Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Spook Lights – Southern Gothic Horror by Eden Royce

Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror by Eden Royce is a collection of horror short stories. Since Ms. Royce grew up with in Charleston, South Carolina she tries to capture the style known as Southern Gothic. Southern Gothic is a style which relies heavily on the spirits and magic, average people, depressed settings, and most importantly, utilizes Southern locations.

With Ms. Royce, her Southern Gothic is flavored with the Gullah culture of Charleston as well as dark witches and magic. Every story revolves around average, everyday people either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or for whom calling upon magic is not big deal. The people live in what some people would consider the outskirts of town and society. Some might even consider the people and situations to be grotesque and macabre.

I did enjoy the collection and felt it was just the right length and had a diverse group of characters. That being said, with any short story collection or anthology, I had a few favorites.

Doc Buzzard’s Coffin – First off that title is just plain cool. Someone’s coffin? Come again? Okay, let’s read this one and see where it takes us. In a nutshell, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

One of the biggest reasons why I liked this story is that it starts off with a woman and her two children putting Doc Buzzard into a coffin. It’s presented as such a normal family-bonding experience as the children argue as one would expect two twelve-year-olds do. Things are fine until a local cop shows up and inquiries as to what is going on.

The story is told through Jezebel’s point of view and we learn why burying Doc Buzzard is no big deal. What worries them most is Doc Buzzard and what will happen since his coffin is confiscated, sitting in the police station while mom is being questioned.

Through Jezebel we learn the family deeply believes in magic and this isn’t the first time Doc’s been dead. It isn’t until the end does the reader learn why Doc Buzzard was in a coffin and it is done so subtly that I had to re-read it a couple of times to make sure I understood what the reasons were.

I appreciated that as well as feeling the heat and stickiness of the setting. I also think the horror aspect of it was enough. After all it is a kid telling the story. I think because this type of thing isn’t unusual for the Jezebel and her family that’s why the horror isn’t over the top.

Homecoming – I like this one a lot because it was different. It’s probably the least horrorish of all the stories but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have scary parts.

The story centers around a couple dealing with their son being a convicted serial killer. The father believes they shouldn’t have anything to do with him because not only is their son a monster, he feels guilty for raising a monster.

On the other hand, the mother visits their son on a regular basis and believes, as most mothers probably would, she needs to stay by his side. She’s also a little delusional in that she believes he will get out of jail and return home.

Nothing in the story is really given to show they were abnormal in their parenting. They spoiled their son but unfortunately quite a few parents do that. Most of the children raised in such an environment don’t turn out to be serial killers. Perhaps there is more to that spoiling than the reader is initially led to believe?

That premise alone kept me interested. How often are stories told from the parents of a serial killer viewpoint? What do they think about the situation in private? How do they act? Do they keep up hope, like the mother, or do they have disgust and anger, like the father? I liked that dichotomy and thought it was done well in a short amount of time.

With the Turn of a Key – This story starts off with a typically unhappily married couple. The husband works six days a week and tries his best to keep his wife happy. The wife is nothing but a shrew described as having a “surgically enhanced chest”. Nothing he does will make her happy and she lets him know.

A key mysteriously turns up one day and neither of them knows where it goes to or whom it is from. The harpy of a wife accuses the husband of having an affair, projecting her own cheating ways. Where she believes he has time to have an affair when he barely has any time to sleep puzzles the husband.

Yet they keep the key. More specifically the husband leaves the key in his room. When he goes to sleep later that night, a mystery woman, who clearly is from the sea, visits him in his dreams. Naturally she says nothing and leads him under the sea up to a coral gate which the key must unlock. He hesitates that first night by not following her, but on subsequent nights follows the sea woman deeper into her world.

The ending has an interesting twist which left me wondering if what happens was a good thing or a bad thing and if so to whom?

 

One of the strengths of Spook Lights is the diversity in the situations and the people involved. These are average, ordinary people, in some cases what most would consider the “ugly” side of life. With the exception of the couple in With the Turn of a Key, everybody lives on the outskirts of town and life. This immediately draws the reader into the various worlds in Spook Lights.

Another strength is, in the stories I liked the best the horror was subtle, more psychological than anything. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the more graphic and overt horror, often I did, but for me personally, I like it when things are rooted in realism when it comes to horror.

Something I felt was both a strength and a weakness was the how many of the stories featured women getting revenge against men who did them wrong. A couple of stories with this theme I would have been fine with, but more it gets repetitive. Also it makes women come across as petty and incapable of just moving on.

It also felt to me some stories were incomplete and with parts of the story physically missing. I re-read quite a few pages again to make sure it wasn’t something I was not reading correctly.

Overall, on a scale of one to five pencils I would give Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror a solid three pencils.

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Musings

Weekly Musing: What Scares Me

As Halloween is coming up in just a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking lately about what is the scariest thing I’ve ever read. I admit I don’t really read a lot of horror. I’ve never been the type of person who was into horror movies or scary stories. Not because I’m squeamish of the blood and gore, just because a lot of that stuff doesn’t really scare me. If anything I’m more apt to laugh at the ridiculousness. I’ve also never found many of the monsters in literature and movies to be scary. Probably because I know vampires, zombies, and werewolves aren’t real.

Yet this doesn’t mean I’m never been scared while reading something. Legitimate proper scared and not scared because the writing was bad or the story was terrible. The kind of fear which makes sleeping a bit more difficult for the next night or two.

Surprisingly the two of the scariest things have come from the Harry Potter series. No, it’s not Voldemort; he doesn’t scare me as I’m told upfront he’s the bad guy. Nor is it Professor Snape although there are times he bordered on creepy; again, though, that’s part of who he is. Plus the twist in the last book made me reexamine everything about him.

No, the two things from the series which sort of terrify me are Professor Umbridge and the Dementors. Professor Umbridge because she’s a dichotomy as she dresses all in pink, likes cats and chocolate cake, is mousy-looking, and has an office is plastered with all matters of cutesy things yet she’s the scariest teacher at Hogwarts. You wouldn’t expect someone who is about the age of a grandmother to be so evil, but she is.

Her extreme hatred for Harry makes no sense. Professor Umbridge is on a power trip and in league with Voldemort and uses the Dementors. She constantly abuses him and other students by carving into the back of his hands all kinds of horrible reminders. No amount of magic or actual medicine can erase it. She’s like the teacher from hell and you question why she teaches children if she can’t seem to stand them.

The Dementors are terrifying because at first they appear just to be your average ghost demons. But they are far more chilling and horrible. They suck out your soul, steal your happiness and intelligence, and leave behind a shell of a person. That scares the crap out of me as they are the floating embodiment of what depression feels like. These things leave you a mess, forcing you to relive the worse parts of life. No wonder they originally guarded the wizard prison and sided with Voldemort.

The Dementors are more terrifying than any other creature in the series. Not because they are difficult to defeat, but because they are scary to look at which can paralyze a person with fear. By the time you realize what they are and what they want, it makes it difficult to get away from them. Now they’ve got you and start working on taking away all which makes a person happy.

As far as an individual book or books that have scared me, this is a bit of a struggle for me. Last year I read a collection of short stories called Dark Hall Press Techno-Horror Anthology which surprised me how many of the stories got to me. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked this anthology up. I saw Techno-Horror and thought it would be about crazed cyborgs or computers that come to life and try to kill humans like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But, no, these were a collection of stories that were far, far more down to earth and subtle in their approach. Nothing is gruesome or bloody. Yes, there are some stories where the technology ‘turns’ on its owners but many of the stories are philosophical in that they point out how dependent upon we are on technology. If we allow it, or even if we don’t, technology can be master and we its slave.

Another book would be Needful Things by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King so one would expect to be scared by at least one of his books. Admittedly I have not read a lot of his stuff, but Needful Things stayed with me because the premise of the book is a creepy store owner rolls into town and sells people something that would bring them a lot of joy. These are small things, like a baseball card or a record, which happen to just show up in the store at the just the right time. The store owner doesn’t ask for money for the items instead asks the patron to commit a small prank on a neighbor. These ‘pranks’ explode into a small town full of violence.

The store owner is a master of manipulation and is clearly meant to represent the Devil. But that’s not what gets to me. What gets to me is how a small moment of happiness in our life can come at a larger price. It’s hard not to think twice about if buying that favorite book might set off a chain of unpleasant events.

I guess when it comes to what scares me as a reader I would say stories that are more psychological and rooted in reality. Characters who are not what they appear to be also scare me. Mental anguish within a character or something that causes anguish to a character terrifies me.

Perhaps one of the things the horror genre can explore other genres can’t is the idea of the hidden monster and scariness within us all. That dark side we don’t want to admit exists. Or the dark side we wish we could let lose once in a while.

Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders

Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin by J. Matthew Saunders is the first book in the Daughters of Shadow and Blood series as well as Mr. Saunders’ debut book. The novel is a complicated story crisscrossing not only time periods but also countries as well to tell the tale of Yasamin, a former lover or “bride” of Dracula. The story bounces between Berlin in late 1999 and parts of Eastern Europe from 1599 to 1601. The main characters are Adam Mire, an American history professor who is an expert on Dracula and believes he is a real figure. He’s on the hunt for Yasamin Ashrafi who had a long relationship with the famed Dracula yet they parted ways some years ago for unclear reasons. Adam and Yasamin’s paths intersect as both are looking for Dracula’s missing medallion. Adam tracks Yasamin down, thinking she must have it or know its whereabouts; however, she’s just as curious to know its location.

The book is a cat and mouse game on multiple levels. The game is not just between Adam and Yasamin but the people who have brought them together. Adam is chased by several different organizations who want him dead for obtaining information that will lead him to Yasamin and Dracula’s medallion. Another example of the cat and mouse theme is Yasamin’s flashbacks. Slowly the reader gets her story of how she started out as the mouse but later becomes the cat, helping Dracula manipulate events throughout Eastern Europe.

The story is mostly told through flashbacks and letters, a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In fact there are many nods to Stoker’s Dracula and the original manuscript is treated as being more of a historical text rather than as a piece of fiction. It is also implied that Yasamin is probably one of Dracula’s brides or temptresses as portrayed in Bram Stoker’s novel.

I found myself more fascinated more by Yasamin’s story then Adam’s because hers carried the historical aspects of the novel. I also found her background and circumstances more interesting. Her transformation didn’t feel forced, unexpected, or rushed which I think is what a lot of authors would have done. I also liked Yasamin because she’s threatening in a quiet way and very rarely it seems does she resort to the tricks of mind control and using her sexuality readers often associate with vampires. Overall I thought she was the more complete character.

Adam is just sort of there for me. He’s lost loved ones due to his search although that seems to be more of a minor issue and doesn’t stop him. I wished Adam’s background and stakes had been developed more because it would have added more to him for me as the reader. I think the fling he has with a mysterious woman who saves from him from getting killed the first time was forced.

I appreciate reading a book centered on vampires to feel more like what traditional vampire novels read like. These are traditional vampires so nobody sparkles, walks around during the day (although they may be awake during the day), and garlic, silver, and crosses will affect them. I also appreciate it being set in the parts of the world where the legends first bubbled up and a cast that is non-American and even non-Christian as one of the groups after Dracula’s medallion to destroy it is a Muslim organization.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Even though it was a fast read, it was a bit difficult at times to keep track of the various timelines and locales.  I think it would have been nice for the novel to have had less side characters. It was sometimes confusing as to which secret group was after Adam and what their beef was with him as I think that detracted from getting to know Adam more. I also would have liked to have spent more time in the past especially since I’m personally not as familiar with those. It felt like as soon as I was starting to get immersed in the past, the chapter would end and I would be forward to 1999.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I’d give Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin 3 pencils out of 5 and would definitely be interested in reading the next book.