12 Jan
2023

 

Ok, so the thing is: I have read a lot of books since late September, which is the last time I shared an installment of Stacked. And I typically try to be very diligent about having an ongoing draft where I either immediately write a review, or at least some notes or impressions after having finished a book. That way, I do it a little bit at a time as the months go by, and eventually, I have a blog post full of book reviews.

This time around…I did not do that. And I don’t remember a lot of the details and finer points of these books and stories. So I will do my best, but some of these may end up being one-sentence reviews. I’m sorry! I’ll do better next time. MAYBE!

Always the First To Die by R.J. Jacobs As a horror fan and a Floridian who has been experiencing hurricanes for most of my life, I found the overall atmosphere for Always the First to Die –a murder mystery homage to horror movies, taking place in the dilapidated decay of a crumbling old hotel in the Florida keys–to be exceptionally thrilling. And overall, I thought it was a pretty solid story, with the widowed Lexi frantically racing down to the Keys, where she swore she would never return, to retrieve her teenage daughter, Quinn, in the aftermath of a hurricane. With a teenager’s disregard for danger and consequences, Quinn had lied to her mother in order to visit and spend time with her estranged horror movie-director grandfather… and possibly participate in the filming of a sequel to his most famous horror (and possibly cursed!) film …because she knew Lexi would never agree to any of it. But now mysterious and terrifying things are happening, which may be tied to a mysterious and terrifying event from the past –and you may discover enough clues in this fast-paced, duel-timeline story to put two and two together and figure out the mystery. But even if you don’t, I think you’ll have a good time with it. And bonus points if you’re reading it after you’ve lost power in the bad weather and wild winds and rains of an early autumn Florida hurricane…which, serendipitously enough, I was! (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)

What Moves The Dead by T. Kingfisher I never thought I’d declare a reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher “a hoot,” but here we are. I adored this clever, charming, grotesquerie of a book, and it had one of the most enjoyable and interesting main characters I’ve spent time with in ages. Retired officer Alex Easton rushes to the ancestral home of their old friends Roderick and Madeline Usher after receiving a disturbing letter, to find the mansion and surrounding grounds in an appalling state of moldy, wormy decay. Both Roderick and Madeline are dreadfully, inexplicably unwell, and even the doctor living under their roof can’t pinpoint the cause. What follows is an eerie and frequently fairly gross romp of Alex trying to get to the bottom of what’s eating at their dear old friends, and even though I hesitate to call this book “funny,”–it actually is because Alex is such a jolly person with a big personality and quite frankly I want a whole series of their adventures.

The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay. I actually hollered WHAT THE HELL when I finished this book. I guess I only read it because I saw that the book had been adapted for film, and I’m kind of a snob about seeing a horror films based on a novel, before reading the novel. So I thought, ok, better read this. If you’ve seen the movie trailer then you know the drill:  two dads and their daughter are staying at an isolated cabin and a small gang of fanatical strangers break in, hold them hostage and tell them they’ve got to make some important decisions to prevent the end of the world. That’s more or less all there is to the book. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending, but this one was incredibly frustrating. I gotta hand it to Paul Tremblay, though. He really went there. He did the thing you’re not supposed to (expected to? allowed to?) do in these sorts of stories. Bold move, sir. But I still hated the ending.

Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young. I think if I had realized how large a part the romance element played in this story, I might not have picked it up or given it a chance. Unsolved murder and ancestral magic in a rather secluded and superstitious community? Absolutely here for it. Angsty romance and unresolved issues between the two main characters, one of whom is just really awful and childish and annoying? Not so much. That said, and to be fair, there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed: the rich immersion in such an atmospheric, autumnal little town, and I always love the idea of magic and lore passed down through the generations. Taken as a whole, though, considering the characters and the overall story, Spells for Forgetting just didn’t do it for me. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)

Tell Me I’m Worthless by Allison Rumfitt As much time as I have spent thinking about Tell Me I’m Worthless since I finished reading the book, I’ll admit–I am still not sure what it is, exactly, that I think of it. A haunted house story where the house is a metaphor for England and a particularly English kind of fascism, a horror novel that centers queer and trans characters, and body horror screaming with the physical and psychic violence and trauma that is enacted on Othered bodies, this is a dark, and intense, and deeply unpleasant book. And you should probably read it.

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz was such an over-the-top treat. The book opens with Alex, a young writer struggling with both the helplessness and impotence of not having written a word in over a year and the fact that she’s lost her best friend, Wren, in a falling out and is feeling hurt and confused by the break. These separate miseries collide in an event early on, where Alex must attend a book launch party for a successful friend–and where she is sure to run into Wren. The night is not entirely a bust, though, because it sets into motion Alex receiving an invite to an exclusive writing retreat held by infamous horror author Roza Vallo at her massive, remote home in the Adirondacks. This could be the impetus Alex needs to unlock her creativity–but there’s a complication. Wren’s going to be there, too. This is the theme for one of my very favorite horror subgenres: artist goes off to create in relative isolation; weird shit happens. And weird shit, it does happen! Between Roza’a unorthodox methods and demands, the almost punitive deadlines the authors are required to meet, the eerie house and its unsettling atmosphere, and even the various attendees of the retreat who may be harboring secrets, tensions are ramped up, everyone’s pushing themselves to their limits, and the slightest accidental remark or mistake may send someone over the edge…but is anything in this house accidental? Or has everything been carefully orchestrated from the very beginning?

Beware the Woman by Megan Abbott I read Beware the Woman in the course of a day. I began in the morning, intrigued by what was meant to be an idyllic trip for Jacy, newly married and pregnant, to visit her husband’s family for the first time. I hung on to every word, as what was a seemingly normal experience of a woman attempting to relax on vacation and get to know her father-in-law–something that should be a pretty mundane, although hopefully nice experience– felt so weirdly off-kilter from the very beginning and slowly became more and more disturbing and steeped in dread. Early into their trip, Jacy’s pregnancy develops complications, and though her regular doctor assures her in a long-distance phone call that these things are a typical occurrence, the town doctor and her father-in-law (who seem suspiciously in cahoots), are treating it very differently. Jacy begins to feel trapped and housebound, she feels increasingly scrutinized and judged–not just in the present moment, but in her past as well, pieces of which are being revealed without her consent. Even her husband seems to be changing in his controlling behaviors and overprotective attitude toward her. I stayed up late into the night, on the edge of my seat, devouring the story so that I could finally learn what was driving the characters and what the mystery was, so in that sense, it was an incredibly compelling story. Once all is revealed, though, I look back and realize that I still don’t know what was driving any of the characters. Not a single one. People are acting in these strange and bewildering ways and doing these concerning things, and I don’t think we ever get a satisfying reason for any of it. For all that build-up, I wanted to be able to attach some reasoning to these people’s actions, and that aspect of the story just wasn’t there for me at all. (This review copy was provided by Netgalley)

All These Subtle Deceits by C.S. Humble This was like Exorcist meets noir detective story, with an on-call, excommunicated exorcist battling demons of his own, etc.  I did not love this story or the character relaying it to us. There was a line in the book about some woman’s $300 dye job. First…$300? If she’s lucky. Secondly, “…dye job”? Tell me a man wrote this without telling me a man wrote this, right?

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton.  In a breathless story exploring the dangers of devotion in our favorite sort of dark academic setting, we come to know high-school junior Laura, who, young and vulnerable and full of grand ideas, is obsessed with the very idea of St. Dunstan’s private school and the sorts of experiences she expects to have there, and has convinced her parents to send her to the wind-swept academy. Once there, she becomes fixated upon the intense, fanatical, and quite vicious overachiever Virginia, who leads the school choir and seems to have all of the choir’s members on a short leash. Inducted into the fold–both the choir itself and the circle of “friends” that encompass it– Laura’s world becomes increasingly smaller, wrapped up in the passions and melodramas and rituals of the group, who all bow in deference to Virginia–a leader who is more feared than loved, and who is becoming increasingly more vindictive and unstable. I loved this book and thought that the author captured so well the angst, insecurity, hysteria, and devastation that fuels the days of a teenager without making it feel like an actual YA novel. (Nothing wrong with a YA novel, they’re just not my favorite.)

The Me You Love In The Dark by Skottie Young (Author), Jorge Corona (Artist) Ro seeks solitude, artistic inspiration, and a change in environment to revitalize her practice and retreats for a time from city life to isolated small-town life. The old, creepy house she’s renting provides unexpected companionship that swiftly becomes possessive and terrifying. The art was moody and compelling, but the pacing moved too quickly, and the story could have used a much more sensitive hand.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott . Megan Abbott’s books are a bit hit or miss for me (see Beware the Woman, above), but much to my surprise, I utterly inhaled this story of family secrets and disturbing, propulsive ballerina sister-darkness.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. I read my first Karin Slaughter book last autumn, and I was immediately hooked by the wry, nasty, hot-messiness of her stories. In a Karen Slaughter story, people’s lives are fucked up well before their lives are actually in jeopardy. Andy is in her early 30s and is feeling like a loser, having moved back in with her mom and working a part-time, go-nowhere job after art school in New York doesn’t pan out for her. And then: at lunch in a local diner, a shocking moment of violence erupts in an active-shooter nightmare, ending with her mother, her salt of the earth, pillar of the community mother–cooly, casually, killing the gunman. Chaos ensues from there, and Andy learns that her mother has a past, her life as she thought it was is ending and never, in fact, even existed, and that she’s going to have to get her shit together quickly and be just as ruthless and brutal as the woman–now a stranger– who raised her, if she is to figure out how to survive on her own.

Comfort Me With Apples by Cathrynne M. Valente. Strangely, it would be easy to say too much about this brief book (which I think would have been better served as a short story.) I feel that even the vaguest synopsis will give away what the author is trying to do here, but even so, if you’re even marginally on the ball, you will have figured it out in the first few chapters. Sophia is living what, on the surface, appears to be a charmed life in the utopian gated community of Arcadia Gardens. She has a beautiful home, a husband whom she adores, and the most delightful neighbors. Still, something is off, something is being kept from her right from the beginning. Even if Sophia doesn’t yet realize it, we immediately do. And with one small, peculiar discovery, her curiosity is piqued, and her entire world begins to unravel. It’s funny, I thought I wasn’t a big fan of Comfort Me With Apples, but I have found myself turning it over in my head on more than one occasion. I wonder what it was about this story that spoke to me. Let me know if it speaks to you.

The Last Housewife by Ashley Winstead  So…do you recall that article on The Cut sometime back in early 2022 about the Sarah Lawrence students who were groomed by a dorm mate’s father into his abusive sex cult? I think there’s been a couple of documentaries on it that have either been released or are in the works. Anyway, imagine if the author of In My Dreams I Hold A Knife used that sensational tidbit of news as fodder for a story of her own. I mean, I don’t know that’s what she did, but if you are in any way familiar with the Sarah Lawrence story, I think it will immediately come to mind as you are reading The Last Housewife.

Girl Forgotten by Karin Slaughter. Andy from Pieces of Her became a U.S. Marshall! Her first assignment comes about via her family’s pulling of strings because it is related to stuff or things that happened in the first book. More cults, more abuse, more women in peril. The pacing was weird on this one. I don’t think I was a huge fan of it.

56 Days by Catherine Howard. There are folks out there that apparently don’t want the real-world problems of the global pandemic intruding in on their gruesome murder stories. I hear that was one of the issues that people had with The Glass Onion movie? It’s part of our present reality, and it’s going to be part of our history, and as humans in this world who are living in and experiencing this world… we can’t pretend that these moments never existed… I mean, of course, it’s going to appear in the fictional media we consume. Get real, people. Anyway, in 56 Days, a couple meets up at the start of the pandemic, and, taking advantage of the weird reality they find themselves living in, they decide to move in together as sort of a trial run. By the end of the book –or rather the beginning, as the book opens at the ending– someone is dead.  And with plot twists and no one being who they appear to be, we can safely assume the corpse has nothing to do with the Covid virus.

The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring. This book is probably not going to be what you expect. It’s certainly not what I expected…although along the way, I thought I was starting to piece things together. Turns out I had the gist of it, but I had the shape of things all wrong. I don’t even know what I mean by that. You’ll see for yourself, I think. Mavi, fleeing the violent military regime that destroyed her family, seeks asylum in a rare teaching opportunity at a creepy Argentinian finishing school full of tragic history, curses, and an intensely gothic atmosphere. Don’t get used to the spooky atmosphere or the era in which the story takes place (sometime in the 1970s), and don’t get too hung up on what you assume to be the story, either. I think this is the sort of book where you’ve got to be flexible and switch gears and not be too attached to the story you think you’re reading or the genre you believe it to occupy. Ok, I have said enough! I’ll be curious to know what you think about this one.

The Children on the Hill and The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon. I recall enjoying both of these stories to varying degrees but not being quite satisfied with the endings. In The Children on the Hill we spend time between Violet and her brother and their somewhat odd living arrangement with their grandmother, who is a renowned doctor at an innovative mental illness treatment facility in the country, the Hillside Inn. A traumatized young girl, Iris, comes to live with them, and in unraveling the mystery of Iris’ situation, Violet unearths terrible secrets about the Inn, her family, and herself. Many years later, Lizzy Shelley is a monster and cryptid hunter with a reality TV show and podcast to her name; young girls are disappearing around the country, and in the pattern that emerges, Lizzy senses that the predator may be linked to her own past, her family, and the Inn. With The Drowning Kind, I honestly don’t even remember. There is an old family home with a haunted swimming pool that grants wishes …at a price. As the story opens, Jax learns that her twin sister Lexie has drowned in the pool, and in going home to deal with the estate, she discovers that Lexie had been digging into the history of the property and had uncovered some dark secrets.

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James I can’t recall why I even picked this book up, but maybe it’s because a lot of BookTubers had mentioned it. Now that I am searching my memory, I think several of them had said The Book of Cold Cases would be good for someone who is just starting to explore their interest in mysteries and thrillers. It does have that sort of feel to it in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not really graphic or violent or twisty or terribly complex–it’s a bit of a light read, I suppose. Shea is an office worker by day and runs a true crime blog in her off-hours, a fixation borne no doubt from her attempted abduction as a child, which resulted in an event that still haunts her. She gets a rare opportunity to interview Beth Greer, a mysterious local woman acquitted of two cold case slayings, and in the repeated meetings at Beth’s mansion, Shea gets the sense that–aside from the fact that she’s alone with a possible murderer– something is desperately wrong in the house. There’s both a supernatural element to this story as well as a romantic subplot, and to be honest, I wasn’t in love with any of it.

White Horse by Erica T. Werth. I think I loved the idea of this haunted-bracelet-as-portal story of a woman uncovering and confronting her past more than I did the actual story itself. I was constantly cheering for the main character, Kari, an urban Indian of Apache and Chickasaw descent and lover of Megadeth and Stephen King–she was so vividly written that she jumped off the page, and I felt her goading me to keep picking up the book and giving it another go. I loved her personal journey as she navigated the creepy things that were happening to her and the history that she was investigating, but still..something about the story didn’t click with me. A lot of people loved this book, though, so this is probably just a me-thing.

Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six by Lisa Unger. Now quite the opposite of Kari in White Horse, I was not cheering for any of the characters in this book. I thought they were all varying degrees of awful. Hannah’s brother appears to be a successful tech bro, and if you’ve read those three words and already decided he’s a piece of shit, you’re right. He’s gathered some of his nearest and dearest for a remote getaway in a luxurious, isolated cabin that has all of the best amenities that you could imagine– because he can afford it, and he thinks that they all deserve it. Because, of course he does. If you’re expecting a wintry sort of atmosphere which I think most might from the title, it’s not that–this is a cabin in Florida, and a hurricane is on the radar. The rental host is weirdly stalkery, their not-entirely-friendly personal chef shares that the property has a creepy backstory, and this friend-group of guests have secrets and darknesses of their own–and then one of them disappears. This is a book with a twist that I thought was intriguing if it had been explored in another way, in another book, and maybe in an entirely different genre. But in this particular story, it fell flat for me.

Such Sharp Teeth by Rachel Harrison and Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. I don’t want to say anything at all about these last two books on my list. Except they’re both feminist horror (though Nightbitch felt a bit more like literary fiction), they’re both darkly humorous in the different author’s voices… and they’re both lycanthropy related. AND they are both in my top three favorites of 2022. Actually, I loved them so much, they tie for no. 2. What is number one? I reviewed it a few months back, but I have been crowing about it ever since to anyone who will listen: Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth.

In 2023, I think these Stacked roundups will be a little bit different in that I will not be reviewing every single book I read. And that is because I plan to read 200 books! Which is…a lot of books …to be talking and writing and thinking about, and that’s way too much work! So the plan is that I will still be doing these quarterly/seasonal collections of reviews, but they will probably just consist of the highlights and standouts. We’ll see. I’ll figure it out when we get there!

 

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Just a little face popping out of another face to let you know that If you had planned on buying a signed copy of The Art of Darkness as a holiday gift for someone, now is a great time to grab a copy …because I will be slipping some secret artsy treats in with each order. These are quite limited, so once they run out, they are gone forever!

I also want to remind you that I do still have signed copies of The Art of the Occult available. That one comes with a bookmark and my undying gratitude!

Both The Art of Darkness and The Art of the Occult can be purchased here!

PLEASE NOTE: The shipping price listed on my site are *only* for people purchasing within the US. If you live outside the US and wish to purchase a signed copy of either book, please do not use the PayPal links on my site. Please email or message me directly. International shipping costs are nearly *three times as much* as the costs listed on my site. Again, those are US shipping costs ONLY.

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Although I wrote the following about the haunting imagery and paranormal photography of Simon Marsden five years ago, today is its debut here at Unquiet Things. And coincidentally enough, I just discovered last night that there is a documentary on this extraordinary gentleman! I myself plan to watch it this evening, and you can find it here: Simon Marsden’s Haunted Life In Pictures

For a dreary stretch of years, I lived cut off from friends and family in a miserable realm known to me now as, “that shit-hole of which we do not speak,” (to others, I suppose it is just “New Jersey”.) I led a rather joyless existence during that time, especially during the winters, for I had to that point lived most of my life in Florida, where, more often than not on Christmas day my sisters and I comfortably wore shorts and flip-flops. I was neither used to the cold and ice and snow nor did I ever become enamored of it.

I have written before, on my personal blog, of that emotionally and spiritually crushing time, and well, it’s a bummer. I won’t go into it again, but I’m linking to it here so that you might see where I am coming from. The high point of my existence was my yearly trip back down South during the week of Thanksgiving to spend time with my sisters, and of course, the low point was the moment I set foot back in my small apartment upon returning.

The idea for a late autumn/early winter graveyard stroll occurred to me one gloomy Saturday morning in December, a few weeks after the glee and glow of my recent vacation had begun to wane. Though I had probably lived in the tiny town for three or four years at that point, I was still unfamiliar with most of the area and I had never been one for exploring on my own.

As it happened, I recalled seeing a small cemetery at the bend of a slight road that ran past a shopping plaza I frequented. With that destination in mind, I packed a small sack with apples, notebooks, and my camera, wrapped a woolen scarf around my neck, and drove the six or seven minutes through town, where the afternoon sun was so dim that the Christmas lights, tangled around the street lamps for the upcoming holiday, gleamed and glimmered like constellations.

I was uncertain of where to park, so I left my car in the back lot of the shopping center and hiked along the side of the road until I reached a rusty fence that ran the length of the property. I held my breath at the gate–I’m always the one who is worried that they are doing something that they are not supposed to do, about breaking the rules, about “getting into trouble,” but it was unlocked and the space was completely deserted, so I stepped through. The only sounds to be heard were my relieved murmur of “oh, thank goodness,” and my feet crunching on a path of unswept November leaves.

It was a tiny place; I walked through it in less than ten minutes. After traversing its few paths, I sat on a soft lump of earth with my back to the scarred, scratchy bark of a sturdy tree, and scribbled in my journal for a while. I snapped a few photos. I lunched on an apple, and realizing there were no trash receptacles nearby, tucked the sticky core in my pocket. I blew on my hands, stamped my feet, and realized it was too chilly for my comfort. It was time to head home. Not much of an adventure, but then again, I am a timid soul who likes my adventure in small, gently administered doses.

The chilled, late-autumn weather, stepping through that old chain-link fence, taking photographs of local grave markers, worn smooth by time and the touch of the bereaved –this became a ritual that I would come to repeat year after year, during the remainder of the time that I was to spend in New Jersey. It was like a reset button for my soul; after the intensity and ecstasy of feeling that came from time with my beloved sisters and the resulting despair and depression when we parted and I traveled back to that black hole of perpetual heartache and misery, I needed a tranquil place to calm and quiet myself, to find an even keel, to function like a normal person for the rest of the year.

Thus, I suppose, began my minor obsession with the eerie romance of strange and solitary spaces, of places lost in time and overlooked by human hands; of neglected graveyards, dilapidated buildings and derelict structures, architectural ruins, and spectral landscapes. Forlorn, forgotten, and forsaken. Much like I felt a great deal of the time.

What is it about the desolation of abandoned spaces that fascinates and captivates us so? There’s an uncanny beauty in decay and abandonment, in the decrepit, ghostly aesthetics of what was once thriving and pristine, now fallen to ruin, suspended in time and place.

The late Sir Simon Marsden knew well this appreciation for those things that vanish: these decaying buildings and vestiges of places that once existed, remaining in the landscape, reassuring our minds that death might not be the end. A photographer and master of darkroom techniques,  his body of work is replete with ghostly black-and-white photographs of the shadowy and ethereal–various allegedly haunted houses, gothic graveyards, and moonlit abbeys throughout Europe.

From my reading, it seems that Marsden had a childhood one might read breathlessly of in a weird Victorian tale:  he grew up in two haunted English manors, and his father, who had a collection of books about the occult, and did nothing to discourage such interests. He would tell his four children ghost stories before they retired to bed; Simon was terrified, and said that he spent the rest of his life trying to exorcise these fears.

“It is not my intention to try and convince you that ghosts exist,” Marsden said, “but rather to inspire you not to take everything around you at face value. I believe that another dimension, a spirit world, runs parallel to our own, and that sometimes, when the conditions are right, we can see into and become part of this supernatural domain. The mystical quality of my photographs reflects this ancient order and they attempt to reveal what is eternal.”

Over the years Simon Marsden traveled widely — primarily  in Britain and Europe — and created his uncanny style by using infrared film, veiling his images with that characteristic unearthly atmosphere. I regret that I did not discover for myself the spooky splendors of his work until 2010 or so, just two years before he died in 2012.  I was stricken when I read of his passing. Within the world seen through his misty lens, I  felt as if I had just found a like-minded spirit, a kindred soul who somehow shared startling glimpses of what was in my own dreams, my own heart—and then he was gone.

Marsden’s œuvre clearly asserts his kinship for the otherworldly and a fondness for the macabre; with titles such as The Haunted Realm: Echoes from Beyond the Tomb (1998); This Spectred Isle: A Journey Through Haunted England (2005); and Memento Mori: Churches and Churches of England (2008). There is no mistaking that he was an aficionado of the mysterious, who dedicated his art to the phantoms and revenants of yesteryear.

In the past I had purchased a calendar or a set of postcards showcasing his stunning imagery, but it is in recent years that I began collecting his works in earnest.  I no longer live in what feels like an eternal winter of solitude; my days are sunny and warm, and I am more content that I ever dreamed possible with my life and in the company I now keep. My ritual of trawling the bone yards searching for serenity has fallen by the wayside, and I can’t say that I miss filling that particular hole in my heart.

On a quiet evening in early December, though, when the sky has begun to darken early and the clouds float across the glowering face of the moon, I sometimes feel a chill that has nothing to do with iced-over window panes or the damp promise of snow. When the goosebumps rise on my skin in the presence of an invisible wind and a strange melancholy rises in my heart, the only thing to be done then is retrieve a title from my growing collection, and immerse myself in the somber shades and shadows of Simon Marsden’s kindred glooms.

Featured image from the Marsden Archive. All other photos by S. Elizabeth and from her personal collection.

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First off, it never gets old, seeing a book that you’ve written on a shelf–whether your own shelf or someone else’s or in a bookshop or the library or wherever! I haven’t been to a bookstore since 2019, so seeing The Art of Darkness on my own shelf will have to do for now I guess. (Ok I just remembered that’s not true. I went to *one* but they didn’t have my book.)

But secondly …it’s time for a giveaway! Wouldst thou like to win a signed copy of The Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic and Macabre AS WELLS AS a print of the phenomenal cover art, Antiquity V, by Alex Eckman-Lawn?

See my Instagram post for details!

 

 

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20 Sep
2022

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed that I accidentally published the bare bones of this bookish round-up last month. Le whoopsie! I unintentionally hit the “publish”  instead of “save draft” button, and I totally blame WordPress for not throwing up a “are you sure you want to publish now?” warning on the screen to alert me! Yes, it is WordPress’s fault! At any rate, if you caught that, I guess you got a bit of a sneak peek!

It appears that I read quite a few books over the summer! I am not sure how many! I’ve added this up several times, and keep coming up with a different number, but it’s somewhere between 25-29 books. Including 5 graphic novels, which I didn’t write reviews for, but if you are curious, they were: Neil Gaiman’s gorgeous Snow, Glass, and Apples and the swoony sadness of The Dream Hunters; the chaotic dystopian frenzy of Philippe Druillet’s The Night; Jude Ellison S. Doyle Maw, teeming with terrible, monstrous rage, and Dracula, Motherf**ker which had a very cool cover going for it but, sadly, not much else.

Anyway, I suppose “quite a few”  books could mean different things to different people. To some of you, 25+ books is probably nothing, you do that in a few weeks. And to other folks, that number is your reading goal for the year. It’s all pretty subjective, I guess. But that many books read in three months feels pretty good to me!

Back to the subject of being eagle-eyed, or, in my case–quite the opposite. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the problem with being active on so many social media platforms is that I forget where and when, or if I have already shared something. But with regard to all of the books I have written about below, they’re digital versions. Until I get my eyeballs looked at and get some new glasses, my physical books are gathering dust, unread, because I can’t see well enough to read them anymore. And before you get on me about the frequency of eye exams or whatever, lemme stop you there. These are (relatively) NEW glasses I’m wearing right now. I think I got them in late 2021. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was ten years old. My vision is terrible and it’s been getting worse. But in February or March of 2022, I just woke up one day and just couldn’t see the words on the page. It seemed to have happened overnight! So I am waiting until I can get on Yvan’s insurance because my glasses always end up being expensive as hell, and in the meantime, I am muddling by with my Kindle.

(Please don’t ask me if I am still, even as recently as last week, buying physical copies of books anyway. Because I think you know the answer. It’s a problem!)

Let’s dive into the stacks!

Unnatural Creatures by Kris Waldherr. Oh, how I adored the lush, transportive, and terribly heartbreaking beauty of this Frankenstein revisiting and reimagining, lensed through the perspectives of three women, all incredible in their own right. Caroline–Victor Frankenstein’s exquisitely gentle, selfless mother; Elizabeth, the beautiful and accomplished cousin betrothed to Victor, with secret torments and a mysterious past of her own; and poor, broken, and orphaned Justine, devoted to the family–but just how far will she go to prove it? I loved how richly imagined and fully realized these three characters were, and in my rapt, convulsive reading of this tale it dawned on me how desperately it needed to be told. (via Netgalley)

All’s Well by Mona Awad. I’m here for any old weird story that Mona Awad wants to tell us, the more unhinged and unraveling the better (see Bunny, which is a book I have recommended more than any other in the past year or so.) Miranda Fitch, a former actor/current theatre professor, suffers agonizing chronic pain due to injuries incurred in a stage accident a few years prior. Despondent at the lack of compassion and effective treatment from her dismissive, disbelieving doctors, frustrated and furious with the staff and classes who seem to be undermining all of her plans to stage a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and disturbed by her one semi-close friend’s dwindling rations of empathy, Miranda is going a bit out of her mind with grief, pain, and exhaustion. And then: a weird trio of “doctors” grants her a strange, golden cure. Delirium and chaos ensues where wrongs are twistily righted, just desserts are served, as if things are looking up for Miranda it may well be a dizzying descent into “be careful what you wish for” territory. I won’t promise you will love this one if you loved Bunny...but if you did love Bunny, you owe it to your love of Awad’s deliciously dark writing and magically bizarre stories to give All’s Well a read.

How We Disappear Novella and Stories by Tara Lynn Masih. I loved how this captivating collection of diverse stories felt like the intimacy of sharing a strange series of dreams with a friend. Each vignette was as distinct from the other as they were vague in form…they often seemed to begin at the middle, or the end of a journey, and yet they only seemed like a beginning. For all that, though, they were all emotionally filling enough to feel complete. I feel to say more than that is — (via Netgalley)

Daphne by Josh Malerman. I’ll be honest. I went into Daphne a bit skeptical. “A basketball ghost?” I know that’s a lazy summarization but after reading the book’s synopsis, that was my takeaway. A vengeful spirit brutally stalking a high school basketball team. Huh. I don’t know about all that. I mean, I am the reader who skipped through several chapters of Quiddich matches in the Harry Potter books because they were “too sportsball-y.” (Yes, I know JKR is a problem, but I can’t pretend I never read the books.) So when I admit that I found this psychological horror/slasher-esque/coming of age story about Kit and her teammates and the terrifying events befalling them in their beloved hometown of Samhattan to be immediately, irresistibly compelling, I think I was more surprised than anyone. So, yeah…not really a book about basketball. I mean there’s practice and there are games and there’s sportsy jargon being tossed around and camaraderie between the friends, but running through all of that, overshadowing it, underscoring it, are a number of other things. How secrets have a habit of festering and never staying buried, how darkness and demons are better faced than ignored, how it’s important to talk about the uncomfortable things, the painful things, even the pants-shittingly terrifying things. How we are more than the sum of our parts–more than our anxiety, more than being a basketball player, more than being the “funny one”, or “the good one”–but that said, we have to acknowledge and honor those parts of ourselves, too, and that’s what makes us whole. So well done, Malerman. I guess you made me read about a basketball ghost, after all.(via Netgalley)

The Wilderwomen by Ruth Emmie Lang was a unique coming-of-age tale about the bonds of family, both sisterhood and motherhood, and how those threads, through time and circumstance, can tangle and strain, and not always weave the sort of tapestry that you had envisioned–or in retrospect, was perhaps threaded with more secrets and unspoken private darknesses than you had realized. Zadie and Finn are two sisters with special gifts; elder 20-something Zadie has a future sight that she refuses to use, and just-graduated-from-high school Finn has the ability to step into the echo of a memory. Their relationship in a tenuous place after their mother’s mysterious disappearance 5 years prior and Finn’s subsequent placement into a foster home, they embark on a post-graduation beach vacation-turned cross-country adventure, in search of their mother. The sisters reestablishing their trust and rekindling their connection provided some lovely, grounding moments during a journey that proves to be unexpectedly, beautifully magical, and ultimately, happy-sigh-inducingly satisfying.(via Netgalley)

The Memory Librarian by Janelle Monae Well. This is embarrassing. I read The Memory Librarian earlier this summer and I just don’t remember much about it. I was really good about writing up reviews for most of these books immediately after finishing them because I knew there was no way I’d ever be able to remember all of them otherwise. It seems I didn’t even take any notes for this one, just one highlighted passage and an Instagram story where I demanded that everyone “READ * THIS * FUCKING * BOOK.” (Wow, so bossy.)  But please don’t take my failings here to mean it wasn’t immersive and really just extraordinary. If you enjoyed or were intrigued with the dystopian world of Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer album, then I think you’ll really savor this speculative anthology that expands on the concepts and narratives she introduced there. Monae and her co-authors expand on this world and explore themes of dreams, imagination, art; time and memory, resistance, identity, and community building, all through the lens of gender-expansive, marginalized people. The quote I highlighted if you’re curious, was this:
“… the hard, old way of forgetting, which is remembering with grief.” 

Though wildly different in place and setting from the previous books I had read by Catriona Ward, (The Last House on Needless Street and Sundial) the hallucinatory gothic mysteries playing out in the pages of Little Eve were equally, if not twice as compelling. I didn’t quite know what sort of story this was, or where it was going, when I began reading of this enigmatic, isolated family living in a strange, crumbling castle at the watery edge of a small village. As the tale unfolded and I began to settle in, a slew of things happened, murderous things, secret and sacred and brutal things, melancholic and tender things. As the past and present converged, these things twisted in and upon one another, and my “settling in” became increasingly unsettled…but of course in the very best, Catriona Wardiest-sort-of-way. (via Netgalley)

Zoje Stage’s Mothered brought to mind a funny thing I see on the internet sometimes. “Are you funny?” a meme with forgettable visuals asks… and then the gut punch of a punchline: “…Or did you have a happy childhood?” This never fails to elicit a bleak cackle from me, and I gotta tell you, Mothered is a mother-frikkin’ bleak cackle of a book. If you had a happy childhood, then perhaps the book’s premise doesn’t seem like the trappings of a potential horror movie: wherein Grace has just lost her job and her elderly mother, recently widowed and just out of the hospital, has moved in with her. Seems win-win; Grace needs the financial support as she has just purchased a home and being unemployed during a pandemic makes it tough to pay the mortgage, and her mother obviously is going to need a bit of help recuperating after having been unwell. And there is of course a lot of unhappy history there; Grace and her mother are estranged, there’s childhood neglect and trauma –and maybe some other stuff!–that’s never been adequately addressed and with all of this in their past, they are really struggling to reconnect and communicate while living under the same roof again. Grace begins having nightmares, losing time, and sleepwalking, and endures a heartbreakingly gruesome accusation by her mother. What’s going on? Is Grace slowly unraveling from sleep deprivation? Is her mother the one who is losing it? Maybe it’s both?! If you’ve got a dark sense of humor and that cackling darkness was developed as a defense mechanism, I think that you, like me, will find Mothered a grim, gripping giggle of a summer read.(via Netgalley)

I read Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas in one freaking sitting and I can’t remember the last time I did that! It’s got that lush, gorgeous, dark academia “we were perfect and beautiful because we were young” cloistered university student vibe, there’s these gothic, dilapidated structures the students are living in, the whole institution has this vaguely cult-like energy AND there’s a weird, speculative element to it as well. I will say that it is very long on atmosphere and maybe a little short on the plot. Ok, that’s not quite fair, in retrospect, but, and this is why I will never be a fantastic reviewer…I can’t quite put into words what I mean here. But when you dial the atmosphere up to 20 I can forgive anything! A few of the things I liked about this tale of sequestered students in this hidden-away and vaguely controversial school are the things it didn’t have going for it: it didn’t feel YA to me (I don’t know if the book is or it isn’t, but once I get that vibe, I lose interest) and it wasn’t too “here’s a 30-year-old thinking about that time their friend was murdered in college and hey look here’s a class reunion where secrets are going to be revealed” and it wasn’t too “wizarding world of whatever.” It was very much set in the real world of things…but just slightly…not. And don’t get me wrong, I’ll read all of those things I just pooh-poohed, but Catherine House was the perfect combination of none of those things and it was exactly what I needed.

The Rule of Three by E.G. Scott was sold to me as “three couples whose game night goes horribly wrong”…and that’s not quite it. I was expecting all three couples in the same house, playing the same game, and you know, someone’s necromancer summons a foul entity that shows up in corporeal meatspace and does some real-life murder and mayhem. No. That’s not this book. I probably should have read the whole synopsis, not just one line (but I think they need to revisit that line!) So, actually, the wives are having a book club night and at the same time, the husbands are having a poker night. All three men end up either dead or hospitalized, and if you’re thinking “gee, I bet they deserved it,” you’d be right; all three of them were pieces of work. So, who did it, and why? In this exclusive, posh community, it seems like every neighbor has a motive…and that’s not even counting the various reasons and resentments their own spouses might be harboring. Speaking of the wives, their internal dialogues/external conversations sound so familiar to one another that at first, I had a hard time telling who was who among the three main characters. They eventually differentiate themselves, but the “hive-mind” feel to their thoughts did throw a bit of a stumbling block for immersing myself in their story. Was it still a gripping story, fraught with tension, intrigue, and drama? Sure, it had all of that, and it was a fast-paced story that eventually drew me in and kept me engaged. I’ve just got a few nit-picky problems, is all. (via Netgalley)

The Sacrifice by Rin Chupeco A legendary island notorious for curses, missing people, and human sacrifices becomes the set for a Hollywood film crew in this tale of you-dumb-people-shoulda-left-well-enough-alone. Mysterious local, teenage Alon, becomes the guide for the documentary team, which is headed up by their fearless leader, a reality show survivalist who is hell-bent on making a comeback. Or is there more to it than that? Everyone is a bit more, or a lot more than they seem on this island where mysterious things breathe and move and won’t stay dead …or were never really alive…if they were ever really there at all? I loved the setting and the atmosphere of this story, which I thought was thrillingly original. The nonbinary Alon was aloof and enigmatic, and very, very cool, and if I was looking for some YA horror, I would have loved this. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t realize that’s… sort of what this story is. is. If that’s your thing, you’ll dig this.(via Netgalley)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata. This book is profoundly weird and unpleasant,  tackling themes of abuse and control and personal autonomy and individual spirit vs. tradition and conformity–and there is absolutely nothing subtle about it. Which is not to say I didn’t like it. Young Natsuki doesn’t feel that she fits in, is treated horribly by her own family, and is in fact convinced that she is an alien from another planet. Her only comfort is her cousin Yuu, who either feels similarly on the alien front–or whom she has convinced that he feels that way because he does seem easily led. After a disastrous family visit to her grandparent’s mountain home where in the course of the stay she is forbidden contact with Yuu (maybe for good reason), she is thrust back into regular home/school life again, where she is being molested by a teacher, but no one believes her. Natsuki’s existence as an adult is deeply informed by her experiences as a child and she’s grown apart from society with, some might say, fairly antisocial and anti-establishment beliefs–and she still believes she’s an alien. She meets a man that she relates to, in a way, as he has had traumatic childhood experiences of his own and has grown up a jaded individual who also holds some unorthodox beliefs as well. In a bizarre bargain struck between them, they marry, but it’s definitely the sort of marriage made to keep their respective families off their backs and certainly not a love match. It doesn’t necessarily work as they’d hoped, and to escape scrutiny, they reconnect with cousin Yuu and go to stay in the now-abandoned family home up in the mountains. I’ve toned down the bizarre elements of the plot, so I don’t think I’ve actually given much away… even though it seems like I’ve walked you through the whole story!

Influencer Island by Kyle Rutkin. I can’t decide if this book was dumb or brilliant. Or maybe the brilliance lies in exploiting how dumb we are, the people reading this, or those who would watch something like this if it actually existed. A concept consisting of obnoxious social media celebrities lauded for …nothing, really– just as influencers in real life–pitted against each other on some desert island version of Big Brother Battle Royale Hunger Squid Games Or Whatever. Masterminded and orchestrated by some enigmatic avant-garde artiste who paints portraits of famous people right before they die. NONE of these contestants found that suspicious enough to have qualms about being under this guy’s thumb for a whole season’s worth of a tv show? But as obnoxious as the personalities were, I would have liked these characters to be more fully fleshed out, to feel something (even triumph!) when they die. But no, I felt nothing. I will say though, that as silly as I thought the story was, it did absolutely suck me in and keep me feverishly reading to find out who this masked artist was and what the heck was their deal. So I don’t know, I was brilliantly suckered in because maybe I too, am dumb. Or maybe the book was a brilliant commentary on all of this dumbness? At this point, I don’t even know. (via Netgalley)

In Full Immersion, Gemma Amor deftly spins a web fraught with deeply uncomfortable themes. Depression, grief, and trauma are tangled with ideas of memory, potential, possibility, and the vagaries of the human mind, and at the center of this cat’s cradle of weird science, pseudo realities, and the expanding horizons of dreams, is a woman in a medically-induced state of hypnagogia, deeply immersed in an experimental therapy. Will these pioneering explorations into her psyche save her sanity– and her life– or is she the catalyst for something much bigger, and is there much more at stake? I have a lot of admiration for the bold breadth and scope and vision of this story, all of the difficult fears and issues it examined and disturbing themes explored, without once losing sight of the human at the heart of it, the humanity at risk. If Full Immersion is a general indication of what to expect of this author’s works, then I look forward to reading many, many more of their offerings (via Netgalley)

An almost unbearably slow burn of creeping dread and atmosphere dialed up to 20, Darcy Coates’ Gallows Hill keeps its secrets close…until you learn all of those bonkers secrets and they’re getting *too* close, as a matter of fact, now they’re getting in the house and they are after you! Or after Margot, that is! Margot Hull has just inherited the family business, a winery up on Gallows Hill, on land that the townspeople believe is cursed. Her parents, from whom she has been estranged for reasons unknown to her, have recently died mysteriously in their beds, and the undertaker is doing nothing to convince her it was a peaceful passing. Alone in the rambling house that’s falling into ruin, Margot begins seeing strange, awful visions, and hearing noises that panic and terrify her. She comes to learn that the property’s curse–a terrifying bane about which the housekeepers. maintenance people, and workers at the winery are disturbingly nonchalant– is in fact, shockingly real, and that Margot herself may be at the heart of it… and that it will get much, much worse (via Netgalley)

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney is a locked room mystery featuring an estranged, dysfunctional family with lots of secrets, and a really atmospheric location in the form of a crumbling old gothic home that gets cut off from the world when the tide is high. Our main character, Daisy, was born with a bum ticker and may be …an unreliable narrator? It’s Daisy’s beloved Nana’s 80th birthday and the family is gathering together for the first time in years, for the celebration. Everyone is already having a perfectly awful time…and then someone is murdered. It’s a bit much, in an over-the-top Clue murder mystery sort of way, and there is a twist, which you may either love or hate. I thought it was fun!

The Hollows by Daniel Church is proper scary. I found myself during the course of it –quite literally– forgetting to breathe! I have a fondness for mysteries and murder set in small, isolated wintry settings, and anything supernatural is a plus, so I was sure to have a good time with this intensely creepy story of a tiny village, trapped, cut off from the world, and banding together against terrifyingly vicious nocturnal creatures in the middle of a once-every-century strength snowstorm. And of course, there are the human monsters to contend with, in the form of a murderous clan of scumbags living in a farm at the age of town, and the subterranean Boss Monsters, who if, awoken, usher in the end-times. All this from a story that started with a dead guy, mistaken for a hiker who froze to death! This is the case of a story delivering much, much more than I was expecting, and it was indeed, a lot of fun. (via Netgalley)

Some titles with the word “Dark” in it, that I enjoyed but don’t have much to say about are:  Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari: artists, secrets, dark ambitions, trauma, murder, and revenge–very good, I liked this one and  Things We Do In The Dark by Jennifer Hiller: murder, dark pasts, celebrities, podcasts, not super dark- I would recommend if you’re looking for a fluffier mystery

The It Girl  by Ruth Ware: I will always read Ruth Ware, but her stories are consistently mediocre; college secrets coming back to haunt a 30-something, blah blah murder and twists and whatever)

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter(thanks to Elizabeth of Reading Wryly for recommending this one) I had never read any Karin Slaughter before but she is definitely the antidote to the ubiquitously fluffy, mediocre Ruth Ware (sorry Ruth.) Karin Slaughter goes there and goes pretty hard while she’s at it. In Pretty Girls, the Carroll family is ripped apart when oldest sister Julie goes missing and in the ensuing years is never found, either dead or alive. The remaining siblings, Claire and Lydia, have grown apart, live drastically different lives, and are virtual strangers to one another –until Claire’s husband is murdered right in front of her and then in the following days, finds some truly distressing, reprehensible things on his computer. What follows is a gruesome, graphic, twisty, and harrowing story the likes of which I have not read since I was really young, like eleven years old or so–which id immensely, intensely disturbing itself– and picking out paperbacks from the used bookstore solely based on their lurid, provocative covers.

Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough. While I really enjoyed the last title I read from this author (Behind Her Eyes) this one was pretty forgettable. As Emma approaches her 40th birthday, she is quietly freaking out. But not for the typical, over-the-hill reasons. Much like her own mother in the weeks before her 40th, Emma is experiencing increasingly worse (and terrifyingly weird) bouts of insomnia, which in her mother’s case, resulted in the attempted murder of her own child, and a mental breakdown. And it’s possible Emma may share the same fate. I don’t want to say I didn’t enjoy the journey of this story, but the fact that I really had to struggle to recall how it ended is a bit telling, right?

Any Man by Amber Tamblyn. So the actress from Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (which is how I tend to think of her, sorry if that’s reductive Amber T.) is also an author and I do actually own a book of her poetry (Dark Sparkler, which I have never read. Again, sorry Amber.) In Any Man, we learn the stories of a handful of men, their harrowing experiences of sexual assault, and their attempts at picking up the pieces and living through that trauma. What makes this interesting–if that’s the right word to use here– is that this shockingly violent serial rapist is a woman. I don’t think I want to share any more than that.

 

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I still can’t get over the beautiful vision that Alyssa Thorne brought to life with the darkly flamboyant gorgeousness of these promotional photos for The Art of Darkness. I mean…JUST LOOK AT THEM.

I realized that I’d shared them everywhere except for here on the blog, so today I am rectifying that oversight. And once you are done gorging your eyeballs on the profound beauty of these images, I entreat you to have a look at Alyssa’s website, where she has this week released her stunning Autumn Collection!

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These reviews were originally shared at Haute Macabre in 2020 but I realized I never posted them on my own blog!

In celebration of The Art of the Occult: A Visual Sourcebook for the Modern Mystic, the aromatic adepts at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab have summoned forth a rare opulence of fragrances inspired by a handful of these curious images that transcend time and place. 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.

This is indeed a truly magical collection and one that is so incredibly dear to me–many thanks to our BPAL family for creating them, and I hope that you all love these captivating scents as much as I do! Below you will find individual reviews for each scent, as well as ruminations on how these wondrous works hold me spellbound, why my gaze returns to them again and again. May these perfumes, paintings (and pages!) serve as a portal for you, too.

Altarpiece – No 1 – Group X. Hilma af Klint 1907
(A prism of sacred frankincense refracting a golden amber light into a spectrum of daemonorops draco, King mandarin, golden oud, verdant moss, blue tansy, indigo vegetal musk, and wild plum.)

I was privileged to visit the ‘Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future’ exhibit when it was at the Guggenheim in 2019. The scale and scope of some of these visionary works were of such a breathtaking nature that I grew faint and strange; I thought (hoped, even!) I might be experiencing an art attack, a psychosomatic episode, a soupçon of Stendahl Syndrome. What made the afternoon complete was when my boyfriend’s mother wandered into the Mapplethorpe exhibit and was a bit scandalized. not having any familiarity or context before doing so. All kinds of feels on this day!

A brightness as glimpsed through shadow, a keyhole’s view of the sun. Small and still as a single candle’s flame against the immense dark; as vast and total as annihilation’s afterglow. This is a scent that proves to me, more than anything, how much I have to learn about fragrance and perfume, how little I know. I can only speak of this in terms of fractured, fragmented imagery, the slivers and splinters of a dream. “It’s beyond everything,” is a phrase I just read in a (totally unrelated) book, and that’s how I feel about this gorgeously evocative offering: a bright, dry citrus haloed by amber’s translucent sweetness, bound by the spiced warmth of dragon’s blood and fixed in a state of permanent darkness by the heady, heavy imprint of where oud once was.

Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse. 1892
(Salt-spray dotting an azure cove, its waters swirling with noxious poisons and venom drawn from dreadful roots: a cascade of blackcurrant and crystalline blue-green waters infused with theriac accord, bruised henbane accord, white gardenia, pear, cedarwood, emerald mosses, tuberose, and bitter almond.)

The colors in this painting are so lush and beautiful that they defy description. I have always thought that tipping dish of poison, the shade of crushed emeralds and mantis wings, must be the precise color of our heart’s blood when we are in the venomous throes of enraged, envious desire.

Circe Indiviosa captures the scent of exercising one’s powers…one’s divinity…in murky and dangerous and exhilarating ways. It’s such a gorgeous fragrance, mossy and musky with a subtly bitter treacle, and vaguely electric in the way that euphoria resulting from ill-advised behavior makes you feel. Sort of like WHEEEEEEEEE OH SHIT WHOOPS.

The Choirs of Angels, Hildegard von Bingen 1151-1152
(A radiant blend of three frankincense oils, white bergamot, crystallized cistus, lavender, angelica root, and fiery neroli)

I always thought these holy mandalas looked a little bit like saintly Spirographs. Also: can you imagine peeking into the inner sanctum of a superfluity of mysterious nuns and discovering them lounging around, playing with Spirographs and Fashion Plates and LightBrite toys?

This is a lullaby. But not one of those dark Icelandic cradle songs about sleeping black-eyed pigs falling into deep pits of ghosts or the children of the ogress growling in rocky caves. This gentle scent is a blessing, not a warning; a dozy, tranquil cocoon of soft mallow, honied ambrette, and kindly, calming musk, ensconced in a delicate, opalescent radiance, like the promise of the not-too-distant dawn.

The Wish, Theodor Von Holst, 1840
(An incense of candied smoked fruits, Oman frankincense, red oud, labdanum absolute, sheer vanilla, patchouli, red musk seed, osmanthus, and datura)

I’ve always wanted to know what wishes are longed for in the dark-eyed gaze of this intense young woman. Myself, I simply wish to rifle through the box of baubles and jewels in the bottom right of the canvas. Maybe help myself to that pearl-tipped hat-pin.

Rich and decadent but wonderfully absent of drama, like late-night Nigella Lawson b-roll. Watching the dying embers of the midnight hearth from the luxurious comfort of a generations-old leather chair, while shamelessly munching on leftover desserts after the rest of the house has gone to bed. Canelés, deeply caramelized, redolent of vanilla and an herbal liqueur that someone swapped the rum out for because they thought they were being clever…and strangely, it works, it really does.

The Witch/Strega, Angelo Caroselli, 17th Century
(Leatherbound tomes and rose cream, flickering flames of twin ambers, and a cascade of shadows: black oud, teakwood, black beeswax, 13-year aged patchouli, cinnabar, balsam, sweet labdanum, tonka bean, and smoke.)

Look at this witch’s face! You know she’s going to be a cutting-clever one, uttering snarky-sneaky observations that make you both gasp and splutter with repressed laughter about mutuals you can’t stand. I want to be her Facebook friend. She’d be a scream in a Netflix watch party.

Somewhere between angelic and infernal is a mercurial earthiness that tips the scales, either way, depending on where you’re standing. And then: venomous vermillion kisses, a canopic jar of scorpion dust, and the scent of rock reacting to the draw of the moon. That’s just in the first sniff. Later, there are phantom beehives teeming with smoke and shadows and an unforeseen katabasis with a delicious consequence: there’s something decidedly Smutty happening with this scent, but almost as if you are translating the notes of the First Smut from ancient etchings in interconnecting caves far under the earth’s surface, each carved by water seeping through the rock over thousands upon thousands of years. That’s it, then. This witch has journeyed to the underworld and, having discovered the centuries-old grocery list for the Ur-Smut ingredients, delights gleefully in her findings in this vision before us.

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A Midsummer TBR stack! Comfy reading outfits! Snacks for your inner child! Perfumes & incense! Hotdog sock earworms! It’s all here friends, today over on my YouTube channel.

Books mentioned in this video:

The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller
How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency by Akiko Busch
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
A Wilder Life: A Season-by-Season Guide to Getting in Touch with Nature by Celestine Maddy & Abbye Churchill
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurlie
Love Notes From The Hollow Tree by Jarod K. Anderson

Favorite things in this video:

Universal Standard Lavender Cardigan
Warwick Castle tee
Athleta Black linen pants
✹ Hotdog socks (try Hmart, that’s where I got mine)
Alexis Berger earrings 
Roses & Rue Antiques
Oriza Legrand perfume
Lvnea perfume
Hexennacht incense

Purple paint shade in office: “Velvet Evening

 

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There are nearly 20 books in my reviews below, but I’m afraid that I have a physical copy of only one of them. So our Stacked feature photo is not exactly a “stack” but it’s a very good book, so we’ll just have to be okay with it!

An Arrow to the Moon by Emily XR Pan. I do so love a re-imagining of age-old mythologies and I especially love magic woven throughout a contemporary, real-world story, so for these reasons alone, I was already poised to love this story of star-cross lovers Luna Chang and Hunter Yee, born on the same day and bestowed with inexplicably mystical gifts. Along with the silvery, expressive gorgeousness of Emily XR Pan’s writing and the beautifully bittersweet story arc of secrets and struggles and moon-struck mysteries, I adored Luna and Hunter’s journey together even more than I thought possible.

I can’t count the times my jaw dropped when reading Catriona Ward’s Sundial, a seemingly domestic drama of a novel comprised of secrets between mothers and daughters, the fierce and fearsome bonds of sisterhood, and the visceral, chilling effects of generational trauma.

Rob, a suburban housewife just trying to live a normal life despite her toxic relationship with her odious husband, senses with growing horror a chilling and evolving darkness and in her eldest daughter, Callie. Desperate for a solution for her child with whom she struggles to connect and doesn’t actually even like very much, Rob journeys with Callie to her childhood home, Sundial, in the middle of the Mojave desert. Shocking secrets are revealed gradually, nothing here is as it seems or as you expect, and once you think you’ve got the story straight, your expectations are subverted and turned upside down and inside out. This is an intensely brilliant, brutal, breathless tale that kept me guessing right up until the end.

A powerful and propulsive historical horror novel following a mysterious outbreak in a Japanese American internment camp during the fraught nationalist days of World War II, The Fervor explores a supernatural threat inspired by the Japanese yokai and the jorogumo spider demon. Meiko Briggs and her daughter, Aiko, were taken from their home in Seattle and forcibly relocated and incarcerated in an internment camp in Ohio while they await the return of husband and father Jamie, an airforce pilot stationed in the Pacific. A strange contagion spreads among those in the isolated camp, with minor illnesses evolving into episodes of aggression, violence, and death. After a sinister team of doctors arrives, Meiko and her daughter unite with a gutsy newspaper reporter and grieving missionary widower to investigate. Alma Katsu’s stories are always fiercely fascinating affairs and this does not disappoint.

It Will Be Just Us by Jo Kaplan. I haven’t been so simultaneously immersed in and wonderfully creeped out by a book in a long time. In brooding, labyrinthine  Wakefield Manor, phantom images of the houses’ past events and inhabitants perpetually loop through the rooms and corridors. But history can’t hurt you, no matter how dreadful, right? Sam, who lives there with her mother and sister, begins to glimpse what she believes is a faceless spectre from the present, a vicious entity bent on brutality– one who is able to move through time. Though its identity and motives are unclear, its intent is horrifically, and murderously apparent. This family thought themselves safe from the past, but can they protect themselves from madness and violence from the future?

Motherthing by Ainsley Hogarth. WOW. I am putting this book at the top of the list of the best things I have ever read. It’s sad and funny and disturbing and weird as hell. I love authors who can capture and articulate the disjointed strangeness and disconcerting intimacies of our inner monologues, those thoughts we’d never say aloud, and yet we recognize so much of ourselves in them when we get to listen in on someone else’s interior conversations. Hogarth also does a tremendous job of navigating and revealing the aching weirdness of relationships–both in the heartburstingly good and fun ways and the heartrendingly tragic and traumatizing ways. Dead moms and complicated mothers are a huge theme in this book, so if that’s a triggering topic, be wary. What is a mother’s love? Who deserves it and who does not? What happens when we’re deprived of it and in striving to be everything our mother was not, are we not also becoming that shadow, as well? In this story, Abby has found her true-love soulmate in Ralph and hopes to create a family with him, giving their child everything positive and good as a parent that neither she nor Ralph experienced as children. In the wake of Ralph’s cruel and emotionally controlling mother’s suicide, Ralph is succumbing to a deep depression and is also insisting that he is seeing his mother’s ghost. More troubling still, Abby is beginning to sense a presence as well. Feeling her dreams threatened and her fragile sense of self crumbling, Abby becomes …quite desperate. Motherthing is released in September, but I acquired an advance copy through Netgalley.

The House in the Pines by Ana Reyes. In The House in the Pines, we are following Maya, a young woman who is going through klonopin withdrawals and dealing with her insomnia by applying a liberal amount of alcohol. Still grieving the shocking loss of her best friend Aubrey who died–suddenly and in strange circumstances– seven years prior, Maya sees a YouTube video recording a recent death that occurred in a diner. A death that seems terribly familar to her friend’s. Sitting across from the dead woman just happens to be the man that was also with Maya’s and Aubrey on that tragic day seven years prior. Frank–the man that Maya had begun dating and found herself falling for. And who, despite having no proof, she suspected was responsible for Aubrey’s death. Frank, of whom though her memories of their time together are strangely hazy, she vividly and violently dreams of every night. At times both swiftly-paced as well as a bit of a slow-burn, The House in the Pines was a compelling and thought-provoking read, engaging the reader in explorations of loss and regret, of memory and madness, and how the past can sometimes offer deceptive and dangerous refuge. I think I see the weird, uncommon stuff embedded in a story long before I see more basic motives and logistics, so I didn’t find this twist especially twisty but appreciate its inclusion and it provided an interesting angle. This title will be published next January; I acquired a copy through Netgalley.

Billy Summers by Stephen King. I read this book about an assassin with a heart of gold who pretends to be dumber than he really is so that people will underestimate him should the shit hit the fan one day (which it does) but I don’t want to talk about it. The more I read Stephen King as an adult the more I question my deep and abiding love for him, which bloomed when I was a much younger person. I find this all deeply depressing to contemplate.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. In the late 1950s,  the small Swedish mining town of Silvertjarn saw its entire population of about 900 disappear overnight. In the present day, Alice, a budding documentary filmmaker, travels with her crew to the abandoned town to begin gathering research and footage for her project on the town’s fate and what actually happened there. As the group begins exploring, strange and sinister things start to happen, threatening the project and endangering the crew. As things fall apart for Alice and her group of friends, the pieces of this mysterious and frightening puzzle start to come together.  I think if you watched the supremely unsettling horror film Yellow Brick Road, you will probably appreciate The Lost Village.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. A deeply troubling but extremely readable story about a 15-year-old private school student’s relationship with her 42-year-old teacher. I’m a little bit grossed out (at myself) by how quickly I tore through this book, but there you go.

The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson. I read this while I was traveling and anxious, so I barely remember it, but I do recall that it was a quick read with characters I was really rooting for, and where some really gross stuff happened.  A kind of weirdness and horror overtakes a small Oregon town as a government experiment fails and its manmade nightmares escape containment. Conspiracy theories and science gone wrong and hormonal high school friendships and surprisingly disgusting body horror, wheee!

Dead Silence by SA Barnes. I don’t typically read a lot of sci-fi space horror and this claustrophobic Event Horizon-esque novel has me questioning why. As we enter the story, Claire and her crew of workers are wrapping up a maintenance project in deep space when they unexpectedly pick up a distress signal from the Aurora… a luxury liner that disappeared under mysterious circumstances twenty years prior.  Even dumb babies know that answering distress calls from ghost ships in the dead of space is never a good time, but Claire, the sole survivor of a tragic event from her past, is no stranger to ghostly visitations and wants to check it out.. Madness, infection, corporate politics, and pandemic themes abound in this tale of dread and despair, and there’s even a bit of romance (I could have done without even a hint of romance, tbh.) So I guess need more horror in space on my shelves?

The House Across The Lake by Riley Sager. Actress Casey Fletcher is having a rough time of it. Grieving her husband’s accidental drowning at their beloved lake house, she’s coping by applying a liberal amount of alcohol to the wound. Her drinking and depression spiraling out of control, Casey’s subsequent behavior instigates a fairly incendiary streak of bad press, and at her stage-actress mother’s behest, she retreats from the public eye to the relative quiet of her family’s lakeside home. There she meets one of her new neighbors, Katherine, when she saves her from drowning and a fast friendship begins to form– but is swiftly cut short when Katherine soon after that goes missing. Casey, whose rest & retreat habits include drinking from sunup to sundown as well as spying on her neighbors in their glass house across the water with her late husband’s high-powered binoculars (you can see craters on the moon with them, he marvels) observes some strange happenings over there and is growing suspicious that Katherine’s intensely controlling husband has done her in. Riley Sager has introduced a supernatural facet to his typical woman-in-peril psychological thriller and through the book’s twists and turns it becomes apparent that whatever you think you know, you probably don’t. Or even if you do know it…you still don’t! Ultimately, I’m not sure that this is one of the author’s strongest offerings, as the believability factor is a bit iffy, though I think if he’d perhaps built up more story and local lore around the weird bits, he might have pulled it off. Still, it was pretty binge-able –I read it in a day!–and a solid spooky summer read. This title will be published in June; I acquired a copy through Netgalley.

And boy howdy have I read a lot of women-in-peril (and adjacent) books lately. I’ve found that, at least at this stage in life, they’re the best things for me to read when I want to just turn my brain off and let it snack on junk food. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware was probably my favorite among her books thus far. Sort of had an olde-timey golden age mystery gothic feel to it, with mysterious letters and mistaken identities and fortune-tellers and weird family dynamics  A Slow Fire Burning by Paul Hawkins, well, take heed of the title. It’s a slow burn. There is a death and three different women connected to the victim. I heard someone say about this book on YouTube, “I just can’t get into books with old people as the main characters,” so I read this out of spite. It was okay. The Guest List and The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, were both fun stories that I read over the course of an afternoon or two. In The Guest List, a luxurious destination wedding goes sour on a creepy island where everyone is keeping secrets, and The Paris Apartment follows the down on her luck Jess as she goes to stay with her half brother in a posh Parisian apartment, and discovers not long after she arrives that he has gone missing. In her investigations to find out what has happened to him, she discovers the building’s dysfunctional occupants are the least of her worries.  Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty were probably my favorites from among this stack of mysteries and thrillers. These are the first books I have read by Liane Moriarty, and man, her writing is so goofy and charming. I love that. Both feature vulnerable people going through their own stuff in the scheme of the larger story, but often the individual characters’ stories interlink in interesting ways as well. Both of these books have been turned into television series, so I won’t bother getting into the plot, but if you want something a bit more light-hearted than a Ruth Ware or Paula Hawkins, but still kinda murdery, Liane Moriarty books are adorable.

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