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)
Brutality, Motherhood, and Art: Nightbitch Review
“In the distance, she heard her husband in the backyard call for her , but she was not that woman anymore, that mother and wife. She was Nightbitch, and she was fucking amazing. It seemed she had been waiting for this for a very, very long time.” -pg 89, Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
Nightbitch is the debut novel of Rachel Yoder about a stay-at-home mother coming to terms with the loneliness and brutality of motherhood. The main character, only referred to as The Mother, begins to undergo a frightening change as she sinks deeper into a depressive state. She transforms into Nightbitch, an animalistic creature full of anger, bloodlust, and freedom. The Mother must utilize the help of a strange book and a group of multi-level marketing mommies to harness her newfound strength before she loses herself or her family.
The novel is a stunning commentary on the everyday violence of motherhood centered within the context of werewolf and mystical woman mythos. The Mother spends much of the book contemplating her future and the abandonment of her dreams. Specifically, she grapples with the loss of her ability to create art, her longtime passion. On a larger scale, Nightbitch examines how many women are asked to stop being individuals after having children and only become mothers–existing only in the presence of their child. The message is clear, poignant, dark, and at times, hilarious. The prose and structure of the book are abnormal, however, it works with the overall messaging and plot.
As far as negatives go, Nightbitch was pretty ambiguous. This was by design, and created an aura of magical mysticism around many of the characters and events. The Mother is the definition of an unreliable narrator. However, towards the end of the book, I would have liked a little more clarity in what certain characters knew.
Nightbitch is a must read for any parent. As a non-parent, I highly recommend it for those interested in feminist horror or more avant-garde approaches to horror narratives. Those who don’t like books with heavy introspection or ambiguous storytelling may enjoy something else, however I still think it is an interesting read nonetheless.(4.4 / 5)
Gothic, Ghosts, and Tlachiqueros: The Hacienda Review
“Dread washed over me. Had she been sitting there, watching me sleep, the whole night? Her skin gleamed like candle wax in the light; then she grinned and whatever color her eyes had been before, now they turned red. In an instant, her skin transformed, dried and desiccated into leather, and her teeth grew long and needle sharp.” -pg 214, The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas
The Hacienda is a gothic horror novel by Isabel Cañas set in the wake of Mexico’s War for Independence. The debut novel by Cañas, it delivers a classic haunted house tale with a twist of Mexican high society. Recently made homeless by the execution of her father, Beatriz marries Don Solórzano to escape her cruel treatment by her relatives. However, once she joins him on his estate, she finds that the promise of a new life holds dark secrets and darker spirits. She enlists the help of a priest, Andrés, to uncover both. Together, they find the home has more dangers than they bargained for. And more threats both supernatural and far too material await every corner.
I adored The Hacienda from start to finish. Cañas’s prose was accessible but full of deep imagery. While told from the perspective of both Beatriz and Andrés, neither outweighed the other. The perspectives were interesting and the transition between the two was well executed throughout the novel. I usually don’t seek out romantic books, but I loved the romantic and sexual tension between the two main characters. Specifically since the romantic tension developed within both perspectives, the relationship’s “will-they-won’t-they” felt both plausible and full of stakes. And of course, The Hacienda was spooky! I loved the way the spirits manifested and the impact that had on the characters.
My only minor criticisms would be the resolution was fairly quick and mostly offscreen. Though maybe I’m just saying that because I wanted to keep reading, even after the book ended! I also found myself slightly annoyed at the characters for not picking up on some of the more obvious clues to what had happened in the house.
A thoroughly enjoyable gothic (and dare I say, romantic) novel that kept me on the edge of my seat, I highly recommend The Hacienda. If you enjoy haunted house tales, you will enjoy this book.(4.8 / 5)
Preorder Isabel Cañas’s new book Vampires of El Norte now!
“The Family Game” Glimpses Into The 1%
Are their traditions innocent or are they darker than they seem?
Harry, short for Harriet, is a British writer gaining popularity after the publishing of her first novel. She meets Edward, a member of the widely known Holbeck family, and the two strike up a relationship. The Holbecks are high powered executives, running family businesses that bring in massive amounts of wealth. When Harry learns she is pregnant, the couple decide that it is finally time for her to meet the family.
During her first meeting with the family, Edward’s father, Robert gives Harry a vintage tape that he says holds a story that he’d like her to listen to. As Harry listens to the tape, she begins to believe that the Holbecks have done some very bad things.
As she continues visiting the family, their strange traditions are revealed to her. The games that they play traditionally involve darkness and fear. Can Harriet find out the truth about the mysterious Holbecks?
Catherine Steadman outdoes herself in The Family Game. She creates such a mysterious family in the Holbecks and their dynamics are intriguing. Readers will follow Harry as she tries to determine the truth about Robert’s misdoings. The cast of family characters are a wonder to watch. We’ve all always wondered what the extremely rich live like. Harry shows us their virtues and misdeeds.
The novel really remarks on the power of wealth and the wealthy’s ability to commit audacious crimes and pay for them to go away. Robert, as the patriarch of the family, is a prime example of such. As Harry begins to discover that Robert may be confessing to a series of murders on the cassette tape, she must decide how to proceed. She knows that the power that Robert holds cannot be taken lightly.
As Harry navigates potentially deadly Christmas traditions, she races for the truth, unable to forget once she finds it. Harry is such a compelling character – a developing mother willing to risk life and limb to protect her unborn baby. Harry is brave and unapologetic and is a true testament on how to write a female main character.
It was very difficult for me to decide between 4 and 5 Cthulus, so we will call it 4.5. This is a novel I highly recommend thriller lovers check out. (4.5 / 5)
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