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.
When the Haskins family moves halfway across the country from their previous lives in Columbus, Ohio, no one would’ve expected the dramatic changes that accompanied their move into the new home. It begins almost immediately, as little things change and strange messages appear, but it gets weirder from there. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly surreal and unsettling, it’s the strained and peculiar relationship dynamics within the Haskins family that accelerate everything. The odd occurrences grow more sinister as the story progresses. In large part, thanks to Damien’s need to torment his mother out of bitterness that she’s always suspected him of being a monster. Hal’s thinking his wife’s losing her mind doesn’t help, either. Sabrina is not a particularly bright woman–in addition to being both scatterbrained and indecisive–but the bizarre apparitions and wish-fulfillment manifestations are not symptoms of insanity. Unfortunately, it’ll probably be too late by the time the rest of the family figures that out. Asman has crafted a wholly unique haunted house story, turning the whole thing on its head and steering readers toward a climax no sane reader would see coming. It’s both amusing and perplexing along the way, and–as one should expect from Asman–the characters are so thoroughly captivating that they draw the reader in just as effectively as the narrative itself. If you want to avoid spoilers, you should probably stop here because I can’t avoid saying things that will ruin some of the surprises. This is indeed a haunted house story–in a whole different sense. A house that’s haunted by the neglect and mistreatment of its former resident in the same way a person can be haunted by their earlier life experiences. Much like a person troubled by trauma, the house seems to go a bit overboard, overcompensating when it thinks it might have found someone who can love it for what it is. With a single-minded, short-sighted fixation on Sabrina and her well-being, the house itself might be acting with questionable judgment. That questionable judgment becomes readily apparent as the house uproots itself and storms through town like the most unlikely kaiju ever, heedless of the damage it causes along the way. The moral of the story is that houses need love too.
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.