You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

We are ALL Alice

Sometimes (okay, all the time) when I’m readying books for the public to check out, I go all Liam Neeson in Taken:

I don’t know when I’m going to read you or how you’ll make me feel but I can tell you I have a particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long life as a reader. Skills that make me a nightmare to play against in the literary portion of Jeopardy. I will look for you, I will find you, and I will read you.

Lil bit hardcore but books are my passion. I’ll read just about anything. Except computer books. Bless the people who can understand those because when I flip through a computer book all I hear in my head is a bunch of underwater bleeps and bloops.

That being said, I’ve found myself gravitating towards kid books lately. You might already know I have a slightly embarrassing love of YA novels (still couldn’t pay me enough to ever be a teenager again though) so it makes sense that my eyes landed on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s series of books about a young girl named Alice. I’m opening up myself to a long commitment because these books span Alice’s life from an 8-year-old all the way through high school. But I don’t think of it as a commitment. It’s meeting a new friend and becoming comfortable enough to steal food from their refrigerator.

The first book in the series is Starting With Alice. Alice McKinley is a lot like other 8-year-old girls. She wants pierced ears, gloriously long hair, a pet, and she wants a mother. Hers died a few years ago and it’s been her, her brother Lester, and their father ever since. What Alice would REALLY like is some friends. Her family moves to Maryland and she doesn’t know a soul except for her neighbor Donald and she’s having a hard time figuring out if he’s really smart or so smart he’s stupid: he’s the kind of boy who asks you if you can lick your elbow.

Starting third grade at a new school isn’t as easy as Alice thinks. She sees a trio of girls she names ‘The Terrible Triplets’ after they go all Mean Girls on her and don’t bother to get to know her. Lonely, facing the world as an 8-year-old without her mother, and living with two males, Alice begins to think she’ll never make friends and never quite get it right. But friends pop up when Alice least expects them, along with weird adventures, a lost cat, and her brother’s awful basement band.

Fans of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series will dive into the Alice saga and surface wanting to find their own Alice to be best friends with.

I Don’t Want the Drama, Just Tell Me 110% of What’s Going On

A thirty year old unsolved murder.

A mother frozen in time.

A wife discovers a devastating secret.

A woman revisits her past.

Sounds like a Lifetime movie, doesn’t it? Except Valerie Bertinelli isn’t in this one and what happens is oh so more interesting than a movie of the week.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, three seemingly unconnected lives collide head on.

30 years ago, Rachel’s daughter Janie was found murdered in a park and Rachel hasn’t moved on. What mother could? She works at a private school and has a grandson she absolutely adores; the one bright spot in a life that has seemed empty after the loss of her daughter. But now her son and daughter-in-law are going to move to New York for a couple of years and she’ll be empty again.

She’s had a suspect in mind for her daughter’s murder, a man named Connor who was madly in love with Janie when they were teenagers. Connor works at her school as a gym teacher. Over the years Rachel has hounded the police with her suspicions and knows they tend to humor her with sympathy while brushing her off at the same time.

Tess runs a successful business with her husband and her cousin Felicity who has been her best friend since birth. They’ve been inseparable. Just one thing: the two sit Tess down one evening and tell her they’ve fallen in love with one another. Oops. Sorry.

Tess packs a bag and takes their 7-year-old son Liam far away to her mother’s place to regroup, maybe start fresh. She registers her son at the private school Rachel works at and sees that her old boyfriend Connor is a teacher there. Tess begins to think about staying, getting a new job, and rekindling things with him.

Cecilia is a mother, a wife in a comfortable (if not much of a physical) marriage, and a businesswoman with a formidable Tupperware empire. She’s still in love with her husband even though they’ve been married roughly 500 years and he’s away on business most of the time. Cecilia’s life is supremely organized, everything in the right place. Life is good. It is frustrating at times with three daughters and an AWOL husband but she thanks her stars for everything good in her life.

But one day she needs to find something in the attic. She knocks down a box belonging to her husband and a letter settles to the floor. It has her name on it and it’s sealed.  She respects his privacy and doesn’t snoop, but the sealed letter is on her mind throughout the following days. She mentions it to her away on business husband and he makes her promise not to read it, to put it back where she found it.

Well, now she just wants to read it even more. One day she opens it and begins reading. What happens next will bring the three women together in a harrowing disaster that makes each of them wonder if they’ll come out whole on the other side.

By the author of Little Big Lies, The Husband’s Secret draws the reader in with fine honed characters and a twisting plot, leaving anyone to wonder: what would they do after discovering a life altering secret?

Darkness at the Edge of Town

Whenever I’m reading something online I always appreciate the kind souls who write in bold capitals: WARNING! SPOILERS! There are some mean-spirited folks out there who seem to delight in spoiling a movie or a TV series or even a book. Some butthead online ruined an episode of The Walking Dead way back in season 6 and I stopped watching the show. It was ruined.

So when I heard Stephen King was coming out with a new book titled The Outsider, I was hesitant about reading anything about it online. But being me, I went online because I had no idea what the book was about. The first word in an article about the book that caught my eye was ‘crime procedural.’ My gut sank. I may have even switched to YouTube to watch clips of cats falling off stuff.

I didn’t want a King book about crime and murder. Well, yeah, I wanted the murder part but what I wanted to read about was a monster. Give me a little of that old something’s-hiding-under-my-bed-and-is-reaching-out-to-touch-my-foot. The Outsider didn’t seem to offer up anything supernatural but hell, it’s a Stephen King book. And in the words of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, “I’m his number one fan.”

Set in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider opens with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Horrible things have been done to him. Throat ripped out, violated with a tree branch. The stuff of every parent’s nightmare. Detective Ralph Anderson begins pulling in eyewitnesses who all describe seeing the same man in the vicinity of Frank Peterson: Terry Maitland, teacher and Little League coach. In fact, Terry is a well-known and well liked citizen and has coached hundreds of children over the years. He even coached Detective Anderson’s son back in the day.

The evidence is stacking up against Terry Maitland and when the DNA comes back from samples collected from the Peterson boy it’s a match for Terry. With a few other officers in tow, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland during a huge Little League game. With the stands filled with nearly 1,500 spectators, Anderson approaches the dugout, handcuffs Maitland’s hands in front of him, and reads him his rights. Now, I know what you’re thinking (and no, I haven’t been drinking): of course this guy is guilty as hell. He tore the throat out of a child, raped him, and left enough physical evidence behind to send him to death row to ride the needle.

As Terry pleads his innocence, a little niggling worry started in the back of my mind. And I think everyone is guilty of something. But something about Terry Maitland comes across as innocent. Detective Anderson has seen many horrors during his career. He knows a child rapist and killer could be beloved by the town, attend church every Sunday, and still be a predator. Anderson thinks he has this case closed and solved, eager for Terry Maitland to go to trial and get the needle.

Then the unexpected happens and throws a wrench in Anderson’s case. At the time of Frank Peterson’s murder, Terry Maitland was 200 miles away attending a conference which had the author Harlan Coben as a guest speaker. Not only was Terry with several other teachers, the event was taped. During the question and answer period of the talk, a camera shows Terry stand up to ask a question. There’s no way Terry Maitland killed Frank Peterson. But all that DNA….how is that even possible? I went down several rabbit holes trying to think of a way that could happen. I got stuck in one rabbit hole thinking maybe Terry had a twin he didn’t know about and the twin shows up exacting some kind of ancient twin revenge. Detective Anderson is spinning his wheels, wanting Terry to go to trial and death row but also having heavy doubts.

DON’T WORRY! NO SPOILERS AHEAD.

Remember how I said I wanted a monster, something supernatural? I wanted a good old Stephen King book that was like his first dozen books? Well, he delivered. I’ll give you this little morsel. Picture it: a man with a lumpy, misshapen face and straw for eyes. That is all.

The Outsider is like a comfortable old sweater that fell in the back of your closet and is discovered only when you turn 40 and crawl into the back of your closet to cry and eat a sleeve of Oreos. Not that I do that. Often. King has created memorable characters (I was at work the other day and suddenly found myself thinking about one of them and wondering what they would do next with their life) and a plot so fast and full of action that I was saddened when I reached the end. If you’re looking for a return of the old King (Return of the King! See what I did there?) where he indulges all your dark obsessions and fears, The Outsider is a book to pick up and devour. But keep your feet from dangling off the end of the bed.

For the Love of Money

Maybe this is just plain old sexist, but when I hear about women who murder my first thought is: the guy had to have done something to deserve it. The myth of women being natural nurturers and protectors has gone by the wayside as we read about women killing their own children or committing ‘crimes of passion’ against lovers.  Even now when I hear about a female killer I wince, a knee-jerk reaction as my brain hisses “A woman? She’s supposed to be the protector of children.” But the shock has worn off as I realize humans, male or female, are capable of horrendous deeds.

This came into focus as I read the true crime work Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunnes, Butcher of Men by Harold Schechter.

Belle Gunness immigrated to the United States from Norway in 1881 and married Mads Sorensen in 1884. They opened up a candy store but then fell on hard times. The store burned down and investigators were a little suspicious of the cause, but Belle and Mads collected the insurance money. They produced two children who later died in infancy. That was not unusual in those days, with the infant mortality rate being high. Belle collected insurance money on the children (which set off alarm bells in my head.)

Next Mads died from heart failure. Or should I say “heart failure??” Strychnine was found in his system and his family wanted an inquest into his death, but Belle got lucky because he was previously diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Interestingly Mads happened to die on the only day his two insurance policies overlapped and Belle was left with a healthy chunk of cash. Belle bought a 42-acre farm with the money.

How do I describe Belle Gunness without sounding superficial? Maybe because she was a monster she automatically comes off as ugly. She was a big woman, close to 300 pounds, and had a sour face that in today’s parlance would be considered RBF. She was abrasive and unfriendly to townspeople.

She met and married Peter Gunness and his infant daughter mysteriously died. Peter followed shortly after by being brained to death by a meat grinder that fell off a shelf in the kitchen. Funny how a meat grinder wound looks an awful lot like a hatchet wound. But I digress. The coroner who inspected the body of Peter Gunness was suspicious that foul play was involved. Many people were suspicious of Belle. But this was 1908 and she was considered a poor widow trying to make a living off the land and raise her children.

I think I might be the only person alive who didn’t know they had lovelorn ads in newspapers back then. It was the 1908 version of Tinder but instead of swiping left or right, you wrote looking for someone to share your life with and work on a farm. Replies took six weeks. Slowest dating service ever. Belle was looking for a man to sell all his earthly goods, liquidate his assets and move to Belle’s Indiana farm.

Many men thought they had hit the jackpot and sold everything only to arrive at Belle’s and never be seen again. Ray Lamphere, Belle’s farm hand, wondered about the room stacked with steamer trunks and piles of men’s coats. Belle explained that they were left behind and that she would send them on to their owners. I don’t think Ray was an idiot. He had a room and a job at Belle’s. He just didn’t question her.

Andrew Hegelein wanted a fresh start and sold his belongings to be with Belle. He arrived and was never seen again… But Belle’s luck was beginning to run out. Hegelein’s brothers arrived and began searching for their missing sibling, poking around and asking questions about Belle.

One evening in April 1908, Belle’s farmhouse burned to the ground. After the smoldering ruins were cleared, four bodies were found. 3 were children and the adult female was believed to be Belle. Except ‘Belle’s’ head was missing. If the tragedy of a burned home and discovered bodies wasn’t bad enough, Belle’s land began to give up its ghosts. Her paramours were unearthed from their shallow graves.

In all, the bodies and bones of 40 men and children were found. Ray Lamphere was arrested and convicted of arson but not the murders. Before he died in prison not long after the verdict, he confessed that Belle herself had burned down her farmhouse and killed her children. But the headless body was not hers. He said Belle skipped town. It was never known just whose headless body was found in that house with three children huddled around it.

Over the years there were Belle Gunness sightings. People saw her board a train wearing a black veil. Belle sightings came from many states. People were positive it was the butcheress. The police didn’t put much effort into investigating the sightings. They claimed the body from the fire was Belle Gunness, even though the body was shorter and weighed less. Years later, a woman in California killed several men by poisoning them. It was said she was Belle Gunness: thinner and aged but evidently still seeking big insurance payouts. People were divided about whether she actually was the Norwegian murderess. Belle’s whereabouts and death went unconfirmed.

Death comes in every shape and size. It can be innocent and darkly alluring. It can be a sweet ad placed in a newspaper looking for love or at the very least, companionship. There’s no judgement here on how you find love, whether it be from an app or from the back of a newspaper or during last call in a poorly lit bar. But beware the P.S. “Come prepared to stay forever.”

You Are Healed!

Back in the mid to late 80s there was this channel that would play religious ‘talk shows,’ usually with women who put their make up on with a trowel and had high hair (the bigger the hair, the closer to God) and a husband already sweating two minutes into the beginning of the show while walking through a crowd. I confess that during bouts of insomnia, (yes, 10 year olds can get insomnia; they can also remember where their mother hid the huge bag of Skittles at 3am) I would watch these shows just to see the sweaty dude go to a line of people anxiously waiting to be healed by the power of this man who was a direct conduit for God.

Even at the age of 10, I could spot that split second dismay in the ‘you are healed’ faces of the people, like they were thinking: This dude just punched me in the forehead. And then the look of acceptance: Well, it is almost a direct healing from God and it takes my attention off the drag queen up on the stage in the pink and red sequin jumpsuit so….okay. I feel the same way about figure skating. It’s a beautiful sport, an elegant and intimate dance of two bodies that know each other so well. But I only watch it hoping one of them will fall and slid across the ice on their butt.

I never said I was a good person.

I almost skipped Stephen King’s book Revival, published in 2014, because I didn’t want a doom and gloom angry God book but after the first couple of pages I was hooked. Duh. It’s Stephen King. Oh, my apologies. I know I wrote my last post about Stephen King but the man delivers and when he promises to make you forget reality through his writing, he means it.

Charles Jacobs is a new minister in town. Everybody loves him and his wife and his son, especially a young man named Jamie Morton. But Charles Jacobs’s wife and child die in a tragic car accident and Charles denounces God and all religions and is basically run out-of-town for his blasphemy. He spends years honing a side-show gimmick until something happens that makes him regain his faith and he becomes a faith healer. You see, all his life he’s dabbled with electricity and is harnessing it somehow. How very Tesla of him.

Jamie Morton is all grown up now and a musician with a nasty heroin habit. He meets up again with Charles Jacobs who uses his weird electrical gift to cure Jamie of his drug habit. But Jamie notices that he has certain side effects: sleepwalking and jabbing sharp objects into his arm as though doping again in his sleep. Jamie begins to investigate all of the people that Charles Jacobs has ‘healed.’

It turns out they’ve all had bizarre side effects from the electrical cure. Some have killed themselves or others. Just as Jamie is cutting ties with Jacobs, Jacobs informs him that Jamie’s childhood sweetheart Astrid is dying from terminal cancer. Jacobs says he’ll heal Astrid if Jamie helps him with one last big electrical experiment. Jamie agrees and Astrid is healed. By now Jamie knows that Jacobs isn’t to be trusted and is probably more unhinged than anyone thinks.

What Jacobs wants to do is harness a massive surge of what he calls ‘secret electricity.’ He’s going to bring about this dose of electricity via a lightning rod and he’s going to zap the electricity from the rod into a terminally ill woman named Mary Fay. It works but not in the way Jacobs hoped. Mary Fay is cured, but she is now a conduit for the Afterlife. Jacobs and Jamie discover there is no heaven, no reward for having lived a kind and good life. Instead, there’s a placed called ‘The Null,’ a dimension where dead humans are forever enslaved by insane creatures right out of an H.P. Lovecraft book. One creature in particular is the most powerful, called Mother, and she now inhabits the body of Mary Fay, breaking her body and turning her into a monster.

Okay, the rest I have written down in my notebook and when I got to the part explaining about the ending I thought: I like my readers, all two of them, and I’m not going to spoil the ending. But even after finishing the book I had to go have a nap and a Bloody Mary (not in that order, I’m not that talented).

Revival isn’t just about losing faith and regaining it. It’s about what people become once they lose or regain faith.

I also think it should be a cautionary tale not to mess with electricity or you’ll end up summoning a demon bent on destroying the world.

Redrum

I was going to write a blog about Stephen King’s book The Shining versus the Stanley Kubrick 1980 movie adaptation of the book, but time got away from me. Not because I’m busy. Because I rented the newest version of the movie IT and then I fell asleep (not because of the movie but because of who I am as a person) and then had to begin it again and this blog is already getting away from me and that usually doesn’t happen until the second paragraph.

Come along with me on another adventure of “What Did I Just Read?”

I’ve read The Shining 3 times. I’m not bragging. I just have a hard time remembering books I’ve read a long time ago. But I did reread it just for the pleasure of it. And because it’s one of my favorite King novels.

Picture it: Jack Torrance, recovering alcoholic (one of the scary ones with anger problems), is looking for a new start not only for himself but also for his wife Wendy and their 5-year-old son Danny. He thinks he’s found the perfect job at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado. During the brutal mountain winters (where the hotel, while mesmerizing, is pretty isolated) the place shuts down for a few months with just a caretaker to look after the enormous building. This is Jack’s chance to make up the past year of horrible behavior to both his wife and son and a chance to work on his play without distraction or interruption. He hears a story about a former caretaker years go who went stir crazy one winter in the hotel and killed his wife and children. The isolation, Jack is told, sometimes gets to people. But like with any new beginning, Jack Torrance believes he and his family can get through anything, even being cut off from civilization by enough snow to make you think it’s the apocalypse, the snowy version.

His 5-year-old son Danny has….special abilities. His parents don’t realize it because it’s 1977 and parents aren’t into hovering over their kid’s every move. Nowadays, they’d shove Danny on a reality show or have him hosting a version of Antiques Road Show where he describes the ghost hanging out with the ugly vase from someone’s attic. But in 1977 Danny’s parents think he’s a quietly imaginative kid with an imaginary friend named Tony. Sure, it’s great when a 5-year-old has an imaginary friend but when a 40-year-old woman has one they up her medication.

On The Overlook’s closing day Jack and his family get a tour of the place and meet Dick Hallorann, the chef. He takes one look at Danny and knows he has special abilities. He begins to talk to Danny telepathically. While Danny’s parents are busy looking around, Dick tells Danny that he’s one of the rare people who has a gift called the shining, he can see and sense things others can’t and will have visions of things to come. People hear the title The Shining and they forget it’s actually a good thing, the ability to shine. Dick is leaving for Florida but tells Danny that they have a special connection and he knows the hotel is one huge haunted place and Danny is going to see some seriously screwed up paranormal stuff. But if Danny needs him all he has to do is use the shine to call to him and Dick will rush back to the hotel.

So everybody leaves on closing day. Jack and Wendy and Danny spend the next few days exploring their new surroundings and everything is good. Until the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel find out just how special Danny is and are drawn to him. Thinking back, I don’t remember any nice ghosts that befriended Danny. The Overlook Hotel has a salacious past full of murder and mayhem and the dead have never moved on. Danny doesn’t say anything about what he’s seen because he knows the job is important to his parents and he hasn’t seen his father this happy in a long time.

But that happiness doesn’t stick around. The Overlook can’t get its possessive claws into Danny because of his gift but guess who it can possess? Yep. Jack Torrance. He’s having trouble writing his play (thanks to the hotel distracting him) and cabin fever is beginning to unravel him. After a fight with Wendy, Jack makes his way down to the bar where all the liquor had been removed on closing day (wouldn’t do to have a drunk caretaker stumbling about) but is now fully stocked with a bartender on duty named Lloyd.

The ghosts begin to spill out of the woodwork (Jack was warned not to go into room 237, never go into room 237 because horrible things happened there and damn it, there he is going into room 237) and drive Jack into an insanity there’s no coming back from. The ghosts of the hotel want Danny because of his shine. Lloyd urges a very drunk Jack to kill Danny and Wendy. Once you’re dead in the Overlook, you never really leave. Or is that the Hotel California? In any case, Jack is fully under the hotel’s powers and goes after Wendy. Danny, meanwhile, is giving his new buddy Dick Hallorann a telepathic SOS loud enough to almost make his head bleed.

And then…and then…well, if I tell you what happens you won’t need to read the book and I wouldn’t have done my job of getting you into the library, excited about being terrified to death by Stephen King’s writing. The Shining was King’s third novel and in my opinion one of his scariest, not just because of a hotel full of ghosts reliving their deaths but because of what isolation and inner demons can do to a person whose only goal was to start fresh. Read this book if you want to see the gradual unraveling of one man driven insane by an isolated hotel. Read about a mother trying not only to keep her child alive but also herself as her husband loses his mind. And then there’s Danny, who shines the brightest.

Excuse me, I have some other writing to take care of. All work and no play make Jennifer a dull girl.