Friday, February 17, 2012

Things that Go Bump in the Night

These words are part of a short traditional Scottish prayer.

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

When that prayer was written, people probably believed it was ghouls and ghosts they needed to fear. Today…not so much. Vampires are sexy. Witches can be good—even the bad ones get their own Broadway musicals. And Demi and Patrick showed us that it can be sexy to make out with a ghost. No, people today have a whole different set of fears: nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; terrorists; gangs and drug lords; and killing sprees like the ones at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and in Norway. The list is nearly endless. And the people who recited the old Scottish prayer would probably stick with their ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties. (Although my husband would probably put spiders on his top 10 list of fears.)

I don’t scare easily, certainly not by bumps in the night. It’s actually utter silence I find more disturbing. When I was little, I used to have a recurring dream about a woman with a mustache. I know, I know. It seems funny now. But all through elementary and middle school, this woman haunted my dreams. The nightmares were always similar. The woman would come into my house when my family was sleeping and try to take me away. Sometimes she would use a ladder and come through my window. Other times, she would slither out of my closet. To this day, it makes me uncomfortable to sleep with my closet open. The other constant: the woman never made a sound. Neither did I. Our battles were fought in silence, while my parents and brother slept peacefully just a few feet away.

So what does this have to do with my blog? Well, horror is today’s topic. I like scary books. Stephen King is amazing. Peter Straub easily induces chills. I read Red Dragon—where Hanibal Lecter is first introduced—when I was probably too young and without my parent’s permission. But books don’t scare me. At least not until the night I started reading Intensity by Dean Koontz.   

The main character, Chyna Shepherd, has come to Napa Valley with a friend, Laura Templeton, to visit Laura’s family farm. Like me, Chyna finds it difficult to fall asleep in a strange place. So she is awake to hear the first scream. So faint, Chyna almost doesn’t recognize the sound. Even after the second cry, she’s convinced the noises are coming from outside. At the soft thump, Chyna instinctively recognizes that evil is inside.

Following the stifled cries and the soft thump, silence sifted down like snowfall. The hush was eerily deep, as unnatural as that in which the deaf lived. This was the stillness before the pounce, the quietude of the coiled snake. In another part of the house, someone was standing as motionless as she herself was standing, as alert as she was, intently listening. Someone dangerous.

I recognize the scene. My mustachioed woman has returned. I am officially spooked. But I’m also hooked, and I can’t put the book down.

Footsteps. Evil is coming. As Chyna slithers silently under her unmade bed, I am right there with her among the dust bunnies. I scrunch my nose against the urge to sneeze. No one can know we are here.

Wait a second, I can sneeze. I am at home in Bowie, Maryland—not the Napa Valley. I am letting my imagination run away with me. I am also slightly ashamed. Chyna is much braver than I am.

Evil has killed Laura’s entire family. And he has done unmentionable things to Laura, who is still alive.

No one can know what they would do in such a horrific situation. I hope I wouldn’t run away, or worse, hide, choosing not to help my friend. I hope I would be as strong as Chyna. The next 100 pages are so “intense” my hand holding the book is cramping.

When the man carries Laura outside and puts her into an RV, Chyna heroically sneaks aboard. My heart breaks with hers, when Chyna realizes she is too late and her friend is dead. And now the RV is moving, and Chyna is trapped with not one, but two bodies.

About this time, I’d probably pee my pants. Thankfully, we’re stopping at a convenience store—okay, time to reel my imagination back in. And perhaps a bathroom break is in order.

After two more brutal murders (this guy means business) Chyna again has the chance to escape. But evil has bragged to the store clerk about a 16-year-old girl he is holding captive in his basement. It’s decision time. Does Chyna hide and take the chance that evil will get away—escaping punishment for what he did to Laura and her family? And what about the innocent teenager, who evil calls Ariel? In Chyna’s own words:

Throughout her childhood, no one had ever held out a hand to her. No one had ever cared that she was trapped, frightened, and helpless.

Chyna refuses to do that to Ariel. Chyna will take a stand against evil.

Eventually, I have to put the book down and go to sleep. The woman with the mustache visits me that night. But Chyna has emboldened me. I am not a child. I am not afraid. Instead, I tell the woman to shave. I have conquered my childhood fear. Thank you Chyna and Dean Koontz.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Witchy Woman

I’ve been a Charlaine Harris and Sookie Stackhouse fan for years. To be honest, however, I hate the covers. Vampires are supposed to be sexy. The pallid creatures on the Sookie Stackhouse books should be staked and put out of their misery. Call me superficial, but that’s why I avoided the series until book four: Dead to the World. Yes, the blonde vampire on the cover was one of the ugliest blood-suckers I’d ever seen, but it was time. I’d heard good things about the series, and my mother (who is not a fan of vampires) had enjoyed other books by Harris. Of course the book was great, and I immediately purchased the first three in the series. But I still find it difficult to reconcile how Harris describes her characters, like the oh-so-sexy Viking vampire Eric Northman, with how they are portrayed on the cover art. And don’t even get me started on Sookie’s hair. In the books, the silky blonde locks are her pride and joy; on the covers, Sookie’s hair resembles straw—both in color and texture.

But I digress. Between the popular novels and the critically acclaimed HBO television series, I’m sure most people are familiar with the trials and tribulations of the Southern-bread Sookie. So instead, I offer an alternative to fans of Charlaine Harris and Sookie Stackhouse, and their names are Kimberly Frost and Tammy Jo Trask. (Apparently, you can take the White Trash out of the girl, but not out of her name.)

When I saw Frost’s Would-Be Witch on the shelves of my local Borders (RIP), the cover grabbed my attention. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but the artwork definitely stood out from the rest of the books. And the unusual cover was what made me pick up the book. What led me to ultimately purchase the book were these words: “A terrific new series from a wonderful new author.” Two of my favorite things—a freshman author and a first in a series.

Frost and Tammy Jo did not disappoint. In fact, it was a delicious read—frothy and fun, with just the hint of something dark.

When readers are first introduced to Tammy Jo, it’s clear our spunky Texan is at a bit of a crossroad. She’s a witch with no apparent powers. The one skill she does have—cooking—is not enough to keep her from being fired from the local bakery. She’s divorced, but still allowing her Alpha-male ex, Zach, the town sheriff, to make bootie calls. She’s dead broke and forced to hock her jewelry to a lecherous pawn store owner. Then things go downhill from there in the form of ghosts, zombies, werewolves, cross-dressing vampires, and an ocelot?

I admit I had to look that one up. I knew it was a cat, but other than that I was clueless. Turns out the ocelot—as defined in Merriam’s—is a medium-sized American wildcat that ranges from Texas to Northern Argentina. In pictures it looks a little like a miniature leopard. And in a strange coincidence, an ocelot featured heavily in the TV show I half-watched last night with my husband. For the curious, it was Archer, an animated series on FX—totally wrong, and yet so very funny.

But back to Tammy Jo. While her mother and aunt are off to mysterious and undisclosed places, Tammy Jo is tasked with protecting a family heirloom—a locket that allows Tammy Jo to communicate with Edie, her great-great-Grandmother’s dead twin sister. Why is Edie connected to the locket? And why is Edie sticking around this two-bit Texas town instead of sailing forth to the great beyond? Frost doesn’t tell us yet, but I sense that it is a mystery she will unfold through the series. All we do know is that Edie was a wild-child flapper and that she was murdered by some unknown assailant. If you want my guess, it will have something to do with another famous line of witches with the surname Lyons.

 And speaking of the infamous Lyons, the oh-so-delectable (and wealthy) Bryn Lyons is at the party where Tammy Jo’s locket is stolen. After Tammy Jo’s failed attempts to use magic to retrieve the locket and Edie, the town’s reigning wizard, Bryn, offers to help. Now Tammy Jo is in a bit of a pickle. The good news: Bryn is hot with a capital “H.” The bad news: the Lyons’ family is on the witches’ infamous “List of Nine,” meaning no Trask is allowed to interact with any Lyons.

Frost uses this dire and mysterious warning, as well as the hunky Zach, to keep Tammy Jo and Bryn apart. But their chemistry is undeniable and the two soon hit the sheets. Unfortunately, their passion rages a little too far out of control. During the steamy encounter, Bryn gets “high” on their combined power and drains Tammy Jo dry—literally, taking all of her magic. Definitely a setback to that courtship. While the effect is temporary and Tammy Jo does regain her wonky magic, she is not too happy with Bryn. Sigh. It looks like our hero has his wooing work cut out for him. Luckily Bryn has the next two books, Barely Bewitched and Halfway Hexed, to make it up to Tammy Jo. And while I won’t spoil the plot, this savvy reader thinks it’s only a matter of time before Tammy Jo and Bryn accept their fate as star-crossed lovers. Until they do, however, I’ll sit back and enjoy the ride on Tammy Jo’s broom.