The Stranger Diaries By: Elly Griffiths Book Review

Rating: 4 out of 5

Overall: A complex, multi-layered narrative that’s easy to follow and enjoy. Very well done.

I’ve always been a fan of gothic horror novels since my later high school years; devouring the pages of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the contemporary (less gothic) works of Joyce Carol Oats which I enjoyed much later in life, in particular, The Accursed (2013). When I recently came across The Stranger Diaries by Domenica de Rosa (pen name Elly Griffiths), I was taken aback by her ability to retain the elements of a gothic story; like a time capsule released in a modern day setting. It’s obvious that Elly is no stranger to works of the great gothic writers of the past, and yet her influences refrain from dominating her true voice as a writer; a feat not many are able to accomplish.

The Stranger Diaries takes place in a small town off the coast within the Sussex county of the UK. Centered around Talgarth High School, once the home of famous gothic writer R.M. Holland, The Stranger Diaries delves into the life of English teacher Clare Cassidy and the unfortunate events that unfold around her. A self-proclaimed expert in R.M. Holland’s work, Clare Cassidy’s pursuit in writing his autobiography is aimed at solving the mysteries of not only his literary labors, but the puzzling circumstances of his personal life. During a normal school term in the Fall, one of Clare’s colleagues (as well as close friend), Ella Elphick, is found murdered in her home. A single note is discovered on her body which reads, Hell is Empty; a quote from R.M. Holland’s short story titled, The Stranger. As the case for Ella Elphick is under investigation, Clare’s personal relationship is put into question as details between the two begin to unfold. Turning to her personal diary for clues, Clare Cassidy becomes a focal point when she discovers a hand written message that isn’t hers which reads, “Hello Clare. You don’t know me.

Told through the perspective of three major characters; Clare Cassidy, her 15 year-old daughter, Georgie, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Harbinder Kaur,  The Stranger Diaries pays homage to gothic framework with an approach maintaining a contemporary relevance. I appreciate how Griffiths’ method of utilizing three unique perspectives adds depth to the overall narrative of the story; although Clare Cassidy remains the counterpoint of the novel. Yet what I found most interesting regarding Griffiths’ approach to her storytelling in The Stranger Diaries is the interwoven short story, The Stranger, by R.M. Holland. These various excerpts throughout the novel contribute not only to the overall plot and tone, but bridge the modern world with the inspirational framework of gothic literature. Perhaps this was Griffiths intention. Griffiths also employs self-referential (meta) points sprinkled throughout the novel by calling attention to details within The Stranger and having them play out in The Stranger Diaries; or perhaps anti-mimesis is at play?

The Stranger Diaries is a complex, multi-layered narrative that’s easy to follow and enjoy. The characters, especially our three narrators, are very likable and developed very well by Griffiths. Although there isn’t much to character development or growth, Griffiths provides some real depth with rich, relatable, characteristics to each of our characters and their backgrounds. As the mystery unfolds throughout the novel, the story’s pace hardly treads the mundane with irrelevant details other thrillers tend to fall prey. Interestingly enough, Griffiths short story, The Stranger, kept me wanting to reach its conclusion aside from the main plot of the novel. There was even a slight tone of horror which I can always appreciate and give Griffiths an extra nod of respect for. Well done. The Stranger Diaries gets a high five and a definite recommend for mystery/thriller lovers, and perhaps just book lovers in general. Thanks for reading!

Master of the Moors By: Kealan Patrick Burke – Book Review

Rating: 5 out of 5

Overall: A terrifying novel of the repercussions of love, loss, revenge…and beasts 🙂

Even with the obvious notion that Master of the Moors is heavily influenced by classic gothic horror, Kealan Patrick Burke possesses a remarkable gift in maintaining a refreshing read without ever letting his novel feel ‘dated’. Burke’s use of visuals and keen eye to detail translates perfectly onto each page, constituting an innovating experience allowing readers to visualize, in great detail, the atmosphere, dialogue, characters, and terrifying sequences that make Master of the Moors an excellent choice for a read. Burke’s attention to detail sprinkled throughout the pages is definitely put to use as an immersive tool, and one that kept me engaged the entire time. Describing the moors in the opening sequence immediately placed me in the midst of fog shrouded by darkness. Yes, I was already freaked out.

Master of the Moors, published in 2008, takes place sometime around the 1800’s within the moors of Dartmoor by Brent Prior (village). A tragic occurrence unfolds in one particular foggy night as the search for a woman in the moors turns deadly when the rescuing party falls victim to an unseen, sinister force amidst the unforgiving darkness that consumes them. Years later, we find Brent Prior as a village plagued with loss as its’ inhabitants are resigned to a constant feeling of impending doom. The haunting visuals effectively reels the reader into the pages of Burke’s evocative writing; materializing each word in building the atmosphere and tension of Master of the Moors

In Brent Prior, we find aging groundskeeper, Grady, responsible for tending to the manor of his employer, Mansfield, who’s currently in a catatonic state since the fateful night in the moors years prior. Mansfield’s children, Kate and her blind younger brother Neil, tend to be the subject of ridicule, mainly due to Neil’s loss of sight. As tensions build amongst the townsfolk, the arrival of a stranger (donning frayed bandages) wielding a disfigured semblance initiates a series of disappearances, as well as a mysterious fog that shrouds Brent Prior. The town is under siege by a force none can explain. Yet as the townsfolk find comfort within the confines of Brent Prior, away from the dangers of the moors, it is the mysterious fog that brings the threat of the moors to their doorstep.

Burke unleashes the forces of revenge, passion, love, and terror in a character driven narrative that often led me to blurring the lines of good and evil throughout my read. Each character arc was far from predictable, and often times offered a fair share of surprises that had me put the book down to gather my thoughts. Perhaps this was attributed to how ‘real’ these characters felt, making them so much more flawed and unpredictable. Yet I found myself revisiting several sections of the book and found little clues regarding each character that really put things into perspective; such as one’s intrinsic qualities could be the instrument of their own demise.

As an American, I found the dialect to be a nice departure from the more recognizable Americanized expressions I am acquainted with. Burke has a knack for keeping dialogue natural; not once do I ever feel discourse is out of place in any of his work.

Master of the Moors presents a terrifying novel about how the repercussions of love, loss, and revenge can reveal the wickedness in our hearts. What I found most intriguing was the malice not only lies within the moors, but inside Brent Prior itself. Kealan Patrick Burke has an impressive, as well as versatile, body of work that I always enjoy reading. Master of the Moors is a highly recommend read and a great start for those who’ve never ventured into Burke’s world. About three years ago I reviewed a novella by Burke titled, Sour Candy, that I’ll give a notable mention to. It’s that good. Thanks for reading!

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Book Review

Hiding in the shadows amidst the dark corners, where the absence of light shrouds a mysterious figure, a patient man awaits his defenseless victims. A woman goes about her routine, shutting off all the lights in the house without the slightest indication that someone is watching her…from inside her home. The mysterious figure, also known as the Golden State Killer, awaits in anticipation without the slightest movement. He’s not only contemplating his actions towards the victim, but the fear and mind-games he’s ready to “play”. His victims later recount in interviews and interrogations with the police several post-attack phone calls from the Golden State Killer; he asks, “remember when we played?” 

The known crimes committed by the Golden State Killer began in 1974 and continued through 1986; over 100 burglaries, more than 50 rapes, 13 murders along with several kidnappings. Thanks to advancements in DNA profiling, Joseph James DeAngelo (a.k.a. The Golden State Killer) was arrested by the authorities on April 24th, 2018; the charges currently include murder. DeAngelo’s arrest was partly due to the growing awareness and interest in the Golden State Killer crimes within the last 10 years. Part of the growing awareness is due to true crime author, Michelle McNamara, for her dedication and extensive research into the GSK. McNamara, also known as the wife of famed comedic actor Patton Oswalt, was a pioneer in the search of a killer who was believed too impossible to capture, especially after 30 years. In McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, she chronicles the series of murders through a sequence of interviews, newspaper articles, and notes she’s compiled throughout years of research.

McNamara’s extensive research into the GSK slowly reveals the unseen killer by recounting his twelve year crime spree. Throughout McNamara’s interviews with detectives, she unveils the traumatic events through the words of victims accounts in explicit detail. These crucial events were essential in pinpointing certain characteristics about the GSK and placing together a cohesive pattern in his activities, with hopes of understanding the killer’s modus operandi. The victim’s narratives recounting their experience with the GSK was truly horrifying.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the posthumous work of McNamara which was published on February 27th, 2018. Michelle McNamara had passed away two years prior to her book’s publication with nearly two-thirds of its completion. Her husband, Patton Oswald, along with crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, helped complete McNamara’s novel by utilizing her notes and recordings. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is a truly terrifying account of a killer’s actions and the destruction he left behind. Each of the victim’s portrayal and experiences with the GSK became more unnerving with every turn of the page. I often found myself constantly checking my locks and windows every night. McNamara’s novel is highly recommended for it’s engaging narrative, consistency in pace, and all around its effectiveness in creating unease.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – Book Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Book Review

Originally posted: March, 2018

This unsettling journey leaves quite a few lingering questions in this psychological, philosophical, thriller. I initially came across I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Lain Reid, through a horror podcast, Shock Waves Podcast, by Blumhouse. The novel’s title lends itself to a variety of interpretations. My immediate take, and perhaps the most obvious, was the ending of a relationship. This personal resolve of “ending things” is the central plot, initiated by our unnamed narrator, as the reader may refer to as the “girlfriend”. The opening paragraph outlines her intentions with ending things, stating “It lingers. It dominates. There’s not much I can do about it. Trust me.”

I found myself in a leery state of mind as I read the novel. With an unreliable narrator (told in the first-person), the “girlfriend” not only keeps others, as well as readers, in the dark, and she is not entirely honest with herself as well. I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes readers on a road trip with our narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, through rural American country roads with the intent of meeting his parents. The further we advance along this trip, the more we learn of the narrator’s terrifying past.

“Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.” 

The narrative is told in threefold; the present time in which we examine the current state of all characters in the plot, the past which explores terrifying events throughout the narrator’s life, and finally, minor portions of dialogue describing a mysterious murder scene are scattered throughout the story. Reid’s use of dialogue really made this an enjoyable read. As the novel delves into several themes of philosophy and the human psyche, I found it easy to follow even in the midst of so much information. As the mysteries of the novel begin to unfold, the lingering question of why things should come to an end is never quite answered. 

“Just tell your story. Pretty much all memory is fiction and heavily edited. So just keep going.” 

My natural inclination to resolve the ending well before the last page led me to several avenues. Although I won’t spoil it for anyone (yet), Reid’s novel kept me engaged up until the very end; regardless of whether or not I’d figured it out beforehand. The surrealism adds to the mysterious quality of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. In a way, it reminds me of The Twilight Zone

*Minor Spoiler Ahead*At the story’s conclusion, we are still left with lingering questions, as noted earlier. Plagued with several red herrings, the novel never quite reaches full circle on a few issues; rather they seem to be conveniently swept “under the rug” as the conclusion unfolds. Although I very much enjoyed this book, keep in mind, it may require a second read-through. The novel is thought-provoking and original, but it carries a hint of James Mangold’s 2003 film, Identity. That’s not a bad thing. It merely puts things into perspective once the denouement draws to a close. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a read I’d recommend due to its ability to engage, captivate, frighten, and most important, Reid is such a gifted writer. His use of stream-of-consciousness kept me inside the narrator’s head; I knew what she knew, and found myself surprised when she was. I hope you find this work to be as satisfying as I have. Thanks for reading.

A Deadly Step in Evolution for “Dead Space: Catalyst” – A Book Review

Originally Published: February 2017

We are whole again, Isaac. We are whole

The survivor-horror genre has played a vital role in shaping the way consumers experience the immersive gaming environment. The user-experience challenges one’s fears, forcing players to evaluate their means of survival at the cost of limited resources geared at creating a sense of helplessness. Whether through film, television, video games, or even novels, other significant elements such as tone, language, characters, and subject matter truly define the experience of a terrifying journey. One such example is the Dead Space series.

The initial release of the widely successful Dead Space videogame series spawned two sequels, along with literary companions such as comic books, novels, and short animated films. With the growing popularity of the Dead Space franchise, several forms of media are designated as “expanded universe” in order to contribute in further developing the mythology within the DS universe. With an extensive amount of gameplay, as well as reading, dedicated to capturing the full experience and understanding of the Dead Space mythos, perhaps one can conclude certain attributes are shared between the DS universe and classic horror literature. 

Possibly drawing inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dead Space focuses its attention to the construction of an extraterrestrial artifact known as the Marker; just as the souls of Hell construct Pandaemonium, the capitol of Hell, in Paradise Lost. A prevalent element in both Paradise Lost and Dead Space, idolatry reveals characters are invested in a faith founded on false beliefs seemingly built on salvation and paradise. The construction of Pandaemonium illustrates a form of Hell’s power yet ultimately falls short of any form of paradise. The same applies to the Marker in Dead Space. A practice of veneration turned worship presents a false paradise when the Marker’s true form and intent is revealed.

The Marker possesses a means of producing a powerful electromagnetic signal, which prompts scientists to seize and harness its limitless power. Yet it’s soon discovered these signals cause hallucinations and severe paranoia among the human residents nearby. The Marker’s purpose is to produce a phenomenon known as Convergence, providing unity amongst not only those affected, but uniting Markers across the universe with the purpose of being ‘made whole’. Yet at what cost?

B.K. Evenson, author of Dead Space: Catalyst, provides an exceptional addition to the Dead Space expanded universe. Evenson remains faithful to the Dead Space mythos while providing insight with further details of the Marker’s methodical approach to universal dominion.

Glorious. The next step in evolution. Marvelous Convergence, the extension of consciousness.

Evenson divides the narrative arc in two; dedicated to the protagonist and the Marker. Just as the backstory of the Marker takes form along with the relevance of its architecture, the novel continues a similar pattern. Beginning with the wide foundation, the novel slowly builds upwards, weaving together character storylines to an unexpected conclusion.  This analogy is important, taking into consideration the complex mythology of the Dead Space universe. 

The tone of the novel, as expected, was dark with little to no humor. The video game series relies heavily on visual effects and surroundings for the purpose of immersing the player within the horrors of the Marker’s dominion. In a similar manner, Evenson utilizes powerful imagery by replicating the terrors and fears emulating the game’s grotesque environment.

Dead Space: Catalyst is a great read for both fans and non-fans alike of the video games series. It’s bizarre, grotesque and a very enjoyable read. As the Marker creates an unbreakable bond with its victims, perhaps it will take hold of you, too. Thanks for reading.

Matthew.

In The Darkest of Skies, “Little Star” Still Shines – A Book Review

Originally Published: January 30th, 2017

These have no longer any hope of death; And this blind life of theirs is so debased, They envious are of every other fate.” – The Devine Comedy, Canto III 46-48

Fourteen years ago, we experienced an unforgiving summer heat in the south Texas region that forced many to stay indoors. It was 2003 when I had decided to enroll in college courses for the summer. In reminiscing about this particular period in my life, my memory serves me well as I watch the googsebumps on my arms begin to erupt just thinking about how cold the classrooms were. One particular morning, I sat patiently in the classroom waiting for our psychology professor to begin her lecture. As I sat comfortably, marveling at the precipitation invading the edges of the window, my imagination began to take form; driving my subconscious to frequented territories. “Apathy” was the word announced by my professor. It immediately brought me back to the conscious reality I so easily checked out of. “Apathy is a lack of emotion or sense of purpose in life”, she stated. The hour of lecturing covered a variety of topics that dealt with apathy; one in particular was murder. I was reminded of the senseless act that occurred in 1989, known to many as the Menendez Brothers murders.

Rather than focusing on the murder scene, or the victim’s life and family, more emphasis is placed on the killer’s background and motive. Apathy seems to be the common denominator in the mental state of the aggressor, allowing such heinous actions to be committed. This interesting topic peaked my interest when I came across John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Little Star. Familiar with his earlier works such as Let the Right One In, it seems Lindqvist has revisited a well-acquainted theme in Little Star; children who are murderers.

“The last thing her hearing perceived was a harsh metallic clang and a crunching, cracking sound as her skull split open beneath the point of the nail.”

The narrative storyline in Little Star is twofold, focusing on two major characters, Thares and Teresa. The novel’s character development is quite extensive spending much of its time setting the stage for the book’s climax. Prior to the denouement of the overall story, it is interesting to note the intrinsic, as well as extrinsic, development of each character as the narratives come together, forming a bond just as Thares and Teresa do.

We are introduced to Thares at the opening of the novel. An infant child left abandoned in the forest, Thares is found by a local musician, Lennart. Enamored with the child’s eccentric ability to repeat musical notes with perfect pitch and harmony, Lennart secretly adopts the child; raising her within the confines of his home shunning her from society. Prior to adopting the name Thares, she is known to Lennart and his wife as Little One. The novel swiftly shifts gears to introduce Teresa. A young girl (the same age as Thares) with a passion for poetry, Teresa’s introverted personality oftentimes excludes her from social gatherings. As Teresa is left with socializing online, she begins to form a relationship with Thares on an online forum dedicated to poetry. The details of their ‘fateful’ encounter with one another will be omitted, but it’s important to note their social inadequacies and how the effect of their social development takes a toll on each of them.

“When she looked at the result in the mirror she was able to confirm that she looked bloody awful. This is me.”

Lindqvist confronts the challenging task of committing so much time to character development. The bulk of the novel is reserved for telling a complex story and perhaps the necessity for extensive character development was required. Some may argue that pace and story plot is compromised in favor of an all too-detailed background and over-told narrative. But that does not seem to be the case in Little Star. Once the narratives are linked together, a section of the novel titled Both the Girls, there is little room left for questioning the motives or reasoning behind our character’s intents. It seemed quite a brilliant tactic by Lindqvist. Just as a journalist’s attempt to analyze and dissect the psyche of a murderer, as mentioned earlier, Lindqvist has successfully placed the pieces of a character puzzle into place in order to have a complete picture and understanding of the story’s elements; except one.

One element in particular stood out during the course of the novel that left me questioning its relevance to the overall story; the supernatural. Although this may seem an outlandish claim, it is difficult to interpret the events that take place in Little Star without claiming one of two possibilities:

  1. Thares’s special abilities in relation to music and her ability to influence others with just a glance could suggest a supernatural force at play.
  2. Thares’s lack of social interaction since infancy, non-verbal communication (other than her singing ability), as well as her ritualistic behavior suggest she may carry the burden of a degenerative mental illness.

Two seemingly plausible explanations to Thares’s behavior, I personally would subscribe to the former. There is less evidence to support the latter, but just as most stories go, they are open to interpretation.

What I admired most of Lindqvist’s work in Little Star was his willingness to allow his characters to take charge of the story. Although one can label this novel under the horror genre, it can be easily done without the overuse of graphic violence. The graphic sections in Little Star do not disrupt the relevance of the scenes and therefore does not allow the reader to rely solely on the violence to become frightened. The intent of the characters alone is enough to send shivers down your spine. This is the tasteful manner in which the use of violence, whether it’s mild or extremely graphic, does not overwhelm the scene by casting its shadow over the more important elements unfolding before the reader. Lindqvist just gets it right.

The 532 pages of Little Star might seem like a daunting journey for some to venture. But it’s definitely worth the read. The separate narratives keep the reader engaged up until they intertwine. Then things get very interesting. If you enjoy a good horror read without the clichés and impractical plot twists, then Little Star might be your next novel on the ‘to-do’ list. Pick this one up. Thanks for reading!