Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.20

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

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Review 2.19

 

After the death of her father, twenty-one year old Eliza Crane accepts a job as governess to the children of Gaudlin Hall. Upon her arrival at the train station, an invisible pair of hands seize her coat and attempt to push her onto the tracks; she is only saved by the unknowing interference of a local resident. This is only to be the first of many such assaults as Eliza enters Gaudlin Hall to find an oppressive and violent spirit, intent on preventing anyone besides the two children to remain within the walls of the manor.

John Boyne is probably best well known for his award winning novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, about two children on opposite sides of a concentration camp fence. Most of his work focuses on historical fiction, and Boyne sticks to his roots with This House is Haunted, adding a supernatural twist. This novel is an homage to the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters or Rebecca du Maurier.

All of the elements at play for a classic haunted house tale are present in This House is Haunted. Our protagonist, Eliza, is a recently orphaned young woman who accepts a position as a governess to the children of a lonely manor home. Upon her arrival, she finds that the townsfolk speak of the manor, called Gaudlin Hall, in hushed whispers. The children seem to have been left all alone, and no one will tell Eliza the fate of their parents. The children themselves, particularly twelve year old Isabella, speak in riddles and ominous statements. And all of this is in the early few pages, before the supernatural forces that surround Gaudlin Hall make themselves known with a ferocity seldom seen in ghost stories.

Like I said, all of these elements needed for a wonderfully spooky tale are accounted for in This House is Haunted. And yet, it failed to illicit even the smallest shiver down my spine.

Perhaps it was Eliza herself that was somehow lackluster. Her primary characteristic seems to be that she is homely. She is very, very insistent on this fact, constantly lamenting her ugly features which have denied her the prospect of ever becoming married. Because as we all know, only the most beautiful women in history have ever been able to catch a man. Other than plain, Eliza isn’t much else. She is merely a prop that serves the dual purpose of delivering exposition and being attacked by spirits at regular intervals.

Or perhaps it was the lack of descriptive details regarding the manor house itself. Haunted house stories are only as creepy as their setting. There needs to be slow, creeping fog and corridors that seemingly go on forever. There needs to be crumbling walls and menacing portraits and all of the other deliciously atmospheric particulars that raise gooseflesh on the arms and make you reconsider a creak in the night. Some of those details honestly may have been present within the pages of This House is Haunted, but they got lost in the shuffle. I did enjoy one midpoint reveal that winked a tribute to Charlotte Bronte. But sadly, Eliza Crane is no Jane Eyre.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find This House is Haunted here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011)

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Review #101

For a high-schooler, Cas Lockwood has an unusual after-school job. He tracks down and kills ghosts, like his father before him. Folklore and rumors have brought Cas, his mother, and their ghost-detecting cat to Thunder Bay, Ontario to hunt down a spirit known as Anna Dressed in Blood.

I found the exposition and rising action of Anna Dressed in Blood to be wonderfully fun and creepy. Cas operates a bit like a one-man Winchester brother, roaming from small town to small town across North America in pursuit of evil spirits and malicious ghosts. Instead of a cool and competent older brother, Cas instead travels with his mother, who insists on cleaning his demon-killing knife after he returns home every evening from battling the undead.

Cas also evokes a memory of Buffy, in that he is often accompanied by his faithful Scooby Gang. There’s the newly hatched witch, the beautiful but down-to- earth popular girl, her testosterone-driven boyfriend, and the wise teacher who shows them the way. Despite all this, Anna Dressed in Blood managed to avoid feeling like a tired re-tread of old themes, but was often fresh and funny. Unlike some novels I have reviewed for this site, Kendare Blake understands how teenagers speak and act amongst themselves, which gives this novel a grounding in reality as a comfortable jumping-off point into the paranormal.

I went into this book expecting a ghost story, and I guess that’s what I got. The Supernatural vibe dies off after the first hundred pages or so, and is replaced by a rather generic “catch the monster” second act which plays it pretty much by-the-numbers. I enjoyed the overall writing style, but ultimately it failed to as expected. Namely, to scare me.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Anna Dressed in Blood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix (2014)

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Review #94

Odd things have been happening at the Orsk store at night. Merchandise is being destroyed. Disturbing graffiti turns up in the restrooms. A foul smelling substance is being smeared across the furniture displays. Hoping to avoid being fired for lackluster performance, Amy volunteers along with two other employees to stay overnight in the Orsk store in order to unravel the mystery of the phantom vandal.

The idea of a horror novel set in one of the most banal of locations (a knockoff IKEA store) in one of the most banal of regions (Cleveland, Ohio) tickled my fancy right from the start. The first half of Horrorstör has a joyful time poking fun at big-box consumer culture, including excerpts from the Orsk catalogue, the Orsk employee handbook, and a map of the Cleveland store. Amy’s boss quotes from the Orsk customer service guide as if it is the Holy Bible. Basically, all of the characters in Horrorstör are walking caricatures, including protagonist Amy as the disgruntled slacker who believes she has settled for a job that is unworthy of her talents. Author Grady Hendrix drops bread crumbs of spooky happenings once in awhile, but dedicates the first hundred or so pages of the novel to roasting the retail environment and those who dwell within its overly lit halls.

The second half of Horrorstör takes a sharp turn into a paranormal ghost story. Turns out the executive bigwigs at the Orsk corporate office didn’t pay close enough attention when they paid bottom dollar for their newest store. They built their Cleveland location on the grounds of a former prison which was ruled by a sadistic and cruel warden. Now the spirits of the warden as well as the disgruntled inmates are roaming the Bright and Shining Path of the Orsk store. Only they’re looking for blood rather than bookcases.

Both sections of Horrorstör work on their own, but I’m not sure they work together. The beginning has a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone that is utterly lost once the main ghost story begins to pick up pace. Hendrix spends a bit too much time playing with his setup, and fails to build up any suspense in the early pages. The second half of the novel is a series of claustrophobic and tense chase scenes that include quite a bit of uncomfortable physical horror. But because we didn’t spend that much time getting to know the characters as anything other than caricatures, we’re never terribly invested in their fates.

Overall, I liked Horrorstör better in concept than in execution. The comedy and horror work against one another as opposed to in harmony, and the juxtaposition was too sudden and jarring.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Horrorstör here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send daughters that had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, inconvenient, or simply rebellious, girls find themselves dropped unceremoniously at Idlewild. Once there. four girls forge a tight bond of friendship until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall, journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 as a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather (2016)

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Review #79

Samantha Mather has always known that she’s a distant descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the main instigators in the Salem Witch Trials, but it never seemed to matter when she lived in New York City. But now, with her father in a coma and medical bills running high, Sam and her stepmother Vivian are moving to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house. When she begins attending the local high school, Sam realizes that there is still a lot of resentment towards the Mather name in the town. Soon the trials of high school begin to feel more and more like a modern day witch hunt. And it doesn’t help that her new house seems to be haunted.

This novel was written by Adriana Mather, who truly is a descendant of the Mather family whose roots go back fourteen generations to the early Puritans of New England. The present-day Mather has said that she wrote How to Hang a Witch to draw parallels between the infamous witch trials of 1692 and modern day bullying.

While reading this novel I was strongly reminded of a post I wrote earlier this year about the enduring popularity of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. This book ticks several of the criteria that I listed for a children’s scary chapter book. The protagonist is the new kid in town. She is treated unfairly by the majority of the her peers for no apparent reason, but it immediately befriended by others for no reason. At around fifteen, the characters in How to Hang a Witch are older than in Stine’s books, so there are some curse words thrown in as well as a few halfhearted and determinedly chaste romantic scenes.

There’s also the extreme lack of adult support, which is where Adriana Mather’s bullying allegory falls flat. Sam’s teachers are downright cruel to her, which worked for Stine because it could have possibly flown under the radar back in the ’90’s. In today’s world, if a teacher treated their students with the outright disdain that Sam is treated, it would be trending on Buzzfeed by the end of the day and the teacher would be out on their ass. Instead, a fellow student hangs Sam in effigy and the teacher doesn’t bat an eye. It’s entirely unrealistic and really took away from my enjoyment of this novel.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that the author has ever spoken to a teenager. The dialogue is very clunky and contains slang that spans the past fifteen years. Witches are an enduring part of supernatural lore because of their mystery and power. For hundreds of years they have struck fear and superstition into the hearts of humanity. Here, they are reduced to a group of snarky young girls who wear too much eyeliner. It was a bit unfortunate, really.

At the end of the day, this novel was just a little bit too far on “young” side of the Young Adult spectrum for my taste. I’m sure it would be very enjoyable for someone in seventh or eighth grade, and might even help them to learn about a very interesting time in American history.

My rating: 2/5

You can find How to Hang a Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (2016)

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Review #63

Late one night Elizabeth Sanderson receives devastating news. Her fourteen year old son Tommy has gone missing while out with friends in the woods of a local park. As the days go by with no news and no clues as to where Tommy may have gone, Elizabeth begins experiencing odd occurrences around her home. She comes to believe that the ghost of her son may be trying to communicate with her, to help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This was yet another book that I had been waiting to read until I was on my annual camping trip. I had heard good things about author Paul Tremblay and had hopes of a creepy suspenseful ghost story to read in the woods. However, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock turned out to be more of a look at how different family members deal with grief, with a few strange happenings once in awhile. It isn’t really a “ghost” story in the classic sense of the word.

The main narrative focuses on Elizabeth and her eleven-year old daughter Kate as they navigate the increasingly fruitless attempts to find Tommy. The different ways that they deal with the frustrations, fear, and desperation come out in wildly varying ways. Elizabeth believes that she may or may not have received a vision from Tommy’s spirit, and becomes increasingly sure of that her son will not be found alive. Grace begins searching through Tommy’s things in an effort to understand the events leading up to his disappearance, and finds some disturbing sketches and diary entries made by her brother in his final days.

The second, lesser part of the plot is from the perspective of Tommy and his friends in the week before he goes missing. The boys roam the woods freely on their bicycles, eventually meeting a stranger who tells them a folktale involving a devil trapped in the rocky hills of the park. Their lives begin to spin out of control, and they attempt to form a plan that will rid them of the menace that has begun to stalk them.

This novel has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Too much of  the narrative is given over to Elizabeth staring at the phone, or off into space. The character of Grace is more compelling, but she is given little to do except go to places her mother tells her not to and listen to angsty music from the ’90s. I kept waiting for Devil’s Rock to pick up the pace and ramp up the tension but it never quite managed. The final act is also delivered in a very odd way that actually served to distance me further from Tommy and Elizabeth’s story.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

I seem to experiencing a pattern of disappointing horror novels lately. Any suggestions?

 

 

Book Review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

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Review #53

 

This graphic novel consists of five eerie short stories, all centered in some way around the woods and the terrors that lie within. Written and illustrated by Emily Carroll, she invites us to take a walk through the woods, but beware of what we may find in the darkness.

I have a strange love affair with the macabre. From the time I was very young, I’ve been drawn to the dark and scary things in life. I’m well versed in the world of horror films, novels, and podcasts, but Through the Woods represents my first foray into the world of horror-themed graphic novels. Needless to say, I’ve been thoroughly hooked. I’m already on the prowl for more graphic novels like this one.

Part of what makes Emily Carroll’s collection of short stories so mesmerizing is that she uses very simple language to convey a sense of dread and suspense. I always feel that horror writers have a tendency to go into too much detail about their various dreadful creatures. This bogs the narrative down and doesn’t leave enough room for that feeling of unease to creep in. Carroll takes inspiration from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson. She keeps her sentences short and to the point, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, understanding that a person will always draw the conclusion which they fear the most.

Then there are the illustrations. While the narrative structure of the story was haunting in a subtle and lyrical way, the pictures are genuinely unsettling. I found myself staring at each individual panel for long moments, trying to soak in every single aspect. As a newcomer to the horror genre of graphic novels, I was surprised by how powerful the graphics were at provoking a reaction. I would not have pictured the events of Through the Woods in the same way that there are depicted in Carroll’s illustrations. Reading these stories in graphic novel form was like crawling inside of someone else’s brain for a few hours. The brain of a brilliant and disturbing individual.

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If you’re a fan of the horror genre, I would absolutely recommend this book. I am already sad that I had to return it to the library, as I wanted the chance to re-read it and look more closely at the illustrated panels. In the future, I’m going to keep my eye out for more graphic novels like this one.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Through the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

I Re-read a Bunch of Goosebumps Books and You Should Too!

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When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.

Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.

The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.

I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.

Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.

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So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.

While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.

  1. They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
  2. For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
  3. Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
  4. The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.

In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The World of LORE: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mahnke (2017)

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Review #5

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” H. P. Lovecraft “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with the supernatural. Think of how many movies are produced every year featuring vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows. Even when the vampires sparkle and the werewolves are giant puppies, they remain an important aspect of our culture. Aaron Mahnke’s popular bi-weekly podcast, LORE, delves into the historical context surrounding the myths and legends of the supernatural that have become a part of our collective social consciousness. This book is a collection of roughly thirty transcripts from the LORE podcasts, many of which have been combined with beautiful illustrations.

Mahnke covers a lot of ground in a little under three hundred pages. He explores the folklore surrounding the most popular supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves, as well as some of the lesser known myths such as the Wendigo, the Jersey Devil, and the Mothman. One of my favorite entries describes the account of Robert the Doll, a  well-documented precursor to the Annabelle legend popularized by The Conjuring movies. Some of these stories take place rather close to home. One account, for example, cites the legend of the Beast of Bray Road that is meant to haunt the woods near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I’ve driven through that town, though I did not see any monsters in the shadows of the forest.

All of these creatures are contained in short little vignettes that can be read in under ten minutes. This makes The World of LORE the perfect book for busy people, since you can read it in short spats and never feel like you’re missing out on something. The book resembles a series of campfire tales, if campfire tales were meticulously researched and cited. Mahnke is an excellent narrator because he never tries to convince his listeners (or readers) towards the existence or nonexistence of the creatures he describes. He lays out the facts, shines a light into some of the darker corners in history, and leaves it to us to decide what to believe in the end. Mahnke does seem intent on pointing out that a lot of the uproar caused by “monsters” over the years can be attributed to superstition, paranoia, and mob mentality. After all, the ghouls and goblins of the world can’t hold a candle to what people are capable of doing to one another.

Overall, this book should be a delight for horror fans and history fans alike. It’s spooky without being over-the-top or gory. Mahnke has done an admirable job of digging down to the roots of these stories in order to separate truth from legend. And sometimes, the truth can be more frightening than the myth.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The World of LORE here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. You can also find Aaron Mahnke’s podcast here.

Happy reading everyone!