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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.

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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.

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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.

Verdict

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 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Weigel

    April 30, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    I just finished reading this book and really enjoyed how much impact the Chicago Columbian Exposition has had on modern life, holidays, phrases and even some of the developments in technology of the era, all giving rise to how we perceive things even now. I rather enjoyed the back and forth interplay between Burnham and Holmes, both men’s rise to realize their visions despite obstacles, and the desire to fulfill their purposes. It was a grand foray into the opulence of the era and the shadows lurking behind its facade. The fair is equally as important as Holmes, and the contrast between the two paints a clearer picture of the horrors hidden between both realities.

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.

In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.

The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.

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Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.

The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.

One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.

Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the SFF Addicts Podcast

I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology. 

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[USR 4.2]

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 5: a Book Review

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I can’t believe we’re already at the mid-season finale of Monastery! Time indeed flies when you’re having a blast (or feel like you’ve been hit by a bag of bricks). The fifth installment of the novel is so action-packed I don’t even know where to start. All I will say right now is that we are in for a ride of a lifetime. Buckle up, folks. 

Plot

We begin the episode with Thomas preparing to leave Monastery, a plan put in motion by his mother which is thankfully quickly reversed. Can you imagine anyone else leading the investigation? Didn’t think so. Although Thomas is still dealing with his guilt over Pop Dennis’s death, he knows there is a lot at stake. After all, his cousins need directions to get to the bottom of things. 

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For arguably the first time the group comes across something of great importance as they discover Francis’s DNA test. The group then trails him and our antagonist George Turner on their quest for the money Albert hid before his death. The characters encounter a bunch of clues that the narrator basically screams are foreshadowing but David once again disregards them. Nice going, man. 

On the other end, we have an extremely disturbing scene involving Francis digging up his father’s grave and desecrating it. I don’t blame Nicole for throwing up at the sight. Seeing him getting more and more unhinged throughout the episode is unsettling as well as riveting.

Speaking of graves, we finally get a flashback sequence of the night Albert’s family covered up his murder. We still don’t know who committed the crime but can see who helped to bury the body aka who is complicit. The scene provides some great characterization to the adults of the ensemble cast. It also explains why George Turner is so involved in everything. Hell, it even manages to make me feel bad for Cassandra. Just for a moment, though. 

Our neighborhood bully Rick continues to be heavily entangled in the story. He and Thomas have a highly emotional altercation when Rick attempts to take his own life. It’s a shame Rick doesn’t tell Thomas why he’s doing this as it would alleviate both their guilt. However, it’s also a realistic exploration of how young children handle something they are not emotionally equipped to deal with.

It is purely because of Thomas’s intentions to help him that Rick ends up being a witness to something horrible. Let’s just say, Francis finally snaps and George meets his brutal end. I definitely won’t miss the guy but this doesn’t bode well for our main cast. It can’t get any crazier though, right? 

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Overall thoughts

This is easily the most exhilarating episode of Monastery so far, with action just seeping off the pages. A lot of other storylines take a backseat (such as the love triangle that is seemingly dead but not quite). Despite that, there is still some time for emotional moments to let the readers take a breath. Words can’t say how excited I am for the next part. I just hope against all hope all my favorites will come out safe. Only time will tell… 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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More from the author:

1. This episode of Monastery was probably the most morbid one yet (the flashback of the family covering up Albert’s murder, Francis digging up his body, Thomas climbing into his grave). What is your writing process when it comes to these types of scenes as they can be quite uncomfortable to think about?

I may well be a little unhinged, as I honestly love writing these morbid scenes – probably because they always feel like the reward you get after you’ve worked so hard for something, you know? As a writer, you try to build up to those big moments, so that they feel earned. My process then ties in with ensuring those big, morbid scenes aren’t gratuitous, that they make sense to the plot and the characters. The family covering up Albert’s murder comes from a place of despair and self-preservation; Francis digging up his body comes from a place of anguish and resentment, and Thomas, well, he’s a very driven young man who will stop at nothing to find the truth, and we’re only just beginning to see that.

2. The neighborhood bully Rick turned out to be a lot more integral to the story than I would’ve originally thought. What prompted you to connect a non-family character to the action to such extent and why him?

I always knew I wanted the regular cast to be an eclectic mix of characters – we have people of all generations of the family (from young Henry to nonagenarian Nana Beth), and even a couple of characters who aren’t family. There is no real reason for that, other than a quirk of mine. But Rick’s true purpose isn’t yet revealed – he just witnessed something immense, it now remains to be seen what he chooses to do about it…

3. I picked up on the theme of beauty throughout the installments of Monastery (especially Nicole and Cassandra’s interaction). Was this choice purely to provide some context for Cassandra’s character or to provide some social commentary about how beauty and youth are worshipped and as soon as a woman starts aging she’s discarded? Maybe a bit of a mix?

A little from column A, a little from column B. The commentary here ties in with the importance that the characters give to female beauty – Nicole is smart, resilient and courageous, but all everyone talks about is how beautiful she is, whereas Cassandra is often regarded as a former, faded beauty. Both women themselves attribute a lot of importance to beauty, an importance that was clearly hammered into them by the world around them. So, when we learn that Cassandra sacrificed her beauty to protect her family, it goes to show all that she was willing to sacrifice to keep her loved ones safe. She may not be grandma of the year – but she’s the hero of a lifetime. A really nasty, emotionally abusive hero, but a hero all the same!

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Jennifer Weigel on Surviving Gen X by Jo Szewczyk

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Surviving Gen X is a dark and twisted tale of sin and salvation that comes to us from Haunted MTL’s very own Jo Szewczyk. Delving into the depths of debauchery, dysfunction, and deliverance, we follow our protagonists as they navigate the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, circa 1990. The book reads sort of like an acid trip or a fever dream or both… Good, bad, and ugly, with the gut-wrenching soul-sped journey of a candle lit at both ends, simultaneously fueled by cum, gasoline, and fire. The sexual exploits of our mostly unnamed narrator and lovelorn abused housewife Annie and friends, lovers, and accomplices craft an affair of more than the heart, of two (hundred thousand million billion) lost souls swimming eternally in a fishbowl, year after year after year after…

Surviving Gen X book cover
Surviving Gen X book cover

So you think you can tell…?

Surviving Gen X reads less as a credible story and more as an immersive experience, a theatrical performance in which you are whisked away to an alternate reality caked thick in glamour and glitter and grime. It is the sort of journey that leaves a stain on the psyche that won’t wash away no matter how hard you scrub at it. It is raw and provocative and, more than anything, screams to be seen, to be heard, to be rescued. All involved are adrift, seeking fulfillment in a world that refuses to acknowledge and cannot accept them for who they are. They are surviving, moment by moment, and in that space they are each and every one alone, isolated and forsaken. Like flecks of stardust strewn across the universe, our protagonists yearn to cast their glow, to shine forth, to unite, to be made whole… but the growing vastness of the space between them prevents such true connection and eventually all succumb to their own despair.

Despite being naked and vulnerable, this is nonetheless an adventure masked in mud, merriment, and mayhem, seeking friendship and truth as gritty glimmers of hope found only when one throws oneself into the darkest depths of dysfunction to claw their way back out through all of the layers. Only here can such elements of titillating triumph be told, through snippets of scenes that seem to spring forth from the most unreal and unlikely circumstances, like a failed double date at a family restaurant that devolves into potential death by bachelorette party. It is the spaghetti thrown at the wall in the hopes of sticking, trying desperately to hold on, to cling to some sense of relativity. The result is absurd as much as it is agonizing.

Running Over the Same Old Ground, What Have We Found?

Much like a re-birthing, or a regurgitation, this experience is messy and sometimes difficult to swallow. It defies definition and refuses reality, eschewing enjoyment even despite immersing itself in all of the pleasures of the flesh. Because what is left when the body, mind, heart, and spirit are disjointed? Just an off-kilter roller coaster jaunt through oblivion, careening off course in a fast and rapid burnout. There’s no getting off that ride once the kooky contraption gets going, best just to accept the struggle, hold on tight, and see it out to its crazy conclusion. We’re still trying to wash the confetti from our hair after falling out that window.

To quote the 2006 Wergle Flomp poetry contest winning poem, this is:

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A travesty / Of buffoonery. / As if a five-year-old child / Were pointing a handgun / At a masturbating clown. Nicholas Moore, How to Write a Poem

And a hauntingly beautiful and brilliant travesty of buffoonery it is… So I’m not going to rate this experience by Cthulhus; the Cthulhus are still too busy trying to untie the ropes to release the French midget hanging from the crystal chandelier. But if you yearn to see how it all unfolds, and to experience the gritty gaudy glitz in all of its slimy sleazy splendor, then you need only to pick up the book and read for yourself. It’s an adventure you won’t soon forget. You can find it here on Amazon. Plus if you order it now you’ll have it for VD (Valentine’s Day, ya perv, though maybe there isn’t really much difference)… Oh and here’s a sneak peek from13 Days of Krampus 2020…

And if you want to explore something of similar sentiment to set the mood, may I recommend watching Unholy by Sam Smith and Kim Petras? If the following YouTube window doesn’t work, you can find it directly here.

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