Tag Archives: horror

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”
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Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved

  • Genre
    • Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • Two escaped slaves find each other after years of freedom, and try to make a life together. But lingering wounds and secrets threaten to destroy their little family and their last remnants of sanity… not to mention the complications brought on by the baby ghost in their house.
    • I had this one pretty well spoiled for me before I started, and while I loved it anyway, I wish I had the chance to read this once without knowing what was coming. This seems to be one of those books that people can’t figure out how to explain without giving away the last twists, so hurry up and read it before they get to you.
  • Characters
    • One of my favorite things about Toni Morrison is how beautifully she sketches her characters. She will make you feel that you’ve completely slipped into their skins, and that you can’t avoid loving them any more than you can avoid loving yourself. Then she shows you their darkest deeds, darkest thoughts, and most horrible memories, but you can’t look away, because by now you love them too much. You just hang on and hope she’ll bring them to some kind of peace in the end.
    • What makes this cast especially endearing, and painful, is that unlike in The Bluest Eye, most of the characters care about each other. They truly, deeply want to save each other, heal their wounds, and stop each other from ever getting hurt again. But at the same time they’re afraid, or confused, or timid, or misguided in how to express that love. I love horror, and I love chosen family stories. This book played the one against the other, and it nearly drove me mad. In a good way, of course, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here.
    • The ghost is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever read. She’s such a blend of creepy and pitiable, and oddly naive and sweet in her own destructive way. I’m not sure whether to classify her as the villain of this story or just another victim. Either way she’s brilliant.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Miserable and beautiful, and yet maddeningly full of hope. Seeing them relive their horrors, you almost wish you could detach yourself enough to go numb and leave it all alone. But you keep seeing the beginnings of a miracle, and even as it struggles to hold together, even as it falls apart and keeps being roughly stitched back into place with threads that don’t possibly look strong enough to hold it, you want it all to work out. You can’t stop wanting it to all be okay. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Actually had a happier ending than I thought was possible. There, I think that’s vague enough. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Oh good lord, what isn’t here? Death of adults, death of children, adults in peril, children in peril, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and two sexual assaults. These characters get absolutely raked across the coals and you are not permitted to glance away. If you can tolerate it, you’ll be rewarded with something unforgettably profound and sweet. 
  • Quotes
    • “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
    • “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
    • “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
    • “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
    • “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride

  • Genre
    • Horror, Ghost Story, Historical Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Li Lan, a beautiful young woman from a family fallen on hard times, is asked if she wants to become a ghost bride; an unusual custom used to placate the restless dead. When she declines, she finds that her undead suitor is persistent, and tied to deeper secrets than she could have imagined. 
  • Characters
    • I really liked Li Lan, as well as the side characters. Their quirks, histories and foibles were well developed. The bad guys had enough tragic pasts and difficult situations to make you feel sorry for them, but were still despicable enough to make you root for their downfall. The good guys had enough flaws to be relatable, but were heroic enough to make you hope for their success. Special shoutout to Amah, who was a delightful mother figure and mentor. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Gothic and creepy, with a good bit of fantasy adventure thrown in. I think this would be a good one for anyone who likes scary material, but wants to spend more time excited or in suspense than disturbed and horrified. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The setting is actually Victorian Malaysia, but focused on the Chinese community within it. The author is Malaysian of Chinese descent, so it’s not some exoticized stereotype, but a breathing world portrayed with the warmth of familiarity. It was a setting that was completely unfamiliar to me, and it was delightful to get to see a bit of it through the eyes of an insider.
    • She adds end notes on the history, culture and folklore that inspired it.  
    • The afterlife and magic system is well developed, unique and fun. It is heavily based on Chinese and Malaysian beliefs and mythology, but there are also elements she invented for herself, and they all blend together beautifully.
    • Lots of great female characters, both heroic and villainous. Bechdel’s Test is easily passed.
  • Content Warnings
    • Possessions and stalking; probably the creepiest thing about Lim Tian Ching, the ghost who haunts Li Lan, is how much of a realistically entitled pervert he is. 
  • Quotes
    • “It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts.”
    • “I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.”

The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

  • Genre
    • Horror, Suspense, Ghost Stories
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of ghost stories and monster tales, centered around the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
  • Character Empathy
    • I loved the variety of the viewpoint characters. Some were cynical and detached, some curious and naive, some lonely or depressed, some heartless, some too compassionate for their own good. Depending on whose eyes you are looking for, you might more or less insight into the other characters. However, even with the most jaded and unobservant characters, the author gives you glimpses of the facets they might be missing, all without violating the point of view. It’s fantastic and brilliant. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Creepy, but also oddly charming. I’ve always thought that horror is most effective when paired with something loved or lovable; if you don’t love something, how are you going to get attached, and so why should you be afraid? Here, the love most often comes from the sense of place. You can tell that the author loves Vietnam (her mother was a refugee from the war, and Violet Kupersmith later returned to study there). She draws you into even the dingiest alleys and most polluted landscapes, and makes you long to protect it from the monsters that are about to break out onto it.
    • She’s also an absolute master of suspense. She knows that less is sometimes more, and always keeps you guessing about what she’s going to show you, and what she’ll leave to your imagination.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • A creepy water woman who could probably eat Odysseus’ sirens for breakfast.
    • The first story is dialog only. I’m kind of a sucker for stories that take those kinds of gimmicks and make them work naturally. She definitely pulled it off.
    • A cranky old truck driver’s story about the time he transported a shark… and it’s not even the main ghost story, just beautifully weird set dressing.
    • A sweet old man who happens to spend part of his life as a giant snake. That’s shiny to me, because I like both sweet old men and cool snakes.
  • Content Warnings
    • Creepy bodies, monsters, a pinch of body horror… the usual fare for this genre.
    • There is one story, Skin and Bones, that might be triggering for people with eating disorders. Still read the book, just skip that one.
  • Quotes
    • “Con, if you were listening you would have learned almost everything you need to know about your history. The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.
    • “Thuy didn’t mind that she and her grandmother couldn’t speak to each other. In fact, she rather liked it, and found that their mutual lack of language skills freed them from the banalities of conversation.”
    • “They had discovered that excitement is really just smog and noise and never seeing the stars, and trash piled up in the streets. They would ride with their heads out the window, their faces softening as the city fell away and the world turned flat and emerald-colored again; they were waiting for the moment when we crossed into their province, when they would smack the dashboard and cry out, “Here! Here!”
    • “Sometimes kids will sit on the lower branches and try to fish, but everyone knows that there’s nothing to catch in Hoan Kiem but empty Coca-Cola cans and used heroin needles. Legend says that centuries ago, a giant turtle lived at the bottom of the lake, and it once gave a magic sword to a general to help him defeat the Chinese invaders. I’m supposed to tell the story to all the tourists who stay at the Frangi.”

The Suffering, by Rin Chupeco

the-suffering

  • Genre
    • Horror, Supernatural Horror, Ghost Story
  • Plot summary
    • In this sequel to The Girl From the Well, Tark and Okiku learn that the miko who helped them before has gone missing in an infamous haunted forest. They journey back to Japan to help her, and along the way discover a curse that tests even Okiku’s strength. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • High once again. I noted in my review of the first book in this series that Okiku managed to be simultaneously terrifying and lovable, which is a hard combination to pull off. So it should be no surprise that the same characters I loved then continue to make this series great. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s a perfect homage to Japanese horror. Expect nightmares.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of those rare sequels that actually improves on the foundation built by the original
    • Opens with a haunted doll chase scene scarier than what most horror writers come up with for their endings. Goes on to top it easily
    • Cool use of Japanese elemental magic
    • More creepy monsters than your amygdala will know what to do with
  • Content Warnings
    • Did I mention this is a wee bit scary?
  • Quotes
    • “The air changes. Then that invisible spider crawls up my spine, tickling the hairs behind my neck.

      I have come to know this spider these last couple of years. It whispers there’s something else in the room, breathing with you, watching you, grinning at you.

      I hate that damn spider.”

Book Review: The Devourers by Indra Das

the-devourers

What it’s about: A professor meets a strange man who claims to be half werewolf, and learns the terrible story of his family.

Praise: Full disclosure – I’m a sucker for werewolves. They are by far my favorite of the classic monsters. Unfortunately, I don’t think the average movie or book uses them well. Werewolves don’t just scare. They explore nature, civilization, shifting identities and humanity itself. Unfortunately, ninety percent of werewolf stories feel more like the author wrote a vampire story, decided it wasn’t original enough, then hastily changed it. Still, when an author tries to do something properly werewolfy, the result is some of the best stories horror has to offer.

This book firmly belongs in that latter category. It makes you equal parts terrified, fascinated and in love with its subject. It is philosophical, but not the measured philosophy of lecture halls. It’s the trembling, awestruck philosophy of the mad hermit in the woods. It is gory, but not the sickening splatter of modern slasher. It’s the strangely elegant gore of Gothic horror.

On a less pretentious note, I loved the plot and the characters. The viewpoint characters all had beautifully distinct voices. It drives me mad when a story shifts between multiple first person POVs and I lose track of who is talking. I never had that problem with this book.

Also, on one more personal note, there are multiple non-stereotypical queer characters. I can’t say any more without spoilers, but I was happy and I think other LGBTQ readers will be too.

Criticism: For the first few chapters, when I wasn’t sure where this was going, it was a little slow. It was well worth pushing through, though. Once things came together, I didn’t want to put it down.

Also, content warning, this books contains violence, anthropophagy (I feel wrong calling it cannibalism given how the shapeshifters insist they aren’t human) and a rape scene. Even the latter, though, avoids the common pitfalls. In a book full of sexual imagery, it’s one of the few scenes devoid of eroticism. There’s no “well, it wasn’t really proper rape because….” Instead, the book insists that, despite how the attacker frames it, it was rape, because he did not give the victim the opportunity to consent. The victim is actually characterized as an interesting and sympathetic human being, not just a tool of the story. The scene is necessary to the plot, not just there to add drama or titillation. All other writers, take note.

Recommended? If intense, brutal and beautiful is up your alley, then yes, very much recommended.

Review: The Girl From the Well, by Rin Chupeco

So, remember that Halloween scary novel thing I was doing? Where all the authors were women from this awesome list? Yeah, this is one I didn’t quite get to post back in October. I always said this was a possibly November too project, so there you go. Ass covered. 

the-girl-from-the-well

What it’s about: A vengeful ghost meets a boy afflicted with a strange curse, and the consequences might doom or redeem them both.

Praise: This is the best book.

Full points for atmosphere, on every page. The descriptions of the ghost vengeance scenes were grotesquely vivid, in the best style of J-horror. But one of my principles of horror is that pure creepiness cannot be sustained for long. Rin Chupeco varies the tones of each scene; horrifying, creepy, tense, and a breath of heartwarming that gradually builds to ominous.

As I read, I had no idea where the plot was going, and I loved that. It’s been a long time since a horror story took me lead me somewhere blind; the formulaic aspects of horror don’t bother me, so long as they are well used, but it is fun to have a genuine surprise every now and then.

I loved every character, and the developing relationships between them. And most of all, I loved Okiku’s perspective. I love a truly inhuman point of view. Okiku hasn’t been a human for several centuries. She can tap into human’s minds the way most people peek into boxes, but she doesn’t think of people by their names. Mostly she walks on ceilings. She incessantly counts things. It made her eerie and alien, but she was still somehow relatable.

Criticism: None. Did you not hear me when I said this was the best book?

Recommended? Stop everything and read it.

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

anna-dressed-in-blood

What it’s about: Teenage ghost hunters, magical bloodlines that give the protagonists both special powers and terrible burdens, and a love interest who also happens to be a deadly monster. You know, the usual stuff you find on the YA shelves.

Praise: This story opens with an inner monologue from a teenage ghost hunter on the prowl, and could easily have come across as a formulaic Supernatural copy. Instead, Cas quickly came to feel like a real person to me. The same thing happened with all the characters. It wasn’t really unique in any way that I can quantify, at least not without spoilers, but it felt like it’s own thing.

The pacing was also stellar. I worried at the beginning of this that there wasn’t enough story to flesh out a whole novel, and that I had pages of filler ahead of me. But man, the story wasn’t going the direction I expected at all. It was exciting.

The supporting cast was fantastic, especially Anna herself. It’s hard to make the same person genuinely terrifying and deeply sympathetic. With Anna, Kendare Blake completely succeeded. She also makes her cast click together perfectly naturally. I’ve read so many books where the author says, “this character and that character will become best friends, take my word for it,” but it never really feels organic. I just know the characters wouldn’t have become friends if the author hadn’t decided to make it so.

Plus, there’s a mother/son relationship that actually feels like, well, a mother/son relationship. Why is that so hard? Why are most parents of protagonists either absent, evil, stereotypes or dead? All you need for realism is love and intimate understanding that doesn’t preclude mistakes and miscommunication, plus a tension between their mutual desire for the son’s independence and mutual desire for anything but.

Okay, I can see why not everybody goes for that. Anyway, in this book there is all of that and it works so well.

Criticism: Narratively, I can’t think of a single thing to complain about. This book was completely engaging. On a social justice note, though, it did bother me that a scary ghost is literally the only POC in the entire book. Any of the protagonists could have been POC with no significant changes, or the ghost could simply have been white as well. Again, still enjoyed the book, and it’s the only problem I can think of, but it would have been so easy to avoid.

Recommended? Oh good lord yes

Review: What Waits in the Woods, by Kieran Scott

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

what-waits-in-the-woods

What it’s about: Callie Velasquez goes on a camping trip with her boyfriend and two best friends. Things go terribly wrong.

Praise: This book is fairly predictable, but for about the first two-thirds, that was part of its charm. It was like a campfire story. There’s a weird comfort to the mundane familiarity of its chill. It knew what kind of a story it was, and it embraced it.

Criticism: Yeah, we got here fast. There was almost a lot more in the praise section. I nearly said it had great characters, a good build of suspense, and above all that it valued the friendships of the three female characters over teen boyfriend drama. This was just going to be a bit about how the prose isn’t anything special and it’s highly formulaic, but if you like that kind of thing it’s still worthwhile.

Then the last few chapters ruined everything.

With one reveal, it ruined the best character, punctured the suspense and loudly announced, “nevermind, boyfriends are the most important things EV-AR!” Plus it served up a steaming pile of ableism; the sort that goes, “mental health problems, evil, basically the same thing amirite?” It’s not subtle about that either. Several pages in a row just hammer home that this character would be fine and nice but they went off their meds so insta-evil. Then there’s this awkward sentence where the main character informs us that she’s had friends who have anxiety and depression, but clearly this isn’t that sort of mental illness. It’s the other mental illness. The one where you randomly turn evil.

Also, the shocking reveal wasn’t that shocking. See, there was only one character I wasn’t given reason to suspect. Never do that, guys. Seriously, never do that. You want three suspicion-free characters, minimum. If you just have one, every genre savvy reader is going to go, “huh, I wonder when that totally innocent character will crack and reveal they were behind it all.”

Honestly, I was hoping this story would let the mysterious stranger be the scary one. It should always be the one you don’t suspect, and the last person I would have suspected was the guy who was suspicious all along.

Recommended? Sigh. Not really.

Review: Fiendish, by Brenna Yovanoff

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

fiendish

 

What it’s about: Clementine DeVore wakes from a magical sleep, tangled in roots in the cellar of her burned out house. She emerges to find a town where normal folk live alongside a minority with strange powers. Sometimes the “crooked folk” are tolerated, sometimes not. Clementine vanished at a time of trouble. Her return may be a harbinger of dangerous days ahead.

Praise: Overall this book is very well written. I especially loved the tone and ambiance. Everything is perfectly creepy and witchy. The magic system is well designed; a creative twist on the familiar elemental magic concept. It has enough consistent rules to create limits and suspense, but enough mysteries to feel otherworldly and powerful. That’s not an easy balance to hit.

One of the most interesting parts of the whole book is that, after Clementine’s slumber, she no longer familiar with her own self. Her own reactions to events often surprise her. That was absolutely fascinating. The side characters were well written as well.

Criticism: I think it should have been longer. When I made that comment about Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, I meant that it was perfect and I could not make any complaints, beyond wishing it wasn’t read so quickly. I mean something a little different here.

There was a lot to discover about the world of this book. I didn’t just want to skim the basics and get on to the plot. I wanted to be immersed in it. I also wasn’t sure whether the setting was somewhere I should love or hate. There was so much that was toxic about the citizens and their culture, but also glimpses of happier, peaceful times. Was this a good place that needed to be saved from itself, or were the pleasant moments just the honey in the trap? A great climax fell short of its potential because I kept wondering whether I should be afraid the town would be destroyed, or afraid it wouldn’t.

Also, as I said, I liked the characters, some of whom had far too little time. This book sticks strictly to Clementine’s POV. Often fewer perspectives make for a cleaner story, but I think this story was an exception. There were interesting people who I wanted to know more about, and whose perspective on events would have been informative. And in general, there were characters who I liked and wanted to see more of. (Rae! Isola! Davenport!)

Recommended? Those caveats aside, I still think it’s a good sign when the worst thing you can say about a book is that you wanted more of it. So yes, definitely recommended.