The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
In the 1950s, Idlewild Hall in rural Vermont was a place where families sent daughters they’d rather forget. The residents of the boarding school are illegitimate, traumatized, criminal. But the school may be haunted by more than bad memories; a spirit called Mary Hand is said to stalk the halls, and four roommates, bonded over shared misery, will face the spirits of Idlewild when one of them disappears.
Meanwhile, in 2014, a local journalist is shocked to hear that long-abandoned Idlewild Hall is being restored. Her own obsession with the overgrown and forgotten school started when her sister’s body was discovered on the grounds twenty years earlier. As she begins to dig into the history of the school, she finds old mysteries entwined with new, and a growing sense that something haunts the grounds of the old school.
This was a wonderful mystery story with a supernatural twist. St. James weaves her narrative between 1950 and 2014, slowly parsing out information and clues to the reader. The book is atmospheric; the boarding school exudes a palpable sense of menace and despair. Fiona Sheridan, the journalist, and the four roommates from 1950 are well-written, with the young students quickly becoming characters to care about and fear for.
The supernatural elements of the story are well done, and fit organically into the plot. Who, or what, Mary Hand may be is dangled in front of the reader, but largely kept teasingly out of reach until the very end.
In all, this is a wonderfully satisfying mystery that avoids the pitfalls of the mystery thriller genre. Anyone who wants a ghost story mixed in with their mystery will enjoy this book.
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I am on a horror kick recently (I blame the Nocturnal Reader’s Box) and The Haunting of Hill House is a book that has been on my TBR forever! I am a bit ashamed to admit I’ve seen The Haunting (you’re in trouble when even Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones can’t save a movie), but I’ve never read the book that inspired it! Fortunately, now that I’ve gotten a bit of breathing room between books I’ve pledged to review, I can dedicate some of my time to working through my personal TBR.
Eleanor Vance, a lonely young woman recently cast adrift by the death of her elderly mother, is invited by researcher Dr. John Montague to spend a summer at notoriously haunted Hill House in an attempt to scientifically study paranormal phenomena. Once at the house, she is joined by one of its heirs- ne’er-do-well Luke Sanderson, and Theodora, an artist and another potential “sensitive.” Once at the house, strange and mysterious incidents begin to pile up. Disconcertingly, these incidents seem more and more to focus upon Eleanor.
Hill House is considered THE classic haunted house book, and for damned good reason. Though less than 200 pages long, Jackson was able to pack an amazing amount of creepiness within a small space. The buildup begins with Eleanor’s trip to the infamous house itself. Jackson paints a picture of a rather surreal journey both through the decaying countryside and through Eleanor’s vivid imagination. Once we arrive at Hill House itself, the air of unease and dread grows. The house, built to be slightly off-square by it’s eccentric owner, seems to echo Eleanor’s own slightly off-kilter nature. As events in the house continue to escalate, the reader is left to wonder if what is happening is true supernatural phenomena, whether one of the other people in the house has targeted Eleanor, or whether Eleanor herself is the source of the disturbances. We like Eleanor, we sympathize with her, but at the same time we feel as though she is not entirely trustworthy as a narrator.
Any one who is a fan of horror and/or suspense should read this book. Let us keep in mind that most of the terror is left out of view; there are no jump scares or flying body parts here. but the book works subtly on the mind, giving the reader’s own imagination free rein. I expect the final conclusions drawn about what actually happened at Hill House will be as varied as the readers themselves.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
America is a haunted country. Through the 300+ year history of European settlement on this continent, we have amassed an army of restless spirits. Certainly more than can be contained in a 300 page book. Fortunately, Dickey isn’t looking so much at the individual ghosts. Rather, he is looking at our ghostly archetypes, and what our national ghosts can tell us about our evolving history.
Dickey takes us to haunted houses, businesses, cemeteries, prisons, asylums, and towns. We march over familiar ground such as The House of Seven Gables in Salem, and the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. But Dickey shines light in the hidden corners of our collective psyche. Perhaps the Winchester House isn’t a labyrinth to entrap vengeful spirits, but rather the overblown publicity paid to a fiercely independent woman who felt no desire to conform to society’s mores.
Dickey brings this fresh approach to the Moundsville Penitentiary, and to the Mustang Ranch. To the antebellum ghosts of Richmond, Virginia (why, with a notorious slave market in town, are all the ghosts white?), and to the city of Detroit, where “ruin porn” has turned the city itself into a sort of ghost.
Ghost stories are common, and the most famous legends have been repeated time and again. Dickey spins us away from the well-trod path, and into the darkened forest of our own history and collective psyche. And, as it turns out, that might be all we need for a scary story.
Ghostland is currently available for purchase.