Maybe you think the best books to read in January are set in the South Seas or maybe Australia where it’s high summer.
But if a book which a chilly setting or subject is more your cup of tea, here are a few good ones.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – I just got around to reading this last month and while it probably has lost a bit of its shock value in the sixty-plus years since it was published, it is still full of chills. A group of would-be paranormal investigators plans to spend a week at the notorious, isolated Hill House. It seems, at least to the psychologically vulnerable among them, that the house has other plans, . Most delightful is the lead investigator’s oblivious wife. The link is to the book. I did not see the TV series.
The Surfacing by Cormac James – In 1850, the ship Impetus sailed north of Greenland to rescue men lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The dangers of the expedition are apparent to the Impetus’s second-in-command, yet the Captain is determined to push on. This literary fiction tale is an adventure story and one, in which every character is tested to the limit. If your personal heroes include Admiral Richard Byrd and Ernest Shackleton, you’ll love this! And you’ll need a sweater.
Five Decembers by James Kestrel – No surprise that a book with this title leads you into an epic snow-filled journey. This award-winner starts out pleasantly enough, in Hawai`i, but, alas it is 1941. The life of Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady is upended when a murder investigation takes him to Hong Kong right at the time Pearl Harbor is attacked. Captured by the Japanese, he must figure out how to survive in extraordinary circumstances. A 2022 best book of the year.
If you’re looking to warm yourself in front of the electronic fire with a good movie, you might like 2017’s Wind River. It tracks the investigation into the strange death of a young woman from Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation (Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes)—the same part of the country as the Longmire series, another favorite. DVD from Amazon.
The familiar traveler’s dilemma—what books to pack?—was easily solved for a recent trip to New Orleans. I had already set aside two ideal reads: my friend Tracie Provost’s New Orleans-based Under the Harvest Moon (book two in her under the moon series) and a collection of short stories about the Crescent City published by Akashic. As it turned out, both were entertaining late-evening companions.
Tracie Provost’s books are packed with paranormal events, with vampires and werewolves and mages. Not at all the kind of book I usually read, so kind of thrilling as a result. Provost is so skilled at creating a consistent world for her unusual characters, with their unusual talents, that I’m never caught up short, thinking “Wait a minute . . .” Her heroine is Juliette de Grammont, a healer and a magic-using vampire, who had been staked for centuries and only recently revived. Still a young beautiful woman, Juliette’s occasionally dated ideas and struggles with technology amuse her millennial assistant, Jaime.
When the story begins, a New Orleans police detective who understands Juliette’s special powers calls her in to analyze a crime scene where a vampire and his girlfriend are both dead in a ritual killing. What has taken place, who is doing it, and why become more mysterious and more important as the number of killings increase.
There’s intrigue among the various covens in the city. Juliette’s coven has been reduced to her and Jaime, as its other members recently staged an unsuccessful coup against the City’s Grandmaster. A few from her coven were killed, but most are still out there . . . somewhere . . . As the risks mount and the evil motivation behind the killings gradually emerges, Juliette and her lover Josh must look for help from unusual sources—including the pack of werewolves living outside the city—for protection and help.
Provost makes the interactions among the characters quite real, almost ordinary—well, almost. She makes them eminently practical. For example, there’s someone they can call who comes with an after-crime clean-up team (he used to work for Al Capone) in order to hide various crimes. In fact, there’s a whole group of mages whose job it is to keep the paranormal world secret—the Gatekeepers. Even select members of the NOPD are in on it.
When you finish Under the Harvest Moon, you can be sure there’s a Book 3 on the way, and will await it eagerly! (You may want to use one of my affiliate links to find it on Amazon, as several books have this title.)
This collection, edited by Julie Smith, is a bit different than the usual Akashic collection, in that the 18 stories are not all contemporary. In fact, the earliest is from 1843. They include entries from revered authors like O.Henry, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, as well as modern masters like James Lee Burke and Ace Atkins.
Overall, they provide a rich portrait of the city, its contrasts and its corruptions, its amusements and its shenanigans, as seen through these different eyes, with their very different, if precise ways of seeing. Quite a nice collection!
San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute library’s Writer’s Lunch series recently hosted a discussion perfect for the season: Writing Suspense, Fear, and Spookiness. In the wide-ranging discussion
Participants mentioned some notable books related to the season, one of which was Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. It’s about the cultural hysteria of nearly 40 years ago, when many pop culture media were believed to be promulgating satanic notions. The twenty essays it contains illustrate how easily and how far off the beam we got. (Remember the flaps about Dungeons & Dragons?)
My only excuse for missing this cultural trend entirely is that my daughter was born in 1981, and I was otherwise occupied. For that reason, I was surprised when I encountered it in literature—in an excellent book by National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, titled Ill Will. Crazy as satanic messaging may seem. it’s not so very different than thinking a cannibalistic pedophilia ring is operating in the lower regions of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. In that suggestible mindset were the seeds of QAnon.
In Ill Will, a man convicted of murdering four family members—parents of his adoptive brother and two cousins—is exonerated thirty years later by DNA evidence. His trial “came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults.” He proclaimed his innocence, yet, despite the lack of physical evidence, “the jury believed the outlandish accusations.” When he’s released, some serious familial reckoning is due.
As fantasy, science fiction, and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Satanism, hauntings, werewolves. As long as you believe living-and-breathing people are behind a phenomenon, even if you don’t know for sure who it is, the mystery at least seems knowable. The moment different forces could be at work, well . . . No surprise, Lovecraft was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who launched so many literary forms in his short life.
It was a lapse when I ordered the audio version of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, brilliantly narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. If I’d known in advance it was considered a horror novel, I probably wouldn’t have listened to it. Boy, would I ever have missed something spectacular.
A crime sets the plot in motion. It’s the kind of irresponsible daredevilry four young male buddies are prone to. As a big snowstorm starts four days before Thanksgiving, Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe decide they need to put some of their own game on the holiday table. They take their hunt to the portion of the Blackfeet reservation set aside for the elders.
Down below a cliff, they find a herd of elk. They shoot into the herd, killing far more animals than they can drag uphill and far more than their truck can hold. Doesn’t matter. At the top of the cliff, the game warden waits. One of the animals Lewis shot was a young doe. When he begins to field-dress her, he discovers she isn’t dead, and she is pregnant. Her calf is alive inside her, and several more shots are required to finally kill her.
Ten years have passed since the hunt Gabe calls the Thanksgiving Classic. Ricky is working a temporary job with a North Dakota drilling crew. One night, outside a bar, he encounters a herd of elk in the parking lot. The animals panic and, in running away, do considerable damage to the parked trucks. Shrieking vehicle alarms send the bar patrons stumbling outside. They see a Native, jump to the wrong conclusion, and chase and kill Ricky. “Indian Man Killed in Dispute Outside Bar.” From the viewpoint of Lewis, Cass, and Gabe, Ricky’s death is totally predictable.
For quite a time, you could legitimately think of the elk sightings by Ricky and the half-mad Lewis as hallucinations, possibly brought on by (in one case) alcohol and (in the other) guilt. The situations are strange and terrible, but not totally outside the realm of logical explanation—metaphorical, not metaphysical. That changes. But by then, you’re all in.
Having liked this book so much, I listened to another of Jones’s: My Heart is a Chainsaw (a Bram Stoker Award winner). Teenage Jade Daniels is a loner, half-white, half-Native, shunned by her peers and effectively abandoned by her parents. Her life has one bright spot—an obsession with something even worse than her own situation, slasher movies. Her knowledge of that genre is encyclopedic. Now, I’ve never watched any of those films, so no doubt a lot went over my head, but there was never a point where I was at all confused. Jade sees around her the clues that a massive slasher event is going to occur in their rural town, but, following a core tenet of slasher films, The Adults Don’t Believe Her. I came to admire and love Jade with her woefully unappreciated big heart and lightning brain. Another great narration of the audio version by Cara Gee.
If you asked, I’d say I don’t write horror, but two of my published short stories do include a ghost—maybe. The closest I’ve come to horror is a story Kings River Life published for Halloween 2021. (You can read it here.) “A Question of Identity” is a much-reworked and rethought tale originally written in response to a request for stories about masks. Because our home is full of masks, this was a theme I could resonate with!
In it, two preadolescent girls, neighbors and best friends, each receive a box with a Halloween costume in it—a fox for one and a tiger for the other. Where did they come from? No one knows. Few questions are asked. The moms are just grateful that’s one shopping errand they can cross off their very long lists.
When the girls put on the costumes, the unexpected happens, which is why it evolved into a story that’s much more about identity than Halloween. When they exchange costumes, their parents don’t recognize them, and even after Halloween is over and each girl has her own costume again, their effects linger. You may conclude that those new identities have a dark side.
It isn’t a mystery story leading to a solution, so you never know where the costumes came from, and that uncertainty contributes to the spookiness. As Charles Baxter says in his wonderful book, The Art of Subtext, “the half-visible and the unspoken—all those subtextual matters—are evoked when the action and dialogue of the scene angle downward, when by their multiplicity they imply as much as they show. A slippery surface causes you to skid into the subtext.”
As Halloween approaches, memories of the disturbing 2016 horror movie The VVitch recur. Those Puritans! Below is a shortened review of that movie and info on the most horrifying movie I ever saw. Well, it’s a tie with Psycho.
In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional The VVitch (trailer), use the ancient Latinate “double v.”
It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Their expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.
William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, later Emma and the chess whiz in The Queen’s Gambit), and their three younger children must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.
Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him. All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?
As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.
Regardless of your answer to “witches—yes or no?” the film is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics liked it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating! Available on Amazon Prime, HBO MAX, and Apple TV.
And here is one of the scariest films I ever saw: The Vanishing (1988). There are lots of movies with similar titles and a US remake of this one. If you want to be haunted by a truly nightmarish scenario (do you?), see the original Dutch film (Spoorloos)(trailer), directed by George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg. In the U.S., it was judged one of the top foreign films of 1991, when it was released. Says Wikipedia, “Stanley Kubrick thought The Vanishing was the most terrifying film he had seen.” So it’s not just me. According to Rotten Tomatoes, which gives it a critics’ rating of 98%, it’s available through Prime Video and Apple TV.
Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.
The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.
Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.
The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.
The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”
Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.
The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.
For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.
For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.
No, I’m not talking about the scandals involving the Master of Suspense and his fraught relationships with women, I’m talking about Hitch’s love affair with the United States. As you probably recall, Hitchcock was born in England almost exactly 123 years ago (August 13, 1899) and did his early work in silent films and talkies there. From the start, he was a keen observer with diverse interests: art history and true crime; he had an intense fear of law enforcement; and he called himself an Americaphile. As soon as he had the chance to direct, he began making thrillers, and his film Blackmail (1929) was the first British talking picture.
He had some familiar hits in Britain—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938)—but the UK film industry was losing ground to Hollywood, so when David O. Selznick made a generous offer to bring him to California in 1939, Hitchcock jumped at the chance for bigger budgets, greater creativity, and better weather.
In Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to meld America’s promise and his own dark vision. The open spaces, the sunshine—these set up a contrast, a natural tension, with the nightmarish stories he wanted to tell, according to film historian Steven C. Smith, who talked about “Alfred Hitchcock’s America” in the New Plaza Cinema lecture series last week.
Selznick’s instincts were right. The first film Hitch made for him was Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Ironically, Hitchcock himself never won a best director Oscar, despite five nominations.)
Rebecca, though, was set in Europe, and Hitchcock’s first film set in America was Saboteur (1942), when war panic and fear of German spies was high. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and the climactic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty remain thrilling today. Smith revealed how the illusions were done (decades before CGI, of course), following a pattern Hitchcock perfected: extensive storyboarding, so that every shot was defined beforehand; a surprisingly small number of location shots; and as much filming as possible on a sound stage, where he and the special effects cameraman could control every element.
The limited wartime production budget for Hitchcock’s personal favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), meant fewer sets, and much of it was perforce shot on location in Santa Rosa, California. That small town (then only about 30,000 people) had to stand in for a generic, idyllic America. His scenes of actual mid-century New York (and New Jersey) captured for The Wrong Man (1956) are a valuable visual record of that era.
Many of the locations used in Vertigo (1958), filmed in and around San Francisco, still exist: the Mission Dolores, the Brocklebank Apartments, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mission San Juan Bautista where two important scenes occur still exists, but at the time the movie was filmed, the bell tower (from which falls occur) had already been demolished. Smith did a fascinating shot-by-shot analysis of the first fall scene, noting how each shot was filmed—alternating sound stage, miniature, on location, matte painting, combination matte painting and location, etc. (Any view including the “bell tower” is a matte painting.) Yet the artistry is so perfect, to the viewer the action appears seamless.
Perfection was a bit harder to achieve in the famous scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant is running across a field, while being buzzed by a crop duster. Supposedly this action occurred in northern Indiana, but the wide-angle shots were actually filmed in Bakersfield, and the scenes where he stumbles and hunkers in the dirt were shot on a sound stage, with a film of the airplane playing on a screen in the background. But, Smith said, the continuity director neglected to keep track of how much dirt Grant had on his suit from one shot to the next, so they had to do a lot of re-shooting. This is the movie that ends with the famous chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. The crew was allowed only two days at Mt. Rushmore to shoot still photos (no climbing!), which were used to recreate views of the monument. The rest was Hollywood magic. (An oddity I observed in the Mt. Rushmore footages was Eva Marie Saint wearing heels and carrying her handbag as she clambers around Thomas Jefferson’s nose.) In the previews for this film, Hitchcock looks at the audience and with tongue-in-cheek menace asks, “Have you had your vacation yet?”
Itʼs the realism of these sound stage creations that makes them so memorable and terrifying. Hitchcock believed that nightmares are very specific. Rear Window (1954)and Psycho (1960)—two of his scariest—were shot almost entirely at the studio. (It was years before I could take a shower without reliving Psycho.) For exteriors in The Birds (1963)(another contribution by Daphne de Maurier, a short story this time) Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, not far from his home in Northern California, and well away from meddling studio executives.
As Smith pointed out, other films have made use of many of these same locations, but when we think of their star turns in the movies, Hitchcock’s films are the ones that come to mind.
I read a lot. Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.
Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.
Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.
The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.
If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!
Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.
About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.
These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.
By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.
Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!
Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!
By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.
Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).
What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.