House of Illusions by Ruby Jean Jensen

Rating: 4 of 5

Justification for why I always hesitated at the door of the “Fun House” and, ultimately, never entered. No justification needed for avoiding clowns, though; they’re scary, period.

Here’s the skinny:

Amy, eleven years old, and her sister, eight-year-old Jodi, are sent to spend the summer with their father, Russel. No big deal except they haven’t seen or talked to him in eight years; neither girl knows what Russel will be like. And Amy is pretty sure their mother doesn’t want them anymore. After all, their mom has a new husband, a new baby, and a step-son to love.

But once Russel picks them up and tells them about his job – he owns a “grab joint” (aka hot dog stand) that travels with the carnival – Amy and Jodi begin to feel better about their summer. That is, until strange things start to happen around the carnival. Jodi finds a necklace that was missing for over six decades when its owner also disappeared. Next, Jody and Amy see someone – or something – moving in the shadows outside their trailer at night. Then the carnival’s owner, India, hears someone sneaking into her trailer at night even though her door and windows were locked.

And then there’s a murder … one so vicious and shocking no one can believe their eyes. Except India. She’s seen a body like that before. An identical murder happened sixty years before in the same carnival — a murder rumored to involve the owner of that special necklace. So the police get involved, the carnival workers are scared, and all the while the killer is out there, waiting.

Here are my two cents:

This was my first time reading anything by Ruby Jean Jensen. I discovered Jensen after I’d researched stories with haunted dolls (and similar themes) on Goodreads; there were several people who recommended her books. Sadly, since most of her work was published in the 80s, it’s been difficult to obtain copies.

House of Illusions was a frightening, fun experience! But then, just the image of a “happy” clown gives me nightmares, so this book was pretty much guaranteed to give me the willies. Plus, Jensen knew how to work the shadows and show just enough to kick imagination into overdrive.

Then, with her face in the opened window, she at last felt the first stirrings of sleep.

The sound of a tiny bell brought her awake with a jolt and she stared out of the window into the darkness, where only the shapes of the trailers and the peaks of tents caught the light from the carnival midway. She stared. Something had moved in the alley making a faint sound, a tiny jingle, like the bells she had worn on her shoelaces when she was still little. Like the bells she had seen on some toy clowns’ suits.

Then, slowly, as she stared, she began to make out a face in the dark. It seemed to have a white mouth, a blur that was ghostly and unformed, with a suggestion of a head and the body invisible. Like a head suspended in the darkness at the side of the tent… (p. 39).

All carnival creepiness aside, the dialogue was iffy in a few places – stiff at first, and in the first few chapters the girls sounded more like adults than eight and eleven years old – as was some of the characterization, but the majority was believable and engaging. Blane, for instance, jumped off the page and made me laugh out loud with some of his antics. Also, the plot held my attention while the main characters developed. There were a few times when Jensen repeated information which felt a bit like stalling. That could just be my impatience; I really wanted to find out what was going to happen next!

Here’s what you might not like:

  • Profanity
  • Sexual situations
  • Violence involving children
  • Graphic violence and murder
  • The ending doesn’t explain what “it” is, not exactly

Final thoughts

Jensen explores a world with which most of us are familiar – a carnival – using characters with whom we can all identify, and knows which “fear” button she wants to push and just when to push it. If clowns don’t frighten you, then 90% of this book will fall flat. However, if the mere description of a clown sends chills down your spine, then you should read this … during the day.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Rating: 3.5 of 5

A well-written novel with a multi-layered plot that features King’s trademark descriptions – wordy and vivid – and seamless integration of the paranormal into everyday life.

Here is Stephen King’s most gripping and unforgettable novel — a tale of grief and lost love’s enduring bonds, of haunting secrets of the past, and of an innocent child caught in a terrible crossfire. (Source: book cover)

Here’s the gist:

Thirty-something author, Mike Noonan, hasn’t been able to write anything since the sudden death of his wife four years earlier. Unable to beat his severe case of writer’s block, Mike decides to pack up and spend the summer at his lakeside home, Sara Laughs. Upon arrival he discovers two things: the house may be haunted; and, during the last year of her life his wife, Johanna, hid something from him – something that involved Sara Laughs and its community. Mike’s path soon crosses with that of another young widow, Mattie, and her three-year-old daughter, Kyra. He learns Kyra’s grandfather, Max Devore, is a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, and what he wants is custody of Kyra. So Mike feels compelled to help Mattie and Kyra. But his decision to help only makes matters worse. And what should’ve been a battle for custody turns into a battle for their lives.

Here are my two cents:

For the first 100+ pages (of a 732-page paperback), I was deep inside the grieving main character, Mike Noonan; I don’t think I needed *that* much development of Mike’s mental state, personality and relationships. But King knew just how much not to tell in order to keep me turning the page against the relentless exposition.

Once Mike arrived at Sara Laughs the pace picked up significantly, and the paranormal aspects were intriguing and eerie. During those scenes I felt a little antsy in my chair. However, I didn’t feel a constant pressure or even a consistent tension. There’d be a really juicy scene and then a quick resolution. Not necessarily in the form of an answer but an end to the supsense that had been building. (I prefer stories mimic the beginning of a rollercoaster: when you slowly creep, inch by inch, to the top until BAM! You race toward the bottom and then rip through the middle and arrive mostly unscathed at the end.)

Probably the biggest problem was I just didn’t connect with Mike or his relationship with Johanna. Or his relationship with Mattie and Kyra, for that matter. But that’s me, and I have a hard time with lengthy exposition when from a character I don’t care much for.

Here’s what you might not like:

* It takes between 200-300 pages for the deeper mystery to reveal itself

* It takes even longer for the paranormal activity to kick into high gear

* Racism

* Graphic violence and sexual assault

Final thoughts

I probably won’t read Bag of Bones again anytime soon, if ever, but that’s based more on personal preference than the novel’s quality or content. I would recommend it to readers looking for a slow-paced paranormal mystery built around a town’s dirty secret, with a love story at its core, and topped off with moderate “horror” elements.

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Hell House is built on a classic framework and then filled with modern sensibilities and indulgences; it’s basically an R-rated version of the Haunting of Hill House.

Here’s the lowdown:

Dr. Lionel Barrett, a physicist who’s studied parapsychology for twenty years, doesn’t believe in ghosts. He just needs the chance – and the financial support – to show the world what he already knows. Enter Rolf Rudolph Deutsch, a dying millionaire, who offers Dr. Barrett $100,000 if he can provide definitive evidence about survival after death. Obviously it is an offer Barrett cannot refuse.

Also along for the investigation are Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith; Reverend Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium; and Ben Fischer, who was once considered the country’s most powerful physical medium. The object of their investigation? Why, the world’s most infamous haunted house, of course. The Belasco house, named after its owner, Emeric Belasco, came to be known as Hell House because Belasco “created a private hell there.” Previous investigations were unsuccessful, to say the least, resulting in eight people’s deaths, suicide or insanity.

The house’s history and notoriety only encourages Dr. Barrett. He is determined to debunk Hell House as haunted and he means to rid the house of its disturbances using science. Meanwhile, Florence intends to set free the spirits she knows are trapped there; Ben Fischer just wants to make it to the $100,000 payday; and Edith, well, she believes in her husband and supports him as best she can.

But once they enter Hell House their focus should only be on one thing:

Getting back out … sane and alive.

Here are my two cents:

Right away there was a strong Hill House vibe. There were also the typical haunted house devices: dying rich person, dense fog, a tarn, an abandoned mansion in a secluded location, no electricity despite newly repaired wiring and a generator.

The story was structured around the investigation’s timeline, which created a sense of doom from the get-go. A clock counting down to their deadline but also, perhaps, to their ruin. The plot was fast-paced with little filler. The scientific explanations felt somewhat dated and dry, but those weren’t prominent enough to distract from the story. Additionally, any lack in character development was more than made up for with atmosphere, tension, and suspense.

Florence turned her head. The door to the corridor had just been opened. She looked across the darkness of the room. The door closed quietly.

Footsteps started toward her.

“Yes?” she said.

The footsteps kept approaching, muffled on the rug. Florence started reaching for the candle, then withdrew her hand, knowing it was not one of the other three. “All right,” she murmured.

The footsteps halted…[t]here was a sound of breathing at the foot of the bed (pp. 72-73).

There was a considerable amount of disturbing imagery, though. And Matheson didn’t have to describe every detail for my imagination to pick up what he was laying down.

The figures vanished as she reached the chapel door. A man was crouched in front of it. His face was white, his expression drugged. He held a severed human hand to his lips, sucking on one of the fingers. She bit into her hand. The figure vanished (p. 244).

The overarching mystery surrounding the “truth” of Hell House was expertly written. Barrett and Tanner’s back and forth debates throughout the investigation were presented in such a way that both theories seemed plausible. Plus, I wasn’t 100% sure what was really going on until close to the big reveal.

When the story ended, it felt rushed. The whole “Reversor” thingy a bit too convenient. And I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief for the characters’ decisions in those final hours.

Here’s what you might not like:

  • Plot-focused with minimal character development
  • Graphic violence with blood and/or gore
  • Sexual situations including sexual assault
  • Science-y discussions and descriptions

Final thoughts

Touted on numerous lists as a “must read” for all horror fans, I was pleasantly surprised Hell House lived up to its hype. As soon as I finished, I rated it 5 stars. Only after further evaluation did I recognize that it wasn’t a flawless book. But those flaws are few and forgivable, especially considering how much I was scared whilst reading. I’d definitely recommend you give it a read if you’re into haunted house stories with a moderate amount of violence and blood.

[Side note: I watched the movie adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, on April 20th, and it was just meh for me. I can’t believe Matheson wrote the screenplay because it seemed so … watered down and, well, boring. The atmosphere and underlying tension that I loved in the book were completely absent from the movie.]

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

In recent months, I’ve re-discovered how much I absolutely LOVE ghost stories, specifically those written in the spirit of the classics. That love might render this “review” somewhat biased.

I could not put down The Woman in Black, literally; I ate lunch whilst devouring page after page. And while it was short and easily read in one sitting – two or three for the more patient reader – it packed quite a psychological punch. The ending hit especially hard. Hill’s prose, setting, characters: superb. And the descriptions were spot on, not too much but more than enough to evoke vivid images.

Whereas the bed had been made up neatly, now the clothes were pulled off anyhow and bundled up or trailing onto the floor. The wardrobe door and the drawers of the small chest were pulled open and all the clothes they contained half-dragged out, and left hanging like entrails from a wounded body (p. 118).

The pace was just right, teasing readers with hints, revealing bit by bit the truth behind the whispers, building steadily to a tense climax, but even then not letting go until the very last page.

Highly recommended to anyone – all ages – who enjoys classic ghost stories.

P.S. It’s hard to believe the soon-to-be released movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe, will be able to capture the true essence of this story, namely the setting and atmosphere. But my hopes remain high.

[Test post of Goodreads’ auto-publish feature. Edited on 2/26/12 to replace image and repetitive links.]