Some Spooky Shorts for your Halloween: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories…

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The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill. Published by Allen & Unwin, October 26, 2016. RRP: $24.99

Any self-respecting fan of contemporary ghost story writing will immediately notice the vintage creepy charm of a cover design style that is synonymous with Susan Hill.  Having read and enjoyed The Small Hand a number of years ago, I decided to put Hill’s work on my radar and so was happy to receive a copy of The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories from Allen & Unwin for review, just in time for Halloween.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

From the foggy streets of Victorian London to the eerie perfection of 1950s suburbia, the everyday is invaded by the evil otherworldly in this unforgettable collection of new ghost stories from the author of The Woman in Black.

In the title story, on a murky evening in a warmly lit club off St James, a bishop listens closely as a paranormal detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.

In ‘The Front Room’, a devoutly Christian mother tries to protect her children from the evil influence of their grandmother, both when she is alive and when she is dead.

A lonely boy finds a friend in ‘Boy Number 21’, but years later he is forced to question the nature of that friendship, and to ask whether ghosts can perish in fires.

This is Susan Hill at her best, telling characteristically flesh-creeping and startling tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night.

If this was the first Susan Hill book I had encountered and I read this collection in the traditional fashion (that is, from front to back), I might be forgiven for discarding this book halfway through as sub-par in quality.  As this is not my first Susan Hill book, I persevered and am very glad I did so because oddly enough, the final two stories of the four far outshine the first two in psychological creepiness and general paranormal entertainment.  But let us address each of the stories in turn, in the traditional fashion; that is to say, from front to back.

The collection opens with The Travelling Bag, a  story of professional betrayal and revenge told from a third person’s perspective and set in Victorian times.  This one certainly felt like it was going to be a spine-tingling paranormal winner, with a mystery immediately set up and the listener (as well as the reader) left in suspense for a spell.  The actual reveal felt a bit light for me though and I didn’t contract any of the sense of fear that the main character was supposedly feeling.  Overall, this story had a strong build-up, but petered off at the end.

Next up is Boy Twenty-One, which I thought I might enjoy the most, but ended up completely forgetting about as soon as I’d read it.  The story is set in a boarding school and centres around the friendship of two lonely boys.  This one felt as if it was either unplanned or unfinished – as if the author had a number of options with how to link the threads of the story together, but couldn’t decide which would be best and so ended up finishing the story abruptly with no real answers and no particular sense of mystery.  I literally did find this story so forgettable that I couldn’t remember anything about it before writing this review even though I’d only just finished the book a day or two ago and I had to go back and flick through it again.

Happily, the third story, Alice Baker, finally employs some good old-fashioned creep-factor with a ghostly, mind-twisty traditional sort of tale about the workers in a women’s typing pool (or similar).  This story has more of what you would expect from the term “ghost story” with obvious clues left about for clever readers, a slow build and the inevitable abrupt shock and reveal.  The ending probably won’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has ever read (or heard) a ghost story before, but there is something deliciously delightful about being drawn along with a character on a path toward certain fright.

The final story, The Front Room, was far and away the best of the lot in my opinion, employing psychological twists, and playing on familial and religious themes in all the right places to evoke the shiver-down-the-spine effect.  In this story, an ordinary family are inspired, after hearing their pastor’s weekly sermon about charity, to invite the husband’s elderly step-mother to live with them.  The tale takes the stereotypical “evil stepmother” trope to a whole new level, ending with a surprise and a lingering feeling of ickiness that will have you reconsidering inviting anyone to your place ever again.

On the whole, the final two stories of the collection really saved this one for me and with the first being passable, I’d have to say that this is another enjoyably scary offering from Susan Hill.  Others may have different opinions about Boy Twenty-One (and I’d love to hear your take on it if you’ve read it!), but if that story had been left out or replaced, this is definitely a book I would rave about.  As it stands, if you are looking for a suitably quick and frightening story to get you in the mood for Halloween, you should find what you are looking for in The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

A YA Double Dip: When Good Religion Goes Bad…

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Today’s Double-Dip deals with those times when religion becomes mildly to massively unpalatable.  I’ve got two super-engaging YA titles for you here (both of which I received as digital titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley and Edelweiss), so grab a dip-worthy snack and your condiment of choice and let’s get dipping!

First up: Misdirected: A Novel by Ali Berman…

Fifteen-year-old Ben is resigned to the fact that he is moving across the country to a small conservative town in Colorado.  His sister has just moved away to college and his brother is serving in Iraq, so Ben knows that with just him and his parents, this move is going to be difficult.  What Ben doesn’t count on is the Christian majority at his new school.  In fact, it seems that nearly every student is a Bible-thumping, God-botherer who thinks Ben is some kind of devil-child because he has chosen to be an atheist.  While Ben tries hard to fit in and ignore the obvious differences between his beliefs and those of his classmates, barriers are thrown up at every turn – first, his only new friend Tess is forbidden from associating with him, then his Science teacher makes a fool of him for accepting evolution as fact.  As Ben’s school life spirals slowly downward, he has to ask himself the tough question – is it worth standing up for your beliefs when it means you’re left standing alone?

Dip into it for…misdirected 2

…a highly engaging and thought-provoking read that really gets to the heart of freedom of religion and the impact that this has on how people behave.  Ben is a fleshed-out character who is portrayed as a normal everyday kid who has been prompted to evaluate what it is he actually believes when he finds himself in an unexpected situation.  The other characters in the book also have strong back-stories and all the characters that pop up in the story – adults and teens and in-betweens – have believable flaws and blind spots that drive their behaviour.

As well as the main plotline about religious belief (or lack of it), the story also covers issues of alcoholism, friendship challenges, homosexuality, grief and loss, and the impact of war on returned soldiers.  And then there’s Ben’s skills as a magician.

Don’t dip if…

…religious and philosophical debate is not up your alley.  While it’s presented in a very accessible and engaging way, this book is about religious belief (or the choice to forego religious belief) and if that’s not your thing, this may not be for you.  This book is probably also best suited to an American audience, because I suspect that you may be the only place in the western world with such overt and influential Christian lobbies.

Overall Dip Factor

I got sucked into this one very quickly and read it compulsively to the end.  There were a few little niggles that I experienced with the plot points – would such open-minded parents as Ben’s, who seem to promote and encourage independent thought in their offspring really send their child to a school that teaches Creationism as scientific fact, for instance – but I was able to get over these pretty quickly, as Berman does a wonderful job of developing all the hanging plot points and tying up the loose ends.  I would highly recommend this to readers of YA who like to be challenged and who are looking for something with a different twist on the starting-a-new-school story.

Next we have Creed by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie…

On what is supposed to be a fun out-of-town trip to celebrate a relationship milestone, Dee, her boyfriend Luke and Luke’s brother Mike run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere in the snow.  Desperate to push on and make their awesome night to remember, the three set off in search of a petrol station and help.  What they find is Purity Springs, a small isolated town that has everything any normal town should have – lights on in houses, meals on tables – except there is nobody in sight.  Creeped out and ready to return to the car, petrol or no, at first light the three are terrified to find themselves chased and then assisted by Joseph, a teen they don’t know if they can trust.  As things take a turn for the worse and the three friends fall under the control of Elijah Hawkins – religious zealot and self-proclaimed prophet – it appears that making it out of town alive is not a guaranteed outcome.  Seperated from Luke and Mike and unsure of how far she can rely on Joseph, Dee will have to fight to the death if she doesn’t want to end up shackled to Elijah and his brainwashed followers for all eternity.

creedDip into it for…

…a psychological thriller for the teen set that also has its fair share of gut churning cruelty.  I was surprised at how well this was put together as the initital few chapters had me questioning how high the quality of the narrative would be and whether I could hang in there with some pretty ordinary characters (that is, the main trio).  Despite the initial dialogue and thought-monologues that seemed annoyingly juvenile at first, the authors did a great job of setting up a sense of unease and lingering danger as the teens first encounter Purity Springs.

There’s also a genuinely psychotic older gentleman who makes life both horror-filled and quite icky for Dee, some henchman that ensure Elijah Hawkins grip is extended beyond the borders of one small town, and a whole lot of unsavoury happenings that generally have you wishing that someone would drop from the sky and rescue everyone, because you just know that it isn’t going to end well.

Don’t dip if…

…you like your psychological thrillers to be wrapped up neatly in the closing chapters.  The authors seem to have little regard for happy endings and the final chapter is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to the fates of those who emerge from Purity Springs.  This probably won’t be the book for you either if the thought of people being held against their will and sinister religious zealots who will do anything to retain control over their followers gives you the heebies.

Overall Dip Factor:

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I got sucked into this story.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected – I think I was imagining some kind of paranormal threat in Purity Springs – but it turned out to be engaging in a gut-churning kind of way.  As I don’t read many psychological thrillers, the level of creepiness in this one suited my tolerance levels but if you are more accustomed to this genre, it may not be quite up to scratch.  I did find the characters (particularly Dee and Joseph) left me with a niggling feeling of irritation whenever I finished reading one of their interactions, but I would definitely recommend this one to teen readers at the upper end of the age bracket who are looking for something creepily atmospheric, rather than downright horrific, or those who like a scary-but-bearable level of disturbance in their psychological thrillers.

I hope I’ve convinced you to to dip into either or both of these….

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if…: Anna Dressed in Blood

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Happy New Year to all of you in Blogtopia! I have decided to start the year with an absolute fire-cracker of a Read-it-if…it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for a while and now, having accomplished this task, I feel I must share my thoughts with you all as it has been a bit of a rollercoaster thrill-ride that may or may not be to your taste.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake is a young adult horror, ghosty, slash and smash, slice and dice adventure.  Essentially, it charts the story of Cas, a young lad who is tasked with dispatching murderous ghosties by virtue of his inheritance of ghostie-slaying powers through his father’s bloodline.  I’ve seen many reviews for this book, some glowing, some not, but the cumulative effect of these did not prepare me for the gory, terrifying and downright compelling nature of this book.  At a number of points I wanted to give this book up because of its graphic and scarifying scenes of gut-splattering horror, but the writing was so good I just had to pick it up again….Having said that, I have also decided to put a little spoiler section in below: “Don’t read it if…”, so that those of a more delicate constitution can make an informed choice before plunging in.

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Read it if:

  • you are the type of person who thinks that the “Saw” films should be categorised as light entertainment
  • you think YA romances containing vampires are sooooo 2011…and that no YA romance these days should be without at least one deadish, ghosty type character
  • you can’t wander past a cemetery without donning a pouch of  protective herbs and anointing yourself with a patchouli poultice

DON’T read it if (SPOILER ALERT):

  • you think Finding Nemo should be categorised as horror
  • you don’t like stories where pets come to harm…particularly out of the blue
  • you have even a mild aversion to any of the following: blood, haunted houses, ghosts, witches, magic, voodoo, exploding corpses or patchouli

I can’t say I enjoyed this book – it kept me too tense for that – but I certainly found it a compelling read, and I will therefore reserve the sequel, Girl of Nightmares, at the library when it comes out in paperback.

Until next time…And here’s a hot tip: I hear Bruce may be bestowing a second round of Gargie Awards any day now to usher in the new year! (Keep it under your hat).

Mad Martha

Some All Hallow’s Eve Reading Suggestions: From Teeny Halloweenies to Great Big Scaredy-Cats…

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Right then. The Eve of All Hallow’s is nearly upon us, sso Mad Martha and I have donned our festive witches hats and combined our knowledge to bring you some appropriately ominous reading suggestions for the whole family.

For the little monsters (0-6yrs):

These picture books all promise spine-tingling, knee-knocking terrors at a level that is age-appropriate for the littlest ghoul or ghostie.

Our favourites for this age group are the classic tale of witch and cat, Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski; and the terrifying cuteness that is The Scariest Thing in the Castle by Kevin Sherry.  We also recommend the gentle plots and warm fuzzy illustrations of Spooky Spooky Spooky by Cathy MacLennan and Boo, Bunny! by Kathryn O Galbraith.

Our PICK OF THE BUNCH for this age group however is

Fragoline and the Midnight Dream by Clemency Pearce

We defy you not to be caught up in the wild rumpus created by this fiery-haired little minx’s nocturnal adventure!

For Bigger Beasties (7-10yrs):

We are in agreeance for this age group that two stories stand out above the crowd.  The first is the cheeky tale of a grandfather with a penchant for carnivorous plants and feeding his family…to the carnivorous plants: The Bodigulpa by Jenny Nimmo.  Secondly, we could not go past the perennial favourite and highly relevant cautionary tale, The Witches by Roald Dahl.

For Teen Terrors (10yrs +):

Take a meander through the macabre with these suggestions for older readers.  First in this garden of ghostliness is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which follows the story of Bod, the child of murdered parents who is taken in and raised by the folk of the local graveyard.  Next, Kirsty McKay’s first offering Undead will scratch your itch for simple, gore-filled mayhem with her humourous take on teenagers holding out against the zombie apocalypse.  Finally, for a wander through territory that echoes with the howls of the damned, Neal Shusterman’s short story collection Darkness Creeping: 20 Twisted Tales cannot be left on the shelf.

Our PICK OF THE BUNCH for this age group however, is

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Christ Priestley.

This, the first in a terrifyingly terrific series, is a collection of short stories with fantastic twists and quirky characters that will linger with you long after the initial fright has faded.

For grown-up gore-fiends:

For an informative historical foray into death in the UK capital, Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead, is just the ticket.  This non-fiction title escorts the reader through the fascinating world of London’s major burial sites, from plague pits and charnel houses to the spectacle of a royal funeral.  For a lighter factual read, Mary Roach’s Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife charts the bizarre and highly questionable  attempts that have been made to scientifically prove the existence or otherwise of life after death.

Our PICK OF THE BUNCH for this group is

The Small Hand by Susan Hill.

This short tale maintains a delicious atmosphere of creepiness as, during an unscheduled visit to an overgrown manor house garden, Adam Snow feels pursued and ultimately pressured by a ghostly small hand in his.

We hope that these selections provide some options for those craving seasonal spookiness.  Please feel welcome to add any more to this list if they occur to you.

Until next time,

Bruce and Mad Martha