Review 2025: Mexican Gothic

It’s 1950 Mexico City. Noemí Taboada is a university student, but mostly she’s a socialite from a wealthy family aiming to have as much fun as possible.

Noemí’s father has received a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, who recently married a man no one knows very well. It sounds like Catalina is mentally disturbed. So, he asks Noemí to visit Catalina to find out what’s going on.

Catalina has married Virgil Doyle, the son of silver mine owners originally from England. But the silver has run out, and Noemí finds High Place a crumbling Victorian mansion. The family is not welcoming, and they impose a lot of rules, including only infrequent visits to Catalina. Catalina herself seems at first simply ill—she has tuberculosis—but later babbles about something listening, something in the walls.

Although the youngest son of the family, Francis, is friendly and helps her out, the rest of the family remains cold. Noemí herself begins having bizarre dreams.

Some readers may have a problem with how slowly this novel gets going, because the only thing that happens for quite a while is these dreams, but eventually the action picks up. Other readers have complained at the unlikelihood of the secrets revealed. That bothered me at first, but then I thought it was in the spirit of the original gothic novels. I decided it wasn’t any less likely than the notion of vampires or zombies and in these days a lot more original.

The novel is atmospheric, the heroine feisty, the ending quite suspenseful. It delivers what it promises.

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Review 1880: The Castle of Otranto

I first read The Castle of Otranto too long ago as assignment for high school and thought it was very silly. However, it was the first gothic novel, written in 1764, and led the way toward a fascination with Gothic culture in a country littered with ruined Gothic churches and abbeys as a result of the so-called “Bloodless Revolution.” So, I put it on my Classics Club list to see what I think about it now.

Well, it’s a silly book. It is represented in the Preface as a manuscript written sometime between 1095 and 1243. Practically the first thing that happens in it is that Conrad, the son of Manfred, prince of Otranto, has a gigantic helmet fall on him out of nowhere and crush him to death on the day he is to be betrothed to Isabella, the Marquiz of Vincenza’s daughter. This is the first supernatural event in a very short book that includes walking portraits, statues crying tears of blood, and various enormous body parts appearing in the castle.

Why? It appears that Manfred’s grandfather took the castle unlawfully, and the legend is that his family may hold it until its real owner grows too large to inhabit it. Hence, the enormous body parts.

This novel exhibits all the hallmarks of the subsequent gothic novels, many of which aren’t that palatable to modern readers—overblown speeches, submissive and virtuous women (Manfred’s wife even being so submissive as to agree to her own divorce), a nearly insane villain in Manfred, a hero in disguise, a lot of fainting, and supernatural events.

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Review 1820: The Drowning Kind

Jax’s sister Lex has been calling a lot lately. Jax knows that means Lex is off her meds and in one of her manic phases. So, Jax, who has been estranged from her sister, doesn’t answer the phone. Lex’s messages are cryptic and incomprehensible, something about measurements. Later, Jax’s aunt calls to tell her that Lex is dead, drowned in the spring-fed pool behind her house. Since Lex has spent much of her life in the pool, suicide is assumed.

Back in Vermont for the funeral, Jax finds the family home a wreck, filled with notes and other documents Lex collected about the history of the house. The house had been their grandmother’s, the place where the two sisters spent every summer. One reason Jax was angry was because the house was left to Lex, whom she believes everyone liked best. Jax decides to try to find out what happened to Lex, what Lex discovered. It all seems to center around the pool, which has a local reputation of being cursed. Several people have drowned in it.

In 1929, Ethel and Will Monroe take a romantic trip to a new hotel next to a spring-fed pool. The spring has a reputation for granting wishes and healing. Ethel has been trying to conceive, so she goes to the pool and says she will give anything to have a child.

Back in 2019, Jax finds wet footprints in the house and catches glimpses of something in the pool. She also figures out that Lex has been measuring its depth, although the girls have always been told it was bottomless.

In general, this is a nice, creepy story, although I felt that maybe it signaled the truth of the pool a little too early. Of course, that adds to the suspense, as the reader knows more than Jax does. Another good one for McMahon.

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Review 1796: The Uninvited

The movie The Uninvited has long been the Halloween movie of choice for me and my husband. It is vintage 1930’s with Ray Milland and a great ghost story. However, I had not read the book until now.

Roderick Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela have been fruitlessly looking for a house in the west country that they can afford when they come across Cliff End. Although it needs work, it is so beautiful that they are sure they can’t afford it. However, it has not been occupied for 15 years, and Commander Brook reluctantly agrees to their price. He does say, though, that there have been “occurrences.”

All is well at first, and the Fitzgeralds are happy fixing up their house, but eventually the occurrences begin—a light in a room that had been the nursery, a sighing sound, the scent of mimosa, and more terrifying, an enervating cold in the studio and the attempt of an apparition to form. The Fitzgeralds begin to learn the story behind the home—that it belonged to the Commander’s daughter, Mary Meredith, and her artist husband, that an artists model died there after attempting to kill Mary, whom most people treat like a saint, and that Mary died soon afterwards.

The Fitzgeralds soon meet Stella Meredith, the Commander’s granddaughter, and befriend her. She has yearned to visit the house, but after she does, the manifestations grow stronger. Soon, the Fitzgeralds believe they have a choice between making the manifestations disappear by understanding what they want or giving up the house.

Although this novel didn’t really make my hair stand on end, it is a good ghost story. The characters are interesting, and the descriptions of the Devon coast are striking. I enjoyed the book very much.

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Review 1786: The Unforeseen

Although I haven’t yet read Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, the movie based on it remains one of my favorites for Halloween. I didn’t realize that The Unforeseen is not a sequel to it but a follow-up and that a few of the characters make a reappearance. So, I’m reading and reviewing out of order.

Virgilia Wilde cannot afford to live in the city while she is sending her daughter Nan to art school in London, so she buys a cottage in the wilds of Wicklow. There she enjoys herself rambling the countryside and working on a children’s book about birds. However, she begins having strange experiences. First, she thinks she is seeing ghosts—a shadow in the doorway when no one is there, a telegram being delivered when one isn’t. She fears she is losing her mind so consults Dr. Franks, a psychiatrist. But he thinks there is nothing wrong with her. He consults his son Perry, who is a doctor with an interest in parapsychology, and eventually they realize that Virgilia is having visions of the future.

In the meantime, Nan has a frightening encounter with a sculptor and decides to come home for the summer while she works on illustrations for a book. Virgilia doesn’t want Nan to know about her visions, but soon she has some frightening ones.

This is a good little thriller with a supernatural angle to it. It has convincing characters and beautiful descriptions of the Irish countryside, reflecting the relative peace of Ireland during World War II.

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Review 1783: Himself

Best of Ten!

Mahony has been raised to believe that his mother abandoned him on the steps of an orphanage. However, when Sister Veronica, who hated him, dies, he finds out that he was left with a note telling him his true name, his mother’s name, and “she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you.” So, he travels to Mulderrig, County Mayo, to find out what happened to Orla Sweeney.

Mahony is an attractive young man, and at first he is warmly received despite his mid-70’s hippie rig. Soon, though, the word is out, and most of the townspeople want him gone. Orla was wild, a thief and a prostitute, and she just up and left. But he finds a few supporters who believe she was murdered: Mrs. Cauley, an impressive old actress; Bridget Doosey, the slatternly housekeeper for the nasty local priest; and Shawna Blake, who takes care of Mrs. Cauley.

And, although they can’t really help him, Mahony can see the dead. When he was a child he saw them, but they faded until he set foot in the town. There’s only one dead person he can’t see—Orla.

This is a peculiar, dark story. I loved it. I first read Kidd about six months ago, and she hasn’t disappointed.

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Review 1759: White Tears

You may think you know what’s going on in White Tears, but you don’t. Kunzru provides a few clues to that effect, but it’s easy to glide right over them.

Seth is a nerdy outcast in college when he meets Carter Wallace, a good-looking, popular rich kid. The two bond over sound and music. Seth has been immersing himself in techno when Carter introduces him to the gritty sounds of old-time Black country soul on vinyl and even older 45s.

After college, the two form a recording company, with Carter as the face and Seth doing the creative work and sound engineering. They are beginning to become famous for an old-fashioned sound, produced entirely by analog instruments. But Seth notices Carter losing focus and becoming more engaged with collecting.

One day, Seth is indulging his hobby of walking around New York recording noises when he catches someone singing part of a blues song, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” He plays it for Carter, who becomes obsessed with it. Carter uses the fragments from Seth’s recording to make what sounds like an old-time record, complete with cracking noises. Then he mocks up a picture of a 45, invents a singer, Charlie Shaw, and advertises the fake record on a collectors’ website.

What starts out as a seemingly harmless prank has serious consequences. Soon, apparently meeting a collector who wants to buy the fake record, Carter is severely beaten and left in a coma. Seth finds out his company and their apartment are both owned by the family corporation, and he is immediately dispossessed, the family claiming he is just a hanger-on. But Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie want to know what happened to Carter.

This novel is dark and unexpected. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the story about Carter and his fanboy Seth, neither of whom are that likable, but eventually I got sucked in. Again, it’s a novel I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I read it for my James Tait Black project.

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Podcast Review 1: Four True Crime Podcasts

I have listened to a very few podcasts over the years, but just recently I began listening to more of them. I realized that I had strong opinions about how the podcasts were handled, so I thought that occasionally I would review some of them. So, this week I start with my first podcast review of four podcasts about unusual occurrences or true crime.

I found all four of these podcasts in a Marie Claire article listing the 60 best current true-crime podcasts.

These four podcasts fit very neatly into two groups. Two of the podcasts are limited series about one specific crime. The other two podcasts are series that continue indefinitely in which each podcast discusses one or two unusual cases. I’ll discuss the limited series first.

Tom Brown’s Body

Tom Brown’s Body is a very professionally produced podcast by Texas Monthly. It features their seasoned reporter and published author, Skip Hollandsworth, in a series of eight 45-minute episodes about the effect of an unsolved crime on a small Texas town. Or was it a crime? A popular high school boy first went missing and then was discovered dead, but it’s not clear whether the death is a suicide or a murder.

Of course, with this powerful magazine to produce it, there is not a glitch in the production, but also impressive is the writing and interview technique of this scripted podcast. Everything about this podcast is interesting and professional. I don’t mean to imply that I am biased toward a professional vs. unprofessional podcast, just that there is nothing to criticize. I found this podcast very interesting.

Paper Ghosts

Paper Ghosts is also a scripted podcast produced by iHeart Radio of ten half-hour episodes. It features true-crime writer M. William Phelps (at one point he asks a witness to call him M), and is about the disappearances or murders of several young girls and women near his home town in New England during the early 1970’s. It is also professionally produced.

While Hollandsworth’s interviews in Tom Brown’s Body had the more conventional purpose of just investigating the history and current status of the case, and the effect the case has on the town, Phelps is actively trying to solve the murders, or at least the podcast gives that impression. He is also very self-promotional and constantly brings himself into focus during the podcast. (I don’t mean he interviews people; I mean he talks about himself and his efforts a lot.) One serious negative for me as a grammar nerd was that, although this podcast is also scripted, he makes a few but consistent grammatical errors. I am not familiar with him as a true crime writer, but I hope he has a good editor. I found this podcast interesting, but I felt it was more repetitive than Tom Brown’s Body and less impressive. I’m also not clear on the meaning of the title.

And here’s a bitchy remark: We all know from studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that using an initial instead of a first name is pretentious. The M is for Matthew. There’s nothing wrong with the name Matthew Phelps, M.

And That’s Why We Drink

And That’s Why We Drink is a weekly half-hour podcast featuring Christine Shiefer, a writer for Nickelodeon, and Em Schulz, a prop designer. Its focus is the supernatural and true crime, and it is much less formal than the other podcasts. It’s format is a couple of friends sitting around with drinks and telling each other spooky stories. It is produced by Kast Media, but I doubt that it is scripted, and at least the episode I listened to had none of the interim musical effects of the others or anything like that.

I have to confess that while I listened to the entirety of the first two podcasts, I could only stand listening to one episode of this one, despite the podcast being very popular. I found the format and unscripted nature of the podcast troublesome because the two women spend a lot of time chit-chatting about things that only they are interested in (like what their mothers are going to say about their podcast) and making lame jokes. Now, I listened to the first episode, and it’s very possible that they got better at this as they went along. However, this is a criticism I have had of all the two-person podcasts I have listened to.

I have more serious criticisms, though. One in particular about the first episode is that they selected some topics that most people know a lot about already, that is, the history and building of Winchester House and the Jim Jones tragedy. Contrast that with the other series I’m reviewing next, which told me about cases I’d never heard of. Again, this is just one episode, though.

What disturbed me more than that was my impression that they spent about ten minutes researching each topic. (One of them even said she looked it up the day before.) They showed an astounding ignorance of the time periods and settings of these events. For example, they made the fatuous assumption in the first story that because someone was known as the Boston Medium, he was the only medium in Boston at the time that he was consulted by Sarah Winchester. In reality spiritualism was very popular at that time and there were probably hundreds of mediums in Boston. Similarly, they basically boiled the 60’s down into sex and drugs. I would think that these two women, who (probably ironically) exclaimed that they had Master’s degrees could have put a little more effort into exploring the context of their stories.

OK, in this podcast, the two girls knew that hardly anyone was listening yet and they were just basically entertaining themselves. To be fair, I should have probably listened to a more recent episode. However, these women seemed so silly and superficial to me that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Supernatural with Ashley Flowers

Supernatural is a weekly podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers, a radio personality from Indiana and the creator of another podcast, Crime Junkie. My research on her, let me say right away, has indicated that she has been accused of plagiarism for some of the Crime Junkie episodes, in particular of copying other podcasts word for word. As an ex-writing instructor, I find this kind of behavior atrocious (apparently what she said in her defense was that people had copies from her as well), but I was not aware of this issue until I researched her name just now, and I didn’t see any similar allegations about Supernatural.

This podcast is concerned with unexplained cases, some of them true crime, that may involve the supernatural. I listened so far to two-and-a-half episodes. I found this series, which is produced by Parcast, to be very professional.

This podcast is clearly scripted, and in each half-hour episode Flowers covers one unusual case. Both of the complete episodes I listened to involved possible alien activity. I had not heard of either of these cases and found them interesting. One was a true-crime case about two men found dead wearing lead masks on the top of a hill near Rio de Janeiro. The other case was about possible alien abductions in 1980’s Maine. This podcast is professionally written and produced.

My Rankings

I ask myself “Would I return to this podcast?” for the weekly podcasts and “Would I listen to another podcast?” for the limited series that I have finished listening to.

In order from best to worst:

  1. Tom Brown’s Body: Would I listen to another podcast from Skip Hollandsworth? Yes
  2. Supernatural: Would I return to this podcast? Maybe, if I just consider the podcast and not the plagiarism charge
  3. Paper Ghosts: Would I listen to another podcast from M. William Phelps? Probably not
  4. And That’s Why We Drink: Would I return to this podcast? No

I just started out listening to these podcasts for my own amusement, but if there is interest in more reviews, I will take it on as more of a research project. Did you enjoy these reviews? Are there any podcast topics you would suggest I look into? Of course, the next review will be of book podcasts.

Review 1556: Dark Enchantment

I was delighted to receive a review copy of Dark Enchantment from Tramp Press from their Recovered Voices series and decided to time my review for the season. This is especially felicitous because the movie from another Dorothy Macardle book, The Uninvited, has been my family’s go-to Halloween movie for years. This is another entry for RIPXV.

After three years of teaching, an occupation that Juliet Frith likens to drudgery, she is exhausted and unwell. Her employers, eager for her to leave because of newspaper stories about her mother, have summoned her father to take her away. Frith is an actor who can’t afford to support Juliet and doesn’t know what to do with her, but for now they are vacationing on the Côte d’Azur.

On a day trip to visit villages in the Alps Maritimes, Juliet is taken ill at an inn, so Frith makes arrangements for them to stay the entire week. Juliet improves rapidly and befriends the pregnant wife of the innkeeper, Martine, so Frith arranges for Juliet to stay there when he has to leave for a job. Juliet will be working half-time at the inn for the length of Martine’s pregnancy. It helps that Juliet has met Michael, studying trees in the nearby forest.

The lives of all the villagers are soon wrapped up in drama because of Terka, a beautiful Romany woman who is missing an eye. She has a reputation as a sorceress, and the villagers are terrified of her. Although Juliet thinks Terka is being treated unfairly, Martine’s husband René is foremost at trying to drive her out of the area, so she has turned her attentions to poor Martine as well as others. Things begin to get ugly.

This novel develops slowly at first, but it has appealing characters and kept my interest. Although the threat foretold for Juliet doesn’t really pan out, she becomes deeply involved in the fortunes of Martine and René. I enjoyed this light read very much.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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