Halloween Book Review: The Black Cat

‘The fury of a demon instantly possessed me.’

‘The Black Cat’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer famous for his Gothic stories and poems.

‘The Black Cat’ is told from the first-person perspective of a man who adores animals. Subsequently, he and his wife own many pets – including a black cat, his favourite animal. However, once the narrator becomes drunk, he begins to behave increasingly violently towards his wife and pets, with uncontrollable intentions. The narrator is then haunted by the realisation of what he has done…

The key themes of ‘The Black Cat’ are insane and unreliable characters, the dangerous consequences of heavy drinking, and the burden of a guilty conscience.

I really liked ‘The Black Cat’. It was a quick read (as short stories tend to be) and well-written, containing all the traditional conventions of a Gothic ghost story.

As a fan of the Gothic genre, and contemporary horror writers like Stephen King, who was himself inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, I can’t believe I haven’t read any of his short stories until now.

I strongly recommend ‘The Black Cat’ for any fans of the Gothic, horror, or paranormal genres – perfect for reading in the run-up to Halloween.


Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American novel of pseudo-historical fiction about Hester Prynne and her illegitimate daughter Pearl. Following Hester’s extramarital affair while her husband is overseas, she gives birth to a child, and is condemned to wear a scarlet A stitched upon her clothing as a sign of her sin.

According to my research, Nathaniel Hawthorne, read extensively about Puritan history – that much is evident by religious language and references – and may have based his novel on the story of Mary Bailey Beadle, a live-in housekeeper for a minister. Gossip spread about them living together, and the pair were fined.

The Scarlet Letter begins with an introduction and preface; I skipped both. I don’t think I missed much.

It becomes quickly becomes apparent the message Hawthorne is either satirising or endorsing: women who have extramarital relationships are fallen and they alone are responsible for the sin. I suppose the phrase ‘It takes two to tango’ hadn’t yet come into usage by 1850.

My reading of The Scarlet Letter is that Hawthorne intended to mock Puritan society. There’s just too much irony for this not to be a satirical work:

  • It’s ironic that the townspeople who judge Hester for her sinfulness for being sexually deviant mark this judgement plain by staring … at Hester’s bosom, where the scarlet letter just so happens to have been stitched.
  • It’s ironic that Pearl’s father refuses to admit his paternity, so as not to besmirch his reputation, yet is on the committee of people querying whether Hester is a fit mother, wondering whether to remove Pearl from her care.
  • It’s ironic that over the course of the novel, Hester lives a quiet, penitent life whilst Pearl’s father becomes overcome by his guilt and shame.

It was sad that there was so much hatred and judgement for Hester – especially as this was all passed on to little Pearl too, who has done nothing wrong except, in the eyes of the townspeople, be born.

I really liked the supernatural elements of the book. I love anything with Gothic or horror undertones, and Pearl is often suspected of being an elf or demon by the townspeople because of her wilder, unruly nature; she wasn’t conceived within a Puritan marriage, you see, so of course she can’t be well-behaved.

I liked the Gothic descriptions of Hester and Pearl, and the way in which Pearl’s father is suspected of black magic or a supernatural illness due to his deterioration in physical and mental health. Of course, his decline in health is really caused by his guilt at witnessing Hester take all the blame upon herself.

The Scarlet Letter was a short book to read, but for me, it began to drag 2/3 of the way in. There doesn’t seem to be much action; the focus is largely on Hester trying to move on with her life, Pearl’s father wrestling with shame, and the “revenge” plot of Hester’s husband which, in my opinion, wasn’t an exciting subplot at all.

It wasn’t as sensational as I thought it was going to be – although perhaps for the time it was.

However, the final chapter was an exciting ending; all secrets were revealed, and characters were confronted with their wrongdoings.

Did everyone face justice? Well, you’ll have to read it and find out.

– Judith

Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories By Women

I bought this collection, edited by Marie O’Regan, a short while ago and I’m glad I did. I liked that the book celebrated the talents of female authors. I’ve read some great horrors and thrillers in the past written by women, and this book introduced me to new writers I hadn’t come across before. However, I found The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories By Women (it’s a bit of a mouthful) a mixed bag; some of the stories were good, others were not so good.

Image result for the mammoth book of ghost stories by women

For this blog post, I am going to challenge myself to review 25 stories in 25 words each.

1. Field of the Dead by Kim Lakin-Smith

I don’t remember the plot – I think it was about a haunted medieval town? It wasn’t particularly scary and the characters had anachronistically modern names.

2. Collect Call by Sarah Pinborough

It’s about a boy abandoned in the desert. This story was eerier than the last, and more like what I’d expected. Verdict: A decent read

3. Dead Flowers by a Roadside by Kelley Armstrong

A short but sweet tale about grief, loss and melancholy that makes good use of flashbacks and characters even within a short amount of space,

4. The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

A classic Victorian ghost story about haunted houses and rumoured deaths. It was suspenseful, shocking, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s definitely one of my favourites.

5. The Madam of the Narrow Houses by Caitlin R. Kiernan

This was one of the weirder stories in the collection, about ghosts who visit the same woman for physical intimacy. I don’t remember much else.

6. The Lost Ghost by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman

Two women recount a paranormal experience of a ghost searching desperately for her mother. This story was entertaining, slightly scary, but a little sad too.

7. The Ninth Witch by Sarah Langan

Not a typical ‘ghost story’, yet a good read. Stylistically similar to Angela Carter, this was a gruesome story about murder, incest, and dark magic.

8. Sister, Shhh… by Elizabeth Massie

A thrilling short story about a girl’s escape from an abusive religious cult. I liked the the paranormal elements and the horror of the cult.

9. The Fifth Bedroom by Alex Bell

A decent story about a haunted house and the lingering presence of its previous occupant. It was okay, but I didn’t find it especially remarkable.

10. Scairt by Alison Littlewood

A story similar to her novel, The Unquiet House, as children begin to mysteriously disappear from a village after possible ghost sightings. Verdict: Fairly interesting.

11. Seeing Nancy by Nina Allan

A short but entertaining thriller about a journalist investigating a ghostly presence, after learning about a murder which took place in her house years prior.

12. The Third Person by Lisa Tuttle

I didn’t understand the plot. It was a bit weird and included some ghost … erotica? I’m not sure what the point was. No thanks.

13. Freeze Out by Nancy Holder

A family start seeing the ghost of their dead mother. It was an okay, but not exceptional, story in which nothing stood out to me.

14. Return by Yvonne Navarro

I really liked this one. It was a well-written story which touched on some taboos and revealed the dark secrets of a creepily dysfunctional family.

15. Let Loose by Mary Cholmondeley

This was an enjoyable story written with true Victorian flair. A fantastic paranormal horror about an evil spirit rumoured to have escaped from a crypt.

16. Another One in from the Cold by Marion Arnott

I thought this one was average and not particularly scary, as the ghost of a war veteran pops up, but then doesn’t do very much.

17. My Moira by Lilith Saintcrow

A bit of a convoluted storyline; it was about protecting a magic Seal in order to help ghosts, but this wasn’t my cup of tea.

18. Forget Us Not by Nancy Kilpatrick

This was a first-person narrative, reminiscing about the loss of her dead husband and missing or dead cat. It was a bit sad, but uneventful.

19. Front Row Rider by Muriel Gray

A fairly entertaining story following the aftermath of a rollercoaster ride. I wasn’t sure who was a ghost and who was alive, which was fun.

20. God Grant That She Lye Still by Cynthia Asquith

This was another older story (you can tell by the writing style) about ghosts, possessions, and haunted houses. It was enjoyable and well-written – another favourite.

21. The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

A vividly descriptive tale about a man rescued from a storm by a passing coach, said to have crashed and killed its occupants years beforehand…

22. The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

A nurse recounts a scary experience which affected a girl in her care. However, it was difficult to follow, so I didn’t finish this story.

23. Among the Shoals Forever by Gail Z. Martin

It was a weird story about some magic hunters with bizarre names who target and destroy down supernatural beings – I think? I did not finish.

24. Afterward by Edith Wharton

A couple search their house for ghosts, not realising who are real and who are ghosts until a long time afterwards – a fun, eerie idea.

25. Silver Music by Gaie Sebold

An interesting modern story in the style of a Victorian murder mystery, about the fear of the murder victim’s ghost communicating supernaturally with the detective.

To sum up, there were some clear hits and misses within The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories By Women.

I’m not sure I’d describe all 25 stories as ‘chilling tales’ like the front cover would suggest. Still, I appreciated the way this collection has enabled me to read a variety of styles and a variety of female authors.

– Judith