The Poor and the Haunted – Dustin McKissen

Spoilers Ahead!

It was terrifying to know nightmares didn’t wait for the sun to fade – or for sleep to come.

Jimmy and Kelly knew fear and uncertainty from a young age. Their parents fought regularly and violently, drank excessively and abused drugs. Living in poverty and neglected, Jimmy did whatever he could to protect his younger sister. When their father dies by suicide, their mother becomes increasingly abusive.

In the Lansford home, normal was not an option, and Jimmy faced two choices: Let life eat him and Kelly alive, or shoulder more of the burden than any child should.

Although he remains haunted by his childhood, Jimmy’s adult life is outwardly normal. He has a nice home, is employed and has a loving wife and children. Jimmy does everything he can to ensure his children never experience anything approximating what he and his sister did when they were children.

Things change, and not always for the better.

Jimmy’s daughter is now the same age his sister was when their father died and Jimmy’s carefully constructed world is coming undone. He begins to experience things he can’t explain as painful memories resurface.

As this book was marketed as horror I expected to encounter lots of things that go bump in the night. Although there are supernatural elements to this story that I won’t explain because that would take us into spoiler territory, the main horror I experienced was as a result of more natural (if you can call them that) occurrences.

Child abuse is its own horror and when you consider the legacy of childhood trauma, its impacts on the person who has experienced it and by association everyone who loves them, that’s true horror right there.

PTSD and survivor’s guilt are explored in this book. Because the impacts of these are so pervasive it became difficult to distinguish whether specific events in this book were supernatural in origin or a symptom of one or both of these. This could irritate me in different circumstances but here it made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Jimmy was experiencing. I did wonder whether some of Jimmy’s experiences were dissociative in nature; another explanation was provided but I could make the case for both possibilities.

Given some of the content of this book I expected to feel sad and hopeless overall but there was some light pushing back the shadows. Jimmy’s bond with his sister and his repeated attempts to protect her from the harshness of their lives was heartwarming. Detective Mike Carlisle, the only responsible adult in the Lansford kids’ lives, was someone I looked forward to spending time with. He modelled unconditional love and was a positive role model, particularly for Jimmy, whose life could have been vastly different without his influence.

I was left with a couple of unanswered questions. I still don’t understand why Jimmy’s daughter bit his neck. I know his sister did that to their father but I would have thought, if this was Kelly’s influence, she would have chosen a shared memory that was less violent to get her message across. Also, if Kelly had the ability to leave a handprint then couldn’t she find a way to let her brother know it was her? Cliché or not, it doesn’t seem far fetched to me that she could have written a message on a foggy bathroom mirror or something similar.

Pop culture and this book: There were plenty of references to TV series, including Friends and Stranger Things, and music, in particular Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. (I love that song!) However, there were so many references to Stephen King’s stories that I made a list. Keep in mind that I am by no means an expert on the King-dom so I expect some references flew straight over my head. Having said that, here’s what I found:

  • Jimmy stays in hotel room 237
  • The dairy farm the family lived on for a while is owned by the Torrance family and it’s located on Torrance Road
  • The ice cream shop is called Derry’s
  • There’s mention of “the neighborhood Cujo”
  • Jimmy’s daughter watches IT.

If you read this book and find references to anything Stephen King related that I’ve missed, please feel free to let me know.

Content warnings include child abuse, death by suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mention of torture of animals and self harm.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Black Rose Writing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

As a child Jimmy Lansford and his sister Kelly suffered crushing poverty, their father’s unexplained and frightening suicide, and their mother’s constant abuse and cruelty. Having grown to be a successful adult, Jimmy must contend with the sudden re-emergence of memories from his childhood in Oklahoma and unexplainable events occurring inside his own home. Is it more than memories that haunt Jimmy? Did his parents suffer from mental illness and addiction, or were they possessed by something even worse – and has that presence arrived to take Jimmy?

The first horror novel from acclaimed author and journalist Dustin McKissen explores the nature of hauntings, the ghosts from our past that haunt our present, and the unbreakable bond between siblings who learn early on they can only rely on each other.

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