Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall Book Cover The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Katie Alender

In this asylum, your mind plays tricks on you all the time…

Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females—an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself.

But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia gets trapped.

And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the halls in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia finds that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, as well, harbors shocking truths within its walls—truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free.

But she’ll need to act quickly, before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves.

From master of suspense Katie Alender comes a riveting tale of twisted memories and betrayals, and the meaning of madness.

Review:

Even though I’m a gigantic wimp, I’ve always had a fascination with old abandoned buildings. There’s something mournful and nostalgic about the faded glory of a deserted old hotel or once-stately mansion, especially when the house holds reminders of the lives previously lived there: dishes still set on a dining room table, toys scattered on a nursery floor, paperwork strewn across a desk in a study. I love the weighty sense of history and anticipation, as if the long-dead inhabitants could stroll through the parlor at any moment.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall is right up my alley, as the action takes place in the king of all abandoned buildings: an old mental hospital.

Delia Piven and her family arrive at The Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females after Delia inherits the property from her great-great-aunt. It doesn’t take long for Delia to get the sense that the old sanatorium isn’t just eerie – it’s haunted. This suspicion is confirmed when a dark force in the house murders Delia and she returns as a ghost, joining a bevy of other spirits trapped in the asylum.

What I Liked:

The Perspective: I wasn’t expecting The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall to be written from a ghost’s point of view, but this tactic worked quite well. I was engrossed by Delia’s struggle to cope with the bitterness and grief of losing her life and all the people in it, since they can no longer see, hear, or even sense her. Delia goes from having an entire world at her fingertips to being trapped within the confines of the Piven Institute, as well as by the limits of her ghostly abilities.

Speaking of these abilities, I really enjoyed the insider look at the ghost experience. Delia must learn the trick of walking through walls and manifesting enough to grasp onto objects. She also learns that ghosts aren’t invulnerable and can be disfigured and torn apart by other spirits and phantoms, which means Delia must exercise caution even in death. Another interesting tidbit is that Delia experiences weird time slips. There’s one creepy yet poignant scene in the book where Delia sits gazing forlornly out the window while turning the crank of a music box. She turns and turns and turns the crank, losing herself in the melody, and when a noise finally rouses her from her trance she finds two and a half years have passed.

The Atmosphere: The Piven Institute is exactly the kind of creepy place that gets me wriggling with excitement. I found myself both terrified by the asylum and wishing I could explore it. In broad daylight, that is. With an army of priests and exorcists by my side.

All the spooky accoutrements are accounted for: padded rooms, patient wards with worn leather restraints on the beds, a therapy room furnished with an electroshock chair, and a processing hall still littered with the suitcases and former belongings of the girls who checked in and never checked out. There are desperate messages scratched into the floorboards, eerie melodies played by a ghostly music box, and a multitude of spirits lurking in the rooms where they died, often in terrible ways.

The Piven Sisters: Delia’s attitude, spunk, and modern turns of phrase are a refreshing and amusing contrast to the dark parts of this book. She talks to the living people who occasionally wander into the sanatorium, even though they can’t hear her. For example, there’s a point when one character is about to go down into the super-scary basement, and Delia chides, “Oh, come on[…]. Don’t go down there! Have you never seen a horror movie?”

Another great character is Janie, Delia’s little sister. She starts the novel as a pesky pre-teen, but by the end she’s grown into a strong, brave young woman who I really admired.

What I Didn’t Like:

All Characters Besides Delia and Janie: I was disappointed by how flat and one-dimensional many of the characters are in The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall, and I was even more disappointed that Alender didn’t introduce a wider assortment of ghosts. I was rabid with curiosity about the spirits with whom Delia shared the asylum: Who were they? What did they look like? How did they die? I got a little of this, but not nearly enough. It was a big missed opportunity on Alender’s part.

The Plot: I like the pieces that make up this novel but think the book could have used a stronger center for those pieces to revolve around. The premise is that there’s some dark power at work in the house, and until Delia uncovers and defeats this power, it’s going to keep preying on troubled girls. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot arc, though. A lot of the book involves Delia just hanging around being ghostly and biding her time until she’s forced into action. Even the ending, where the source of the dark power is revealed, felt a little anticlimactic.

Despite my criticisms, I had a good time reading The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall. The setting alone is worth giving this book a go, and Janie and Delia’s characters simply add to the story. I recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of a scare this Halloween.

Review: The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy

The Creeping Book Cover The Creeping
Alexandra Sirowy

Eleven years ago, Stella and Jeanie disappeared. Stella came back. Jeanie never did.

Now all she wants is a summer full of cove days, friends, and her gorgeous crush—until a fresh corpse leads Stella down a path of ancient evil and secrets.

Stella believes remembering what happened to Jeanie will save her. It won’t.

She used to know better than to believe in what slinks through the shadows. Not anymore.

Review:

I find myself in a bit of a quandary – I’m not entirely sure how to review this book. The most critical thing I need to talk about is the way the ending completely changed my appreciation of the story, but I can’t truly do so without sharing major spoilers.

For the first 9/10ths of the book, I was planning to award The Creeping a single star. The plot plodded, the characters irritated me, and I wasn’t the least bit scared. Once I reached the ending, though…wow. I was completely unprepared, and that doesn’t happen often. I finally saw what Sirowy had been setting up for the entirety of the book, and she blew me away.

The storyline follows Stella Cambren, who’s something of a local celebrity in her hometown of Savage, Minnesota. At the age of 6, Stella and her best friend Jeanie disappeared from Jeanie’s front yard. Stella came back unharmed. Jeanie was never seen again.

Stella, apparently traumatized, retains no memory of what happened the day Jeanie vanished. In fact, she barely has any memories of Jeanie at all, just vague recollections of what she was like based on the stories of others. In the years following the disappearance, Stella does her best to put the past behind her and live a normal life. She does a decent job of it…at least until the body of another little girl is discovered the summer before Stella’s senior year. A little girl with hair that’s red like Jeanie’s was, and whose corpse just happens to show up on the anniversary of Jeanie’s disappearance.

This incident triggers something inside of Stella, and she begins to experience little flickers, flashing back to images of Jeanie on the day she disappeared. It’s not enough to completely restore Stella’s memory, but it is enough to freak her the hell out and inspire her to get to the bottom of the disappearance before any more people are victimized.

In order to solve the mystery, Stella is forced to rekindle her relationship with Sam Worth, her childhood sweetheart and another former companion of Jeanie’s. Together Sam and Stella struggle to piece together a picture of what really happened the day Jeanie vanished, poring over photographs from their childhood, delving into old newspaper clippings, and interviewing Jeanie’s creepy old neighbors.

The investigation leads Stella and Sam to some disturbing discoveries: animal sacrifices, tales of an ancient monster living in the Minnesota woods, unsolved cases of other little redheads disappearing from their homes. As spooky as this sounds, though, I actually wasn’t all that scared for the majority of the book. Probably because I spent most of my time either bored or annoyed. The pace is incredibly slow, which made it challenging to stay focused; I almost didn’t finish this book. The scraps of information Stella and Sam retrieve during their search for answers are so spread out, so hard to come by, that there were times it felt like nothing was happening. I suppose that’s not entirely true – there was romantic stuff developing between Stella and Sam – but I wasn’t really interested in that. Sam is great – sweet, nerdy, loyal, supportive – but he just didn’t light my fire, if you know what I mean.

Another thing that had me ready to give this book a 1-star rating was that I didn’t care much for Stella or her friends. They’re your typical high school dream team, popular and judgmental and mean. I especially loathed Stella’s best friend Zoey. I spent the entire book wanting to smack her across the face for being such a hateful, self-centered bitch. I wanted to smack Stella, too, for putting up with it and letting Zoey dictate her life.

But then…the ENDING! It changed everything for me. Though I may not have been scared for the majority of the book, I was definitely shaken up by the conclusion. The more I think back over the course of The Creeping, the more freaked out I get. Even as I write this review, all of the lights in my house are blazing, and I find myself jumping at the slightest noise.

[START SPOILER]

Caleb and Daniel turning out to be the culprits behind Jeanie’s death was FAR more terrifying than a monster ever could have been. It was totally unexpected but totally believable, which was part of the horror; looking back, everything made sense, and you could easily see how the events of that fateful day had spun out of control. One line really stood out to me and gave me chills: “Jeanie wasn’t afraid of the things that tap at your window at night. She was afraid of the boy who lived in the bedroom down the hall.” And that’s a sad truth, isn’t it? We don’t need to dream up monsters. Human beings are frightening enough on their own.

[END SPOILER]

Thank you, Alexandra Sirowy, for writing the first book in ages that has been able to catch me unaware AND scare the pants off of me. This story is going to stick with me for a long time, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be a while before I’m able to fall asleep without a nightlight again.

Review: Please Remain Calm by Courtney Summers

Please Remain Calm Book Cover Please Remain Calm
Courtney Summers

In this gripping sequel to This Is Not a Test, Rhys and Sloane are headed for a safe haven when they get separated along the way. Rhys is determined to reunite with Sloane until he discovers people who might need him more--people who offer him the closest he'll get to everything he's lost, if they can just hold on long enough.

Rhys thinks he has what it takes to survive and find the girl he lost, but in a world overrun by the dead, there are no guarantees and the next leg of his journey will test him in unimaginable ways ...

Review:

My experience with Please Remain Calm can best be described with a food analogy. Imagine that you’ve been invited to a friend’s house for dinner, a friend who just so happens to be a pastry chef. You’re super excited for the dessert at the end of the meal, because you’ve eaten your friend’s food before and know it’s amazing. Dinner finishes up, and your friend brings out dessert, and it’s…frozen yogurt.

It’s not that frozen yogurt isn’t tasty; it’s just not the triple chocolate layer cake you were anticipating. Similarly, Please Remain Calm is a perfectly acceptable story, but it isn’t another This Is Not A Test. And that left me pretty disappointed.

Here are a few of the key ways that Please Remain Calm differs from its prequel:

1) It’s a novella. Please Remain Calm is much shorter than This Is Not a Test, less than a third of the length. It’s like a teaser, just enough to take the edge off of the This Is Not a Test withdrawal. For this reason it makes me wonder whether Summers always intended to write this novella, or if Please Remain Calm is simply her attempt to appease all the readers who were clamoring for a sequel.

2) It’s narrated by Rhys, not Sloane. This is actually a positive difference. Although Sloane is a unique narrator and offers a chilling and fascinating lens through which to view the apocalypse, I was happy to get inside Rhys’ head. He was my favorite character in This Is Not A Test – I totally have the hots for him – so I liked seeing things from his point of view this time around.

3) There’s no “Breakfast Club from Hell” group. ­­One of the things I loved about This Is Not A Test was that it took six extraordinarily different teenagers, from different home lives and social classes, and trapped them in an abandoned high school together for weeks. The teens had to figure out not only how to survive the zombies, but also how to interact with one another when they had almost nothing in common. I missed this element in Please Remain Calm. Rhys does have some interactions with a married couple and their little girl in the book, but the dynamic is totally different without the teenage hormones, jealousy, panic, etc. all thrown together in the pressure cooker of the high school.

4) There’s a lot more direct contact with zombies. And it’s gross. In This Is Not A Test, the zombies were a constant presence, but they were outside of the school, clamoring to get in. They featured mostly as part of the book’s atmosphere, a heard but unseen threat. In Please Remain Calm, though, the zombies are larger-than-life, in your face, everywhere you turn. You can’t escape them. You can’t even stop for a pee break without fearing for your life. And the numerous zombie scenes aren’t just scary, they’re disgustingly descriptive. I had nightmares, and that’s not an exaggeration.

“Once you know the sounds of teeth tearing into human flesh, the wet, sloppy noise of skin and organs rolling around an infected’s mouth, of fingers with the kind of hunger driving them enough to make it possible to rip a belly open and pull all its insides out, you don’t forget it.”

Hard-core zombie fans may enjoy Please Remain Calm more than I did, but part of me wishes I never read it at all. I wanted a repeat of This Is Not A Test, and I was very much let down. I’ll probably still read the next book, if there is one – there’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending that makes me think another story will be forthcoming – but I’ll go into that reading experience with more realistic expectations.

Review: Project CAIN by Geoffrey Girard

Project CAIN Book Cover Project CAIN
Geoffrey Girard

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Jacobson had never heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous serial killer who brutally murdered seventeen people more than twenty years ago. But then Jeff discovers he was constructed in a laboratory only eight years ago, part of a top-secret government cloning experiment called Project CAIN. And scientists created him entirely from Jeffrey Dahmer’s DNA.

Jeff isn’t the only teenage serial-killer clone. Others have been genetically engineered using the DNA of the Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler, and Ted Bundy. Some clones were raised, like Jeff, in caring family environments; others within homes that mimicked the horrific early lives of the serial killers they were created from.

When the most dangerous boys are set free, the summer of killing begins. Worse, they hold a secret weapon even more deadly than the terrible evil they carry within.

Can Jeff help catch the “monsters” before becoming one himself?

Review:

My poor friends and coworkers – I’ve been making them a little uneasy. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; when previously normal, sane girls start to babble about how much they love books about Jeffrey Dahmer and serial killer clones, people tend to become alarmed.

As crazy it makes me seem, though, I can’t stop singing the praises of Project CAIN to anyone who will listen. I’ve never read anything like it before, and everything about this book, from the spectacular cover to the unique premise, captivated me.

Girard’s book is just as spellbinding as it is creepy, and that’s saying a lot. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a seemingly average teenager finding out that he’s not only capable of horrific violence, but predisposed to it. Imagine what such a revelation would do to your personal identity, how it would turn your world upside down. It’s the true question of nature versus nurture: can Jeff be his own man, or will he succumb to the pull of his DNA and become a monster, just like his genetic donor?

It’s a very peculiar experience to read a book where you’re scared of the narrator, as I was in Project CAIN. Although I sympathized with Jeff, pitying him for the shame, guilt, and self-loathing he feels, I couldn’t help but be wary of him. Knowing what his genetic donor had done and what Jeff himself was therefore likely to do made me want to keep my distance. I was nervous, waiting for Jeff to snap, like he was a ticking time bomb just waiting to be set off.

I’ve read all sorts of books about tortured young men trying to fight the monster within, but I’ve never been skittish around any of them until now. I think the difference in Project CAIN is the fact that Jeffrey Dahmer was a real person. We’re not talking about brooding werewolves or romanticized vampires but about a twisted serial killer who actually existed, murdering people in my own lifetime. Also, even though scientists have not yet succeeded in cloning human beings in the real world, it’s not inconceivable that such a thing could one day take place. We’ve already proven that it’s possible to clone sheep, dogs, and other animals, so what’s to say we won’t figure out how to do the same with people at some point? It’s a chilling thought, and if you have even the most basic idea of who Dahmer was, the thought of cloning him is enough to give you goosebumps.

As if the inherent creepiness of a book about young serial killers doesn’t provide enough tension, Jeff has a way of narrating that lends a very fatalistic, dire feel to the story. He frequently makes shocking, horrifying pronouncements, made all the more terrible by his matter-of-fact method of stating them. He is also prone to foreshadowing, giving you the sense that you’re being set up for something of grave consequence: “I suspected and feared even then that the rotting corpse was only the beginning. And that my father was involved in much, much worse things than that.” And, “Eventually, the guy with the gun found me. I suppose it was only a matter of time.”

Although I’m a huge wimp when it comes to scary stuff, I can’t deny a fascination with the macabre, which Project CAIN certainly satisfies. I was both appalled and transfixed by this story, specifically the psychological struggle that Jeff goes through after he discovers that he is a clone. There was no shortage of fodder for my greedy imagination, and I remained entranced for the entirety of the novel.

That’s not to say this book is perfect. The plot gets busy and convoluted at times, with the numerous players, government conspiracies, genetic corporations, etc. I was never entirely clear on who was hunting whom, or why. All of this overshadowed what, to me, was the more compelling aspect of the story: the question of what makes someone a monster and how much that someone’s choices factor in.

Halfway through the book, when the conspiracy theories and other craziness started to take away from the believability and dissipate the horror, I finally found the courage to Google Jeffrey Dahmer (I’d known he was a murderer, but that was it; I wasn’t aware of any specifics). I spent half an hour looking at pictures of him and reading about the things he did to each of his victims. This promptly brought the horror back to the book. I’d been wary of Jeff’s character from the beginning but hadn’t really understood precisely what his genetic donor had been responsible for. Reading about the real Jeff Dahmer’s crimes made me look at fictional Jeff in a whole new way. He was no longer the boy who was cloned from someone who, in my head, I had seen as simply a “bad man” in a vague sense of the term. Instead, he was the boy who was genetically predisposed to drugging, raping, torturing, dissecting, and even eating young boys and men. Ick…and then ick some more.

So yes, this book is will give you the heebie jeebies, and yes, it will make it hard to sleep at night. But it’s worth it. And it’s even worth the weird stares you’ll get when you can’t help but tell everyone you meet that you’re reading this really great book about serial killer clones. Trust me on this.

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Anna Dressed in Blood Book Cover Anna Dressed in Blood
Kendare Blake

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: he kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until his gruesome murder by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous dead – keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: move, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian house she used to call home.

But she, for whatever reason, spares his life.

Review:

Now that I’ve finally, at long last, tracked down a copy of Anna Dressed in Blood – I swear the library must have been hiding it from me – I’m pleased to report that it’s just as wonderful as everyone told me it would be. Anna Dressed in Blood grabbed my attention from the get-go, and I was both creeped out and entertained from beginning to end.

The fact that I was entertained, in spite of the creepiness, is a testament to Blake’s talents. Ask any of my friends or relatives, and they’ll tell you that I’m one of the biggest wimps on the planet. Even a few of the scenes in Scary Movie III gave me the heebie jeebies the first time I watched them, which is just plain pathetic. That being said, I usually don’t make it through books that deal with ghosts and spirits, unless said books are so good that I just can’t put them down.

That was the case with Anna Dressed in Blood. There are plenty of scenes that left me squirming, but I was so interested in the characters and the story that I couldn’t stop reading. I persisted while the characters crept through houses where the walls oozed blood and the inhabitants reenacted their grisly murders again and again. I made it through descriptions of people being ripped in half, eaten, dismembered, and disemboweled. It was an eerie reading experience, but it was worth every single goosebump.

Part of what makes the book so wonderful is Cas, the protagonist. Most sane people wouldn’t consider “ghost hunter” a satisfactory profession, but Cas handles the job with humor, swagger, and attitude.  Rather than considering himself burdened by the legacy that requires him to hunt the things that go bump in the night, Cas takes pride in his work. Although you get the impression that he would occasionally like to enjoy a day that doesn’t require him to stalk and re-kill the dead, he always does his job willingly and well.

What’s great about Cas is that even though he’s a competent ghost hunter, he doesn’t come across as one of those macho I’ve-seen-it-all-and-nothing-fazes-me-anymore heroes. He’s brave and handles himself much better than most people would in scary situations, but he still feels fear like anyone else. This fear humanizes Cas and makes him into a much more fascinating character than if he’d been effortlessly unafraid. If he were fearless, there’d be no hurdles for him to overcome, no meaning to the story. The fact that he’s afraid but is able to fight through his fear speaks volumes about his strength and resolve.

The main action of the book begins when a tip leads Cas to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to take on a ghost known as Anna Dressed in Blood. Cas has been battling evil spirits for most of his adolescence, but none of his extensive experience prepares him for the terrible force that is Anna. Her rage and power are unparalleled, and Cas quickly realizes his usual tactics are no match for her might. He commits himself to studying Anna, to figuring out what separates her from all of the other ghosts he’s fought, and the more time he spends with her, the more intrigued he becomes.

I don’t think it’s giving away too much to tell you that the relationship between Cas and Anna gradually evolves into something more than the two of them simply trying to kill one another. You’d think that the whole “ghost hunter falls for the ghost he’s trying to destroy” thing would be cheesy, but it isn’t, mostly because Cas and Anna’s feelings for each other are complicated. There is mutual respect and even admiration, acknowledgment of each other’s strength, but neither ever forgets that the other is a threat.

It also helps that there aren’t any grand declarations of love or any “Woe is me, I’ve fallen for the very woman I must put to death!” lamentations. Cas and Anna are both realists, not romantics. They realize their situation is unlikely to end happily ever after. As Cas wryly remarks at one point in the book, “[H]ey, at least we’ll have this strange story to tell, love and death and blood and daddy-issues. And holy crap, I am a psychiatrist’s wet dream.”

Blake’s characters and plot are fantastic, but I also have to give her credit for breaking away from YA tropes. Unlike most teenage protagonists charged with fighting the forces of evil, Cas doesn’t have to hide his calling from his mother. She’s fully aware of his unusual job, so there’s no sneaking around or coming up with lies to keep her in the dark. Another pleasant surprise is that Cas doesn’t have to work alone. He has a great support system he can rely on, including the local high school’s queen bee, who is not – hallelujah! – a stereotype. She’s popular and gorgeous, but she’s also smart and self-assured and practical, which made me all the more grateful for this fantastic book.

Overall, as disturbing as some of it was, I really liked Anna Dressed in Blood. Definitely recommended!