Second Child by John Saul


Second Child, John Saul, 1990

My favorite quote: “But though her lips smiled warmly as she accepted the embrace, her eyes — had anyone noticed — betrayed an emotionless chill.”

Notable characters: Melissa Holloway, a shy young girl; Teri MacIver, her older half-sister; D’Arcy, Melissa’s not-so-imaginary friend; Phyllis Holloway, the horrible mother; Charles, the excruciatingly unobservant father

Most memorable scene: Well, if not Polly MacIver sailing to her death in the opening scene (is it just me or do a lot of John Saul characters sail to their deaths in early scenes?) I’ll have to go with the unearthly visitation Cyndi Miller and Ellen Stevens receive in the woods on their way home from the beach

Greatest strengths: Pacing

Standout achievements: To me, it feels like there are shades of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Carrie, and even the Exorcist here, and yet Second Child manages to feel fresh and original. I’d call that a definite standout achievement

Fun Facts: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting John Saul … and he’s every bit as awesome as I’d hoped he’d be!

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That even the most classic trope can feel brand-new if it’s executed well

How it inspired me: Opening lines are everything and this book — along with Dean Koontz’s Servants of Twilight — has one of the best ones ever. In fact, I had no real interest in Second Child until I read it’s first sentence: “When Polly MacIver awoke just before dawn that morning, she had not the slightest presentiment that she was about to die.” After that, I had to know more. I think about that every time I start writing a new book

Additional thoughts: I think this is one of Saul’s stronger works. It feels a lot more inspired than a lot of his stuff

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton


In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Mary Beth Norton, 2002 

My favorite quote: “They believed that, in the colony, they lived in a moral and spiritual wilderness, corruption on all sides, and this made them particularly vigilant, even paranoid, when it came to threats, either real or perceived.”

Notable characters: Bridget Bishop, the first woman executed; Sarah Goode and Sarah Osborne, among the first accused; Giles Corey, a farmer who was pressed to death after refusing to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty; Tituba, a slave — and the first to be accused — who survived by confessing

Most memorable scene: While I did not enjoy being tossed back and forth between the decades in what felt like no logical order, I liked the glimpses into the socioeconomic events surrounding the Trials 

Greatest strengths: Its inclusion of influencing historical details

Standout achievements: This is one of the most detailed — though at times a little too ambitious — accounts of the Salem witch trials I’ve come across

Fun Facts: Mary Beth Norton’s 1996 book, Founding Mothers & Fathers, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: A lot about historical events from that time period — and if nothing else, the events of this book should serve as a lesson in the very real danger of group-think

How it inspired me: This book began my descent into all things Salem Witch Trials. It wasn’t the easiest starting point but it prompted me onto other sources of information on the subject which have, to considerable degrees, informed my own writing

Additional thoughts: While I learned a lot from this book, I never fully bought into the author’s theories about the connections between New Englanders, the Indian Wars, and the “devil.” Though plausible enough, the connections didn’t quite gel and weren’t fully tied together until the conclusion, which contributed to a disjointed feeling through much of the book

My rating: 3 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts


Midnight Bayou, Nora Roberts, 2002

My favorite quote: “From this nice, safe distance, I’ve realized I actually like my family.”

Notable characters: Declan Fitzgerald, the handyman; Lena Simone, the bar owner; Miss Odette, Lena’s grandmother

Most memorable scene: The tragedy of Lucian and Abigail in the beginning. That’s what drew me into the story and it remains my favorite part. For me, the rest of the book never quite lived up to the intrigue and drama of that opening sequence

Greatest strengths: Atmosphere 

Standout achievements: Manet Hall, the newly-restored plantation home, was such a vivid part of the story that, for me, it almost stole the show

Fun Facts: In 2007, TIME named Roberts one of their 100 Most Influential People 

Other media: 2009 TV movie starring Jerry O’Connell, Lauren Stamile, and Faye Dunaway

What it taught me: This is going to sound rude, but it’s true: some of the dialogue here is super cringe-worthy and it taught me what NOT to do — specifically in conversations between male characters. At one point, manly-man number one makes manly-man number two turn around so he can compliment his ass. I’m sure that happens but in this context, it was just really awkward 

How it inspired me: This book captures the South in a real way and made me want to visit. I did, much later, and I have to say that as far as setting goes, Nora Roberts nailed it. Well done

Additional thoughts: Though more formulaic that I generally prefer, the reincarnation aspect of this book intrigued me, and over all, I enjoyed it. I just don’t think I’m a fan of this genre. For me, romance makes a nice garnishing, but as the main ingredient, it gets bland

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz


The Sentinel, Jeffrey Konvitz, 1974

My favorite quote: “My dear Miss Parker, aside from the old priest, and now you, no one has lived in that building for three years!”

Notable characters: Alison Parker, the new tenant; Michael, her boyfriend; Charles Chazen, her strangle little neighbor; Gatz, the detective; Miss Logan, the realtor; Father Halliran, the mysterious priest

Most memorable scene: The surprise masturbation scene. Followed closely by the cat’s birthday party, of course. But first, the surprise masturbation scene … 

Greatest strengths: The spook factor. Hands down

Standout achievements: Published at a time when horror fiction was rising to unprecedented heights, this book manages to stand out from the crowd, earning a rightful place next to unforgettable classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist

Fun Facts: My collaborator, Tamara Thorne, and I met Jeffrey Konvitz a few years ago and were able to talk to him about this book and it’s follow-up, the Guardian. Truly fascinating stuff. He remains one of the most interesting writers I’ve have the joy of knowing

Other media: The 1977 film of the same name starring Cristina Raines, Ava Gardner, Chris Sarandon, and Burgess Meredith

What it taught me: So much — but most notably, the power of building intrigue 

How it inspired me: Because this is one of the books I teethed on, it felt appropriate that I pay it some kind of homage in my own work. I did, in my murder mystery, Sleep Savannah Sleep, when I named a school teacher Mr. Chazen, after Alison Parker’s strange little neighbor in the Sentinel. The similarities end at the name, but I enjoyed tipping my hat this creepy little classic

Additional thoughts: Though strange, dated, and perhaps relying a bit too heavily on shock value, this book has that “cozy vintage horror” vibe that always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. For that reason, I overlook a lot of its flaws

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Dark is Getting Deeper


One week from today, Shadowland, book 4 in the Ravencrest Saga, will be available.

Per-order at: https://amzn.to/39edNx5

For the complete series (so far): https://amzn.to/3Ct0163

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton


Guilty Pleasures, Laurell K. Hamilton, 1993 (book 1 of the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series)

My favorite quote: “Most hatred is based on fear, one way or another.”

Notable characters: Anita Blake, the animator/vampire hunter; Nikolaos, the Master vampire of St. Louis; Jean-Claude, owner of Guilty Pleasures, a vampire strip club

Most memorable scene: For me, it was meeting Rafael, the wererat. I didn’t see that coming. I was like, WHAAAT?? A WERERAT!? In cut-offs!?!?

Greatest strengths: The characters. Most notably in this case, Anita Blake. She’s tough, funny, and smart — the kind of character you want to follow into the next book 

Standout achievements: This book (and the rest of the series) blurs genre lines in a refreshing way, merging elements of horror, action, romance, and mystery to create a sparkling concoction that is all the author’s own. Stylistically, it reads a little like hardboiled detective fiction … but with vampires and murder and sexiness all around. The overall result is a mixture of scary/sexy/noir badassery that’s as fun as it is unique

Fun Facts: Beginning in 2006, Marvel Comics and Dabel Brothers Productions released a twelve-issue comic book adaptation based on this series

Other media: The graphic novel series titled, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 

What it taught me: The power of short, declarative sentences to help ramp up the action

How it inspired me: There are a handful of authors who truly compelled me to pick up the pen and write books of my own, and Laurell K. Hamilton is one of them. She has a few writerly superpowers, but specifically, I’m impressed by her ability to create a powerful, multi-sensory experience for the reader. You see what she wants you to see and feel what she wants you to feel. She makes it easy to forget that you’re actually just looking at words on a page, and when I first discovered her in my early twenties, I knew that I wanted to do the same thing 

Additional thoughts: This is the first book of this series and I’ll be posting reviews of the other installments, but not necessarily in the order they were written

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Cold Moon Over Babylon by Michael McDowell


Cold Moon Over Babylon, Michael McDowell, 1980

My favorite quote: “Two cars had passed in the last ten minutes: the fishing hearse and the car from Alabama. Why didn’t someone else come along? How could that happen within sight of her own house?” 

Notable characters: Margaret Larkin, a fourteen-year-old girl; Jerry, her brother; Everlyn, their grandmother; Nathan Redfield, the banker’s son; James Redfield, Nathan’s father; Ted Hale, the sheriff; Belinda Hale, his daughter; Warren Perry, a suspect

Most memorable scene: The first time the man in the zippered leather mask appears. I’ll always remember his hairy chest looking like a sweater lol 

Greatest strengths: This book seamlessly blends drama, horror, Southern gothic, ghost story, and murder mystery, creating a compelling concoction that, like much of McDowell’s work, transcends genre

Standout achievements: I love “evil in a small town” themes, and no one does it better than McDowell. This book exemplifies his talent for hometown horror to the maximum

Fun Facts: Stephen King recommended Cold Moon Over Babylon in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre

Other media: The 2016 film titled Cold Moon starring Josh Stewart and Christopher Lloyd

What it taught me: Pacing, pacing, pacing. And more about blueberries than I’ll probably ever need to know. I’m not complaining — it was interesting. McDowell could make a grocery list interesting

How it inspired me: Everything Michael McDowell does inspires me in some way, and I can say the same for my collaborator, Tamara Thorne. We’re both big fans and are frequently inspired by him when writing our own tales

Additional thoughts: This book reminded me a little of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in that I often found myself wondering if the ghosts were real … or a figment of the killer’s guilty imagination 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Killer Triggers by Joe Kenda


Killer Triggers: Murder Comes Down to Sex, Drugs, or Money, Joe Kenda, 2021 (non-fiction)

My favorite quote: “They say life is random. Death has it beat.”

Notable characters: Lt. Joe Kenda, the retired homicide detective

Most memorable scene: When a sweet little girl kicks Kenda right in the shin for (rightfully) sending her daddy to prison 

Greatest strengths: The voice. Joe Kenda definitely has a way with words. His deadpan humor and take no shit attitude brings this book to life in a way that makes it impossible to stop reading. You’ll catch yourself thinking, “Well, my, my, my,” Kenda-style, long after you finish it 

Standout achievements: Joe Kenda’s level of dedication is the standout achievement

Fun Facts: In his 21 years as homicide detective and commander of the major crimes unit, Kenda and his team solved 356 of his 387 homicide cases — which is a 92% solve rate

Other media: The American true-crime documentary, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda, which ran for nine seasons, and the new series, American Detective, which is still going 

What it taught me: Too much to mention. When it comes to law, crime, forensics, and police procedure in my own writing, I return again and again to Joe Kenda’s books and television series 

How it inspired me: This book gives readers an intimate look at the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve and protect us and it gave me a whole new appreciation and respect for them

Additional thoughts: With his dry wit, dedication, and compassion for the victims, Joe Kenda adds a new layer to the true crime genre — one that, in my opinion, has been much needed for a long, long time 

My rating: 4.5 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett


The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911

My favorite quote: “That is the Magic. Being alive is the Magic …”

Notable characters: Mary Lennox, a lonely 10-year-old; Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper; Dickon, her friend; Colin, a sickly boy

Most memorable scene: When Mary discovers Colin

Greatest strengths: Description 

Standout achievements: Its ability to pull in readers of all ages. I was well into adulthood when I read it and I couldn’t put it down

Fun Facts: Very little is known about the development of this novel, but according to scholar Gretchen V. Rector, who examined the original manuscript, the book’s original title was Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary and the character of Susan Sowerby was originally dead. The author later X’ed out the announcement of Susan’s death and introduced her as a living character

Other media: There are multiple film, television, and theater adaptations of The Secret Garden, beginning as early as 1919 (believed lost) and continuing to present day

What it taught me: The power of setting and description. The author captures nature so vividly you almost think you’re reading the story from the point of view of the roses or the robin at times

How it inspired me: Churning in the dark corners of my mind awaits an untold tale about a magical garden — but mine will be a bad one. One that kills more than heals. Thorns that bleed you dry. Strangling vines that really strangle you. Soil that sucks you underground, disposing of the evidence and using your corpse as compost for the growth of new evil. You get the idea. I don’t have enough for an entire book there, but I did get to use the garden-gone-wrong theme in a nightmare sequence with Jason Crandall, my main character in Sleep Savannah Sleep. Good times were had by all. Except him, of course …  

Additional thoughts: This book reads like butter melts on toast and I, a fully-grown man, am not ashamed to say I love every word of it. I only wish I’d read discovered it sooner

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig


The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Laird Koenig, 1974

My favorite quote: “The night, a living presence, was in constant motion, shifting itself, sighing, breathing. She wondered if perhaps it, too, was trying to get warm.”

Notable characters: Rynn Jacobs, the young protagonist; Mrs. Hallett, the too-inquisitive landlady; Frank Hallet, her son, the child molestor; Ron Migliotori, the cop; Mario, Rynn’s love interest; Leslie Jacobs, the absent father

Most memorable scene: Sitting down for almond cookies and a cup of tea

Greatest strengths: This book has great autumn ambience making it a perfect Halloween read 

Standout achievements: Its nerve. This was written at a time when publishers were churning out horror paperbacks by the hundreds. What sets this one apart is that, unlike so many of its contemporaries, it has no supernatural elements, making it — in my opinion — a very daring little novel

Fun Facts: Rynn was voted the 20th most evil child in literature by Abebooks readers in 2015

Other media: The 1976 film of the same name, starring Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen

What it taught me: That vintage horror is my “comfort” read

How it inspired me: The “evil child” trope is one that I haven’t explored much in my own work (though Tamara Thorne and I have discussed it quite a lot) and every time I read this book, I’m reminded why I want to do it one day

Additional thoughts: This is one of a small handful of books I read every October for Halloween

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Black Wasp is Available in Audiobook!


Just in time for Halloween, The Black Wasp, book 3 in the Vampires of Crimson Cove series, is available at Audible.com!: https://adbl.co/3EpKKon

Something is coming.
Cade Colter is dealing with a group of fanatical vampire killers even as he grieves the death of his girlfriend at the fangs of his own brother. His life is in turmoil and just when it seems things couldn’t get worse a new evil comes to town.

The Woman in Black is back.
Now, something else roams the streets of Crimson Cove – something far deadlier than any vampire. She comes with the fog, she comes with the night, and she’s spreading a lethal poison that slowly rots her victims from the inside out … and she’s looking for Cade.

Sooner or later, you’ll see her, too.
First comes the deadly low hum of a thousand black wasps …

Then a feeling of dread so deep and cold that you dare not breathe …

A figure, a woman dressed in old-fashioned widow’s weeds, appears before you …

Don’t Scream.
She wants to know your terror. She wants to taste your pain.

For the rest of the series:

The Crimson Corset

eBook: https://amzn.to/3ePl34T

Paper: https://amzn.to/3xCgTWx

Audio: https://adbl.co/3nKUMbV

The Silver Dagger

eBook: https://amzn.to/3vxN87n

Paper: https://amzn.to/2PCMsOL

Audio: https://adbl.co/3gFaZw1

The Black Wasp

eBook: https://amzn.to/3gxVmGD

Paper: https://amzn.to/3xcJUqK

Audio: https://adbl.co/3EpKKon

Shadowland is Coming …


We are 14 days away from Shadowland … and the eyes are ever-watchful …

Shadowland, book 4 in the Ravencrest Saga, is coming September 29th.

Get the rest of the series:

The Ghosts of Ravencrest: https://amzn.to/3hiiZDR

The Witches of Ravencrest: https://amzn.to/2T6tEcm

Exorcism: https://amzn.to/2T3GBUj

Violin by Anne Rice


Violin, Anne Rice, 1997

My favorite quote: “Dig deep, deep, my soul, to find the heart – the blood, the heat, the shrine and resting place.”

Notable characters: Triana, a grieving widow; Stefan, the ghostly violinist; Katrinka, Triana’s sister; Karl, Triana’s deceased husband

Most memorable scene: When Triana lies down with Karl for the last time. Ye gads! I couldn’t get through that scene the first time I read it and had to put the book down. I finally continued at the insistence of a dear friend who’d highly recommended it — and I’m glad I did. But damn. Rough stuff

Greatest strengths: Its ability to invoke emotion 

Standout achievements: This book is slow, dark, and complicated. It’s gruelling, torturous, overly-visceral, and at times, downright gross. But it’s also beautiful and uplifting. For these reasons and more, readers can largely be divided into two groups: those who love it and those who hate it. I’m someone who loves it. I don’t understand why it impacts some folks so negatively, but just read the reviews and you’ll see how angry it makes people. It’s remarkable — and I consider that kind of audience response a major standout achievement. Well done, Ms. Rice

Fun Facts: My collaborator and podcast partner, Tamara Thorne, and I had the pleasure of meeting Anne not so long ago. I asked her about Violin, and as I suspected, this one is very special to her

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: This book is uncomfortably intimate with death — the imagery, the emotions, all of it — and if it taught me anything, it’s that a good writer won’t shy away from the difficult, unpleasant stuff

How it inspired me: When I introduced Father Scarlotti in the Vampires of Crimson Cove series, I deliberately gave him echoes of Stefan, the violin-playing ghost, as a kind of homage to Violin

Additional thoughts: This is the only book I’ve ever read that ripped my heart out by its bloody roots … then turned around and gave me hope. It’s one of the best — if not the best — books I’ve ever read

My rating: 5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, 1847

My favorite quote: “If you ever looked at me once with what I know is in you, I would be your slave.”

Notable characters: Heathcliff, the brooding bad boy, Catherine, the obstinate bad girl

Most memorable scene: Mr. Lockwood’s dream about Cathy. Spooky, good stuff

Greatest strengths: Atmosphere. A lot of people (mostly folks who haven’t read it, I’ve noticed) consider this a novel of great romance. Personally, I found it about as romantic as a hard kick in the nuts, but that’s just me. It was all about the atmosphere for me

Standout achievements: Bronte’s ability to create such a timeless conflict among readers for her characters. I can’t help thinking people would like Heathcliff and Catherine better if they accepted that they aren’t necessarily supposed to be liked … if that makes sense

Fun Facts: The content of this book caused the Victorian public to believe it was written by a man, and Emily Bronte wasn’t named as the author until 1850, three years after it was published

Other media: Endless film, TV, and theater  adaptations (most of which cut out the second half of the story). This novel had also made its way onto the music scene, most notably, a Kate Bush song of the same name — which I totally dig, btw

What it taught me: That setting is a character, too

How it inspired me: This book is structurally ambiguous (some will say flawed) revealing seriously ambiguous (and irrefutably flawed) characters and it has me wanting to go brood on the moors. Since there aren’t any moors nearby (and I quickly tire of brooding) I try to inject the same feelings into my own work (where it’s appropriate) that I felt while reading this book

Additional thoughts: There was something ambivalent and, at times, decidedly menacing about Emily Bronte’s imagination. It shows in Wuthering Heights — and I like it. It’s that strange light-in-the-darkness, love-wrapped-in-hate, hope-in-the-depths-of-despair hybridized kind of thinking that draws me into this novel every time I pick it up

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Nanny by Dan Greenburg


The Nanny, Dan Greenburg, 1987

My favorite quote: “Something was happening to Phil, his wife and his baby, something hideous, and Phil was still trying to understand what it was and what to do about it and how people as normal and nice as they were could have had such a thing happen to them.”

Notable characters: Julie Pressman, the mother; Phil Pressman, the daddy; Harry, the baby; Luci Redman, the mysterious nanny 

Most memorable scene: When Phil suspects he sees Luci breastfeeding the baby

Greatest strengths: Its mystery. This book keeps the reader asking questions throughout … and long afterward … 

Standout achievements: I often finish books and couldn’t tell you anything about them six months later — but this one really stuck with me. The imagery is very vivid — probably due to its concise writing — and I’m surprised by how much I remember

Fun Facts: Uma Thurman was initially slated for the part of Camilla (Luci Redman, the nanny) in the film

Other media: The 1990 film, The Guardian, is based on this book … though the two are very different entities

What it taught me: Honestly, as much as I enjoyed this book, I think too many things went unresolved. While I generally enjoy ‘indeterminate endings,’ this is one of those books that reminds me that there is such a thing as too many loose ends

How it inspired me: The attraction and sexuality here is very well-drawn, and I frequently refer to this book when I’m looking to ramp up the hormones and sexual tension in my own work

Additional thoughts: I’m a fan of unique villains and in many ways, that’s what saves this book for me. Luci Redman — or Nanny, as she insists on being called — is nothing if not a fresh-faced, new kind of monster 

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist


Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2004

My favorite quote: “She showed her true face – there was something in it that was… Pure Horror.”

Notable characters: Oskar, the bullied 12-year-old; Eli, a centuries-old vampire trapped in a 12-year-old’s body; Hakan, the former teacher who helps her get blood

Most memorable scene: Hakan and the acid. Jesus Christ. 

Greatest strengths: Lindqvist writes vampires in a whole new way — a way that tells an entirely different story that manages to add to, rather than subtract from, the integrity of the genre

Standout achievements: This book tackles some seriously heavy issues (alcoholism, pedophilia, self-harm, bullying, and death, just to name a few) without being preachy or pretentious — and above all else, without compromising the plot. Well done  

Fun Facts: The title of this book is a reference to Morrissey’s song, Let the Right One Slip In (one of the few I kinda like)

Other media: Most notably, the 2008 film of the same name

What it taught me: As a writer, this book reminds me that it doesn’t pay to wander and overindulge. I sincerely believe this would be a stronger, cleaner, more memorable novel if it were dramatically condensed  

How it inspired me: It really didn’t. Unlike most of the population, this one didn’t do a whole lot for me in terms of entertainment or inspiration. I feel the same way about the movie. From what little I remember, it was all right

Additional thoughts: While I didn’t love this book, it does prove that horror can — and often does — have literary merit. 

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs


The Figure in the Shadows (book 2 of the Lewis Barnavelt series), John Bellairs, 1975

My favorite quote: “The figure walked forward, out of the lamplight. Now it was standing before Lewis. Lewis smelled something. He smelled cold ashes. Cold, wet ashes.”

Notable characters: Lewis Barnavelt, an orphan; Rose Rita, his friend; Jonathan, his uncle, a warlock; Florence Zimmerman, a witch

Most memorable scene: The figure stepping out of the shadows, of course. It haunted me (deliciously) for years

Greatest strengths: Characters

Standout achievements: For me, it’s the way it stuck with me. When I was in my 20s and 30s I decided to go back and re-buy all of the childhood books I’d loved and lost over the years. This wasn’t easy because I couldn’t remember titles or authors — just snippets of the stories. This one was one of the hardest to locate. I worked my ass off to find it — but finally, a few years ago, I did, and I love it as much now as I did then 

Fun Facts: I read this every October

Other media: N/A, though the first in this series, The House with a Clock in its Walls, was made into a movie in 2018 

What it taught me: The power of the macabre

How it inspired me: Having read this book at a tender age, I’m sure it left an indelible impression on my young writer’s mind. The imagery never left me — hooded figures, spooky sounds, and shifting fog — the kinds of things that show up frequently in my own work. I’m sure a lot of that can be traced back to this book

Additional thoughts: Growing up in the 80s and 90s there were cruel names for boys who didn’t like to do boy-like things and made friends more easily with girls than members of their own sex. Being a boy who liked books over baseballs, I naturally bonded more quickly with girls, and for this, I paid a high price among my penis-weilding peers. But this book gave me hope. Not only is Lewis’ best friend a girl, but his uncle Jonathan’s best friend is a woman — their neighbor, Florence. I read this and for the first time, I saw a world I could comfortably inhabit. And that, my friends, is the power of books 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious


Peyton Place, Grace Metalious, 1956

My favorite quote: “The public loves to create a hero. Sometimes I think they do it for the sheer joy of knocking him down from the highest peak. Like a child who builds a house of blocks and then destroys it with one vicious kick.”

Notable characters: Allison MacKenzie, a young girl growing up in Peyton Place; Constance MacKenzie, her mother; Selena Cross, her best friend; Peyton Place, a small New Hampshire town, which is a character in and of itself

Most memorable scene: When the town drunk shows up at church

Greatest strengths: Its utter un-put-down-ability. Reading this book is like looking in your neighbor’s windows, but without the creepy feeling that comes with it. Not that I’ve ever done that. I just imagine it would probably feel creepy. Unless you’re a total perv. Then you might not feel creepy. Anyway … 

Standout achievements: I’d say the speed with which this book worked its way up academic ladder is pretty f*cking remarkable. It went from “trash writing” to “a major landmark in American literature” in just a few decades

Fun Facts: Written at a time when debut novels were expected to sell 3,000 copies, Peyton Place sold 100,000 in its first month, making its way into the bedrooms of innumerable American housewives, next to the secret stash of vodka 

Other media: A 1957 film, as well as a 1964-1969 TV show

What it taught me: A lot about the design and arrangement of plot, and a few things about the world. This book serves as a fine example that while societal views of morality may change, human nature itself never really does

How it inspired me: Peyton Place is FUN to read, and a big part of that is because of its structure. It’s written in 3rd person with multiple viewpoints, and after reading it, I decided I’d tell my tales the same way. That way, I could walk in the shoes of my characters and observe the world from various points-of-view, which is fun for me as the writer. More importantly, it lets readers glimpse the secret lives of the characters, which is fun for them 

Additional thoughts: Suicide, murder, alcoholism, abortion, drunk driving, incest, and rape, this book is classic trash at its addictive best, and if you ask me, everyone should read it 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Rose Madder by Stephen King


Rose Madder, Stephen King, 1995

My favorite quote: “Sometimes men had to learn what it was to be afraid of a woman.”

Notable characters: Rose McClendon Daniels, the woman beginning a new life; Norman Daniels, the husband who won’t allow it

Most memorable scene: When Rose sees that single drop of blood when she’s making the bed

Greatest strengths: Stephen King writes women better than a lot of women do, and Rose Madder illustrates this talent in a way that concretizes all the hype of his literary abilities

Standout achievements: This book opens with one of the most visceral scenes of domestic violence I’ve ever read. The reason I consider this a standout achievement is because that single scene is powerful enough to singularly propel the rest of the story — that scene is the foundation on which the entire plot rests … and everything that happens afterward is justified because of it 

Fun Facts: In the prologue, Rose is reading Misery’s Journey — an installment from a fictional series by the equally fictional Paul Sheldon from King’s novel, Misery

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That if the characters are good, I’ll follow them anywhere. Even into a strange side story about a moving painting that kinda doesn’t make a whole lot of sense … 

How it inspired me: It’s because of Stephen King that I always know my ending when I start my story. I know he likes to do a lot of bragging about how he doesn’t know how his stories will end until he gets there, but the problem is, sometimes, it shows. Sometimes, it’s pretty apparent he didn’t really know how to wrap it up. While not the worst example of this by a long shot, this is one of those times

Additional thoughts: Stephen King famously writes fantastic villains, and while most of them get plenty of attention (Jack Torrance, Annie Wilkes, Pennywise, Randall Flagg) some of them fall through the cracks. This is the case with Rose’s husband, Norman Daniels. He’s a great villain who, in my opinion, goes largely ignored, and shouldn’t. He’s not supernatural, he’s worse — he’s an abusive f*cking prick

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 1974


My favorite quote: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”


Notable characters: Phaedrus, the narrator’s former self


Most memorable scene: No single scene really stands out for me


Greatest strengths: The writing is very seductive. I don’t know how else to word it. Once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down … even though I desperately wanted to at times


Standout achievements: Reading is like sitting down with the philosophers and having a very long (but fascinating) conversation


Fun Facts: This book was rejected 121 times before it was accepted for publication
Other media: N/A


What it taught me: This book touches on a lot of the themes of Buddhism which set me on a quest to learn more about it


How it inspired me: I’m currently working on the 4th book in Vampires of Crimson Cove series and my character Brooks Colter (who isn’t the book type) just discovered a copy of it on his bookish younger brother’s shelf. Thinking it’s about motorcycles (Brooks is a car guy) he picks it up — and loves it. My thinking is that it will help him come to terms with some things going on in his own (totally f*cked up) life.


As for how this book inspired me personally, I read this when I was young — about seventeen, I think — and it not only prompted me to examine myself a little more closely at the time, but it created a habit of self-reflection that I still carry with me today. I feel like someone who knows himself very well — and this book played a part in that
Additional thoughts: There are times when the author starts to sound a bit pretentious. Some of the logic is weak, too. These are usually deal-breakers for me, but I got through the book and mostly enjoyed it. It’s a mixed bag, I guess


My rating: 4 of 5


Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Color Purple by Alice Walker


The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982

My favorite quote: “I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to…”

Notable characters: Celie, a fourteen-year-old girl; Nettie, her 12-year-old sister; Mister, the man who marries Celie; Shug Avery, a blues singer and Mister’s mistress; Harpo, Mister’s son; Sofia, Harpo’s wife 

Most memorable scene: When Celie curses Mister and doesn’t back down, despite his reply: “Who you think you is? he say. You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.”

Greatest strengths: The characters — namely, Celie, who is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful entities to ever exist in literature

Standout achievements: I sincerely believe this book has the power to change minds, hearts, and lives 

Fun Facts: In 1983, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer, making Alice Walker the first black woman to ever win it

Other media: The 1985 Steven Spielberg film of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey

What it taught me: This is one of those rare books that reaches inside of you and rearranges things. To pin down a single lesson isn’t possible — it opened my eyes in a hundred different ways, and I recommend it to everyone

How it inspired me: I imagine that any writer will come away from this book wanting to dig a little deeper into the meat of their own work. Authors like Walker serve as a lesson in unflinching storytelling and prove that real horror isn’t about ghosts, werewolves, and vampires, but the world we live in, the places we come from, and the future we’ll inherit unless we learn from the past 

Additional thoughts: While there’s a lot about love, loyalty, spirituality, and personal strength in this book, it also dives deep into all the things we don’t like to talk about: racism, sexism, rape, physical and verbal abuse, and hate. It’s uncomfortable, even painful at times. Read it anyway

My rating: 5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Ghost Walk by Heather Graham


Ghost Walk, Heather Graham, 2005

My favorite quote: “ … you can get the same feeling at a Civil War battle site — even with all the bodies removed. I guess it’s a way of feeling the past, of history, people, the emotions. Remnants of the lives that were lived there, lost there.” 

Notable characters: Nikki DuMonde, the ghost tour guide; Andy, her recently-deceased friend; Brent Blackhawk, the paranormal investigator

Most memorable scene: Andy’s middle-of-the-night visit

Greatest strengths: Its setting. I went to New Orleans many years after reading this and was amazed by the detail and accuracy of the author. The above ground cemeteries, the French Quarter, the ghost tours … Graham really nailed the atmosphere here

Standout achievements: Ms. Graham’s crafty concealment of the killer (say that 5 times fast)

Fun Facts: This is one of many books I’ve picked up in various bookstores over the years simply because I liked the cover … and this practice has yet to fail me. Don’t listen to them when they say you can’t judge a book by its cover 

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: Few people write romance as well as Heather Graham and when I’m looking to create emotional and sexual tension between two characters, I frequently refer to her work

How it inspired me: It made me want to go to New Orleans

Additional thoughts: I didn’t know until later that this book is part of a series — a very good series, I must say, and I am glad to have discovered it

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

They Thirst by Robert McCammon


They Thirst, Robert McCammon, 1981

My favorite quote: “Well, look around. Just look. Have you ever considered the possibility that God might be insane?”

Notable characters: Andy, the detective; the Roach, a rapist and murderer; Gayle, a reporter; Rico, a gangster

Most memorable scene: When the albino opens fire in that bar in Texas

Greatest strengths: This book has a huge cast and multiple points of view, but in the hands of a master like McCammon, it reads seamlessly

Standout achievements: The prose itself. Few writers have the language at their command like Robert McCammon does

Fun Facts: Citing that he didn’t feel it measured up to his later efforts, McCammon took this book out of print for several years

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: McCammon excels at a lot of things, but what I’ve learned from him most — and from this book in particular — is how to effectively construct compelling action sequences

How it inspired me: While writing The Black Wasp, I was trying to figure out how my villain, Gretchen, might summon Emeric, her old friend, from several cities away. I remembered a scene in They Thirst where Wes Richer’s wife, a medium, makes contact with an evil spirit who warns them about vampires through a Ouija board. Somehow, this gave me the idea that vampires, being technically dead, might possibly be able to communicate through divining methods … so I added a seance to one of Emeric’s scenes, and viola! … Gretchen made contact 

Additional thoughts: This book has a definite Dracula “vibe,” including a serial killer reminiscent of Renfield — but at the same time, it’s a unique work that stands on its own and, in my opinion, is in no way inferior to the author’s later works. I don’t know what he was thinking by taking this book out of print. I suspect there’s more to that story … but that’s none of my business …  

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart


Thornyhold, Mary Stewart, 1988

My favorite quote: “I had always been content to know that there was more in the living world than we could hope to understand.”

Notable characters: Geillis Ramsey, the heir; Thornyhold, the cottage she inherits; Christopher Dryden, the widowed writer; Agnes Trapp, a mysterious local

Most memorable scene: The pigeons in the attic

Greatest strengths: Its imagery. Stewart’s descriptions of the gardens (and English country life in general) made my mouth water

Standout achievements: This book flirts with the paranormal in a way that leaves things up for debate. I consider this a standout achievement because it’s so true to life in that way

Fun Facts: This book references the North Berwick witch trials of 1590 — and specifically, Agnes Sampson and Geillis Duncan, who were among the accused

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That when it comes to the unbelievable, less is more

How it inspired me: I’ve always preferred stories that straddle the boundaries between reality and fantasy — that way, when the supernatural elements are introduced, they’re believable. This book has nailed that down in a way few others have, and even though it’s been a few years since I read it, I often think of it when my own writing starts getting a little too “out there” and I need to reel things in

Additional thoughts: I found this to be an oddly soul-soothing book. I’m not sure how else to explain. It just made me feel … good … 

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie


Cat Among the Pigeons, Agatha Christie, 1959

My favorite quote: “No sign, so far, of anything sinister—but I live in hope.”

Notable characters: Hercule Poirot, the detective; Inspector Kelsey, and investigating officer; Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank School for Girls

Most memorable scene: When Julia finds smuggled jewels in the handle of a racket. Good times

Greatest strengths: The deception in this one is particularly sly 

Standout achievements: While Agatha Christie writes a damn good whodunit, she also excels at international intrigue, which is the jumping off point for this book’s plot

Fun Facts: While this is considered a Hercule Poirot book, he doesn’t actually appear until the final act

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: Agatha Christie doesn’t waste words – ever. I try always to follow her example in my own work

How it inspired me: I utilized a couple of this book’s deception and concealment tricks in my murder-mystery, Sleep Savannah Sleep 

Additional thoughts: I bought a used copy of this and as soon as I brought it home, I started having really horrifying nightmares involving giant house cats. Then my dogs started barking at something only they could see at the top of the stairs. When I started finding the book in places I SWEAR I never set it, I made the connection and threw the book out. Things improved immediately. My takeaway: I got nothing. I still have no idea what to think

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck


Ghosts I Have Been, Richard Peck, 1977

My favorite quote: “The truth is too much for some people and too little for others.”

Notable characters: Blossom Culp, the girl who sees ghosts; Alexander, her friend and partner-in-crime

Most memorable scene: Blossom’s visions of the sinking of the Titanic

Greatest strengths: It’s historical flavor 

Standout achievements: The prose is surprisingly beautiful. It pulls you right along the same way good poetry does

Fun Facts: After cutting his teaching career short to be a writer in 1971, Richard Peck went on to write and publish a book every year for the next 41 years

Other media: N/A, although the first book in the Blossom Culp series, The Ghost Belonged to Me, was adapted into a film of the same name in 1976

What it taught me: A good book is a good book, regardless of its intended age-group or audience. I appreciated story as much in my thirties (if not more) than I would have in grade or middle school

How it inspired me: Peck is one of those authors who makes me want to be a better writer myself. His prose is both simple and pretty … and make no mistake, that’s not easy

Additional thoughts: I would have loved this book as a kid, and I remember seeing it around a lot at school, but somehow, I never got the chance to read it. I even managed to check it out at the library once, but for reasons I don’t remember, it just never happened. So, when I got older, I figured I owed it to my childhood self to track it down, and I’m glad I did. I loved it so much I bought every book in the series … and as many of Peck’s standalones I could get my hands on … and they’re all pretty awesome 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Key to Midnight by Dean Koontz


The Key to Midnight, Dean Koontz, 1979

Favorite quote: “The room was rapidly shrinking to the size of a coffin, and she foresaw the conditions of the grave so clearly that she could actually feel the cold, damp embrace of eternity.”

Characters: Joanna Rand, the woman without a past; Alex Hunter, the love interest; Oni Inamura, the doctor; Mariko, Joanna’s friend

Most memorable scene: When Joanna woke from a nightmare at six in the morning and Alex came in and started making out with her before she even had a chance to rinse with Listerine. 

Strengths: The climax

Standout achievements: The absence of Koontz’s trademark super-smart golden retriever and unrealistically precocious child (I call it an achievement because, come to find out, his books are better without them)

Fun Facts: Key to Midnight is the first novel written under the Leigh Nichols pseudonym

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: While I’m a believer in following the rules of English, there’s such a thing as trying too hard — and there’s a lot of that in this one. Should you choose to give this book a gander, brace yourselves for such clunkery as “Joanna sat at the small rosewood desk on which stood the telephone.” Is it correct? Yes. Is it how people talk? No, and that’s why I’m listing this as one of the books that taught me the importance and power of conversational tones over semantic technicality. The goal, after all, is to reach the reader, not impress the scholars

How it inspired me:  Aside from his tendency to get a bit too linguistically punctilious at times (see what I did there?) few writers understand the beauty of the language like Koontz. His ability to make anything pretty inspires me to dig deeper, to seek better, stronger ways of wording things — and every time I finish one of his books, I come away a little more informed  

Additional thoughts: From her failed suicide attempt to her chronic state of angst, the character of Joanna is a drama queen of the highest kind. I get that she was brainwashed amid some government conspiracy and all, but holy eff, ya’ll. She kind of ruined the book for me

Rating: 3.5 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

And The There Were None by Agatha Christie


And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie, 1939

My favorite quote: “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman—probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.”

Notable characters: William Henry Blore, the PI; Isaac Morris, the owner of the island; Edward Armstrong, the doctor; Emily Brent, the spinster; General MacArthur; the retired war her; Philip Lombard, the mercenary; Vera Claythorne, the former governess; Mr. Justice Wargrave, the retired judge; Thomas Rogers, the Butler; Ethel Rogers, the housekeeper; Anthony Martson, the careless young buck … and very bad driver 

Most memorable scene: For me, it was definitely when the record comes on, accusing each of the guests of their previous crimes

Greatest strengths: No one can hide a killer in plain sight like Agatha Christie can … there’s a reason she’s the “Queen of Crime”

Standout achievements: This book, like many of her others, somehow manages to be both cozy and macabre — a rare feat in a genre that’s often a little too “cute” for my tastes. I mean, it IS murder, after all … 

Fun Facts: Described by Christie herself as the most difficult novel she ever wrote, this book is the world’s best-selling mystery and is the sixth best-selling title in any language with over 100 million copies sold

Other media: The radio, television, stage, play, and film adaptations of this one are too numerous to mention on any platform that limits character amounts. My best advice is to Google it

What it taught me: From Christie in general, and this book in particular, I’ve learned various ways of concealing my villains in situations where the baddies might be anyone 

How it inspired me: This is the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read, which set me on my path as a lifelong fan of her work. 

Additional thoughts: This is one of the few books I’ve reread again and again — and every time, I’m still somehow shocked by the big reveal!

My rating: 5 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule


The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule, 1980 (non-fiction)

My favorite quote: Well, this is the one that hooked me: “If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.”

Notable characters: Ann Rule, the author; Ted Bundy, her friend, the serial killer

Most memorable scene: It’s hard to break this book down the same way I’ve been doing with fiction books. The Stranger Beside Me is real … and it’s terrifying. So, as for memorable scenes, there isn’t a single one. There can’t be. What stands out to me most, though, is how many women crossed paths with Bundy and survived simply because they listened to that little voice in the back of their mind that told them something was wrong

Greatest strengths: The prose. Ann Rule knows her way around words and if she hadn’t made it as a true crime writer, she could have thrived as a mystery/thriller novelist

Standout achievements: This book has a rare ability to compel, disgust, exhaust, teach, and terrify all at the same time

Fun Facts: There was a 2008 update of this book (which is the one I read) that includes more stories from women who contacted Ann Rule after the release of this book with (mostly substantiated) claims to have come into contact with Bundy and survived 

Other media: The 2003 made-for-TV film of same name starring Barbara Hershey and Billy Campbell 

What it taught me: This is the book that taught me just about everything I know (and everything there is to know) about Ted Bundy

How it inspired me: I lock my doors every night now. While I certainly would never have qualified as Bundy’s preferred victim type, I was astounded by how many of his crimes were only a matter of opportunity — by how many times he chose his victim simply because her door was unlocked and he was able to walk in

Additional thoughts: There is one thing that bothered me about this book: Ann Rule’s continued friendship with Bundy, long after it was obvious to her (and everyone else) that he was guilty. The way she suspended judgment on him just never sat well with me

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner


Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Judith Rossner, 1975

My favorite quote: “I’d rather be seduced than comforted.”

Notable characters: Theresa Dunne, a woman leading a double life; James, the man who loves her; Martin Engle, the professor; Tony, a lover; Gary White, the killer

Most memorable scene: The closing one. I was so shook I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even my cat was like, wtf? (sometimes I read to her)

Greatest strengths: Its setting. This book brings 1970s New York to full life. Not just the scenery but the attitudes of the time — particularly those concerning sex, women, and feminism

Standout achievements: Although based on a real-life case, this book really, really works as novel — much more so than many novelizations of real world events

Fun Facts: In 1973, Judith Rossner wrote an article for Esquire about the brutal murder of a schoolteacher named Roseann Quinn, who’d been killed earlier that year by a man she’d picked up in a bar. For fear of legal consequences, the magazine chose not to publish the article, so Rossner wrote a book about it instead. When it was adapted into film two years later, Rossner claimed that she “detested” it, though she praised the performance of Diane Keaton

Other media: The 1977 film of the same name, starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere (if you can f*cking find it, that is)

What it taught me: Well, not to go home with strangers I meet in bars for one thing … but really, I think this book is a kind of period piece that, if nothing else, sheds light on the pre-AIDS free-sex era and its sometimes deadly sonsequences. While not exactly a book I’d list as a MUST-READ, I found it to be deeply psychological and I think anyone who decides to give it a go will come away with something personally relevant 

How it inspired me: I thought the character Tony was especially interesting for some reason and found myself making mental notes of his mannerisms and speech patterns. So far, I haven’t utilized any of it, but you never know … one day, a fidgety, traumatized womanizer just might show up in one of my books … 

Additional thoughts: I didn’t realize this was based on a true story when I read it and was surprised and haunted by the way it just … ends. In that way, it reminded me of The Diary of Anne Frank — one minute you’re just reading merrily along and then BAM! It’s over. There’s something really riveting about that. Riveting and … sad 

My rating: 4 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Winter Moon by Dean Koontz


Winter Moon, Dean Koontz, 1994 (originally titled “Invasion” under the pseudonym, Aaron Wolfe, in 1975)

My favorite quote: “Maybe when all was said and done, the imagination was the most powerful of all weapons.”

Notable characters: Jack McGarvey, the cop; Eduardo Fernandez; the father of Jack’s late partner; the Giver, a dangerous and mysterious being

Most memorable scene: The rise of the corpses

Greatest strengths: Its creep factor

Standout achievements: This book has some of the best horror scenes you’ll ever read

Fun Facts: Aaron Wolfe is just one of several Dean Koontz used to write under. His other nom de plumes include Owen West, David Axton, Leigh Nichols, Deanna Dwyer, and Brian Coffey

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That even elements of sci-fi (my least favorite genre) have their place … as long as they’re really horror-y, that is

How it inspired me: While it isn’t a story about zombies, per se, Winter Moon has some of the goriest, most gruesome depictions of them out there. It made me want to write a zombie novel … and I’m not even into that

Additional thoughts: Anyone who knows me knows I have a love/hate relationship with Dean Koontz, and this one, Winter Moon, is a solid example of why I love him when I do

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Come Out Tonight by Richard Laymon


Come Out Tonight, Richard Laymon, 1999


My favorite quote: “Her sweaty body glistened golden in the candlelight as if she’d been rubbed with melted butter.” You just can’t beat that kind of cheese …


Notable characters: Sherry Gates, the substitute teacher; Duane, the boyfriend who goes on an ill-fated condom-related errand; Toby Bones, the diabolical sex-crazed teen; Pete and Jeff, the sixteen-year-old pals who make a gruesome discovery


Most memorable scene: When Toby’s brother, Sid, has a meeting with the drill


Greatest strengths: Laymon — and this book in particular — has a way of making you feel like you need a bath when you finish his books. I consider that a writerly superpower
Standout achievements: The outrageousness. While some fault Laymon for his over-the-top tendencies, I consider it part of his appeal


Fun Facts: Richard Laymon is widely considered an influential figure in the “splatterpunk” movement — a subgenre of horror made famous for its gruesome depictions of violence and gore


Other media: N/A


What it taught me: This book reminded me of how much fun horror can be. Full of tits and ass, bloodshed and bad decisions, Come Out Tonight is Laymon at his most Laymon-y


How it inspired me: While a little Laymon goes a long way for me, I always come away from his books with new, twisted ideas. Sometimes, I write something and ask myself, “But … is the sex/gore factor here Laymon-worthy?”


Additional thoughts: Chock-full of Laymon’s signature brutal violence and filthy sex, Come Out Tonight will appeal to lovers of slasher-satire type tales … and promptly turn off the squeamish and easily-offended


My rating: 3.5 of 5


Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier


Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938

My favorite quote: I know everyone is expecting me to say, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” but I’m actually going to go with, “I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love.”  Followed closely by, “Men are simpler than you imagine my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone.”

Notable characters: The unnamed narrator; Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter, her brooding new husband; Rebecca, his dead wife; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper

Most memorable scene: When the unnamed narrator dresses as Rebecca for the big ball … 

Greatest strengths: The narration, plain and simple. This book is literary gold! Writers should read this. Readers should read this. People who don’t like to read should read this, and people who can’t read should learn to read so they can read it. You catch my drift … 

Standout achievements: I can’t think of another book that has inspired the work of so many other authors. Not only does almost every writer I know cite Rebecca as a major influencer, but in 2019, the BBC News named Rebecca on its list of 100 most inspiring novels 

Fun Facts: An edition of this book was used by Germans in World War II as a key to a book code, which Ken Follet expounded upon (fictionally) in his novel, The Key to Rebecca

Other media: The radio, film, television, and stage adaptations are wide and many, the most famous being the 1940 Alfred Hitchock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. And even though I thought it could have benefitted from more shadow and fog, I also really liked the 2020 Netflix version starring Lily James and Armie Hammer

What it taught me: The power of “quiet” horror — that the soft creak on the stairs is often scarier than the ax-wielding madman

How it inspired me: I’m not going to lie. Gladiola Gelding, Sheriff Ethan Hunter’s overbearing next-door neighbor in my Vampires of Crimson Cove series was totally inspired by Mrs. Van Hopper, the unnamed narrator’s employer at the beginning of the book. Not to mention that Mrs. Danvers has served as a great model for our own head housekeeper, Ms. Heller, in the gothic Thorne & Cross series, The Ravencrest Saga. And I’m sure there’s more than that … 

Additional thoughts: This is one of the only books I’ve ever read where every single element (plot, description, pacing, setting, characters, and climax) is equally strong. Sometimes, you read a classic and wonder why it’s a classic. Rebecca isn’t one of those books. I totally get all the hype surrounding this one

My rating: 5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Dark Half by Stephen King


The Dark Half, Stephen King, 1989

My favorite quote: “You’re dead, George. You just don’t have the sense to lie down.”

Notable characters: Thad Beaumont, the writer; George Stark, his dark half

Most memorable scene: Thad’s childhood surgery to remove the partial remains of his unborn “twin” 

Greatest strengths: Some of the most gruesome descriptions ever. Even for a King novel, there is a lot of very horrific and memorable imagery in this one 

Standout achievements: Its smooth merging of noir, gothic, and horror 

Fun Facts: In the 1970s and 80s, Stephen King wrote several books under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Writing The Dark Half was his response to being outed as the real author of the Bachman books 

Other media: The 1993 film of the same name by George Romero, starring Timothy Hutton. A DOS video game adaptation in 1992 by Capstone Software. A coming film adaption to be written and directed by Alex Ross Perry

What it taught me: That even the most unique and intriguing concepts require good execution  

How it inspired me: I’ve often thought about how to put a unique twist on the idea of a fictional character coming to life. So far, I got nothin’ … but I did once I write a poem about it (The Book of Morbid Methods)

Additional thoughts: While the idea of a pseudonym gone wild is actually pretty brilliant, I didn’t love this one. In my opinion, it wandered, repeated itself, and went on too long. On the other hand, there are moments in this book I’ll never forget … so it’s a mixed bag … 

My rating: 3.5 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Blood Farm by Sam Siciliano


Blood Farm, Sam Siciliano, 1988

My favorite quote: Just that it calls itself “an Iowa Gothic” on the cover. What is an Iowa Gothic? Do we need Iowa Gothics? 

Notable characters: Mike Michaels, the Viet Nam vet; Angela Rosalba, the hitchhiker, Dr. Blut, the creepy owner of Blut Farm; Ursula, his beautiful daughter

Most memorable scene: I seem to remember some dude being eaten by pigs … 

Greatest strengths: The atmosphere. I felt the winter cold in my bones 

Standout achievements: Blood Farm is extremely visceral. It spares the reader no tawdry detail and for that, I must admit, I like it 

Fun Facts: This book is now of print and considered rare

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: The power of great imagery

How it inspired me: This was one of a few horror novels I read twenty-some years ago when I decided that writing books was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life … so, as cheesy as this book is, in a way, it altered my course. Just goes to show that you never know what might change your life.

Additional thoughts: This isn’t a great book. It head-hops, over-describes, repeats itself, and the plot is about as thin as lukewarm chicken broth. Even so, I liked it. A lot. It’s special to me, but I just can’t, in good conscience, give it a great rating. 

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

On the Street Where You Live by Mary Higgins Clark


On the Street Where You Live, Mary Higgins Clark, 2001

My favorite quote: “If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for life, love what you do.”

Notable characters: Emily Graham, a criminal defense attorney; Madeline, her ancestor 

Most memorable scene: When the bodies are dug up in Emily’s yard. I hope it gave her nightmares for years to come

Greatest strengths: It has a pretty cover. I like red books

Standout achievements: Well, it certainly wasn’t the author’s ability to conceal the identity of the killer … 

Fun Facts: This is MHC’s 24th book. Whee. 

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That if you’re going to use a dizzying amount of characters and side stories in a book, they need to be well-developed and distinguishable if you want your readers to follow along. It also taught me that I’m not a fan of Mary Higgins Clark 

How it inspired me: It didn’t. Not even a little. It reads like an especially weak episode of Murder, She Wrote 

Additional thoughts: This is one of several books I’ve read by Mary Higgins Clark and at the risk of sounding insulting, she always comes off to me as a dumbed-down Agatha Christie for folks who don’t like getting their hands dirty. I don’t see the appeal. I’ve tried and tried. This one is especially flat. I can’t even understand how a book that has murderers, stalkers, cheating spouses, broken marriages, hidden bodies, and reincarnation can be dull … but On the Street Where You Live somehow pulls it off. Yet another miss for me from the so-called Queen of Suspense

My rating: 1.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Triad by Mary Leader


Triad, Mary Leader, 1973

Favorite quote: “Rhiannon! Even now I could remember the metallic tint that always crept into her voice whenever she taunted me.”

Characters: Branwen, an author mourning the loss of her child; Alan, her husband; Rhiannon, Branwen’s long-dead cousin

Most memorable scene: The resurfacing memories of Branwen’s repressed childhood trauma

Strengths: The imagery. Mary Leader knows how to paint pictures with words … the kind of pictures you’ll remember

Standout achievements: For being so short, it’s strong

Fun Facts: While it’s commonly claimed that Triad was “the inspiration” for Fleetwood mac’s classic hit, Rhiannon, singer/songwriter Stevie Nicks has never actually expressed much interest in the novel itself. According to her, the song wasn’t written about the book in any way — she just liked the name. In short, if you’re seeking out this book (which is out of print now and priced at $596.02) for its tenuous connection to Stevie Nicks, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from Branwen hearing a disembodied “RHI-ANN-ON” on occasion, there’s nothing there. Sorry. (And now you have the song stuck in your head, don’t you? You’re welcome)

Other media: Triad appears in a store window in the Jodie Foster film, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

What it taught me: While certainly not an example of top-shelf literary excellence, I did learn a few things from this book — most notably that where a story starts and where it ends can be very different … so long as they meet in the middle and tie together

How it inspired me: While I didn’t go write any songs after reading this book the way Stevie Nicks did, I do frequently think of this book when I write something spooky. I like the way this book keeps its secrets. I aspire to be as masterful at maintaining mystery 

Additional thoughts: This is one of those books I’ve given up recommending. As much as I love it, it seems I’m the only one. To me, it’s about ghosts, loss, possession, and mental illness. It’s equally supernatural and psychological, and largely left open to the reader’s interpretation. Personally, I dig that kind of shit, but alas … 

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell


Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga, Michael McDowell, 1983

My favorite quote: “All deaths are sudden, no matter how gradual the dying may be.”

Notable characters: Elinor (Dammert) Caskey, the mysterious stranger who shows up in Perdido, Alabama, in 1919 … and many, many more. Definitely too many to mention … but don’t let that scare you. Every character here is well-drawn, memorable, and imperative

Most memorable scene: Elinor throwing her baby into the Perdido River (it’s not what you think)

Greatest strengths: A seamless ability to bounce from literature to horror to family drama to historical fiction and back again without losing the slightest bit of steam

Standout achievements: For a saga as long as this one, every segment, every chapter, every scene, every page is pure gold

Fun Facts: Michael McDowell was the author of several other horror novels and Southern gothics, as well as the screenwriter for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He is also responsible for the novelization of Clue, which boasts a fourth ending not included in the movie. And this rare little treasure is famous for something else, too: it’s price. The current going rate for a mass market paperback copy is $499.99, and for a mere $1,053.55 you can get a used one on Amazon

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That really good books can never be too long

How it inspired me: This is one of the books that made me want to create my own fictional monsters — which I did with the Black Wasp character in book 3 of my Vampires of Crimson Cove series. As much as I love vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, there are endless possibilities when it comes to villains and monsters, and what Michael McDowell did with the river creatures in Blackwater (whatever they were) reminded me of that 

Additional thoughts: Blackwater was originally published in six parts, equalling a total of 1,200 written pages or about 30 hours on audio … and I loved every minute of it. I’m convinced there’s nothing Michael McDowell couldn’t do … and well. It’s a shame he’s no longer with us. I would have loved to have met him 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Silent Girls by Eric Rickstad


The Silent Girls, Eric Rickstad, 2014

My favorite quote: “It wasn’t even rebellion. It was an ecstatic pleasure taken from the debasement of other living creatures. Pure sadism.”

Notable characters: Frank Rath, the private investigator; Rachel, the niece he raised as his daughter; Sonya Test; another detective 

Most memorable scene: That opening scene on Halloween, 1985 … it’s what kept me going

Greatest strengths: Great plot twists. More than once, I clutched my pearls in astonishment. Not even kidding 

Standout achievements: A truly unique villain with a truly unique motive

Fun Facts: This is the first in a three-book series! I didn’t know that when I started this one 

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: This book gave great insights into the pathos of certain characters. As a reader as well as a writer, I appreciated the uncharted “human” dimensions that get explored here. Rickstad created a new kind of bad guy for this one and I appreciated that 

How it inspired me: This book has one of the best cliffhanger endings I’ve ever read. Writers, if you want to know how to create the kind of cliffhanger that REQUIRES readers to get the next book, look no further

Additional thoughts: Of all the book hangovers I’ve experienced in my reading career, this one ranks right up there with the best (worst?) of them

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin


The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin, 1972

My favorite quote: “What’s the going price for a stay-in-the-kitchen wife with big boobs and no demands?”

Notable characters: Joanna Eberhard, the new-to-Stepford photographer; Water Eberhart, her husband; Bobbie Markowe, Joanna’s only friend and confidant

Most memorable scene: Its ending … which is open to all kinds of possibilities and interpretations 

Greatest strengths: Clean, direct prose

Standout achievements: In The Stepford Wives, you get a riveting and terrifying tale of horror that somehow tackles civil rights and gender equality issues without missing a beat. 50% horror and 50% feminist text, this book has the rare ability to entertain as it enlightens, with a compelling plot that appeals equally to men and women alike

Fun Facts: Upon the publication of this book, the term “Stepford wife” (which generally refers to a subservient woman who cooks too much, cleans too much, and whose sole ambition is to please her husband) came into common use 

Other media: The 1975 film of the same name, starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masteron, and Tina Louise. The 2004 remake starring Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, and Matthew Broderick 

What it taught me: That writing a fictional book with a social message can work, and well, as long as you wrap it up snug in a damned good story 

How it inspired me: Walter was so good at gaslighting Joanna that he was also gaslighting the reader. There are a million ideas and plot possibilities in that … 

Additional thoughts: As much as I love this book (and I do!) The movie is (slightly) stronger. And by “movie” I mean, of course, the 1975 original. Don’t even get me started on the 2004 remake. I’m not sure what that one was all about, but whatever message the author had originally intended was surely entirely lost. So yeah. We don’t talk about the 2004 remake … 

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn


The Babysitter, Andrew Coburn, 1979

My favorite quote: “What I’m saying, Mr. Wright, is we don’t know who the hell she was. We don’t even know for sure Paula Aherne was her name.”

Notable characters: Paula Aherne, the babysitter; John and Merle Wright, the parents of the missing child; agents Cooger and Spence, the investigators

Most memorable scene: The opening one … because it hooked me 

Greatest strengths: Its depiction of Boston’s North End 

Standout achievements: A memorable cast of super shady characters

Fun Facts: Andrew Coburn was the author of 13 novels, three of which were adapted into films. The Babysitter isn’t one of them

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: That extremely brave characters (even if they’re bordering on foolishly so) make for great storytelling

How it inspired me: While The Babysitter isn’t anything like my own books, it reminds me not to flinch away from letting my stories take wholly unexpected turns

Additional thoughts: Despite the cover art, fans of 80s horror will be disappointed in this book. It’s a good book for what it actually is (more crime/noir than horror) but unfortunately, its packaging is pretty misleading. 

My rating: 4 of 5

Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker


Coldheart Canyon, Clive Barker, 2001

My favorite quote: “There’s always some light in the darkness, somewhere.”

Notable characters: Todd Pickett, the failing movie star; Tammy Lauper, his number one fan’ Katya Lupi, the 20s-era movie star

Most memorable scene: Katya and the snail, because Jesus f*cking Christ … 

Greatest strengths: Its effective blend of horror, tenderness, glamour, perversion, erotica, beauty, and repulsion

Standout achievements: A seamless ability to bounce between old and current-day Hollywood without confusing the reader or losing their interest

Fun Facts: The character of Jerry Brahms was inspired by Clive Barker’s close friend, actor Roddy McDowell

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: I remember reading this and wondering what genre it was — but as I kept reading, I realized I didn’t care. Coldheart Canyon taught me that genre doesn’t matter, that a good story is a good story, and to write it regardless of category it might (or might not) fall into

How it inspired me: Looking back on it, I’m sure I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration for my own work from this book. Ghosts, orgies, orgies with ghosts … yeah. This one definitely inspired a few things from me … 

Additional thoughts: Coldheart Canyon is a long book — a damned long one. But it needs to be and personally, I like it that way. When any story is placed in the capable hands of writers like Clive Barker, size definitely matters … and as far as I’m concerned, the bigger, the better.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Newes From the Dead by Mary Hooper


News From the Dead, Mary Hooper, 2008

My favorite quote: “What I could not bear, dare not consider, is the possibility that I’m not dead, but merely occupying a coffin, having been buried alive.”

Notable characters: Anne Green, the girl who wakes after being hanged

Most memorable scene: Anne, trapped in her own body, wondering if she was in hell 

Greatest strengths: For me, it’s always the characters that keep the story moving and they really popped in this one. I felt like these were people I knew.

Standout achievements: The way it takes you to another time and place. Not that I have an actual point of reference, but I really felt like I was in England, in the year 1650

Fun Facts: This is actually based on the true story of Anne Green. I didn’t know that until I’d gotten to the 1651 copies of the documents recounting the event at the end of the book 

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: There are lots of great (and accurate) historical details here

How it inspired me: If I ever take one of my vampires to 1650s England, I know this book will come in handy.

Additional thoughts: I couldn’t figure out why so many reviewers were upset by all the “mentions of adultery and sex” and “adult themes” in this book until after I read it and realized that, apparently, this is a YA book. However, as very clearly stated on the product description, News From the Dead is about a woman who was accused of  infanticide, survived her own hanging, and woke up on the dissection table. Given the content, I’m not really sure how all the “adult theming” that goes on in this book could have possibly been avoided … just my opinion.  

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Psycho by Robert Bloch


Psycho, Robert Bloch, 1959

My favorite quote: “She’d thrown something at the mirror, and then the mirror broke into a thousand pieces and she knew that wasn’t all; she was breaking into a thousand pieces, too.”

Notable characters: Norman Bates, the motel manager; Mary Crane, the first customer in a while; Mother, the woman behind it all …

Most memorable scene: The death of Mary Crane — it’s different than in the movie

Greatest strengths: Character development, psychological twists

Standout achievements: This one gets into your head almost as powerfully as Mother gets into Norman’s 

Fun Facts: One of the reasons the movie was filmed in black and white was to prevent the infamous shower scene from being “too gory” for audiences and ratings 

Other media: The Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, and Janet Leigh

What it taught me: That when it comes to developing characters, you can’t go wrong with crazy — and the crazier, the better

How it inspired me: I saw the movie long before reading the book and I have to say that Psycho, both the novel and the film, have taught me a lot — most notably, the power of quiet, psychological terror

Additional thoughts: This is one of those very rare books that, in my opinion, isn’t as good as the movie — just by a little

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Drowning by JP Smith


The Drowning, J.P. Smith, 2018

My favorite quote: “Joey must have moved the moment the shutter opened. Because his face, out of all the others, was slightly blurred. As if he were already existing in another time, midway between life and death.”

Notable characters: Joey Proctor, the little boy who gets left on the raft; Alex Mason, the d-bag camp counselor who left him there

Most memorable scene: What Ben and Nick Wheeler happened upon during their hunting trip

Greatest strengths: Clear, concise writing

Standout achievements: Once you start, you won’t be able to stop — and when it’s over, you’ll just keep thinking about it 

Fun Facts: When the author was eight years old, he was at camp, and even though he didn’t know how to swim, a counselor left him on a raft and told he had to either swim back or stay on the raft and die. That experience inspired this book. 

Other media: N/A

What it taught me: There is power (and frustration) in indeterminate endings

How it inspired me: I loved the ghost stories in the beginning. This was an effective technique that really upped the creep factor and added a supernatural feel to the book without actually going there. I’ll be keeping that in mind.

Additional thoughts: I spent many hours thinking about this book after I finished it. Particularly the ending. There’s something more going on here, I’m sure of it … I just haven’t figured it out yet.

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Mad River Road by Joy Fielding


Mad River Road, Joy Fielding, 2006

My favorite quote: “I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who best summed up the difference between shock and suspense. Shock, he said, is quick, a jolt to the senses that lasts but a second, whereas suspense is more of a slow tease. Rather like the difference between prolonged foreplay and premature ejaculation, I would add, and I like to think old Alfred would chuckle and agree.”

Notable characters: Jamie Kellogg, the lonely divorcee; Brad Fisher, the man of her dreams … 

Most memorable scene: There’s an anal rape scene that still haunts me … 

Greatest strengths: Excellent pacing

Standout achievements: I really felt like I was on a road trip!

Fun Facts: The author, Joy Fielding, was actually born Joy Tepperman, and later changed her last name to Fielding, after English novelist and dramatist, Henry Fielding

Other media: N/A

What it taught me about writing: That by adding new, compelling layers to your story, you can eliminate that whole “sagging middle” thing

How it inspired my own work: All of Fielding’s characters are pretty solid but the psychopath in this novel is spot-on psychologically. A writer looking to understand the motivations and thought processes of a bad guy could do worse than to take a look at Brad Fisher  

Additional thoughts: A lot of reviewers seem to have a problem with Jamie going home with a guy she just met at a bar, saying this just isn’t believable behavior. I disagree on two counts. First, I thought that Fielding set the scene well, giving Jamie the proper motivation for the choices she made. Second of all, there are plenty of (perfectly intelligent) women who really do go home with guys they just met 

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon


Harvest Home, Thomas Tryon, 1973

My favorite quote: “You can’t negate the ingrained imagination of a whole culture.”

Notable characters: Ned Constantine, the main character; Bethany, his wife; Mary Fortune, aka, “Widow,” the local herbalist; Robert Dodd, the former college professor who rarely leaves the house; Justin Hooke, the current Harvest Lord; Sophie Hooke, his wife and chosen Corn Maiden

Most memorable scene: Sophie’s, ahem, choice on the day of the big festival …

Greatest strengths: The writing

Standout achievements: In Harvest Home, you can see the seeds of horror to come … King, McCammon … just to name a few …

Other media: This book is the basis of the 1978 mini-series, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, starring Bette Davis, David Ackroyd, and Rosanna Arquette

What it taught me about writing: That importance of setting. The fictional town of Cornwall Coombe in Harvest Home is as much a character as any of its inhabitants

Disclaimer: This book is a slow-burn … emphasis on the ‘slow.’ For that reason, it has a very polarizing effect on readers. Chances are good you’ll either love it or loathe it.

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons


The House Next Door, Anne Rivers Siddons, 1978

My favorite quote: “[The house] commanded you, somehow, yet soothed you. It grew out of the earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless depths of time, waiting to be released…The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots. It looked – inevitable.”

Notable characters: Colquitt and Walter Kennedy, the unsuspecting couple; the house next door, their worst nightmare; Kim Dougherty, the architect; Pie and Buddy Harralson, the new homeowners

Most memorable scene: Finding the remains of wild animals and household pets around the construction site

Greatest strengths: Well-developed (though not particularly likable) characters, first-rate pacing, excellent plot twists

Standout achievements: This book puts a unique spin on the haunted house genre. Instead of having a sordid history, the home in The House Next Door is modern, newly-built — a ‘tainted creation’ so to speak, rather than a product of tragedy.

Fun Facts: In his book, Danse Macabre, Stephen King called The House Next Door one of the best genre novels of the 20th century

What it taught me about writing: This is one of a handful of novels that taught me that slow-growing, creeping horror is ultimately more powerful than the in-your-face, ax-wielding, bloody-murder stuff that is most often associated with the genre.

How it inspired my own work: This book has come up in many brainstorming sessions between Tamara Thorne and I as we’re plotting the many creepy houses that appear in the Thorne & Cross novels. The House Next Door is, to us, one of the definitive haunted house novels that all writers of the genre should familiarize themselves with

Other media: 2006 made-for-TV movie of the same name, starring Mark Paul Gosselaar and Lara Flynn Boyle

My rating: 4.5 of 5

White Oleander by Janet Fitch


White Oleander, Janet Fitch, 1999

My favorite quote: “The phoenix must burn to emerge.”

Notable characters: Astrid Magnussen, the foster child; Ingrid, her terrible mother

Most memorable scene: What Ingrid does to her boyfriend, Barry

Greatest strengths: Beautiful, almost poetic writing

Standout achievements: Its ability to make the reader experience the loss, loneliness, and abandonment that Astrid feels

Fun Facts: This was originally written as a short story which appeared in the 1994 edition of “World’s Best Short Stories.”

Other media: 2002 film of the same name, starring starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Renée Zellweger

What it taught me about writing: I learned a lot about the foster system and gained valuable insights into the psychology of certain personality types — all of which will come in handy

How it inspired my own work: This book is beautifully written; it brings words into my head and that’s always a good thing …  

Additional thoughts: Under it all, this is a story about motherhood. Twisted motherhood, yes … but still, motherhood

My rating: 4 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, 2015

My favorite quote: “I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts.”

Notable characters: Rachel Watson, the alcoholic; Anna Boyd, the young, beautiful, stay-at-home mom; Tom, Rachel’s husband; “Jess and Jason,” the couple Rachel envies

Most memorable scene: When Megan’s body is found …

Greatest strengths: Excels at the whole unreliable narrator thing

Standout achievements: This book is written in first person, present-tense – a style I can rarely tolerate … but in this case, I hardly noticed.

Fun Facts: Many comparisons have been made between The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. In an article in The Hollywood Reporter, Paula Hawkins clarified the matter by stating: “Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) is a psychopath, an incredibly controlling and manipulative, smart, cunning woman. [Rachel is] just a mess who can’t do anything right.”

Other media: 2016 film of the same name starring Emily Blunt

What it taught me about writing: That even a reader’s least-preferred writing style can be overlooked if the plot and characters are compelling enough

How it inspired my own work: The night I finished this book, I said to myself, “Self (that’s what I call myself) We need to write a book with an ending as shocking and unexpected as that one. The next day I began my murder mystery Sleep Savannah Sleep, which went on to become an Amazon bestseller in multiple categories.

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Haunt me: alistaircross.com

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