Ghost Eaters, by Clay McLeod Chapman

Grief is one of the hardest things we can go through. We have to find a way to make peace with the absence of someone from our lives. Throw in grief and things get even more complicated. Add in hallucinogenic mushrooms and the whole mess gets weird, as we see in Clay McLeod Chapman’s Ghost Eaters. Protagonist Erin winds up on a long strange trip after the sudden death of a friend who stirs up all kinds of complicated emotions.

Silas is the kind of person who raises the hackles on my neck. They are supremely persuasive, able to talk people into doing things against their own sense of self-preservation, and they appear to have no conscience, because they regularly convince people to do dangerous, damaging things. Erin has been under Silas’ spell for a long time. While hanging out with him is an adventure, it’s also emotionally draining. He asks his friends for more and more of their time, money, and resources until his self-destructiveness reaches a point where Erin, Amara, and Tobias—who have been friends since they were teenagers—finally decide to have an intervention about his drug use. It goes spectacularly wrong when Erin loses her cool and says everything she’s been holding in. The next thing, Erin et al. know, Silas is dead of an overdose.

The death breaks Erin. She is wracked with guilt over the things that she said to Silas. The emotional torment makes her susceptible to Silas’s last request, delivered by Tobias: a drug-fueled seance in an abandoned, unfinished house. And that’s where things get weird. The drug Tobias talks Erin and Amara into taking literally haunts Erin. She starts seeing ghosts. This would be horrifying enough for anyone, but Erin lives in Richmond, Virginia. There are a lot of angry dead there who want to devour the living.

Ghost Eaters oscillates between horror and emotional exploration of grief. The ghosts really are out to get Erin, and yet they also very much represent the unfinished business we have with the dead. Some of us want to make amends or say a proper goodbye or get justice. Some of us just can’t let go. The mushroom-based drug promises a connection with the dead to do those things; it’s no wonder that word of it spreads across Richmond to the point that a small cult starts to form. Unfortunately, that promise is a false one, a horrifically false one. This book stokes up a lot of tension as we watch Erin to see if she’ll be able to find a way through her grief instead of disappearing into it. Because there is so much emotional depth in Ghost Eaters, as well as sheer hair-raisingly scary writing, I think this one will stick with readers for a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka

Suzuki is in way over his head in Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka. But then, it’s true that revenge never goes according to plan…and especially not in an Isaka novel. When we meet him, Suzuki is in a very awkward position. He’s managed to infiltrate the organization run by the father of the guy who killed his wife. Suzuki hopes his plan will get him closer to his wife’s killer. It’s not a bad plan, except that Suzuki is not nearly as good an actor as he thinks he is. His “supervisor” devises an awful test for him and, just when Suzuki has to make a decision, the plot erupts to life. Isaka takes us on a wild ride across Tokyo as plans collide with schemes and get tangled up in last-ditch efforts. It’s an intricately plotted mess involving a lot of very dangerous people.

While Three Assassins begins with a revenge plot stopped in its tracks, it quickly turns into a bunch of narratives bouncing off one another. Suzuki’s bumbling intersects with the efforts of the Cicada (a master with knives who specializes in eliminating entire families) to make his name in the “industry” of killers for hire and with the Whale’s (who specializes in forcing people to commit suicide) attempts to settle scores that have been racking up over the course of his shadowy career. And then there’s the Pusher, who kills people with a timely push in front of a car or train. All three of these assassins are people you never want to meet. Unfortunately for Suzuki, he’s on a collision course with all of them.

I can’t say too much more about Three Assassins without giving things away. Suffice to say, this book is an excellent thriller. Isaka’s intersecting plots and mordant humor are a delight to read. The hints of the supernatural make things even better. Readers who want a fast, fierce read should pick this one up.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Violence, by Delilah S. Dawson

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

From the outside, Chelsea Martin lives an enviable life. Her house is perfectly decorated. Her daughters are adorable. She doesn’t have to work. The price she pays for this is by following every single rule set by her violent husband. She and her daughters have to meet him the instant he comes home, and she has to have a perfectly chilled beer ready for him. The consequences for breaking these rules are frightening and painful. But then, a terrifying pandemic arrives that gives Chelsea the chance she needs to get herself and her daughters out from under his thumb. The Violence, by Deliah S. Dawson, is an unsettling story about what might happen if everyone has to worry about the threat of being beaten to death if someone snaps.

In a brief preface, we see the first attack from what is later called the Violence. A woman in a grocery store attacks and kills another shopper then, after it’s over, goes back to shopping like nothing happened. We’re then whisked away to an ordinary day in the life of Chelsea Martin. She worries. A lot. Her essential oils aren’t selling. Her husband is terrifying. And then her narcissistic mother drops by, unannounced, to make everything just a little bit worse. It’s a lot to take, right off the bat. I wanted to yoink Chelsea and her daughters right out of the narrative before anything can happen to them—but this is not that kind of book. Thankfully, Chelsea comes up with her own plan to get out of her husband’s control. When details about the Violence start to spread, she decides to risk her safety by breaking all of her husband’s rules, then calling the police hotline to have him taken away by claiming that he has the disease.

Everything goes to plan, except that Chelsea’s husband has a cop buddy who is almost as frightening as he is. His threatening questions spook Chelsea so much that she bolts with her children. And then The Violence gets even weirder, as if a book where people blackout when they lose their temper, beat someone to death, and then wake up to a horror scene. There’s an amateur wrestling league, rich people avoiding mosquitos, camps for people with the Violence, roving teams of vaccinators, wrestling coaches who double as therapists, and lots of time in isolation for the characters to think about how they ended up in their situations. There are also plenty of references in The Violence to how COVID-19 has changed us: taking precautions or ignoring them, conspiracy theories about vaccines, society changing versus society refusing the change. Unlike Covid (despite its lethality and Long Covid), the Violence is impossible to sweep under the rug.

There’s a lot to process in this book. I finished it a week about and I’m still processing how I feel about it. There is a factual error that bugged me (there is no capsaicin in ground black pepper) and some facile plot resolution, but I found that I actually liked a lot of this novel. I loved seeing Chelsea find her power in the wrestling ring among some found family. The ending is also deeply satisfying (if in a very unethical and unsettling way). I guess my conclusion is that this was a weirdly entertaining book, as long as you don’t think too hard about the repercussions of all the violence.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Road of Bones, by Christopher Golden

I first learned about the Road of Bones by watching The Long Way Round, in which Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman rode motorcycles from London to New York. Their route took them over the Road of Bones. Most of this 1,262 mile road is gravel and was one of the most challenging parts of the journey because of the climate, the road conditions, and the sheer isolation. The history of the Road is just as harrowing. It was constructed by gulag prisoners over the course of decades. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 250,000 to possibly one million people died during the Roads construction. If any place in the world is haunted, it’s probably the Road of Bones. So when I saw Christopher Golden’s Road of Bones listed on NetGalley, I snapped at the chance to read it.

Fittingly enough, Road of Bones is about a hellish road trip. Teig and Prentiss have arrived in Siberia to film some kind of documentary in the wilderness. Teig has experience working on ghosthunter-type shows and hopes to find something similarly spooky in the taiga. Prentiss is along because Teig is his best friend. Also, Teig owes him a lot of money. But things are not going well right from the first page. Teig falls asleep at the wheel and almost kills both of them before they even meet their guide. Only a few hours after meeting their guide, things get even worse when they come across a village deserted except for one child who refuses to speak. Then the wolves come out of the forest.

I wasn’t expecting a chase story when I picked up this book. Frankly, I didn’t think the road conditions could support high-speed chases. Teig and Prentiss—plus the silent child and a stranded woman they picked up—are chased for miles through snow and deadly cold. No one knows what’s happening or why. All they know is that something woke up in the forest and that it won’t rest until they’re all dead. Meanwhile, a very elderly woman is making her way down the Road of Bones, praying that the ghosts of the people who died making the road will rest in peace.

This lightning-fast book doesn’t rest for a minute. It didn’t let me rest, either; I inhaled this book in a single evening. This book could’ve used some pauses. There are some fascinating elements pulled from the beliefs of the Indigenous peoples of Siberia, plus the region’s bloody history that I would’ve loved to learn more about. I also wanted to learn a lot more about Ludmilla, the woman whose life’s quest is to free the trapped souls in the Road of Bones. I suspect that this book is too traditional horror genre for my tastes. I enjoyed the thrills, but I wanted something more to think about than outrunning the strange, deadly things in the forest.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Sunset in southern Siberia, over the Kuznets Alatau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

Trigger warning for animal cruelty.

Throughout Stephen Graham Jones’s challenging novel, The Only Good Indians, characters constantly refer to how they’re winging things when they attempt to practice traditional indigenous ceremonies and their worries about what it means to be “Indian.” In fact, at one point, the main protagonists have a small argument about their use of the name “Indian,” when younger generations have been labeled and use the labels indigenous or native. That there is so much tension and makeshift ceremonies and practices constantly drew my attention to how disrupted the Blackfeet people are in this novel–so much so that the generations barely seem to have any continuity between them. This refrain also highlights the fact that this book seems to be all about doomed four Blackfeet men after they commit a crime against nature so egregious that something wants them to pay for it with their lives.

The Only Good Indian is comprised of four sections. The first is the shortest and is full of headlines that tell us exactly how what unfolds will be portrayed in the media. While we see the short, brutal end of a man who is attacked by what appears to be a young elk only to accidentally damage a couple of trucks belonging to a bunch of drunk white men who’ve just come out of the bar, the headlines repeat old cliches about drunk Indians. From this section about Ricky, we move on to Lewis Clarke (he was teased a lot when he lived on the reservation) in an even more troubling section in which Lewis appears to lose his mind even though his life seems ideal. Through Lewis, we learn just what the quartet of friends—Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe—did that set a strange figure, the Elk Head Woman, after them. When they were teenagers, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, they went hunting. It was still the season and at least one of them had a permit. But, when they find a small doe herd, they open fire and kill far more animals than they can haul back. The teens end up leaving most of the dead elk behind and are caught by the game warden with their catch trying to load it into Cass’s truck.

For years, the four men thought that being banned from hunting was the worst thing that would happen to them. Ricky and Lewis leave the reservation. Cass eventually settles down with a Crow woman on the Blackfeet reservation, while Gabe is still trying to find his way and comes and goes depending on whim and restraining orders. But then Ricky and Lewis start to see elk where there definitely shouldn’t be elk and things get violent. It’s only in the latter two sections of the book that all the pieces start to really come together as Elk Head Woman starts to show herself around the Blackfeet reservation (which may be in Montana). And it was only in this second half that I started to see how the broken connections of culture, family, friendship, and the natural world were at war with each other. The only way for there to be peace was for someone to discover a way to reconcile old with new, bury what needed to be buried and resurrect what needed to be resurrected.

I struggled with this book. It took me most of a week to finish it, mostly because of the graphic descriptions of killing and butchering elk. I picked up The Only Good Indians because I was looking for something to freak me out for Halloween. Mission accomplished there. When I got to the second half of the book, however, I realized that this book was about much more than gruesome and bloody revenge. Like the best examples of the horror genre, this book unsettles us at the same time that it makes some very pointed observations about how we got to where we are and what’s wrong with the status quo. For readers with strong stomachs, I heartily recommend The Only Good Indians.

The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly

I’ve been dipping in and out of the Charlie Parker series for years, ever since I picked up the first book in the series, Every Dead Thing. Since that book came out in 1999, John Connolly has been building on the complexity of his haunted private investigator’s world by adding supernatural elements of pure evil beneath the more ordinary human variety of evil. Connolly has also created an amazing cast of characters with complex ethical codes that push them to eliminate both types of evil wherever they find it. In The Nameless Ones, the nineteenth volume in the series, we go on an international journey of revenge with two of Parker’s best friends and allies. Louis, an assassin known as the Grim Reaper, and his partner Angel, a thief, travel to Europe to take out a group of Serbians who took their own revenge so far that they must be put out of commission.

The Nameless Ones brings in a full complement of previous characters (although Parker himself and the always entertaining Fulci brothers only have a brief scene). Sadly, a character introduced in a recent installment of the series meets a grisly death—along with his family—in the first quarter of the novel. He and his family are tortured and killed by Spiridon Vuksan and his henchmen. Spiridon and his brother, Radovan, are evil men. They, unlike some of the other villains tackled by Parker et al., are motivated by greed and prejudice against anyone who isn’t a pure-blooded Serb. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Vuksans participated in the massacre at Srebrenica and countless other atrocities. After the war, they used Serbia and people still loyal to them to create a criminal empire that no one would touch. At least, that’s what they thought. Their act of bloody revenge in Amsterdam not only draws down the wrath of Angel and Louis, it also makes a lot of governments decide that the Vuksans are too dangerous to be protected anymore.

As Louis and Angel track their quarry from Amsterdam to Vienna, Connolly treats us to snippets of history about Josip Broz Tito and the terrible wars and atrocities that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia, how much it costs to get new passports and guns, high-level human smuggling in Western Europe, and some interesting tidbits about Serbian folk beliefs. There are also some amazing set pieces as Louis has to get creative with his methods when his targets seem to be completely safe in their hotels and when there are showdowns in dramatic corners of European cities, like the Friedhof der Namenlosen (German) or a once quiet restaurant in the Skadarlija district of Belgrade. The Nameless Ones is the kind of book I adore: entertainment mixed with history and travel.

If you’re looking for a mystery series that is completely original, deeply affecting, and never disappointing, I highly recommend the Charlie Parker series and this latest entry—as long as you have a strong stomach for violence.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I decided to kick off the spooky season with a century-old collection from M.R. James, a medievalist and archaeologist who did a bit of writing on the side. I’ve heard James’s name tossed around with that of other old masters of scary like Algernon Blackwood and others, so I was hoping for some classic chills with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Wikipedia entry, with additional links to free copies of the collection). These stories gave me a window into what readers found scary 117 years ago—and showed me that writers have really raised the stakes since this book hit the shelves.

Many of the stories follow a similar arc. They’re framed as tales retold by our unnamed narrator by his various friend and colleagues. These friends (most with connections to Cambridge University) travel to various places around Europe to look at collections of rare documents, obscure cathedrals, and poking into stories that might have a grain of truth. They might get a warning from someone local who knows better, but maybe not. Either way, when the sun goes down, something terrible happens in the night that nearly frightens the life out of the friend. As soon as the light comes back, the friend heads for the hills.

Although the stories in this collection are not as terrifying as what contemporary writers (especially horror movie writers) are coming up with these days. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I appreciated the way that James builds up tension by putting us into crypts and lonely tavern rooms alongside all those scholars who messed with things that were hidden, bricked up, or buried for centuries. These stories are the kind you tell around the campfire, slowly, so that the audience slowly freaks out until the end of the story delivers a cathartic moment of escape. Some of the standouts in this collection are “Number 13,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Lost Hearts.”

Readers who like little jolts of scary—especially when it comes along with a side of academic curiosity—will like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Readers who need something stronger to get their hearts racing might need to stick with horror written in this century rather than the last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Queen of the Cicadas, by V. Castro

Trigger warning for racism and hate crimes.

V. Castro’s unsettling The Queen of the Cicadas was not what I expected. The first half was what I expected; the latter half was a strange journey that I wouldn’t have seen coming in a million years. The two halves of the book are linked by an urban legend and an Aztec deity that both refuse to die. I loved the ideas Castro brought to bear in this novel—revenge, the power of women, storytelling—but I think this book tried to do too many things too quickly for it all to gel into a coherent narrative.

Belinda has had a rough life and is feeling worn down by all of the years looking for love, but she sucks it up to attend her best friend’s wedding at a restored farmhouse in rural Texas. After a night of wine and conversation, she learns that the farmhouse was the site of a hate crime back in 1952. The murder of Milagros Santos was so horrific (and the terrifying deaths of the perpetrators) that she became an urban legend: La Reina de las Chicharras, the Queen of Cicadas. She can be summoned like Bloody Mary, although no one knows what will happen if she appears.

Some investigation and a lot of bizarre, bloody occurrences bring Belinda and her new friend, Hector (owner of the Texas farmhouse), bring them both to Mictēcacihuātl, the Aztec lady of the dead. I was fascinated by the parts of this book that took Mictēcacihuātl and her story and transplanted them onto a modern horror story. In spite of the gore, I was hooked on this first half of the book. But when Mictēcacihuātl starts to plot a comeback for her goddesshood, things get really weird. So weird, in fact, that I started to lose interest, I’m sorry to say.

Mictēcacihuātl (Image via Wikipedia)

Terrible things happen to Milagros. Her death is one of the most frightening and gut-churning things I’ve ever read. Seeing her get creative revenge on the people who killed her was satisfying and engrossing, even if things were racing by so fast that there wasn’t a lot of time for emotional depth. And seeing her story inspire others to fight for Latino and Hispanic rights in the United States was stirring. I just didn’t understand the turn the narrative took in the middle towards the mystical and, frankly, woo-woo. No amount of energetic sex made up for the fact that the narrative was haring off into what felt like another genre entirely. When the book ended, I was left feeling like a lot of opportunities to deeply explore anti-Latino and anti-Hispanic racism, the crushingly hard life of farm workers, and revenge had been squandered.

The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling

The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling, has just joined the club of books that made me think, “what the hell did I just read?” This fantastical, horrifying novel takes place in a world that feels Victorian, but where magic is a mythical and very dangerous thing. The rules of this world’s magic involve rituals, strange ingredients, and a lot of dedication. After nearly 400 pages, that’s all I know. This might frustrate some readers. It certainly frustrated me a bit. The eponymous character Jane was so interesting and so fierce that I was able to make it through whole chapters where I wasn’t sure I knew what was going on, but she doesn’t quite make up for the muddled narrative. To be honest, my favorite parts of this book were the chapters before Jane takes up magic.

Jane is an odd duck. She prefers accounting and mathematics to anything else, and we are told that her cool logic puts people off. When her guardians decide to move to the capital, where her annuity won’t go far enough, Jane surveys the local bachelors to try and find herself a husband. She decides on the new(ish) doctor, Augustine Lawrence. After a little argumentation—and some sparks that romance readers will recognize—Jane and Augustine come to an agreement. They will marry. Jane will live in the surgery in town. Augustine will spend his nights at his ancestral pile, where Jane is forbidden to stay. Of course, that agreement immediately breaks down due to a washed-out road that prevents Jane from traveling back to town after a semi-celebratory dinner.

And then things get weird. Really weird. There are ghosts. The house is haunted by strange creatures. Things move around with no explanation. Worse of all for Jane, she learns that Augustine is emotionally haunted by a dead woman who later turns out to be his dead first wife. By this point, I was getting serious Jane Eyre vibes; vibes that might have made me feel more disappointed by this book than I might have otherwise. (For a much better, and much more interesting, retelling of Jane Eyre, try Jane Steele, by Lindsay Faye.) Just when I thought things couldn’t get any weirder for Jane and the doctor, Jane starts manifesting magic against whatever is trying to either drive them mad or kill them both.

The Death of Jane Lawrence touches on some interesting themes about arrogance, the limits of human ingenuity to prevent death, and messing with things that should not be messed with. But the end of this book is such a muddle that I really have no idea what Jane was doing or why in her efforts to try and rescue her husband. Worse, I thought that all of the solid character development for Jane went right out the window after she gets married. We are told more than once that Jane is logical, a problem-solver. But the hauntings and her growing affection for Augustine turn her into almost a completely different person. I hate to use the word, but Jane is hysterical more often than not. It’s only later, after Augustine gaslights her or another character tries to explain away whatever supernatural shenanigans just happened, that she manages to calm down and use her brain. This is what I found out of character and it really bothered me. I expected a so-called coldly logical woman to be able to walk into a haunted mansion without going to pieces. I really wish this book had lived up to the promise of its first chapters.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

No Gods, No Monsters, by Cadwell Turnbull

I’m not sure if this book counts as a novel or linked stories. Each chapter(?) jumps across characters, settings, and years. The cast is large. There are recurring characters, but it takes a while to establish who the protagonists are and who they’re facing off against. So much new information is introduced that I had to slow down as I read it so that I could remember everything. However, I am sure that “Convergence” is a good name for Cadwell Turnbull’s series—at least if the first volume, No Gods, No Monsters is anything to go by. The more I read, the more I could see the narrative arranging the characters like pieces on a chessboard. Big things are coming in future volumes.

This very unusual book starts off with a sadly all too frequent occurrence. Laina’s brother (they are Black) is killed by police. We don’t get to the unusual part until a few pages later, when Laina receives a digital video of the entire event. The video reveals that the police weren’t shooting at her brother; they thought they were shooting at a gigantic, monstrous dog or wolf. It’s only after the “creature” dies that it transforms into the body of a naked man. The police freak out. And when Laina releases the video to the media, more people freak out. And then when a pack of werewolves are filmed staging a protest, the whole world freaks out.

After the werewolf protest, No Gods, No Monsters kicks into high gear. It becomes a whirl of secret societies, creatures I’ve never heard of before, possible gods, alternate dimensions, and who knows what else. This maelstrom is connected by characters crashing into each other. At least, at first. I started to notice themes emerge about truth and reality. The video Laina released is almost immediately edited to remove her brother’s transformation by parties unknown. Some viewers are able to convince themselves that the new version is the only version and that monsters don’t exist. Viewers who can’t accept the revision of their reality, but are left without actual evidence that the universe is stranger than we realized, are trapped in doubt. Later, when we meet a physicist who challenges the standard theory of quantum physics. His questions and dialogue with other characters make us question reality in the same way that all those viewers questioned their reality. That fact that this ontology is grafted onto a completely gripping piece of fantasy makes this book catnip for me.

The only downside to No Gods, No Monsters is that I have to wait for the next entries in the Convergence series.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.