Ghostland, by Duncan Ralston

Short Take: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Good morning my marvelous nerdlings, and Happy New Year!! I would rattle off a list of impressive sounding resolutions, but I’ve been around the sun a whole lot of times, and I am at the point where my resolutions would fall into two major categories: They are either things I should do but probably won’t (less junk food, more veggies) or things I would be doing anyway (read lots of cool books and write a bunch of hilarious yet brilliantly insightful reviews).

So in the spirit of fun new things, let’s talk about Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland, a marvelous blend of horror, sci-fi, and urban legends, shall we? 

When best friends Ben and Lillian are fifteen years old, construction begins on Ghostland, an “amusement” park made up of actual haunted buildings from around the world, painstakingly disassembled and transported to the park. It also features tech that allows guests to see and interact with real ghosts. Needless to say, the implications of that are vast and horrifying – not only is there definitive proof of an afterlife, but the spirits were once people, who are now trapped and enslaved, forced to relive their deaths over and over for the entertainment of the living.

But there’s a much more personal story at work here too. On the day that Rex Garrote’s house is moved to the park, Ben nearly dies, and his friendship with Lillian is destroyed. Three years later, they return to the park together with Lillian’s therapist, Allison, to put ghosts both literal and metaphorical to rest. But of course, something Goes Terribly Wrong, and a simple visit to a new attraction becomes a Deadly Fight For Survival as the dead take gruesome revenge on the living, and the gates are sealed shut.

Duckies, there is a LOT to this book. I can’t say enough about Mr. Ralston’s ambition, and incredible mix of genres, fact, fiction, and action in this book.  There were three aspects that had me picking my jaw up off the floor.

First off, we need to talk about Rex Garrote. Of all the creations and re-imaginings in Ghostland, the Sutter-Cane-esque madman/horror author is my favorite. Mr. Garrote wrote several books, hosted a TV show, amassed a fortune, and then committed suicide in a horrific way, leaving behind his own haunted house, the seeds of what would later become Ghostland, and maybe a bit more.

Secondly, the footnotes and index of ghosts in the park was a brilliant touch. The list ran the gamut from the “real-life” and well-known evil spirits like Annabelle to completely fictional creations, all blended seamlessly to create a beautifully immersive universe. It’s evocative of the newspaper articles and scholarly papers in Carrie, among other classics, and gives a rather outlandish story that extra bit of realism. Seriously, some next-level storytelling.

Finally, I loved loved LOVED that Mr. Ralston didn’t shy away from the backlash to Ghostland, the protests and hashtags (#GRP2, aka, Ghosts Are People Too) that would inevitably result from such a discovery. I don’t like to get too political on this site, but seeing discussions about who deserves to have which rights play out over and over, well… it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the undead and real-world marginalized groups, and very thought-provoking. 

But for all the ultra-ambitious story-telling, well-drawn characters, fantastic pacing, and amazing setting, there’s one bit of sand in my shorts with Ghostland, and that’s the editing. I don’t usually criticize typos or occasional spelling errors because that stuff slips through in every book, no matter how many editors scour it. But there were a few sections in Ghostland that would have benefited greatly from a harsh red-pen wielding jerk doing a thorough read-through. 

For example, there’s a scene where Ben and Lillian both dive into a truck from the passenger side, and it’s not clear who’s driving, but then somehow Ben is working the clutch from the passenger side while Lillian is doing the driving? It’s impossible to follow or visualize and the resulting confusion takes a lot away from the tension of the scene, and deals a blow to the otherwise-amazing world-building and continuity.

But then the epilogue happens, and well, this mean old reviewer might’ve misted up a teensy bit. Just read Ghostland, you’ll be glad you did.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a copy of The House Feeds, it looks really good & I can’t find it anywhere.)

fourhappyneurons

 

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Short Take: Why you should never, ever watch HGTV and get ideas.

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(*Note: I received an advance copy of this book for review.*)

I hate home repairs. Everything is always more complicated than it looks, more expensive, more frustrating, and something else inevitably gets broken when you’re trying to fix the thing that’s already broken. I’m hopeless with tools, and anything remotely mechanical is some kind of voodoo magic as far as I’m concerned.

And can we, just for a quick second, talk about the giant bowls of limes that appear in EVERY SINGLE home makeover show? Like, why limes? Why not mangoes or canteloupes? And what do they do with the limes? Make 50 margaritas? Let them sit there looking fresh & green until they don’t, then throw them out? So many questions!

Sorry, got sidetracked. The bowl of limes thing just really bugs me.

But, enough of home renovation. I try to avoid most of that stuff because instruction manuals are a) just the manufacturer’s OPINION on how something should be done, and b) not nearly as exciting as a good horror novel.

Which is why I had such fun with Jennifer McMahon’ The Invited.

When history teacher Helen inherits a chunk of money from her father, she and husband Nate decide to build their dream house in a remote part of the Vermont wilderness. But you see, it’s not just ANY patch of forest they choose – it’s the spot where Hattie Breckenridge was hung for witchcraft many years ago.

Would it be a spoiler to say that their DIY dream becomes a nightmare? (OK, not a spoiler, but totally a cliche and I really should be better than that.) (I’m not.)

As they are building their home, from the ground up, all by themselves (!!!), history-obsessed Helen decides to incorporate pieces of the area’s past into her design, and starts with a beam from the very tree where Hattie was hung.  

I don’t know about all of you, but this superstitious nerd considers that A Very Bad Idea.

As Helen continues collecting other items with a Dark Past, strange and super-creepy things begin happening to her, and Nate isn’t exactly himself either. Throw in Olive, a thirteen-year-old neighbor girl who befriends them (and whose mother has disappeared under Mysterious Circumstances), Olive’s quirky aunt Riley, and a whole pile of suspicious locals, including the gun-toting leader of the local ghost-summoning group, and, well, there’s a lot going on here.

Without giving away any more of the plot, I’m going to just say that The Invited goes down some familiar paths, but also takes some unexpected detours. I was able to figure out one major twist early on, but I did NOT see the other one coming, which is always great. And I loved, LOVED the way that the historical side of the story grew and took on so much more than just Hattie’s tragic demise.

And the characters! Olive, in particular, is a delight. She’s a Lost Girl: vanished mom, inattentive, distracted dad, ostracized by kids at school, and more than a little obsessed with Hattie’s story for reasons of her own. Ms. McMahon outdid herself with Olive.

My only major gripe was with the pacing. I liked the way the parts of the story were broken down to correspond with the phases of the house being built, but it felt like there was a lot of exposition, a lot of Helen doing research, and it felt draggy at times. I get that it was all leading up to the final reveal, but there were a few times that it just got too crowded, with too many characters and historical events.

Overall though, definitely a fun little snack for fans of haunted house stories.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a couple of limes. What? It’s margarita-time somewhere, right?)

fourhappyneurons

Yesterday, When We Died, by Chad A. Clark

Short Take: Delicious horror with a heart.

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You know that feeling, when you pull on a pair of jeans or a coat you haven’t worn in a few years, and when you stick your hand in the pocket, you find a $20 bill? Or maybe, you’re kind-of thinking about something sweet, and morosely looking through the fridge for the fifth time, not seeing anything you want, and suddenly, you happen to notice half of a Symphony bar stuck way in the back. Maybe it’s been a long day, and your feet are cold and achy, and there’s that exquisite moment when you put on your favorite thick puffy slippers.

In other words, that feeling when a half-realized craving suddenly shoots to the front of your brain at the exact second that it is blissfully and completely satisfied. That, my friends, was the feeling I got when reading this book. I’ve been seriously jonesing for a good haunted-house story for SO LONG, and had practically given up hope, when this little gem came across my “free horror ebooks” feed. I downloaded it, then grumpily sat on it for a bit, having decided that haunted houses were dead, and not in the good way. But one night when idly flipping through my nook to find something that wouldn’t tax my brain too much, I figured, well, why not, it couldn’t be much worse than some of the stuff I’ve read lately.

What a savory surprise I got! In short, Yesterday, When We Died is the story of Kyle, and his two best friends Grant and Shannon, who decide to spend a bro-bonding week at a remote cabin. Kyle has not been the same since his ex-girlfriend Cheryl’s suicide, and the others think that it would do him some good to spend some time drinking, fishing, farting loudly, peeing outside, and whatever else it is that guys do when bro-bonding.

What Kyle doesn’t tell the others, however, is that shortly before killing herself, Cheryl also spent some time at the cabin to get some distance from the breakup.  But she came back…. different. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and when she spoke, nothing made sense. Her family and Kyle tried to intervene, but eventually, she had to go into an institution, where she leapt from the roof and died.

So, here we are, a year later, with Kyle, Grant, and Shannon digging into the aforementioned bro-bonding in the aforementioned Cabin Where Something Is Very Wrong, when things start getting crazy. And crazier. And creepier. And really freaking scary.  Threatening figures seen out of the corner of an eye that disappear when examined more closely. Horrific dreams that might not be dreams, and visions that could drive any one of them to murder the others. And of course, the obligatory car that won’t start in the middle of nowhere.

Let me tell you all, for such a short work, Mr. Clark does an impressive job of packing in the atmosphere. The earthy smells, the shadowy woods, the isolation – I could seriously FEEL the place.  And the final climax hurt me in a good way, because despite the many fantastic fear elements in this book, ultimately, it’s a story about friendship, love, redemption, and sacrifice.

All horror should be so loving.

The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a Symphony bar. I could swear I stashed one somewhere around here….)

Loved this book!!