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Archive for the ‘Scary Stories’ Category

screaming“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.”

Ever since the Problem began (in Kent), no one goes out at night, not unless they’re armed with iron and salt to guard against spirits. For the last fifty years, nighttime is when ghostly Visitors come out to lament or avenge their untimely deaths, terrorize the living, drive down real estate assessments, etc. Because the young are particularly sensitive to paranormal energies, children and teens with psychic talents are prized as field operatives for the best ghost-investigating agencies.

Lucy Carlyle, age 15, is the newest hire at a not-so-reputable agency, Lockwood and Co., a small-time outfit run without adult supervisors by “old enough and young enough” Anthony Lockwood and his colleague George. Lockwood, proprietor, can see the residual death-glows where someone has died; Lucy can hear their voices, if she gets close enough; and George does research and cooks.

When their latest case results in not only failing to rid the premises of a ghost, but also burning the house down, Lockwood’s only chance at keeping the agency afloat is to land a really lucrative client. Say, the CEO of Fairfax Iron, owner of the most haunted private house in England, epicenter of dozens of rumored hauntings along its Screaming Staircase and in its sinister library, the Red Room. All the agents have to do is spend one night in the manor… and live.

This first book in a new series from the author of the Bartimaeus books has well-paced action and good old-fashioned swashbuckling with silver-tipped rapiers. Lockwood is dashing and cheeky, a Sherlock Holmes with two Watsons who, while inspiring his cohorts to their best work, never lets them in on his thoughts or his plan. He and Lucy and George are a camaraderie-in-the-making, if only they didn’t get on one another’s nerves quite so often.

“I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.”
“Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.”

Fast moving, witty, and nicely creepy, the series is written for a middle grade audience, but entertaining enough for any age that appreciates a good ghost story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Screaming Staircase.

You can read the first chapter online at the author’s Tumblr.

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moserAs I wrote about last year at this time, many readers first come to stories of the uncanny in their youth. In browsing the catalog for a collection of ghost stories for younger readers, I came across this delightful anthology compiled by Barry Moser. Moser is an noted artist, especially at printmaking and woodcuts, and his work graces the pages here. He also clearly has an ear for a good ghost story.

This collection starts with the chilling classic “The Monkey’s Paw.” I remember reading this story as a child and it still sends a shiver up my spine now just thinking on it. Be careful what you wish for is the theme here. Moser includes stories from classic writers, among them, Arthur Conan Doyle’s, “How it Happened,” the story of a car accident and its aftermath and the old, ghostly ballad of Polly Vaughn, retold by Moser himself. But there are more contemporary tales as well. Madeline L’Engle’s “Poor Little Saturday” is an excellent story of how a lonely boy finds some surcease of sorrow as he explores a haunted mansion. Joyce Carol Oates, known for her dark adult fiction, contributes a story here, “The Others,” that in its lack of resolution is a great addition to the ghost story canon. Also of note, and both related to music, are “Samantha and the Ghost,” by Philippa Pearce, where a young girl frees her grandparents’ cottage from a ghostly visitor and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.”

None of the stories here is overly scary (well, maybe “The Monkey’s Paw” is for me), and a couple of them are pretty mild as far as ghost stories go by modern standards. But they are fun stories to read, and perhaps to read aloud. Moser’s illustrations add an extra frisson to the general eeriness.

Check the WRL catalog for Great Ghost Stories

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nortonI have always enjoyed Brad Leithauser’s poetry. He is one of the “New Formalists,” who have advocated for the use of metrical form and structure in modern poetry, as opposed to those who favor free verse. So I thought it was interesting to come across an anthology of ghost stories edited by Leithauser.

One thing that makes this collection a bit different from the others I have written about this week is that Leithauser does not limit himself to the old masters of the genre. While Henry and M.R. James are both included, as is the delightfully named Oliver Onions, Leithauser also includes pieces from later 20th century writers, including V.S. Pritchett, A.S. Byatt, John Cheever, and Penelope Fitzgerald. In his introduction, Leithauser notes that there are two branches to the ghost story genre, and the two Jameses, conveniently, delineate each  branch. M.R is a master of what Leithauser calls the “plot ghost story” and Henry of the “psychological ghost story.” While I favor the former, Leithauser is more interested in the latter, and the collected stories here reflect that interest.

There are some deeply chilling tales here. Marghanita Laski’s “The Tower” finds a woman seeking to impress her somewhat distant husband by exploring an isolated tower in the Italian countryside, with ambiguous results. “The Axe,” by Penelope Fitzgerald starts off as a memo of a rather routine, if callous, office firing, and devolves into something much darker. Cheever’s “The Music Teacher” explores many of the same themes of Cheever’s novels, infidelity, lost love, and suburban life, but with a darkly supernatural twist.

As Leithauser says about fans of ghost stories at the end of his introduction, “In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.” These collected stories all capture that sense of unease, and keep you looking over your shoulder.

Check the WRL catalog for The Norton Book of Ghost Stories

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victorianHave I said how much I like Victorian era ghost stories? These atmospheric tales seem to me the perfect autumn reading. The Victorians, as the editors here point out, had a fascination with death, and that extended to their fascination with the afterlife. Think about Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented that exceptionally rational detective Sherlock Holmes, but who also believed in the power of mediums to connect with the dead. It comes as no surprise that some of the best ghost stories written come from this death-haunted period.

Oxford University Press is known for its exceptional anthologies, and Victorian Ghost Stories is an excellent example of their work. The collection brings together a superb assortment of authors telling chilling tales published between 1852 and 1908. Some of the well-known suspects are here, the Jameses, Henry and M.R., Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others, but there were also lots of new authors I had not encountered before. I particularly enjoyed “At Chrighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, where ghostly hunters presage a tragedy at Christmas-tide. Or there is Charlotte Riddell’s “The Open Door,” where a young man makes his fortune by risking his life in an ostensibly haunted manor house. All of these tales create an atmosphere of suspense without resorting to cheap tricks or gory details. The Victorians really were masters of the uncanny.

These would be great stories to read aloud by candle light, or better yet the light of just a fireplace. Let the shadows start to dance on the wall, listen to the creaking as the house settles and the tree branches scrape and scratch, or is that just what you think you are hearing?

Check the WRL catalog for Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology

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dahlMost readers know Roald Dahl for his wonderful, though often dark, children’s novels–Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Witches, and many others. Dahl also wrote short fiction aimed at adults. In those stories, Dahl always “aims to disturb” the reader, and, skillful writer that he is, he generally achieves his goal. So when picking stories for this collection, and horror fiction almost always works best in the short story format to my mind, Dahl sought out writers of the uncanny who could tell a tale that would leave you ill at ease. I can attest that he succeeded, at least in my case.

While there are some familiar names in this collection,  including E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton, and Sheridan Le Fanu, most of the writers here were new to me. Dahl says he read “seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories” in compiling the tales presented here, and he was “completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.” But the fourteen titles he chose are among the best ghost stories written.

From the opening story “W.S” in which a writer finds himself pursued by one of his characters to the final tale, “The Upper Berth,” involving the haunting of a cabin on board an ocean liner, these stories all will make you decidedly uncomfortable and likely to turn an extra light or two on around the house.

Dahl sought out stories that were neither violent nor graphic, but rather ones that seemed likely enough at the outset and then took a strange turn somewhere along the way. Empty rooms and loneliness seem to propel many of these tales. Often the protagonist finds him- or herself alone, perhaps at the holidays or in a new city. This alone-ness sets the stage for some supernatural encounter, though it is often only afterwards that the uncanny nature of things is revealed.

If you like M.R. James or Henry James for that matter you will find a lot to enjoy in these stories selected by a master of the macabre.

Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

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dickensEach year about this time, I try to find a set of new horror titles to look at that are eerie without being gory. The sort of book to read when evening comes early and mist hangs on the fields. My favorite scary stories come from the late Victorian period or from those modern writers who carry on that tradition.

“One winter’s evening, about five o’clock, just as it began to grow dusk . . .”

What better start to a story for a blustery autumn evening?  I was delighted this year to come across a new collection of Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural. The quote above starts his tale “The Bagman’s Story.”

I love the way that Dickens conjures up characters. His novels are filled with memorable people, often with memorable names, and his short fiction displays the same skill. Here, we meet a range of fascinating people, from Tom Smart— who finds true love and a great pub with the help of a haunted Windsor chair— to Mr. Goodchild, who hears the confession of a ghostly murderer in “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.” Many of the stories here resonate with themes that Dickens explored more fully in his novels: the miser whose lust for money poisons his life, the man who despises others’ joy and cheer until supernatural beings show him the error of his ways, and the young woman bilked of an inheritance by an cruel guardian.

More atmospheric than horrific, these stories can still bring a chill, and cause you to look over your shoulder as you climb the stairs or peer out the back door into the dark night.

Check the WRL catalog for Supernatural Short Stories

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SwampThingI have a fascination for Swamp Thing that started a few years ago when I picked up a copy of one of the volumes penned by Alan Moore (he of Watchmen fame). Swamp Thing isn’t your normal Superhero. He doesn’t fight supervillians, although he has had occasion to save the earth and humankind before. He’s a conflicted creature, no longer quite human but not fully removed from the person he once was. He is pulled between two worlds, caught between his human memories and the pull of The Green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. Swamp Thing generally keeps to his damp living space, communing with nature and trying to find a semblance of peace.

The character of Swamp Thing has been reinvented and restarted many times over the years, with admittedly varied success. When I saw that Scott Snyder was taking the helm for the new Swamp Thing series I was excited. Snyder is one of my favorite current graphic novel writers (see my review of American Vampire) and I was confident that the story would be done justice to in his hands. Rather than ignoring the past incarnations of Swamp Thing, Snyder was able to build upon the legend, keeping the past intact while carving out his own unique storyline. He is even able to pull in the character of Abigail Arcane who is typically the partner/wife of Swamp Thing and helps to ground him and keep him connected to his human past.

Swamp Thing has always been most easily classified as horror, although that seems unfair as it classifies him more by how others react to him than how he actually conducts himself. Snyder has always shown himself to be remarkably adept at this genre. He is able to build an atmosphere of eerie menace in even the most mundane scenarios but also doesn’t shy away from gore or shock. This is the first of two published volumes in the DC Comics New 52 Swamp Thing series. The third volume will be released in November.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads horror, especially graphic novels.

Search the library catalog for Swamp Thing

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OceanatendofLane

“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”

Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.

The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.

Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.

This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it.  I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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sleepTo tell the truth, no librarian should have favorite books.  There are too many out there to read, too many different circumstances under which to read them, too many ages at which to discover that a book you hated now speaks to you or one you loved falls flat.  Under theoretical laboratory conditions, though, I might have to admit that I do have favorites, and that several of them are by Stephen King.  The Stand. Salem’s Lot. Christine. The Green Mile. The Dead Zone. Night Shift.  And, of course, The Shining.  I still remember sitting by a pool in 95-degree weather and shivering as a snowstorm sealed me into the Overlook Hotel with the Torrance family and the reanimated dead.

Now King has returned to continue Danny Torrance’s story in Doctor Sleep.  (And if you haven’t read The Shining, forget this review and go get that book. Seriously.)  Of course, time has passed and Danny, now Dan, is all grown up.  But the combined burdens of his childhood, his family’s history of drinking, and his dubious gift have left him a place no reader would have wanted to see the tow-headed little boy.

Dan is a drunk.  A drifter, a brawler, sleeping with strangers who promise another high, or in a culvert if he has to choose between the price of a bottle and a bed.  A full-blown alcoholic who hits his personal bottom early in the story, he spends the course of the novel running from his shame.

The thing is, Dan still has his shine, that ability to glimpse things that were or that are or that will be.  It helps him reach in and hold the essential part of other people, and gives him extraordinary empathy.  When he can hold down a job.  But that same empathy gives him haunting visions that he cannot evade.  This time, the shine guides him to a small town in New Hampshire, where he thinks he might be able to start again.  Through the good graces of another person with just a little bit of the shine, and with the help of a hard-ass AA sponsor, Dan Torrance quits drinking.  He also goes to work at the local hospice, where he and the resident cat comfort the dying and guide them to the threshold of whatever lies beyond.

But there are other special people out there in the world, and Dan becomes a sort of unwilling fulcrum between them.  On one side is Abra, a young teenaged girl who out-shines Dan like a lighthouse outshines a flashlight; on the other, the True Knot, a band of psychic vampires who live on the pain and fear of children.  Led by the horrific Rose the Hat (and like all subcultures, the Knot has insider names and public names), the Knot travels in a caravan of campers seeking out fresh victims.  During their time off the road, they lie up in a charming Colorado campsite with a plaque that designates it as the site of the now-destroyed Overlook Hotel.  When the True Knot detects Abra’s ability, they know that they could feed on her for decades, if they can seize and control her.  Dan Torrance must pit his lesser abilities and Abra’s immature skills against Rose’s blind greed and power to save the girl and destroy the Knot.  If he can survive the place of his own fears.

Like the best of King’s fiction, Doctor Sleep excels at framing the relationships between imperfect people drawn together to face an impossibly evil power.  Sometimes those relationships are deep bonds: parent and child, teacher and student.  Sometimes they are forged in hellish fires, as Dan discovers through his AA sponsors and supporters.  And sometimes they erupt from the unlikeliest of sources to create the possibility of redemption.  Maybe that’s the real reason I shouldn’t have favorite books: too many unlikely sources, too much need for redemption, too little time to find either.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Sleep

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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

Check the WRL catalog for Lexicon

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Night of the GrizzliesHere’s the second of the books that “Bud” found lost in the stacks. Track it down today!

On the night of August 13, 1967 two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, Montana. The girls were not mauled by the same bear; the attacks took place in separate areas of the park miles away from each other. The story of this unprecedented incident ( it was the first time in Glacier’s history that anyone had died by bear attack) is related in the terrific, nonfiction book,  Night of the Grizzlies  by Jack Olsen.

The story starts in the early summer months of 1967 with a series of unsettling run-ins between bears and campers. One grizzly in particular was behaving aggressively towards people, and the bears in general seemed to be losing their fear of humans. The Park Service was not overly concerned with the situation because, after all, no one had ever been killed by a bear in Glacier National Park. In fact, they inadvertently increased the interaction between people and animals by not incinerating all of the garbage that accumulated around the camp sites. At night the bears came to feed off the trash and the campers loved to watch them. Unfortunately, this complacency would lead to disaster on that hot night in August.  The attacks and subsequent hunt for the man-eaters are related in fast-paced, gripping detail.

The story itself is compelling and the author, Jack Olsen, who primarily wrote about true-crime, has a knack for pacing and suspense. The tension just builds and builds to the point where  (yes, I’m going to use the old cliché) you can’t put the book down.  It’s a thrilling read. The attacks are described in all their gruesome detail but the gore is not emphasized. In fact, you come away with a sense of sadness and compassion for both man and animal.

In addition, to the book, the WRL also has a documentary about the bear attacks entitled, Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies created by the Montana PBS.  It’s an interesting follow-up to the book because you get to hear from many of the people involved in the incident and see the actual locations.  Particularly poignant are the Polaroid snapshots taken of the girls the day they died. Both book and documentary are highly recommended with a caveat. If you read it before going on a camping trip in the woods, you’re not going to sleep well.

NOTE:  This story was originally published as a three part article for Sports Illustrated in 1969.  When it was redrafted as a book a 37 page prologue was added that details the history of Glacier National Park and provides some natural history information about Grizzly bears. It’s interesting but not required reading. Starting with Chapter One will get you right into the story.

Check the WRL catalog for Night of the Grizzlies

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injusticeSo a businessman and his son go into a downtown Miami hotel suite to meet with a potential client who might help boost their meager income. Instead, a man with whom they have a dispute steps out, shoots the father in the knee, drags the son up some stairs, then shoots him execution-style. The father escapes, gets out the door, and bangs on the door across the hall, leaving blood in the hall, but the import-export businessman in that room doesn’t hear a thing, including the shots that then kill the father. Neville Butler, who has been held hostage in the room since before the father and son arrived, is then released.

Following Butler’s call to the police, British businessman Krishna Maharaj is detained. After waiving his Miranda rights, he makes inconsistent statements to the investigators, who hold him long enough to discover that his fingerprints are in the hotel room, and Maharaj is arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the executions of Dwight and Duane Moo Young, former associates and now rivals for Maharaj’s Caribbean newspaper. The case goes to trial. Maharaj, a flamboyant millionaire, hires the lowest bidder, Mark Hendon, as his attorney. The trial proceeds in a swift and orderly manner, except that the presiding judge is replaced after three days of testimony. Based on fingerprint evidence, a ballistics expert’s identification of Maharaj’s gun, and Neville Butler’s testimony, Maharaj is given life in prison for Dwight’s murder, and the death sentence for Duane’s.

After several years, the case comes to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney specializing in capital cases. On his own, taking time away from his fledgling non-profit practice focusing on Louisiana death penalty cases, Smith begins reviewing the case, and this open-and-shut case turns out to have been far more complex than the trial transcript would indicate. His early investigation turns up boxes of evidence and interview materials that hadn’t been made available to the defense, prosecutors’ notes indicating that they instructed the detectives and their chief witness how to perjure themselves, and witnesses that prove that Maharaj wasn’t even in Miami at the time of the killings. Some of his basic rights—over and above their violation of his Miranda rights—were not explained to him or put into practice. Forensic evidence was questionable, but Maharaj’s trial attorney didn’t cross-examine, and even rested without calling a single witness. Confident that the reams of documentary evidence show that Maharaj did not receive a fair trial and that his counsel was (to put it mildly) incompetent, Smith heads into the appeals process.

But door after legal door is slammed in Maharaj’s face. The appeals courts won’t consider new evidence—it wasn’t presented in a timely manner and appellate courts don’t try the facts of the case. Each attempt to reopen the case takes months, if not years, to litigate, partially because a prosecutor won’t accept plentiful evidence that her colleagues convicted an innocent man. When he’s finally granted a new trial, Smith can’t introduce all the new evidence and Maharaj is again found guilty. But because the jury doesn’t prescribe the death penalty, Maharaj’s future opportunities for appeal are severely limited—capital cases usually get at least a cursory glance. Based on all the trials and appeals that go before, Maharaj’s last chance—a reprieve from Florida Governor Charlie Crist—is denied.

Unfortunately, as Smith details, Maharaj’s case is only one example of the miscarriage of justice that capital crimes nearly always involve. From personal experience and well-documented cases, Smith demonstrates that each individual misstep in the justice system that Maharaj experienced is echoed across the country, even in non-capital cases. Part of it is the culture, and he shows that from the patrol officer to the US Supreme Court, the fundamental conservatism of the law is geared towards convictions, not justice or even truth. The real poverty of this view is that convicting the innocent allows the guilty to go unpunished.

Smith’s writing is urgent, and his construction of the story maximizes both the drama and the documentation of his fundamental thesis. As he breaks the case down, the depth of the law enforcement and judicial errors becomes appallingly clear. The parallels he establishes between Maharaj’s case and convictions across the country point to the idea that the American justice system has reversed its supposed ideal. At the same time, his admiration for Maharaj (which is echoed by everyone from business associates to prison guards) as a man shines through. Even after being in prison since 1987—including 10 years on Death Row—Maharaj remains kind, gentle, and positive.

This is a timely book. States have begun to revisit their commitments to the death penalty after subsequent investigations and trials have freed other innocent people from Death Row. It is increasingly likely that people known to be innocent were executed anyway. If someone heeds Clive Stafford Smith’s plea to come forward and exonerate Krishna Maharaj, it would be a miracle; if others use his case to strengthen their calls for an end to the death penalty, it would be a huge step to ending the gaping flaws in our (in)justice system.

Check the WRL catalog for The Injustice System

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Hot CoffeeEveryone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.

It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)

As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.

The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!

Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.

The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.

Check the WRL catalog for Hot Coffee.

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The books featured so far in this week’s posts may make you feel a bit uneasy, but it is a sort of comfortable scariness that they offer. Today’s title is quite the opposite. Shirley Jackson is a master of the macabre, and her short story “The Lottery” is still disturbing many years after I read it (probably in 8th or 9th grade). Just thinking about the story sends shivers up my spine and leaves me feeling slightly queasy.

What makes Jackson’s work disturbing, but also compelling, is her ability to move swiftly and easily from a pleasant scene of domestic or community bliss to outright horror. Her work explores the dark heart that Jackson seems to feel lies at the center of our most cherished institutions—family, community, love. These are frightening stories, especially as they usually are peopled by folks not too different from you and me. The horror of the tales is sometimes leavened by a dark strand of humor, but not too much. These are fascinatingly grim explorations of the human psyche.

While “The Lottery” is the story that I find most chilling in this collection, and the one that created a stir when it was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, there are other stories equally unsettling. “The Demon Lover,” “The Witch,” and “Trial by Combat” all will leave you wondering what is really going on in the lives of the characters.

These are not stories I go back to often, but sometimes, when you are in the mood to be discomfited, Shirley Jackson is just the writer to do it.

Check the WRL catalog for The Lottery and Other Stories

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Steampunk is a growing sub-genre of science fiction that combines a fascination with technology and scientific innovation with, usually, a late 19th-century setting.  As science fiction generally does, Steampunk explores the “what ifs”  of innovations and their effects on society. In Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, seventeen contemporary authors offer stories that share a fascination with scientific exploration, occult books, lonesome graves, and tormented spirits. All of these stories have the feel and tone of the wonderfully creepy ghost tales of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

As in any collection of stories, each reader will find his or her own favorites. I found “Music, when soft voices die” by Peter S. Beagle particularly chilling. Beagle tells the tale of a medical student whose experiments in electric generation go terribly awry, leaving him haunted by a voice of infinite sorrow. As in all of Beagle’s writing, the characters leap off the page and into your heart and mind.

Another fascinating tale is “The curious case of the moondawn daffodils murder” by Garth Nix, a superb writer of eerie fiction. Here, a second cousin of Sherlock Holmes arrives at a police station to help solve a murder, attended by his “keeper.” Sir Magnus Holmes (an echo perhaps of M. R. James’s Count Magnus?) is currently an inmate of an insane asylum, though allowed out if accompanied. The story involves dark spells, enchanted objects, and a mysterious society bent on evil. The ending here is dark and almost Lovecraft-ian.

Two stories, “Why I was hanged” and “The jade woman of the luminous star” demonstrate the dangers of becoming involved in the spirit world, as both protagonists end up accused of murder (which may or may not be the case). Other tales involve grave-robbing in Egypt with dire results, revenants haunting the scene of their transgressions, and an ill-thought-out attempt at creating an army of golems.  All of the stories create a strong feeling of unease without ever being explicitly gory or visceral. The horror here is psychological. Of particular interest is a short essay by the author after each story that gives its origins and sheds some light on the tale.

M. R. James and LeFanu would be delighted with this collection.

Check the WRL catalog for Ghosts by Gaslight

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While most readers think of Louisa May Alcott as the writer of classic family stories such as Little Women and Little Men, she had a darker side that appeared under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These stories were Gothic thrillers that explore madness, revenge, and jealous passion. As is to be expected, they helped pay the bills, though Alcott did not acknowledge the stories as her own till the end of her life.

I have to confess to having only read bits and pieces of Little Women, so I did not really have a preconceived notion of her style or really any expectations about the book. I came away, though, with the thought that Alcott can certainly tell a story that draws you in and does not let you get away. These are not fast-paced thrillers, filled with gore and action. Rather, they are psychological studies of good and evil and particularly of the way that evil intent is often shrouded in a seemingly pleasant countenance.

This collection starts with “The Modern Mephistopheles,” which tells the story of a young writer desperate to be published (desperation is always a bad sign in these sorts of stories). Who should appear at the door but Mr. Helwyze (hmm, no foreshadowing there!), offering a deal. Book deals, broken hearts, and tragic romances ensue, all with an air of the supernatural.

Then there is “The Abbot’s Ghost,” another Christmas tale of hauntings. Here, an ancient family curse, wandering spectral monks, and a vast inheritance form the plot for a chilling narrative.

In all of these stories, Alcott deftly mixes romance, thrills, and generally at least a hint of the uncanny. Whether you have never read Alcott before or you know her only as a writer of children’s tales, these powerful explorations of the human heart will surprise and delight.

Check the WRL catalog for A Whisper in the Dark

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I am, as my colleagues and friends know, an avid reader of mysteries, especially older books from the Golden Age of crime fiction. I also am fond of the eerie ghost stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I also am, of late, very involved with the library’s digital collections. All of these interests came together when I discovered in our ebook collection a crime novel by John Dickson Carr that has not only a fine mystery story, but also a pervading sense of the supernatural that creates a sense of unease throughout the tale.

Publishing executive Edward Stevens is on the train to his weekend cottage outside Philadelphia from the office in New York City when he begins looking over a new manuscript about infamous women criminals. He is disturbed to discover that one of them shares not only his wife’s name, but also apparently must be a distant relative, as he recognizes a piece of jewelry in the accompanying photo of the murderess. The sense that something is seriously wrong grows as Stevens is asked by a friend to look into the recent death of a relative that may or may not be murder. Suffice it to say that it is indeed murder, but there does not seem to be a body to be found in the coffin, and Stevens’s wife seems to hiding some dark secrets from her past. The ending and the epilogue only add to the unusual nature of the story.

Carr is a master of character, and all of his crime novels are worth looking into. But if you are seeking a story that will make you look around on a dark autumn night to make sure you are actually alone in the room, The Burning Court is a great one to try.

This one is only available as an ebook right now, so get out your iPad, NOOK, Kindle or other reader and settle in to enjoy an evening of mystery and chills.

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This week’s posts all have some element of the supernatural that make the reader feel increasingly ill at ease and encourage one to keep checking behind the curtains and making sure the windows are actually locked—just the sort of titles to read on a rainy night in October, when the dark comes early and the wind is in the trees.

I suspect that for many of us, our first encounter with tales of the supernatural came through short story collections, perhaps in school or taken from a shelf in the library. I remember coming across this collection of superbly eerie fiction for young readers in a house that my grandparents rented for vacation down in Tall Timbers, Maryland. The house was surrounded by towering pines on the Potomac River, and as I recall in my mind, it was darkly paneled and made an excellent spot to read spooky stories.

Here, Hitchcock has collected some fun tales to introduce a younger reader to the delightful pleasures of scary stories. There are two classic thrilling tales—Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” and Mark Twain’s “The Treasure in the Cave” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). But even better in some ways are the other stories featuring lost treasure (“The Forgotten Island”), vengeful spirits (“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”), and playful ghosts (“Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons”). Except for the Sherlock Holmes piece, all the stories feature young boys and girls as the protagonists, and the settings range from small towns that all seem to have a haunted house nearby to a decidedly eerie summer spot in Maine.

None of the tales is overly scary, and some would be considered pretty mild by today’s standards, but for a younger reader, these stories might be just the thing to read under the bedcovers on a cool fall night.

Check the WRL catalog for Haunted Houseful

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