I have been meaning to read Tananarive Due’s The Good House from the moment that I closed the last page of Ghost Summer, which I thoroughly, delightedly enjoyed. My review for Ghost Summer wasn’t super in-depth or intensive, but about the book, I wrote the following:
These engaging short stories by Tananarive Due tick every box for what I want in a summer read. (I think I read this in September, so that still counts, as far as I am concerned!) A vast spectrum of supernatural business, characters that I care about, masterful writing that is emotive and nuanced but not super dense or difficult or inaccessible. It’s got everything!
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.
Speaking of houses and homes–what’s more homey than a cozy bowl of porridge? Or steel-cut oats, to be more specific!
Here’s a little oatmeal bar I set up yesterday, with all the fixings: dates, pumpkin seeds and almonds, apricots, cream, and sugar. It was perfect for our 70-degree morning…which, if you live in Florida, you know that’s practically freezing, and about as close to autumn as we are likely to get! The little Halloween ramekins were a lovely surprise from Yvan, who picked them up for me from Le Creuset! I can’t seem to find them on the Le Creuset site (though he assures me there were quite a few in stock at the actual store and they weren’t exactly flying off the shelves) but if you are looking for them, it’s this set.
[EDIT: A GIVEAWAY WINNER HAS BEEN CHOSEN AND CONTACTED! THANKS, EVERYONE!]
Happy birthday, The Art of the Occult! You, my first published book, are now officially a year old!
Is there anything horror-related within its pages? Well…not really. Not in a spooky, Halloween season way. We could argue that esoteric knowledge and arcane philosophies form the backbone of quite a few horror stories. Ceremonial magics gone wrong, demons conjured and gone amuck. That sort of thing. And of course witches and witchcraft–you can’t have 31 Days of Halloween with at least one witchy film, right? I mean, as far as I am concerned, you can barely have a story of any sort without a witchy character moving things along.
Here’s what I write in the Potions, Persecution, and Power portion of The Art of the Occult, wherein I begin by quoting another favorite and famous witch that you may know….
‘Witches have always walked among us, populating societies and storyscapes across the globe for thousands of years,’ writes Pam Grossman in Waking the Witch, a reflection on women, magic, and power. And it’s true – can you conjure forth a single folk or fairytale, myth or legend worth its salt circle that doesn’t contain a witch or some witchy archetype stirring up trouble and sowing supersensory seeds of discontent? The witch provides the element that surprises, startles, and scares, provides struggle and strife, a snag in the story, a shift in the narrative.
This fascination for witches has long gripped artists, both of the classical and contemporary ilk– the witchly archetype being an evocative canvas onto which some of the greatest artists have projected their most intensely bizarre imaginings. Many continue to draw inspiration from the dark and cruel origins of the classic image of the witch, and the tragic history of the witch continues to instill fear and provoke anxieties in contemporary creators today.
Here’s a handful of my favorite witches on canvas, inspiring and powerful artworks steeped in magic and superstition. What are some of your favorite visual representations of the witch?
And sneaking this in here, which means you had to read this whole post in order get to this point: wouldst thou like to win a delicious, signed copy of The Art of the Occult in celebration of its one-year anniversary inhabiting our earthly realm? If so, leave a comment! Tell me about your favorite witches! Artful, literary, cinematic or otherwise. A winner will be chosen and contact one week from today!
Be Scared of Everything by Peter Counter is a tremendously thoughtful, smart, funny, book combining essay and memoir celebrating all things horror, from cinema and video games to heavy metal and haunted houses. His writing examines popular horror media from such a wonderfully lively place of vulnerability and curiosity and reads like many conversations I’ve had with myself about horror. Except, he’s a million times more articulate about the meaning-making to be experienced, where in this cauldron of horrifying influences and inspirations, and I’m quoting from somewhere else here, he finds “…poetry in madness, and beauty in annihilation–” I’ve been reading this book a little spooky snippet at a time every morning to get my day started with this very excellent spooky energy
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa was an interesting read for me, because the narrator of the book has four children and there’s a lot of baby making and nurturing and maternal feelings. Which is very uncomfortable for me, So it has been interesting to sit with that. I guess you could say the book is about a poet who becomes obsessed with another poet across time. But there’s also a lot of visceral baby stuff and daily ritual involving homemaking. The latter thing definitely more relatable than the former, but I think to experience this book, you gotta be all-in with all of it. So I’m trying!
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada An odd little story of mundane strangeness, this story follows the story of Asa, who after her husband’s work transfer, gives up her own job and moves along with him to be close to his employer. This entails living in a house in his hometown, next door to his parents. Both the town and the parents are strange in unsettling, dream-like ways, and Asa spends a sticky, aimless summer bored and adrift, and trying to figure out this weird place and its equally weird inhabitants.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric Larocca. OOOOOF. I saw this book mentioned all over YouTube for the better part of a week and so I thought, ok sure why not. I had some reservations as the title reminded me a bit of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid, a book which I wanted to throw into the ocean after I read it. My review, such as it is, can be found here. Thankfully, these books are nothing alike. Not so thankfully, I did not really enjoy Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. A story of two lost and/or lonely souls meeting through the internet and their developing relationship, which escalates pretty swiftly and in really distressing ways. I personally found it hard to read–and maybe a little bit distasteful– because it felt awfully familiar. I am not trying to kink-shame anyone but the master/slave or sub/dom dynamic is hugely problematic for me because I experienced that to a large degree for a time in a former relationship, the really awful, toxic, and abusive one that I have written about previously on this blog. So…it turned out I was the wrong audience for this book. But while I found that aspect of the story intensely disturbing, I wasn’t disturbed by the details? Maybe I’m jaded or really hard to gross out. I don’t know. It just wasn’t that freaky.
In That Endlessness, Our End by Gemma Files. Funny thing. I wrote this review before I wrote the one above it, so I think this is book to follow it with, and a good one to end on until next time. I have been reading horror for a very long time and there just isn’t that much that freaks me out anymore. In the past few years if I want to get freaked out, I’ll go to the /nosleep subreddit for an unsettling dose of writing deeply weird and disturbing yet which still contains a soupçon of those “this happened to a friend of a friend” vibes. Stuff that reads like anecdote or tall tales or urban legend…strange, but not so fantastical you don’t believe it at midnight when the house is settling and the world is silent and the darkness is absolute.
There is always a moment in my dreams where space shudders and what was fine and well is suddenly not. Gemma Files’ stories contained In That Endlessness Our End begin in that shiver just before the nightmare. It’s unnerving how preordained the descent feels, yet how abrupt. The horror is always uncharted and inevitable. Her writing feels like some of the best /nosleep narratives in their eerie inventiveness, their proximity to real life (but really there’s no comparison here, it’s just the best I can offer, is all) but with a precision of language and astonishing detail that comes from someone whose imagination has been guiding her hand for an impressive amount of time, and knows exactly how to take those things that frighten her and unleash them on us.
Honestly, there is no one who scares me like Gemma Files and HOLY SHIT do I love her for it.
The Low, Low Woods is the brooding and utterly unnerving graphic novel debut by Carmen Maria Machado, an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania. Teenage best friends El and Vee experience strange incidents of missing time and decide to investigate the mystery behind that gap in time and the strange happenings around the community, where time and memories, as well as the women themselves, often go missing. A female-centered queer and diverse cast of characters navigating friendship, grief, rage in the midst of digging for truth in this tale of body horror, hybrid creatures, mysterious portals–in the course of doing so they realize the stories of their town hold more darkness than they could’ve imagined.
Fangsby Sarah Anderson. It’s not fair to an author to give a starred review hinging on something like “well, I would have given this more stars, but I wish it would have been longer.” I mean, you can see how many pages a thing has before you buy it, you can hold its heft in your hand and get a sense of its length or brevity. And I also no longer base my reviews on what I expected vs. what I got. Not having been familiar with Sarah Anderson’s work, I don’t think I realized it was cutesy-fluffy kind of stuff and that there wasn’t much story there or investment of time. I probably wouldn’t have purchased the book if I had known this. But I got suckered in by the stark glamour of the illustration on that blood-red cover when Amazon suggested that I might like it, and so I threw it in my cart as an impulse purchase. Why did I bother saying any of that? It’s not the book’s fault. I’m just annoyed with myself about it, I guess. This is a charming, light-hearted, slice-of-life, 4-panel peek at the budding romance between a vampire and a werewolf. It’s sweet. It’s fine. It would make a darling gift.
Trust Exerciseby Susan Choi. Ooof. Is there a better phrase than “coming of age” to describe a story about some young people figuring stuff out? I wish there were. (I guess I wish the same about “slice of life,” which I just used above.) Well, these are young people in an artsy-farty high school, there’s shaping and shifting of the power balances between friends and lovers, and there’s the abuse of power by adults who should know better. There are narrators who aren’t telling the whole truth, or maybe it’s the truth as they recall it or as they wish it had happened, and there are other narrators who are furious about this; interesting commentary, I suppose, on who it is that owns a story. This was a complicated read, but I don’t mean dense or heavy or anything like that–rather, I felt complicated things while reading it, and I’m still not sure what my takeaway is. But thanks to some of the extremely, uncomfortably visceral scenes in this book, I never want to have sex again. And my libido is already pretty much non-existent. Thanks, Susan Choi
This summer I read a bunch of mysteries. And I am done feeling weird or ashamed or guilty about it, which then turns into a weird snobbery, like “I DON’T USUALLY read this type of thing, BUT.” Come off it, Sarah. You read it, you liked it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And so I find myself reading a lot of Ruth Ware over the past year. I think I may have written about her in the last edition of Stacked as well. This time around, it was One By One , which I think you can already tell from the title is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. A group of start-up company employees are on a retreat at a posh ski lodge and they’re being murdered one by one. The company has developed a social media app that allows you to listen in on the music your friends are listening to, and maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a really dumb and pointless idea. It’s a predictable story but it’s mildly entertaining, so that’s ok.
I also read The Likeness by Tana French, which I believe somewhat picks up where In The Woods left off, but this time the main character is Cassie Maddox, who was Rob’s partner in In The Woods. And I am happy to be done with Rob, so that’s fine by me. In this story, Cassie is called to the scene of a murder where the victim looks almost exactly like her, and if that weren’t eerie enough, the victim possesses ID indicating she was going by the name that Cassie used in a previous undercover operation. Cassie must again go undercover (her first go-round, she was attacked and transferred out of that unit) and gain the trust of a local group of college students to try and figure out who this person was and why was she killed. This sort of puts into Dark Academia territory, which is another aspect of it that I liked. This was definitely a weird, insular group of young people.
I really loved this book. But I’ve found that Tana French is one of my favorite authors of mysteries/thrillers, and so I wasn’t surprised that I loved it. Some reviewers complain that she’s an overly wordy writer (“I get board with details!” notes one Goodreads user. Hee!) But it’s her beautiful prose that makes her stories so wonderfully compelling! And also the fact that in her mysteries, there frequently seems to be a mystery A. and a mystery B. and while the case may get solved, there always seems to be a piece that’s left without clear answers– and I really appreciate that.
Finally, on the mystery front, there was Lock Every Door and The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. First I should note that several times I learn and then forget immediately that Riley Sager is a pen name, and this author is not a woman–this has happened to me with every book by him that I have read. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does: I typically do not enjoy books wherein a male author has written a female protagonist. (See: boobs bouncing boobily) Is this a little problematic to admit? If so, I’m sorry. However, I don’t detect any issues like that with Sager’s stories, and as a matter of fact, I kind of enjoy the characters moving through his books much more than, say, Ruth Ware’s people as she writes them. In Lock Every Door, a woman gets hired as an apartment-sitter for an empty apartment in a mysterious Manhattan apartment building. I don’t think I am the first to make this comparison, but it’s got a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that I found delightful, even though it didn’t quite head in the same direction. In The Last Time I Lied, an artist is invited back to a summer camp she spent a week in as a teenager, and while she was there, her cabin-mates disappeared. She accepts the invitation in present-time, because she’s got some digging around to do regarding those past events, and as strange things start to happen during her stay, her suspicions mount. Though I didn’t really love his first offering, Final Girls, the more Sager writes, the more impressed I am with his stories. They all seem to involve some sort of horror trope, but they are not exactly horror stories. I think it’s an interesting angle, and it pretty much guarantees I’ll continue reading as he publishes more.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane. I am not sure what I can say about this book that might convince you to read it. I started it a year ago, last July, and I have only just today finished it. I wept a little, as I did. An exploration of the Earth’s underworlds–perilous caves atop impossible cliffs, labyrinthine catacomb crawls, the darkness under our feet through which mycelium tendril, the drop even further below to starless underground rivers, and the unfathomably deep descent into the backward-reaching time machine of ancient ice.
McFarlane writes in melancholic, claustrophobic, prose of transcendent, breathtaking, heart-stopping beauty, and as fascinating as I found his adventures, the relationship he formed with the land he explored, the connections he made with the strange and wonderful people who followed similar passions to dangerous and extreme ends–it’s how he wrote about these experiences that truly captured my heart and brings tears to my eyes even as I type this out.
There’s an exchange between McFarlane and a scientist, and while maybe I am missing the bigger point of everything here, it really sums up…while not exactly the spirit of the book, but rather why I personally love the book so much. When shown some microscopic sediment from the ice that points to the fact that the land a kilometer below the ice used to be a Sahara, McFarlane muses: “They’re beautiful…desert diamonds from the end of the world.” His companion in conversation replies laconically, “I can tell you’re not a scientist.”
Many people confided in me that they didn’t get very far into this book, I think, for precisely the reason I fell so profoundly in love with it. This is a man of words, writing about the science of things explored in deep, dark places, and the deeply philosophical questions and issues that this knowledge points to when brought to light. And while passionate about these issues, not being a scientist himself he grapples with and presents these ideas in inventive and otherworldly language that might be challenging to wind your way around if you’re looking for a book that is a straight, clear path. And, well, I suppose if this was sold to you as a travel book (as I see it is marketed in some places as such) , in that case, you have every right to be confused and not get very far in. For as much as I enjoyed this book, I sure never want to travel to any of these places. That aside, Underland was truly a descent into the sublime.
The Ballad of Black Tom was on a lot of horror-lists in the past few years, and it’s easy to see why. A gripping novella that revisits HP Lovecraft’s particularly xenophobic The Horror of Red Hook but from the point of view of a Black man, it was a nerve-prickling thrill that I read in the course of one evening while cat-sitting at my sister’s house. Here’s a great interview with Lavalle over at NPR where they talk with him about his conflicted feelings for Lovecraft, and which gets more into the story itself.
Wide Sargasso Sea was a book I’d heard of for years but had just never found a compelling reason to read. This came as a recommendation from Rachel Syme on twitter who, whether she’s advising on fragrance or literature, always has some fabulous suggestions, and so when she mentioned it, I thought, ok, maybe now’s the time. This is not a new book and so even giving a synopsis feels a bit silly, but if you are unaware, Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial and feminist prequel to Jane Eyre, describing the backstory to Mr. Rochester’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, a Creole heiress named Antoinette Cosway–whom we know as “Bertha Mason” the madwoman in the attic, the lunatic that is Rochester’s first wife.
I both loved and hated this book. Probably because I knew the fate of this character before I even read the first page. Lush and hazy and brimming with brutality, beauty, and an ever-present sense of dread, this was a story that I found myself wishing over and over would end differently, but it never could. There is a passage in the book describing a red dress: “The scent that came from the dress was very faint at first, then it grew stronger. The smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering. The smell of the sun and the smell of the rain.”
I don’t know if this perfume exists, but it should. It seems to capture the Antoinette that might have lived with less devastation, tragedy, and madness. An Antoinette who had the opportunity to experience more bright mornings and radiant sunlight. Who might have even been happy.
Artist Midori Yamada has captured my memories of summer vacations, elementary school grades 4-6. They were spent in the company of books, immersed in their pages from the time I rolled out of bed in the morning until sunset and sometimes well into the evening. I sat on a cracked vinyl chaise lounge on our backyard screened porch in the searing, stifling midday heat, my hair plastered nastily to the back of my neck, and cooling myself with icy cups of Crystal Light.
I didn’t care about the sticky, sweaty discomfort or the artificial sweetness inflaming my considerable thirst. I was satiated with stories, and I wanted nothing more than to hide away with them in the hopes that everyone had utterly forgotten that I existed. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such glorious freedom, since.
Many years later, I am still chasing that elusive high. No obligations, no intrusions, just me and the next page and the next after that. In the ensuing years I’ve probably accumulated enough books that I would never have summers enough to finish them all.
Here’s the current state of the stacks, below. How are yours looking?
In April 2021, The Art of the Occult was six magical, mystical months old! I didn’t get too excited about it though, because a whole gaggle of shipments had gotten lost in the astral plane and I didn’t have any gorgeous books on hand at the time to wave around in front of your faces…but LOOK what has finally appeared on my doorstep!
And now HEY LOOK AT THAT! I havea PayPal link on my blog now, where, if you are in the US, you can buy a signed copy of The Art of the Occult Now we don’t have to conduct covert deals through clandestine DMs! I am a professional! Alas, friends abroad who would like to buy a signed copy of The Art of the Occult from me, we must still resort to cloak-and-dagger communiqués. I have limited quantities at the moment, but I hopefully should be stocked up again soon, so please feel free to order bunches of books and make me a rich weirdo!
Reminder! Did you know that, in celebration of The Art of the Occult, the aromatic adepts at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab summoned forth a rare opulence of fragrances inspired by a handful of arcane masterpieces within its pages?
The Ars Inspiratio collection is comprised of five artful scents corresponding to five mystical artworks; these pairings serve as anointed access points to all manner of fabulous occult inspiration– perfumed pathways to unknown realms for extraordinary seekers and dreamers and magic-makers. If you’re curious about these fantastical fragrances but would like to know more about them first, you are in luck! I have reviewed them over on Haute Macabre and Tom and Galen reviewed them as well, over on the Lab’s 15 Minutes of ‘Fume youtube channel.
And a final mention, I have rounded up all of the interviews I have done thus with artists whose works appear in The Art of the Occult. …and allow me to again express how deeply thankful I am to the artists, who, over the years, have taken the time to answer my questions and share their insights with me. I am so grateful for all of the creators who have spared a moment or two to discuss their works and practices with me. It’s always humbling and gratifying to have an artist that you admire take your queries seriously and share thoughtful, candid responses with you–so many, many thanks to the artists listed below, as well as every creator who has given me the time of day over the past decade! I am grateful for all that you do and share with the world, and I thank you for allowing me to be part of it sometimes!
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.