Reunited at last! For this month’s Stacked, I am joined by my dear friend and Haute Macabre comrade, Maika, as we chat about the books we’ve been reading this spring. See below for our thoughts on these witchy, monstrous, fantastical books and be sure to leave us a comment and let us know what you’ve been reading as winter slowly melts away into warmer days.
Witch Hunt: A Traveler’s Guide to the Power and Persecution of the Witch by Kristen J. Sollée
If you have read this wondrously knowledgeable scholar, historian, and second-generation witch’s previous offerings, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, and Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine, then no doubt you were over the moon to learn of her most recent title, Witch Hunt. A hybrid travel guide and memoir which at points dips into the realms of historical fiction, Witch Hunt reflects research gleaned from travels to seven countries, forty-five cities, towns, and villages. Through her intrepid adventures across Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, Sollee explores the fraught and fascinating history of these haunting figures from the past and uncovers how the archetype of the witch has been rehabilitated as a symbol of power.
We learn of the trauma and tragedy baked into the history of these places but also of how they have resurrected and reclaimed this archetype for commerce, community, and activism. Her descriptions of the locations and spaces she spends time in are bubbling with an intensely curious spirit, wicked sharp observations, and expansive, imaginative storytelling, with an eye toward both the sensitivity crucial to the conversation of these archetypes as well as the actual people involved in these histories and an irrepressible sense of humor and the absurd. In Witch Hunt, Sollee is indisputably at the height of both her writerly and witchly powers.
Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power by Sady Doyle.
This outstanding book by essayist, social critic, and culture buff Sady Doyle is hugely about the darkness and trauma of the narrative around what being a woman is about and sparked so many intense conversations between myself and my partner as I was reading it. This examination of the patriarchal and misogynistic fear of “monstrous” women, covering everything from literature and cinema to mythology, religion, history and current events is a maddening and marvelous (and neither of these words do the discourse any justice) exploration of interplay of the stories that we tell ourselves and the images we look at and the thoughts we have and the way that all shapes our culture; those darker feelings of powerlessness and helplessness and living inside an extremely stigmatized and vulnerable body…and how somehow these aspects make us as woman seen as also destructive and even more terrifying?
It’s a mind-boggling amount of research and anecdote and story and scholarship, and you have to imagine a painful amount of emotional labor, and Sady Doyle writes of it all in a way that’s somehow incredibly readable and even makes you laugh while reading it. FYI Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has created an incredible collection of scents inspired by this book and the monstrous feminine archetypes which perpetually recur in storytelling and they are still available for purchase.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
I can’t recall if I’ve shared this article before but it will help to illustrate two points about me: Dark Academia: Your Guide to the New Wave of Post-Secret History Campus Thrillers. First, I hate it when they give names to things (whoever “they” is.) For example, I recall reading China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station in 2000 or so, and thinking how it was really unique and I’d never read anything quite like it. I was content to leave it at that. A year or so later, I heard people referring to it, and more to the point, its aesthetic, as “steampunk.” As far as I knew steampunk and all its trappings of gears and goggles and so on, emerged right around that time. However, it looks like it’s been around since the 1980’s (or maybe since Jules Verne, ha!) so what do I know, I guess. What I do know is that once you slap a label on something, I tend to lose 100% interest. I suppose I’m some sort of hipster snob, but whatever. I’m aware of my faults. So when people started talking about “Dark Academia” as a genre, I immediately tuned it out before I even knew what it was, but when I somehow found myself tricked into reading about it, I realized it’s describing a type of fiction that I enjoy immensely– and as it happens, I have written at length about my enjoyment of it. Without going too much into it, it’s a sort of mystery or thriller that takes place on a college campus, usually entangled with some weird insular student groups studying obscure subjects. There’s more to it, but that’s my takeaway. Anyway, apparently, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a book people have been telling me for years to read, is the story that started it all.
This brings me to my second point: if enough people tell me “you’ll love it!” about something, I get weird and squirrelly and contrarian and put on my NOPE NOT DOING IT hat. You don’t know me!
Wow, I’m like three paragraphs in and I’ve not said a thing about the book. Well, everyone but me has apparently read it by now, so do I even need to? Here’s a quick rundown. Richard Papen is our pretentious small-town narrator with an interest in the classics and humanities who is eventually brought into the intimate, intense fold of a very small Greek class at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont. Richard’s mysterious classmates are strange and compelling and he desperately longs to become part of this group of weirdos. Eventually, he does. Murder ensues. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of sadness and loneliness and romanticizing a group of people who are all, in the end, some form of deeply flawed and insecure as well. They’re stupidly privileged (who else would think they could get away with murder but a bunch of extravagant, melodramatic rich white kids?) and I guess that aspect of the story troubled me quite a bit, but nevertheless the relationships and the drama and the breathtaking prose are so easy to get swept up in, that in the end…all you people were right. I did love this book. Thank you for recommending it.
As I write this I am literally surrounded by books that I’ve begun reading, but haven’t finished. It’s not that I’m not enjoying them, but my attention span is shot. Aside from my ongoing bedtime therapy of rereading Good Omens and the Discworld books, I read in fits and starts throughout the day and have a hard time sticking with any one book. I just keep adding books to the ‘currently reading’ stack. But even at a fitful snail’s pace, I have recently finished a couple books (that weren’t written by Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman):
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – This is an incredibly beautiful book, inside and out. The design of the physical hardcover book itself is exquisitely beautiful and the writing is intensely vivid, luxuriantly picturesque, and evocative with sumptuous descriptions of one of the most magical places ever dreamt into fictive existence. And yet…I just couldn’t get into it. You know that old breakup cliché, “It’s not you, it’s me”? That can be applied to all sorts of things beyond relationships, books included. I eagerly pre-ordered The Starless Sea as soon as it was available. It was published and arrived at my home when I was completely grief-stricken, so I didn’t touch it until the following year. Fast forward to 2020 and we were smack in the middle of a global pandemic and urgent nationwide protests, and I was deep into intense work on myself. Yet I decided to reach for it anyway. And… it took me nearly a year to read it. What should, by all rights, have been a magical escape from harsh reality felt…too enchanted and too beautiful juxtaposed with a waking world and physical self that both felt anything but enchanted. Instead of soothing and distracting, it vexed and hurt. It made me miss New York City as a whole and Sleep No More specifically even more than I already did. And so the book that took me a year to simply start ended up taking me another year to finish. The Starless Sea, you were achingly beautiful from start to finish, I dearly love the very idea of this book, and yet my heart never opened to you. It’s not you, it’s me.
Bunny by Mona Awad – The Secret History meets Mean Girls meets…well, one other book and one other movie which, if I name either of them, will reveal too much about this story. While it feels like a cop-out because it means that I can’t say much, the less you know about this book, the better. Seriously, don’t even look at the reviews on GoodReads. There are inadvertent spoilers there too. Suffice to say, it was a dark, twisted, adamantium-razor-sharp story and a thoroughly gripping read. Also, there were times when I identified so strongly with the main character and felt so intensely seen that I wondered how Mona Awad knew so much about my past. it tapped into an old well of anxious interpersonal woe that I seldom think about these days, but was surprised to find felt no less vivid for the passing of years. Equal parts distressing and validating in an ‘I thought it was just me’ sort of way. The magic of books.
A catch-up chat about what kept me so busy in the month of February (lots of stuff, and you may recall reading about some of it here, in which case you might just want to jump on ahead to the second half of the video.)
As well as a show and tell of some things which have recently come into my possession. Mostly because I bought them. Le whoopsie!
See below for the blogs, websites, and items mentioned in this video…
In early February I shared a YouTube video of the books I had hoped to read over the next few months, and I am pleased to say that I have actually finished some of them in time to add them to this installment of Stacked.
Stacked is a monthly column that originated over at Haute Macabre, but this month it’s visiting Unquiet Things. My beloved Stacked cohorts, Sonya and Maika, won’t be joining me today, but no doubt they will be stopping by with some excellent books to share and recommend next time around!
The Houseguest and other Storiesby Amparo Davila. It’s difficult to say what these strange slice-of-life snippets are about, the characters are often fearful of something nameless, or if their dread and paranoia does appear to focus on something concrete, whatever that is, it probably won’t make any sense. I would suggest these ominous visions are best experienced in the lull of liminal hours for people keen on terse tales of inexpressible unease and unidentifiable weirdness.
The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni What begins as a fairytale, dream-come-true when Bert learns that she is the sole heir to a mysterious, massive inheritance, to include a title of nobility and a castle(!!) in a secluded region of Italy, shortly takes a treacherous turn when she becomes a prisoner to her family’s strange secrets and fraught, complicated legacy. A legacy which, unbeknownst to Bert, had been passed down to her, carried inside her even, for her entire life. When I note that initially, this story felt a bit predictable, I don’t mean that in a bad way, and I don’t knock off any points for that (not that I really use a point system for these reviews, so I don’t know exactly what I mean by that.) I suppose what I am saying is that there are a number of gothic situations, characters, and tropes employed in this story, which might make it feel like many other stories you’ve read.
Aside from ruined castles, sinister secrets, and unknown identities, this includes a heroine who, for a time, seems without quite agency, who flutters away to wherever the wind takes her, who things seem to happen to, and though perhaps curious about it, who appears to have no control over her own destiny. All of which renders The Ancestor comfortably familiar for a rainy evening read… until all of a sudden, due to the evolution of the character (and some ideas with regard to evolution in general that I am not going to spoil) you realize this is NOT where you expected the story to go and what the heck is going on, even? Definitely adding imaginary points back onto my rating for keeping me on my toes!
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager I was much more engaged with this book than I was the last thing I read from Riley Sager, Final Girl, which I reviewed in a Stacked back in 2018 or so. But I’m always a sucker for a haunted house story and the haunted people who roam their corridors, and Home Before Dark was a pretty solid effort in this regard. (Although I am still not sure what the title has to do with any part of the book. Did I miss something? If you read this and have an answer for me, let me know!)
Maggie grew up in the shadow of her father’s bestselling horror memoir and has very little memory of that time–although she suspects the book, and her parents, are full of baloney with regard to the supernatural aspects of the house and the brief time they spent within its walls. Maggie’s no-nonsense demeanor coupled with what we learn about the tragic history of the house and its deeply troubled former inhabitants makes this seem more like a Lifetime murder mystery than a creepy horror novel, but it was a quick, entertaining read, anyhow.
Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman by Rebecca Tamás. Strangers is an exploration of the world and our relationship with nature through a series of essays linking the environmental, the political, the folkloric and the historical. It felt like a deeply necessary, urgent read for all human people anywhere along their journey, who wish to experience life and living in a profoundly intimate and compassionate way. There is one particular essay about a cockroach that I highly recommend. And that is a sentence I never could have foreseen myself typing out.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones I love Stephen Graham Jones’ ideas and imagination and everything he writes about, and this story of a group of friends being haunted by a vengeful elk woman is no exception. Where I run into trouble, I think, is due to this author’s unique writing style that …while I’m not going to say it is “hard to follow”, it’s somewhat “hard to binge.” And so I ended up reading this book and his other offerings in disjointed fits and starts.
SGJ’s prose, the narration as well as the dialogue, it feels so internal and intimate…like observations and jokes and commentary that he has only with himself, and while I love that he trusts his audience is smart enough, intuitive enough to follow along, I will admit, sometimes I lose my way inside it. Such is the case for the first two-thirds of The Only Good Indians, by the time you’ve acclimated yourself to the landscape of his language you’re in luck, because that’s when the action really starts.
Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi I was reminded of having rented from Blockbuster (!!) and watchedPerfect Blue many many years ago when I recently spied it on someone’s goodreads list and realized that the film I had seen was either originally based on a book, or that there was a book adaptation of the film. Intrigued, I found a copy online and probably paid too much for it, because it is not easily available. For those unfamiliar, the basic premise is that there is a cute Japanese pop idol, Mima who is working to transform her image to something a little more mature and risque, and this does not sit well with an obsessed fan who desperately wants her to remain “pure” and thinks he has a plan to save her soul.
After finishing the book I immediately had to rewatch the movie just last night because aside from the very basic plot I just gave you, they are handled so differently. The movie (directed by Satoshi Kon, who also did the fantastically bizarre Paprika) was a surreal psychological thriller in which there are actually several characters who are experiencing unraveling mental states or are losing/have lost their grip on reality. It’s not just got an eerie vibe, it’s downright sinister feeling in certain scenes. The book itself is much more straight-forward in terms of being a stalker/slasher story. If you like twisty and thinky and strange, go for the movie. If you like twisted and gruesome served straight up, then go for the book.
I originally read this creepy, schlocky 1982 novel as a pre-teen, probably in 1988 or so, and I recall thinking it was boring. WHAT? There were parts of it that were ridiculous and others that were nonsensical, and overall it was maddening trash, but boring? This sensationalist, claustrophobic tale of dark secrets and gothic family drama was never boring.
I was reminded again of the book back in the autumn of 2016 when Jack and Kate of Bad Books For Bad People did a podcast episode discussing My Sweet Audrina after having both read it for the first time (and I definitely recommend giving a listen to their thoughts!) and so of course, I had to immediately revisit its horrific charms. It’s really, really awful. And I loved every second of it.
This is why I was SO THRILLED to learn just last week that there is a My Sweet Audrina Lifetime movie! I was similarly pleased when I learned there was a Lifetime Adaptation of Anne River Siddons’ The House Next Door (a book which I actually both hate and love, and which you can watch on Youtube!)
I think I need to compile a list of Lifetime horror, or horror-adjacent, adaptations. That is definitely going to be a project this year. Until I have a more comprehensive guide for us, we can watch My Sweet Audrina for $2.99 on Amazon, I guess.
Some distressing news: The Art of the Occulthas been somewhat hard to find since about mid-December, when a shipment of books was lost at sea. Ok, maybe that’s not totally accurate, but it sounds more romantic and mysterious than “storm-damaged.” I just received word from my publisher that there won’t be more copies available until 3/29 at the earliest. Until then, please enjoy my favorite page of the book.
“Giovanni Domenico Valentino (1630–1708) was an Italian painter of the late-Baroque period who specialized in a mix of genre and still life painting. In this particular alchemical scene, we are so focused on the jumble of shining copper laboratory instruments and implements, that it would be easy to miss the alchemists busy at work in the background. At the forefront, a cat perches atop an indistinct object, both alert and idle, as only cats can be. ‘Fuck this thing in particular,’ it seems to say, regarding the toppled container at its feet.”
Hungry for more peeps inside The Art of the Occult? Perhaps these links will tide you over, or else whet your appetite!
And finally, a look at the art of Rosaleen Norton, who, sadly, is one of the artists not featured in The Art of the Occult. There are many reasons that a piece of art that you might expect to see in a publication celebrating occult works of art was not included, and for the most part, I can assure you, it’s not because they were overlooked.
There are so many steps involved with a book like this that you might not have thought about! I never did, until I had to do it myself. Gathering ideas of the art, getting the publisher to agree with the art you’ve chosen, tracking down and finding, and then introductions and communication with the artists (or galleries, or estates,) securing permissions for the work, and jumping through all of the hoops that entails, and finally, obtaining viable images that are actually appropriate for a print medium. Something could break down at any point in that checklist! And frequently did. There’s a lot of things that authors have no control over–especially first-time authors, such as myself.
So before you complain that your favorite artist was forgotten, please know that it’s entirely possible that they were not–either the author presented the artist and the publisher was like, “nah,” or they tried to get ahold of the artist and the artist never responded, or if they did respond, they may have declined, or if they worked with a very amenable artist who was happy to be included, but oops, a file was corrupted, and they don’t actually even have that piece of work anymore! Before you complain about a book cover, please know that the artist may not have had anything to do with it, the cover might have been chosen and set in stone before the author was even brought on board! Before you knock off a couple of stars on your review because the book was “too short”, please remember that authors have word count parameters that they have to work within.
Ok, with that tirade, I think I hit on all the dumb things people tweeted @ me on Twitter or the reviews on Amazon that irked me. Not that there is/was not a lot of that sort of thing! But you know how it is. Even one or two instances of people being shitty and snarky, it stings!
Ok, yes, I get that you are probably reading books to learn stuff, and that’s the whole point. Like, you didn’t read that book about growing mushrooms not to pick up the finer points of the hobby, right?
But what I mean by this blog post’s title, “stuff you learn in books” is to indicate the unexpected tidbits that you come away from, the neat little surprises that come up in the pages, or between the author’s thoughts, and over the course of your experience with the book– those things you weren’t looking for, but when you saw them, you thought, “Huh! How about that?” Or “wow, that’s really interesting–I need to read more about THAT!”
I know there’s so many instances of this that pop up in my reading; for example I recall last year reading Carmen Maria Machado’s wildly creative memoir In The Dream House, recounting the emotionally scarring trauma of a psychologically abusive relationship, and at one point she references Amy Mann’s vocals and lyrics in the Til Tuesday Song “Voices Carry”. And I was like “wow, no way! I didn’t know that was Amy Mann!” And then I listened to that song non-stop for a week straight. Obviously not at all the point of the book, and I promise you I am totally aware of that, but I love these little eureka moments that pepper the path of your overall journey with a book.
I am currently reading The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Davila, and if you are interested in hearing more about this little collection of strange tales, I do discuss it in my recent video, but what I wanted to share here today was this passage in the photo above wherein the narrator mentions a perfume that an ex-lover would wear. A fragrance called Sortilège by Galion, which I’d never heard of before. Was it a made-up scent, or was it at one time a real-life perfume? Does it still exist? Where can I find it? Can I purchase a bottle for myself??
I love coming across little treasures like this! And yes, the perfume was/is real–I didn’t mean to imply that just because I had no knowledge of it, that didn’t mean it couldn’t possibly exist, ha! And though it looks to be reformulated, yes, one can still purchase a bottle of this “iconic fragrance of the House Le Galion and signature perfume of the famous Stork Jazz Club in New York in the 1930s…a floral aldehyde composition, a totally seductive fragrance full of history.”
I just consulted my reading notebook (which I also discuss briefly in the video referenced above), and here some other examples of things in which I have become interested or perhaps will do further research on because I had read mention of it in whatever book I was reading at the time:
What about you? What’s come up in your reading that you weren’t expecting, but which led you on merry chases and rabbit hole depths of research or discovery? Did you find out about a new pastry technique you’d never heard of? A wine from a certain region in Argentina? A musician or an artist? Please consider the comments to this post a place where you can stop by at any time–even years from now!– and share the weird and wild and wondrous things you learned of, but weren’t necessarily looking for, within the pages of a book. And if in doing so, you happen to stumble across the German word for this scenario (I mean, there’s got to be one, right?) please let me know!
On YouTube this week I shared my Ten Books I will be reading this Winter and Spring, along with various reading habits I’ve picked up over the years. I’m trying to make a habit of a corresponding blog post for these video offerings, for those who would prefer to read rather than watch. See below for all of the things I mentioned in the video!
I thought I might check in today and share with you the books I plan on reading over the next few months. If you caught my post over on Instagram, you may have noticed a stack of ten or so books that I shared, in the last week or so. Most of the titles included in that post are the ones I will be mentioning today, although I did make a few swaps for a book or two that I would prefer to read sooner rather than later.
A few people asked me if I was really reading all ten of them at once and the answer is yes! Sort of! Maybe. I didn’t begin each book on the same day, and I am not reading from all of them every day, but I am at least a chapter into each book on this list and some of them I have already finished.
This juggling several books at once is a habit I picked up while I was spending weekends caring for my grandmother before she died. When she was sleeping–which was most of the time–there wasn’t much that I could do for her, so I ended up bringing various projects and books with me to pass the time. Of course, more often than not, I found myself scrolling on my phone, which, while not only being pretty unproductive, I can also find looking at too much social media to be awfully detrimental. So I promised myself that after I spent half an hour reading a chapter from various books, usually a combination of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels, then I would allow myself a quick few minutes looking at my phone.
I found this very helpful with not only curtailing my screen time and making the day go a bit faster, I was also making headway with my TBR stacks and even getting into those books which had been sitting on my shelves and gathering dust for the longest time! And it’s a habit that I practice to this very day; when I set aside a portion of time for reading, unless it’s some sort of really riveting mystery or horror novel that I am compelled to read straight through, I typically do read a few chapters from a stack of 4-5 books. I find that keeps your mind constantly engaged and thinking and making connections, and as a writer, it’s the discovering and digging into those connections (which usually adds additional titles to your stack) which I find so fascinating and really, just an eternal source of inspiration.
It’s difficult to say what these strange slice-of-life snippets are about, the characters are often fearful of something nameless, or if their dread and paranoia does appear to focus on something concrete, whatever that is, it probably won’t make any sense. I would suggest these ominous visions are best experienced in the lull of liminal hours for people keen on terse tales of unease and unidentifiable weirdness.
Strangers is an exploration of the world and our relationship with nature through a series of essays linking the environmental, the political, the folkloric and the historical. It felt like a deeply necessary, urgent read for all human people anywhere along their their journey, who wish to experience life and living in a profoundly intimate and compassionate way. There is one particular essay about a cockroach that I highly recommend. And that is a sentence I never could have foreseen myself typing out.
HABIT NO.2 This second habit that relates to my reading is that I always keep a notebook and a pen nearby when I’m engrossed in a book. Whether it’s to jot down an unfamiliar word or turn of phrase, to capture a phrase or sentiment that particularly ensnared my heart or set my imagination alight, or make notes on this, that or the other interesting tidbit or topic for further research, I have found my booknotes absolutely essential to deepening my experience of and engagement a story while I’m reading it. Equally as important, I revisit the thoughts and words I’ve recorded there for inspiration in my own writing when I am working on various projects.
I was reminded of having rented from Blockbuster (!!) and watched Perfect Blue many many years ago when I recently spied it on someone’s goodreads list and realized that the film I had seen was either originally based on a book, or that there was a book adaptation of the film. Intrigued, I found a copy online and probably paid too much for it, because it is not easily available. For those unfamiliar, the basic premise is that there is a cute Japanese pop idol, Mima who is working to transform her image to something a little more mature and risque, and this does not sit well with an obsessed fan who desperately wants her to remain “pure” and thinks he has a plan to save her soul. After finishing the book I immediately had to rewatch the movie because aside from the very basic plot I just gave you, they are handled so differently. The movie (directed by Satoshi Kon, who also did the fantastically bizarre Paprika) was a surreal psychological thriller in which there are actually several characters who are experiencing unraveling mental states or are losing/have lost their grip on reality. It’s not just got an eerie vibe, it’s downright sinister feeling in certain scenes. The book itself is much more straight-forward in terms of being a stalker/slasher story. If you like twisty and thinky and strange, go for the movie. If you like twisted and gruesome served straight up, then go for the book.
Though I am not very far into this book by essayist, social critic, and culture buff Sady Doyle, I can tell you two things. A history and examination of the patriarchal and misogynistic fear of “monstrous” women, covering everything from literature and cinema to mythology, religion, history and current events through the lens of a brilliant –and funny!– writer is right up my alley and two, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has created an incredible collection of scents inspired by this book and the monstrous feminine archetypes which perpetually recur in storytelling. They are all really incredibly interesting fragrances and they are still available for purchase.
HABIT NO.3 So, I was at one time what you might consider an absolute and utter monster, and I used to dog-ear my books to mark my page! But no more! I have become a major bookmark enthusiast and I have an entire box on my shelf devoted to them. As I’ve mentioned in previous videos, I am a passionate art collector, and when any of my favorite artists releases a version of their work in a bookmark format, I will always grab one. Aside from that, I recycle the postcards and notecards and greeting cards sent from friends and use them to mark my place in a book as well. I’ve got quite a surplus at this point and whenever I gift a book I always slip one of these tiny pieces of art in the pages to accompany it. Oh! And if you have an instax camera, those snaps make great little gifts.
An idea that’s become a way of life for me (though it’s been a long journey in becoming so) is that there are potential portals to magic that permeate every instant of our lives if we slow down, take notice of them, and actively choose to think of them as such. Our everyday routines are more than just rote habit, they can truly be sacred rituals, full of pleasure and meaning. In Making Magic, Briana Saussy speaks directly to this belief and writes of how magic is found at the very roots of our experience. Magic doesn’t have to be this arcane, abstract thing– belongs to everyone, and it is a part of everyone’s actual lineage. Filled with exercises, hands-on work, and guided journaling, it helps us to remember and reimagine how to engage with the extraordinary in your everyday life.
I originally learned of this author on an episode of the Faculty of Horror podcast in which hosts Andrea Subasatti and Alex West were the 2007 Steven King adaptation movie, The Mist. Which I don’t know about you, but that’s a bleak masterpiece and it’s probably one of my top ten favorite films of all time. I’ve not read any of Mark Fisher’s works, nor had I heard of him before this podcast, but I believe he was an academic, a theorist and philosopher, who often wrote on dark and difficult subjects, and I am sad to learn is no longer with us, as he passed in 2017. The Weird and the Eerie offers discussion of the literary styles that one might describe as ‘weird’ or ‘eerie’ and which can be found in forms of fantastic fiction. I am not very far along into it and I have a suspicion that this is going to be one of those difficult reads that is even more of a struggle to discuss (especially if you are someone, like me, who is lacking in an academic background), but for purposes of clarification and because I found it interesting, here’s something I read in an article about Fisher’s differentiation of these two terms: “…..the weird should be understood as that ‘which does not belong’, most commonly finding expression in ‘the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together’ (10–11). The eerie, on the other hand, indicates a different type of affect – one that is not so much about the terrifying intrusion of something that does not belong, but more often with a frightening absence where one would expect a presence.” (Source)
If you have read this wondrously knowledgeable scholar, historian, and second-generation witch’s previous offerings,Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, and Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine, then no doubt you were over the moon to learn of her most recent title, Witch Hunt. A hybrid travel guide and memoir which at points dips into the realms of historical fiction, Witch Hunt reflects research gleaned from travels to seven countries, forty-five cities, towns, and villages. Through her intrepid adventures across Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom Sollee explores the fraught and fascinating history of these haunting figures from the past and uncovers how the archetype of the witch has been rehabilitated as a symbol of power.
HABIT NO.4 I don’t think we can talk about cozying up with a book–or at least I can’t anyway–without the very important discussion of what snacks accompany your stories. When I was young I used to pilfer oyster crackers or saltines from the kitchen cupboard and stuff them under my pillow to nibble on when I was rereading Harriet the Spy for the umpteenth time. When I was old enough to buy my own snacks I would pour a combination of various snack sized baggies of cheetos and doritos and funyuns into a bowl and munch on what my sisters called a “Sarah Special,” while I read Stephen King, and sure, mock all you like, but to this very day I maintain it’s a delightful treat!
As an adult who is more concerned with appearances than I was as a teenager, I’m too embarrassed to be seen shopping for things that coat your fingers in orange dust, so instead I make a big batch of popcorn, drizzle it in butter, and sprinkle it with salt, nutritional yeast and nori for a savory, salty, crunch snack that is only slightly less embarrassing and if you saw how much of it I can put away in one sitting you’d see what I mean by this.
Editor Emily X.R. Pan shares in the book’s introduction that Foreshadow is an ode to the short story, and that what makes this medium of story-telling so remarkable, is how the author must sharpen the experience of a story, condense it into something powerful. They must take all of the things that make a good novel and compress it into a neat little package. She further reveals that when we “tell the blank page a story…. it will tell you who you are.” and that “always, there is something of the author preserved like a fossil in amber –you can see it so much more clearly because the story is sliced so thin.” If this sounds like the editors of this collection are excited at the opportunity to celebrate unique young adult short stories and showcase underrepresented voices in the genre, and if that is getting you excited too, I think that excitement pays off in the luminous and fantastical stories they’ve chosen to include. What makes this book even more special is that after each offering the editors take a closer look at the techniques employed in the story, highlighting different aspects of the craft, and in addition to that, there are writing prompts and interviews with the authors about their processes and inspiration.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science” the poet’s laments the dangers of scientific development and its negative implications for poetry and creativity. Illingsworth, an expert at the forefront of the intersections of science and poetry disagrees with these sentiments, noting that the more we find out about science, the more we realize what a beautiful and incredible world we live in. With this book and its accounts of six groundbreaking scientists who also write poetry, he is attempting to determine whether these disciplines are complementary, whether scientists who embrace poetry were also increasing their understanding of the world, expanding their language and thereby their capacity to communicate their science to others.
For those who are unfamiliar with this individual, Hildegard Von Bingen was a 12th century mystic, scientist, composer, herbalist and inventor of one of the earliest known constructed languages by a woman. Educated from the age of eight at a Benedictine monastery at and later becoming an Abbess, Hildegard experienced prophetic visions since childhood and spent many years writing the visionary works. She is a truly fascinating human in many respects but I’ll be honest here– I am a few pages into this into this “mutant fiction of speculative mysticism” wherein the works of Hildegard von Bingen have been reimagined in a novel format and I have got no clue as to what the heck is going on. So I am going to cheat and read to you the back of the book. I’m also going to link to a very interesting interview with Lemmey if you’re interested in reading more about this author’s “collaboration” with Hildegard von Bingen.
“In this story of survival and miracles, Hildegard encounters love, both queer and divine, and great peril. As the visionary healer travels through the unfamiliar landscape following a great cataclysm, she discovers the mythic quantum energy of viriditas in the natural world around her. Her journey becomes one of return, to the sacred truth of her own being.”
I am going to further cheat by sharing with you what I messaged a friend, shortly after beginning this book: “I am reading this and getting spectacularly excited and emotional and I don’t know why because I don’t understand any of it! But it’s like my little cells and atoms are all crowding together and jumping over each other in a frenzy, shouting I KNOW THIS I KNOW THIS! I feel them bubbling and boiling in my blood because I bet they DO know something and my brain just hasn’t figured it out yet!”
HABIT NO.5 I suppose this last habit is more of a compulsion, really. When I finish a book, I IMMEDIATELY have to begin a new one. No waiting! I get antsy and irritable and weird if I don’t have my next read lined up and ready to go after the final page of the previous book has turned.
So what are you reading now and over these next few chilly winter months? What are your reading habits–good, bad, weird or otherwise?
As 2020 ended, reading and books were the glue that held my fragile, frazzled human seams together, binding me back into myself, and keeping me from crumbling into a brittle, bitter heap of dust.
In our Stacked feature at Haute Macabre this week, I review some of these titles that, good, meh, or otherwise, kept me together as we entered 2021.
Typically at the end of the year, I compile a list of all the books I’ve read and share it here on the blog, but eh, that sounds like a lot of work for a year that was so stupid. If you’re curious, though, you can see them all over on my Goodreads books read in 2020.
What books did you thoroughly enjoy in 2020? What titles, in particular, got you through that spectacular dumpster fire of a hell year? And what have you got in your TBR stack for 2021? (There’s a lot of exciting horror in this fantastic Tor roundup, if you need some ideas!)
Today I am over-the-moon thrilled to cozy up with the extraordinary Lisa Marie Basile for a magical, mystical year-end giveaway! If you are interested in ritual, the occult, history, writing magic, poetry, journaling, or magical symbols, this little book bundle is for you!
That I have any friends at all is something that constantly surprises me, and sometimes when I think I’ve missed an opportunity at friendship, that deeply saddens me.
I met G.A. Alexanderbriefly on a side-trip to Seattle, a branching-off from a trip to Portland, that I took a few years ago, in order to spend some time with friends. G.A. Alexander was the partner of one of these friends (a human whom you are all very familiar with, poet and writer Sonya Vatomsky, whom I have interviewed previously!) and I maybe said two words to him at the time. I met him again on a trip back to Seattle and was deeply privileged see him and Sonya get married…and again maybe only spoke a handful of words to him. I am very shy and I did my best!
As I know we share similar enthusiams–a love for the horror genre, and what I broadly think of as “goth musics”– I have kinda low-key, stalkery been following his projects with great interest over the last four years or so. As a musician and writer, G.A. Alexander has played in the bands Golden Gardens, The Vera Violets and Push Button Press, and is the writer of Kickstarter comics success Keepsakes, along with short stories published by Eerie River Publishing and Nocturnal Sirens Publishing. His new project, OBSO/LETE, is over on Kickstarter right now, and I am very much looking forward to these dystopian tales of terror.
In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to ask him a few questions about this forthcoming effort, and his inspirations/enduring influences, as well as wrangling some recommendations from him to share with all of you!
See below for our chat on all things horror from the grimy and lo-fi, the the elevated and possibly “too beautiful” and be sure to check out OBSO/LETE on Kickstarter!
Unquiet Things: I’ve written previously about how much I thoroughly enjoyed your first comic, Keepsakes. It had that sort of retro-anthology vibe, with stylized imagery recounting horrific yarns, that took me back to the feeling of reading copies of Eerie and Creepy magazine when I was way too young to understand them. And maybe, too, my more recent memory of watching Tales From The Crypt and wishing I had seen it when I was younger! Your new project, OBSO/LETE, which I understand to be cyberpunk body horror set in a collapsing future, sees a very different direction and vision! Can you tell us what OBSO/LETE is about? What should readers know prior to diving in?
G.A. Alexander: Thanks for noticing that about Keepsakes! A lot of people brought up the Tales from the Crypt similarities, but I was also a fan of things like Creepy, Eerie, House of Mystery and other horror books that were either active or were enjoying a period of extensive reprinting when I was a kid.
OBSO/LETE is definitely a different beast altogether from Keepsakes. The book is set in an alternate future where technology (especially anything using networking) was severely restricted for the average person by the American government from the 1990s-onward. In the meantime, however, development for things such as medical research and the military have experienced no hindrance at all. Due to the stunted development of technology and the way society developed, the power grids in the large MegaCities that have sprung up have become overburdened to the point of near-collapse, and so different districts have started experiencing rolling blackouts which have come to be known by the population as “Cold Spots”.
The first issue of the book tells the story of Sandra and Juliette, two bartenders working in District 4, an extremely blue-collar part of a large, un-named MegaCity. As their neighborhood is hit by Cold Spot after Cold Spot, they begin to notice that things may not quite be what they seem: the constant power fluctuations in the city seem to have ignited something buried deep below the city. Things that appear to be neither completely human, nor machine are now lurking in the shadows of the city, waiting for their opportunity to strike.
Could you share where the idea for OBSO/LETE came from, and what inspired you to tell this type of story? And what ‘type’ of story would you say this is?
OBSO/LETE’s main influences came from a few different sources: I noticed a lot of modern cyberpunk media had adopted a sort of “neon palm tree” sort of aesthetic, which eventually became a bit too ubiquitous to be fun for me, and so I really wanted to make something that could be considered “Cyberpunk” under its original idea of “high tech, low life”, but could be dirtier, nastier and grimier. Aside from that, a lot of the inspiration came from the movies Tetsuo The Iron Man and Hardware, the comic books Akira and BLAME! and the box art and aesthetic of 90’s FMV computer games like Under a Killing Moon and Phantasmagoria 2 along with 90’s cable television shows like The Hunger, Max Headroom and Highlander.
The story’s genesis came from mis-remembering a scene from Hellraiser III. After re-watching it and quickly realizing my memory had distorted it into something else entirely, that then turned into the inciting incident in OBSO/LETE (and which you can read on the Kickstarter campaign). From there, pieces started falling into place. The rolling blackout concept was something I had been thinking about for a few years after reading about how certain countries had actually implemented it.
The premise of technology being hampered for regular people but completely unhindered by any restriction for the military came from living through Y2K while also working in an office park directly next door to a military contractor.
I’ve got a fair amount of techo-skepticism in me and some very distinct worries about the growing alienation we’re experiencing due to social media and other technological things that past few decades have inserted into our lives, but I’m also very well-aware of how these things have absolutely improved certain peoples’ lives and how much of a net-benefit they can be. I wanted to tell a story that explored what the world would (possibly?) be like without some of these things. I didn’t want to come into that story with a pre-conceived black-or-white “Technology Bad/Technology Good” perspective at all, but I really wanted to think about and depict how I believe human interaction and the world may develop without mass-media communication as we currently know it.
Also, I wanted to take that world and put monsters in it.
You’ve got some stories on the popular horror r/nosleep subreddit and you’re a musician/songwriter(?) as well. As a writer of all sorts of interesting things, I’m curious as to who you consider your biggest writing influences?
I’ve come to writing very late in life, having done most of my creative work as a musician and songwriter. I’m very influenced by who I grew up reading, including people like Billy Martin (who wrote under the name Poppy Z. Brite), Clive Barker, Stephen King, Brad Meltzer, William Gibson, Caitlin Kiernan, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and many others.
The writers who really “clicked” for me as an adult, and who kinda pushed me into a mode where I not only felt “I can do this” but also “I need to do this because they’re so good and I have to catch up!” are Thomas Ligotti, Nicole Cushing, Kathe Koja and Matthew M. Bartlett. I would recommend anyone with a taste for left-of-center horror with a VERY distinct sense of setting (which is a thing I find really appeals to me) check out any and all of those authors.
And in terms of horror cinema, if you had to narrow a list down to two or three films that shaped your view/appreciation of the genre, or that you recall as particularly profound, what would they be? (and why, if you’re feeling expansive!) Is there anything going on with horror right now that you find inspiring?
A lot of the horror movies over the last two or three years that have been connecting with me have been somewhat low-budget affairs. On the micro-budget end, Nigel Bach’s Bad Ben series has been an absolute delight to watch, as you get to see a filmmaker find his voice and his “style” as he goes. I really enjoyed Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, as well, which utilized a ton of practical makeup effects, which I REALLY enjoy.
Historically speaking, my favorite horror movies would have to be Hellraiser, Halloween and The Thing. These are obviously fairly pedestrian takes, but I struggle to think of stronger and scarier works. I’m a big fan of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On The Grudge, as well, and I think it’s an unfairly overlooked classic.
I feel a lot of modern horror can be sabotaged by how modern technology had granted us access to beautiful cinematography. The modern “elevated horror” subgenre has put out SO many great movies, but most of them have failed to connect with me and on reflection, I think it’s because so many of them are TOO beautiful to look at. Having been raised in the VHS era, I think there’s something with film grain and tracking static that my brain associates with “scary”.
You and your wife and cat just made an international move during a pandemic! Well done! I know that was challenging to say the least, and that whole process almost seems like a horror story in and of itself. I’m always interested in how one’s geography shapes one’s fears and inspirations in that vein. Can you speak to how aspects of place and environment, and perhaps even culture, find their way into your writing?
That’s an interesting question, and one that I think I’m just starting to grapple with. Having grown up and spent most of my life in the USA, how does or should my writing change now that I’m, for all intents and purposes, a British Writer?
A lot of my previous stories are set in and around North East Pennsylvania, which I only spent a couple of years living, in my 20s, but left a very specific impression on me. How long can I go on writing about America, while not living there, and have my stories feel grounded in reality? How long should I immerse myself in the UK’s culture and places and idiosyncrasies before I can safely write a British Horror story? It’s odd because on one hand, I have these very specific experiences and memories and on the other hand, I worry about how long those will feel “Valid”.
For example, in Keepsakes, there’s a short story “An Open Letter to Blue American Petroleum”. That’s directly inspired by actual experiences I had moving cross-country in the United States, filling up at little gas stations in little towns off the highway. I don’t think the same sort of experiences happen here.
While that’s the case, every place has its own strange culture and unique features. The city I live in now has an extensive canal system and you have the ability to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood through tunnels underneath bridges and by the side of long stretches of water. I can see this, and many other features of where I now live sneaking into my work soon.
Keepsakes felt very North Eastern USA to me. Keepsakes 2 (which will be a standalone story, tangentially connected to the original collection) will be Pacific Northwestern. OBSO/LETE’s setting feels Chicago to me, while its characters feel very St. Petersburg, Florida. I always seem to want to write about places after I leave them more than when I’m there.
I’m extremely fascinated by the personal routines of creators. Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to write? Any rituals or practices?
I wish I had a better or more structured routine. A lot of my process feels like “stealing time” from other things. I recently bought a couple of notebooks and a fountain pen to try and make my writing process feel a little less tethered to a keyboard, but I’ve found that the notebook is its own tether.
Some of my favorite work has been typed into my phone at 11:30pm at night while laying in bed, dealing with insomnia.
I only just realized that you stream on Twitch! Horror games, is that right? I am not very good at these things, but I recently just tried my hand at World of Horror, an H.P. Lovecraft/Junji Ito-inspired RPG horror game set in a quiet Japanese town filled with eldritch beings, wild-eyed cultists, and impossibly twisted human forms. I died a lot! Have you played anything lately that you really enjoyed and that you might recommend?
I tried out World of Horror on-stream a few months back!
I died a lot too. I think my issue is that I have exactly zero history with RPGs. My game of choice was always point-and-click adventure games.
The Twitch stream, Welcome to Frankenstein House, came as a result of wanting to fill time when the pandemic hit. Initially the idea was to do comic book reviews but that quickly evolved into abandoning the review format about 10 minutes into each stream and them proceeding to goof around about whatever we wanted (usually complaints about the Stuart Townsend depiction of Lestat in the Queen of the Damned movie, or how Alfred from Batman is in fact an interdimensional sex god) for 2-3 hours every week.
After that, we started adding in horror gaming streams, which then took over the whole thing. We’ve been on pause for a couple of months due to the movie and the time difference but we’re planning on restarting soon and we’re probably going to be switching to more of a variety show format.
The games I’ve really enjoyed playing lately are:
Detention: Scary point-and-click adventure game set in a haunted school during the White Terror in Taiwan
Love, Sam: I dubbed this a “Reading Simulator” on the stream as a joke, but it was REALLY scary. You play an unidentified character, reading a school friend’s diary in their tiny apartment. As you read, things in the apartment being to move and change. Doors appear, taking you to different places. You realize that the diary may have opened the door for something to haunt you.
Stories Untold: Sort of a puzzle/adventure game. It’s 4 different games that each tell a story in different ways. The first game, The House Abandon, is a retro text adventure and each of the others keep the sme spirit if not the same mechanics. It has a great early 80’s style aesthetic to it.
The Glass Staircase: Made by Puppet Combo, one of the more interesting “auteur” game creators out there right now. This is effectively a take on the Resident Evil or Clocktower style survival horror gameplay, but in an Italo-horror environment. It’s really cool, but really difficult.
Speaking of recommendations! I am normally constantly on the hunt for, and learning about new music–although in 2020 my interest in this has regrettably waned quite a bit. I have to imagine that as a musian you’re constantly finding and listening to new things! I’d love to know your favorites from 2020.
The most recent I Like Trains album Kompromat was fantastic, a really great return for a band I was half-sure was done. It’s odd post-punk, extremely politically outspoken, dark and upsetting.
This question is a bit silly, but I hope you’ll indulge me! Your wife Sonya sometimes shares your thoughts on the perfumes that they’re sampling, and I know I’m not the only one who loves to read about them! Unquiet Things readers are fragrance fiends as well, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’d love to know what perfume of theirs you’ve smelled recently…that you might base a horror story around! Tell us everything about this aromatic atrocity, please!
Oh god. So, the problem with writing a horror story about Perfume is you don’t want it to be derivative of the Patrick Suskind book!
So for anyone unfamiliar with Sonya’s “My Husband Smells” posts, Sonya collects all these samples from various boutique perfume companies and has me smell them and say what I feel they smell link.
The gimmick is that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I have no frame of reference for what traditional perfumes or colognes are “supposed” to smell like. This is only compounded due to the fact that I have bad sinuses which affect my sense of smell.
Ultimately, you’ll end up with a $400 bottle of expensive perfume and a review from me that just says “Smells like Dracula makeup?” because some chemical in it smelled sort of like Halloween makeup I put on as a kid and it triggered a sense memory.
My perfume horror story would be based around us receiving a number of samples from some company that Sonya couldn’t remember ordering from, and that doesn’t have a website.
Rather than triggering sense memories, the perfumes would cause us to relive entire moments in our lives. As we went down the series of samples, the memories would get more and more recent, and we would find ourselves unable to stop sniffing each of the samples.
The story would end with us testing the last of the samples, in a jet black, unlabeled nebulizer. As we each breathed it in, we would feel the air disappear from our lungs, the lights disappear and the walls close around us – we wouldn’t be in a memory from the past, we would be trapped in a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet.
We would be “remembering” being dead and being interred in a grave, unable to breathe or speak or escape.
Back to OBSO/LETE as we wrap up! Is there anything else you want to share about this project or what we can expect? I’m really looking forward to it!
We have about 7 days left on the campaign and we’ve just debuted our second of two t-shirt designs.
It’s really been a labor of love, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to make some new friends in the industry, Justin M. Ryan (penciller and inker) is also an accomplished writer on his own and has a fantastic graphic novel he put out a while back called Tresspasser. Todd Rayner (colorist) has an awesome comic book he does called Icepick.
In addition to OBSO/LETE, I also have a scifi-horror story called “Flickering” which just came out in an anthology from Eerie River Press called “It Calls From The Sky”.