Haunted house and Japanese folklore

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I’m so late on this but my spooky Halloween read is Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw. Two couples in their 20’s, all of them amateur ghost hunters, fly to Japan as two of them are getting married. Sparing no expense, they rent a colossal mansion as part of the festivities. A mansion with a dark history.

The legend tells of a bride who long ago was meant to be married at the mansion, only to be left at the alter. In her grief, she demanded to be buried alive in the house’s foundation, so that she could keep it standing until her love returned. A macabre tradition was born. Once a year, a girl is buried within the house to keep the lonely bride company.

Of course it’s more than a quick haunted house book. The relationships among the two couples are complicated. Our narrator, Cat, recently left an in-patient facility for mental health concerns.

At 125 pages it gets right to the creepy action and you can read it in a sitting or two. It’s good and creepy, and perfect for these cold nights.

Teen love: A House at the Bottom of a Lake

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Show of hands: whose first date was spent exploring a haunted house at the bottom of a lake? No takers I see. Then let’s live vicariously through the James and Amelia, the teenaged main characters of A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman.

This brief novella (114 pages) gets right to the point when 17-year-old James asks Amelia, also 17, on a date. The pair borrow his uncle’s canoe and enjoy a typical day on the water until a previously hidden tunnel brings them to an adjacent lake they’d never seen before. Even more incredible is the two-story house just beneath its surface. Unable to resist exploring the frightening yet exhilarating mystery, the teens dive in and find everything in the house is intact: rugs, books, paintings, a coatrack that stands upright, unmoved by currents. They return home, take scuba lessons (off camera as it were) and return to the watery treasure again and again, their infatuation growing with each dive.

Malerman (who’s previous book Bird Box had people falling down and hurting themselves for fun) creates a cozy snapshot of a summer shared by two young adults experiencing the thrills and anxieties of their first real relationship. In fact, the house is a metaphor for exactly that: it’s intoxicating yet scary. Familiar yet completely foreign. The kids soon become overwhelmed not by the house itself, but their fascination with it.

The book is categorized as horror and while there are some moody, atmospheric scenes, it’s not scary. Dresses float around the sunken house as if worn by unseen occupants, and Amelia has a startling experience while looking into a mirror. These scenes and others like them foster a creepy vibe and that’s all they’re meant to do.

As a novella A House at the Bottom of a Lake is very much a snapshot of a larger story, so there’s not a lot of “how” or “why” (the kids even adopt the mantra, “Don’t ask how or why”). We don’t see the kids take scuba lessons or learn where their equipment came from. They start spending days at a time at the house, and there’s no mention of their parents’ concern over their disappearance. They eat, and I wonder where the food comes from. You can quibble over details like this, but it’s best to let them go and sink into the story.

The ending. I won’t spoil anything but it’s divisive. I’ll let you read it yourself.

A House at the Bottom of a Lake can be read in a sitting and that’s how I’d advise reading it, letting yourself sink into memories of that first special someone.

Witches, Golden Remedy, and All’s Well that Ends Well

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Author Mona Awad’s All’s Well features protagonist Miranda Fitch, a drama professor who suffers from chronic pain yet is determined to stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, a “problem play” that Professor Fitch describes as “…neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between.” She could also be describing Awad’s novel, which is funny, dark, at times frustrating and confounding.

The story begins with Miranda, an untenured assistant professor at a small New England college. The school’s theatre department, such that it is, has dwindled to two people, Miranda and her friend Grace (“the bitches of the English Department,” Miranda calls them). Miranda is hell bent on having her largely untalented students put on All’s Well that End Well. The mutinous students, however, want the more accessible Macbeth as the semester’s production. While Miranda floats through a haze of pain killers, white wine, and full-body pain, her students await her in the theatre. And wait. And wait. Again.

It’s only after Miranda meets a trio of mysterious, unnamed doctors in the local bar that she (and we) get respite from her pain. In a bit of surreal magic that will feel familiar to those who read Awad’s 2019 novel Bunny, the trio — reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth — offer a pair of gifts. For Miranda, the ability to physically pass her pain on to others. To the school, a large endowment. All they ask for in exchange is “…a really good show.” Specifically, a production of All’s Well that Ends Well.

I say “we” get respite from Miranda’s pain because that’s exactly how it feels. By having Miranda be the story’s narrator, Awad puts us in intimate proximity to the pain that occupies her protagonist’s body and her time. Having cost Miranda her career (it started when she fell off of a stage while performing Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well), her friendships, and her marriage, Miranda’s pain is front-and-center for the first hundred pages and it’s quite claustrophobic and uncomfortable. When she finally found relief so did I, and that’s a point of the book: we don’t want to look at female pain. We want it to go away so that we can feel better. If I’m being honest, by “we” I mean “men.”

Miranda sees one physical therapist after another, all male (four of whom are named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They bend, twist, crack and placate with their “bro good looks” and “blue polo shirts.” At one point, Miranda is given a video to watch which features an animated, anthropomorphized brain who subtly describes that often times, pain only exists in our heads.

Things get surreal from here and the book‘s conclusion has left some scratching their heads. If you’re put off by the bizarre and a book whose climax requires interpretation, you might find All’s Well frustrating. I do feel the book could be a little shorter and Miranda’s descriptions of her pain can feel relentless, but that’s a point the story is trying to make, I believe. You want to look away; don’t. You want to be free of this; no.

Awad’s writing is beautiful and witty. I found myself re-reading sentences just for the pleasure of them. For example, Miranda describes the actress in a medication ad thusly: “…she attempts a face of what I presume to be her invisible suffering. Her brow furrows as though she’s about to take a difficult shit or else have a furious but forgettable orgasm.”

I thoroughly enjoyed All’s Well (and Bunny). I’m quite looking forward to what Awad writes next.

Book review: A Deadly Education

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, the first title in her planned Scholomance trilogy, is the story of a young female wizard in a school of magic. Galadriel, or El as she prefers to be called, has a strong natural ability for the dark arts, which she’s determined to avoid. When the school’s golden boy, Orion Lake, senses her dark tendencies, he suspects her in the recent disappearance of a classmate. As the two get closer, new threats and opportunities arise for them both.

Novik has created yet another smart, compelling world with A Deadly Education. While there’s conflict between El, Orion the other students, it’s the teacher-free boarding school itself that poses the most significant threat. Essentially, it’s the educational equivalent of the uncle who teaches his nephew to swim by tossing him into a pool. I won’t give too much of that away here, but it works well.

The book also deals with the disparity between classes of people. Essentially, there are two classes of students: the “enclavers,” backed by a collection of established wizards in the world, and everyone else. The former are better equipped, prepared and supported in their academic career than the latter, which at the Scholomance can have deadly consequences. It’s not heavy-handed and easy to extrapolate into the real world.

The characters were quite well done. While El is a bit too petulant at times, her behavior becomes more understandable as her background is revealed. Likewise, shining star Orion has his own issues to deal with, and he becomes more sympathetic as time goes on.

The concept of the school — the setting for the entire book — really works. It feels dangerous, and is. Novik’s vision of a magic boarding school is very smart and well executed. There’s a good mix of action (wizards v. monsters if you’re into that sort of thing), relationships, and wry humor.

I’ll note that the book did focus quite a bit on the relationships between the teen students. As a reader in his 50’s I’d find my attention waning during some of these scenes, but that’s a function of my age, not Novik’s writing. I’m likely outside of this book’s intended demographic, so keep that in mind.

As I mentioned before, I also felt that El tended to be a little too sarcastic, and standoffish. Even when her classmates were being nice to her, she tended to reject that. I’d find myself thinking, “Come on, El. Give them a break.” But that’s me.

If you like the Harry Potter series or The Magicians books, you’ll enjoy A Deadly Education. Magic, action, teen drama, social commentary and a wonderfully clever setting result in a fun book. I’m looking forward to book number two.

Killogy by Alan Robert is creepy, bloody fun

Life of Agony bassist Alan Robert is also a talented comic book author and artist. I became aware of his work last year when the mini series Crawl To Me was released. Its unique art and compelling, disturbing story drew me right in (I did not see the ending coming).

Now, Robert and IDW Publishing are set to release Killogy, just in time for Halloween. After reading a preview copy, I can tell you that Killogy features a story just as engaging, characters just as entertaining and art that’s even more blood-splattered, unapologetic and bold than his previous work. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

Here’s my review of Killogy issue one.


The three main characters – accused killers in a Brooklyn police holding cell – immediately look familiar, and that was by design. Sal “Sally Sno-Cones” was inspired by Frank Vincent of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and the Sopranos. Legendary drummer Marky Ramone is Cole Edwards, a streetwise thug, and Brea Grant of Heroes and Dexter is Summer Rhoads, a disgruntled housewife, fresh from stabbing her husband to death. It does add a bit of fun to see these celebrities “playing” characters in a comic. As Robert puts it, “You rarely see an original, creator-owned comic series that features celebrities depicting its characters. I thought it would be interesting, in the same way The Twilight Zone had guest stars at the center of its stories.”

Continue reading →

Mini book review: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

Author James Luceno must be strong in The Force, as he accomplished something incredible with Star Wars: Darth Plagueis. He made sense of The Phantom Menace.

Luceno has written several novels set in the Star Wars universe, and his latest tracks the rise of Darth Sidious, known to most as Senator Palpatine of Naboo and ultimately The Emperor. Young Palpatine is discovered as it were by Sith Lord Darth Plagueis, known publicly as Hego Damask of the galactic banking clan. Born to well-off parents with powerful political ties, young Palpatine (who denounces his given name and goes by his surname only) rebels by opposing his father’s politics. Damask recognizes him as an especially “Force-full” being and fosters the resentment he feels towards his parents. As their relationship grows, Damask uses Palpatine to fulfill his own personal and political agendas, eventually introducing him to the dark side of The Force.

At first, Luceno seems hung up on the politics of pre-empire Naboo, having his characters discuss elections, taxation, trade routes and all manner of back-handed political maneuvering at length. Initially I found it off-putting and feared that Star Wars: Darth Plagueis would succumb to the same mind-numbing political drivel that made The Phantom Menace such a bore. However, as the story progressed, I saw the ingenious trick Luceno had pulled.

The events in his story are set within a few decades of those depicted in The Phantom Menace. In fact, the final act of the book overlaps much of the first prequel. Luceno provides believable backstory and fills the huge gaps in the The Phantom Menace’s screenplay so well that I wish Lucas’ movie contained several scenes from Luceno’s book. For example, Amidala‘s unlikely ascension to the throne as a teenager, Darth Maul‘s motivation and reason for existing, Count Dooku‘s questionable allegiance and Nute Gunray‘s insignificance all make sense after reading Luceno’s book. Heck, he even explains away Amidala’s deadpan speech and vacant eyes.

Of course, Star Wars: Darth Plagueis does more than repair The Phantom Menace. It offers an entertaining, lively and likely backstory for one of science fiction’s greatest villains, The Emperor. It’s ultimately a short, fun title that Star Wars fans will enjoy, with enough “Oh, cool!” moments to make up for Jar Jar.

Well, almost.