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Trigger warnings: animal abuse and gore mentioned

So, I wish that I had seen the original cover because that would have answered some of my questions. Not all of them, oh heavens no, but a good lot of them. Like, what time period are we in? I asked myself this over and over because it was unabashedly unclear. With references to Dick Tracy, Lana Turner, and MTV – it could be anywhere from the 1930’s to 1990’s (let’s get real, after the 90’s there really wasn’t an MTV anymore). With kids going to the corner store to get a coke and ride around town, it sounds like the 1960’s. But in one instance, it makes fun of the 1950’s, as if it were an era from a hundred years ago. It is both in the past and in the future. It is a paradox!

Oh wait, here’s the original cover:

Does evil accumulate interest? Because I have some student loans…

Okay, great. Late 80’s, early 90’s – got it. Poof, I’m there. And I’m deducing that it was written by an older person because, again, a nine year old boy doesn’t know what the hell a Dick Tracy is in the late 80’s-early 90’s (trust me, no one saw that film and everyone who has has long since blocked it from their memory).

Oh, what, you want to know about the book? Oh, yes, I should review it since I read it. Or rather, listened to it, via Audible. This is the Audible cover:

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When evil makes a deal, it collects…in stock pictures

I have to say, it doesn’t do it any justice at all. Even for a book that I’m about to give two Cthulhus to, it deserves the original cover because it explains the book so much better and is just a beautiful image. It primes you for what the book is truly about and what to expect – white people problems witchcraft.

All the characters…from the first three chapters…

The Plot:

There are a million characters, I’m going to narrow them down to three: Nancy, Lana, and Spiro.

Lana is the new girl in town, just moved from Texas after her mother’s messy divorce and work relocation. She is beautiful, but down-to-earth, and trying to find new friends while her mother resettles and her younger brother is a straight-up asshole. She is just the girl next door, literally.

Next door lives Spiro, a boy Lana’s age, with developmental and intellectual disabilities. He is shy, awkward, and horrendously bullied at school, regardless of his enormous stature. Growing up fatherless, his mother is cruel and archaic, punishing him for every imagined slight and then often neglecting him. He becomes infatuated with Lana, due to her kindness.

Nancy is a popular girl in the school, brash and unafraid of anything, she goes into the crypt one night of the local cursed family and finds a book. The local legends say that the family were witches and had sacrificed a baby to the devil for powers and immortality, and intrigued, Nancy begins to dabble with the book, to see if the rumors are true.

All three of their lives interweave when mysterious things around town keep happening – could Nancy be the cause of it? Or perhaps the family isn’t as dead as everyone thought?

Thoughts:

Okay, first off, the beginning 3/4ths of this book are pretty uninteresting; it’s mainly setting up “character” where there just isn’t any. As stated, there are so many characters that it’s ridiculous, even the parents of the kids are introduced, and then other characters are introduced half-way in. It’s a mess. Honestly, a lot of it could have been cut down and wouldn’t be missed.

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Won’t someone look past her Texan accent and just give her a chance?

To boot, all of the characters (except for Lana) are awful, insufferable people. It’s hard to listen to them when they are moldy garbage people who are just as interesting as the little bits of toilet paper stuck to the tp roll. Lana is constantly surrounded by young men who want to sexually harass her, her brother who literally wants to ruin her life, and the clique-ish girls at the school. But at the same time, it’s hard to identify with her because we’re constantly reminded how utterly smoking hot she is.

Most of the reviews I’ve read love the first part and hate the second, or never even get to the second. The “second” is the last 1/4th and was infinitely better because it went bawls-to-the-walls insane and gory. Fowler is actually very good at writing gore and, hoo boy, there needed to be 80% more gore and spooky and 120% less talking about nothing and getting Cokes at the burger shop.

MAJOR bummer, your insides are out – how will you go to prom now?

The gore is mostly body horror, but there’s plenty of animal murder (which a lot of people found offensive by the comments I read) and…I’m not sure how to put this…gross baby-making-type stuff. You could find it vulgar, I mostly just found it erring on the side of sexist (and yes, I know this was a lady writer). Eyeballs do explode. I found that delightful. I also was entertained when a character’s naughty-bits started “spraying blood all over the living room like an unmanned firehouse”.

There are a few clever ideas that I won’t let spoil the story but, lightly, I think how some of the demons manifest and are different characters would have been more terrific if better explored and savored. I always find demons as characters interesting; unfortunately, these were the typical, standard issue demons, which is almost ironic because there’s a point when someone does a bit with The Exorcist, and then Fowler just kind of copies it later. It would have been great to set up the human characters in the first part, slowly trickle the demons in with their own personalities so that we’re acquainted with them, and then go to the climax of the story with everything mixed.

Just a demon

Honestly, I think this would have worked better as a short story or novella. There was too much fluff to get to where we wanted and needed to be.

Brain Roll Juice:

I’m going to get this out of the way first because it didn’t sit well and now that I have a timeline I can say, “Don’t give me ‘it was just different times’ bull-hockey.” It was, indeed, different times. Different, racist and sexist times. But before those fun times, let’s get to that other thing stuck in my craw – the treatment of Spiro. And I’m not talking about the kids in the book.

I am well aware, thank you

Spiro has some kind of developmental and/or intellectual disability, brought on from when his mother contracted German measles/Rubella and he, in utero, suffered from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). He is seventeen, over six feet and two hundred pounds, and physically and mentally abused by his peers, teachers, and mother. He is in the same classes without additional support as his peers. He is punished with detention for “daydreaming”. He is called “’Tardo” and “freak” within earshot of teachers and authority figures. He is often physically abused by his mother.

He also turns into a disgusting creep and is painted in so broad and stereotypical a brush that I found it offensive.

From “gentle giant” stereotype to “creeper of the only nice girl to me” stereotype to “snapping from repression” stereotype to “spoiler spoiler spoiler” stereotype. There isn’t anything clever or sincere about the character and that chips my paint. He is the only diverse character in the whole bunch and he has absolutely nothing of substance to say or do. I was furious because I was excited to see a rare neuro-diverse character in horror as, what I thought, was a lead role (the first chapter starts with him – he introduces the story), or at least a sympathetic role.

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And no, that ending doesn’t factor in. Without going into details, let’s just say that his send off was very similar to the classic moment in TV history:

And then Spiro still had to do the runway show, even though he had been eliminated

The same sentiment can be said with the wildly racist comments that drop out of flipping nowhere, like, “that’s why Japanese people’s eyes are slanted…all the books they read”, “Is an African’s hair kinky?” (used like “does a bear sh– in the woods?”), and “ghetto blaster” as a sobriquet for a boombox. Or the introduction to the only black character at the end of the book that actually calls his peers, “chillun”.

Poor Michael Reaves, the narrator, for having to cough out these lines and make the best out of it. He’s even had to narrate a gastric sleeve cookbook and probably had a better time with that.

Pictured: More fun than racist old horror

But let’s take a look back – this was published in 1992. The year that Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel into space; that the Kentucky Supreme Court held that laws criminalizing same-sex sodomy are unconstitutional (and accurately predicted that other states and the nation would eventually rule the same way); and a TWO full years after Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law.

So, what am I saying? I’m saying that you’re right. The times were different and changing. This book has aged and will continue to do so. Even if this is just a pulp horror novel, it’s also a time capsule. I can read this and watch a movie like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and see how far our narrative focus has changed. Call it SJW-appeasement or diversity-pandering, but it has changed. It’s no longer just 311 pages filled with average high school melodrama with occasional exploding eyeballs, but showing new facets from new perspectives to keep the same stories we keep telling each other fresh and engaging to more people.

And that leads me to wonder, what would these characters look like now? How would we react to them? How would they change the narrative if they were written today? And do people even know who Dick Tracy is anymore?

Is this Dick Tracy?

Bottom-line:

If you like gore, it’s drudgery to get through the first part. If you like character development, there isn’t much of any. If you like late-80’s to early-90’s nostalgia…I’d still advise against it. It’s not great and aged even worse. 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

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When not ravaging through the wilds of Detroit with Jellybeans the Cat, J.M. Brannyk (a.k.a. Boxhuman) reviews mostly supernatural and slasher films from the 70's-90's and is dubiously HauntedMTL's Voice of Reason. Aside from writing, Brannyk dips into the podcasts, and is the composer of many of HauntedMTL's podcast themes.

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Book Reviews

Holly

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Published in September of this year, Holly is the latest novel from the undisputed king of horror, Stephen King.

I was excited when I heard that Holly was getting her own book. If you’re not familiar with the larger body of King’s work, she was a secondary character in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. She was also a secondary character in The Outsider, though that was called Holly Gibney #1. Holly Gibney #2 was If It Bleeds, part of a short story collection by the same name.

While you don’t have to read any of this before you read Holly, it will help you get some of the references.

The Story

When our story begins, Holly is mourning the death of her mother. Her partner Pete is in the hospital with Covid, and she is not supposed to be working.

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But when a woman named Penny Dahl calls, asking for Holly’s help finding her missing daughter, she can’t ignore the plea.

As Holly searches the last place Bonnie Dahl was seen, she starts to learn of other missing persons cases. The cases don’t have anything in common, and neither do the victims. Except that they all had an interaction, however small, with a married couple named Rodney and Emily Harris.

Retired, Rodney and Emily are suffering from the usual but heartbreaking ailments that come along with age. Arthritis, sciatica, failing memories. But they believe they just might have found a miracle cure. One that most people would refuse. At least, we hope they would.

While Holly digs deeper, her friend Barbara Robinson is seeking a poetry mentor. This search brings her dangerously close to the two killer professors.

What worked

The reason I was excited about this book was to spend more time with Holly. She was easily the best part of The Outsider and inspired me to read the Mr. Mercedes trilogy.

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And she was just as wonderful in this book. She was clever, insightful, and kind. Holly manages to be innocent and very aware of how the world works at the same time. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends and has a strong grasp of right from wrong. I sincerely hope that there’s a Holly #4 in the works.

I also loved the way this story was told. Through the course of the book, we see the story from different points of view. We see flashbacks to each victim and their terrible ends. We see Holly hunting a poor lost woman. And we see Barbara circling dangerously close to the true killers. The tension this built was incredible. It was hard not to shriek, watching all the pieces come so close to being together, only to be blown away and come together again.

What didn’t work

That being said, this was not a perfect novel. For one thing, there was an inordinate amount of attention to Covid 19.

Honestly, there were three killers in this book.

And I get it. Covid continues to be a terrible thing. It’s just one of many horrific world events we’ve suffered through, and yet another that is going to leave a scar on everyone who experienced it.

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I don’t need to tell you about the fear, and supply chain issues. The deaths and medical professionals stretched to their limits. The mass graves. The horrific reality that there were people who just did not care to take it seriously, even as people were dying.

I don’t need to tell you, and neither did King on almost every page. And it was on almost every page.

Yes, Covid took over every part of our lives. It didn’t need to take over every part of this story.

My other irritation with this book is one more difficult to explain without giving away the ending. Forgive me if I ruin anything for you, it’s not my intention.

I wanted something terrible to happen to the antagonists. I wanted them to suffer. And they didn’t suffer nearly enough.

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Finally, I wish we’d gotten some sort of closure for Holly over her mother stealing all of her inheritance from her. I understand that sometimes in life people die and we don’t get answers that we’d like from them. But this is fiction. We, and the characters, are supposed to get some sort of closure.

Is Holly my new favorite Stephen King novel? No, not really. It isn’t as good as The Stand, or From a Buick 8. But it was a good story. It was suspenseful, exciting, and a little sad. It was everything you’d want from a thriller.

Holly appears to be King’s new Castle Rock. He keeps coming back to her, over and over. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 3: a Book Review

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The time has come for another installment of our resident mystery novel Monastery. We continue to follow our set of characters trying to uncover the secrets of their grandfather’s murder. Too bad members of their family are going to great lengths to stomp their efforts. Anyway, enough rambling, let’s begin! 

Plot

We start this part of Monastery with our crew coming to a simple conclusion – they must seek answers wherever possible. What better place to find them than visiting Albert’s sister? It’s a shame they’re not going to the Old Farm, there would definitely be some answers there. Francis’s character development is quite intriguing to me. He’s clearly uninvolved in the cover-up and yet there seems to be a lot of understated trauma. One can only wonder if it will all boil to the surface. 

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While I know some people don’t enjoy flashback sequences, Albert’s trip down memory lane provided some nice characterization for me. It’s his story after all, and even though his and Cassandra’s relationship is far from #goals, it’s complex and interesting. I also enjoyed his commentary on selective memory, I feel like that applies a lot to our daily lives. 

David and Nicole’s dynamic is also explored more. The pairing bond over their taste in music and share a kiss after he helps her recover from a werewolf attack (yes, you heard that right, and I want to know more immediately). Tensions between them rise further to the point where she actually considers breaking up with Fred. That is, until he pulls a grand gesture (something David was advised to do). While I don’t condone cheating or flirting with someone to make your partner jealous, those are all love triangle tropes and this one is in full swing. 

Things escalate further at the town’s raffle draw party when Aunt Doris shows up and gets paid off by Cassandra. While I’m not certain how I feel about her character, she does provide the group with valuable information – Albert’s cause of death was faked. Of course. 

We end this installment of Monastery on a bit of a harrowing note. Cassandra abuses her own son in front of Henry, who is left completely traumatized. This stuck out to me as a change in tone and I wonder how much darker it will get. We’ll find out soon… 

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Overall thoughts

This part of Monastery focuses a lot on Albert’s youth and the love triangle between David, Nicole, and Fred. While some people would say it’s unnecessary, I think the additions, especially the romance, both keep the pacing so we don’t fly through the mystery too quickly and lighten the mood a bit. Not to mention there is some interesting characterisation brought to light because of this. The questions are still piling up and I can just feel we’re on the cusp of things hitting the fan. I can’t wait for more. 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Read further for some insight from the author himself:

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  1. 1. Last time I asked you how you integrate comedy into your writing. How about romance? How do you pick the moment that feels right to sprinkle some spice into the story without turning it into a full-blown chick flick? Do you have a personal preference of who you would like Nicole to end up with (if you can share)? 

Funny you should ask about picking the right moment because David originally kissed Nicole in episode 1, but it felt rushed then, so I ultimately moved it to this third episode. I always knew there would be a romantic triangle, trite though it may seem, because at its heart this story is very soapy. As for when the right moment is, the story itself always tells me that, but have no fear, the murder mystery will always be at the center of everything.  

Also, who do I think Nicole should end up with? I think she needs to work on loving herself a bit more. It may seem she loves herself a bit too much, at surface level, but do read on. 

2. There is no doubt Cassandra is a bitch and a murder accomplice (if not the murderer). However, you are showing the readers layers of her character (such as her being abused as a young woman). Is this something that will be relevant in the story later on or just a device to provide her character with some humanity? 

Relevant. So, so relevant. There are many glimpses of Albert’s past throughout the series, but the events surrounding St. John’s Party in 1976 compose the main flashback thread. I want to believe there is great re-read value to my story, as there are so many clues and little elements spread throughout, things you might only catch on to when you have the full picture. I mean, the werewolf’s identity is revealed in every episode they feature in – it’s just a matter of knowing where to look for it! As for Cassandra, in my opinion, she is the best character, and I am so excited for people to dive into her story. 

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Book Reviews

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

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Frankenstein is a story that we’re all familiar with. It’s been part of the public zeitgeist for generations, almost since it was published in 1818. It’s been made into movies, ripped off for TV shows, and parodied to hell and back. Frankenstein’s monster had met the Three Stooges and the Chipmunks and sang in front of a Christmas Tree to sell iPhones.

In the original story, though, our tale is told to a narrator by our main character, Victor Frankenstein. He tells a horrific tale of creating a monster in a moment of hubris, and then of being hunted by that monster.

Reading the story as a child, it never occurred to me that Victor might have been full of shit.

This thought occurred to Kirsten White, author of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein.

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The Story

We begin our story with Elizabeth. She and her best friend Justine are going to search for Victor, who hasn’t been in contact with his family in months. Elizabeth worries that if Victor’s gone too long, his father will stop seeing Elizabeth as useful and throw her out.

As they search for Victor, Elizabeth remembers important moments in their past. She was a poor girl, abused and neglected by her caregivers. But she charms Victor, and so his mother takes her in.

As we go back and forth between the past and present, a dark and morbid picture is painted. Victor has some issues with anger. With seeing other people as human beings and not playthings. Most of us might call him a sociopath.

As Elizabeth recalls his bloody past and searches for him, ser realizes that he’s gotten into something much darker than he ever has before. And she is bound and determined to make sure no one ever finds out what that is.

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No matter what that is.

What worked

While I’ve read countless retellings and reimagining in my life, I’ve rarely found one that compliments the original work so well. This story feels like it could very well be the actual truth, while Frankenstein is nothing more than the lies told by a rich white boy who now has to face the consequences of his actions for once. They make sense together.

I also adored Elizabeth. Not at first, though, which I think is the point. At first, she’s a selfish person who would do anything to anyone if it meant that she was safe. And we see this over and over in the ways that she covers up for young Victor’s madness. I don’t think we should have expected anything less from the author of Hide. White seems to have a talent for creating characters who are their stories being self-serving for very understandable reasons, before rising to the calling of heroism.

What didn’t work

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This was a tightly written story, and it’s hard to pinpoint anything that stood out as not working. However, I will say this. There is a moment in the story when the tables turn between Victor and Elizabeth. Elizabeth claims to just then realize how many people Victor has killed. I kind of think she probably knew before then. She just didn’t want to.

While this makes sense, as we’re looking at a flawed main character, I would argue that it doesn’t make sense for Elizabeth’s character that she would remain with the Frankensteins. As soon as she had a chance to get in good with Henry, why didn’t she take it?

Again, this is a fairly small flaw in an otherwise fantastic story.

At its core, Frankenstein is the story of a man who creates a monster and must kill him before he can cause more pain. The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is the same story. Elizabeth has created a monster in Victor by covering up his madness and helping to shield him from consequences. In the end, she must face the monster she created.

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5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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