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Spooky Halloween Reads

November 8, 2010

Some treats for your Halloween weekend

By Elizabeth Willse for the Star-Ledger 10/31/2010

Haunted Legends
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas
Tor, 352 pp., $25.99

The spectral hitchhiker. A portentous black dog. Drafty haunted houses.

Reinventing frights you thought you knew, and drawing from other cultures, this is a first-rate anthology.

“That Girl” by Kaaron Warren and Pat Cadigan’s “Highway To Hull” take freshly foreboding looks at the hitchhiking ghost. Kit Reed’s “Akbar” traps a suffocating marriage in a haunted town. Bizarrely, “For Those in Peril on the Sea,” by Stephen Dedman, sets a reality show aboard a haunted ship. “The Foxes,” a gruesome tale by Lily Hoang, draws on Vietnamese legends.

The nuances make the chills more potent. Both John Mantooth’s “Shoebox Train Wreck” and “La Llorona,” by Carolyn Turgeon, evoke a survivor’s grief. A creepy tale becomes an incisive modern allegory in “Following Double-Face Woman,” by Erzebet YellowBoy.

Curl up with this collection of treats for what promises to be a deliciously spooky night.
Dracula in Love
Karen Essex
Doubleday, 384 pp., $25.95

Using the familiar characters and places of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Karen Essex creates an intensely erotic story of romance and obsession. Mina is the uptight governess of a proper girls’ school, rigidly guarding a secret of sleepwalking and terrifyingly sensual dreams. The dreams and obsessions that plague Mina and Lucy make the men in their lives fear for the women’s sanity. Essex adds depth to Stoker’s original by fleshing out Lucy and Mina attentively, letting them have desires and histories. Dracula looks more like a star-crossed lover than a monster, promising Mina eternal love and luxury if she leaves behind Harker and her ordinary life. Descriptions of the asylum treatments intended to save her are far scarier than Dracula at his most shadowy.

Essex may be working with a larger agenda, using Dracula’s characters to comment on Victorian and modern women. But the writing is so vivid — lusciously sexy and outrageously chilling by turns — that the excellent story comes into its own.

Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker
Camille DeAngelis
Crown, 336 pp., $24

Camille DeAngelis blends historical fiction, romance, delightful whimsy and biting humor into a fantastically fun read. Evelyn Harbinger isn’t ready to act her age. Fortunately, a witch of 149 years has other options. With a little oomph of magic, she can become her younger self and have a flirtatious night out. When she meets Justin, he reminds her so much of a former lover and fellow spy from World War II that her deceptions to woo him in her younger disguise get increasingly elaborate.

Past and present romance story lines are outstanding. The witches’ world has engaging whimsical touches — ancestors giving meddling advice through puppets, a cake that automatically becomes your favorite flavor when you take a bite. Although the arc of Evelyn’s romance feels too complete to need a sequel, it would be terrific to see DeAngelis write more in this setting, because the adventure and magic are such fun.
Frankenstein’s Monster
Susan Heyboer O’Keefe
Three Rivers Press, 352 pages, $15 paperback

Picking up at the end of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” “Frankenstein’s Monster” continues the story of the monster after his creator’s death. A lonely sea captain, purely by the accident of hearing Victor Frankenstein’s deathbed vow, takes on the mission to destroy the misshapen creation.

The sea captain and the monster pursue one another through Venice, across frozen wastelands, the desolate Orkney islands and a Northumbrian coal mine. Telling the story largely in letters and the monster’s diary entries, Heyboer O’Keefe captures the language and Gothic atmosphere of Shelley’s original, even against new backgrounds like opulently decaying Venice. Read this if “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is one of your favorites; on its own, it may owe too much to its origins. While Heyboer O’Keefe adds some insight to the monster’s rage and desire to understand itself, the plot is a little too meandering to justify standing alone.
The Season of Risks
Susan Hubbard
Simon & Schuster, 290 pp., $14 paperback

If you haven’t read the previous volumes (“The Society of S” and “The Year of Disappearances”), Susan Hubbard gives you enough background to get accustomed to her take on vampires and enjoy this story.

Drinking synthetic blood, eating normal food and able to withstand sunlight for short periods, vampires are part — if an uneasy part — of everyday society. Ariella Montero attends college and navigates ordinary teen questions. Vampire politics add complications, menacing characters and mystery. Hubbard’s take on vampires is well-executed and has several unusual elements sure to appeal to fans of Sookie Stackhouse from “Dead Until Dark” (or its TV adaptation, “True Blood”).

While vampire caste feuds aren’t a new idea, grounding them in more everyday politics and technology works well. The story line about Ari’s love interest, Neil Cameron, running for political office openly as a vampire works particularly well.

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