The Toll by Cherie Priest

Book – Titus and Melanie are on their honeymoon, driving out to a cabin in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp where neither of them really want to be, when they cross a bridge that shouldn’t be there. When Titus wakes up, Melanie is gone, and so is the bridge. The locals in the nearby town of Staywater offer to put him up while he looks for his wife, but none of them seem to believe she’ll be found. Especially not Claire and Daisy, two little old ladies who know entirely too much about that bridge and what it demands of those who cross it.

Creepy small towns, ominous and mysterious wilderness, unknowable monsters and terrifyingly competent little old ladies – The Toll has everything you could want in a horror-adventure novel. While the atmosphere is tense and ghosts abound (both literal and metaphorical), I didn’t find this novel frightening as much as enjoyably spooky. Many of the characters are more annoying than sympathetic, but that’s all right, it means you don’t mind as much when bad things happen to them. Claire and Daisy, on the other hand, deserve a sequel of their own. If you like monster movies and Southern gothic, you’ll appreciate Cherie Priest’s newest novel.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

Book – Gyre is determined to get off the mining planet she grew up on and to find her mother, who disappeared years ago. The easiest way to do that is as a caver, exploring the depths of the planet to find new sites for the mining companies that run the world. But caving is dangerous, so rather than take the time to build up a proper career and risk dying before she gets a chance to get out, Gyre’s faked her CV and signed on to one big job that should pay her enough to get offworld as soon as she’s done. Of course, there’s a reason this job pays so much, and it’s certainly not because it’s a normal caving expedition.

I never expected a novel about one person alone in a cave, sometimes talking with one person on the surface but sometimes not, to be so emotional. Gyre is a terrific character, stubborn and foolhardy and paranoid, and I was cheering her on even as I was cursing her terrible decisions. While the novel starts out almost like a horror novel, the deeper Gyre goes into the mystery of why she’s been sent into this particular cave and what happened there, the more the broader universe of mining corporations and alien predators – not to mention Gyre’s developing relationship with her handler, the woman who hired her for this expedition – comes into play. I adored The Luminous Dead and I can’t wait to see what Caitlin Starling does next.

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Book – Kyle Murchison Booth is an archivist at the Samuel Mathers Parrington Museum, and it causes him no end of trouble. He would very much like to be left alone with his books and his artifacts, but there are…things that won’t leave him alone. Things like an old school friend with a passion for necromancy, a necklace that carries more than memories of its old owner with it and a hidden tomb in his very own museum basement. Even a vacation won’t save him, if the hotel he winds up at is any indication.

Booth is the kind of character who really needs a hug, except if you did hug him he’d probably end up shaking from the trauma for days. He’s an immensely Lovecraftian character, more so than anyone else in these stories; in fact, I think he’s the only character who knows what kind of universe he’s in. Monette does a stellar job of building eerie tension without resorting to graphic violence or shock tactics — these are classy ghost stories.

As horror, the first few stories in this collection didn’t work so well for me, but the last two or three did. (Oooh, that hotel. *shudder*) As a modern take on Lovecraft, M.R. James and the early twentieth century ghost story, they’re all quite good. And as stories about Kyle Murchison Booth, they’re fantastic.

The Exorcist: Season 1 (2016)

TV Series – Father Thomas Ortega is an up-and-coming young priest in Chicago, rebuilding his long-neglected parish and working with the bishop and a local fundraising committee to organize the Pope’s visit to the Windy City. His neat professional trajectory is interrupted when Angela Rance, one of his parishioners, comes to him with a request: her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants him to do an exorcism. Rebuffed by the bishop, Ortega turns to Father Marcus Keane, a renowned exorcist who Ortega has never heard of — until the fellow priest appeared in his dreams. Meanwhile, Angela struggles to keep her family together as the demon’s power over her daughter grows more malevolent by the day.

I’m not usually a huge fan of religious horror, and I didn’t much care for the original Exorcist – I just don’t find it all that scary. But while the TV series has just as many jump scares and gross-outs as the movie, with a whole season it has time to do some more interesting things, too. The Rance family dynamics are fascinating, even before the demon shows up, and Father Thomas and Father Marcus are polar opposites in the classic tradition of buddy-cop dramas. There’s conspiracy and ominous foreshadowing; there’s tension over what it means to be a priest; there’s discussion of Gnostic heresies and the dangerous influences of Ouija boards. Most interesting, though, is the portrayal of demonic possession from the point of view of the girl being possessed, letting you see both the power it offers her and the subtle ways it makes her suffer. I really didn’t think you could make a feminist version of The Exorcist, but I think this show has pulled it off.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Book – When the weather cools and the air turns crisp, I am ready for some spooky reads. I grew up watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch on ABC’s TGIF so I was immediately intrigued to see a more grown up version of a childhood favorite. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Vol. 1 is a re-imagining of Sabrina’s origin story. Sabrina isn’t the bubbly and wholesome witch I grew up with, there are no funny magical mishaps nor life lessons learned in this graphic novel rendition. Sabrina and her terrifying aunts, Hilda and Zelda, are dark, vicious and callous. The Spellman family show little compunction to bloody murder and satanic worship. But don’t be scared away by this! Aguirre-Sacasa lends an interesting plot to this intense read and the artwork matches the intriguing plot. The story is set in New England in the 1960s, a nod to the original Archie comics where Sabrina was introduced back in 1962. Sabrina’s 16th birthday is upon her and she must decide if she wants to become an immortal witch and join the coven or to be simply a normal teenage girl. Unfortunately for Sabrina, her tragic and grisly origin will literally come back to haunt her making her decision rather bleak.

If you’re looking for a spooky read to welcome the Halloween season you won’t be disappointed. Can’t get enough of Aguirre-Sacasa’s spooky retellings? He also wrote the graphic novel Afterlife with Archie, available through Hoopla! Also, keep an eye out for the television series based on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina coming later this fall.

The Girl from Rawblood by Catriona Ward

Book – The Villarcas are tied to Rawblood, their estate in the Devon countryside. If they stay away from it too long, they sicken and die. But if they stay home, they are tormented by her, a curse of the Villarca bloodline, the ghost of a tortured young woman who tortures the residents of Rawblood in turn. At the turn of the twentieth century, young Iris Villarca is determined to find a way out from under the curse. Decades earlier, her father does his best to push his lover away to keep them both safe. In Italy, Iris’s grandmother finds herself strangely drawn to – and repulsed by – a Spanish expatriate. In the end, the curse ties them all together.

The Girl from Rawblood is a classically Gothic novel with all the trimmings: a huge empty house, a ghost, a family curse, a series of mysterious and unread letters. (And, unfortunately, quite a lot of that peculiarly English racism against European foreigners.) Pulling the Gothic all the way into 1918 is a particularly nice touch: while I liked the history of the family, Iris’s story, wrapped up in World War I, was by far the most fascinating. If you like your ghost stories equal parts frightening and heartbreaking, this is the book for you.

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Book – Growing up is hard. Growing up in a poor werewolf family is even harder.

Mongrels written by Stephen Graham Jones is the coming of age story of a young nameless narrator. Steeped in werewolf lore this story bares its fangs and sinks it teeth into you. It’s an inventive take on the werewolf that gets under your skin—in a good way. It’s not a simple horror book but a cleverly disguised social commentary on the impoverished American south. The book follows our young protagonist, an orphan raised by his aunt Libby and uncle Darren. The boy grows up hearing wild and at times gruesome tales from his grandfather. Theirs is a family of werewolves; at least that’s what his grandfather has led him to believe. It’s why his family is always on the run, living at the edges of society, outcasts, transients, wandering the south in a beat up trailer with no destination in mind, scouring for loose change to buy hotdogs. Libby and Darren take up odd jobs always trying to stay two steps ahead of the law and those who hunt their kind. His family is as dysfunctional as anyone else’s, and he always feels like an outsider waiting for something to happen. He desperately longs to fit in, convincing himself it’s for all the right reasons, but he hasn’t turned and if he hasn’t turned by his late teens, he never will. He’s close to it, he can feel it, can scent the coppery stench of blood in the air, he just knows it.

While episodic books might not appeal to some, if you enjoy creature books, I urge you to give this book a try. Dark themes abound in each page and I found myself unable and unwilling to put this book down.

Raw (2016)

Movie–Justine, lifelong vegetarian, comes from a family tradition of vegetarian veterinarians (try saying that 3 times fast). The movie follows her first days at her new school with her upperclassman older sister and her new roommate, the brutal hazing she and the other freshman endure, and the bloody consequences that ensue. The freshman class is drenched in animal blood à la Carrie and made to eat rabbit liver. Justine is pressured into eating it by her sister, despite their vegetarianism. This proves to be a terrible mistake. Justine finds herself with an sudden and insatiable craving for living tissue: hair, raw chicken cutlets, and even human flesh… The nightmarishly oppressive and clinical atmosphere of her school provides the ghastly backdrop for Justine’s struggle, and inevitable failure, to control her urges.

When this movie was screened at the Toronto film festival, some of the viewers fainted, and it’s not hard to see why. One scene in particular that takes place after a bikini waxing gone wrong is very hard to watch. Also, be aware that this movie is in French with English subtitles in case that’s not your thing. If you like Raw, you might also enjoy the cerebral cannibalism found in Hannibal seasons 1-3.

Get Out (2017)

Movie–I don’t really like horror movies. But, I do like good movies, and I’m always motivated to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible. So, that’s how I found myself checking out and somewhat begrudgingly watching Get Out, a horror movie with serious racial themes.

Chris, an African American photographer, hesitantly goes to his white girlfriend Rose’s house for the weekend to meet her family. His best friend warns him that no good will come of this. In scenes reminiscent of The Stepford Wives, Chris notices that something is “off” about the African American groundskeeper and housekeeper. Then the family’s friends come for an annual party, and things get even weirder. Chris quickly realizes he needs to leave. But, will he be able to get out?

Written and directed by Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele fame), Get Out has been getting critical acclaim since its release in early 2017, so it was really no surprise when it earned nominations for four of the big categories at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya). Although it was outside my comfort zone, I’m glad I watched it (well, all except for the parts that got so violent that I covered my eyes). If you are interested in a well-made horror movie that also tackles race issues and might just win an Oscar, then this is for you.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Book – Greta Helsing is a physician with a unique specialty: she treats the undead and supernatural creatures of London. Whether it’s providing anxiety medication for ghouls or treating the chronic lung infection of a gentleman who’s been a family friend for centuries, she has her work cut out for her. When a vampyre turns up with an unusual stab wound and a terrifying story of fanatical monks, her already unusual life suddenly gets a whole lot stranger.

I cannot tell you how much this book delighted me – a massively enjoyable romp through undead London, featuring ghouls, vampires, vampyres (not the same thing), and a mysterious cult of evil monks living underneath the Underground. And best of all, made families: a strong group of friends, people who learn to trust and care for one another, a central female character who is strong and competent and still gets to freak out sometimes because, well, mysterious cult of evil monks trying to kill her friends. I could have wished for more of Greta’s female friends – hopefully we’ll see more of them in future installments.