Marie’s Reading: “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

mrs westawayHal is down on her luck–in serious debt and unsure of where to turn.  So when a letter arrives telling her that she is the beneficiary of a will, she finds the opportunity difficult to pass up.  Never mind that the letter was clearly sent to the wrong person.  She’s never heard of a Mrs. Westaway, and there’s no way she’s a long-lost granddaughter.

But when Hal shows up in Cornwall at Trepassen House for the funeral, she finds a family with a lot of secrets and a lot of baggage–and more than a little of it just might have to do with her.  Uncovering the truth, however, might prove fatal.

I like how tight the writing and focus of the story are.  The narrative goes back and forth between Hal and entries in a diary that she finds, but we spend most of the time with Hal.  Her moral quandaries and her desire to finally learn the truth about herself are the driving forces of the narrative.  Her strong bond with her mother plays a huge role, as well.  All of the characters are interesting, and there’s a feeling of looming threat and mystery.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric story, too–it’s always cold and raining or snowing in this book, lending a bleak and isolated kind of feel.

There are a couple of nods to Rebecca, which suit the atmosphere well.  That would actually be a good readalike for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, as would some of V.C. Andrews’ early work. There’s a wonderful classic feel to this book, even though the setting is contemporary.  If you enjoy Gothic tales of family secrets, old manor houses, and long-buried crimes, give this one a look!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “Unbury Carol” by Josh Malerman

carolHappy Less-Than-Halfway to Halloween, everybody!  I couldn’t wait until October to share this one: a great mix of horror and Western called Unbury Carol.

In a town called Harrows on the dark and dangerous Trail, a woman named Carol lives with her husband.  Ever since she was a girl, Carol has suffered from a disorder without a name or treatment.  This disorder causes her to go into a coma every once in a while.  To the outside world she looks dead, but she’s still aware of things happening around her.  She usually wakes up in a couple of days.

But when Carol goes into her coma-state this time, her husband has nefarious plans.  Only one other person knows about her condition: her former lover and notorious outlaw James Moxie.  As Carol’s husband makes plans to bury her alive so that he can steal her fortune, Moxie sets out on the Trail to return to Harrows and save her.

This is such a rich book.  It’s atmospheric and vividly described, and the whole story has a sort of threatening darkness to it.  There’s menace on all sides–both Carol and Moxie find themselves in danger, and all the while there’s the suspense of wondering whether or not Moxie will make it to Carol in time.    There’s also a supernatural element in the form of an entity that calls itself Rot, which attaches itself to Moxie out on the trail as well as to Carol.

If you want to get in the Halloween spirit a little early, and your tastes run toward the suspenseful and slightly Gothic, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

 

Halloween Read: “The Monstrumologist” by Rick Yancey

The-Monstrumologist

Presented as a real document found and edited by Yancey, this is a gory and gruesome tale of monsters with a classic feel.

Will Henry is an assistant to a monstrumologist in 1880’s New England.  A group of anthropophagi is discovered in the cemetery near Will’s town of New Jerusalem.  So Dr. Warthrop leads the investigation into how the monsters came to be there, and how to best exterminate them.  Anthropophagi are headless creatures, with faces in their stomachs and brutal strength.  They eat people.

The New England setting adds a layer of cold, dark atmosphere.  The scenes in the churchyard are especially effective, as is the climax deep below the ground.  Will Henry’s complicated relationship with Dr. Warthrop adds a nice dimension to the tale.

Also: when I said gruesome, I meant it.  It’ll make you squirm it’s so gross.  The writing is vivid and the carnage is gory.  The graveyard.  The basement.  The flies.  The worms.  It’s intense, but so beautifully done, and none of it seems out of place.  It just adds to the Gothic horror.

“Enmity is not a natural phenomenon, Will Henry. Is the antelope the lion’s enemy? Does the moose or elk swear undying animosity for the wolf? We are but one thing to the Anthropophagi: meat. We are prey, not enemies.”

Nothing like a good monster story to remind you that human beings are part of a food chain, too.

If you like The Monstrumologist, there are more in the series!  Find out more here.

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Lake of Dead Languages” by Carol Goodman

lake of deadWhat was it I said I was looking for in a book?   Interesting, complex characters.  Lyrical or at least engaging writing.  A quick pace.  A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman.  It’s everything I wanted!

Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher.  A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself.  During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide.  And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide.  When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.

The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year.  In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now.  As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax.  It’s a nice stylistic touch.

Heart Lake is practically a character on its own.  It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls.  The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description.  You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking.  Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!

The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal.  There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship.  All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.

There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets.  In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice.  I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.

–Marie

Not-so-Horrific Read: “The Night Sister” by Jennifer McMahon

Happy Halloween Week!  Here’s another Not-So-Horrific read for you to begin the count-down to the big day: The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon.

Longtime readers of this blog might remember last year’s McMahon-binge.  Do read that post for my fangirling  discussion of the appeal of her novels.  McMahon’s latest, The Night Sister, has all the same twists and turns, intricate plotting, moody atmosphere and mounting tension of her other work.  What sets it apart is the presence of monsters.

night sister

Like The Winter People, The Night Sister has overt supernatural elements.  In her earlier books, there was always just a touch of that, a sort of glimmer around not-so-nice realities. All-too-human monsters hide behind magical facades. In this book, as with The Winter People, you’re not quite sure how real the supernatural elements are until pretty far into the story, which helps build the suspense.

This particular story centers on two sets of sisters a generation apart.  In one past narrative, Piper and Margot and their friend Amy are growing up around the Tower Motel, once a big tourist spot in rural Vermont.  By the time the three girls were kids, the Motel had fallen into serious disrepair.  One summer they uncovered a nasty secret that blew their friendships apart.  In the other past narrative, there’s another set of sisters, Sylvie and Rose, who grew up at the motel in the 1950’s, and who both have something to do with the mysterious secret of the motel, and of Amy’s background.  The third narrative is set in the present, where Amy is accused of murdering her entire family, and Margot and Piper try to uncover the truth.

Secrets abound in this story, and the suspense comes from the desire to find out what’s really going on at the Tower Motel.  As I mentioned, the paranormal is overt in The Night Sister, but it plays so well into the dark family story that it doesn’t feel too much like fantasy or horror.  Rather, it’s a story about sisters and friendships and family secrets, and when you stop to think about it, the old-world monsters aren’t all that monstrous (though there is some deftly written well-placed gore).

But still, this is a compelling, darkly atmospheric tale, creepy and absorbing with well-crafted characters and relationships.  If you like your monster stories with a fairy-tale kind of feel, give this a try.

–Marie

Not-so-Horrific Read: “Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Sometimes Horror just isn’t what you want.  Sometimes you just want dark and unsettling, without jump scares or guts or monsters.  Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest, Eileen, might just fit the bill for you this Halloween.

eileen

Eileen is the story of a young woman who works in the office of a boys’ prison in the early 1960’s.  It’s the week before Christmas in a tiny New England town, and by the time the holiday rolls around Eileen will have disappeared.  She’s narrating from a point in the future, where she’s changed her name and taken on a new persona.  But clearly the past is still very much with her.

Eileen is distinctly unlikeable, but she’s such a well-developed character with such a distinct voice, filled with so much violence and desperation, that she’s compelling anyway.  This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.  You can perhaps find a bit of pity for Eileen, trapped by her time and place and position.

The whole world of the story is dark and cold, the pre-Christmas New England snows a perfect backdrop.  The one bright spot that appears is when Eileen has the opportunity to make a friend in the new prison psychologist, Rebecca.  It could be the break she’s been waiting for.  But you quickly learn that in this book, the world’s not that kind.

If you’ve watched the brilliant television series American Horror Story (currently in its fifth year), you’ll know what I mean when I say that, in terms of oppressive atmosphere, compelling but deeply flawed characters, this book reminded me of “Asylum,” the anthology’s second setting/story arc.  Eileen in my imagination had the same color palette, the same dingy surroundings, the same dark shadows.  What’s lurking in the dark may not be the same, but the set-pieces sure felt similar.

For more dark reads, check out this post.  You can also find some not-so-horrorific reading lists in the Suggested Reading section.

–Marie

P.S.

This also counts as 26 Books to Read in 2015: #6! an author I’ve never read before.

Marie’s Reading: “The House of Small Shadows” by Adam Nevill

small shadowsAdam Nevill’s wonderfully crafted, nightmarish horror-show The House of Small Shadows is one of the best Horror novels I’ve read in a while.  To the point of being too scared to sleep after I stayed up late reading it.

An antiques valuer named Catherine is sent to the Red House to catalog the collection of World War I veteran M.H. Mason, a taxidermist known for his dioramas of preserved rats enacting battle scenes from the Great War.  Mason’s niece, Edith, cares for the collection, which also includes child-sized marionettes and an intricate stage for them to perform on.

The more Catherine learns about Mason’s life and work, the more diabolical and mad it all seems.  There’s a darkness still lurking in the house, a mysterious secret that Catherine is drawn into and unable to avoid uncovering.  There’s a sense of something like destiny to the proceedings, an inevitability which adds to the stifling, uneasy atmosphere.

Add in Catherine’s traumatic childhood (lots of bullying and the mysterious disappearance of her best friend), as well as her recent mental breakdown, and it’s a perfect storm of madness at the Red House and the village of Magbar Wood.

Trauma, and the inability to cope with it, is threaded all the way through this novel.  Mason worked through his PTSD with his horrific dioramas, and Catherine still suffers from the mental and emotional consequences of her childhood.  The darkness lurking behind Mason’s work, and its sinister connection to her own past, makes her mental state even worse–to the point where the reader has no idea how much is real.

Horror is all about creating a pervasive sense of foreboding and unease, to instill a feeling of terror in the reader.  Nevill is extremely skilled at this.  The plotting is secondary to the images he crafts.  The taxidermy is creepy enough on its own, but the descriptions of the abandoned village, the puppets, the “cruelty plays,” the collections of photographs, and what’s hidden in the attic are all vivid and disturbing and make you feel as passive and swept-up in madness as Catherine is.  It’s compelling and well-paced, with the tension mounting as the story goes on.

The ending of the book descends into an intricately constructed bit of controlled chaos.  The uneasiness turns into terror as you try to decide what’s real and what isn’t, right down to the open ending.  You’re left shaken and wondering what just happened.

You might want to turn to classic horror for readalikes for this one.  Shirley Jackson was in my mind as I read–The Haunting of Hill House in particular.  The creepiness comes from uncertainty and mental instability, as well as an oppressive and menacing atmosphere, just as in The House of Small Shadows.  Richard Matheson’s Hell House, with its dark secrets and tension and sense of being trapped, might also appeal.  F.G. Cottam might be good to try as well–start with The House of Lost Souls, which involves a years-old crime and an enigmatic photographer.

Remember The House of Small Shadows for Horror Month, folks!  I’m rather certain it will play a role in the upcoming fourth installment of Marie’s Favorite Scary Books (title TBA).

–Marie