Queen of Teeth by Hailey Piper

So I really love this book. <3<3<3

… I don’t want to say it’s an easy read as in – you can read it without any effort. But I was in a reading slump over the summer and the book was a very hyperfocus experience so I could just sit down and get through the whole story in an afternoon. There aren’t a lot of frills here and the stakes are raised very quickly. The characters are real and likable but in situations where easy choices aren’t possible.

Plus, I am fascinated with chimeras – those stories where someone finds out they don’t share any DNA with their own children? Not being related to yourself is super weird. And it’s a great metaphor for feeling alienated from your body – the dissociative state felt by everyone in medical situations but which is worse for persons who are already marginalized.

 I also felt – but maybe this is just me – such an affinity for the concept of having an inner voice telling you what it needs as I think many of us just ignore all those cues. And personally, I would like to have an inner voice that is at least somewhat invested in my well being and doesn’t just yell at me for procrastinating and not trying hard enough at life.

I also wanted to add that if there’s ever a graphic novel version, I will buy it immediately.

April in books

I’m trying to do more with the books I read, since I have pretty severe rules about what I’ll let remain on my instagram. I would much rather consider myself to have failed somehow (book covers not interesting enough, titles not new enough, even not being likable enough) than to consider that people only care about maybe five popular commercial (mostly male) horror authors. I would rather it be my fault. And I also just can’t stand having proof that if I post a Stephen King novel, people cannot like it fast enough, and otherwise, just fuck off with that and post some more photos of you posing with a vhs that has a rabid fan following … and a lot of the same rules seem to apply to that world, too. It’s depressing and it makes me tired.

Anyway. Here are the books I read in April, with a blurb about each.

Plain Bad Heroines. Hmm. There were a lot of things I liked about this, and I fully intend to send my wip to Danforth’s agent since apparently she likes that sort of thing … so I want to avoid anything too negative (yes, honesty unless it adversely affects ME, haha). I mean, I live for meta shit and horror movie references, obviously, but I guess I expected more of a conclusion for something I think we’re supposed to consider a commercial horror novel. Maybe there’s meant to be a sequel or something?

I love Sarah Lotz and so since we can’t have the conclusion to The Three series … apparently, ever, I’ll settle for this creepy tale lampooning ‘dark tourism’ vloggers like what’s that dude who did something horrendously tasteless in Japan’s suicide forest?? It’s also a bit self-referential as her own writing at times skates close to ghoulishness – in the best possible way, of course. Her writing is that type of unsentimental which often borders on sadistic and there’s a really mean part of me that vibes with that. But I also love how good she is at creating genuine human beings who are flawed but who often aren’t nearly as lacking humanity as they think they are. I was also really into how the book incorporates Third Man syndrome, something I had never heard of, with how some people push themselves to the limit of human endurance – and beyond, and it often still isn’t enough. The conclusion did feel a little rushed, but it felt a lot like horror movies I really love where a character is drawn to do something incredibly stupid and dangerous and then survives – only to be unable to resume their normal lives.

Be Not Far From Me was possibly my favorite so I feel bad I drove people from my Instagram post by suggesting it’s much better than The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (which is actually the only Stephen King book I don’t find to be at least mildly repellent, but people have figured out by now that I have that whole irrational grudge and it understandably makes them uncomfortable). Plus, maybe it was unfair, as the only real commonalities are getting lost in the woods. There isn’t a supernatural factor, it’s just an inspiring survival story that reminded me (especially in one key scene) of reading Ellen Emerson White’s Long Live the Queen as a kid and thinking both, I could do that, if I had to, and there’s no way in hell I could do that. Unfortunately, that’s often how I feel about really badass female characters … I’m realistic enough to know I would probably just sit on a log and wait for death. But I suppose you could also look at stories like these as a warning against living for another person, and not for yourself.

Witches of America felt really personal. I read Mar’s article comparing the Slenderman stabbing to the Parker-Hulme murders and was so impressed with her voice, so I sought out this book and didn’t get anything near what I expected. Witches of America is an immersive journalist’s examination of her own need for something beyond the pragmatic, and the seen. Weirdly, I mostly gave up exploring witchcraft because I couldn’t get along with the small community here, and am basically lazy. I am not cleansing anything or spending a shit ton of money on supplies. Instead, I rely on sympathetic magic that verges more on compulsion than spirituality, and I have only gotten what I wanted on very few occasions, so what good is it, anyway? But I was compelled after reading about Mar’s journey to at least read a few basics I either never got around to reading, or read several decades ago.

Roses and Rot was a fun, fast read incorporating fae mythology. Fans of Holly Black will probably enjoy it. I immediately queried her agent, as I have some similar genre elements but so far, I have not heard back. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even get the form reply anymore. And yeah, I’ll admit – there have been instances where I don’t see what’s so special about something I read in a couple of days. But I guess that’s why they always include that line about tastes being subjective. I do have the Cathedral of Myth and Bone as well. Maybe I will find that more compelling.

A Hawk In The Woods – unfortunately, sometimes the opposite happens, where you have queried the representative of an author you can clearly see is superior to you. Which doesn’t make being objective any easier. I mean, I really do, all snark aside, try to be fair and behave like an adult, mostly because I’m female, and I want the real complaints I make to be taken seriously, and people tend not to believe anything you say if you’re too clearly vindictive a person. At the same time, though the writing is superior, I have a difficult time with literary horror to where, I’m not even sure I care anymore that what I write is just dumb genre trash. Because to be honest, I enjoy reading that more. And not that it’s easier to read, which is very often the case, but just because I want a digestible plot, and that’s just how it is. That being said, A Hawk In The Woods has a digestible plot and it was mean-spirited in that perfect way where, I knew where the story was going, but I think you’d have to be as pragmatic and self-serving a person as I clearly am to get there before the character does. I think this ended up being my favorite after Be Not Far From Me but I think I should give my copy to a friend rather than hoard it since I probably won’t read it again.

A Long Fatal Love Chase at least gave me some hope that I should heed my editor, who advised me not to do another rewrite on vague rejections. Actually, I hired her because almost everyone said the old version did not grab them in the feels. Ironically, while I love that the book now has a proper, and very genre trope-y ending, which I would not have come up with if not for the rewrite, I continue to get the ‘this didn’t resonate with me emotionally’ pretty regularly. I also enjoyed the headstrong character, and love even more the story of her creation – Alcott, like Jo, apparently travelled to Europe as a companion, but when a man she met preferred the woman she was companioning, she just quit. That is great. That, honestly, sounds like something I might have done at that age. Ditto needing a commercial success. Which I probably would have no chance of if I were smart enough to be literary. Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway.

This leads me to Pine, whose agent makes it clear that I should not bother, ever. Well, mostly because she is uk and they often discourage submissions from authors not also in the uk but also because it is quite clear now that if my writing is too spare, it’s not emotional enough, and if I put some feeling into it, that makes it immediately geeky, in an unendearingly, genre-y way. Yet … I really loved the writing and atmosphere of Pine. Loved it. Wanted to live there. But the plot was weirdly unoriginal. I expected something more or different. But maybe that proves my point: that the only difference between literary and commercial horror is the presentation.

Which brings us to Come Along With Me. I did this as part of my posthumous theme, and was impressed as usual, but what really struck me this time is how the sort of unpresumptuous feminine – the pressure on women not to make a fuss – is often presented in Jackson’s work as this sinister and unrelenting tide. We’re swept along, and dumped out in the rain, in strange places – because we didn’t want to complain. And only if our partners finally die are we ever granted a small measure of freedom. The irony of this collection being put together by her wretched cheating husband does not escape me, of course. And there is some good writing advice here as well, which I remembered to implement in my own wip for about a day and a half before I drifted back into the inertia of bad habits.

So! That’s the month in books. I think from now on, I will only use wordpress for this purpose as I have a place for movie reviews already.

Shelter for the Damned by Mike Thorn

A friend once described a cigarette as ‘five minutes you don’t have to worry about anything.’

Maybe you don’t remember, or are starting to forget in adulthood, how very much there was to worry about as a kid, but Shelter for the Damned will bring it all rushing back. A word of caution, though: this isn’t your dad’s horror nostalgia trip. Mark, Adam, and Scott find a place away from the constant questions and problems of adults where they can smoke cigarettes and have those five minutes … only, turns out there’s a horrible price for this respite. Finding out what will alter the reader.

One thing the book understands very well are how the most innocuous childhood memories can twist into a terrifying shape. Adults have forgotten – or are too consumed by their adult lives to think about – these horrors, except maybe, very, very, late at night. Thorn’s work invokes both childhood fears and those late-night moments when existential dread sinks its teeth into you as an adult and suddenly, you remember how helpless you still are.

Only Ever Yours

The reviews for Only Ever Yours falls into maybe three categories. Category one: This is the best book ever! Category two is: The Handmaidens Tale already exists, therefore this book is invalid. (Which seems stupid as The Handmaidens Tale is meant to be taken very, very seriously – which is great! That’s it’s purpose. But Only Ever Yours, despite its bleak tone, is more of a parody.) That brings me to complaint number three, which was my particular complaint – that the book is too bleak. I was pretty confident that this was true. Even if it’s not for teens (and honestly, I’m still not sure) I felt it was just so much of a downer.

Then again, I was used to the teen dystopias which were trendy when this book was written. In that book, gayness can’t be bred out and the two heroines run away together. And Handmaidens Tale has an incredibly bleak ending, which is probably why I remember it fifteen years after I first read it (I am old). But again, tonally, I found Only Ever Yours to be very different. I wasn’t until I’d dismissed the book as dreary (and sorta triggering to someone who has spent years starving themselves) and was on the elliptical machine that I started thinking about it again.

I listen to synthwave on the elliptical. I like future funk a lot but sometimes, I need to feel like I am running for my life from robots who have targeted me for immediate termination. But there’s this one mix that starts with the famous speech from 1984 about ‘a foot stamping on a human face, forever’ and that is just a bit too bleak for me. Again, the bleak complaint. I had the same complaint about 1984, but I got a weird feeling while reading all the complaints that couldn’t think of another book to compare it to other than Handmaidens Tale, even though it is a vastly different book. Something just wasn’t right.

Well, but also, I bought Only Ever Yours at The Salvation Army thrift store (which is its own dystopia. I’ll tell you about it someday) for like four dollars (they overcharge because they care) and then, discovered the last like, twenty pages were fucking MISSING. This is not the author’s fault, of course, though oddly it looked more like an error the publisher had made than someone who really hated the shit out of the bleak ending worse than me. So, on top of the four dollars I had spent, I had to buy a digital copy just to see if the ending was going to be as bleak as it promised. (Spoilers: it was.) Also, since the book was ‘old’ it did poorly on instagram. This isn’t the author’s fault, either but it made the book easier to dismiss, as instagram has become far too important to me.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the bleak complaint, even writing into my Goodreads review that I hated making that assessment as I hated it when people did that with me. This blog used to be your typical complaint diary and I occasionally posted the entries on my facebook, where my mother’s boomer hippie friends would dismiss my actual lived experiences as ‘too bleak.’ Which I always thought was pretty victim-blamey. Almost as though, my job as a human person was to make sure I only accumulated happy experiences. It was pretty fucking dismissive and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that’s what I was doing here.

Only Ever Yours is unpleasant from start to finish. But so was 1984. But we would never compare Only Ever Yours to that because 1984 is a classic. But tonally, Only Ever Yours felt way more like 1984 than Handmaiden’s Tale. I wonder if the Handmaiden’s Tale comparisons had little to do with plot or tone and was only because the writer is female, and the characters are teenage girls. But to me, it felt like she wanted to write a story about what it would be like to be a Julia, schooled in some anti-sex dormitory. And that is honestly more interesting to me the more I think about it.

Plus, the parody aspects really are funny, in a makes-you-want-to-stop-living sort of way. It was one of the funniest books I’ve read for a while. I was probably judging the author for actually looking as though she’s spent her life starving whereas no matter how much I lose, I worry people still look at me and think ‘she looks so unhealthy. Why can’t she just try making better food choices?’ And that’s not fair. People have problems you can’t see. I do think the concept of thin privilege exists, but I’m not sure it’s up to me to determine who benefits and who doesn’t as I’m way too close to it. To me, almost everyone is thinner and better looking than I am. But someone else might feel the exact same way about me.

Only Ever Yours was written while social media (to the extent we use it today) was still taking off but it still did an eerily good job at echoing the intrusive thoughts which seem to get worse every time I scroll through the feed. Maybe I didn’t like a book that made me think about this. I have to play. Not playing isn’t an option. You can’t win if you don’t play. I also wonder the extent to which, a woman writing about bleak subject matter is punished in a way men aren’t. Every time I saw another ‘bleak’ review, even though I basically agreed, it felt deeply weird, and I would think about the unspoken rules still dictating women be pleasant and nurturing. It’s our job not to have problems or at least, to appear as though we don’t. Anyway, I liked this book a lot more the more I thought about it, and just had to write a new review telling people who don’t want to read a bleak dystopia, why you should reconsider.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

There is a very crucial interpretation I took from The Little Stranger which I will hint at but not reveal. I am going to try and write less ‘everything that happened in the book and in my life and adjacent to my life while I was reading it’ reviews and more proper ones.

There is a lot about one’s perspective as an outsider and the outsider’s interpretation of ownership. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve decided I am going to pursue what I want without any trace of guilt and not care much what gets in my way.

Similarly, Dr. Faraday, the protagonist of the story, imagines that ownership and the status ownership would grant him is more important than anything else. I have read haunted house novels where the house possesses people with their want of it—not just ownership but belonging and can think of no other novel where that fierce, destructive need for having a place in the world so drives the novel other than The Haunting of Hill House.

Only here, the purpose of that need is a little clearer. You are meant to read this as an examination of the cost of class systems but there is also a very subtle treatment of what it is to be female and be expected to want a very specific set of options. Though I would argue class is more important here, as when the protagonist is denied what he wants and becomes not so altruistic, after all, and begins to fight dirty, you sense the reason his methods are thwarted is because he is of a lower class than Caroline.

Throughout the novel, Dr. Faraday refuses to believe in a supernatural explanation and this rejection seems less and less rational as the book goes on to a very specific purpose. Without giving anything a way, I will note it’s interesting how you view him less as a rational male and more as someone who doesn’t wish to confront a force which really could deny his entrance into Hundreds Hall. If the house is haunted, he may have to face relinquishing his claim.

Someone complained about the title being somewhat misleading and all I will say in response to that (again because of spoilers) is I think Little Stranger is meant as the wanting of a child which, like the protagonist, cares only about the object of that desire. As the book wears on, Dr. Faraday’s pretenses of caring about anyone (even Caroline) fall away and we see him for what he really is and that’s far scarier than any specter.

Though I will also mention that, like all well-crafted tales, you are told what is to come in the first few pages. The first few pages reveal exactly what need for possession is at the heart of Dr. Faraday’s character and how he never really outgrows the childish destructiveness that doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he can have what he longs for.

Curious Consequences of a Curse (Through the Treeline Book 1) by Tuesday Simon

I’ll admit, when I first found out about certain, ah, aspects of the plot, I was a little worried the action would be somewhat limited. But, thankfully, that was in no way the case!

Lots of action, lots of romance that will suit fantasy fans that grew up reading the Dealing with Dragons series and enjoy lots of sarcasm, coffee, banter, book-reading, and flirting alongside their flawed (but lovable) monarchies, magic, mystery …

Sorry, I got stuck in a whole alliterative thing, didn’t I? I think the word I was looking for was intrigue.

There’s also revenging, archery, battles, and, of course, a happy ending. What more could you possibly want?

I really don’t read a lot of fantasy at least proportionately but I’ll be happy to add all the books in this delightful series for the few spots I reserve for straight up fanciful, fantastic fun.

(Again with the awesome adjectives.) Thankfully, I don’t have long to wait as the second book in the Through the Treeline series will be available in just a few months! Be sure to check it out.

Cinderella’s Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella’s Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I’ve been thinking lately about what’s lgbtqi in fiction? I mean, when an agent specifically asks for that, what they mean. Generally, what people seem to want is summed up by a male agent on MSWL who specified characters that are gay but that just happen to be gay and the whole story isn’t about that. I’m paraphrasing, of course. There were other problems with that dude so I didn’t query him. I mean, I get that I’m supposed to be desperate or whatever but there are red flags for me, too, not just them in looking at a prospective new author.

Cinderella’s Dead by Kalynn Bayron is a really fun, feminist read full of magic, adventure and romance where women are subservient in a world where one spurned dude has seized power. I guess while we’re on the subject: there was an agent I was so excited about querying. But somewhere into the first or second year of the Trump presidency, she changed her no’s to: no reverse dystopia’s where males are disposable.

I tried to put myself in her place (like when suddenly, all agents are like ‘no pandemics’ and I’ve been working on this same book for about a hundred years; it’s fine) All of a sudden, women being threatened with a total lack of agency by a power-hungry sociopath were bombarding her with reverse Handmaiden’s Tales. How annoying!

But let’s say (since she’s such a big Joss Whedon stan, which, ew) we live in a world of Buffy’s. wouldn’t men who can really only ‘watch’ and sort of half-assed fight be less valuable? But she acted like anything where our situation was reversed would be some petty power trip. Maybe it is, compared to envisioning a world where things are completely equal. Yet, it really wasn’t political, just that’s how the particular society operated for the novel. Maybe this agent rightly felt that feminism isn’t the reverse of what the patriarchy keeps trying to do to us.

Cinderella’s Dead is extremely simple and I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s for teens, after all, and it does a really good job of explaining how toxic masculinity works. It’s not just one dude being angry on the internet and who cares because it can’t really impact anything. We certainly know now that it can. When enough of them have the same flawed ideas, they can be extremely dangerous.

I do believe there are a few problems with normalization of queer romance at the expense of ever addressing obstacles in this current world but that’s because all my speculative narratives are grounded in this world which doesn’t always apply. That being said, normalization of queer teen romance is done well here. I love how the love triangle is all about how you can’t save other people but Sophia is still really torn up over wanting to save Erin. Yet, ultimately, she can’t love someone who won’t fully love her back.

Erin does love Sophia but feels they need to hide it. There are a lot of complicated points which are made in a way younger people will easily be able to relate to. I just loved this book. I want to send it to my niece but the cover is just too gorgeous. Maybe I will have to buy a second copy and keep it for myself. Sorry most of this was about ME as per usual. I feel I should say, I don’t always enjoy feudal fantasy but this worked really well within the fairytale retelling context.

Oh and I also loved how perspectives in history are touched on in a really simple but creative way. Even in the second wave feminist version with Drew Barrymore, it’s never questioned why Cinderella’s stepfamily is always cruel, and always ugly. Well, but anyone who says that about Melanie Lynsky better not say it to me! Sorry. Done now.

The agent who didn’t want dude Handmaiden’s Tales deleted that from MSWL and is now the person in charge of inclusiveness or whatever at the new agency she moved to and I’m like, wait…? So only not all men inclusiveness at that agency, then? She also won’t remove being a Harry Potter stan. I get that book was important to a lot of people but even just as a professional claiming to support inclusiveness could you maybe not?

*Note about my wordpress blog The Horror of Marna Larsen: I’m sort of reformatting this into book closet because I can’t figure out what else to do with my blog and I’ve fallen into just doing the book reviews here. And it is NOT all horror all the time, sometimes it’s fantasy or romance or whatever else I feel like reading. I’ve painted myself into a corner with this whole horror of thing and it’s my own fault and it’s going to be a period of adjustment trying to fix it.

Oh, I also wanted to mention this is a local author! Well, she grew up in Alaska (Alaska stretches from Seattle to I think Minnesota or something yet all Alaska authors are local authors. That’s just how it is! So shoutout to local female authors!

When We Were Magic

I am trying to use more of my weekends to catch up on reviewing. I’m not really sure how I’m supposed to update people who are curious about what I thought of a book other than making them aware that I usually post things to my personal blog. In this case, I bought a digital copy so I can review it on amazon but I’m never sure what to do with books where I only have a physical copy, purchased for as cheap as possible on ebay. I’m probably going to have to examine how I purchase books when it’s someone I know personally.

But I feel less obligated when it’s someone I don’t, whose book I have now bought twice because I know horror books written by women don’t do as well, even if the cover is amazing. I want to make sure I’m not somehow hurting the author by being, well, me. I’m the type of person who will start making snarky comments about Stephen King or Ray Bradbury after two straight years of watching people fall over themselves to like racist books that have been promoted by Grady Hendrix, a man I know to be a transphobe, who has gotten tons of mileage writing as marginalized (white but still female) characters because he’s figured it out: no one wants to read a woman writing as a woman (with the very rare exception and basically, they want to pat themselves on the back for reading that one author – usually Shirley Jackson, and hold it up as proof that they are not sexist) but people will read female characters if they are written by a male horror author.

But I know strong opinions will probably only hurt my cause and people will be even less likely to pick up great books if I throw tantrums. I’ve seen this over and over again on social media. It’s cool girls only. The narrative is so often that: ‘I’m cool with women and I don’t care who they sleep with but if I get yelled at for every little comment …’

I had a pretty emotional reaction to reading this book but almost wish it hadn’t been written for teenagers, as maybe the book’s biggest problem might have been avoided if the kids have been slightly older. I really do understand not being able to ask if someone likes you, when it’s already hard to ask. That’s probably why I only had one relationship with a woman during which, I asked her nothing. I had to center all my actions and reactions in relation to her around assumptions and afterwards, I felt well, men will tell me what they want, at least, despite that teenagers often don’t tell each other what they want and maybe later on, there would have been fewer misunderstandings. But I don’t like failure. I don’t like the emotional fallout. I tend to go with what’s easier. So, that was the only relationship I was willing to risk, probably because I was so young and my pride didn’t bother me so much back then.

So, maybe it’s just really painful watching people make such dumb and (now, at least) obvious mistakes, especially (and this is spoilers though the jacket summary is pretty upfront about the main drama the narrative is dealing with) when someone dies as a result. Though the characters spend a lot of time crying over how they killed a person, a person with feelings and loves and hopes and dreams, it just doesn’t feel real. The murder is the driver of the book, it’s what makes the stakes high enough for you to care so it can’t just be the type of ‘oops’ many narratives about women with powers they don’t understand are centered around.

Now, there are narratives where the lives around those with powers are less consequential and it’s just accepted but you can tell the author wants to take moral responsibility for her actions, literary or otherwise. Yet, I kept getting lost in really, really loving the characters (which, they didn’t kill anyone so it’s fine) and then reminding myself ‘well the main character murdered someone in an attempt to make her crush jealous’ and even understanding how hard it is to not be able to just come out and say something to someone, the motive can’t seem otherwise than petty.

I’m not sure what the solution is, as the author clearly doesn’t want to make the high stakes about women being threatened by men. I have a sort of shakier position on that personally but I have heard the arguments for why it’s not okay even for women to move the plot through violence against women by men and understand where those arguments are coming from. The problem for me is, I don’t believe in casually moving the plot through violence (like a female character’s backstory always being sexual assault) but let’s be real here. Men are still going to write those narratives and get a pass for it. Ignoring completely how often women who are different are targeted, especially when young and vulnerable just means men control the narrative about violence used against us.

Then again, maybe that I can’t get past a character accidentally murdering someone for dumb teenage reasons, says a lot about a genre where it’s just accepted violence against women gets a pass but violence committed by women is somehow petty or wrong. I just wish the misunderstanding had been used a bit more effectively to demonstrate how much more difficult queer romance can be for teens. Instead, there were times it came off as just an oops that ended up with someone dead as it was resolved fairly easily. Then again, maybe what that really says is queer romance needs to be normalized within narratives which are not marketed necessarily as such or serious consequences are a given. Yet, the genuine connections between the characters are lovely and it’s nice to read something a bit more feminist than the usual ‘not like most girls’ narratives I grew up on.

Plus, it does have a romance which is not overly tortured or tragic and I feel that’s really important in queer ya. I mean, it’s based on a murder but at least it’s not unrequited – I saw a lot of ‘in love with my straight best friend’ queer narratives growing up, too. I don’t know. I’m torn. I’ve personally had editors suggest I remove parts of the plot without which, there would be no plot and hate to do that to a book I genuinely loved but … I even wish they had gone with his being resurrected even though no consequences magic has its own set of problems. I just don’t think there’s a solution to this one and maybe that’s good because what situation in life has no moral ambiguity?

Anyway. I would yell at people to read this magical book which made me have feels but that will probably make them want to read it even less, so I will try and contain myself. I mean, I will repost it next year under another theme and hope for platform growth. I did that recently with Fledgling and it got five whole more likes than last time! So, see? Progress.

Gothic Trope Revival in Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

            I’m not as familiar with the Gothic novels from the fifties and sixties as I am with the late sixties and seventies. Gothic novels of the sixties and seventies often conform to white feminism narratives of the time in that, it takes a liberated woman out of their element and places them somewhere less secure (often meaning: non-white) so the stakes are raised a bit, often before they realize it’s a lot safer to just go back to Ohio and get married. Yet, they managed to be subversive in creating an outlet addressing needs for passion, independence, and adventure women had which were not often addressed by other aspects of pop culture at the time.   

            Mexican Gothic fits in seamlessly with the more aesthetic aspects of the few earlier Gothic novels I have read. The woman in these novels must be independent, as the locale would scare away the less intrepid. She must be curious to a fault and unwilling to give up once a mystery presents itself. Often, the story is built around the idea of a woman being lured somewhere by her unconventionality. Here, there is a much more practical reason the somewhat frivolous Noemí must leave the comforts of her life of wealth and leisure in Mexico City—to go to the small village where her cousin has married a once-wealthy man who nevertheless owns a large (but decaying) family estate and discover if she truly is sick with tuberculosis or undergoing some type of breakdown.

            Though that she goes at her father’s behest in itself demonstrates a very real problem the protagonist is somewhat in denial of though I think we are meant to view her attitude as ‘I have to get along in a society I don’t always agree with’ which is very relatable—especially now. Though initially, she does not wish to go, she gives in partly to buy herself a bit more freedom. Otherwise, her father might insist she actually settle down with one of her suitors. Instead, he will allow her to change her major to her latest passion—anthropology—as well as transfer to a more prestigious university.

            The trope of flighty socialite is interesting because the stakes are simply much higher for Noemí despite her social standing. It is implied throughout the narrative that she is under some amount of pressure to choose something—if not necessarily a man than at least a course of study. Her father is depicted as reasonable—he doesn’t wish for his daughter to be forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, yet his understanding does not come without obligations.

            Though there are few reminders of the situation even a wealthy, educated Latinx woman of the times would still face—that women could not vote at this time in Mexico is one of them—you never forget how women are still considered property. Though the situation where Noemí is held captive appears fantastic yet is not too far outside the realm of possibility. It poses the question of what a less reasonable man but one still allowed to make choices for you might do if all they care about is your body’s compliance but not you as an individual.

            In an interesting reversal, the wealthy family is imported, Dracula-like, along with servants and even soil into the protagonist’s world and this is used very effectively both as a familiar trope and a way to address white colonialist attitudes as the family also imports their repellent (but far too prevalent even now) views on breeding and superiority: ‘She no longer wondered if Howard Doyle had a pair of calipers; now she wondered how many he kept,’ Noemí speculates at one point. Another reversal is how the love interest is sweet but somewhat passive, and in need of rescue, even the story’s conclusion makes you more certain of Noemí—that she will not submit to a passionless life—than you are that he will really choose to live in opposition of his family’s harmful white supremacist ideology without her there to remind him: ‘You have a damn choice.’

Finally, The Changeling by Victor LaValle.

When I started out querying my current horror novel, which has elements of gothic horror, speculative fiction and folk horror, I chose my comparison things poorly. For gothic, I chose My Sweet Audrina, for speculative, I called my book a more adult and much gayer Stranger Things (actually, I still use that one) and for folk horror, I used Pet Sematary, even though I hadn’t read the book, and kind of can’t stand Stephen King, and I think it gave me bad karma. To be fair, I did finally read Pet Sematary and it’s definitely one of his better books. Maybe even his best. But it doesn’t suit my brand of horror as I kind of think like the literal opposite of all that weirdness JK Rowling was spewing at King about how much he understands and sympathizes with women. Barf.

Not that The Changeling is perfect. But I chose LaValle as my fok horror comparison because I felt like our gaps in understanding were well matched. Also, I want the authors I mention in my queries to be decent humans. I think Stephen King maybe tries to be that but is in such a lofty position now, it’s impossible for him to remember that a lot of soothing and petting by a woman who put her own work on hold went into that, as it’s often something men (especially Boomer aged men) just feel entitled to. I mean, in a way, it isn’t their fault initially, as they were taught to feel entitled. But time after time, King has proven himself to be unwilling to do any work on that entitlement, happy simply to coast on his earlier successes. And why shouldn’t he? According to my Instagram feed, he is still beloved by all, male and female readers alike, whereas I just have some unfair vendetta.

The Changeling is really addresses social issues well like lack of childcare, lack of support for working women, lack of maternity leave, how women, (especially women of color) are less likely to be believed about things like PPD or difficulties in pregnancy, or even how, not all women bond instantly with their children. That’s a real thing, one I was terrified of to the point where I decided, better to go without. I don’t particularly trust the people who would be around the child not to stick me in a 19th century era mental institution so they can whisk the child away and teach it ‘the important things in life.’ That’s perhaps mean but also valid.

Yet, despite there being a very comprehensive, or intersectional understanding of what women deal with when they have children, any treatment of a (male) world which assumes all women want to have and should have children won’t resonate with those of us who don’t want to have them. But like I said, I wanted a comparison whose lack of understanding could fight, if you will, with mine. After all, I’m writing about a black woman from an alternate universe who fights monsters, and I’m white.

I also wanted to say (this is spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book) that I really liked that they went there with the troll thing. It was suitably hilarious yet, although a troll with tech savvy can do a lot of damage and I imagine, can do worse to a person of color, after I got done chortling, I felt kind of uneasy with the choice simply because men, even ones that incels consider to be ‘cucks’ – my bf says no one uses that any more; men who talk to women online without deriding their horror choices or threatening to rape or kill them are now ‘simps’ – are still centered as important while women are disposable garbage. I think that’s why Lavalle chose to have Emma dispatch him to sort of dispel a bit of that uneasiness. Which didn’t quite do it for me. Once the novelty of the humor wore off I felt this was a bit too close to an author playing around with something that is a very real threat to women who navigate the internet.

Like, I actually taped a piece of cardboard up over the camera on my laptop and I don’t know if LaValle’s intent was to terrify women over their already often uneasy encounters with men and their opinions, especially in a male-dominated genre like horror. But that’s what I meant by our lacks hopefully matching up well. I think comparison things should fit the horror author using them and I at least feel more comfortable with what LaValle thinks about women than what King does.

Otherwise, I really loved this book. The images are so compelling. The island, especially, was really strange and lovely. Anyone who likes folk horror and magic will really enjoy The Changeling and I urge those who are feeling run down with everything that’s happened in the last eight months, read this, as we could all use a little magic right now.

Next week, I will review The Babysitter’s Coven (and I’m also working on rereading the Lerangis ghost written Baby-Sitters Club books).