For me, mood, atmosphere, subtlety – that’s what makes for a great paranormal read. A slow building tension, a depth of characterization that ensures empathy, an intriguing premise that suspends disbelief in the reader to such a degree they immerse themselves in the story and experience it on a visceral level. In other words, it takes real skill to write a convincing and compelling paranormal story in this day and age filled with skeptics and cynics. Having cut my teeth, so to speak, on stories by the likes of Shirley Jackson and M.R. James, and novels such as The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle and The House on Russian Hill by Florence Hurd, it’s often hard for me to find the kind of paranormal fiction that satisfies my inner literary snob.
I confess it. I can be a snob when it comes to paranormal fiction.
In order to understand where I’m coming from, here’s a little background on me. I spent a great deal of my early childhood in my grandmother’s haunted house. Yes, you read that correctly: haunted. In addition to that, some of my earliest memories are of watching Dark Shadows every afternoon on television with my mother. My favorite films growing up were the American International and Hammer horror films of the 1950’s and ’60’s. I spent most of my free time devouring Grimm’s fairy tales, classic horror stories and vampire tales, and every dimestore Gothic romance paperback from the sixties and seventies that I could lay my hands on.
Since this list would be endless without some kind of perimeters or criteria, I’ve chosen to limit myself to five (give or take) favorite M/M romances, mainly because I’ve read more in that genre than any other genres for the past few years.
A Little Familiar by R. Cooper
A powerful witch, Piotr Russell has resigned himself to loneliness, because ordinary humans can’t know what he is, and other witches are intimidated by his abilities. Generations of Russells have lived and died with only their familiars at their side. The presence of a friendly familiar is enough to keep even the loneliest witch sane, and yet Piotr deliberately hasn’t chosen one. He forces himself to keep busy instead, but the emptiness of his house haunts him even more than the spirit of Great-Great-Aunt Elysia in the parlor. With Samhain and Halloween approaching, he’ll have much to do, and knowing that, his concerned coven seizes the chance to intervene and sends help to his door in the form of Bartleby Dorchester.
The rarest of rare jewels, Bartleby is a human familiar: a witch with no magic of his own, and a desire to find a strong witch to help and serve. In particular, he desires to help and serve Piotr, and everything in Piotr wants to let him. Bartleby was meant to be his familiar; Piotr knows it as surely as he knows when it will rain or when the apples in his garden will ripen. But what Piotr wants from Bartleby, all he’s ever wanted, is for Bartleby to love him, something he thinks is impossible.
Russells live and die unloved, and he won’t allow Bartleby to feel obligated to spend his life with him as his familiar if he could be happy in love with someone else. But Samhain is a time for change, when walls come down and borders grow thin, and Bartleby isn’t going to waste what might be his last chance to convince Piotr that they were meant to be. He might have no magic, but love is a power all its own.
Two autumns ago, when I first discovered this story, I was in the midst of one of the most awful, difficult years of my life. My brother-in-law was recovering from a severe spinal cord injury, my cousin’s mother and his wife had recently died in a tragic house fire, and my aunt was in the final stages of her fight against lung cancer. Although autumn has always been my favorite season, full of magic and mystery, beauty and exhilaration, the last thing on my mind that year was the turning of the leaves or the cooling temperatures in the air. All of my usual anticipation and joy for the coming of autumn and for the Halloween season had drained away from me.
But this story was so charming and precious and lovely, it gave me a brief respite and a small taste of the season I love so much. It gave me a moment of peace and brought me comfort, like a warm, snuggly quilt wrapped around me on a chill autumn’s evening while I curled into a comfy chair before a crackling fire, sipping hot mulled cider. It encapsulated everything that represents the Halloween season to me. It was like a piece of my childhood brought to life. It was exactly what I needed and, quite possibly, saved me from a complete emotional breakdown that autumn. Now I reread it every year and I’m certain it will always remain one of my favorite stories of all time.
Ghost in the Penthouse by Kris Ripper
Hiram Sussman is haunted.
For the last decade, Hiram has holed up in his family’s penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, his parents finally decide it’s time for Hiram to move out, ghosts and all. If he can’t fend for himself, they’ll find a place for him somewhere bright, peaceful, and medicated.
He has a contingency plan for just such an event. Unfortunately, one thing stands in his way; Hiram is in love.
James Manderly is a hick from California, who escaped to Manhattan to remake himself in a place where no one knows him. Hiram’s the kind of gay guy he’d never meet back home, campy and ridiculous, except James doesn’t think he’s a joke. He thinks Hiram is the most ethereal, untouchable, irresistible man he’s ever met.
Four years down the hall from each other, and they’ve never even kissed. Because Hiram is crazy and James doesn’t sleep with men he actually knows, let alone rich recluses who tease him mercilessly but never make the first move. When James’s little brother (and his buddies) show up without warning, James can’t explain why he’s not with Hiram, and he definitely can’t claim he doesn’t want to be.
Hiram’s been hiding for far too long, but if he wants a future with James, he’ll need to beat back his ghosts and conquer the past.
Hands down, this is the best, most vividly atmospheric contemporary story of modern haunting I have read in many years. It lingered in my mind for a long time after I read it and I am compelled, from time to time, to revisit it. Hiram Sussman is a fascinating character and, for most of the story, the reader questions whether Hiram is truly haunted by actual spirits or by his own mind. This is my absolute favorite book by Kris Ripper and that’s saying a lot, as I adore zir work. Nobody does complex characterization and intricate interpersonal relationships better. Nobody writes better ensemble casts. And – oh, yeah – there’s also a wonderful friends-to-lovers romance, as well.
Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson
When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.
But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.
First of all, I love the way Amy Rae Durreson tells a story. The use of language, the subtlety with which the tale unfolds, its cadence and rhythms and multi-faceted characters all combine into a very alluring and satisfying reading experience. There were many things that drew me to this book: the Yorkshire seaside village setting, the troubled artist struggling to heal from mental and physical trauma, the May-September romance, the mysterious haunting, the eerie echoes of a hidden past. This book had a very old school Gothic vibe to me, which I loved. It’s a multi-layered story, in which modern Gothic romance meets paranormal mystery. What’s not to love?
Raven’s Rest by Stephen Osborne
Michael Cook has left his abusive lover and settled in the small town of Banning, Illinois. Having nowhere else to go, he checks into the Raven’s Rest Inn and soon learns that the haunted reputation of the hotel is well deserved. Michael gets a job at a local café, where he meets Trey Ramsey. Though Michael has misgivings about starting up a new relationship, Trey seems to be the complete opposite of Michael’s controlling ex, so he decides to give Trey a chance.
Life at the Raven’s Rest becomes increasingly frightening when the ghost of Coleman Hollis appears in Michael’s room. Coleman seems to want something from Michael, and the mystery deepens when Michael discovers he’s the spitting image of Coleman’s lover from years ago. Together, Michael and Trey must discover why Coleman’s spirit is drawn to the Raven’s Rest—and to Michael.
Once again, this is one of my favorite type of stories, weaving multiple elements into an engaging whole. It has romance (two, in fact), a ghost story, a mystery, and suspense. The hotel is a great Gothic-esque setting. The characters, both in the present and the past, are compelling and endearing. The small town autumn setting gives off the right tone and atmosphere. All in all, a perfect read for this time of year.
Vespers (Hours of the Night #1)
by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt
Thaddeus Dupont has had over eighty years to forget…
The vampire spends his nights chanting the Liturgy of the Hours and ruthlessly disciplines those unnatural urges he’s vowed never again to indulge. He is at the command of the White Monks, who summon him at will to destroy demons. In return, the monks provide for his sustenance and promise the return of his immortal soul.
Sarasija Mishra’s most compelling job qualification might be his type O blood…
The 22-year-old college grad just moved across the country to work for some recluse he can’t even find on the internet. Sounds sketchy, but the salary is awesome and he can’t afford to be picky. On arrival he discovers a few details his contract neglected to mention, like the alligator-infested swamp, the demon attacks, and the nature of his employer’s “special diet”. A smart guy would leave, but after one look into Dupont’s mesmerizing eyes, Sarasija can’t seem to walk away. Too bad his boss expected “Sara” to be a girl.
Falling in love is hard at any age…
The vampire can’t fight his hungers forever, especially since Sara’s brought him light, laughter and a very masculine heat. After yielding to temptation, Thaddeus must make a choice. Killing demons may save his soul, but keeping the faith will cost him his heart.
Bonfire (Hours of the Night #1.5)
by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt
(See my prior review of this holiday novella here.)
Thaddeus and Sarasija are spending the holidays on the bayou, and while the vampire’s idea of Christmas cheer doesn’t quite match his assistant’s, they’re working on a compromise. Before they can get the tree trimmed, they’re interrupted by the appearance of the feu follet. The ghostly lights appear in the swamp at random and lead even the locals astray.
When the townsfolk link the phenomenon to the return of their most reclusive neighbor, suspicion falls on Thaddeus. These lights aren’t bringing glad tidings, and if Thad and Sara can’t find their source, the feu follet might herald a holiday tragedy for the whole town.
Nocturne (hours of the Night #2)
by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt
It’s Mardi Gras, cher, but this year le bon temps kick off with murder…
For generations, the White Monks have treated the vampire Thaddeus Dupont as a weapon in their battle against demons. However, when a prominent matron drops dead at a party, Thaddeus and his lover Sarasija are asked to find her killer. Their investigation leads them to an old southern family with connections everywhere: Louisiana politics, big business, the Church, and an organization just as secret as the White Monks.
Meanwhile, an esoteric text containing spells for demon-summoning has disappeared, Thaddeus is losing control of le monstre, and Sara is troubled by disturbing dreams. These nightmares could be a side-effect of dating a vampire, or they could be a remnant of his brush with evil. As the nights wear on, Sara fears they are a manifestation of something darker – a secret that could destroy his relationship with Thaddeus.
This series is the best vampire concept I’ve read in decades. It’s complex and appealing, with exciting action, suspense, and mystery in addition to an unlikely yet captivating romance. It has wonderful, well-drawn characters that feel so real that you wouldn’t be surprised to meet them on the street.
For me Nocturne, the second book in the Hours of the Night series, was even better than Vespers and that’s saying a lot. I loved Vespers. I loved the characters, the setting, the premise of the series – everything. For the first time in more years than I can keep track of, there was finally an intelligent approach to writing a vampire character that hearkened back to the age-old struggle between good and evil. Not just the broader, exterior conflict, but a battle raging inside the character himself, between the Super-ego (the faith and religious devotion of the monk) and the Id (the baser instincts of the vampire) resulting in an Ego (Thaddeus himself) who is an immensely empathetic, identifiable anti-hero one can’t help but love and cheer for. Add to that the incredibly modern, lovable, and agnostic Indian-American assistant, Sarasija Mishra, as well as the stellar storytelling skill of these two authors, and the series is nothing short of addictive and enthralling.
Nocturne was everything I love in a story combined: mystery, suspense, romance, and the paranormal, all set in and around New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. The characters are compelling, the tension and suspense builds gradually but steadily and never stalls, the mysteries are not easily solved by either the characters or the reader (very huge plus for me, who usually figures everything out in the first 1/4 of a book and grows bored), and it’s filled with well-researched ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. This book was excellent on every level. I can hardly wait for the next installment.