Happy Halloween!!! 🎃
The genre: Horror, YA
The gist: Four-book series. Various high school girls deal with a demon possession.
The background: If it’s not clear already, I’m a horror fan. So the first book in this series, with its simple, bold cover design of a pentagram on a hot pink background, caught my eye on Goodreads in 2017. And after I read the description—that Vega’s story is Stephen King meets Mean Girls—I was instantly on board.
The tea: These books are like candy: what they lack in substance they make up for in fun.
Vega doles out sharply written, suspenseful, and scary scenes straight out of a horror film, even if she might not fully deliver on the backstory for the evil present in her series’ world. And if a book merely describing a character suddenly standing in a doorway makes me compulsively flick my eyes to my own doorway—just to make sure—I know picked the right book. That’s what I signed up for.
Deeper, psychological horror, this series is not. And while, at the end of the day, I prefer the kind of horror that sticks with me when I go to bed at night, I also appreciate a good, truly creepy moment, one that might be forgotten hours later but puts you a little on edge in the moment. (Though a grotesque scene from the series with a spoon comes to mind that I actually wish I could forget.) And the Merciless books deliver in spades on that front.
Another thing I like about this series is that it places horror in a contemporary, suburban world. Vega is far from the first to do this, but I love stories that plop the extraordinary right into the middle of the ordinary. In the Merciless series, it’s a demon hiding in Anytown, USA—in the local high school, the local church group, even in an empty model suburban tract home.
I devoured this series pretty quickly and didn’t end up much wiser for it, but I had a damn good time. Like I said: horror candy.
The wrap-up: Does what it says on the tin; no more, no less. If you’re a horror fan and go into it without too many expectations, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the series as much as I did.
The rating: 3.5/5
I’m allowed to be afraid, I remind myself, taking a deep breath of the hot, stale hallway air. I’m just not allowed to run away.—Danielle Vega, The Merciless
Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Well, not exactly—today is my birthday, and I went to Stephen King’s house last week. But I went partially as a birthday gift to myself, since 2020 has quashed all my international traveling dreams for the time being, and King’s house has been on my list for awhile. Why not go to Maine in the fall, (on a sanitized, less-than-half-full plane), social distance in a small town (comparatively—Chicagoan here), and see some sights?
For the record, I wore a mask and so were most people I saw in towns in Maine, though as you can see, I removed it for this little photo shoot.
Everything about this house was cool, from the detailed, wrought iron gate made to look like spiders and a spiderweb, to the bat and three-headed dragon sculptures serving as miniature gargoyles, to its blood-red color (not to mention the red balloons left by someone—or something). I would expect nothing less from the King of horror. And the fall foliage only added to the aesthetic.
It was a rainy day in Bangor, but it cleared up right before I arrived at the house (thanks, goddesses). I got few minutes alone to take photos before others who made the pilgrimage started showing up in staggered groups, ending with about 7-8 people total before I left, though I’m sure people come and go all day. It was nice to see how calm and respectful King fans are, especially considering the driveway was open and anybody could’ve walked onto the property—warned first, of course, by a “24-hour surveillance” sign.
While most fans hope to catch a glimpse of the author himself, I’ve read that King no longer lives here full-time (I’m sure the most prolific horror writer in the U.S. has a multitude of homes). He and his wife Tabitha are in the process of turning the house into an office for King’s estate, a home for his archives, and as a retreat spot for visiting writers.
The wooden sculpture in the front yard was just unveiled in April 2020. King hired Josh Landry, a chainsaw sculptor based in Maine, to transform the dead remnants of a massive ash tree that was partially removed a few years ago into a sculpture featuring animals and books. The longer I looked at this, the more details I noticed, like that the legs of the bookshelf are made to look like human legs and feet, and the dog at the bottom appears to be a Corgi, a nod to King having been the owner of multiple Corgis, including his current familiar, Molly, aka the Thing of Evil.
While in Bangor, I saw a lot of King-related sights, namely because King based the fictional Derry, Maine featured in some of his novels—including arguably his most ubiquitous, the nearly-1,200-page It—on the town. Check out my post on that stuff here!
P. S. If you’re interested in planning your own Stephen King-inspired trip to Bangor, I recommend this travel blog, Oddities & Curiosities. These guys made a custom Google map showing exactly where all the hot spots are, and I found it really useful. I’ve also heard of guided tours in Bangor for all things King, but I didn’t look into them too much in favor of keeping social distance.
The genre: Horror
The gist: Sequel to Bird Box. A woman and her two children survive in a world with mysterious creatures that make people go insane upon sight.
The background: Like a lot of people with Netflix access, I watched the movie Bird Box when it came out in December 2018. After reading some articles on it and discovering it was based on a book, I added my name to the very long waitlist at the library—turns out I was not the only one who had this idea—and months later, I finally got to read it. It was suspenseful, creepy, and just as fast-paced as the film.
Speaking of the film, Malerman said in the Acknowledgements of Malorie that he never planned to write a sequel, but people in his life saw the movie and started asking him, “What happens next?” And he decided he wanted to find out too.
The tea: I really liked this book. Like its predecessor, it was well-paced, kept me interested, and had some chillingly creepy moments. Malerman writes with an elegant focus that lets you truly step into those creepy moments, not to mention the head, mind, and fears of protagonist Malorie and her two kids.
We get a liiiiiiitle more insight into the creatures themselves, though not much. And I think it’s better that way. They’re scarier mysterious.
Getting two new POVs thrown into the mix with Malorie’s kids, Tom and Olympia, was a refreshing take on the Bird Box world, especially from characters who were literally born and raised in it. They don’t fear the creatures the same way Malorie and other adults who knew the “old world” do, and it was cool to see their curiosity about the creatures butting heads with Malorie’s relentless and single-minded philosophy of “living by the [blind]fold.”
Malorie wants to survive. Her kids want to live. This causes some beautiful tension, because neither are wrong.
My only grievance is that the ending got resolved too quickly, it would’ve been nice to have seen the last thirty or so pages fleshed out more.
There was also a blind train, which was dope. A train is always a fitting setting for a suspense/horror/mystery novel. (Thank you, Agatha Christie.)
The wrap-up: Despite my initial worry that this book might fall into some common sequel pitfalls, I was pleasantly surprised with its originality. If you like horror, Malorie is a satisfying read.
The rating: 4/5
She remembers yelling, so much yelling, so much saying, “No no no, Tom, NO!”
But if you tell someone “no” enough times, they start thinking “yes” just to hear something else, just to hear a different word, they start thinking YES.—Josh Malerman, Malorie
Mysterious, clever, and a bit magical, the unnamed cat from Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy (and awesomely creepy) children’s book Coraline is a paragon for black cats everywhere. Throughout the book, he serves as an aloof guide for eleven-year-old heroine Coraline—he’s kind of like the Cheshire Cat if the Cheshire Cat were actually helpful.
He appears in the 2002 novella by Gaiman (both in Gaiman’s text and in illustrations by Dave McKean) and in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption. While the book is wonderfully creepy, no matter your age, the movie is really great too, with its gorgeous animation and perfectly cast voice acting, including Keith David, the enigmatic and dark voice of the cat.
When Coraline Jones and her parents move into a new apartment, she explores the grounds and occasionally sees a black cat around who she describes as haughty and avoidant of her attempts to interact with it. But when she discovers a secret portal in her house to another world through a small door in the parlor, she encounters the black cat again, and this time, he sticks around for a chat.
It seems that whatever space Coraline enters through her parlor door lends some magic to cats, or at least this one. When she spots him on the grounds in the other world, he greets her with a casual “Good afternoon.” Coraline thinks the cat’s voice sounds like the voice at the back of her head, “the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.”
They have a conversation about names, and he insists that cats do not need them (T. S. Eliot has left the chat) while proceeding to disappear and magically reappear behind various things in the garden, demonstrating his comfort and familiarity with this mysterious place.
Despite his occasional sassiness, he’s pretty reasonable, as far as magical cats go, and he helps Coraline multiple times, giving her information about the world she’s walked into, the evil entity—the other mother, who looks like Coraline’s mother with buttons for eyes—she must defeat, and dropping clues on how, exactly to defeat it.
It’s even thanks to him, in the end, that the two are able to escape the other mother’s clutches and get back to the real world.
Once safely home, Coraline explores the garden with newfound fervor for real life, giving her new friend belly rubs when she runs into him, and even without his being able to talk in this world, they manage to converse.
Here’s to mysterious, fictional cats, who know all the answers but can’t always be be bothered to share them.
“You must be the other cat.”
The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
“I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”
Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”
“Cats don’t talk at home.”
“No?” said the cat.
“No,” said Coraline.
The cat leapt smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.
“Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.—Neil Gaiman, Coraline
If you’re a character in a Poe story, chances are your fate is doomed. Such is the case for Pluto—aptly named for the Roman god of death—from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.”
Pluto is a large, friendly black cat who belongs to the (unnamed) narrator and his wife. They’re both very fond of him, and vice-versa. Everything is great, until the narrator gradually sinks into alcoholism and, with that, becomes a lot more contentious.
One night coming home very drunk, he thinks Pluto is avoiding him. Offended, he finds the cat and uses his pen-knife to remove one of its eyes. Pluto slowly recovers over time, but as our unreliable narrator slips further into the bottle he becomes irrationally enraged once more, fashions a noose, and hangs his once-adored pet from a tree.
Then things start to get really messed up. (Sarcasm.)
(But also, they do.)
The night our inebriated narrator commits this heinous deed, he wakes to a mysterious fire in his house. The next morning, he sees an impression on the wall of a “figure of a gigantic cat” with “a rope about the animal’s neck.” Henceforth, he’s haunted by thoughts and visions of Pluto, even succumbing to guilt over what he’s done.
Some time later, he comes across another black cat in a tavern who acts and looks exactly like Pluto. Becoming quick friends with the cat, he takes him home and he and his wife dote on him. But soon, the pattern repeats.
Once again, the narrator becomes moody, easily enraged, and intolerant of the cat, ultimately failing in an attempt to kill the creature and—oops—killing his wife instead. It just so happens the murder takes place in a cellar, where he can conveniently hide her body by removing a portion of the wall and resealing her inside it.
Everything is great again (well, relatively speaking) until the cops come to investigate and—oops—a howling, yowling meowing comes from behind the wall, screaming the narrator’s guilt. You might as well call this story “The Tell-Tale Cat.” In fact, it was published the same year as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843.
It’s no leap to conclude that Pluto and his successor (who, for all we know, due to our unreliable, drunken narrator, could be one and the same cat) aren’t cats so much as nasty reminders to the narrator of his destructive alcoholism. He tries to kill it, but it always comes back to haunt him.
Poor Pluto didn’t do anything wrong except be a metaphor. A metaphor for a thing that haunts and stalks the narrator. A neutral entity that takes on a malevolent aura when filtered through the wrong perception, that turns into something evil, intent on bringing bad luck and ruin.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point—and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Black Cat”