Scott Kenemore’s The Grand Hotel takes us on a tour that leads us from one tragic tale of horror to another, each with its nuanced cast of characters and captivating narrative. As the sinister desk clerk guides the tour group through the halls of the hotel, he also nudges us from one long-term guest’s fantastic and unbelievable story to another. Reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt, if the Cryptkeeper were more somber and the crypt was a massive antiquated hotel, there’s a hidden truth embedded within each new story. When the tour group finds their way into the seemingly abandoned hotel, they’re shocked to be greeted by a peculiar and chilling night clerk welcoming them to The Grand Hotel. More shocking is the tour of the ancient building, the introduction to various residents and employees, and the stories he prompts them to share with the unwitting guests. Kenemore’s gradual revelation of the truth behind the hotel and its temperamental host is delivered smoothly, without coming across as forced or spoon-fed to the reader. Each of the individual tales incorporated into the overall narrative is distinctly voiced and unique from the others, making it feel all the more authentic. With the tour group, we get to experience tales of police detectives tormented by a haunted house, the tragic first manned mission to Mars, a naive dance student’s first experience with love and betrayal, and so much more. Christian Rummel’s narration perfectly suits the voice of our host while also conveying the necessary separation for the other characters in the book. Upon completion, I’m not sure I could imagine a different voice for Vic.
Duncan Ralston’s Ghostland seamlessly blends elements of 13 Ghosts (or the more high-tech remake, Thirteen Ghosts), Jurassic Park, and The Matrix into a thrill ride of a story. Thankfully, it’s marginally less exciting than the Ghostland attraction itself. Otherwise, Ralston would be responsible for a lot of carnage. Something Ben Laramie catches a glimpse of when he witnesses his favorite author’s house inexplicably transported through town is enough to stop the young boy’s heart. It can’t possibly be Rex Garrote standing in the window and seemingly staring back at him because Rex Garrote has been dead longer than Ben’s been alive. But as the world will learn over the following years, death isn’t quite the conclusion most people believe. On the opening day of the Ghostland theme park, Ben manages to recruit his former best friend Lillian and her therapist to join him as he enters the park on a mission they know nothing of. Since his heart attack, Ben has set his sights on one objective, and it’s one he’s willing to sacrifice himself to accomplish. What starts as a coming-of-age reflection on mortality rapidly transforms into a harrowing and violent struggle for survival amid the exploration of the most haunted places in the world all in one place. Ralston paces everything perfectly, never wasting a beat as he drags us along with Ben and Lillian through a gauntlet that only the luckiest can hope to escape. As he leads us to a conclusion that is both satisfying and open-ended for the sequels, the author displays keen storytelling instincts that should impress anyone daring enough to enter Ghostland. Joe Hempel is always a thoroughly competent and capable narrator, and his performance for the Ghostland audiobook is no exception.
Christopher Buehlman’s Between Two Fires transports readers to the region now known as France during the peak of the Black Death. The world was ending. Sickness had emptied whole villages, leaving nothing behind but decaying remnants and ghosts that haunted the vacant homes. The survivors, few and far between, were living through horrors no one had ever seen. Amid this nightmare of disease and human predation, a war unlike any witnessed on Earth was taking place. This tableau of terror, both human and spiritual, is the world Buehlman brings to life. When Thomas, a crude and disgraced knight, takes it upon himself to shelter and protect a young girl–who knows things she should not know and sees things others cannot see–he knows he’s set himself on a path that might end in tragedy. But nothing can prepare him for the madness and cruelty awaiting them on their journey to Avignon. The boundaries of reality are repeatedly blurred throughout the narrative, forcing the reader to question–as Thomas does–whether he’s awake or dreaming. The dead haunt the living, tormenting them with cruel assertions and distorted recollections of the past. Ghosts appear and disappear, leaving us to wonder which of these apparitions are truly beyond the veil, and which are drawn from the memories of Thomas and the weary priest who joins him on his quest. Will the trio arrive where they intend, or will the gates of Hell await them instead. Is there a difference? Steve West narrated this audiobook almost perfectly. The delivery of dialogue and narrative components were both handled with great attention to detail. The narration was almost as gripping as the story itself.
Christopher Golden has crafted a haunting tale about a treacherous stretch of Siberian roadway haunted by a gruesome and tragic past and perhaps haunted by altogether too present entities as well. It’s precisely this history of cruelty and careless disregard for human life, and the potential for something more, that inspired documentary filmmaker, Felix Teigland to drag his reluctant cameraman, John Prentiss, to this desolate arctic wasteland in the middle of winter. Ostensibly hoping to tell the story of the people who live along the titular Road of Bones, Teig and Prentiss intend to follow the Kolyma Highway to its frigid terminus with the assistance of a local guide. Myth and superstition soon become more than passing curiosities, as the group’s survival depends on understanding the strange and terrifying forces that stalk them through the dark Siberian night. With temperatures that would kill them in mere minutes, a treacherous road of unforgiving ice and snow, and inconceivable shadowy beasts hunting them, the odds are high that none of them will make it through this journey alive. Road of Bones is a chilling title that creeps into the bones of the reader/listener as effectively as the cold Siberian night. Golden challenges the reader to further investigate the Kolyma Highway. He dares the reader to delve into the horrific history of its manufacture with the tantalizing glimpses provided through the proxy of Teig and the other characters. The true story only serves to reinforce the unsettling sense of wrongness already building in the back of the reader’s mind. Robert Fass provides spectacular narration that fully captures the accents and attitudes of the characters he brings to life within the narrative.
Concerned that their neighborhood might be going downhill, Julian and Claire Perry decide to look at some available properties in their small town of Jardine, New Mexico. Drawn to a house in the historic district near downtown, they’ll soon discover that some neighborhoods are worse than others, and some homes can be worse than they’d ever imagined. Bentley Little is a master of the haunted house story, somehow managing never to retread his other material, keeping the tales fresh and filled with new horrors each time. The Haunted is no exception. The Haunted isn’t a story of gradually building unease and uncertainty, as we encounter from many tales of haunted houses. As with most hauntings, it begins with the children, but it isn’t long before everyone in the family recognizes the danger in their home on Rainey Street. It soon becomes clear that everyone in the neighborhood knows what the Perry family will discover. There is no subtlety to the monstrous presence lurking in the Perry family’s new home, and its reach is greater than any of them could have known. As is often the case with Little’s writing, there’s a massive history he’s built up leading to the events of the novel itself, and he provides readers with tantalizing glimpses of the detailed past as the story approaches its climax. The presence in their home is no mere ghost, and the house is only the most recent structure built on that place. Dan Butler’s narration is excellent, leaving nothing to be desired. The best narrators do one of two things, they either bring the story and its characters to life, or they manage to make the listener feel almost as though they’re reading the book themselves. Butler is of the latter variety, and one of the better narrators I’ve come across in that respect.
Janine Pipe delivers a diverse assortment of stories with Twisted: Tainted Tales, the only theme being that the bulk of the action takes place in the 1980s. This collection, framed as being stories from a missing author, as discovered by a woman tasked with sifting through the missing person’s household for anything of value, is packed full of nostalgia for those of us who recall the era. Unlike some nostalgia-heavy writing I’ve read recently, Pipe doesn’t lean on the nostalgia to do the heavy lifting and instead keeps the focus on her largely spectacular storytelling and captivating set pieces. Each of the stories contained within Twisted: Tainted Tales has been titled (or retitled) with that of a song from the music released in the 1980s. This is done with the explanation that there’s a mixtape accompanying the discovered manuscripts. The collection starts strong with Footsteps, a story of three women venturing into a section of wilderness where something sinister and bloodthirsty might be waiting for anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon its hunting grounds. When Doves Cry is a period piece about a woman accepting the kindness of a stranger on a cold night from a man seeking the right woman to fulfill his peculiar needs. The third inclusion, I Want To Break Free, subverts our expectations as we experience the same event from a captured victim and her captor. But which one is the monster? Maneater introduces us to two detectives investigating a series of exsanguinated victims. The nature of the crimes themselves is perhaps less startling than the perpetrator when one of the detectives discovers the monster behind the killings. A night at the club turns into a bloody, violent act of intimacy in Addicted To Love. Sweet Child Of Mine delves into the topic of imaginary friends and the potential consequences if those friends aren’t as fanciful as we suppose. Tainted Love recounts a narrative of obsession, as an infatuation transforms into something far more unsettling, culminating in brutal violence and skilled craftsmanship. With Lost In the Shadows, we’re introduced to a town plagued by a rash of missing children, and a sinister discovery at the local drive-in theater. It’s a Sin is a ghost story about friendship, child abuse, and overprotective parents that ends unhappily. The post-apocalyptic tale, Love Is a Battlefield, acquaints us with a society where the rich and powerful have been stripped of their privilege. We follow one of the former upper crust as she believes she’ll be forced to face death as entertainment for those now in control. Running With the Devil is a story of urban legends and ghost stories, and the profoundly negative impact those things might have if we discover them to be true. Boys being gross, led by adolescent hormones, and burgeoning sexual discovery is the topic of Paradise City. Of course, things take an awful turn that is sure to make every man cringe. School’s Out Forever resonated well with me as someone who routinely ventured into condemned and abandoned buildings. A couple of friends decide to trespass in a haunted school where atrocities once took place, hoping to find the place haunted but ultimately terrified by what they discover. Two brothers on a camping trip with their father discover that a mother’s love transcends death, in Living On a Prayer, especially when there’s an ancient burial ground nearby and revenge to be taken. The fifteenth track, Thriller, delves into the fact that the topic of urban legends and ghost stories again, exploring the haunted houses we’re all sure exist within our hometowns as we’re growing up. Nobody’s Fool explores the possibility that one young boy’s night terrors might be rooted in something other than an overactive imagination and that there might be an important message embedded in the unconscious horror that he experiences. Stephen King’s not the only one who can tell a tale about the convergence of coming of age and sewer drains. Janine Pipe concludes her collection by introducing us to a different sort of monster that might be lurking in the storm drains the most daring children explore when there’s pride and a kiss on the line. The closest thing I have to a complaint is that I’d have preferred the author’s notes compiled at the end of the book rather than at the end of each story. It was more jarring, having those notes breaking up the framing story of discovered manuscripts rather than placing them at the end of the collection. I’m a fan of the author’s notes being included, so I’m pleased that Pipe included them, but I feel like they could’ve been in a better location.
The Grind House continues the descent into madness that is Pike’s Diablo Snuff series of books. If you’ve read A Foreign Evil and Passion & Pain, you’ll have some idea what to expect while still finding yourself surprised around every twist and turn captured by the author’s impressive imagination. While the previous two installments focused heavily on monstrous cruelty and torture inflicted by agents of the malevolent organization known as Diablo Snuff, this book leans heavily on things that can’t be perceived as anything other than the supernatural. The visions of demonic entities–post-climax–in A Foreign Evil could easily be dismissed as little more than the feverish hallucinations of a man who went through hell. It’s far more challenging to similarly write off shared visions of inhuman horrors and other aspects of the tale unfolding within The Grind House. Of course, we all knew these things were real–in the context of the story–but it hits home much harder in this book than the previous immersions into the world of Diablo Snuff. Fans of the previous two stories in the Diablo Snuff series will be happy to encounter some familiar characters at different points in this novel. I know I certainly was. In this book, as in the previous two, Pike’s history as a writer of dark romance and erotica comes to the forefront in a big way, weaving together heavily eroticized encounters with sheer, unrelenting lunacy. It takes a certain undefined skill to seamlessly blend graphic, sensual intimacy with a bewildering, undercurrent of horror, but it’s a skill Pike has in spades. It’s The Shining on MDMA. If Shirley Jackson had channeled Marquis de Sade when writing The Haunting, we might be coming close to what you’ll find within these pages. This isn’t necessarily to suggest The Grind House is a haunted house tale, but in a sense, it most certainly is. If a place can absorb the evil of those within its walls–or beneath its foundations, The Grand Georgina most certainly has. Tobias (T.K. Tantrum) is in for far more than he or his assistant anticipated when he was signed up to attend the writers retreat at The Grand Georgina. He hoped to write the masterpiece that had eluded him so far in his modestly successful career, but he finds himself drawn into real-life peril that rivals anything he could have written. As the abominations of both past and present are revealed, the insidious trap Tobias finds himself within may be something from which even madness provides no escape. As prurience gives way to panic, it may already be too late for any to escape the clutches of Diablo Snuff.