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.
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?