You might have noticed that I have not posted many reviews for a while, and that they have been few and far between. I do have an explanation, and that it is all getting better.
For this I need to go a bit back into last year. I graduated from my M.A. program in Classical Studies in October 2020. Up until then I had had no breaks in between my schooling. I had seven years of undergrad (it lasted a while due to mental illness and finding what I really wanted to study), and then another two years of grad school. That is nine years of uni and college straight after high school with no real breaks (I’m not counting summer really). Up until this point, I never really knew what it was like to not be in school. That is what I have been trying to figure out for the last few months. And the pandemic did not make this any easier. I’ve been home almost the entire time – which is not at all a wholly bad thing; I have my partner and my pupper here and I love them both so so much – and have had no real opportunities to experience anything different than what has been going on. I was a research assistant for a while, though it was freelance and all work-from-home, so it eventually became too unstructured and unfulfilling for me. I tried then to do creative things like art, music, and, of course, reading. Eventually though, also because of the lack of structures in my days, those lost interest for me too. Suffice to say, it’s been a hell of a difficult time.
Now, though, I am looking for more rewarding work, and I am trying to create structure at home. So far this has been working, and I have been seeing reading at the end of the day as a rewarding experience. However, I still don’t have the desire to read anything on my TBR. I don’t even have the desire to reread some of the books I liked before. So I had to ask myself going forward: what do I like? I then thought about things I liked as a kid and a teen, things that brought out my passions and obsessions. I remembered what they were and it kindled a new passion and inspiration for me. These passions are Lord of the Rings, folklore, and ghosts. I never actually lost these passions, I just got distracted for a while with things I thought were more important. Now I remember their importance, and have been reading actively books in these genres for the past week or so! I’m looking mostly at Tolkien books right now, as that is my most deep passion.
Thankfully, I have a huge collection of Tolkien literature to read. This past week I’ve read The Hobbits of Tolkien by David Day (you can read my review of it here) and I am now setting out to finish Tolkien’s essays and stories Tree and Leaf and Leaf by Niggle. I am also getting so very inspired by the history, etymology, and folklore of Tolkien’s work that I am considering reading some of the Poetic Edda and Volsung Sagas next!
Now of course I am going to have doubts about these things too: shouldn’t I branch out in terms of literature? Is it stupid to stay with the same genres all the time?
First of all, I know I will branch out when I feel the time is right. Right now is not the right time for me. Second, it is NEVER stupid to stay with your favorite stories or genres. Never dismiss the things you are passionate about, for I am not going to dismiss mine. Staying with my true passions has helped my mental recovery, and may lead me to wonderful things in the future. I am excited to find out where it takes me.
As for ghosts, I am fulfilling that passion with much watchings of Buzzfeed Unsolved Supernatural, and I am slowly listening to Tunnel of Bones by Victoria Schwab on Scribd.
I won’t be doing a lot of book reviews for the Tolkien books I read, unless there is something very particular in them that I want to talk about. You can still keep up with what I read, though, here on my Goodreads page!
But yes, Dear Reader, thank you for reading this long and rambling explanation for where my life has led me. I hope you all are rediscovering passions or finding new ones in this hell of a time. Take care of yourselves, and I shall speak to you very soon!
I had planned to read 40 books in 2020, though I ended up only reading 28. I still think that’s pretty good though, considering the pandemic, stress, and finishing my degree as well as working part-time. I’ve reviewed all of the books I’ve read this year on this blog, so please feel free to read them if you haven’t already. For this post, here’s a list of the books I’ve read this year from my most to least favorite:
As you can see, I’ve discovered a new favorite author, Patricia A. McKillip. I have read these two novels of hers as well as her short stories, and I am so excited to explore more of her work. Her writing is magical and the characters are deep and feel so real.
None, I am happy to say!
I am starting 2021 in a bit of a depression, partly due to the pandemic and lockdown, and so my desire for reading is a bit lower than I’d like. However, it seems that audiobooks are what my slumpy mind can take right now, and I am taking full advantage of sites lie Scribd, Audible, and others. I have many physical books on my shelves that I do hope to get to at some point this year, but for now I am focusing on my mental health, and if that means audiobooks, then audiobooks it is.
As a lover of folklore, I thought The Pine Barrens’ Devil would be right up my alley. In a way, it was. Leigh Paynter tells four short stories that take place each in different historical periods, in which the Jersey Devil makes an appearance either as an instigator or one who passes judgment.
The first story, “Where Darkness Lives”, is Paynter’s own version of how the Jersey Devil came to be. Like most other origin stories, this one takes place in colonial New Jersey, and involves an unwanted or transformed child.
The second story, “A Long Walk”, takes place during the Revolutionary War. The protagonist, Whippany, not only gets lost in the Pine Barrens, but in the throes of his own desires.
The third story, “The Game”, very much illustrates the character of both the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil. They like to toy with travelers to the forest, especially those who deserve punishment. In this story, that person who deserves punishment is an antisemitic hustler looking after his girlfriend’s son, a chess genius. This story takes place soon after the end of WWII.
The fourth and final story is “Reflection in the Lake”, almost a reverse retelling of The Little Mermaid, though instead of a sea-witch, it is the Jersey Devil that causes the transformations. The protagonist, Emily, does get more than she bargained for when trying to impress her classmates on a camping trip, losing herself to Lake Absegami in the end.
All of these stories have to do with characters wanting more than they have bargained for, and the Jersey Devil is more than happy to comply with their wishes. I was familiar with some of the Jersey Devil folklore before reading this book, though it never occurred to me that the Jersey Devil would act more like the biblical devil, rather than a weird-looking cryptid that eats livestock and frightens travelers. I like this different take on the Jersey Devil, though it does make its character a bit less mysterious. I am eager to do more research about the Jersey Devil and the many versions of its folklore.
Now I want to discuss the aspects of this book that I liked.
Generally the stories are good and entertaining, and Paynter’s use of different historical eras really emphasizes that the Jersey Devil is a constant and frightening force of folklore.
I like that the stories were not too long, and did feel very much like campfire stories, as I believe Paynter had intended. Perhaps she will publish another collection of stories about the Jersey Devil, which I would be eager to read.
Unfortunately, there were quite a few aspects of this book that did not make it a 5-star read.
While the stories were good, the writing style could be improved upon. Paynter tells too much and shows too little, using statement after statement after statement. However, I am happy to say that this got better with each story. I think the stories’ writing style would have been more coherent if she had gone over each story again. Overall, I think Paynter just needs to practice her storytelling, and find the writing style that suits her best. Grammar and spelling were off here and there, which further reinforces my statement that Paynter should have gone over her stories and writing more before publishing.
Overall, I did enjoy the stories, and I would recommend The Pine Barrens’ Devil to those who love folklore and the many aspects of this American cryptid.
So a couple months ago I made a post about my Fall reading plans. They were ambitious, as I had 6 books on my TBR. The question, now that it is nigh on Winter, is: did I accomplish my Fall TBR?
The short answer is no, for a variety of reasons.
The first reason is that I just found other books that I wanted to read more. Now, this is not to say I will never read the books on my Fall TBR. I really want to finish The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I am currently halfway through By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I wasn’t able to get into some of the other books, though. Taaqtumi has some good stories in it, but not enough of them kept me interested. I wasn’t in the mood for romance, so A Dark And Twisting Path was put on the back-burner.
I also discovered that I can do reviews for Reedsy Discovery, and I want to start reading some books featured there. In addition to By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, I am currently reading The Pine Barrens Devil by Leigh Paynter, which I will have a review for in the next week or so.
The second reason for not succeeding with my set Fall TBR is that this recent lockdown that we’re in here in Manitoba has had me a little discouraged, and so it’s been hard to get into things like new books and TV. Thankfully, Agatha Christie and “Call The Midwife” have been absolute saviors.
Am I a failure for not doing my Fall TBR? Absolutely not, and neither are you if you are in the same boat as me. It takes a lot of commitment to stick to a reading list, especially right now when the times are so unpredictable. But also, you don’t have to read anything you don’t want to, and it’s okay if the reading list you set for yourself a month ago doesn’t fit with your mood now. There are so many wonderful books to read and sometimes it takes some flipping and flopping to find the right one.
Speaking of finding the right book, I just signed up for Likewise, an app and website that recommends books, movies, and other forms of entertainment to you, but also connects you with other bookworms to get great recommendations. I’ve gotten lots of good recs for ghost stories, that I hope to dig into very soon! And no, this is not a sponsor, I just like them very much!
I won’t be doing a Winter TBR just because things are very unpredictable and my mood has been so up and down that I can’t settle on a book to read in the future. I am very focused on the present, and that means finishing the books I’m already reading. However, I have looked at a lot of books that seem fun both on Likewise and Reedsy, so those may make an appearance here in the next few, and very cold, months.
As promised, here is a more in-depth review of the anthology Weird Woods: Tales from the haunted forests of Britain. Below I briefly discuss each story in this collection, and seeing how the forests are portrayed in each, and whether or not I think they were portrayed well.
The first story, “The Whisper in the Wood” by Anonymous, is really one of the only stories in this collection that gives the atmosphere of a haunted forest. Essentially, a man goes into the woods where he hears strange voices on the wind, and a gnarly tree that holds him there in the forest long enough to find the corpse which the disembodied voice belonged to. I think one reason this is very much more of the haunted woods genre than the others is because it was written in the 19th century, when the sublime and the preternatural took up the minds of such authors.
“Man-Size in Marble” by Edith Nesbit is indeed somewhat of a ghost story, but really has nothing to do with the woods, except maybe to establish where the story takes place. However, the antagonizing powers in this story have nothing to do with woods or trees, rather they are involved with statues and graves, the opposite of trees. To be honest, I am not sure why this story has been included in this anthology all about the woods.
“The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton is not about a haunted forest, but it is about the dangers that the woods can possess. Here the danger is a stream in Strid Wood (Yorkshire Dale), which can be treacherous to cross. In this story our protagonist envisions horrors that have taken place in this wood, the deaths caused by the stream. Whether these visions are of his imagination or are real omens are not specified. I am happy this was included in the collection, as stories about dangerous parts of nature are often what end up as a major part of folklore.
E.F. Benson takes a more mythological approach to the forest in his story “The Man Who Went Too Far.” In this story, the central character has decided to become one with nature, taking his desire so far as to come close to meeting the god of nature himself, Pan. However, he realizes that meeting and communing with Pan could mean death. There are so many woodland folktales about goat men, and Benson takes us right to its mythological source. Not so much a haunting of the woods, but a going back to a more primeval version of nature, which is why this story is so apt for this collection.
Have you ever walked in the woods and come upon a tree so unusual and captivating that you must know all about it – every root and twig? W.H. Hudson’s “An Old Thorn” focuses on such a tree that captures the interest, and perhaps the lives, of several different people. It stands in its place forever as a godlike being. While a tree is the main focus, the descriptions of said tree were a bit lost on me – I could not really picture it, though perhaps that adds more to the mystery.
“The White Lady” by Elliot O’Donnell is indeed a ghost story, but the portrayal of the woods and trees is not really the main focus. A young man sneaks out in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of a ghost called “the white lady.” In order to see her, he must hide in a hollow tree, which is really the extent that we see any appearance of a forest or a tree. It’s a fun story, but not really one that I would’ve picked for this collection, simply because the woods are not a focal point.
“Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood is the one story of this collection that feels the most folkloric. In this story, a man on his way to a large house gets lost in the forest on the edge of the property. The thing is, though, this is not a forest one would expect to get lost in: it’s small, and at first glance you can see the house beyond it. But there are powers in the forest, powers of the trees and perhaps of the wee folk, that are determined to turn the man this way and that, making him completely lose his way. Besides tales of the goat man, fairy stories are at the pinnacle of woodland folklore, and I am sad that more of those were not included in this collection.
Mary Webb’s “The Name Tree” doesn’t focus on a forest, but it does focus on a tree, specifically what she calls a “name tree”, which the main character is drawn to. This tree is also a representation of her life, and when a man desires to have this young woman sexually (and indeed beneath her own name tree!), she refuses, as she nor the tree could belong to anyone. But dire circumstances force her hand, and she submits to this man under her tree. During their sexual encounter, he breaks the tree, thus also ending her life. This is a piece of folklore I would very much like to know more about, and if there is such a tradition in history. That a tree could be the vital force of an individual, it is almost a fairy story, but somehow seems to go much deeper than that.
Just like “An Old Thorn,” “The Tree” by Walter De La Mare focuses on a single tree that captures the minds of the main characters. This tree seems to bring its own climate, its own ecology, though it all seems alien, even unalive to the protagonist. And yet, he cannot get the tree and its creatures out of his mind. I think this story would have been more interesting to me if I had understood the philosophy behind it. I like the premise of a sort of alien tree that is its own world, but I need to understand its effects on the characters better.
“He Made A Woman” by Marjorie Bowen is a retelling of a Welsh folktale from the Mabinogion, in which the woman Blodeuwedd is created to be the wife of the Welsh hero Llew Llaw Gyffes. In this retelling, a young man stays at the home of a scholar, who has there also a young woman named Blodeuwedd. The young man falls in love with her, how she connects to the forest, and seems to come from it, like a fairy creature. However, in the end as he tries to embrace her, Blodeuwedd vanishes and all that is left is an oak flower, a twig of broom, and a cluster of meadowsweet, the ingredients used to create her. I am glad this tale was included in Weird Woods as so much of Welsh mythology has to do with and takes place in the woods. I am reminded of when king Pwyll meets Arawn, the god of death, in the woods, and I am tempted to do a retelling of this myself.
“A Neighbor’s Landmark” by M.R. James is indeed about a haunted forest, though the story tells of it more than tells of an experience within it. Betton Wood is a forest that no one will enter, that carries shrieks and cries on the wind. Even at the end of this story, the woods are still a mystery. I think with more of an experienced telling this would have been a better story. However, its themes did remind me of stories like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted.
And the last story, “N” by Arthur Machen, explores the liminality that trees provide in so many folktales. It is reminiscent of a sort of NeverNeverLand, exploring the way forests and trees can represent an eternal childhood. I really only have one comment for this story: needs more trees.
As I said in my initial review of Weird Woods, I was expecting much more folklore than was given. However, as I discussed above, there are individual stories that do exude folklore and the darker aspects of mythology. I don’t know that I would recommend this to anyone for folklore purposes, but to get a sense of how authors, and really everyday people, view nature in Britain.
If, however, you want something more folkloric, check out English Folktales, or any of those that revolve around the wee folk, and Welsh folklore. These are guaranteed to have woodland folklore.
Thanks for reading, and consider supporting me on Patreon or buying me a coffee!
The Canterville Ghost is about an American family in the late 19th century that moves into Lord Canterville’s large and old home. However, the large house is haunted by Canterville’s ancestor, who tries to frighten the family away, or even to death! But this family isn’t to be scared away by a ghost, and is even intrigued by the historical mysteries it still carries.
I had known about this story before I read it, as I had watched a cartoon version of it when I was little, which had very minor differences. The Canterville Ghost is my first full Oscar Wilde reading (I’m still in the middle of Dorian Gray) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Oscar Wilde and a ghost story is the perfect combination. Using his artful language and wit, he is able to humorously tell the tale of an utter failure of a ghost even among the mysterious and beautifully-described gothic atmosphere of the house. The only thing I would wish to be different, at least a little bit, is the ending, which was nice, but I think I would have liked it to be more than just nice. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, however.
The Canterville Ghost is definitely up there with my favorite ghost stories, and Wilde’s way of telling ghost stories is wonderfully refreshing. I recommend this story to those who want some wit in a gothic setting. I listened to this book on Audible, and I very much enjoyed it as an audiobook.
I picked up Weird Woods because, if you do not know already, I am a huge fan of folklore and hauntings. From the description, I had expected to find folktales about Britain’s forests, sort of the origins for all the haunting stories we know and love. Basically I expected it to be more like The Book of English Folktales by Sybil Marshall. Instead, this book is an anthology of short stories that are set in haunted British forests or have something to do with trees, and are written by popular authors of this genre from about the early 20th century (some late 19th).
So, while I did enjoy most of the stories generally speaking, I was a bit disappointed at the lack of actual folklore, and that is why I have given this book only three stars.
Nonetheless I loved the dark atmosphere of all the stories, the gnarly roots of the forest, and the trees that seem to be guiding the protagonists to either happiness or misery, depending on their mood and on the attitude of the hero.
I recommend this book to those who want ghost stories, but, to those who prefer more folklore, this may not be the book for you.
I will be discussing the stories in-depth next week on my Patreon, so please do check it out if you want to see my extra analysis!
Those of you who have seen this blog when it started may know that I had a Patreon page for all my reviews. That was quite a while ago and I haven’t used it much since. But, I have now revamped my Patreon and it is open for business!
You can click here to see my Patreon, called “A Ghostly Reviewer”, and I’ll also have a link at the bottom.
I basically post the same content there that I do on Book Reviews by A. Siegel, except that there will be new bonuses and fun things for my Patrons.
Here is the general breakdown of my Patreon:
Free to the public are my general reviews of the books I have read.
With the lowest patron tier, called the Wharton Tier, patrons at $2 per month get early access to my reviews, so you would see them on my Patreon before I post them here.
With the second tier, called the Poe Tier, patrons at $5 per month get to see longer and more in-depth posts, similar to posts like my favorite genre books posts, my dark academia post, as well as more in-depth reviews with deeper analysis, especially for short stories.
This is the plan for the foreseeable future. I hope you all stay to see my reviews, and if you’d like to support my work further, consider becoming a patron!
And thank you all, I appreciate each and every one of you who reads my reviews.
Dark academia is an aesthetic that has taken over the media of the internet, from books to movies to fashion. And, I must say, it has slightly affected me too. I am a classicist, and that just completely puts me in the realm of dark academia (those who have read The Secret History know what I’m talking about). I am also a huge supporter of the pursuit of knowledge, which is really what dark and all other academia is all about.
And that is what makes all the books on this list dark academia, at least in my opinion. Many of these books are dark in vibe and aesthetic and so just fit the genre much more. So, without further ado and in no particular order, here are my favorite dark academia books.
The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
This book does what The Secret History tried to do but better. It is about a Latin teacher at an all-girls boarding school in a remote location in the northeastern United States. As she struggles to have a life at this school, the teacher is forced to reckon with the darker portions of her past when she attended that same school as a student. This book is full of academics, but also the staple of the dark academia Classics genre: a bacchanale that doesn’t go as planned.
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
This book is so much about the pursuit of knowledge and the possibilities it gives us. Picture a young Einstein working at his desk in a dimly lit room having just finished his theory of time, when he starts imagining all the different ways that time can manifest itself. Each short chapter of this book is a different look at time, and the utter possibility that these things could be possible is another staple of dark academia.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
This is a short novel that centers around a family who goes with a professor and his college students to live as Brits did in the Iron Age. That description alone is enough for the dark academia aesthetic, but when you add the darker aspects, it really kicks off.
Warning for this book, however: there are themes of child abuse and attempted murder.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
This book is about Margaret Cavendish, who was an English aristocrat in the 17th century. Dutton tells a fictionalized biographical tale of how Margaret started her pursuit of philosophy and literature, and the struggles she had as a woman trying to be an intellectual in a time when women were really not supposed to be doing that in the view of her male counterparts.
Set in a time when the pursuit of knowledge that filled the Renaissance was still high and mighty, it is the perfect setting for the dark academia, period drama aesthetic.
Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne
In this more obscure tale of science fiction, Verne imagines what the world will be like in the late 20th century, focusing on a young man in Paris. This young man has just graduated from college with a degree in the almost obsolete field of Latin and Classical Studies. We see the young man struggle to survive in a world that is moving far beyond him, where art and humanities are dwindling out of the public interest.
Almost the complete opposite of Margaret the First, we see what the world could be like when the pursuit of knowledge is no longer useful in such a capitalistic era.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
This rather chunky novel combines the pursuit of knowledge with the compulsion to solve a dark mystery. Set during and just after WWII in Spain, our protagonist finds a book called The Shadow of the Wind in a secret library, and becomes enthralled with the book and its author. But when he realizes that all of the other works by this author have been lost or destroyed, our protagonist goes on a quest for knowledge about this mysterious man.
The aspects of dark academia here include: period drama; the dark and dim aesthetics of the library and the dark places that our protagonist must search for clues; the war and post war setting; and the interest in a single book and its author.
Those are my favorites from the dark academia genre. Some are more obscure than others, and I highly recommend you check them out if you haven’t already! And I am open to any and all recommendations of dark academia books that you all might have!
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