The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam

In October, my thoughts don’t turn to pumpkin spice láttes, autumn leaves falling gently to the ground, or the evocative scent of woodsmoke. No, when the fall brings that nippy chill to the air, this girl thinks haunted houses, ghosts, spirits (the non-alcoholic kind), and of course, Halloween!

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Being the season of the witch and all things creepy and supernatural, The House of Lost Souls is the perfect book to curl up with and frighten yourself. The first book by author F.G. Cottam that I ever read, it’s a quick read that brings vividly to life the literal and figurative spirits haunting Paul Seaton in modern-day London.

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Paul spent 10 years of his life trying to forget the horrors he experienced at the Fischer House, where he ventured in search of information about the elusive Pandora Gibson-Hoare, a 1920s photographer who is the topic of his girlfriend’s university thesis. In his research, he learns of Pandora’s involvement with the occult, Aleister Crowley – because what occult book DOESN’T feature Crowley – and Pandora’s ill-fated attempts to stop the evil at the Fischer House in the years before WWII. He is sucked back into the drama by Nick Mason, whose younger sister went to the Fisher House as part of her own university studies and who also experiences terrifying events that nearly drive her to suicide.

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Not your typical haunted house tale, the story focuses on the demons and ghosts that haunt us as individuals, and the choices we make as a result.  There is some musing on the ephemeral nature of evil and how it translates to concrete action in the material world. In other words, “we are spirits, in the material world,” with apologies to Sting. But we are all haunted in some way, I think, just as Paul is. He’s an Everyman character in that he’s not particularly heroic or brave. He’s driven as much by guilt from the past as he is curiosity about the exact nature of evil and the Fischer House, and an obsession for the long-dead Pandora.

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In his early days of research as a journalist, when he is on the trail of Pandora’s final days, he bribes a fellow reporter Mike for information on her death with a lunch at Arthur’s Cafe, known for its delicious mixed grill dishes.

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In the beige decor and stifling heat of the cafe, Mike worked through the mixed grill Arthur had ordered on his behalf while Seaton neglected a plate piled high with meat lasagne. He sipped from his glass of Coke.

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Not having ever had a mixed grill, I learned it is typically a dish that includes two or three grilled meats such as chops, steak, and sausage, grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, and possibly grilled mushrooms and a fried egg. I chose instead to make a mixed grill that included grilled steak, a grilled pork chop, a grilled sausage, and grilled tomatoes and onions, because to me, there is nothing as delicious as a huge pile of grilled onions atop a nice slab of meat.

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Vegetarians, turn away now. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 sausage link of your choice
1 5 oz. tenderloin steak
1 5 oz. pork chop
1 large Beefsteak tomato
1 large white or yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter

METHOD
Heat the butter and melt it in a stovetop grill with ridge marks. This is preferable for stovetop cooking, as your food gets those nice cooking ridge marks. Add your sausage. Yes, it’s very phallic. Don’t write in.

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Add your steak.

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Add your chop. Sprinkle salt on the chop and the steak, and dab a bit of butter on all three meats.

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Cook on medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, turning every 5-7 minutes to ensure even cooking and those aforementioned grill marks. How well cooked you want your meat is completely up to you, so you may want to adjust heat or length of time, or take one piece off the grill while cooking others.

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Remove the meat to a plate to rest and let the juices run back in, and slice your onion into thick rings. Add to the smoking hot grill. Being so thick, they will take a bit of time to cook, so be patient.

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Slice the tomato into thick rounds, roughly the same size as the onions. Lay them on the grill, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, turning twice to get even grill marks.

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Assemble your plate of British goodness and apply directly to your face. And yes, that is indeed a little pug in the top photo. It’s my new fur baby Roxie, whom I adore and love to pieces. October, in addition to being the Season of the Witch, is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, so I adopted her. She’s awesome!

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Another photo of my Roxanna Banana, also known as Roxy, and one of me, very happy to have her with me, as you can see her loafing in the background.

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