Tag Archives: horror

Review ~ Zhiguai: Chinese True Tales of the Paranormal and Glitches in the Matrix

This book was provided to me by Empress Wu Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Zhiguai: Chinese True Tales of the Paranormal and Glitches in the Matrix, edited and translated by Yi Izzy Yu & John Yu Branscum

In this collection, award-winning writers and translators Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum share paranormal and glitch in the matrix tales from across present-day China. Confided by eyewitnesses, these true stories uncannily echo Western encounters with chilling dimensions of reality and supernatural entities. At the same time, they thrillingly immerse the reader in everyday Chinese life and occult beliefs.

Summary via Goodreads

Zhiguai is an anthology of short, sometimes very short, uncanny tales, or “zhiguai.” These are different from ghost stories, being more personal and more reliant on wrinkles in reality. Time slips, doppelgangers, quick jaunts to parallel realities, glitches in the matrix, if you will, are the sort of strange phenomena covered here.

These are true narratives related by the people who have experienced these things. Most of the storytellers seem quite young. While some of the stories are disturbing, this anthology feels like the type of scares that I would have absolutely loved in high school. For me now, I wish these stories were paired with some from Yi Izzy Yu and John Yu Branscum’s other translation project The Shadow Book of Ji Yun, a collection of traditional zhiguai. I’m definitely interested in comparing the more traditional (which I’m unfamiliar with) and the modern.

That being said, this would be an absolutely perfect autumn readathon book: a spin-tingling fast read.


Read for 20 Books of Summer and #Trekathon!

Review ~ The Hypno-Ripper

This book was provided to me by the editor in exchange for an honest review.

The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K. Hartman

This is the second anthology in a series looking at the use of hypnotism as a fiction device in Victorian/Edwardian fiction. I reviewed the first volume, Death by Suggestion, back in 2019. (Which, yes, seems like a decade ago…)

As the extended title says, The Hypno-Ripper includes two tales, one on the longer end for a novella, the other on the longer side for a short story: The Whitechapel Mystery by Dr. N. T. Oliver and The Whitechapel Horror by “Charles Kowlder.”

Most of the stories in Hartman’s first anthology were mystery/crime stories in which hypnosis was often used to control someone into committing a horrible act, rather than as an information gathering device (as I would have expected). The Whitechapel Mystery (and Horror) are no different.

The protagonist of Mystery, an American detective investigating a bank robbery in New York, falls under the influence of nefarious Dr. Westinghouse. He follows Westinghouse back to London and they (maybe together, maybe only under Westinghouse’s influence) perpetrate the Jack the Ripper murders. That the tale starts in New York and involves an American is interesting; this might be because the author is American. The last fourth of book, in fact, is a biography of Dr. N. T. Oliver, or as he was more commonly known, Edward Oliver Tilburn. Tilburn is quite a character and his life as a con man is well worth the time. Oliver/Tilburn’s writing starts a little dry. The bank robbery stuff goes on a little long. In the style of news coverage of the time, the telling of the Ripper’s crimes gets pretty lurid.

The premise of The Whitechapel Horror is nearly the same. This time our protagonist is Charles Kowlder, an American who goes to London and, while there, has a mental breakdown. Kowlder self-hypnotizes into being a maybe partial/maybe full participant in the Ripper murders. This story is much shorter; it made the rounds of newspaper syndication under the guise of an unknown author. Hartman conjectures that Tilburn might also be the author of this piece as well. It would not be beyond Tilburn to self-plagiarize and publish this anonymously. I think it’s just as likely that, in the wild-and-wahoo world of 19th century copyright law, another writer could have adapted the longer work and pawned it off on newspapers wanting a sensational tale.

In writing quality, I wouldn’t say that either of these stories is particularly outstanding for the era. They are worthwhile for their subject matter, both as tales of hypnotism and as Jack the Ripper fiction that is contemporaneous to the events. If you’re a fan of Victoriana, do check it out.

{Book} Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell

Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell

Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane

“What up with all the Hellraiser?” my husband asked me the other day.

‘Tis the season, I guess.

I do rather like Hellraiser, the movie and the Clive Barker story, “Hellbound Heart,” that it’s based on. I believe I’ve watched the second in the series as well, but haven’t further followed the franchise. The mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Hellraiser lore seemed intriguing to me.

How much Hellraiser is in this novel? Quite a bit. This more than a wink-nudge-nod. I don’t think it’s explicitly necessary to be familiar with the movies or additional literature, but I did find the protracted mention of various Cenobites from other sources to be a little tedious.

Similarly, there are a lot of mentions and allusions to the extended Holmes universe, which I enjoyed more since I’m more familiar with that. I am a little leery of non-canon Holmes fiction, especially when it runs along the lines of “Sherlock Holmes Meets [insert famous historical/fictional character]”, but the conceit of Holmes being drawn to the Lament Configuration after his near-death at Reichenbach was plausible. I thought the personality traits of Holmes and Watson were well-represented, but many of the plot points originated from character other than the duo. It wasn’t *quite* deus ex machina, but close in a couple cases.

It was a fun enough book, especially for an October read.


{Book} The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”

The Boats of the "Glen Carrig"

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” by William Hope Hodgson

Being an account of their Adventures in the Strange places of the Earth, after the foundering of the good ship Glen Carrig through striking upon a hidden rock in the unknown seas to the Southward. As told by John Winterstraw, Gent., to his son James Winterstraw and by him committed very properly and legibly to manuscript.

As I mentioned in my Notes post, I had decided to read Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates between Home Before Dark and the Sherlockathon, but an author’s note in that volume redirected me to The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, the first of a loose trilogy, apparently. The second volume is The House on the Borderland, which I intend to read as part of my Classics List at some point. The House on the Borderland is commonly considered a foundational text of weird fiction and is well-regarded by the likes of H. P . Lovecraft.

I really enjoyed The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. I get in the mood for sea adventures every once in a while, especially ones with a bit of supernatural flair. Two boats make it away from the wreck of the Glen Carrig. They encounter a desolate island full of shrieking fungi, storms, a continent of kelp, giant crabs and squids, and finally an island near another wrecked ship with survivors who have been marooned for seven years. Alas, the island/kelp sea’s natural inhabitants are strange squid men.

My forever beef with weird fiction is that it often falls back on “It was indescribable and therefore drove me insane!” Hodgson’s narrator does his best to describe all the uncanny elements and then he and his colleagues proceed to kill the things with fire. Is he later nervous and a little haunted by the things? Sure. But the goal is always survival. Does that make this a less sophisticated story? Maybe, but also a more enjoyable story in my opinion.

In the later part of the novel, Hodgson does get wrapped up in describing how the ship marooned in the kelp sea is eventually put into sailing shape again. All of the sea voyaging seems pretty realistic to me, which also grounds the fantastic elements, but some of these bits are drier than Melville’s whale chapters in Moby-Dick.

{Book} Home Before Dark

Home Before Dark

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

I was on-board for this novel’s concept. The narrative is split, every-other-chapter, between a best-seller Amityville Horror-type book call House of Horrors and the experiences of Maggie, the grown daughter of the family who survived the haunting. Maggie’s life has been over-shadowed by “the Book,” but she doesn’t remember most of what happened at Baneberry Hall (the House of Horrors). Her mother and father, now divorced, won’t speak of it. At all. The only thing that she’s told is that she should never, ever go back to Baneberry Hall. Maggie believes there is a lot of lying going on. When her father dies and she learns that she has inherited the property (which her father still owned!), she of course goes to Baneberry Hall.

(There is some criticism that Sager uses “Baneberry Hall” a lot, more than is needed. I will contest, it’s weirdly addictive. Baneberry Hall.)

The problem with this sort of past/present narrative device is that, as a writer, you either need to be very honest with the story and make sure there are no holes, or you need to sweep the reader up in such a whirlwind of events that there is no time for questions. Sager goes for the latter and honestly that works for many readers. But I can get pretty annoyed by petty things, and that happened to me here. I had too many questions. (Possible spoilers ahead:) For example, knowing a little about the amateur ghost hunting community, how is it possible that there is no information online about the pet cemetery or the breech in the wall around the house? Maggie does some internet research and it’s stated that there are a lot of tourist “ghouls” interested in the house. I find it pretty unlikely that there wouldn’t even be a rumor online that the Book isn’t entirely factual. Were Polaroid instant cameras in the 80s-90s light enough to maneuver around for “selfies” and did the pics develope fast enough to track a ghost? I’m guessing that the modern instant cameras are lighter, less bulky, and have better developing processes, but my grandma’s Polaroid was a brick and after waiting for a few minutes for the picture to develop, you’d realize the lighting had led to over-exposure. Also, in what reality was there ever the attitude of “Oh, a teenager is dead. Who cares?” (July 6, Day 11, pg 318 in my copy…) Especially in a small New England town?

There was just too much of those things for me, and honestly, not enough creepy atmosphere to keep me distracted.

The King in Yellow

The King in Yellow: And Other Stories

Like many people, I hadn’t really heard of The King in Yellow before the first season of True Detective which originally aired back in 2014. I was intrigued enough to add the Robert W. Chambers to my TBR list, but not enough to actually read the collection until six years later… Since The King in Yellow is considered a foundational text of genre literature, I included it on my Classics Club list, but was finally spurred to read it by the lectures of Michael Moir, whose Weird Lit class is available through YouTube.

Funnily enough, Chambers’ stories only have peripheral connection to True Detectives‘ narrative, and the King in Yellow, the play and personality, only have peripheral connection to the stories in this anthology.

The King in Yellow refers to a fictional play referenced in the first four stories of this collection. Reading the play is said to drive individual mad. The King in Yellow was published in 1895. Artifacts of forbidden knowledge were not unknown at this time to readers of M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, and other authors of weird tales who preceded and inspired Chambers. The brain-break of insight will later become the bread and butter of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft.

As I mentioned, the first four stories of this collection directly mention the the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, the Masked Stranger, and the strange other world of Carcosa; all things from the fictional play which we are never given to read. The first story “The Repairer of Reputations” is possibly science fiction. Its setting is New York City in 1920. The United States has been at war with Germany and emerged from the conflict as a world power. Hildred, the narrator of our tale, assures us that he is totally, utterly fine, despite the head injury he recently sustained. His stay in an asylum was instead due to reading “The King in Yellow.” Because of his now keen insights, Hildred becomes a believer in the conspiracy theories of Mr. Wilde (whose death is cause by Wilde’s unhinged pet cat). Considering the unreliability of Hildred, the futuristic setting is probably just a delusion of the narrator. None of the other stories seem to involve the future.

I enjoyed the second story most of all. Many of the stories in this collection involve artists, but “The Mask” contains one of my personal favorite sub-genres of horror, though I’m not sure if I have a succinct name for it. It’s the type of horror in which the creation of art is the byproduct of something horrorible. Something like Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in which a struggling artist stumbles upon a method of creating great sculptures…by covering the subject in plaster. Or the (possible) use of human intestines for violin strings in “The Ensouled Violin” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. In “The Mask,” weird science innovated by reading the “The King in Yellow,” of course, inspires a sculptor to use a liquid-nitrogen-like substance to preserve living things. The effects are not permanent which leads to a strangely not unhappy ending for such a tale.

“In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” have more connection to the forbidden manuscript and are more straight forward horror stories, but are maybe less interesting for it. In both, the narrators are harried by uncanny physical supernatural forces after reading “The King in Yellow.” Unfortunately, much of what these narrators experience is beyond description.

The lecture on these four stories mentioned two Ambrose Bierce tales that served as some direct inspiration to Chambers. In “Haïta the Shepherd,” Bierce names the god of shepherds Hastur. Hastur becomes a mentioned character in the forbidden play. Bierce’s story is pretty much a fable. Haïta is visited by a beautiful maiden, who leaves him when he tries to question or possess her. The maiden is, of course, named Happiness.

Carcosa plays a bigger part in Chamber’s works and is fairly close in nature to Ambrose Bierce vision in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Carcosa is a limbo of sorts, or maybe the world as a spirit experiences it. The last line of Bierce’s story implies that the preceding was told by a spirit through a medium. Carcosa isn’t the comfortable Summerland that most spiritualist of the time touted.

Actually, the allusions to The King in Yellow don’t end after “The Yellow Sign.” Hastur is mentioned in “The Demoiselle d’Ys” and Chamber’s story actually bears a resemblance to “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as the narrator travels through a strange dream-like landscape. The Wikipedia entry states that “The Demoiselle d’Ys” anticipates H. G. Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.” While I can see some similarities, it really very different. (I’ll be reading the entire The Door in the Wall collection in the near future and provide more thoughts on it then.)

I don’t believe “The Prophets’ Paradise” mentions “The King in Yellow,” but it’s not the most comprehensible work for a Chambers neophyte to read. It is a few pages of prose/poem fragments. “The Street of the Four Winds” was much more engaging and creepy; the best of these stories to read on a stormy Halloween night.

After this, according to Wikipedia, the stories shift to a more romantic philosophy. There are many bohemian artists, living in Paris. I skimmed my way through most of “The Street of the First Shell,” but then really lost interest in the anthology. Chambers is not an elegant or straight-forward writer. I think it’s in the ambiguities and gaps that his weird stories are interesting to most readers. Like many of that genre, I have a hard time investing in horrors that are too terrible to be named.

My Classics Club list

{Book} The Changeling

The Changeling

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Summary via Goodreads

I really enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and was looking to read more from him. I believe I put The Changeling on my TBR list when I was looking for successors to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. As I was reading I thought that The Changeling was like a cross between War for the Oaks and the movie Hereditary, so I guess it scratched that folklore-in-the-mordern-world itch!

I didn’t know where this book was going to take me and I really enjoyed that. I don’t know how much I want to say about the crux of this book because it surprised to me and I really don’t want to spoil it. There was a really great interplay between technology/social media and old world folklore. To me, if you’re going to tell urban fantasy stories, that’s what’s needed to be more than “Hey, look! A werewolf in the streets in the year 2018!” (Note: werewolves are an example here. There are no werewolves in this book.)

But, my other comparison is Hereditary. The Changeling is definitely horror. There are some horrific things, but also a pervasive sense distrust and wrongness throughout the story which makes it tense and discomfiting. The story is slow to get going, but that’s because LaValle carefully lays a base for these characters. Their pasts matter to the story; not just in making the reader care for them, but giving them reason for acting the way they do and what situations they find themselves in.

In general, I haven’t enjoyed a horror novel this much since Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child. Victor LaValle is fast becoming one of my favorite “new” authors.

Publication: Spiegel & Grau, 2017
My Copy: Overdrive/Kindle edition, Tempe Digital Library
Genre: horror