Archive for October 2023

The Only One Left by Riley Sager


Spooky season wouldn't be complete without a fresh addition from Riley Sager to send shivers down your spine. His knack for crafting tightly woven thrillers tinged with a hint of horror has consistently captivated my imagination and evoked my deepest fears ever since I first encountered his writing in The Last Time I Lied back in 2018. Since then, I've made it a point to eagerly devour each of his new releases, with only a couple slipping through the cracks in recent years. Determined to make up for these missed opportunities, I've been patiently awaiting the arrival of his latest work, The Only One Left, courtesy of my local library. Fortunately, my hold has finally materialized just in time for the end of the month, providing the ideal moment to immerse myself in another Sager chiller. 

Embedded within the mythology of Maine is the bone-chilling saga of Lennora Hope, a tale that has gripped the imaginations of both children and adults since its sinister unfolding on a fateful night in 1929. As the lore goes, Lennora, a mere seventeen years old at the time, experienced a catastrophic unraveling of her sanity, culminating in a gruesome spree that claimed the lives of her parents and sister. Though the general consensus seems to implicate young Lennora in the tragedy, the police could never definitively establish her guilt. In the wake of the bloodshed, Lennora staunchly denied any involvement. To this day, she has neither uttered a public word about the gruesome events nor crossed the threshold of Hope's End, the cliffside mansion that became the grim stage for the massacre.

"At Hope's End, the past is always present."

Fast forward to the year 1983. Kit McDeere finds herself presented with an unexpected opportunity to resurrect a career she had believed to be permanently tarnished. Once a home health aide, Kit's professional life was marred by allegations of wrongdoing in the tragic passing of her own mother. In the twilight of a protracted battle against a grave illness, Kit was implicated in her mother's untimely demise. Now, Kit's life takes an unforeseen turn when she is entrusted with the care of local legend Lennora Hope. The task falls to her after Lennora's previous nurse abruptly departs Hopes End, abandoning her enigmatic patient and all associated responsibilities. While Kit harbors reservations about assuming this role, she has little choice. Reluctantly, she accepts the role of the primary caregiver to a woman who she suspects may be a murderer.

Upon her arrival at Hope's End, Kit is confronted by a deteriorating compound perched precariously atop a cliff, gradually inching toward the tumultuous waves below. Instead of encountering the ruthless killer that has haunted her nightmares, Kit comes face to face with a 70-year-old woman whose mobility and speech have been ravaged by a series of strokes. Lennora's communication is now restricted to simple yes or no responses and the slow typing of an antique typewriter. As Kit becomes settled into her role, she is taken aback by a note that Lennora laboriously types out for her. In an unexpected turn, Lennora divulges the full extent of her story, recounting each moment that contributed to her legendary status. As the two women embark on a journey to unearth the secrets of that fateful night, Kit begins to suspect that Lennora's narrative might be far from complete. Beneath the facade of the seemingly benign woman in her care lies the potential for hidden dangers that Kit could never have anticipated.

In The Only One Left, Riley Sager once again demonstrates his mastery of suspense, expertly manipulating our expectations and delivering unexpected twists. Set in the 1980s, the analog atmosphere intensifies the sense of dread and mystery. While I couldn't help but notice similarities to Colleen Hoover's Verity, Sager's narrative remains distinct and captivating. The eerie ambiance of the manor and the intricate storyline drew me in completely. The novel's conclusion is shocking and satisfying, making it a must-read for the spooky season. I'll be eagerly anticipating whatever chilling tale Sager comes up with next. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 72)

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie


With Halloween just around the corner, I decided to intensify the holiday spirit by diving headfirst into a Halloween-themed novel. Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie, intriguingly adapted into a film just last month, emerged as the ideal choice. My affinity for mysteries, which dates back to my earliest reading days, has firmly established Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot as a perennial favorite on my literary roster. There's an undeniable allure to a well-constructed locked-room mystery, and Christie's mastery of this genre is second to none.

Thirteen-year-old Joyce is swept up in the Halloween spirit as she lends a hand with the final preparations for a Halloween party. Amidst the unfolding tricks and treats, she boldly declares that she has been an eyewitness to a murder. Her claim is met with dismissive laughter from the others at the gathering, who chalk it up to the fanciful tales of a young and naive girl. Frustrated and hurt, Joyce abruptly departs from the party. As the hours pass, a macabre revelation shocks everyone.  Joyce's lifeless body is discovered in the basement, submerged in an apple-bobbing tub. In the aftermath of this gruesome find, the celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot, is summoned to lead the investigation. Against the backdrop of a night steeped in trickery and the supernatural, it falls upon Poirot to unmask the true evil presence responsible for this horrifying act.

Agatha Christie's novels excel when they deliver unexpected revelations at the story's conclusion. Others are appreciated for the meticulous unfolding of the mystery's components. Hallowe'en Party falls into the latter category—a novel resembling a complex jigsaw puzzle. It's enjoyable to witness the gradual assembly of all the pieces, yet once they are complete, the intrigue wanes. Placing the story on Halloween injects an additional layer of mystery and whimsy that greatly enhances the narrative. I personally discerned the plot's trajectory early in the book, but the journey to the grand revelation remained an entertaining experience. If you're seeking a last-minute addition to your Halloween reading list, Hallowe'en Party is a delightful choice. It offers a quick and enjoyable adventure for this spooky holiday.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 71)

The Christmas Appeal by Janice Hallett


I know what you're thinking. What is a Christmas story doing here in the middle of spooky season? While October typically revolves around tales of ghouls, ghosts, and chilling narratives, it also marks the beginning of the holiday season in the publishing world. Many authors release their festive stories early, hoping to capture readers' attention before the holiday rush.  When my friends at Atria Books presented me with the chance to read Janice Hallett's holiday-themed follow-up to her book The Appeal, I couldn't help but get swept up by the holiday spirit. It provides a gentle introduction to the season, one tinged with a touch of mystery that I couldn't resist. 

Lower Lockwood is embracing the Christmas season, with the Fairway Players fervently rehearsing their holiday production of "Jack and the Beanstalk" to raise funds for a new church roof. However, goodwill is in short supply among amateur theater enthusiasts, with petty rivalries, concerns about asbestos in the beanstalk, and persistent absenteeism among the cast.

On the night of their production, a dead body is discovered onstage. Who could have harbored ill intentions toward the victim during this festive season? Lawyers Femi and Charlotte embark on an investigation that involves analyzing Christmas letters, scrutinizing emails, and delving into police transcripts to unmask both the victim and the killer before the final curtain falls on the holiday production. 

The Christmas Appeal provided a much-needed respite from my spooky reading. Hallett presents the story through firsthand correspondence, offering insights into the lives and motivations of the Fairway Players members. I couldn't help but become engrossed in the petty drama that permeates this community theater organization, reminiscent of my own experiences with church music groups. Everyone is a volunteer, and everyone believes they're in charge. While the murder mystery itself may be somewhat ordinary, the vividly portrayed characters and their interpersonal conflicts make the narrative incredibly engaging. The added stress of the holiday season heightens the tension. The Christmas Appeal is a delightful and brisk read, offering an escape into the holiday spirit ahead of the bustling season.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 70)

West Heart Kill by Dann McDorman


My profound love for reading has always been closely linked to my affection for mystery novels. As a kid, I was captivated by characters like Nate the Great and Encyclopedia Brown. This love for mysteries has remained a constant throughout my life. Even now, I relish the excitement of solving a case before the book reveals its secrets, and I'm particularly delighted when the revelation catches me off guard. When I had the opportunity to read author Dann McDorman's debut novel, West Heart Kill, I eagerly embraced it. The book promised a modern take on the classic murder mystery, a premise that was too intriguing to ignore.

The novel begins with a setup reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. Private Detective Adam McAnnis reunites with an old college friend for a weekend at the exclusive West Heart Club in upstate New York. This isolated lodge is a retreat for the wealthy elite, a place where they can escape their busy lives. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that these seemingly friendly strangers have their own secrets and disregard for the rules of the normal world. McAnnis begins to hear whispers of financial troubles and the potential sale of the club.

The plot takes a dramatic twist when the lifeless body of one of the club members is discovered on the shore of the lake. Is this a tragic suicide stemming from desperation, or are there more sinister forces at play? As tension mounts, a fierce storm descends upon the area, plunging the property into darkness and cutting off all access. Before McAnnis can even embark on a proper investigation, yet another body is unearthed, all but confirming the presence of a cunning murderer among them. As suspicions intensify and paranoia spreads among the club members, McAnnis faces the daunting task of restoring order to the chaos and unveiling the true identity of this malevolent killer.

At first glance, West Heart Kill appears to follow the conventions of a typical whodunit. McDorman skillfully sets the stage for a classic locked-room mystery, complete with a cast of deceitful characters, an isolated setting, and a young detective who harbors suspicions about everyone in his midst. It doesn't take long, however, for the narrative's contemporary twist to become apparent. The story unfolds through the lens of a fourth-wall-breaking narrator who acknowledges that we, the readers, are seasoned experts in the mystery genre, well-versed in its classic tropes. This narrative approach breathes fresh life into the traditional framework, offering a unique perspective that keeps readers questioning the unfolding events and the reliability of the characters. As the story introduces new revelations and red herrings, the narrator is there to provide insight and encourage readers to scrutinize it all.

A mystery's ultimate success, though, hinges on its resolution, and this is where West Heart Kill will divide readers. While the story weaves an intricate web of mystery and reaches a shocking twist in its third act, it is the explanation of this twist that will be divisive. McDorman's narrator provides historical context to justify this turn of events, but it leaves this seasoned mystery reader feeling unsatisfied. West Heart Kill undoubtedly showcases a promising debut from an author with a fresh perspective on the genre. Still, the absence of a truly satisfying conclusion detracts from an otherwise engaging narrative.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 69)

The Widowmaker by Hannah Morrissey


I recently stumbled upon Hannah Morrissey's debut novel, Hello, Transcriber, and was immediately captivated by its atmospheric thriller elements. It left me craving more of her writing. I promptly borrowed Morrissey's next offering, The Widowmaker, from my local library. This book sees Morrissey return to the desolate setting of her debut, the grim and chilling Black Harbor, Wisconsin, a town notorious for its high crime rate.  In her first book, she explored the inner turmoil of a character torn between escaping the town and being drawn deeper into its darkness. In this new narrative, we are introduced to a fresh character, someone who was born and raised in Black Harbor but managed to escape the traumas it inflicted. Now, as circumstances compel her to return, long-forgotten memories begin to resurface and slowly creep back into her life.

For the past two decades, the mysterious disappearance of business mogul Clive Reynolds has fueled rumors and curiosity within the community of Black Harbor. His vanishing act has cast a dark cloud over the entire Reynolds family, leaving them under a constant shadow of suspicion. Meanwhile, professional photographer Morgan Mori has been facing a string of bad luck in her own life, making her all the more intrigued by the cryptic letter she receives. It urges her to return to her hometown of Black Harbor, a place she had been eager to leave behind. The offer to photograph the enigmatic Reynolds family at one of their gatherings presents both a much-needed financial opportunity and a chance to peer into the secretive lives of this intriguing family.

On the same evening as the family event, Morgan unwittingly becomes a witness to the fatal shooting of a police officer. Investigator Ryan Hudson has tirelessly pursued the Reynolds case for years, striving to establish himself as the department's lead investigator. However, when his longtime partner is murdered, Ryan grapples with the challenge of balancing his commitment to solving the cold case with his burning desire to apprehend his partner's killer. Morgan holds the potential to illuminate both mysteries. As she confronts her own traumatic past and Black Harbor's dark history, Ryan aims to leverage her insights to propel his career and finally deliver justice to those who have long eluded it.

Hannah Morrissey delivers another outstanding thriller with The Widowmaker. Much like her initial work, this novel immerses readers in a haunting and chilling atmosphere that permeates the entire narrative with an unsettling sense of suspense. By introducing new characters and only briefly referencing the events of her debut novel, Morrissey skillfully positions her work as both a continuation of the previous story and a self-contained narrative for newcomers. The world she has crafted is nothing short of captivating, with Black Harbor itself becoming a prominent character, a place where crime, secrecy, and darkness hold dominion. The story alternates between the perspectives of its two protagonists, offering readers unique insights into their characters that remain concealed from one another. While this approach may have initially made it slightly more challenging for me to connect with the characters, it ultimately provided a deeper understanding that enhanced the satisfaction of the story's twists and turns. The Widowmaker is a gripping page-turner, standing out as its own compelling narrative while simultaneously serving as a worthy sequel to Morrissey's stunning debut.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 68)

Friday Flicks: Mr. Harrigan's Phone


During the ongoing Spooky Season, I've been diligently making my way through a list of eerie films that I've been wanting to watch. Among them is Mr. Harrigan's Phone, a Netflix movie adapted from one of Stephen King's short stories found in If It Bleeds. The story in question was a standout piece in the collection, so I held high expectations for its cinematic adaptation. With Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum as producers and John Lee Hancock as the director, it appeared to have the ideal team of filmmakers to do justice to the story.

The movie transports us back to the early 2000s, a period when technology was on the verge of reshaping the world as we knew it. Jaeden Martell, acclaimed for his role in another Stephen King adaptation, It, portrays the young Craig. In the film, Craig is still mourning the loss of his mother and doing his best to console his equally grieving father. Demonstrating remarkable dedication, he regularly reads at church services, where his performance captures the interest of another churchgoer, Mr. Harrigan. Portrayed by the formidable Donald Sutherland, Harrigan is a reclusive billionaire who becomes fascinated by Craig's reading skills. He hires the boy to come to his mansion each week and read classic novels to him. To express his gratitude, Harrigan occasionally surprises the boy with a scratch-off lottery ticket.

This routine continues for several years, with Craig advancing into high school. He has faced difficulties in making friends in his new environment and has unwittingly become the target of a bully. Seeking guidance on how to deal with his adversaries, Craig poses the question to Harrigan. In response, Harrigan ominously utters, "harshly."

Craig's life turns unexpectedly when he scratches off his latest lottery ticket, revealing a substantial prize of a few thousand dollars. Thrilled by his newfound wealth, he purchases two brand-new iPhones, one for himself and the other for Mr. Harrigan. Initially hesitant about the technology, Harrigan gradually recognizes its value in having real-time information at his fingertips. He becomes captivated by the device, diverting his attention away from the books Craig continues to read.

Then, one fateful day, upon arriving for their customary reading session, Craig discovers the lifeless body of Mr. Harrigan in the same chair where he always sat. Overwhelmed by shock and sorrow, he keeps Harrigan's iPhone as a lasting memento of their time together. During Harrigan's funeral, Craig discreetly places the phone in the casket alongside him.

Several days later, grappling with an intense sense of loss and yearning for his mentor and friend, Craig calls Harrigan's phone. As anticipated, the call is directed to voicemail. Yet, when he attempts texting, he is astonished to receive a response. Soon, Craig finds himself confiding his deepest thoughts to the deceased man. More disconcertingly, a series of mysterious events begin to unfold.

Stephen King's short story operates as a pertinent parable on the hazards of technology. In characteristic King style, he underscores this moral with hints of horror to drive his message home. The film adaptation explores comparable themes, but the necessity to elongate the brief tale into a full-length feature movie dilutes the narrative with extraneous elements. Martell and Sutherland's performances brim with sincerity and manage to capture the essence of the written characters. However, even their acting prowess cannot rescue the film from succumbing to its own excess. The story attempts to stretch both the coming-of-age facet and the supernatural elements in a manner that never effectively integrates them. Neither aspect is fully developed to its utmost potential. Instead, the result is a narrative that shares the same foundational elements as the source material but ultimately falls short of replicating the impact of the original text.

Behind the Door by Amy Price


The historic Los Angeles Cecil Hotel is notorious for a range of reasons. Its grand architecture reflects the 1920s era of its construction when even this 700-room budget hotel displayed the lavish attributes of more upscale buildings. However, in later years, The Cecil garnered a darker reputation. Located on the fringes of Skid Row, the property has accommodated individuals grappling with various personal demons. Most notably, the infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez resided in one of its rooms during the height of his reign of terror.

Recently, the hotel has regained the spotlight as the focal point of Netflix's "Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel." This docuseries delves into the enigmatic disappearance and death of hotel guest Elisa Lam. I was utterly captivated as I watched each of the four episodes, drawn into the mystery surrounding this woman's tragic end and the ominous history of the hotel itself. Amy Price, who served as the general manager of the property during the Elisa Lam incident, played a prominent role in the series. When her publisher offered me a copy of her book, Behind the Door, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to explore her firsthand experiences with this infamous establishment.

Behind the Door is a compelling blend of memoir and exposé, offering an opportunity to set the record straight regarding Price's experiences at The Cecil Hotel and the events that have contributed to its notorious reputation. Price vividly recounts how she initially found herself in the role at The Cecil. Originally brought in for a brief three-day interior design assignment aimed at modernizing a portion of the hotel, her success in this endeavor led to her prolonged involvement. Her unwavering determination and dedication soon secured her position as manager.

Within the book, Price delves into the formidable challenges of managing an aging hotel, essentially divided into two distinct businesses. The first comprised the original section, primarily occupied by long-term residents, many of whom grappled with mental illness and addiction, drawn to the location due to its affordable rent. The second part represented the refurbished hotel segment, striving to attract tourists to the struggling area. In hindsight, Price acknowledges that this business model was bound to fail, but in the moment, she was resolute in her efforts to make it a success.

The book dedicates much of its narrative to presenting Price's perspective on the Elisa Lam case. It becomes evident in her storytelling that the Netflix series edited her interviews to fit the narrative they intended to convey. Through the book, Price is afforded the opportunity to provide the missing context that was omitted from the series. While watching the series, viewers might have been surprised by Price's seemingly nonchalant demeanor regarding Elisa Lam's disappearance. However, the book reveals that such incidents were all too common during her tenure at The Cecil. In fact, cases of death and disappearance were, sadly, an inherent part of her job. As readers delve deeper into the text, it becomes increasingly apparent that The Cecil Hotel is a place burdened with a dark and tragic history extending far beyond the Lam case.

While I valued the opportunity to gain more insights into this fascinating history, Behind the Door does suffer from certain narrative inconsistencies. Price presents her experiences in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, leaping from one event to the next without much consideration for crafting a cohesive narrative arc. Consequently, some parts of the story are more engaging than others. It left me yearning for a more chronological structure. While the story itself is captivating and adds depth to our understanding of the building's storied past, the book's presentation can feel a bit disorganized. All this aside, it's evident that Price has a deep appreciation for the property and the dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to maintain its operations. The book even opens with a heartfelt tribute to one of these individuals. It undoubtedly serves as a means to raise awareness about the place and the dedicated team behind its daily functioning.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 67)

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden


Exploring the shelves at my local library, I aimed to discover a chilling read suitable for the current season. Christopher Golden's name immediately captured my attention as an author I recognized but had yet to read. The eerie cover of Road of Bones seemed like a promising introduction to his writing. At just 228 pages, I deemed it a manageable choice to give his work a try. Upon completing the book, I had mixed feelings about the overall experience. Nevertheless, I can clearly see why Golden has earned his reputation as a popular horror author.

Golden places his novel within a haunting real-world setting. Stretching more than 1200 miles through Siberia, the Kolyma Highway, known as the Road of Bones, exposes travelers to frigid winter temperatures plummeting as low as sixty degrees below zero. In the era of Stalin, this route saw the construction of over eighty Soviet gulags, forming a workforce for the USSR. Tragically, the relentless toil claimed the lives of innumerable prisoners. Their bodies were laid to rest beneath the road's surface, concealed by the unyielding permafrost. This bleak backdrop becomes the stage for Golden's unfolding fiction.

We are introduced to Teig and Prentiss, a documentary producer and his cameraman. Their sights are locked onto the infamous Road of Bones, a location ripe for their reality show concoction—blending historical truth with manufactured intrigue for maximum impact. Accompanied by a local Yakut guide, they venture towards Oymyakon, Earth's coldest settlement. Upon arrival, an ominous sight awaits. The abandoned town is frozen in time, its inhabitants seemingly vanished without a trace. Inexplicable footprints lead into the forest. Within one desolate house resides a traumatized 9-year-old girl, a lone witness to unfathomable horrors. As they unravel the mysteries, Teig, Prentiss, and their companions are about to unearth a terror far beyond their expectations.

From its opening pages, Christopher Golden's Road of Bones gripped my attention, transporting me to the frigid setting with a tangible chill in the air. By merging history with supernatural horror, Golden infuses his chilling tale with unsettling realism. His mastery lies in immersing readers within his characters' psyche, inviting us to experience their fear firsthand rather than by mere observation.

While the initial scenes promised a Roanoke-esque mystery, the narrative momentum waned as the story progressed. The book's brevity maintained a brisk pace yet left scant room for character growth. Consequently, forming a strong connection to any individual character proved challenging. More disconcerting, the plot's evolution shifted from a historically-infused ghostly narrative to a frosty game of cat and mouse. As I concluded the book, I remained captivated by Golden's adept prose yet disheartened by the narrative's unfulfilled potential. While I cannot offer a wholehearted recommendation for this particular book, I'm still captivated by Christopher Golden's potential as a writer. Considering the positive reception his other works have garnered from fellow readers, I'm eagerly anticipating delving into one of his alternative titles.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 66)

Friday Flicks: Knock at the Cabin


M. Night Shyamalan is a name synonymous with horror. His breakout directorial hit The Sixth Sense set the stage for an incredible run of original suspense films known for their trademark twist endings. In later years, the writer-director became infamous for a string of commercial and critical misfires that saw his stature in Hollywood diminish. Recently, he has shifted away from big studio productions, opting for self-financed films that harken back to the grassroots approach of his earlier, more successful works. When I first caught wind of Shyamalan's plans to adapt Paul Tremblay's terrifying novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, for the screen, I approached the news with a mix of cautious optimism. I enjoyed most of Shyamalan's films, including some of his less well-received ones, so I was eager to witness his interpretation of a novel that I held in such high regard.

The story centers around a family consisting of a gay couple, portrayed by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, and their adopted daughter, Wen. Seeking a peaceful vacation, the trio retreats to a remote cabin in the woods. While her fathers unwind on the cabin's back patio, young Wen keeps herself occupied by collecting grasshoppers in the front yard. She meticulously names and catalogs these creatures until she notices a large, imposing figure approaching the dirt road. This intimidating man, portrayed terrifyingly by Dave Bautista, introduces himself to Wen and cryptically explains that he and his companions require their help to save the world. At this moment, Wen's instincts signal the impending danger to her and her family, prompting her to flee and seek her parents' assistance.

It doesn't take long for the man and his three associates to capture the family and hold them hostage within the cabin. It's within the confines of this cabin that their true intentions are unveiled. The strangers believe they have been chosen to prevent an impending apocalypse, with the family playing a pivotal role in their mission. Confounded, terrified, and isolated from the outside world, the family must grapple with their beliefs and make a life-altering decision before it's too late.

Knock at the Cabin demonstrates Shyamalan's directorial prowess, successfully translating Tremblay's harrowing story into a gripping cinematic experience. Dave Bautista delivers a standout performance, skillfully oscillating between nuanced grief and menacing intimidation. His emotionally charged portrayal adds layers of tension, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats. Rupert Grint, renowned for his role in Harry Potter, also makes a striking appearance, showcasing his versatility in a raw and terrifying character that's a stark departure from his iconic role. The film earns its R rating through its graphic violence, as Shyamalan fearlessly captures the horrifying essence of Tremblay's premise. While the movie delves into moments of intense terror, it also balances the narrative with poignant character development, providing viewers with brief respites amid the suspense.

As in the novel, the film admirably presents a gay couple without sensationalism, portraying their relationship as authentically normal. Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge breathe life into their characters, crafting a genuine and relatable portrayal of this couple. Shyamalan opts for an ending distinct from the novel, which may be less contentious. Regardless of one's stance on the ending, the film masterfully explores themes of family, duty, and sacrifice within the framework of chilling horror. It stands as an excellent addition to any spooky season watchlist.

The Spider by Lars Kepler


Lately, it seems that domestic situations dominate the landscape of popular thrillers. The recurring theme of a wife concealing secrets or a husband leading a double life seems to permeate the genre. Now, don't get me wrong, I've read and enjoyed my fair share of domestic thrillers, and some of them have even become my favorite reads. There's an undeniable allure to a classic murder mystery, though, that I find irresistible. It's the kind of story that has become noticeably less prevalent in today's most popular thriller novels.

My journey into the world of thrillers began over a decade ago when dark serial killer tales were all the rage. Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had taken the world by storm, leading publishers to translate numerous Scandinavian crime novels into English, all in the hopes of finding the next blockbuster hit. While authors like Jo Nesbo and David Lagercrantz managed to make their mark, many others faded into obscurity. I had mostly set aside this particular thriller subgenre from my memory until my friends at Knopf Publishing sent me a copy of the latest release from the husband-and-wife writing duo Lars Kepler. The Spider, the ninth installment in their series that originated with The Hypnotist in 2009 during the height of the genre's popularity, harks back to that era with a twisted serial killer narrative that both captivates and disturbs.

Saga Bauer has taken a hiatus from her detective duties, grappling with a form of PTSD that stems from her harrowing encounter with a serial killer. During her absence, her partner Joona Linna has been handling investigations solo. Saga's time away hasn't been the healing break she had hoped for, and her return is marked by a disturbing development. A new serial killer has emerged on the streets, earning the moniker "The Spider" for their gruesome method of leaving victims suspended in plastic bags filled with acid, subjecting them to a horrifyingly slow demise. This merciless killer has escalated things further by singling out Joona as their ultimate target and delivering a chilling message that leaves no room for doubt: only Saga possesses the capability to halt this reign of terror.

The Spider delivers a level of shock and awe that may play a significant role in determining your enjoyment or decision to read this book. Kepler takes the narrative to an exceedingly dark place, featuring creatively brutal murders, unsettling sexual situations, and profound psychological trauma. While these elements serve the story, I needed to take breaks from the book on multiple occasions. Trigger warnings are abundant in this narrative.

That said, I became utterly absorbed in the mystery of uncovering the killer's identity and whether the protagonists could thwart their gruesome acts. As the pattern of the murders emerged, I read with a sense of anticipation and dread, torn between fearing what would come next and being unable to look away. Even though this is the ninth installment in a series, my lack of familiarity with the preceding books did not impede my understanding of this one. Overall, The Spider presents a twisted murder mystery that seems to belong to a different era. It is a dark and unsettling narrative that is simultaneously disturbing and enthralling.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 65)

My Darling Girl by Jennifer McMahon


Jennifer McMahon belongs to the category of countless other storytellers whom I've been aware of for years but have never actually read. Prioritizing new authors can be challenging, especially with a towering to-be-read list. While I knew of McMahon's reputation for crafting gripping fiction with a touch of horror, I hadn't found the right moment to delve into her works. That all changed recently when her publisher sent me a copy of her latest book, My Darling Girl. This novel tells the story of a mother and daughter working to mend their relationship as the mother confronts a terminal illness. The story carries a spooky undertone that makes it a perfect read for this season.

As the Christmas season envelops her charming Vermont home, Alison struggles to muster her holiday spirit. Her house is adorned with picturesque decorations, her husband diligently assists their youngest daughter in preparing for her role as a mouse in "The Nutcracker," her eldest begrudgingly agrees to join in the cookie-baking tradition, and Alison herself is even the author and illustrator of a bestselling children's book centered around the holiday. Despite all of this, she has never been one to embrace this time of year fully. Instead, as mothers often do, Alison will force a cheerful grin and engage in the festivities. Everything changes, though, when she receives a phone call from her own mother.

“The world was filled with terrible things.”

The call coming at all is a shock in itself. But the news Alison's mother has to deliver is even more surprising – she has cancer with a grim prognosis and wants to spend her remaining days with Alison, her son-in-law, and two granddaughters. Alison's mind immediately flashes back to the years of violent abuse she endured at the hands of her alcoholic mother. Those traumatic memories are etched into her, both physically and emotionally. Yet, looking at the frail figure of the woman who is still her mother, Alison can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy. She reluctantly agrees, allowing her mother to come and live out her remaining days with the family. Little does she know that this act of reconciliation will set off a chain of strange and unexplainable events, turning what was meant to be one last family holiday into a nightmare. Alison will be forced to confront her own dark past and battle her inner demons to protect her family from an inexplicable evil.

Jennifer McMahon skillfully navigates the narrative of My Darling Girl, deftly balancing the tale of a mother and daughter's struggle to mend their strained relationship with a demonic possession story that infuses an undercurrent of horror throughout the entire plot. It's as though the demons of the past have materialized, posing a dire threat to the protagonist and everyone she holds dear. McMahon's expert handling of character development grounds the story, preventing it from descending into an overblown horror spectacle. The eerie elements of the story are subtly woven in with the moments of character exploration, enhancing the underlying tension. I found myself equally captivated by both facets of the novel. As the narrative unfolded, I grew increasingly uncertain about the reality of the events Alison experienced. Was this terror genuinely happening, or was it the manifestation of repressed trauma in the troubled mind of a fragile woman? To uncover the truth, you'll have to read for yourself. McMahon has crafted a multi-layered work of dark fiction that delves into family drama, psychological suspense, and outright horror. It was an exceptional introduction to her writing, leaving me thrilled to have finally experienced her storytelling. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 64)

Judgement Prey by John Sandford


One of my absolute favorite protagonists in the realm of crime fiction has to be Virgil Flowers, a creation of John Sandford. I first encountered this character during college, and I've eagerly devoured every new installment in his adventures ever since. While Sandford's pace of releasing new books has somewhat slowed recently, he now teams up this character with his other immensely popular creation, Lucas Davenport. Their latest collaboration, Judgment Prey, marks the third book where both characters appear together. I've been fortunate enough to receive copies of Sandford's latest works directly from his publisher, and this newest one was no exception. Staying true to his distinctive style, Judgment Prey is a riveting murder mystery enriched by the witty banter and dynamic between Flowers and Davenport.

The book begins with a harrowing scene: the ruthless execution of a federal judge and his two young sons. The killer shadowed the family back to their home following a basketball game and in a chilling act, shot them in cold blood. When the judge's wife arrived just moments later, she was met with the devastating sight of her husband and sons lying lifeless on the floor while her infant baby cried in the background. The heinousness of the murder sends shockwaves through the community. Given the high-profile nature of the crime and its victim, authorities are determined to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Enter Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers. Both men are still recovering from the harrowing conclusion of their previous case, an ordeal that almost cost them their lives. Davenport, in particular, is taking an extended break to mend his wounds. Meanwhile, Flowers is engrossed in writing his second novel. The last thing either of them needs is a new case. Fate, however, has other plans. Davenport's proximity to the crime scene leads him to offer his insights, and before long, the irresistible urge to uncover the truth takes hold. He quickly summons his good friend Flowers to join him in the investigation. Together, they will delve into the lives of criminals, the leaders of dubious charities, and even the judge's grieving widow. They will spare no effort in uncovering the identity of the perpetrator behind this brutal and heart-wrenching crime.

Returning to Sandford's characters is always a delightful experience. The dynamic duo of Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport consistently delivers a thrilling and unexpectedly comedic reading adventure. Some of the witty exchanges between these two had me in stitches. Judgment Prey, as the 33rd installment in the long-standing Prey series, successfully hits all the essential marks. Sandford's writing exudes a sense of pure enjoyment, resulting in an engaging page-turner.

Could the mystery's plot have been more tightly woven? Undoubtedly. In fact, this particular installment seemed to struggle with occasional plot meandering, as if Sandford himself was uncertain about the story's direction. Nevertheless, the narrative remains firmly anchored by its charismatic protagonists, rendering even the most implausible plot twists relatively inconsequential. This is top-notch popcorn thriller writing at its finest. I'll gladly continue immersing myself in these narratives for as long as Sandford continues to write them.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 63)

A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand


October has finally arrived, bringing along a fresh collection of horror novels. While I'm a horror enthusiast all year round, there's an undeniable allure to the genre during this month. There's something about the cool breeze wafting through open windows, a hefty mug of steaming coffee, and a spine-chilling read that I simply can't resist. Kicking off my month of eerie reads is a gift from my friends at Mulholland Books. A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand draws inspiration from Shirley Jackson's iconic The Haunting of Hill House. It not only expands upon the legacy of Jackson's classic but also transports its terror into the modern day.

Holly Sherwin, a struggling playwright, appears to have reconciled herself to her status as a washed-up has-been, spending her days as a teacher. Decades have passed since she last experienced the fulfillment of meaningful work, and even her most successful play was borrowed from another's story. However, a glimmer of inspiration emerges within Holly when she stumbles upon the text of an ancient play dating back centuries that captures her imagination. Although the archaic writing is unsuitable for modern times, the themes of witchcraft and hauntings that saturate its pages resonate with her creative spirit. Fueled by a newfound passion she hasn't felt in years, Holly embarks on a mission to resurrect this age-old play and breathe fresh life into it.

Holly's efforts bear fruit when she secures a $10,000 grant to dedicate herself fully to her new project. During a trip upstate, she stumbles upon Hill House, an imposing and decrepit gothic mansion hidden away in a remote village. The mansion's grandeur and eerie ambiance captivate Holly instantly, and the sheer size of the building makes it the perfect place to develop and rehearse her play. Despite her own reservations, Holly persuades her girlfriend, Nisa, to join her in renting the house for a month. Soon, a troupe of actors, each bearing their own ghosts and baggage, arrives to participate. As they settle into the mansion, its peculiarities begin to manifest. Strange creatures stalk the grounds, unsettling sounds reverberate through the halls, and time itself appears to warp and shift. Before long, Holly and her friends find themselves at odds with each other and in a strange and eerie battle against the house itself.

I haven't had the opportunity to read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, so I can't provide a direct comparison with this new interpretation. Nevertheless, as an ardent horror reader, I can offer my perspective on the novel as a standalone work. Elizabeth Hand skillfully establishes the atmosphere for her terrifying tale, immersing the initial passages in an unsettling ambiance that conveys a palpable sense of impending dread. There's a meta aspect to the narrative as the protagonist endeavors to modernize a classic play, mirroring the author's attempt to provide a fresh perspective on a renowned novel. By anchoring the novel's foundation in a classic legend, even one of fiction, Hand imbues the story with a historical backdrop that heightens the impact of the chilling events that unfold.

I found it somewhat challenging to connect with the characters, particularly because none of them came across as particularly virtuous. Each character seemed driven by their own self-serving motives. Despite this, the titular hauntings that intensified as the story progressed provided a compelling driver, keeping me eagerly turning the pages. All told A Haunting on the Hill marks a chilling initiation to what promises to be a delightfully terrifying month of reading.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 62)

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