Monday, January 9, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Weird Epistles of Penelope Pettiweather, Ghost Hunter by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Penelope Pettiweather is a seeker of ghosts and legends, particularly those of the Pacific Northwest, and these stories are framed as her letters to friends recounting her supernatural inquiries.

Each tale begins with a history of the haunting and the location. While some readers might not like these “info dumps”, they are an integral part of each tale and give the ghostly subjects a feeling of place and realism.  

The specters Ms. Pettiweather describes are quite diverse. There is the phantom of a drowned woman whose body turned to soap, a pair of vengeful laborers reborn as fire-wreathed hellhounds, a Native shaman preserving the sacred lands under a golf course, and more. 

Not all of the stories are about ghosts, though. Ms. Pettiweather also relates tales of a giant freshwater octopus living in a drowned forest; an electric sea serpent that may actually have been a Victorian submarine; and even the famous cryptid Ogopogo of Lake Okanagan.

Since the stories are told in an epistolary style, either recounting the tale after the fact or relating tales told by someone else, there admittedly isn’t much tension to the stories. One doesn’t get the sense of “being there” for the hauntings. But these fictional tales are not meant to spook the reader. Rather, they are an homage to real-life guidebooks to regional haunts and mysterious locales, as well as conversational ghost stories such as the Christmas ghost stories of M.R. James or the Carnacki tales of William Hope Hodgson.. They are also a love letter by the author, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, to the area around Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest where she lives.

A particularly charming aspect of the stories is the affection Ms. Pettiweather has for all her supernatural subjects. She is no ghostbuster looking to exorcise every spook or exploit them for profit. She is an explorer probing the edges of the Unknown with curiosity, content to let these mysterious beings exist in peace. She even has empathy for the titular “Hounds of the Hearth” that directly try to immolate her. 

As a side note, I want to mention that author Jessica Amanda Salmonson is transgender and was very open about her transition back in the 1970s. While her fiction isn’t focused on trans issues, I feel it’s good for readers- Queer readers especially- to see that trans authors have always been around.

The Complete Weird Epistles of Penelope Pettiweather, Ghost Hunter is a great read for those who love books about local folklore- even if it's fictional. You can get a copy of "The Weird Epistles of Penelope Pettiweather, Ghost Hunter" here and here.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts by Ken Summers


Behind many hauntings is a history of drama, passion, and often tragedy. Big events and strong emotions that anchor the souls of the dead to the mortal realm. For many ghost-hunters, chronicling the stories of who their spectral subjects were in life is even more fascinating than the hauntings themselves.  But as author Ken Summers points out in his introduction to this book, nearly all of these backstories deal with straight- or at least, perceived straight- individuals. “Where were the gay, lesbian, and bisexual entities in paranormal literature?” he asks.

“Queer Hauntings” is Summer’s effort to document these overlooked or forgotten ghostly manifestations.  The book is as a survey of locations, such as historical gay bars or the abodes of famous queer people, where supernatural happenings have been reported.. Many of the ghosts have fascinating histories, such as Timber Kate, a sex worker in the Old West who performed regularly on-stage with her partner Bella Rawhide. Or James Whale the director of Frankenstein and other Universal horror movies who began life as a quiet, sensitive artistic kid in an English mining town.

 Like many ghost stories, there is great tragedy too, such as the robbery and murder of Bill Neville, whose spirit allegedly still dwells in the theater he loved so much in life. Or Lizzie Borden’s lonely, reclusive life which was punctuated by a brief romance with a married woman.

Though the book primarily focuses on hauntings in the US, Summers also highlights a few queer ghosts form the United Kingdom, such as Piers Gaveston, the intimate companion of King Edward II whose ghost plays tricks on visitors to Scarborough Castle.

Some of the queer implications for the ghosts may seem slight because in life many of these people had to hide their bi- or homosexuality from the public, so researchers can only get hints and inferences- such as folks who had especially close and intimate “friends” of the same sex. And like many alleged real-life hauntings, the evidence in these cases can be very slight- a few phantom footsteps heard in the early morning or a dark, wispy figure walking down a corridor. But regardless of the veracity of these supernatural occurrences, they add an important queer element to the literature of hauntings.

Get a copy of Queer Hauntings here.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, Volume One. Edited by Alastair Gunn


Winter is the season of ghosts. As the nights grow longer and the days colder, as the trees turn to twisted skeletons and the land itself goes to sleep, it is said that the walls between worlds grow thin, allowing the dead- and other, stranger spirits- to step into our world. If you look at Yule traditions outside of America, you’ll find hordes of ghosts, witches, trolls, household spirits, and other things creeping around the outside walls or hiding behind the stove.

This Yuletide spookiness underlies the British tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas. When you hear “Christmas ghosts” you probably think of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” (and maybe also the line about how “there’ll be scary ghost stories” from the song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”).  But this was just one among many in a long history of tales. And indeed, it was only one among man Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote.  

Winter ghost stories have been told in Europe for centuries, but in Britain the tradition really took off in the Victorian period. These tended to be what you might call “cozy” stories. The protagonists were often well-to-do or at least comfortably off. The hauntings frequently took place in or around a stately manor or otherwise well-furnished dwelling. These were tales meant to spook, but not horrify. Something to create a little creepy fun on a cold winter’s night. What M.R. James called “a pleasing terror”.

The Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories is actually a series of anthologies collecting dozens of ghostly tales from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Each volume has a theme for the included authors, and this first volume focuses on women writers of British ghost stories.

Though many of these tales ae meant to be light, there are still plenty with a gothic sense of dread such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story”, or Isabella Banks “Wraith-Haunted”. Others are quieter, moody encounters such as Amelia B. Edwards “How the Third Floor Knew the Potteries”, or Louisa Baldwin’s “How He Left the Hotel” (I’m particularly fond of the latter tale because I find the thought of being an elevator-operator in a haunted hotel oddly quaint and charming).

Some stories are just short descriptions of ghostly encounters, such as Mary Louisa Molesworth’s “The Story of the Rippling Train”, or Ellen Wood’s “Seen in the Moonlight”. Then there are tales that are phantasmagoric enigmas such as Rhoda Broughton’s “The Man With the Nose” which has lots of Freudian and even feminist themes to it.

Many of the stories are written as if they were transcriptions of a narrator relating a story to friends- likely because they were meant to be read out loud to an audience gathered around the fireplace. The effect gives the tales a distinct feel that can take some getting used to. Also, some of the cultural attitudes can be dissonant or off-putting at times coming as they do from a society and time period obsessed with class and maintaining social mores. Though the only story that really falls flat is Lilian Giffen’s “The Ghost of the Belle-Alliance Plantation” which relies on a weird racist trope for its big jump-scare moment.

Overall, however, there is enough variety in the tones and themes of these stories that a reader will likely find several favorites. You can get a copy of The Wimbourne Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, Volume One right here.


Saturday, November 19, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Your Body Is Not Your Body edited by Alex Woodroe with Matt Blairstone


I meant to post this book review back in October for Halloween, but I got super busy with class and work and couldn't get to it until now. But the cold and darkness of winter is still a fitting setting for horror, so here you go.

For some trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks, their body can become a kind of nightmare prison. Things feel wrong or off (though obviously, this isn’t true for every gender non-conforming person, and everyone expresses their gender differently). They might feel that their body is not in their control. And sometimes, even when they do start to take command of their own appearance and presentation, someone else tries to take that autonomy from them.

This anthology was created in response to the recent attempts by the Texas government to criminalize trans and gender non-conforming youth and their families. It is an angry cry and push-back against those who try to steal a person’s basic rights to their own body.  

The stories within explore all manner of body horror, existential dread, and bizarre imagery. There are medieval monks experiencing demonic pregnancies; A housewife baking up her own Frankenstein creature; a trans boy summoning Hellish powers so he can join the fencing team; a space cathedral carrying the corpse of God to inter in a dead star; high school girls holding in their frustration and anger until they literally explode; and even more bizarre, phantasmal sights.

Horror is about exploring the dark, often uncomfortable places of the human experience and these stories can get bloody raw, exploring themes of physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, violence, and transphobia. I definitely had to put the book down a few times to take a breather. However, these stories are not meant merely for shock value or torture porn. They are catharsis for writers and readers both. A way of capturing and dragging the horrors out into the daylight. The edits are aware of how upsetting some of these tales can be, though, and have included an appendix of content warnings for each one.

Your Body is Not Your Body is also steeped in the genre of Weird fiction, defined as a mix of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi that is experimental, and often transgressive. Several stories play with the structure of narrative, occasionally breaking it down to the point that one may need to read a few times to figure out what is going on. Or maybe you’re meant to piece together your own explanation for what is happening. This may be a bit off-putting for readers who prefer a more linear horror narrative, but the stories run through many styles, and there is something everyone can appreciate.

Your Body is Not Your Body is available in paperback from Tenebrous Press.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Old Snatchengrabber's Big Book of Child-Eating Monsters by Bitter Karella (writing as Mike Rosen)


Boogey-men, women, and those in-between abound in this collection of monstrous beings that live under beds, on the roof, or just on the edge of the forest path, waiting to grab and devour kids who misbehave or go to places they shouldn’t.

The Big Book ranges from familiar bogeys (at least to American pop culture) such as Rawhead Bloodybones, La Llorona, and Baba Yaga, to more obscure beings such as the Babylonian sewer-dwelling Sulak, the gossip-eating living marionettes called Croquemitaines, and the fungal witch Churnmilk Peg who punishes naughty children who steal unripe nuts from their neighbors’ orchards. All brought to life with Karella’s cartoony style.

Each entry is written in a field guide style with habitat, range, appearance, diet, and other vital statistics so you can identify the bugbear currently haunting your outhouse or crawlspace.  Looking through the entries, it quickly becomes apparent how hilariously gruesome boogeymonster folklore is, with monsters delivering punishments such as chopping kids to pieces; grinding them into sausage; suffocating them in piles of filth and sewage, ripping out their living guts and replacing them with stones, and other unpleasentries. I suppose if your kids won’t listen to reason, you gotta terrify them with the threat of dismemberment by a nightmare hag to get them to obey.

The Old Snatchengrabber’s Big Book of Child-eating Monsters is available as a PDF on Bitter Karella’s page, along with a bunch of other cool, spooky comics, books, and games- including the award-winning Midnight Pals!

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Corpse Cold: New American Folklore by John Brhel & Joseph Sullivan with illustrations by Chad Wehrle


Another book review for the Spooky Season!

Corpse Cold is an anthology inspired by urban legends and folklore. These are stories your friends might tell around a campfire or on a late-night drive with only the headlamps and the green glow of the dashboard cutting through the darkness for miles around. These are stories that could maybe, possibly be true. Or, at least, they have that weird familiarity that makes them feel true.

Chad Wehrle’s nightmarish illustrations take clear inspiration from Steven Gammel’s work for the classic “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series, though Wehrle’s own style clearly shines through.

The stories are often grisly- as folk tales usually are. Some, such as “A Morning Fog” and “Jesup” are cautionary tales. Others like “Moss Lake Island” and “It That Decays” are dark twists of fate. Several are based on modern fears like the dark web and “simulated burial” rides at amusement parks. Other tales, such as “The Black Dog” and “Czarny Lud” showcase timeless monsters that have existed for generations.

While not every story is memorable, there are no real bad pieces. Although “The Blue Hole” is a bit disjointed and isn’t helped by the accompanying illustration of a cartoonish soft-serve-style pile of fecal matter.

One of the cooler things about the book is the extensive appendix of notes at the end which explain the inspirations and background details for each story- another nod to Alvin Schwartz’s seminal “Scary Stories” books.

Fans of creepy urban legends, and those who grew up with the original “Scary Stories” books, will love Corpse Cold. You can get a copy of this book and others by these Brhel and Sullivan at Cemetery Gates Media

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Neon Trash by MP Johnson


NOTE: the author of this book now writes under her true name Emma Alice Johnson)

I love doing book reviews, so for the upcoming spooky season I thought I’d tackle a couple of my recent favorites, starting with this short little karo syrup-blood covered gem.

Neon Trash is a fictional tribute to bad movies. Not Hollywood bad- as the author makes very clear in her introduction- but shoestring-budget bad. The grimiest films from the golden age of VHS, made outside the big studios and often done by people with little directing experience. Films overflowing with tons of cheap liquid-latex monsters, cartoonish gore, and gratuitous nudity.  The bizarre movies one finds in catalogs at the back of yellowed fanzines moldering in cardboard boxes in a comic shop basement. Movies that showed once in a cheap downtown theater with sticky floors, then went straight to bootleg tapes with static, bad tracking, and lurid titles written on the side in Sharpie. Titles like “Meatface Massacre”, “One More Cannibal”, “Werewolf Beach Party”, and that ultimate of trashy 80s treasures- “Neon Meltoids”.

Most of the book is a “guide” to these fictitious films, summarized with delightfully gross and crass descriptions. The names and plots may be entirely made up, but they definitely capture the feel of vintage schlock horror. And as Johnson explains, just reading the weird summaries of such trashy films is often the best part.

The book also includes fictional interviews with some of the scream queens, weirdo actors, deranged directors and other staff of these monstrosities. There’s even a narrative story by Johnson about their quest to find a rare VHS tape of the quintessential 80s trash flick, “Neon Meltoids”. 

The adventure doesn’t go well…

BUT the book does end with a special treat for collectors- a partial script of a previously lost scene from the titular film.

At only 60 pages, Neon Trash is a super-quick read that perfectly encapsulates the feel of grody 80s garbage horror. It appears to be currently out of print, but hopefully Johnson will re-issue it soon. In the meantime you can find used copies on Amazon

And find more stuff by Johnson on her website