given to a couple of the young children. For example, Anna, portrayed as a deeply caring mother, seemed comfortable leaving her child alone in their guest room during the night while she went out, without apparently telling anyone. Five and six year olds were able to write multi-syllable words independently and neatly. Caty and Sorren’s ages and when events happened in their histories did not always make sense.

To return to the story arc, there were few surprises, plenty of romance, a touch of jealousy, and all ended up where I had expected.

This may be a story more suited to those who enjoy a little romantic escapism and are less irritated by plot technicalities. It was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Doll Funeral


The Doll Funeral, by Kate Hamer, is a story of ghosts and the lasting influence of family and upbringing. Its protagonist is Ruby who is informed by her parents on her thirteenth birthday that they adopted her when she was just a few months old. Ruby is ecstatic at this news – suddenly she has hope. If she can find her birth parents she may escape the vicious physical abuse regularly inflicted on her by Mick, the man she believed was her dad.

For as long as she can remember Ruby has seen shadow people, some only once but others come and go. Living in the Forest of Dean she has grown up surrounded by trees and finds comfort in their protection. She decides to try to summon her birth parents by copying mystical techniques she remembers from her late grandmother. What follows weaves a poignant tale of a child desperate for love with elements of the supernatural.

Ruby meets Tom who has been abandoned with his teenage siblings by their hippy parents who have travelled to India to find themselves. They live in a huge, dilapidated house where they are expected to survive on food farmed or hunted. With winter approaching these young people are now struggling. They also harbour a terrible secret.

Both Ruby and Tom have been damaged by their forebears. It is not just the direct actions of parents but the lasting impact of their upbringing and the wider prejudices of those who live in the forest that has shaped how Ruby and Tom have been raised. Each generation inflicts their values, beliefs and aspirations on those who come next. Psychological inheritance can be devastating.

The story is bleak, filled with restless ghosts and crippled potential. The fluid construction of the tale makes it easy to read but the unremitting darkness of the subject matter offered little prospect of cheer for any of the characters.

As a parent it is hard to read a book such as this without considering how one’s own children may have been affected by values passed on to them. Ghosts need not take physical form to exert influence.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, is the first book in a trilogy exploring the world of children born with apparently impossible gifts. These include an invisible boy, a levitating girl, twins with incredible strength and a girl who can conjure up fire with her hands. Because common people cannot comprehend these peculiars, and what is not understood is often feared, the children live apart. Their well-being is overseen by a shape shifting matriarch who can manipulate time.

Into this world stumbles Jacob, a sixteen year old American boy who has always struggled to fit in amongst his peers. When a family tragedy sends him into a spiral of anxiety and recurring nightmares his psychiatrist suggests it may be helpful if he travelled to the place he associates with the source of his fears – a remote island off the coast of Wales where his grandfather lived as a child. Jacob’s grandfather raised him on a diet of weird and wonderful stories which he claimed were true. They were populated by children who could not exist, who lived together on this island in a beautiful house. They were threatened by the monsters Jacob sees in his dreams, which his grandfather talked of but was never believed.

When Jacob sets out to uncover the facts around his grandfather’s early life he finds only a ruin where the children’s home used to be. He looks for clues amongst the debris, asking questions of the locals. He uncovers more than he bargained for, but must then make a choice, just as his grandfather did so many years before.

The writing remains light despite the horrific occurrences threatening the peculiar children’s way of life. Jacob and his new friends must battle forces intent on their demise whilst keeping their existence hidden from those common people living alongside. Their enemies are known to hide in plain sight.

The story is being adapted for a film, directed by Tim Burton, to be released on 30th September 2016. It is a perfect match for the director’s style. Although containing many of the familiar elements in a young adult fantasy, there is much offbeat humour downplaying the fear and poignancy.

Within the narrative are scattered authentic vintage photographs depicting many of the characters. These provide a wonderful addition to the surreal feel. There are also stills from the film and a taster of the next book in the series.

An enjoyable read and an interesting take on a familiar trope. I rarely seek out film adaptations of books as they too often disappoint. Given the strong visual elements and stunning imagery conjured, this may well will be an exception.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk Books.

Book Review: The Bonnie Road


The Bonnie Road, by Suzanne d’Corsey, is a highly readable tale of modern day witches, and society’s attitude to their activities. It weaves elements of belief and the supernatural into evolving religion and ritual through the ages to offer an intriguing take on what some regard as “nefarious, unnatural activities”.

Set in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1979, the story focuses on two forty-something year old women. Morag is a witch who is just beginning to open herself to the full potential of her powers. Rosalind is a struggling widow who has left her mother and son in California to offer support to her dying uncle. She had only previously met him when she was a babe in his sister’s arms. Morag and Rosalind descend from families who have been next door neighbours for generations. Their homes form an integral backdrop to their shared history.

On arrival in St Andrews Rosalind befriends Helen, a lecturer at the university. Through her she meets the handsome Angus, an archaeologist on the brink of a significant discovery in a field outside the city. Angus is the son of a minister and has strong ideas about what is proper and how he should treat the fairer sex. Romance blossoms but Rosalind finds herself experiencing a sexual awakening which shocks them both.

Morag’s innate abilities enable her to understand what is happening to those around her, sometimes better than they understand themselves. She is keen to draw Rosalind out and encourages her to put aside her inhibitions and grasp the experiences on offer. As well as Rosalind’s awakening, Morag is dealing with the tragic consequences of a philanderer’s games, and is attempting to prevent him from damaging others with his selfish proclivities.

Alongside the bubbling witchcraft is a view of the established church, led by a cleric who is about to experience what he considers a holy enlightenment.  Reverand Paterson regards Morag as evil, a threat to the stability of the society he wishes to preserve. He fondly recalls the days when such people could be thrown off a cliff or burned at the stake.

It is suggested that women played a key role in Celtic ritual, something that Christianity sought to deny them. The attitudes of the men towards the women in this tale make the ancient ways appear more appealing than they are often portrayed.

What sympathy I developed for Morag was lost in the denouement. Despite the obvious evil being dealt with I would have preferred a less direct retaliation.

I wonder how much of my aversion to drug fuelled, naked dancing and abandoning oneself to enhanced sexual urges is down to the societal conditioning which this tale explores. I am comfortable with my antipathy towards the coven’s method of retribution. I found the conclusion of Rosalind’s tale more satisfying than Morag’s.

This is a well written, unusual and compelling story that contains a fascinating level of historical detail. The mix of pagan old ways and its modern renaissance presented alongside the changing role of the church provoked reflection. Behaviours considered acceptable change over time. Not all change has been progress.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.

Book Review: The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb

alastair stubb


The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb, by David John Griffin, is a surreal mix of love, madness and gothic horror. On finishing I set it down and wondered at what I had just read. The book has been recommended for fans of Mervyn Peake, an author I am unfamiliar with. I was put in mind of how Dickens may write with a dose of the psychedelic.

The story revolves around the Stubb family who live in Muchmarsh village near the towns of Grinding and Smudge. The patriarch, a widower named Theodore, is a former actor who possesses the power to hypnotise. He uses this skill for his own cruel amusement, and to have his wicked way with attractive young women. Theodore lives in a run down manor house, served by a motley crew of staff who each have an important role to play in the unfolding drama.

The book opens with Theodore’s son, William, a recently unemployed coffin maker, collecting his wife from The Grinding Sanatorium for the Delusional. She has spent the past twelve months here, recovering from the death of her baby son, Alastair. Eleanor is beautiful and mentally deranged. She considers herself a queen and others to be mere vapour shadows. She communes telepathically with insects who will alert her to the return of her baby. She believes Alastair is being kept safe in the darkness. In order to escape the sanatorium she tells the vapour shadows whatever they wish to hear and thus seems cured.

William and Eleanor move into the manor house with Theodore. Eleanor spends her days in an abandoned church, bringing Theodore unusual insects which she finds there. Collecting insects has been his life’s work. William hates his father’s collection, believing that Theodore has paid more attention to it than to him.

The first half of the story introduces us to the cast of characters and plays out to a climactic night: a birth, a fire, a death, a disappearance. There is blackmail, coercion and the Stubb family must leave their home. There is drama aplenty but the more perplexing aspects are subdued.

The second half of the book is set thirteen years later. Alastair is living in the village with his father, an unhappy drunk who tries to keep the family secrets from his son. Alastair longs for a mother’s love. He helps out his neighbours, doing jobs to earn a few pennies, but lacks friends.

When the teenage boy starts to act strangely there are those who are not surprised,

“Alastair has lost his brains, though what with his mum round the twist, it must run in the family.”

What they do not realise is that his actions are beyond the boy’s control, and that he is to be the conduit for a series of dreadful acts of revenge.

Alongside the Dickens like names, the over the top personalities, and the supernatural elements of the second half of the book; is a writing style which paints pictures in the mind. The plot is intriguing, the telling evocative, the imagery stunning.

“A pious hush still pervaded the countryside. Alastair felt that somehow it would have been wrong to make any sound; for worry perhaps of a disturbance to the praying bushes that huddled together along the verge. The moisture and frost had rendered them flexible and drooping and they hung their heads in worship.”

Each setting is depicted to make the ordinary appear dark: the sleepy village with its shadows and flawed characters, dirt pervading, secrets oozing; the run down manor house with its creaking staircases, creeping shadows, dust and insects; the abandoned canal with its black glass surface, all around rotting and disintegrating.

The denouement in the catacombs pulled together many of the plot threads although much was left open for interpretation. The red balloon floats by, the insects remain.

This is a book full of curiosities, written with artistry and imagination. I am still not sure how I should define such a creation, but am glad to have read it and would recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane Publications.


Book Review: Written in the Blood

written in the blood

Written in the Blood, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, is proof that a book can be as scary as a film. Full of shadowy, shape shifting creatures that possess untold, supernatural powers the plot moves along at a breathtaking pace. Each of the various groups described seem intent on hunting out and mercilessly killing, their travails tightly written and frighteningly descriptive. Moving across centuries and continents the reasons behind their exploits unfold gradually with each chapter set in a place and time that reveals a little more of the whole whilst leaving the reader eager to continue.

Set fifteen years after the authors debut work, The String Diaries, this sequel focuses on Hannah and Leah’s attempts to prevent the eventual demise of the hosszú életek, a long living species of which they are a part. A new adversary is introduced in this book, an ancient and near extinct species that feeds on the long lives. Along with the infighting of the pure blooded leaders and the vengeance sought by their outcasts it was sometimes difficult to keep track of the dangers that each enemy presented to our protagonists.

This was a more mature work than its prequel. The power struggles and nebulous justifications of the hosszú életek as they banished or killed miscreants reminded me of the medieval Jews or twentieth century Nazis with their desire to maintain the order and purity of their kind at whatever cost. This aspect did not make for comfortable reading. Despite the veneer of sympathy and civility I also questioned the difference, other than available time and therefore desperation for a solution, between the work being done by the breeding women and that of the seemingly more animalistic lélek tolvajok. Neither killed gratuitously; both would accept whatever sacrifice was required to save the lives of their children.

As with all the best horror stories there was enough in this tale to make it appear believable. The tension was unrelenting, outcomes unflinching. The ability of the protagonists to survive some of the assaults did however require something of a leap of faith.

By the end of the book I questioned the inclusion of only one strand, Leah’s visit to the old professor. Unlike its prequel this story contained few references to those who existed outside of the societies battling for survival. Some simavér became fodder, a micro bus owner offered a tantalising suggestion of a link to another tale. I do not know if the author’s third book is a continuation but there is certainly scope for a further instalment. I for one would be eager to read it should it ever be written.

This dark and compelling tale proves that SLJ’s skills as a writer are burgeoning. I thoroughly enjoyed this latest, chilling offering. Read it, if you dare.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Shining

the shining

The Shining, by Stephen King, was my first experience of this prolific author. I do not enjoy being frightened so generally avoid the horror genre in both books and films. However, when the opportunity to read and review what is regarded by some as his first tour de force, I decided that I could benefit from being able to form my own opinion about the work of a writer who, in interviews, has voiced some perceptive thoughts.

The book tells the tale of a young family on a downward spiral. The son has a gift, the Shining, which is presented to the reader in it’s most believable form when described through the eyes of the child. His father is a recovering alcoholic with a vicious temper whilst his mother fights her own childhood demons. Her character is less rounded for much of the story but, by the end of the book, has been developed enough to allow her to play her part convincingly. Both parents have been victims of childhood abuse and the scars affect much of what they do.

At the beginning of the book the father has lost his teaching job and, as a result, the family is in financial straits. To tide them over he agrees to become winter caretaker of a large hotel in the mountains which will be cut off by heavy snow for many months. Naturally the hotel is haunted, although it’s true power is only revealed slowly to the reader as the story progresses. The build up of tension is masterfully done and I can see why so many of King’s books have been adapted for the big screen.

It is also easy to see why this author is a best seller. The book is a page turner, easy to read with a good balance of taut plot and character development. Nothing is overdone and the elements of horror are imaginatively crafted. In the book’s blurb King is described as a master storyteller and I would not quibble with this title.

There was something about his style of writing though that just didn’t do it for me. I could appreciate the clever ways in which the back story was introduced; the varied cast of characters each added something to the tale and were believable; the settings were well described and the hotel in particular was presented to the reader in enough detail to make them feel that they were alongside the family, wanting to shout out ‘don’t go there!’ when advice was ignored and key rooms explored.

The book was clever, slick and well written, yet still I felt a lack of something. It almost felt too text book, as if the author knew how to write a best seller and did just that. It was not formulaic in the way so many popular books can appear, but for all the tension and development it did not touch me emotionally.

Having said all of that, I am still glad that I read it. It was enjoyable and entertaining which is as much as many readers will look for in a book. It was also rather scary. I doubt that I will feel comfortable around topiary animals ever again.


My copy of this book was provided by Goodreads and the publisher as part of a First Reads giveaway.