fantasy · fiction · horror

Book Review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

It’s rare for me to reread anything. I usually have such a healthy, flourishing TBR (and so little time!) that I rarely glance behind me, in a reading sense, even when there’s times I’d really, really like to. And that’s the beauty of this year’s Pop Sugar Reading Challenges. Not only has it been pushing me hard to read outside my comfort zone, it’s also allowing me to do a few rereads. First up, to mark off the prompt of a book that I read more than ten years ago, I picked up a favorite – we’re talking a MAJOR favorite – from when I was a teenager in the mid-90’s, around fifteen or sixteen years old: Rose Madder by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995). I don’t think this is one of King’s better-known books, but it had a lot to say to me as a teenager, and rereading this was a really interesting trip down memory lane.

Trigger warnings for spousal abuse, graphic miscarriage, rape, violence, racial, sexual and gender-based slurs, and murder.

Rose Madder opens on a scene of horrific violence: Rose McClendon is miscarrying a much-longed-for baby after yet another terrible beating at the hands of her husband, Norman, a police officer. Flash forward nine years later, nothing has changed, and a glimpse of a single spot of blood on her side of the bed wakes her up long enough to understand the consequences of staying married to such a man. Rosie flees, taking a bus to an unnamed Midwestern city, and begins a new life at Daughters and Sisters, a women’s shelter for women leaving abusive situations. 

Starting over from nothing isn’t easy, but Rosie’s new friends, a job changing sheets at a hotel, and a rented room are enough, and soon, a new job offer and the attention of a new and gentle man named Bill Steiner turn her life into more than she could ever have dreamed. A mysterious painting of a ruined temple and a blond woman, purchased from Bill’s pawn shop, begin speaking to Rosie, and not a moment too soon: Norman’s desperate search for his wife, to make her pay for abandoning him, is bringing him closer and closer, and threatening everything Rosie’s built. 

What I remember appealing to me so much as a teenager were the emotions of this book: the fear Rosie felt, the horror that was Norman (who is actually even worse than I remembered), the newfound wonder of a life rebuilt and the first blossoming of love after so much pain and terror. Back at fifteen, I thought Bill Steiner was just the swooniest character out there; as an adult, I see that he didn’t have quite as big of a role in this story as I thought I remembered. This is Rosie’s story, and Norman’s: the narrative is split between the two, with the main narration going to Rosie, and Norman’s barely sane voice chiming in every now and then.

Good hell, can Stephen King write an abusive husband. Norman is one of the scariest characters I’ve ever read, one of the most dangerous. His scenes scared me more as an adult than I ever remember being scared as a teen. Another thing that really struck me is how much more difficult Rosie’s escape would’ve been today. She arrived at the shelter and her stay was fairly brief, thanks to being able to rent a room which she could afford on wages earned under the table as a hotel maid (there was also talk of supporting herself waitressing or possibly running a cash register somewhere; there were training sessions on this at the shelter, mentioned briefly). And Rosie had no children to support. How much more difficult, or even impossible, is it for Rosies today to flee such terrible situations and maintain any kind of life? Can women with zero work history, no skills, and a child or several, even manage at all? Thinking about this just depressed me further while reading this book.

It was really interesting, though, to see how much this book has affected my own writing. There were a lot of lines here and there that I remembered, and a few scenes that I hadn’t even remembered but that influenced a few things I’ve written (mostly an unpublished novel about a young woman rebuilding her life after leaving an abusive relationship. Yeah. This book had that much of affect on me!). A few times, I’d turn a page, read a line or a paragraph, and would be immediately thrown back into my teenage bedroom. If nothing else, finding my way back to this book has really reminded me of the magic of rereading.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending back then, and I’m still not now, though I understand it much better. No spoilers, but I do think it works a lot better reading it as an adult. If you’ve read this book, I’m curious as to your take on the ending, or on anything about this book. It’ll always be one of my favorites, both because of my history with it, and because of the strong emotions King has managed to make come alive throughout.

Visit Stephen King’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · horror · YA

#TheWriteReads Blogtour Presents: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis

Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ blog tour for Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (Penguin, 2020). Harrow Lake is a young adult thriller, and you’re going to want to turn on every light in the house before you crack the spine on this one- or start reading long before it gets dark.

The book begins with an interview with Nolan Nox, famed horror movie director, whose daughter had gone missing a year before. Fall back in time and the story is now narrated by Lola Nox. After finding her father having been stabbed, Lola is unceremoniously shipped off to Harrow Lake, Indiana, to the home of a strange, distant grandmother she’s never met before, the mother of Lola’s own mother, who left, then disappeared, when Lola was five. Harrow Lake, the filming site of Nightjar, Nolan’s most famous film, is a spooky town. Collapsed mines that led to hundreds of deaths have provided the town myriad legends, including one resident-turned-mine-dwelling-cannibal, Mr. Jitters. Refusing to believe in stories, Lola begins to comb Harrow Lake for information, hoping to get to know the mother she barely remembers, but her search is impeded at every step.

Creepy townfolk. Eerie abandoned, caved-in mines with a collapsed church inside. A grandmother that seems half-mad on her best days. A mysterious figure who always seems to be watching Lola. Tiny hand-carved wooden insects that skitter and chatter on their own. Ominous shapes that move behind the wallpaper. NO INTERNET OR PHONE SERVICE. It’s every horror movie you’ve ever watched packed into one spine-chilling book, and Lola will need to gather all her wits about her if she wants to really learn the truth about Harrow Lake and what happened to her mother.

EEK. This was SUPER creepy. I haven’t read horror in years, but I loved it as a kid, and I deeply loved horror movies when I was young, so this was a flashback to my younger days. The hand carved wooden ‘jitterbugs’ in Lola’s mother’s room creeped me the HECK out, as did the constant references to Mr. Jitters. Harrow Lake seems about the worst vacation destination ever, and the weirdo townspeople add the perfect touch. Kat Ellis has really created a terrifying place- not quite Children of the Corn weird, but Gatlin and Harrow Lake could be sister cities.

Ms. Ellis really knows how to keep the reader guessing. It’s cliched to say that there are twists and turns on every page, but it’s the absolute truth here. Weirdness abounds in Harrow Lake and Lola, who is trapped there, is constantly thrown off by someone’s odd behavior, a strange noise, the phone lines not working, something else terrifying happening in the woods. It’s a mark of good horror writing for the reader to have their guard up THIS often because the terror never stops, and I don’t know how many times I said some version of, “OMG, just get on the road and WALK back home!”

The ending is as twisty as it gets, with a majorly satisfying conclusion that I found to be absolutely brilliant (and will remember Lola’s friend’s tactic should I ever need to use it!). Harrow Lake is a wild ride through a town I never, EVER want to visit. I’ll stay at home, where there are no collapsed-mine-mass-graves-with-creepy-cannibal-monster-people. But if you enjoy edge-of-your-seat horror that will keep you guessing until- I’m not at all exaggerating here- the very last pages, you’re going to want a copy of Harrow Lake.

Harrow Lake is set for release on July 9th, 2020.

Thanks to Dave at #TheWriteReads, NetGalley, and Kat Ellis for including me on this tour!

Visit Kat Ellis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

(If you dare! *spooky laughter*)

fiction · horror

They Come At Night- Nick Clausen

I was a HUGE horror fan when I was younger. I loved scary movies and scary books with a passion. Zombies that want to eat my brain? Bring it on. Creepy child-murdering clowns that live in the sewer? I’ll read that (multiple times!). Haunted houses, weird noises, all the ghosts and goblins that go bump in the night, I. Was. IN. And then, as an adult, I moved away from reading these things. The only reason I can think of is that maybe adult life was scary enough without the added fear, but I’ve come to realize how much I’ve missed this particular genre, and so when Danish author Nick Clausen offered me a copy of They Come At Night (Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2019), a horror novella (just LOOK at that cover!!!), for review, I readily accepted.

Jayden and his friends are average teenagers with plans for some serious fun. His friend Richard’s parents are off to Paris and what they don’t know won’t hurt them, so the kids are using their cottage, located on what seems to be a sparsely populated beachfront, for a little getaway. It’s time for sand, some beer, and ogling the super gorgeous Sienna, but things go awry almost immediately when they spot a boy in a red shirt nailing an iron anchor into the woodwork of the cottage door. He runs off, but after a night of strange occurrences that include loud banging and the terrace door being covered in odd scratch marks, they find the boy again. Chris had been attempting to nail the anchor to the door to protect the house against…them, those creatures that left the scratch marks. The former owners didn’t protect themselves, you see, and now they’re dead. All the locals know about this. They know what’s coming; the vast majority of them have fled town for the time being, and so should Jayden and friends. The teens don’t heed his warnings, but they should, because when the tide comes in at night, so do they.

At 70 pages, this is a quick read, but it’s CREEPY. Jayden and his friends make all the wrong moves at pretty much every turn (you know how you want to scream at the characters in a horror movie, “Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie? DON’T GO UP THERE!!!” Plenty of that in here!), placing themselves directly in the path of these terrifying creatures (ones I hadn’t even begun to imagine!), all of it leading to an absolutely terrifying conclusion that will keep your heart pounding until the end and leave you never wanting to go anywhere near the ocean again.

I finished reading this the evening of April 23rd. That night, after I went to bed, I kept waking up (not because of the story; I wake up a lot at night for various reasons), and every time, my mind immediately went back to this story and what they were (no spoilers!), and how it all ended. It’s still on my mind (and I’m glad we’re going to a lake this summer and NOT the ocean!). It’s been years since I really read much horror, but between They Come At Night and Welcome to Halcyon (Dead Mawl #1), which I read earlier this year, I definitely think it’s a genre I need to explore a little further.

Nick Clausen is traditionally published in Denmark, but is in the process of translating his books into English and making them available via Amazon in the US. If you like deliciously creepy horror stories that make your heart race and leave you with an eerie feeling that lasts for days, check him out!

Mange tak for bogen, Nick! 🙂 Huge thanks to Nick Clausen for sending me a copy of They Come At Night to read and review.

Visit Nick Clausen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · horror · indie

Welcome to Halcyon (Dead Mawl #1)- S.G. Tasz

This is the year of trying to expand my reading genres, and when I was asked to review Welcome to Halcyon by S.G. Tasz, the first novella in the Dead Mawl series, pitched as a read for fans of Buffy the Vampire SlayerSupernatural, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, I was in. My husband and I watched Supernatural in its Netflix entirety over a period of four or five months during this fall and winter and I loved it, despite it not being something I’d normally choose to watch. Welcome to Halcyon‘s comparison to that series is dead-on, and this novella had me hooked from the very first page.

Edensgate Shopping Center, located in half-dead Halcyon, Nevada, is on its last legs. The town’s mining industry collapsed years ago, and Edensgate is doing its best to follow suit. Its last anchor department store, Suttermill, is closing for good this afternoon, which means today is sixteen-year-old Cari’s last day at work. She’s only been there for a few months, but this job was the escape she needed from her flaky religious mother and her weirdo pastor/guru boyfriend, and the only place she could see her friend Rex the movie theater employee now that Mom has pulled her out of public school. Cari’s not sure what she’s going to do now that her only relief from home is disappearing, but she’ll do her best to enjoy her last day of freedom.

Not so fast. After watching her boss’s eyes turn disturbing colors, Cari freaks out, then eventually curls up under a desk to sleep off her panic-induced exhaustion. And when Rex finally manages to shake her awake, it’s obvious that something abnormal, something horrible, is happening in the darkened mall where Cari and Rex are now trapped. Does this have something to do with what happened to the mall employee who bled in the fountain last night? Cari and Rex are going to have to think and move quickly if they want to stay alive, because Edensgate is under attack by creatures they’ve never seen before.

Holy crap. This was good. And not just good-for-an-indie good, good because it’s GOOD. Ms. Tasz’s writing flows amazingly well and she does a fabulous job at ensuring that the reader is invested in the characters early on, so that when the attacks begin, you’re absolutely on the edge of your seat with your heart racing. I bolted through the pages where a character had a close call, all the time thinking, “NO! Not (character’s name)!!!!”, but to be honest, I was all in from the well-written first line, because there’s nothing in this novella that doesn’t absolutely shine. This is beyond impressive for a debut.

I absolutely loved Welcome to Halcyon. Ms. Tasz’s descriptions of the Edensgate Mall were just enough so that I could picture it perfectly- the columns, the statues, the shuttered storefronts, the blood-filled fountain, the creeping terror that settles over Cari and Rex. Cari’s desperation and Rex’s past serve both characters well to make them extremely empathetic; reading this is like watching an episode of Supernatural with all its trepidation and breathless anticipation (maybe could use a little more Jared Padalecki. Just sayin’). If you’re at all into horror or supernatural phenomena that go bump in the night, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this. If Ms. Tasz can continue the series with the same prowess with which she began it, she’s got a long, healthy career ahead of her.

Huge thanks to S.G. Tasz for allowing me to read and review her work. This was phenomenal and I look forward to reading more about the horrors that take place in Halcyon in the future.

Visit S.G. Tasz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.