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With the success of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, we’re seeing more books that blend photography and fiction. At first the novelty was intriguing, but I have to say I’m not a fan of this trend. I guess I’m a purist when it comes to novels. I only read print and prefer the images in my head to those selected by the publisher.

Even though I grunted at the photos, I liked In the Shadow of Blackbirds more than  I expected to. It’s nice to read historical horror fiction that’s not about vampires.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

San Diego, 1918 is “a year the devil designed”.

Young men are shipping off to fight in Europe to kill other young men and possibly die or come back shell shocked or missing half their face. Meanwhile at home everyone else is dying or narrowly avoiding the Spanish influenza. Mary Shelley Black arrives to live with her aunt in a breathing mask and heavy running boots. Death is everywhere, but she’s more concerned about seeing her childhood sweetheart Stephen before he ships off. No time to stay indoors sucking on onions.

It’s no surprise that seances and spirit photography were on the rise at this time. You can’t blame mourners for wanting to believe their own eyes. Unfortunately, Stephen’s scummy brother has risen to the deceptive occasion. Mary’s sure his photographs are a hoax, but nobody’s been able to prove it. When she reluctantly sits for a photograph and, to her horror, discovers a familiar form in the background, she can’t help but wonder why Stephen’s house suddenly feels haunted.

Mary is a girl with a scientific mind living in a time of blind superstition. You think the story is going to be about her exposing the fraud photographers, but there’s a surprise early on that changes the tone from bleak to sad and eerie. As the reader, you get the sense that anything could happen. The heroine isn’t safe just because she’s the heroine.

One strike of lightning and a few minutes on the other side changes Mary. She can smell and taste emotions, hear the dead whispering. Once the staunch skeptic experiences personal loss, even she wants to believe her loved one still exists in some way.

I think between the war and the flu, no one’s going to escape getting haunted. We live in a world so horrifying, it frightens even the dead.

While not wildly well written, the story works – the plot adds up. Between Mary’s visits to recovering soldiers and steady diet of onion everything to fend off the flu, this period in time becomes very real. Read this if you enjoy ghostly mysteries or dark historical fiction. It’s a moodier, smellier depiction of an often romanticized period. And Winters managers to sustain a tense atmosphere throughout.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds was kindly recommended in a comment by LaurenPezzullo a few weeks back on my meh-review of Asylum. Thanks, Lauren! I do love getting book recommendations. Permission granted for more.