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Posts Tagged ‘ghost story’

splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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museumMagic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.

The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.

lostlakeSarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.

poisonedLloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.

mist“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?

starterhouseSchoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!

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smallhandSusan Hill, who wrote the contemporary classic The Woman in Black, knows that a good ghost story lives in the shadows. The Small Hand and Dolly (Vintage, digital galley) are two stories that evoke candlelight and dusk even when the sun shines.

In the first tale, the narrator, an antiquarian bookseller, gets lost on a country road and chances on a derelict house. “I should have gone back,” he says several times as he describes the tree-lined lane and empty, overgrown garden, blanketed by ivy and creeping vines. But he has an urge to see more, and then, in hushed twilight, he feels a small hand grasp his fingers, and he returns the clasp as if he were a father holding his child’s small hand. “But I am not a father and the child was invisible.” Shiver. There’s more, of course, as the past impinges on the present, which is also the case with “Dolly,” in which a young girl’s long-ago destruction of a china doll reverberates through the years, tangibly haunting the innocent.

hauntedJohn Boyne is another writer familiar with the eerie eloquence of the 19th-century, and the shades of Bronte, Dickens, M.R. James and Henry James echo in This House is Haunted (Other Press, digital galley).

In 1867 England, 21-year-old narrator Eliza Caine impulsively answers an ad for a governess after her father’s sudden death leaves her alone in the world. She arrives  at spooky Gaudlin Hall in windswept Norfolk to find her new charges, precocious Isabelle and shy Eustace, without any apparent adult supervision since the sudden departure of their last governess. The local solicitor who pays the household expenses provides only vague answers to her questions, and the daily help does a disappearing act whenever Eliza’s around. She does learn, however, that she is one of a series of governesses, most of whom died while at Gaudlin Hall. And someone — or something — seems determined to drive Eliza away: the sensation of being strangled in her bed, the push at her back near an open window, the stone urn falling from the roof.  As Eliza learns more about the children’s absent parents and the family’s secrets, she becomes convinced that the house is haunted by a malignant spirit. Boyne artfully delivers standard gothic chills.

searlesJohn Searles’ Help for the Haunted (HarperCollins, digital galley and review copy) is a contemporary gothic, coming-of-age tale and ghost story told in a teasing non-linear narrative. Sylvie Mason, 14, is left in the distracted care of her older sister Rose after their parents are murdered on a snowy night. But she already knows the life of an outsider because her parents were demonologists who investigated the paranormal and provided “help for the haunted.”

Moving back and forth in time, Searles gradually reveals that Sylvie knows more about the circumstances of the murder and Rose’s whereabouts that night than she has let on to the police. Also, that the house’s basement is one scary place, that there’s a doll that’s possibly possessed, and that this is a family with more than one dark secret. The suspense mounts as  Searles deftly pieces together his psychological puzzle.

bellmanHere’s what I learned from Diane Setterfield’s rather puzzling Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story (Atria, paperback ARC; Nov. 5): Don’t mess with slingshots; rooks have long memories and are harbingers of doom; working at a mid-19th century English textile mill is tedious and poorly paid, unless you are the owner or his heir; and death is always in fashion because people need mourning clothes. I expected more mysterious magic from the author of The Thirteenth Tale.

Setterfield still writes beautifully, but I was never that interested in the story of William Bellman, who kills a rook with his slingshot when’s a boy and obliviously lives to regret it. Boy, does it take a procession of sudden deaths and subsequent funerals for William to figure out that the same black-garbed stranger keeps appearing at the cemetery and acting so familiar. Even as William works his way to the top of the mill’s management, he keeps losing those close to him. Finally, despairing that his beloved daughter Dora is dying from the fever, he shakes hands with the stranger. Soon after, he goes about setting up a new business — Bellman & Black — the London big-box store of mourning clothes and accessories. It flourishes under William’s obsessive care. Then the rooks come home to roost, so to speak, and the stranger returns a la Marley’s ghost. But by far the most haunting scene is still to come — Dora awestruck by a field of thousands of rooks taking flight. “She…forgets everything but the bliss of the shapes that paint themselves on the sky.. . To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life.”

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I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to be Rory Deveaux for Halloween. I already have the basic looks — dark hair, fair skin, round face. Clothes are no problem — jeans, T-shirt, vintage black velvet jacket — because they are my clothes.  Red lipstick? Check. Southern accent? Got it. Just need to pick up a few props — iPod, old cell phone, Mardi Gras beads. Voila! I’m 17 again (quick, dim those lights), an American schoolgirl in London, soon-to-be fledgling ghostbuster.

Rory doesn’t know about the ghost stuff at the beginning of Maureen Johnson’s nifty new paranormal thriller, The Name of the Star, the first volume  in the Shades of London trilogy. As she tells it, she’s just feeling like a fish out of water at the posh boarding school Wexford in London’s East End. But she likes her roommate Jazza, and one of the prefects, Jerome, has a great grin and floppy curls. Now, if she can just survive field hockey and English food. Also Jack the Ripper.

Yes, Jack’s back, or rather a serial killer bent on duplicating the famous Victorian murders in the Spitalfields area near Rory’s school. Despite the omnipresent closed-circuit TV cameras, the industrious efforts of the police, and intense media scrutiny, the Ripper has yet to be spotted. Then Rory sees a drab bald man outside the school as she and Jazza are sneaking back in the girls’ dorm on the night of another murder. Jazza doesn’t see him, probably because she’s scooted in the window, which leaves Rory the only witness. Soon she’s working with a super-secret security force of young officers with a specific skill set. Stephen, Callum and Boo are charged with keeping Rory away from the Ripper even as they go after the killer. They want him dead or alive. He may be both.

Johnson’s clever plot is grisly and goofy in equal measure, with plenty of grins to balance the gore. The climax in a closed, or “dead” station, of the Underground near London Bridge is followed by a stunning finale at the school that sets up a sequel. I see dead people in Rory’s future.

Open Book: I borrowed a digital copy of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star (Putnam) from the Orange County Library System’s online catalog. Once I checked it out online, Overdrive delivered the book in Adobe Digital to my laptop in S.C. , and then I sideloaded  it to my Nook. What a cool trick!

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At one point in Jennifer Crusie’s new novel Maybe This Time, Andie is on the phone with her fiance Will, a good guy who is nevertheless the wrong guy for her because the right guy is always going to be her ex, attorney North Archer. But Andie has yet to figure that out as she tries to convince Will she can’t talk now because she’s really, really busy.

” ‘Look, my plate’s a little full today.’ I’ve got a TV reporter, a ghost expert, a wack-job housekeeper, two disturbed children, homicidal ghosts, and a seance this afternoon. ‘I have to go.’ ”

I have to admit that I would never have thought of pairing contemporary romance superstar Crusie with long-dead literary lion Henry James, but her spin on the classic The Turn of the Screw is wicked fun. James might be turning over in his grave, but he and literary purists should know that Crusie, who has advanced degrees in literature, feminist theory and writing, loves the original story and and used to teach it before she became a best-selling author. She knows her way around a Gothic, and her homage to James also includes references to Poe, Du Maurier and other great haunted-house tale-tellers.

But she puts her own stamp on the proceedings from the very beginning by subbing smart, snarky Andi Miller for James’ nameless, nervous governess. Andi, as a last favor to North, chained to his desk at the family firm (why she left him 10 years ago), agrees to look after his distant, orphaned cousins, who have already been through three nannies at their creepy old mansion in back-of-beyond southern Ohio. 

Andi arrives like a breath of fresh air at the dusty, cheerless house being run by Mrs. Crumb, a Mrs. Danvers/Dickensian creature who spikes the tea and neglects her odd young charges, Carter and Alice.  Winning their trust won’t be easy, but Andi immediately calls North to order cable TV, computers, a handyman and a cleaning service.  She discovers that solemn, serious Carter likes to draw and that Alice likes to decorate, especially with sparkles.

Crusie’s tale sparkles, too, as three ghosts make their presence known, and interested bystanders arrive on the scene — a scheming, toothy TV reporter; a medium with attitude and a spirit guide named Harold; North’s brother Southie and mother Lydia; Andi’s mother Flo; a psychic researcher; Will the fiance; and, eventually, North. 

The narrative may appear a bit crowded, but Crusie’s colorful characters are convincing, even, especially, the ghosts. One dances, one hovers, and the third threatens in a terrifying manner. These ghosts just don’t want to have fun. But readers will.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time because I love a good ghost story, including James’ The Turn of the Screw. If you like your ghost stories with grins, check out Carolyn Hart’s Bailey Ruth novels (the third, Ghost at Work, was just published) and Nancy Atherton’s long-running Aunt Dimity series.

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When things go bump in the night at my place, it’s usually because a pet or a person has dislodged a stack of books. Just as well. “Haunted condo” doesn’t have the same ring as “haunted house.”

I like my haunted houses old, large and creepy, preferably in Britain, but a Southern mansion will do the trick. The ghosts may or may not be “real,” but someone will think they are. The past will impinge upon the present in unforseen ways. One of my favorite haunted houses is Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where spooky Mrs. Danvers asks the young narrator if she believes the dead return to watch the living.

So I had high hopes for the decaying Warwickshire mansion known as High Hundreds, the setting for Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I generally like Waters’ books (Fingersmith), and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recommended by Stephen King, who knows something about scaring the daylights out of readers.

But The Little Stranger, in which narrator Dr. Faraday, becomes involved in the diminished lives of the Ayers family — widowed mother, World War II-injured son Roderick, spinster daughter Caroline — is all repressed psychological suspense, owing much to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. A friend who has read neither book found The Little Stranger “a well-written non-story.”  I agree. Hundreds itself is a fascinating haunted house, but the tale is ultimately dispiriting.

Waters’ novel, which came out last year, did send me back to re-read 2007’s  The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, a master of literary suspense whether writing under the Vine pseudonym or as Ruth Rendell.  Here the setting is 1960s Essex and the vine-covered (!) Lydstep Old Hall, home to the seriously dysfunctional Cosway family. The narrator, young Swedish nurse Kerstin, arrives admittedly like a Bronte heroine to be confronted by a selfish matriarch ruling over four daughters and a troubled genius son, John. Kerstin, who is there to help look after the supposedly schizophrenic John, soon decides that drugging John into a zombie-like state isn’t doing him any good. Meanwhile, a dashing, penniless artist has arrived in the neighborhood and doesn’t seem to care which Cosway sister he’ll seduce.

It’s all as complicated as the library labyrinth at the center of the house where John seeks refuge. Vine spins a teasing narrative threaded with clues and leading inexorably to a shocking climax. You know something horrible is bound to happen, but not how or to whom. Disturbing and haunting. 

Open Book: I received The Little Stranger (Penguin) as a Christmas gift and bought a paperback of The Minotaur (Knopf) after first reading a library copy.

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