Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection: Modern horror? Literary criticism? Traditional tales of terror? It intrigued me regardless.

What Unquiet Spirits delivers is a combination of all of the above. It is memoir, criticism, history, and ethnography in balanced fusion. Each chapter is written by an Asian female author and in it she discusses both her own writing, the cultural and historical inspiration for her characters, the origins of some feminine demon, ghost, or creepy — a unquiet spirit — which haunts her and the pages she has produced. In some chapters the author draws on a deeper well of literature of the past and ponders the future of the female spirit archetype that is the focus of their chapter.

The books is divided by and devotes its pages equally to feminine spirits across the Asian continent, from East to Southeast to South Asia. I was pleasantly surprised to see such attention given to Southeast Asian spirits and archetypes (my favorite was always the pontianak, the evil spirit of a woman who lurks in the dark under the protection of a banana tree. In my recollection, she can be “pinned” to the tree with a needle or a pin and made to do the pin-holder’s bidding. But, beware to that horrid individual if the offending metal is ever removed!)

While the collection examines different demons and feminine archetypes from across a swath of very diverse cultures, it ultimately makes a singular, united appeal to the reader. Their call to action is unmistakable: Asian women, as a whole, alive or dead, demonic or angelic, monstrous or victimized, are powerful beings. Asian women have been too long overlooked in the literary world and deserve more than the whispered, submissive voice they have been too long assigned by Orientalists; hear them shout, scream, screech!

For that reason alone, Unquiet Spirits is worth reading. But there is more.

The authors reveal facets of the Asian feminine that have rarely been visible, that is to Western audiences. To Asian women, we have always known they were there, even when our patriarchal societies told us to ignore them, to castigate them, to revile these demonic women as ill-influences on ourselves and our communities, yet still, Unquiet Spirits is sure to deliver novelties and new knowledge to Asian/Asian American readers.

Sign Here: A Novel by Claudia Lux

Sign Here: A Novel by Claudia Lux

A departure from the more serious novels I’ve been reading lately, and perfect — if a little late — for the Spooky season. Still, if you are a horror fan, any time is a good time for a paranormal mystery, which is exactly what Sign Here is, with a generous injection of humor.

Sign Here is a combination of the television show, “The Good Place” and one of Simone St. James’s paranormal mysteries, the kind which unravels to reveal a multi-generational history. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and also deadly serious at the same time. I couldn’t have asked for a better post-Halloween read than this. It gripped me to very end.

The novel is set in two dimensions: Hell and Earth. The former is a bureaucrat’s heaven, a place where the radio station is constantly on commercial break and the music is every genre you can’t abide. There’s fun to be had in Hell, but no peace, utterly no reprieve from annoyance. Ever. One of the main protagonists of the novel is a demon who long lost his humanity and now deceives or manipulates souls in order to collect them for his hellish quota. His goal is to complete a “full set” of a family, one soul from each generation. And to find some measure of peace in the afterlife. The two objectives are not exclusive.

The family he has targeted is a wealthy and dysfunctional one, a collection of questionable traits has passed down from one generation to the next. They have a long history with this demon, a transactional history of quid pro quo. There is also trauma, murder, abuse, and just downright immorality in the family’s past; one might say, the stuff that Hell is made of. But they are lovable too. Their flawed histories and personalities make them all the more human, all the more recognizable, for all their privilege and wealth. The reader will get the impression there is something not quite right about them though, and as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that several of them have something to hide — even from the demon himself.

The novel is set at the start of the annual family vacation, a dreaded and welcome event. There’s a newcomer to the lake house with them: the new best friend of the daughter. She’s bright and curious — and may just force the family’s dark secrets into the light.

The two storylines intertwine: Will our demon be able to exploit the family to meet his quota? Will he ever escape his Hell? Will the family be able to keep their horrors safely hidden in the past? Someone’s soul is at stake. Will it be the father? The mother? One of the kids?

Sign Here ends explosively and satisfyingly. Everyone gets what they deserve.

A History of Fear: A Novel by Luke Dumas

A History of Fear: A Novel
by Luke Dumas

By page three, I was hooked. The ending comes to a perfect, organic conclusion — but I readily admit that if Dumas writes a sequel, I’m all in.

A History of Fear unfolds like Stoker’s Dracula, adopting an epistolary approach, delivering the story via journal entries, letters, official reports from doctors, prison officials, and newspaper articles. The novel dives deep into the most disturbing parts of human psychosis reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It delivers gothic horror too, in the manner of Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the end, the reader can’t be entirely sure of who is the monster, if demons are real, if evil is more human than we comfortable with. A History of Fear is a horror fan’s feast: gore and psychological terror stride side-by-side, the paranormal and the divine and the mundane intertwine to create a world the reader is never entirely sure is real. Illusion may very well be reality… or worse.

But the story is not fantasy; there is a real history embedded in this novel — and a commentary on a history of monstrous bodies, sexuality, religion, and intergenerational trauma. There is a reality underlying the one Dumas weaves for us. This is what makes the novel so appealing; there is a real horror here, one that we can recognize. This history is one that might be so common as to be truly terrifying because it might actually exist within ourselves. Or someone we know.

A History of Fear follows the main character’s slow descent into madness — or his ascent into clarity, depending on your interpretation. There is a true mystery here and this drives the story forward. The reader needs to discover what the main character also seeks: some sense of closure and parental acceptance. The main character is driven by a need to know themselves and their past. This is a genealogy of a family and the homophobic culture of the West. Dumas focuses on the psychological damage inflicted on those who deviated from the dominant norm and those who dared to question their place in it. The novel travels between the past and the present, each part of the jigsaw puzzle adds to the image of the whole of time, allowing the reader to witness the unraveling of the man’s mind and the suffering caused by intergenerational trauma.

The novel opens with the main character’s eventual, inevitable fate; this is the mystery. We know what happens to him. The mystery is why and how. The horror is the long arm of intergenerational trauma.

A wonderful book to have read in October, the Halloween month, but really, a fantastic gothic horror for any time of the year.

Ghost Eaters: A Novel by Clay Mcleod Chapman

Ghost Eaters: A Novel by Clay Mcleod Chapman

I was fully expecting a traditional ghost story. Maybe a haunted house. Something that is tried-and-true in the ghost story genre. And I don’t mean that as shade; I like ghost stories that follow a formula. They are still scary as F if they are written well. The creepy ethereality of gothic horror is my jam. And that’s what I thought Ghost Eaters was going to deliver.

Was I wrong in the most deliciously skin-crawling way! Ghost Eaters reads like a mature Young Adult novel that merges the horror of fresh-out-of-college, emergence-from-the-chrysalis loss with the ghostly supernatural. Chapman’s prose fits the YA genre; this novel borders on YA and contemporary adult horror. It feels like YA to me because, well, I’m not in my early twenties like the characters are. But the events and themes in the novel are better suited for an adult (if young adult) audience. There are mature themes here of death, grief, the loss of friends, parents, and loved ones. There is the threat of loss of the self: perception is a two-way mirror in this novel, and you’re never quite sure which side of the glass you’re on.

The story follows a young woman and is told from her perspective. Erin is a privileged, educated woman. She has family, family money, family connections, but despite this, she flounders in life. That’s the first horror, one that is banal and familiar to many. Erin is part of a group of friends; their leader has floundered in worse ways than Erin. Silas seems to be drowning in a drug-induced depression. When their social circle falls apart as the result of an untimely death, each one of them seeks to find meaning and reconnection in different ways.

Some of them take the task literally.

And that’s the second horror of this novel. The dark mental and physical adventure that ensues as Erin, Amaya, and Toby play dangerously with the line between living and dying, the present and the afterlife. I won’t ruin this for the reader. Just know that “ghost” in this novel has multiple meanings, and the loss that one associates with death is more than never seeing someone again.

A worthy Halloween horror read that haunts in multiple ways!

See my other early Halloween Horror reviews here: The Ghosts That Haunt Me: Memories of a Homicide Detective by Steve Ryan, Gallows Hill: A Novel by Darcy Coates, A Fig For All The Devils: A Novel by C.S. Fritz, and Anybody Home? A Novel by Michael J. Seidlinger

Gallows Hill: A Novel by Darcy Coates

Gallows Hill: A Novel by Darcy Coates

If you love horror movies and gothic horror this is a book for you. Gallows Hill reads like an independent, low-budget horror film that successfully builds tension out of nothing but silences and thoughts that teeter on the edge of madness.

The story begins with Margot at the funeral of her parents whom she’s never met. And no, she’s not adopted. That’s the first mystery. The rest is classic haunted house and horror flick stuff. Very gothic horror; the scares are all Margot’s. The story is told from her perspective, though in 3rd person not first. The readers are silent witnesses, like ghosts trailing her in her every move, watching her. Nothing is left out of the reader’s sight; chapters pick up exactly where they’ve left off. Every detail is accessible to the reader.

Coates evokes a proper sense of dread with well-chosen words; her descriptions are succinct and sparse, giving the images that are spun in the mind an appropriate filter of blue-grey darkness. There’s always a sense that Margot could escape this, that this is just all in her mind, and real life is just beyond the gate, down the road, in the town nearby. But the reader becomes quickly acquainted with Margot and knows that that’s not possible; like Margot, we are compelled to read on to discover the history of her, her family, this place.

The story unfolds in a matter of days. Most of the events take place at Gallows Hill and the house; it is the hill on which the house is built, the hill in which the cellars of the winery were dug. She inherits Gallows Hill, a winery and an estate that has belonged to her family for hundreds of years. That’s the second mystery; the people who work and live on the estate are a strange cast. Even the townsfolk are an odd bunch. Their interactions with the estate and the land will compel the reader to read on: What happens after dark? Why does the land need a blessing? The reasons given are mundane and reasonable; there’s a normal explanation for everything, but the reader — like Margot — will find them unsatisfactory.

The ending is satisfying. It is explosive and a tad Hollywood-esque. But it does answer every question and its brings the story to a complete and organic close. You’ll close the book feeling like Margot got what she needed. A really great, creepy Halloween read!

See my other Halloween Horror reviews here: The Ghosts That Haunt Me: Memories of a Homicide Detective by Steve Ryan, A Fig For All The Devils: A Novel by C.S. Fritz, Anybody Home? A Novel by Michael J. Seidlinger – More coming soon!

A Fig For All The Devils: A Novel by C.S. Fritz

A Fig For All The Devils: A Novel by C.S. Fritz

The cover got me, I admit it. The Grim Reaper is one alluring fellow, I couldn’t help it. I buy my wine the same way too: the more morbid the label — reds, black, and intricate patterns of monstrous or predatory creatures — the more likely I’ll buy it. And if it’s under $10, so much the better, NGL.

A Fig For All The Devils delivers too. Like a robust cheap wine, it was dark — almost bloody — with scents of dark foggy Oregon pine (the novel is set in Tillamook), oaky smokiness (well, more like cigarette smokiness, but go along with me in this metaphor play), and a generous injection of alcohol (cigarettes aren’t the only narcotic drug in this novel). And, just like when you bring a cheap oversized bottle of wine to the party, A Fig For All The Devils is fun in a package.

The novel is spun around a teenaged boy, Sonny, who is unfortunately saddled with a less than stellar family life. His father is gone. His mother is… not present (to say the least). Sonny is left to his own devices, grappling with grief of loss of one (but really both) of his parents. The Grim Reaper finds his cue here. In need of an apprentice, the Grim Reaper makes himself and his proposition known to Sonny. The novel is premised on this encounter.

A Fig For All The Devils reads as Young Adult fiction, a dark bildungsroman. Sonny’s problems are appropriate for an adult world, but to be fair, the kinds of dilemmas Sonny encounters are probably commonplace for teenagers today (anthropomorphized, embodied Death excepted). The prose fits a YA reader as well, easily accessible and authentic in its teenaged voice. The story flows at a fast pace, yet slows at key points for the reader to engage with the interiority of the protagonist, Sonny. On that point, while Sonny is the main character and it is through his eyes that we witness this novel, the other characters are vivid. They are all tangible, visible to the reader in their flaws and virtues. Death even, a mythical being, comes to life (pun!) in this novel in a very human manifestation.

A very fun (early) Halloween Horror read! (I’m starting my Halloween Horror early this year. Check out my other horror reviews: The Ghosts That Haunt Me: Memories of a Homicide Detective by Steve Ryan and Anybody Home? A Novel by Michael J. Seidlinger to date.

More horror to follow (for example, Gallows Hill by Darcy Coates and Valley of Shadows by Rudy Ruiz — both coming out in September, 2022 — and more!) Follow me to get updates!)

Anybody Home? A Novel by Michael J. Seidlinger

Anybody Home? A Novel
by Michael J. Seidlinger

This novel is creepy AF. I really hope none of the home invaders in this story exist, but that’s the thing that makes this so terrifying: they probably do. Seidlinger’s Anybody Home? has no named narrator, no named characters at all, no named locale, and no loci in time; the events in this slim, punchy novel could happen anywhere and to anyone. That’s what makes it a successful horror story. Seidlinger lets the reader’s imagination do the work — some of the work — for him.

Some. The heavy lifting is done by Seidlinger. The prose is sparse, but accurate like a puncture to the jugular. A hanging question, a sentence left unfinished — the words in this novel function like a silent slice of a knife through air; they draw a spurt or an arc of blood, as desired. Seidlinger delivers enough to elicit pain, but not enough to kill; reader, you’ll live to read on. You’ll be compelled to read on to deliver yourself from the suspense.

Anybody Home? is about a home invasion, a carefully planned crime and its implementation. The story is told from the interior perspective of the mastermind of this crime.

Despite the facelessness of the narrator, the protagonist in this tale is not a mystery to the reader. This is, I think, part of Seidlinger’s brilliance. The reader is treated to the full landscape of insanity in the narrator’s head; what you’re not sure of is who they are talking to and what the relationship is between the narrator and the others of their kind. This unreliable narrator adds to the sensation of dis-ease; the further the reader gets into the book and into the narrator’s head, the more infectious the madness becomes. Things start to make sense. You can’t help but respect the madness a bit. In fact, it does not feel quite so mad. There’s a logic — even a sense of justice or nobility — to the plan the narrator has in mind. Almost.

Reader, you might begin to wonder if the madman is the hero here. But that feels squeamish; you can’t quite reconcile the deontological unfairness of this cruel act with some kind of enlightenment. You can’t quite call the ending “happy”, but you might be tempted to ponder on it. You might creep yourself out a bit when you realize your own moral compass may not point true north… Maybe.

I am adding this to my Halloween Horror reads for 2022. It warrants a place of pride on my list. For those of you following my reviews, I’m starting my Halloween Horror reading early this year (because why not?).