If you ever spent the day googling “true crime books” and making a list of the best recommendations, then there’s a chance that you’ve run into this book before. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America Forever by Erik Larson is a historical non-fiction book that details the life and crimes of Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as H.H. Holmes. Nicknamed the American Ripper, Holmes is believed to have taken over 200 lives during his lifetime, many of whom have never been recovered. Their bodies were turned to ash or sold to medical universities for study.
The man and his infamous Murder Castle live on in our history’s frightful memory as if he had been the Devil reborn.
“I was born with the Devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing. I was born with the Evil One standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.”Holmes in his memoir Holmes’ Own Story
One of the few convicted murderers to have ever written a memoir, Holmes’ statement declaring himself no different than a demon has given him quite an ominous presence in American history. For some, just looking at his photo brings to mind the words “Devil” and “monster”. There’s something sinister about someone sitting in a jail cell, whose face has yet to show even an ounce of fear for their impending hanging, claim that they have the Devil in them. It didn’t help that nearly everyone who met the man was instantly charmed into submission.
Before going any further, let’s stop to clear something up. If you’re thinking that the Devil in the White City is all about Holmes, you would be wrong. This is not a detailed 390-paged account of H.H. Holmes’s life, crimes, and arrest. The Devil in the White City isn’t a true-crime book but is actually about the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition of 1893. The fact that Holmes makes an appearance is because he happened to be apart of it. It is 80% fair and 20% Holmes.
A dark shadow that lives behind the scenes
Larson chops the book into two narratives. One for the fair and one for Holmes. He conjoins them so that they rise, thrive, and fall at the exact same pace. A structure that elevates the notorious serial killer to an almost ghost-like presence. He lives and breathes in the shadows. Living just outside the marvelous spectacle that was the World’s Fair but close enough to feed on it.
While the shadowy background is filled with Holmes, the other narrative follows a man named Daniel Burnham. For those not familiar with the name, Burnham is the Chicago architect credited with building what is referred to as the White City. The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the first Columbus Day celebration (if only they could see the way people hate on this holiday day- oh boy, would they be mad) that lasted six months. To properly celebrate this, an entire city was built for the occasion. The White City, named because all the buildings were painted white.
Burnham and others, including Frederick Law Olmsted, John Root, and Sol Bloom were the ones who made the fair a reality. Their struggles and architectural process are what make up most of the book.
Hiding in plain sight, spotlight for the fair
Anyone who reads this will learn EVERYTHING about that fair. Every single flaw, union riot, arguments between firms, budget cuts, etc. EVERYTHING! There will come a point where you’ll forget Holmes is even there, and this, I believe, is the point. The further you go, the less you’ll see Holmes, no different than how the city of Chicago did not see him.
One thing is for certain, Erik Larson gives a brilliant description of 1890s Chicago. He is so detailed and specific in the way that he pulls the city from history that it feels like you’re right there. You can see the people, hear them, smell their unwashed bodies as they march in the streets, and aggressively cheer in front of the Chicago Tribune when it’s announced that Chicago will serve as host to the fair.
How it deals with Holmes
Anyone familiar with H.H. Holmes knows what he did and how he did it. True crime enthusiasts know all about the Murder Castle and its many secret rooms. Any mention of Holmes guarantees a discussion about that freaking hotel and the elaborate crimes he committed inside. After a while, these same details start to repeat themselves, but this is where Erik Larson stands strong.
Larson ignores most of what happened inside the walls of the Castle. He describes how it’s built and briefly mentions what it looked like inside, how it smelled, and such, but rarely does he dive into the gory details. It’s a brilliant change of pace. He puts more focus on the victims. Those who disappear inside our obsession with murderers.
We get to know women such as Alice and Nellie Pitezel, Julia Smythe, Emeline Cigrande, and Minnie and Annie Williams; just some of the innocent victims who were so easily fooled. A study of Holmes is forgotten, and the study of those around him is put in its place. It creates a much more harrowing effect because we see what they saw and felt hours before they realized the horrible truth.
Even though I couldn’t care less about the World’s Fair, I really liked this book. The moments featuring Holmes are incredible and the moments lacking his presence are just as good. This is a true testament to Larson’s skills as an author because the subject of architecture and generic Chicago “fun fact” history is mind-numbingly boring to me. Yet, the novel narrative technique Larson adopts in order to write The Devil in the White City makes every detail enthralling to read. (5 / 5)
The Roots Grow Into The Earth
Launching next month The Roots Grow Into The Earth was a delightful read. It’s the premiere novel by horror author Bert S. Lechner. And after reading it, I hope it’s not his last.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth is a collection of nine short stories and novellas, including three previously published stories. The tales are all part of one larger story. A story of darkness, and madness. A story of a creature released that should never have been. That begins then to sink its roots into the Earth and infect innocent people far and wide.
One such example is The Wall. This is the story of a man named Sam and his wife Nat. They have a lovely normal life full of morning coffee and weekend pizza nights. Until Sam notices something on the wall of their home. While it appears to be nothing, a vision starts taking shape. With Sam’s help.
Another story that really moved me was The Orchestra.
Let me first stay that this was not a particularly fleshed out story. We do not see The Conductor before she’s infected. We don’t see the fallout. No real picture is painted for us, it’s more like a sketch.
In the case of The Orchestra, though, this is exactly the right choice. We don’t need to see the whole picture in gruesome technicolor to get what’s happening in this ill fated concert. We understand perhaps too well what’s occurring. And I thought that was brilliant.
I just want to start by gushing over this storytelling style. Short story collections always have a soft spot in my heart. In the case of The Roots Grow, all of the short stories come together to create one truly dark tale.
I also loved the clear Lovecraftian influence of this story. It’s clear that this was something that the author was going for, from interviews and social media comments. But I could tell before I saw any of that.
The story in The Roots Grow is one of madness. But more than that, it’s one of madness and destruction that the victims could not have avoided. There was no being clever enough to avoid these dark roots that touched them. There was no being strong enough, or selfless and good enough. If the roots reach out and touch you, you’ve already lost.
Finally, I want to extend some praise to my favorite character, Joanne. She is dealing with her own madness, her own demons. But she still finds kindness and strength to help others when they need her. Even against some truly dark odds.
What didn’t work
All that being said, I will say that some of the short stories felt incomplete. One prime example is What Lies In The Icy Soil. This appears to be nothing more than the tale of a person possessed by the need to dig. He digs up something that for sure shouldn’t be dug up. But there’s nothing more to the story. We don’t know who this person is. We don’t know who might be missing him, or what might come of this thing he dug up. As a part of the whole story, it fits. But if we are to consider every tale by its own merit, this one doesn’t have much of anything going for it.
That being said, this is one story in a round ten that wasn’t much of anything. The rest of the stories were wonderfully eerie, both on their own and as part of a whole.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth comes out on October 7th. And I think it would be a perfect addition to your Halloween reading list. (4 / 5)
Strange Eons Review: Cornfields and Eldritch Gods
“The elder gods arrived in the sky in early September, like an unholy aurora borealis stretching across a midnight sky. Their vastness blocked the sun, an unending eclipse, a liminal state, a breath that was inhaled but never let go. Lovecraft got it wrong, I think. It was not the sight of the gods that made humanity go mad. It’s what they destroy that hurts us. Somehow, these elder gods, these aliens, had killed time itself.” – Strange Eons by Keria Perkins
Strange Eons is a short story published in Bourbon Penn Issue 30 by Keira Perkins. Perkins, is an Indiana writer of short fiction and poetry that has also appeared in Non-Stalgia and The Heartland Society of Women Writers. Bourbon Penn is an online and print journal that specializes in speculative, odd, and surreal fiction. All issues are available to be read online for free or can be purchased as a paperback from Bookshop.org.
Strange Eons follows a young woman struggling to adjust to a life post-Lovecraftian apocalypse. This is a cozy story, the majority of which takes place as the woman lays in a cornfield and hides from well-meaning but unhelpful family members. While cozy, the piece is ominous, tackling the terror associated with pregnancy. Specifically, the terror that comes from living in a Red State and finding a significant lack of resources or options.
As a Hoosier capable of becoming pregnant, Strange Eons resonated with me. The imagery of cornfields and cicadas were very Indiana. However, so is a young woman covertly asking her sister to drive her to Illinois to receive healthcare. I loved how Perkins merged cosmic horror with the horror of receiving reproductive healthcare in Indiana but also the United States as a whole. All that was missing were predatory billboards advertising fake pregnancy centers! Talk about maddening and terrifying! Throughout the short story, the most horrific part of the young woman’s ordeal is not the eldritch gods appearing but her rather typical, hellish circumstances.
Aside from content, Strange Eons is well-written. It keeps you guessing where the story will go next. If you like a non-tropey cozy take on Lovecraftian horror or have struggled to receive reproductive healthcare, I highly recommend checking out Strange Eons! You can also check out the other stories in this issue of Bourbon Penn here. Or you can see what else Perkins is up to on her website.(5 / 5)
Walking Practice – A Book Review
Walking Practice is Dolki Min’s debut novella about an alien named Mumu, who must learn what it is like to perform as a human. Victoria Caudle, the translator of this unique Korean story, experiments with the English language to properly convey Min’s style. This, complimented with Min’s various drawings of the story’s protagonist, creates a poetic, outlandish reading experience that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.
Walking Practice: Never Enough Practice
After the destruction of their home planet, Mumu crash lands their spaceship in a desolate forest far from human life. They survive by having sex with humans then, with graphic violence and great diligence, eats them.
Mumu has a strict schedule and regimen for this process; they must shapeshift their body to the specific gender and personality their date is attracted to. While this process of gender conformation is a difficult one (as the alien will often tell us), it is nowhere near as hard as the ridiculous habit humans have of walking on two legs. This is one of the many obstacles Mumu must struggle with while playing the game of life.
Mumu is a rich, self-aware character who seems to trust only one human: the reader. They address us directly, asking questions and indulging us with their theories on what it is to live on Earth. They are knowledgeable about the complexities of personhood, and aware that a person’s gender and sex are complex and not one-size-fits-all. After years of experience in multiple genders, the alien theorizes that humans are treated as people as soon as they have a sex and gender assigned to them. However, depending on the sex and gender, that treatment is never equal.
While Mumu performs various genders and personalities to match the sexual desires of their future prey, they do not identify as human. At the end of the day, they go home, stock their human leftovers in the fridge and freezer, and unleash their natural form. Their only priority is their own survival and pleasure (which, arguably, is their most humanlike quality).
“I’ve learned that my face arouses homicidal impulses”
Walking Practice uses horror, science fiction and satire to create a passionate queer narrative. While Mumu is a serial killer who prides themselves on their murderous skills, it is hard not to feel for them when karma strikes back and they are hurt. The poetic elements of Min’s story and Caudle’s translation support our empathy for such a vicious character
Min’s artwork, depicting Mumu’s alien forms, complements Caudle’s stylistic choices. There is enjambment in several paragraphs, (which can be interpreted as the alien either having a flair for the dramatic or genuinely pausing to find the right words), thus enhancing their internal dialogue. There are moments when the Mumu’s stream of consciousness confuses reality from imagination. They will also lose all learned human skills and revert to their mother tongue; words either run together or are spaced apart, and sometimes there are unintelligible symbols. At the surface, it looks like a linguistic nightmare. Once immersed in Mumu’s narrative, it is a work of art.
Walking Practice‘s balance of ambiguity and transparency keeps the reader close while also allowing an array of interpretations. It is an eccentric piece of fiction that plays with the literary status quo, resulting in an entertaining affair with an unforgettable alien. (5 / 5)