As we ALL know, December is the most Weeniederful time of the year, right? Time being what it is, no one is gonna argue with me on this. And anyway, every day is Halloween over at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab!
I received BPAL’s 2021 autumnal collection several weeks ago, but then I promptly had to embark on a series of travels, and have only recently returned, so here we are. And anyway, smells smell good whenever you smell them, so there is no problem here! Let’s get into it!
Pumpkinville (a sultry, sweet red musk blend with pumpkin spices and pumpkin pulp) Eye-wateringly indolic, sultry red musk, and a strange spirit of irreverent mischief that really does conjure forth the bottle art by the inimitable Becky Munich: the madcap marvels of a swishy-skirted pumpkin-headed, velvet-choker-that-keeps-their-gourd-on-their-neck-wearing friend who zooms up your driveway in a rickety hearse and a cloud of feral autumnal spice and cackles GET IN LOSER WE’RE GOING WEENIE-ING.
Pandemic Vanitas (fresh baked bread, takeout fries, raw cookie dough, and cotton-blend sweatpants) A salty crispness? But also some sort of chocolate-covered wafers thing? Some Little Debbie Treat? Holy childhood snacks that I never had so I stole them from classmates– this is a Nutty Buddy! This triggers some kind of memory, being packed away to day camp during the summer, and snacks in the afternoon between god’s eye yarn endeavors and popsicle stick craft projects and little hikes to make gravestone rubbings… and now that I am talking about it, wow day camp was wasted on little-me. I’m definitely more into the idea of it as an adult.
Skull With Shell, Books, and a Crumple of Blush-Pink and Night-Blue Silk (creamy yellowed paper, pink tuberose, star jasmine, and blue cypress with incense, eucalyptus leaf, and iridescent sap) Artisinal smoky ylang-ylang-esque, lemony, balsamic-minty cough lozenges! The sort that an apothecary ASMR YouTuber who pays great attention to details would keep on set. These little pastilles would be so unusually delicious that you want to scarf them down like candy, but she sternly looks you in the eye and tells the camera, “NON.”
Paisley Sheet Ghost (weedsmoke-infused white sandalwood, wild oakmoss, cannabis flower accord, hash resin accord, tonka bean, lavender bud, champaca flower, and tolu balsam) This is an alluring musky chypre or a chypre-y musk. Sophisticated and mysterious in the way that your mother’s sister with her flashing rings and her purple-tinted glasses and her swishing caftans always seemed. I’m a square, friends, and I can’t speak much to many of these notes because my only real experience with any of it is a weird evening with a very special brownie, but Paisley Sheet Ghost definitely calls to mind people who are way cooler than me doing things that I’m just not ready to experience. And inexplicably they’ve invited me somewhere, or offered me something, and because I’m too scared or weirded out I say no and then sort of fade into the the woodwork and wish I could die because I’m so embarrassed by my timidness and lack of gumption for new things and new experiences. At almost 45 years old, I am still like this. Plus I don’t like to smoke things. Wow. As always, come for the perfume reviews, stay for the TMI.
Mouse’s Long and Sad Pumpkin (vanilla-infused pumpkin, two ambers, sweet pea and white sandalwood) This is such a pretty scent. It’s vaguely floral and vaguely foody, but not enough of either to be overwhelming in the way that those combinations can sometimes be. The more I sniff it, the more I’m convinced that “pretty” is more apt than “beautiful”…because something beautiful can be a bit stupefying, too. This is a vanilla-specked marshmallow, the homemade sort that you cut into enormous, fluffy squares, dusted generously with powdered sugar, drizzled with dark, musky honey, and –okay, so imagine this–what if pumpkin pie seasoning came from the crumbled petals of the autumn blooms of the pumpkin spice flower? Such a blossom garnishes this confection.
Dead Leaves, Spruce Bough, and Ti Leaf a green tea scent with an extra elven oomph; these types of scents can have a sort of spa-like vibe, but in this instance, the soft, earthy decay of autumn leaves and the balsamic wintriness of the spruce whisks it away it to something different and unexpected.
Still Like With Dooting Skull (bourbon vanilla with wildflower honey, licorice root, coconut milk, and nutmeg) This is one of those scents that has a texture in my mind’s eye, a sort of milky jelly, not sticky or tacky, but like a really nice plumping serum that you might use as part of your nighttime skincare regimen. I think it’s that combination of the lactonic coconut milk and the delicate floral nectar sourness of the honey, combined with a slightly medicinal anise aspect of the licorice, its sharpness muted by the creaminess. It smells…”efficacious”…if that makes sense.
The Harvesters I don’t think this scent is part of the weenie release but there was a bottle of this nestled in with the others in this box o’stinks and it seems seasonally appropriate, so I’m going to include a review anyhow. A quick bit of research shows that this scent was a gift with purchase in 2013 (someone please correct me if I am wrong!) and the notes are “pear trees, boiled oats, and wine beside a ripe field of wheat waving under a late-summer sun.” Before I even knew that though, when I was still trying to figure it out, my first thought was, “wow, this is the scent of a tasty jam sandwich snack!” Now that I’ve got a bit of context for it, I might further add that it’s toasted, fresh-baked bread with the addition of rolled and ground oats, and a gorgeous pear preserve that you made one solitary autumn weekend in November with just-harvested fruit (okay you harvested it from a gift basket, there are no pear trees around you, whatever!) stewed with red wine and a few broken cinnamon sticks. You were going to share a jar with a friend but you ended up eating it all yourself on slice after slice of steaming bread, warming your belly in the chill light of the afternoon.
Pumpkin-Scented Sticky Bat (sticky, lemony, and very pumpkiny) Lemon bars with olive oil and sea salt, fluffy lemon mousse, warm lemon pudding cake, lemon drop tart with a shortbread crust. All of these things at once! I really don’t like the word “yummy”, unless Terri Hatcher is saying it to Cathy Moriarty in Soapdish, but I will admit that its usage is entirely appropriate here.
Floral Sheet Ghost (strawberry-stained rose and peony with squished carnation and sugared pineapple) As a child who loved “all things floweredy” and who has carried that love into adulthood, I am okay with wearing all the florals in waking life, dreaming under them at night, and being garbed in them in my eternal afterlife, as well. Flowers 4ever, please! It would stand to reason, that this was the scent from the Freak In The Sheets collection for which I was most excited. I don’t get any florals from it, though…it smells just like a very specific Japanese candy the name for which I cannot recall, but a certain perfume swapper always used to include some in the packages they sent me. Pineapple, lychee, sweet-tart, sour-bright, syrupy deliciousness.
Dead Leaves on Houseplants The first sniff of this is quite deceptive, so I do hope you will stick around for what comes after because it’s pretty magical. The initial whiff is that of musty celery, a sort of watery, vegetal greenness. But it immediately becomes something bright and lemony, glossy-glowing-green and exuberant, sort of how you feel when you first bring a houseplant home, hope in your heart, swearing this time will be different! You’re not gonna kill this lil greenie no way, no how! This is a scent that calls to mind lists of why you should have green things growing in your house, how they improve the air quality, they raise the vibe, the aesthetic and acoustic benefits, whatever–this is what those emotional and visual improvements smell like in action.
Traditional Sheet Ghost (cool white cotton, marshmallow fluff, and lemony Oman frankincense) I had to check some reviews on this one, which I typically try not to do. I am easily influenced and if you tell me that you smell a specific thing, I might, too! But because my perception of Traditional Sheet Ghost was so unexpected, I just had to see what everyone else said! General consensus points to vanilla floofery, clean cotton sheets, and lemony breezes, but what I smell is a warm orchid-like note (which to my nose is also sort of an oaky vanilla) and …sandalwood? I have revisited this a handful of times and with every sniff it’s this soft, mellow, musky, malty, slightly-tipsy snuggie of a scent.
Dead Leaves and Molasses Pumpkin Cookies sweet loamy decay, browned butter AND pumpkin butter, and chewy, deliciously-spiced soft cookies. Nibbled on a midday forest ramble when the sun is low, the wind is still, and the path is eerily disappearing behind you. When searchers trek through the woods to locate you days later, there is only a sweet dusting of crumbs and maple leaves crunched underfoot where you had once stood.
Her Eyes Have Feasted on the Dead (bruise-purple violet and Spanish moss) This is a sun-bright, chipper, vivacious Rainbow Bright Pollyanna optimist with a secret burning goth black hole at their core! Blithe, beaming florals–I don’t smell violet exactly, but rather a plummy bouquet of glossy blossoms– with a little jumping spider living at the middle. “I am darkness!” they squeak joyously as they breathlessly enthuse about their serial killer obsession, their favorite horror movie, the time they left silken threads as tribute on Jim Morrison’s grave. “I am the wound and the knife! I am the vampire of my own heart!” they warble and bounce as they recite Baudelaire and let loose an adorable powdery fart!
Black Satin Sheet Ghost (black patchouli drenched in mate, clary sage, narcissus, and opium tar) Heady and opulent, the narcissus note smells to me like a creamy jasmine-like floral and pleasantly skanky; there’s a surprising streak of mint running through the scent that pairs interestingly with the earthy patchouli and the bitter astringency of the mate. It somehow all works in a really odd way, and it reminds me of those old ladies (or maybe it’s just the same old lady all the time?) who always show up on fashion blogs and interviews, the ones who have sharp, angular haircuts and big, round sunglasses and wear those white-striped Adidas track pants with, I don’t know, a silk floral Gucci shirt or something.
Ivy Twining Around Discarded Skull (incense, scorched brown sandalwood, drooping petals, noxious English ivy berries, and a tangle of leaves) Impossibly green incense, a smoldering cyan. The cool, creeping, verdant language of crawling greenery set alight, whispering soft variegated ashes skyward.
Innocent Souls Turned Carrion Birds (grey musk, grey sandalwood, and labdanum) This is a beautiful burnished and balsamic sticky-honied tobacco, with a peppery, sparkling citrus aspect that reminds me of voluptuous illustrations of jeweled autumn fruits. I almost want to say it’s gourmand-adjacent;while it’s rich, bordering on decadent, it’s not at all edible–the sort of gorgeousness that beckons from a window display or behind a glass counter and you think to yourself, “no, I could never eat that, it’s just too exquisite!”
Signum Crucis (rosehips, ambrette seed, leather, and mushroom) Ok, I gotta be honest here. I am reviewing this after the actual occurrence of one of my worst nightmares (I have a lot of those, but still. This one is pretty high on the list.) As an anxious, dysthymic people-pleaser this was the sort of thing that bunged all of my triggers and I am still in a state of high whateverness, my face on fire, my heart beating out of my chest, my body wanting to both barf and diarrhea, maybe also out of my ears. I am very keyed up and don’t know what I am smelling, let alone what I am thinking. BUT! As an experiment, I am reviewing this scent as I am all spiked up on adrenaline and then I will come back a few hours later and see if there is any difference. Right now it’s an ashy floral, sort of like flaming blossoms of petaled confetti, fizzling in a misty drizzle. Not fresh roses…not quite incendiary…but maybe a dusty bouquet, post-immolation, a little damp and singed and sheepish. Later it has a subtle, woody aroma, along with a note something very much like dry fall leaves. I don’t spend a lot of time sniffing mushrooms, but this feels like a scent that if I were a Little, or a Borrower or Arietty, and one of my soft, earthy fungi-friends gave me a hug? It might smell just like this. At this point, it’s actually a very comforting sniff and it’s making me feel better? Okay then!
Need more ‘Weenies? Have a peep at my ‘Weenie reviews from the autumns of yesteryear, over at Haute Macabre 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017
New to the massive, immersive aromatic world of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab? You may want to check out my three-part guide with tips and pointers for getting started on your weird, wild fragrant journey!
A few weeks ago, over on Twitter, someone replied to me with something that made me feel kinda weird, and not a fun-weird. They probably didn’t think anything of it, and it was probably an innocent comment, but it definitely made me feel some kind of way, and I am still thinking about it.
“How many copies of your book do you have on hand, anyway?” It was something like that. Like maybe it’s odd to have a surplus of something you created? Like it’s somehow…greedy or boastful? I obviously don’t know what the intent or thought was behind the remark, I don’t know what the person’s experience is with such things or why they felt the need to make the observation (and I say “observation” because I don’t think it was a real question that they wanted a real answer for), but I can share why it is that I like to keep so many copies of it around!
When I was younger, I worked for a family-owned business. I suppose it was *my* family, as it was my former stepfather’s business–but it feels a little disingenuous to think of it that way. We sold occult books, of both the contemporary and the very old and very rare variety. When he initially opened the shop, it was mail order only, and that was my very first job when I was 15 years old–folding and stapling those catalogs that we printed at home! In my early twenties, I worked with him in our little warehouse. We had created a website and ran lots of eBay auctions, but we still did not have a brick-and-mortar storefront. I think we both liked it best that way, not having to deal with people in person! I packed and shipped orders, restocked the shelves, replied to emails, fielded phone calls, and tried in my very limited early-2000s way, to create a social media presence. An author of three books himself, I noted that my stepdad never had less than a dozen of his own books on the shelf, and as far as everything else, well, we very rarely had to tell a customer that something was “out of stock.”
What with family dynamics and life choices and such, my former stepfather and I haven’t spoken in many years. But I am very grateful to him for the myriad experience that job afforded me, for the opportunity to have spent a few years with those incredible books, and the profound trust that he had in me to work with everything as closely as I did. Many years later, I am only selling one book–my own. But I’ll always remember how he had a whole shelf dedicated to the copies of the books that he wrote himself, and I found that wonderfully inspiring. To have a thing on hand when someone wants it is a lovely thing to be able to act on! And is it not really awesome to catch a glimpse of a stack of books that you wrote, yourself? Come on–of course it is! I am lucky enough to have the space in my home to do this, so why not?
ANYWAY, if you have made it this far…guess what! I do have a point, and it’s nothing to do with any of that.
Although all of the above is 100% true, I just wanted an excuse to share a stack of books in this post’s featured image. Did you pre-order a copy of my book but wish you could have gotten it signed? Or did you order a copy of it from somewhere other than from me over the past year and wish the same? Send me an email to theartoftheoccult AT gmail dot com with your mailing address and I will send you a signed bookplate for your copy!
Now excuse me while I step away from my desk and immediately trip over the thousands of copies of The Art of the Occult that clog my hallways and jam up every inch of space in my rooms.
I have been hibernating a bit, taking it slower, and scrapping all of the to-do lists over the past month or so. I’m sleeping in later in the mornings, spending more time reading, and less time on projects and progress. Typically I might fight this slowing-down, this softening; it might stress me out, thinking that I’m being lazy, that things aren’t moving forward or getting done. I don’t know what’s changed, exactly. I don’t know how or where I might have changed. But it feels natural for the season…which, I know…that’s a big duh. It takes me a while to get on board with things that other people seem to just intuitively know and understand.
I’m watching the leaves from the crepe myrtle tree wither and fall to the ground just outside my office window. A slow, descent, carried by the breeze. It reaches the ground, eventually. The startlingly white ibis appear like magic to dine in our yard every morning, their long bills unhurriedly poking through the grass to find bugs for breakfast. A large crow landed on our barren pumpkin bed the other day and had a leisurely conversation with an even larger crow perched on the lip of a soggy whiskey barrel filled with fragrant lemon balm and hyssop. They’re all taking their time. Me too, friends. Me too.
Giving myself a break, coupled with a few weeks’ worth of work-related and family-related travel, my little blog here has slowed down, too. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone so long without at least a tiny update, even something silly or just a pretty thing to look at! I didn’t take a single photo while I was away, and I barely checked my social media (which I’m sure my iPhone will be delighted to report in my weekly usage update! It’s an awfully smug thing, and I resent it, sometimes.)
Saffron tassels, Honeycrisp apples, chrysanthemum dazzles: I have so far knit four different versions of this Stoker shawl, above. This one I am keeping for myself. I created the tassels for it two weeks ago and still haven’t attached them. I am supremely unbothered. It’ll happen eventually. The fiery flowers are from my garden, but they were originally a grocery store impulse buy last year! After they had set out for about two weeks and I decided that their time was up, Yvan suggested that we plant them instead of throwing them away or composting them or whatever. They languished for nine months and then as soon as the weather got cooler, they perked up and thrived! Thanks, $9.99 chrysanthemums, for reminding me to do things in my own time as well. Such as getting through this book, The Scent of Lemons and Rosemary: Working Domestic Magick With Hestia, which I started in June, and I am still only two chapters into!
Since we are on the topic of scents and such, here are a few more perfumed thoughts from my ongoing effort to catalog and review every scent that I own. (This, too, is taking a while. But there is no hurry.)
At first sniff, Autumn Vibes from Maison Margiela is an intensely smoky, peppery amber. Somewhat briefly akin to the splendidly smoky amber crackling autumn bonfire of Sonoma Scent Studio’s Ambre Noir. But then, in the span of a split-split-split second, it transforms into a sour, sulky citrus. Ray Bradbury has a quote along the lines of how for some people, fall is the only season, the only weather, and there is no other choice beyond that. These “autumn people” are full of the dust of the grave, with the night wind in their blood, and a whole bunch of other spooky goth stuff about worms and toads and snakes and the frenzy of souls and sinners and the starlit abyss. Thank you for summing us up so beautifully, Ray! So. Imagine you’re a regular denizen of Mr. Bradbury’s Autumn People Cocktail Bar, and there’s a whole menu of delectable October libations to choose from. One day this tourist shows up, and when presented with the option between the house special smoked bourbon old-fashioned with a wedge of spiced pumpkin pie on the rim…and a screwdriver…this guy inexplicably orders the orange juice & vodka. This is the sad story and evolution of Autumn Vibes. Autumn People, be warned–you’ll want to get your creepy cozy, harvest-season, sweater-weather vibes elsewhere. This one’s for the (GASP) Summer People.
I first learned of Hanae Mori on a blog that I was pretty obsessed with, back in the early 2000s. This person wasn’t a perfume enthusiast or fashionista, or even a popular blogger as far as I could tell…she seemed to be a gentle quiet weirdo, like me. She had a goth Betty Page bob and she did something in tech and updated sporadically about her little Seattle apartment. I thought she was the coolest. When I began to really delve into fragrances a few years later, I recall her mentioning this one in passing, and so sought out a sample. I was disappointed at how ordinary it seemed. Twenty years later I quite disagree with past me! Hanae Mori is a really lovely woody vanilla and creamy musk with hints of dusty dried grass and the airy green tang of blackberry leaves. A lot of reviewers mention fruit, but I don’t get any of that at all. If you like the comforting nostalgia whispers of Vanilla Fields or the bitter Miss Havisham melancholia of Fleur Cachee, I’d say this scent falls squarely in the middle, and friends, I am so obsessed.
Someone mentioned that I should try M from Mariah Carey because it smells like marshmallow incense, and though I love marshmallows and incense, I didn’t have high hopes because I think most celebrity fragrances are either boring or kind of awful. But how could I doubt the performer who sings what can only be spoken of as the most splendid and fabulous Christmas song of all time? Mariah’s version of All I Want For Christmas Is You is perfect and excellent and I am taking no questions on that point. This perfume is neither perfect, nor does it smell like marshmallows or incense (at least to my nose it doesn’t but I’m not saying that the commenter didn’t have their own experience.) BUT it’s still pretty decent! More than decent, even. And okay, maybe I was wrong. These are *cereal marshmallows* perfumed with lush, night-blooming flowers, sweetened with rich amber rock sugar, all gone soft and creamy in a bowl of milk. And then left on an altar to smolder lazily in a dish combined with dragon’s blood and pomegranate. Not a summoning. But an offering of thanks. She doesn’t want a lot for Christmas. Because she’s a giver. And she gave us the best holiday-themed song to ever exist in this world or any other. All hail Mariah, the vocal acrobatics of “All Want For Christmas Is You”, and to a lesser extent… this perfume which is actually pretty ok.
Over the past 24 hours, I have had to reframe and rescript all of my internal dialogue about Lady Vengeance from Juliette has a Gun. It is an entirely different creature today than it was yesterday. Almost a Jekyll and Hyde performance, if the good doctor was a sociopath and his alter ego was actually a hapless hero. Let me explain. Yesterday this was a fragrance of soft, cedary woods and ambery musks, a combination which I tend to love… but it was missing something. It was like observing someone with a human mask on, going through the motions of what humans do, but behind their dead, black eyes there was no light, or spark, or soul. Today this scent is the most theatrical, scenery-chewing rose; a rose that sweeps in to save the day with roses embroidered on its cape and a rose between its teeth and some sort of rose-related catchphrase– in case you, you know, forgot it was a rose. On one hand, it’s too little, and on the other, it’s Very A Lot and between the two, this lady has forgotten about whatever she wanted vengeance for in the first place.
I have an evolution of sentiment involving two scents that are nothing alike but which came together as a bit of a story when I wore one on either wrist. I will note a trigger warning here in the form of ruminations on death and our imminent mortality. If that’s something that bothers you, please consider yourself informed. Mojave Ghost from Byredo is a wistful floral. A little milky, a little woody, a little sad. With a gently soapy violet aspect to it, more like laundry soap than handsoap. Something that you might use to clean a dusty Edwardian frock. It first calls to mind the girls in their frothy ivory dresses from the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, and their mysterious disappearances. It makes me think of ruffles and lace period, I suppose, worn by people who’ve yet to encounter loss or grief. A child who one moment has no concept of death, and then in the next second when they learn of their missing sister who will never return, or their terminally ill relative or a grandparent who died in their sleep…and then with that knowledge that none of us will be here forever and eventually we’re all going to shuffle off of this plane of existence… things are just different. Perhaps we’re not going to disappear into a massive and uncanny geological formation, possibly ushered along by unseen forces (like the Hanging Rock girls) but that our lives will one day end is a certainty. Mojave Ghost smells like the moment just after you’ve come by this information, and you know you are never again going to be as happy as you were before you knew it.
Phantasmagoria, on the other hand, a perfume oil collaboration between Haute Macabre and Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, is that young person, twenty years later, after they’ve seen some shit. And they’re soaking in their departed mother’s bathtub, up to their neck in her favorite bubble bath (which in this case is Avon’s Skin So Soft.) They’re smoking a clove cigarette, a myrrh-scented incense stick is softly glowing at the edge of the tub, and there’s a rosewood box of polaroids balanced on their soapy knees. With wet fingers, you flip through til you find the photo you were looking for: you, in your easter dress, ruffles, and lace. The moment your mother told you this day would come.
Imagine you won a contest run by your local radio station, you know the one with the obnoxious sexist pig morning show duo, generically called something like “Big Dude Bro and the Little Vermin.” Yeah, so you–lucky you!–entered this contest where the prize was the privilege of getting to spend the night in a local spot purported to be haunted. Great, right?! Well, turns out it’s just a sketchy vape shop and the “ghost” is like, how someone saw Jesus’s face in a baked potato or something. And that actually happened next door in the crusty diner. The moment you walk in the door you are assaulted by the sickening aroma of maple syrup vape juice, a cloying waft from an empty rum raisin ice cream container crawling with many-legged insects, and the dusty fumes of your meanest ancestor’s cherry pipe tobacco. Was it a haunting or was it Marc Jacobs Decadence? You conclude that while you did not experience anything in the slightest bit supernatural, this vile combination of notes will certainly haunt you for the rest of your days.
Oddity from Rag & Bone was referred to me a few months ago, and a quick search revealed that it had been discontinued. I grabbed an overpriced sample from eBay and promptly fell in love. Would I consider it an “oddity”? Hm. Well, for a perfume to be so beautifully cardamom forward is a rarity, I suppose. But the real peculiarity is that there is no cardamom included in the notes! I’m no chemist or perfumer, so I am not sure which amongst the oud, incense, amber, neroli, bergamot, or rose listed is combining to give it that distinctive that piney-woody-floral cardamom aroma, but it’s absolutely enchanting and I love it. It’s as if someone took a stick of cardamom incense and stirred a cup of cardamom tea with it and then sweetened it with cardamom and brown sugar, and then you breathed in deeply as cardamom-scented smoke and steam rose from the cup. As much as I love this, I am hesitant to purchase a full bottle. It’s again available on the Rag & Bone site and I’m hearing whisperings that this is a reformulation. And I don’t always get sucked into to the nay-sayers and hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers when it comes to reformulations, but… if this doesn’t smell exactly like the strange, smoky cardamom magics emanating from this sample vial I am not interested. Also, do you see this? I literally do not have room for it if it not a thing of utter perfection and beauty.
Tam Dao from Diptyque is a perfect poem of a scent that I love wholeheartedly and which others have most assuredly spoken of more eloquently than I could ever hope to. A dry, woody composition with notes of cedar and cypress, sandalwood, rosewood, and musk, it’s an understated and Introspective fragrance, evoking the meditative shifting light of the afternoon sun as it deepens into the melancholic shadows of evening as daylight dwindles.
It recalls for me the oft-quoted line from beloved poet Mary Oliver’s The Uses of Sorrow: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Maika is joining me for this Autumn installment of Stacked and I couldn’t be more excited! They’ve recently read several books that I have had my eyes on, so I am very keen to know their thoughts! Also, in a relevant tidbit of Maika-news, be sure to listen in on their Pages & Portents series over on TikTok, wherein they share bibliomantic reveries, passages divined from books chosen at random from their mysterious shelves, on a somewhat daily basis. I love this.
Certain Dark Things Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Neon noir vampire fiction, where have you been all my life? At once grimy and sexy, mysterious, alluring, and very violent. I loved so many things about this book – the luridly vivid Mexico City setting, the ominously atmospheric yet wondrous world-building… This is a world in which a fascinating variety of species of vampires exist, with varying abilities, appetites, strengths, weaknesses, and life expectancy. Humans have been aware of the existence of vampires as very real and dangerous creatures since the late 1960s, reacting to this alarming news by doing things like banning them from entire nations and turning cities into fortified, ostensibly vampire-free zones. The characters, human and vampire alike, felt as rich and well-realized as the menacing world around them. If you’re looking for a book like Moreno-Garcia’s , this is not it. But I love how distinct they are from each other. Their wildly different styles make me even more excited to read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work. I have no idea if she plans to write more books in this world. I’d be here for it if she did. Either way, I hope someone options this harrowing and beguiling tale and then throws oceans of cash at the project. Done well, this would make a jaw-dropping and riveting miniseries and, one can only hope, result in some seriously sexy cosplay as well.
From the Neck Up and Other Stories by Aliya Whiteley – My first experience with the work of Aliya Whiteley was a novel entitled The Beauty and I…did not love it. However, I did love the way it was written and the startlingly creative mind behind it enough that I pre-ordered this collection of short stories as soon as I read about it. And I’m so glad I did. These stories were all so beautiful, so deeply strange, so poignant, freaky, fascinating, and astonishingly inventive… At the risk of coming across as lazy, I don’t want to go into detail about any of them because most of them are so short, gripping, and peculiar that I don’t want to spoil a single detail. I hope you go into this book as in the dark as I was. Finishing the last story was like eating the last bite of a delicious meal – every bit as satisfying as all the bites that came before, but tinged with sadness by signaling there are no more bites to come. I want more.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolvesby Karen Russell – More dark, weird, fantastical short fiction comfort food for me. Short stories are such mercurial creatures. Sometimes they’re absolutely perfect as they are (*cough* From the Neck Up *cough*). Other times, such as with this collection, they feel more tantalizing than satisfying. By which I mean that I wish they were either much longer or entire books unto themselves. Perhaps that’s not a flaw, but instead another possible form that a good short story can take: an all too brief, in media res glimpse of a world, a moment, or a character’s life that leaves you desperately trying to continue the tale in your own head after you’ve read the last page. These brief, evocative stories are so detailed, affecting, and fascinating, surely there must be more…
All’s Well by Mona Awad – After the singular experience that was Awad’s novel Bunny, I was champing at the bit to read her next novel. While the two books share academic settings in common (albeit different ones), the similarity ends there. Awad has a knack for not just placing you inside a well-realized character, but for virtually sinking you into their very marrow. Miranda Fitch, the central character of this book, an actor-turned-theatre professor, suffers from intense chronic pain. As I’ve seen other reviews mention, I found the first 100 pages or so incredibly difficult to get through because Miranda’s life is such relentless agony. But as punishing as that was, it was also brilliant, because it meant the moment things start to change for Miranda, the moment there’s even a hint of relief, however transient,I felt it too. And it’s intoxicating. As with Bunny, though in its own completely unique way, as soon as this story takes a turn for the strange it just gets darker, stranger, and increasingly intense with the turn of each page. It’s a whole-body Shakespearean fever dream of a novel driven by one character’s unbearable pain, heartbreak, desperation, and a profound love of theatre. I can’t wait to see what Mona Awad does next.
Never Have I Ever: Stories by Isabel Yap – This a wonderfully varied collection of strange short stories – some of them terrifying, some tender, some wistful, some monstrous, some mischievous, and often beautifully queer and infused with marvelous Filipino folklore. This is Yap’s first collection of short fiction. I hope there’s more to come.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell – Once again Laura Purcell satisfies my craving for gothic horror with a dark, sinuous tale of brutal murders, grief, silhouette artistry, and Spiritualism. A thoroughly haunted page-turner with the unexpected bonus of a charismatic pug named Morpheus.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner Even if I was not myself a member of the dead moms club, I would have sobbed my way through every page of this intimate, vulnerable memoir. Firstly, I love Japanese Breakfast, and I am kinda peeved that I was not the first person on the planet to hear about Michelle Zauner’s music– and now that I have found out about her, I’ve grown so obsessed with her that I’m certain I’d be into whatever new project she puts out into the world, no matter what it might be about. In the case of this book, it is an exploration of grief, identity, and food (!!) throughout which Zauner grapples with her mother’s death and a painful disconnect with her heritage.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily XR Pan. I was fairly certain I knew what was in sort for me when I originally purchased this book, but by the time I finally read it I had forgotten even the tiniest inkling of what it was about. And it turned out that reading this immediately after Crying in H Mart was both a beautiful and terrible idea.
My heart hadn’t yet recovered when I began this new story, wherein burgeoning teenage artist Leigh struggles with her mother’s devastating suicide. She comes to the conclusion, after a visitation from a mysterious scarlet-plumed bird late one night, that after death her mother has somehow taken the form of this otherworldly creature. In a journey of smoke and secrets and strange, insomniac magics, Leigh travels backward and forward in time, in addition to traveling to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. As she explores her new relationship with her grandparents, she attempts to unravel the mystery of what the bird wants from her–or maybe what it wants to give her– and how it ties in with her mother’s past, a good deal of which Leigh increasingly realizes that she doesn’t know what she thought she knew, and maybe she knew nothing at all. If you are into a story about art and grief and family and poetry and friendship and love and loss and pain and anger and forgiveness and food and hungry, lonely ghosts, then grab of copy of this book. If you have even the slightest bit of imagination, The Astonishing Color of After will thoroughly capture it. When I turned the last page of the book, I thought to myself while choking back a sob, that this story is the whole reason I read.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung. I had not before heard of this Korean author, but obviously, when I saw the cover of this book I couldn’t resist it. These are bizarre and distasteful, strange and sickening, uneasy, queasy little tales but, and maybe this is the translation, they’re written in a wry, remote tone, which somehow make them easier to stomach. A blend between magical realism and horror, fairy tale and science-fiction, in “The Head”, a woman is tormented by a creature that keeps appearing in her toilet bowl, and ‘The Embodiment’, where a woman somehow gets pregnant just from taking the pill for too long. The final story of a woman who meets a stranger in Poland while visiting for studies is perhaps one of the saddest I have ever read. In my Winter Stacked, I talked about the liminal dread and unidentifiable weirdness of the stories in Ampara Davila’s The Chair. If you liked that one, I think you’ll enjoy Cursed Bunny as well.
…a bunch of mysteries/thrillers that I read in early September and I barely remember:
In The Lightness by Emily Temple Olivia searches for her absent father at a meditation retreat/contemplative penal colony/Buddhist boot camp for wayward girls. A story encompassing some of my favorite dark academia cliquey-schoolgirls doing mysterious stuff feels, but in an unexpected setting, and exploring some interesting themes. That’s intentionally vague because I don’t remember what they were. I didn’t take very good notes on this one, sorry!
In My Dreams I Hold A Knife by Ashley Winstead, we’re again exploring themes of friendship and outsiderness, secrets and murders, and unreliable narrators– with Jessica, as she attends a college reunion ten years after graduation, as the best version of herself. But of course, she wasn’t always this polished and perfect. I want to love this sort of story with insular and intimate and highly fraught university friendships, but the thing is…I want the stories of the losers and the weirdos. This was a popular group of kids. Fuck them. Don’t care.
Broken Harbor by Tana French, the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, was a weird one. It didn’t seem to have that wallop of beautiful sadness exuded by, say, The Likeness. It was missing the rawness and intensity of Faithful Place. Maybe lacking the profound eeriness of In The Woods. But! It’s still the unmistakable, strange melancholy of a Tana French mystery, and I will gobble up every sentence. In this installment, we follow Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (whom we met in Faithful Place and I think we were meant to dislike him, but I was kinda living for him in that story) as he investigates a murder that occurred at the half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland. This is a case with a lot of bizarre bits and pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere, with an atmosphere made even more tense and charged by his own tragic history with the locale.
Survive The Night by Riley Sager Typically I enjoy Riley Sager’s books. I don’t know that they’re amazing, but they’re usually a lot of fun while I’m reading them. Survive the Night felt …a little lackluster in some way. Also, it seems all over the place. In this story, college student Charlie Jordan grabs a ride home with a stranger just as Christmas break begins. She’s not doing well in general, reeling from grief and guilt after her roommate’s murder, and plans on not returning after the break. During the course of the cross-country drive, Charlie realizes that she knows nothing about her road-trip mate, and, unnerved by his increasingly strange and suspicious behavior, comes to the conclusion that she may be sharing vehicular space with the campus killer. Forget about not coming back after she gets home, she might not come back from this trip at all! It was fine. This was a twisty read, but maybe I expected the twists? Not my favorite from this author, but still a decent afternoon’s diversion.
…and here are several Halloween/horror reads that I mentioned over the course of the month of October, but I thought it might be helpful to have them all in one place!
The Good House by Tananarive Due
Ghost Summer was previously my only experience with Tananarive Due’s writing, and though I believe that it was published more than a decade after The Good House, which I just read, it had all of the hallmarks that I’ve now come to expect from her work. I feel like it’s almost trite to say that a story or a book has “a lot of heart”…I mean, I say that a lot, but what does that mean, anyway? It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this author’s writing, I am tempted to say “horror with a lot of heart.” I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that her stories seem to be written through an empathetic, compassionate lens. That her characters are fully fleshed out, down to their annoyances and imperfections, and their stories are treated in such a way that they’re wholly, profoundly human, and we really grow to care about them.
Also, Tananarive Due writes in such a way that you don’t feel punished for having read and connected with the work. I sometimes feel like a certain subset of writers must really hate us, the reader. That’s probably not true, but it’s easy to feel that way when you see your favorite, beloved characters brutally dismembered on the page before you. I just…never get a sense of that with Due’s writing. Of course, in her books, there’s horror and heartlessness and heart-stopping moments…but there’s also hope. I love that she gives us that, too. I guess that’s what I mean when I say a story “has heart;” that no matter what else transpires, no matter how big and expansive the horror and heartbreak is, she leaves the door open for goodness and hope, as well. I come away feeling good about what I read.
The Good House (unlike the House movie that I wrote about yesterday) is actually a pretty scary story in concept, and I did find myself a little freaked out while reading it. The home that belonged to Angela Toussaint’s late grandmother is so cherished and revered that the local townspeople refer to it lovingly as the Good House. All of this changes one summer when a terrible tragedy takes place during a Fourth of July celebration at the house, and both the Toussaint’s family history and its future is irrevocably altered. Two years after, following her son’s suicide in the house, Angela returns and finally starts to unravel what happened and put things right.
Masterful storytelling combining multiple perspectives across different timelines, witchcraft and family curses, the burdens of inherited guilt, trauma, rich history, and mythology, and an overwhelming, palpable sense of stomach-curdling dread present from almost the very first page made this a vividly enthralling read and an intense page-turner, and I’m going to make it my mission in life to read everything author has every written.
The Man Who Came Down The Stairs by Celine Loup
On a whim, I started looking into lists of fairly recent horror-adjacent graphic novel releases, which is how I happened upon The Man Who Came Down the Attic Stairs by Celine Loup. Surprisingly, I was able to find a digital copy through my library. The book follows Emma, who after giving birth, fears a threatening supernatural force in the house. As her husband becomes increasingly remote and less involved in the life of Emma and her baby, she begins to unravel, growing more and more desperate between the lack of sleep and a newborn that won’t stop crying. Loup explores themes of the isolation of postpartum depression and being an exhausted mother with an unsupportive partner, and weaves in elements of unease and eerie horror for a story that is uncomfortable, unsettling, and profoundly sad.
Goddess of Filth by V. Castro
Things take off pretty swiftly in Queen of Filth by V Castro, as something terrifying and unexpected happens to Lourdes and her best friends, after a boozy seance staged on a summer evening before they get on with the business of adulthood and going their separate ways. Because, of course…someone gets possessed. Don’t they always!
This too, is an interesting spin on a possession story, as it’s not a demon inhabiting the body of shy, smart Fernanda, but instead something significantly older, and perhaps not as evil as they would have thought. The bonds of friendship and female empowerment, contemporary realities, religion, and ancient beings weave together in this short novel to create a story that though I read it in the course of an evening, I won’t soon forget these characters or their ordeal.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw I imagine if you follow horror blogs and “must-read horror of X year!” type lists, then no doubt you have seen mention of Cassandra Khaw’s novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth. A quick and compulsive read, this story of five friends who meet up at a purportedly haunted Japanese castle for pre-wedding adventures is steeped in dread and inevitable tragedy. And as someone very sensitive to confrontation and hostility…oof. There’s a lot of baggage between these individuals and they really seem to despise each other. The writing here is absolutely gorgeous, but even more than that, this atmosphere of stewing resentment and loathing is so present and palpable that it made me physically ill. Well done! I guess! Seriously though, this was enjoyable and unique and if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix The Final Girl Support Group is handled in a decidedly slashery vein, supported by Grady Hendrix’s distinctive humor and his sometimes unexpected emotional insights. I don’t know why I phrase it that way, it’s not like you can’t be both funny and have an aptitude for writerly emotional nuance. I’m sorry to sell you short, Grady Hendrix, you pen some extremely enjoyable and satisfying reads! I tend to think of Hendrix as that really funny guy in class that I always had a crush on but I also suspected that if you scratch the surface of the jokes, there’s not much underneath. That’s not true with this author, and I need to stop thinking that way. In brief, Lynette and a handful of survivors of various massacres and murderous crimes have been meeting for therapy for over a decade–until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette’s worst fears are realized—someone knows about the group and is determined to pick them off one by one.
Survivor’s Club Survivors’ Club is…not that at all. This graphic novel comic series follows another handful of survivors, but these individuals are victims of supernatural/paranormal horrors from the 1980s–killer dolls, haunted houses, and possessions, etc. They meet via the internet and try to figure out what connects them, and why these things occurred, and what is it exactly that’s beginning to happen again? It’s wildly creepy and bizarre and gruesome and I’ll admit, I first grabbed it because I saw that Lauren Beuekes was one of the writers involved with it. I don’t really love how it wrapped up, and overall it felt a little messy…but if I understand correctly, it got canceled, and perhaps they had to rush the ending.
I’m trying to limit my screen time. Trying to step back for a while. I’m a little burnt out, a little tired, a little sad. None of that properly encapsulates my feelings or reasoning, but I guess I’m feeling like I need to simply exist for a while. And if no one sees me doing, reading, cooking, making–well, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. So much of what I do nowadays, my brain is converting it into blog fodder or some kind of “content” as I’m doing it. And I’m trying to turn that off for a couple of weeks. I suppose I just…I need to sit with myself and see who I am while I’m not expecting people to watch.
Typing that out sounds so ridiculous, I know. I am not an “influencer”, no one is “tuning in” to see what I’m up to. And yet…sometimes I find myself moving through my day like that’s exactly what is happening.
Here’s a pile of shawls that I knit! I said to myself, Sarah, I think you’re just hanging on to these shawls because you want to pile them all up and drape them all over each other and see what all that work looks like together, and enjoy the fact that you made these things.
So that is what I did.
The compulsion to draw inward. The urge to dream. The need for silence and slowness and …the relentless fear of those things, too. I go-go-go. But I’m going to stop for a while. And the world will keep spinning and a lot of stuff will pass me by and I am going to worry that it’s stuff that really matters, but it’s probably not.
I think maybe the things that matter are the things that I will find when I sit with myself, away from all the chatter and nonsense for a while. Maybe I’ll crawl deep into the darkness of me and find thoughts and things that were always lurking there, but that I never saw or heard because I was too busy listening to everything else in the world. Maybe I’ll bring a little light. Maybe I’ll find a little light! Who knows what’s down there?
I will probably still be posting over on the blog for the next month or so because I like writing little reviews and sharing my cooking triumphs, and so on! But I am specifically trying to keep off of Instagram. I start scrolling over there and I see people being creative and productive and doing all of the things, and it pulls me out of this “rest and be still for a while” mode because I start feeling a lazy, useless, lump. I’m really trying to sit with these feelings. Like what is my life all about if I’m not doing things while people are watching me do things?
I was sharing this with a friend last night, how there’s probably something a lot deeper here that I need to suss out and sit with. I have some ideas about what that might be, but I really need to take a deep dive. And I really don’t know what that means exactly, but I think cutting out extraneous distractions is a big part of it.
I feel like people talk a lot about shadow work but no one ever gets into what that really looks like or just how you go about doing it. Just tell me how to do it, already! I feel like I’ve read two or three or 4 or 10 books and I still don’t know! But I guess this is intensely private work and it looks different for everyone. I don’t know!
Anyway! Don’t look for me on Instagram for at least a month or so–and if you see me over there, feel free to slap my wrist*. But gently, I am a sensitive soul and you might hurt my feelings! For those of you who peek at me here (see! there I go again! just who is even peeking at me, right?) feel free to stop by, I’ll still be here.
* I am going to be putting together some Stacked book reviews soon and I am making an exception to share those on social media, because that’s part of my little process! But other than that you can metaphorically slap my wrist if I slip up.
From the desk of Unquiet Things cohort and sometimes correspondent, the entirely ineffable and ever-ensorcelling Maika!
“A thousand dreams within me softly burn.”
Art has always been nourishing for me. What with the ongoing peri-apocalyptic state of the world, art feels more vital than ever. And while I might not be located anywhere near Chicago, it does my heart, mind, and soul worlds of good to know that artists like sculptor Jessica Joslin and painter Jared Joslin are busy creating beautiful and inspiring works of art.
In fact, they’ve been creating their respective works of art side by side for over a quarter-century. Their new shared exhibit, Dreams Take Flight, is a celebration of “over 25 years of two kindred spirits, working side by side, pursuing their dreams.”
The only thing more inspiring than inspiring works of art are works of art created by artists as they inspired each other.
The opening reception for Dreams Take Flight happens this Friday, November 5, from 6-9pm, at the LivingRoom Gallery 1530 West Superior St. Chicago, Illinois
Show dates: November 5 – November 28.
Hours are 12-5 on Sundays, or by appointment.
Please note that masks AND proof of vaccination are required.
In the current issue of Watkins Mind Body Spirit Magazine, you can read my article, “The Secret Heart of the Art of the Occult”! I can’t even begin to convey how much I appreciated the opportunity to write about…well…I guess you could say the things you can’t really include in the finished product of a book, or more specifically, the personal insights and epiphanies and education that occurred during the process of getting it written.
If I didn’t make it abundantly clear in the book itself, The Art of the Occult is not meant to be a comprehensive overview or the final word on the matter of occult art and artists, but rather a portal to inspiration and mystery, offering diverging pathways for your curiosity wander at leisure. It was really wonderful to muse on these ideas and the few bits of helpful magic from the universe that appeared along my journey while writing it!
Thanks to the folks at Watkins for printing this and to everyone who picks up a copy of the magazine to read the article…or who has grabbed a copy of The Art of the Occult!
Squeaking in an hour before midnight, here I am with the final entry for 31 Days of Horror! It’s mostly going to be photos because I am awfully tired.
Yesterday I visited my sister (which was nice) and we watched Halloween Kills (which was not nice.) I really didn’t have much in the way of expectations, but I am not sure I have ever hated a movie so much. It was a joyless, soulless thing, and I’m resentful of those moments of my life frittered away watching it. It was maybe only 40 minutes, because I found it so terrible that I couldn’t watch any more. But dammit, I want those 40 minutes back! And I want someone to pay for the crime that is this movie!
I decided the only way I could make things right was a palate cleanser so I revisited Suspiria, which I probably haven’t seen in 20 years or so, and I also watched Horror of Dracula, which I had never watched. I’ve not watched most of the Hammer Horror stuff, actually, so if there’s any must-sees, please let me know! Pictured here are two of my favorite scenes from these films.
We carved up a pumpkin (see here for inspiration) and roasted up the seeds for a snack. I also made some “marshmallow squares,” as I used generic cereal and that’s what the recipe on the side of the box referred to them as, hee! Mini candy corns were added for extra trashy festivity.
The soup is a carrot pumpkin soup which calls for “parsley root” and I have no idea what that is, and I certainly don’t have any, so it’s not in there! Instead I added ginger which I am sure is in no way the same, but whatever.
And in between every spare second, I was feverishly knitting on this top, on which I bound off the last stitch just as Dracula was being reduced to a ridiculous dusty corpse. It’s too big because of course it is. I never swatch and I will never learn.
The pattern is the Lounging Top by Joji Locatelli and the yarn is from Dragon Hoard yarn, it’s the goblin slub in the “slutty pumpkin” colorway. It’s pretty perfect, right?
And that’s 31 Days of Horror for 2021! Happy Halloween all my witches, weirdies, and wildly wonderful friends.
The month of October is a most marvelous time to see spooky new art emerge on social media while darkly-inclined artists all over the world are participating in eerie seasonal art challenges …and I eagerly await its arrival every year! There’s such a fantastically diverse variety of styles and mediums, from painting and illustration, to photography and sculpture, and even tiny creepy puppets. I am here for all of it.
See below for a gallery of frightful, fabulous favorites…!
Today I am finally taking a moment to breathe. Not to sound too annoyingly self-congratulatory but I just last night submitted the completed draft for the book I am working on this year. My deadline for the its completion (minus edits and…everything else, ha!) was Halloween, but there’s no way I am working on Halloween weekend, no way, no how! So, as much as I was enjoying working on this and maaaaybe drawing it out as much as possible, I did finally type the last few words last night and sent it off!
Between working my full-time job, Halloweening/Horroring it up all month, and immersing myself in and dreaming about dark artworks and what to say about them, I’m tired! So I’ll be honest with you here and tell you the three collections of poetry in the photo above are books that I have barely even started and most definitely will not finish before Day 31 of October, but I wanted to squeak them in here anyhow.
Satan’s Sweethearts from Marge Simon and Mary Turzillo: a collection of searing poems that explore deeds of death and debauchery, inspired by history’s most villainous women: serial killers, torturers, murderers, and madwomen.
Homunculus from Elle Stern/ Poetess Mori: I have been enamored with Elle’s feminist spells from the void for some time now and I am so thrilled to be holding this stunning copy of Homunculus in my hands and I can’t wait to immerse myself in these poems “extracted from deep and meaningful conversations with ancestors, aliens, demons, the dirt we walk upon, and everything in between.” Follow Elle on Instagram to get a peek of what you’re in store for and grab for yourself this splendid tome of deep magics and profound mystery from her shop.
Altars and Oubliettes by Angela Yuriko Smith: “In our lives, there are altars and oubliettes—the things we want to remember and the things we hope to forget. This collection explores the things we both idolize and abhor.”
I imagine if you follow horror blogs and “must-read horror of X year!” type lists, then no doubt you have seen mention of Cassandra Khaw’s novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth. A quick and compulsive read, this story of five friends who meet up at a purportedly haunted Japanese castle for pre-wedding adventures is steeped in dread and inevitable tragedy. And as someone very sensitive to confrontation and hostility…oof. There’s a lot of baggage between these individuals and they really seem to despise each other. The writing here is absolutely gorgeous, but even more than that, this atmosphere of stewing resentment and loathing is so present and palpable that it made me physically ill. Well done! I guess! Seriously though, this was enjoyable and unique and if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.