Whether you tumbled down a rabbit hole, traveled via a traumatic tornado or magic train ride, or perhaps even found yourself caught up in the machinations of an artist’s daydream of strange terrains, opulent palaces, and enchanted forests– the very idea of wonderlands where adventure dwells sends the imagination soaring and sets the scene for unforgettably dramatic visuals.
Artists construct worlds and invite us to enter. A painterly brushstroke is a door left ajar, a peek behind the rustle of a curtain or in the mirror’s depths, through which we catch a glimpse of another world. In that spirit, here are some unbelievable views from the lush, imaginative neverworlds found in my forthcoming book, The Art of Fantasy (to be released into this realm in less than a month’s time on September 12, 2023!)
This interview originally appeared on the Haute Macabre blog on May 25, 2017. It references some things that were happening in the artist’s life at that time, and looking back, I wish I’d been a bit more sensitive in my phrasing—many apologies to Tyler, who graciously and generously fielded my boorish questions with enthusiasm and aplomb. I think back upon his responses and am inspired anew, over and over again.
Since this interview, Tyler has become a very cool plant guru on Instagram AND has begun a project called Moonbeam Flora, creating gorgeous glow-in-the-dark bouquets out of invasive plants for meditative relaxation.
When I was in the sixth grade and it was the dreaded Science Fair projects time of the year (did everyone hate this as much as I did? Or was I just a really awful student?) my grandfather hit upon the grand idea that we were going to grow crystals in both salt solutions and sugar solutions and see which one was more successful. If I recall, the sugar solution yielded a better crop: small, but beautiful, delicate crystalline structures climbing upwards along a damp string tied to a wooden Popsicle stick, which hung across the top of a garage sale-scavenged glass mason jar. Absurdly proud of the results, I brought the project to school a few days before it was actually due, and was horrified as our classroom’s most popular girl, Mary Lisa Howell, entirely unprompted by me, reached into the jar of sugar crystals, snapped off a particularly lovely specimen, and started munching on it. I quite clearly remember her guileless face, looking at me as if she thought she was doing me a favor. Ugh! I locked myself in a bathroom stall, sobbed for twenty minutes straight, and vowed I was done with science forever.
Crystals, however, I shall forever be obsessed with. And when I discovered Tyler Thrasher’s exquisite creations in late 2014, my obsession reached a fever pitch. Tyler collects lifeless creatures and found objects and bestows upon them new life by growing shimmering crystal clusters on them. And I don’t know if his crystals have ever been eaten by an overzealous fan, but if he was able to bounce back, better than ever, after a devastating house fire – then he’s sure not going to let an eleven year-old bully with a sweet tooth get in his way.
As it turns out, Tyler Thrasher is a handful of things, including artist, scientist, music producer, traveler, rare plant collector, photographer (and even just a handful, period), and I was delighted that this goofball alchemist agreed to chat with me. Read on for our interview about life after the fire, creation in dark times, and the importance of curiosity, experimentation, and living your own goddamn story.
S. Elizabeth: First, I wanted to check in and see how you’ve been doing after the terrible fire that destroyed your home and belongings last December? I am a fervent checker of your instagram, and it seemed you didn’t stop creating, not even for a second. What propelled you forward during what must have been a pretty dark time for you? I realize that it must have been a nightmare, and I hope this isn’t a callow question, but I’m wondering if, through that heartache and loss, you drew inspiration for current or future work?
Tyler Thrasher: The first thing that helped during and directly after the fire would probably be my dark sense of humor. I’m no stranger to dark and pretty fucked up situations, and that sense of humor is what seems to keep me together sometimes and has in the past. After the fire I didn’t even consider a break from my work or from creating, it seemed to have the opposite effect, and looking back in my life that urge to create was birthed during one of the most traumatic moments in my life. I found myself as a kid creating and making art as a means to cope, and that urge seems to have persisted over the last 15 years. I did lose all of my work. All of the music I was working on, photos I had taken, and some of my favorite drawings and paintings.
I was/ am currently working on my first ever artbook, “The Wisdom of the Furnace”. One thing that propelled me forward was the title of the book. Before the fire, I had shot hundreds of images for my book of work that I will never see again, and oddly enough, before the fire, the book was titled “The Wisdom of the Furnace”. The next morning while I was sitting in my in-laws home, I was thinking about the book and everything I had lost for it, and the title sang. It was the same title it had always been, but it had realized itself and proclaimed its new purpose. The fire gave the title of my book some prestige and some well-earned prestige at that. The new and realized title of the book is what propelled me forward.
I know the “The Wisdom of the Furnace” is a hefty and mystical-sounding title, but if I could just defog its meaning a little bit, it might help some to understand why I was propelled forward. I chose the title in early 2016. I was thinking about old alchemical works and some of the advancements and progress that ancient study led us to. During my research I found lots of illustrations, code, and text that would reference or highlight the importance of fire and its vitality. The flame and the furnace were so essential for the alchemist’s Magnum Opus and the art of transmutation.
So much of what we know today regarding modern and practical chemistry came from the furnace. So much of what we know today regarding physics and modern science, in a sense, took place in the furnace. At first, the title of my book had a pretty straightforward meaning. But after the fire, I realized it was not just the furnace that gave us so much insight, but it was also the alchemist who boldly reached into it. The fire wasn’t going to give me answers; it wasn’t going to be an end result for the book or my work. The fire was just a catalyst, as most flames in the laboratory are. I realized that this book hadn’t even begun. Everything I shot beforehand was empty and vapid before the fire. It would take an effort from me beyond pointing a camera and shooting, but to get up and realize this catalyst and respect the potency of nature and the furnace.
I realized that despite losing everything for the book in the fire, the book would still be the thing I pulled out of the soot and the remains. And in essence, that sense of transformation is the vital core of alchemy.
Shit like this happens to me all of the time. I don’t think I believe in destiny, but every now and then, the universe gives me a little wink and a nudge.
So many folks describe your creations as “macabre”; I’m curious though, as to if you feel that’s an accurate representation of the work that you do?
I think macabre is a fair and accurate description. When I first started exploring this theme and medium, a lot of my friends and family thought it was a little disgusting. I mean I went from drawing landscapes to submerging dead insects into chemicals. I get it. I think parts of my work are rightfully macabre. My favorite thing EVER is when people ask what I do. When I describe what I do to others, yes its macabre. Description alone, I sound like a fucked-up mad scientist.
My other favorite thing EVER, is when I show them pictures, because they usually look very confused. And the response is usually the same, “OH! I had no idea what to expect! That’s so *Insert compliment here*”. And, of course, that always feels good! I think visually, it’s not so macabre. It is a celebration of life and an homage to what nature can do with one’s remains after life. In a way, it addresses a sense of purpose after consciousness, a purpose on earth and under the laws of nature. And I love that. It’s spiritual without being too much so, and it gives nature the respect it deserves. So much of what I do is a collaboration with nature.
The overwhelming theme of your work, even as it evolves, is “ curiosity and experimentation”–and that seems to be a code you wholeheartedly live by. I’m remarking on this having just seen some photos you posted on your instagram, a gorgeous series of nudes; your tender, graceful 2d illustrations, and after having listened in on your SoundCloud channel over the past week, it seems you are something of a musician, too! Not to mention those “Raise Some Heck” tee shirts you created! (Currently sold out, but I nabbed one!) Can you share with a bit about these different passions of yours, and what keeps you focused on the true essence of your work , whatever you might consider that to be?
To put it shortly, I get bored easily. HAHAHA. I always have. I don’t know why, but as a kid, boredom was literal hell for me. Mental anguish. Maybe I’m just mentally deficient, but I couldn’t and still can’t handle boredom. I’m also fiercely protective of what I like and what I enjoy doing, as I think most people should be. I think curiosity and experimentation are just vital for being human. We can’t run away from it, and I think whether or not you conform to that, we all, in some way are controlled by these urges.
The first thing I ever did was draw. It’s funny now because everyone knows my work by the crystallized pieces, and whenever I post an illustration, people are like “Wait you can draw?!” I don’t blame them! That’s a downside of social media, people see whatever they see first, and that’s their impression. I’ve been posting more of my 2D work lately because I want it to get some light and recognition. I enjoy doing them, and at some point, I would love it if those illustrations made me some money too!
Music has always been a passion of mine as well. I LOVE LOVE LOVE electronic music, specifically progressive house and trance music. I don’t know why, but I am compelled to believe they are the two most inspiring and motivating genres both mathematically and emotionally. I listen to these genres when I work out, drive, longboard. Anything that requires any type of movement towards an end goal. The repetitive elements and rhythms are just enough to shut my brain off and pull me into a zone of “get shit done”. The music I make is somewhere in this area with a little bit more “funk” every now and then. I’m still learning A LOT but I freaking love making music.
I think the fact that I make sure I do so many different things and keep my mind and spirit happy by trying new things is the “true heart of my work”. There’s so much out there, so much humans have created and discovered and explored and I would be a pretty lousy human if I didn’t give my brain the drug it needs and explore and discover more than just what’s immediately in front of me. (This is just the definition for a human for myself.) I have always lived by the code of “curiosity and experimentation,” and I hope this persists til I die because it’s been very good for me so far.
I saw you quoted in the Daily Dot from an article in 2016 where you stated that, “I don’t want to be working on anyone else’s story or art”. This is such a powerful declaration, and I’d love to hear more.
Well, who would?! I don’t mind helping others with their story or popping in as a side character that dies off in the next chapter, but there’s not enough time to help someone else live their story and try to pop back in for my own. I won’t and cannot be a sidekick in the story of “Tyler Thrasher,” and it breaks my heart when I see someone being a sidekick in their own story. This doesn’t mean you should live selfishly and have a complete disregard for others. It’s the opposite. I don’t think all good stories could exist without others. We need other people, creatures, and entities to help us along, and we need to help others along. Just make sure you aren’t living someone else’s story and neglecting your own. That sounds a little preachy. hahaha.
Another thing I meant by this is in regard to my degree. I got my degree in Computer Animation at Missouri State University. I was wildly convinced that I wanted to be an animator and make stories. That was until my school made the tragic mistake of bringing in an animator to talk about his career and life. And it was miserable. Possibly the saddest artist I had ever listened to. We were told that animators often work 60+ hours a week on average and on projects that meant absolutely nothing to them. This particular animator mentioned how he spent most of his conscious week working on Dora the Explorer and Zhu Zhu pets and I could’ve wept for him. I asked him if he had time for his own work and with a very tired sigh, he said “no.” I knew immediately that this was a bullshit scam and I wasn’t having any of it. I declared that day that I would be a freelance self-employed artist who would not work on anyone else’s story. I would work my ass off if I had to in order to make sure that part of my work remained pure and untouched by Dora and her evil companions.
I told my professors my goal, and they gave me a very nervous look. We had an assignment to come up with a four-year plan outside of school, who we wanted to work with and for, and what we wanted to be doing. I didn’t even turn in the paper. I just said, “I want to work for myself.” I, of course, failed that assignment, but I was honest and true to myself. I didn’t and don’t want to live selfishly. I want to inspire and help those around me, and I want to be inspired by those around me. I just don’t think the world needs more people working on Dora the Explorer. We’ve given her too much of our time, and I guarantee you no kids are waiting around for the newest story-breaking episode. They’re not even played linearly. The kids will be ok with the same 200 episodes we’ve made already, haha. I have a deep respect for the animations and projects individuals all agree to work on together and with passion. I have very little affinity or respect towards the studio or warehouse that pumps out the same empty project just to keep the artists busy, children distracted, and parents spending money.
When visiting a natural history museum, do you make a beeline for the glittering treasures of the gem and mineral rooms? Is Splendor your favorite board game because you love hoarding the jewels like a greedy dragon, and truly you don’t give a fart about the mechanics and strategies of gem mines, trade routes, or gaining wealthy patrons? Is that too niche a reference? Are you still with me?
Have you ever gazed into a stone and wondered as to the stories it stores? The powers it possesses? In her fascinating book, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones, Hettie Judah explores the hidden history of these lithic marvels, from their role in ancient cultures to their modern-day influences and uses.
An absolute feast for the senses, the book itself feels very much like a collector’s treasure hoarded wunderkammer of mythic and mysterious curiosities. It is split into six sections (Stones and Power, Sacred Stones, Stones and Stories, Stone Technology, Shapes in Stone, and Living Stones), and each section reveals a chapter devoted to unearthing an individual stone with imaginative, artful descriptions and a pretty wild, or wildly fascinating story connected to each stone.
It’s a stunningly presented and designed book, with color-coordinated pictures and beautiful illustrations by artist Nicky Pasterfield for each stone, evoking the charming pictures in old geological and scientific publications.
Referencing science, history, chemistry, physics, literature, philosophy, and pop culture, Lapidarium is an extravagantly storied chamber of stones, the next best thing to having a secret sparkling cache of curios at your fingertips. Writing with humor, compassion, and wit (I cackled out loud more times than I can count), Hettie leads us sure-footedly on our craggy journey down a glittering path of 60 mineralogical eccentricities, ancient souvenirs of deep-Earth drama, and travelogues that cross the strata of time as well as space.
Amongst these essays exploring how human culture has formed stone and, conversely, the roles stone has played in forming human culture, one will read of the Meat-Shaped Stone of Taiwan, a piece of banded jasper that resembles a tender piece of mouth-watering braised pork belly, There is the soap opera melodrama of Pele’s Hair, golden strands of volcanic glass, spun into hair-fine threads by volcanic gasses and blown across the landscape. And not to mention the hysterical metaphysical WTFery of angel-appointed wife swaps in the chapter of alchemist and astrologer John Dee’s smoky quartz cairngorm, as well as, the mystical modern-day TikTik moldavite craze vibing amongst those of the witchy-psychic persuasion. I cannot even tell you how many times I paused in my reading to open a new Google tab and research, thinking, “holy fake crystal skulls/malachite caskets/pyroclastic flow rap lyrics! I gotta learn more about this!”
From the elegance of emerald moons to humble fossilized feces, from violent lunar origin stories to simple earthen pigments, Lapidarium is richly abundant with interesting facts, poignant stories, and weird anecdotes about stones. And though I read this book straight through from start to finish, this is absolutely the sort of bibliomantic tome that one might flip through at random, choosing a chapter based on mood or whim: learn a weird rock fact, let it lodge in your brain like a wayward pebble in your shoe, and allow it to guide your energies for the day.
After finishing Lapidarium, I realized I could have happily spent loads more time in the terrestrial spectacle of those enigmatic realms, but once you get to the acknowledgments, that’s pretty much the end of the line (I read them all, anyway!) Not yet ready to leave this post-book mental space now lit crystalline and glittering with the fruits of the earth thanks to Hettie’s heady prose, I thought I might ask the author and art historian a few questions–which she kindly answered for me, below.
Unquiet Things: I’m curious whether you started this book with a favorite gem or stone in mind, but after your research and writing, you perhaps had some markedly different favorites.
Hettie Judah:I guess when I started, I was thinking more in terms of stone objects and artefacts – I’d probably have told you my favourite stone was a black opal from Lightning Ridge in Australia. In working on the book I became more interested in the way stone forms not only landscape, but the cultural expression that has played out within that landscape – whether that’s the standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge, most of which are huge sarsens that used to lie around that landscape like flocks of sheep, or the marble of Paros and Naxos that established a specific aesthetic for temple building in Ancient Greece. When people ask me my favourite stone I usually tell them it’s the limestone under the Yorkshire Dales, a beloved piece of the British landscape – beauty of a different order to that of a ruby or moonstone.
Unquiet Things: In the vein of your research, what was one of the most surprising or strangest things you learned while digging into mineralogical science, history, legend, and lore?
Hettie Judah: The quest for the mythic philosopher’s stone crops up in a few different stories in the book. Alchemists got up to some pungent activities – Paracelsus suggested you could grow a human being by ‘placing’ semen in a flask, then burying the flask in a pile of warm horse manure and, after a set period, feeding it with a specially treated form of blood. The alchemical language of proto-chemistry was very much one of sexual intercourse – the male element reacting with the female element to produce a new substance – some of the language we use today still derives from these ideas. We talk about finding a crystal in a rock ‘matrix’ – as though the plain old ‘mother rock’ had given birth to a gemstone.
I love the legend of the Indian Valley of the Diamonds, said to be an inaccessible crevasse, the floor of which glittered with gemstones. Diamonds are lipophilic – they stick to fat. So the legend went that gem hunters would lob pieces of fatty raw lamb into the valley, and eagles would swoop down to pick them up and fly back up to their nests with gems embedded in the fat. The eagles would eat the meat, leaving the diamonds, which the gem hunters later retrieved. The legend was so well established that the symbol for India on European maps used to be the eagles carrying diamonds up from the valley.
Unquiet Things: There were many times I found myself giggling at a playful turn of phrase or peculiar fact while reading; there’s nothing I appreciate so much as learning and laughing at the same time. Looking back, is there a particularly weird or wacky excerpt, sentence, or even an entire paragraph that you find yourself thinking, “Well, I never imagined that was a thing I’d write about rocks!”
Hettie Judah: The early 19th-century geologist and theologian William Buckland was a magnificent source of wild stories – he was zoophagous, and apparently attempted to eat his way through the animal kingdom (and once authoritatively identified bat dung by taste). He was also fascinated by coprolites – petrified poo – and commissioned a decorative pietra dura tabletop to be made from his collection of fossilised fish turds.
I was determined to get kryptonite into the book – how can you have a collection of stories about stones without one on kryptonite? My editor was adamant that I couldn’t include it because it wasn’t ‘real’. So finding a great story about moldavite – basically ‘real’ kryptonite – was such a gift. I really enjoyed writing that one.
Overall, in every facet, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones is a brilliant must-have for anyone who has ever been fascinated by stones, either as a child or as an adult today. And as it happens…I have an extra copy of Lapidarium and am happy to share it with one reader of this blog post.
Not that I believe you need any convincing at this point, but …
💎 If you love stones, then this book is a treasure trove of information about all sorts of stones, from their scientific properties to their cultural significance.
💎 If you’re interested in history, then you’ll love learning about the role that stones have played in human cultures throughout the ages.
💎If you’re looking for a book that will transport you to far-off lands, Hettie’s stories will take you to the mountains of Appalachia, the beaches of South Wales, the caves of Mexico, Russian palaces, and Brazilian churches–and everywhere between and beyond.
💎 If you’re longing for writing that will make you think, you will enjoy pondering the author’s explorations of the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of stones, and our relationship to the natural world.
If you would like to win this copy of Lapidarium, please leave a comment in today’s blog post with your favorite stone or “rock fact,” and I will choose one winner from amongst those comments on Friday, August 18th. Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is limited to US readers only.
[THE GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED AND THE WINNERS–DARLA AND HAYLEY– HAVE BEEN CONTACTED. THANK YOU EVERYONE FOR READING AND SHARING.]
Here are some more peeks for you at various image spreads tucked into the pages of The Art of Fantasy. I can’t tell you how much fun I had curating this collection coaxed forth from myth, magic, fantasy, and art history. Maybe I had a little too much fun because one reviewer said they did not appreciate my attempts at humor. Ah, well. Sillies are gonna silly. I can’t help it!
Were they referring to my caption for Witold Pruszkowski’s Dragon?
“The hazy, dying embers of a setting sun sets up the moody backdrop and contributes to an uncanny sense of romanticism in 19th-century Polish painter Witold Pruszkowski’s (1846-1896) golden hour portrayal of this fearsome beast. Is this dreadful dragon violently twisting toward an armor-clad foe in advance of an incendiary last stand, one which will either end with a barbecued knight or beast with a sword in its heart? Or is this merely a benevolent beast discharging a fiery belch, goggle-eyed with embarrassment? Whether we’re quivering with terror or with barely-repressed giggles and Fremdschämen, the artist’s fondness for fantasy and fairytale archetypes, combined with a keen eye for weird detail and mystical atmosphere, paints a curiously evocative picture of this mythical monster.”
(The monster was burping, okay? I said what I said!)
I read somewhere that “reviews are not for authors; they are for other readers,” and I kinda like that attitude. I try not to read reviews for my books–I am anxious enough as it is, and I don’t need another source of dread. Although when the first few start showing up, it’s hard to resist! But I got it out of my system for this go-round, and now I am done.
Anyway! Although today is certainly not the last day you can preorder The Art of Fantasy, it *is* your last opportunity to nab some artsy preorder goodies! Find the link to do so in my bio, and in the meantime, feast your eyes upon these wonderments by the following artists.
Hermès Un Jardin à Cythère is a fragrance I’d originally seen mentioned by LC of nearlynoseblind on TikTok, and all I really recalled was that it had notes of pistachio but that it smelled of olive oil cake. I have baked dozens of olive oil cakes by this point in my life, and so upon smelling the perfume was immediately able to make that connection…which was both exciting and a little irksome because did it actually smell like that, or did I just have it in my head that it smelled like that, because I’d already internalized that tidbit? And also, I couldn’t very well review it as such, because someone else had already used the same words [EDIT: I published this post without realizing I never finished this review. I am suffering from a bit of grief brain, and I don’t remember my thoughts, but if you want to watch my TikTok review, I did actually have a few ideas earlier in the month. TLDR; it smells like Icelandic Jólakaka.]
Mistpouffer from Stora Skuggan smells of cool, sweet, powdery porcelain, dainty and delicate like a small ivory sculpted ballerina on a shelf, but there’s a weirdly mineralic, off-kilter herbal note as well, wrapped up in a bit of foggy fluff, almost like a little gossamer candy-floss salted black licorice bouquet. Ultimately it reminds me of the ceramic Broken Ladies of artist Jessica Harrison–charmingly feminine figurines, bloodied with intricate anatomical horrors–perhaps a bit too much for sensitive types, but those of you who dig macabre delights will love these twisted ceramic beauties. And I think that’s what Mistpouffer is, too: a soft, subtly twisted beauty.
Even though I have always wished it were otherwise, I have never sniffed a precious jewel, glimmering gem, or polished stone that smelled of anything in particular–even though the dazzling drama in those crystalline depths seem to promise, at least to me, that these geological treasures should somehow be radiating the most marvelous perfumes. Alas! Nope! It is sadly a wish I’ve long let go. Sphinx Skin, however, rekindles this daydream in the most fantastical and feverish ways, because I’m absolutely certain that if a moody, golden topaz had a scent? It would be the smoky umbral honey, spectral shed snakeskin musk of Sphinx Skin, a collaboration between bloodmilk and Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab: heady, tobacco-infused amber with subtly shifting floral vanilla facets, a rich, sticky, resinous vein of dragon’s blood, and the faint, slithering earthiness of patchouli, dark, damp, rooty, and grounding. Formed from crystals in cooling magma (or so I understand), if we are being real here, topaz probably smells of the fumes and vapors wafting amongst the igneous cavities in which it grows, but here, in the surreal secrecy of our intimate cocoon, where the writer and reader connect via a shared dream and can believe as we please – let’s choose to believe in exquisite lapidary aroma magic, and that a glowing sphere of topaz smells like a small bottle of Sphinx Skin.
Green Spell from Eris Parfums is as if a celestial being of 100% chlorophyll descended from the heavens, its wings a crushing flutter of many leaves, broad and flat, delicate and curled, waxen, rubbery, pliant, radiating every variation of veridian. In a voice like seeping moss, like eroding rock, like insect wings disintegrating into the earth, it whispers to you, “Like, be not afraid, or whatever.” It’s the endless trailing succulent stem of a bittersweet pennywort patch through the soil until you reach a darkly massive gnashing malachite rootball nightmare. You awake with emerald scratchings on your palm and jade lashings of fern in your teeth.
Nightingale from Zoologist is, on paper, something I initially wouldn’t have thought my cup of tea–but that just goes to show what I know. This is an opulent mossy plum blossom with bitter, earthy oud, and hints of a sour, lemony geranium–like rose. It’s being referred to as a pink floral chypre which, probably because of my associations with all things pink, rings frilly and frivolous for what turns out to be a breathtakingly stunning fragrance with an unexpected complexity that translates into something profoundly emotional. In reading an interview with the perfumer, I learned that the inspiration for this perfume was an ancient poem written by Fujiwara no Kenshi, sister to the empress at that time. The empress was apparently trading her imperial duties for Buddhist vows, and upon her departure, her sister gifted her an agarwood rosary wrapped in a box with ribbons and a branch of plum blossom and read to her a poem she had written: “Soon you will be wearing a black robe and enter nunhood. You will not know each rosary bead has my tears on it.” In this scent, I truly experience a sense of love, loss, sisterhood, and yearning, and somehow, through that perspective, I even feel an existential sadness regarding the transient nature of time and existence. What an extraordinary, evocative fragrance.
Sometime in the last few weeks, I wrote about Nightingale, which I was very impressed with, and today I am wearing Sacred Scarab, which, while equally impressive, is the one I can actually see myself wearing. Nightingale is like the elegant gown you save for special occasions (although I don’t really believe in saving things for special occasions, but just go with it), and Sacred Scarab is, for me, the frock that gets covered in dirt and gravy because I never want to take it off. One of the scents wears me more than I’m wearing it, but the other just sort of…IS me. And what does that mean, anyway? Sacred Scarab is a scent of bitter, lemony aldehydes and earthy, murky, dusky musks, and when I say earthy, I don’t mean damp, loamy garden soil, but rather dusty clay, and subterranean strata of sedimentary rock, digging so far down into the earth you encounter tenebrous geological formations and stygian crystalline structures, ostensibly connected to the earth’s deep history–and yet to your unbelieving eyes and mine, wholly alien and otherworldly. It’s a fragrance that evokes at least a minor feeling of, if not the reality of a crumbling collapse of space and time, the prelude to the ecstatic rites of an ancient mystery cult of earth and stone. That initial mineralogical melodrama is breathtaking, and I probably enjoy those 15-20 minutes of the fragrance best, but the next stage and the dry down, a sort of “burnished date/sticky raisin resin incense scattered in the dry wood of a smooth cedar dish” vibe, is lovely as well and worth the wait, if you find the early sniffs are too overwhelming. I can’t decide if this scent is a prayer, protest, comfort, or curse, and I deeply love the unknowable mystery of that.
I haven’t spoken with my father in many years, but I spent a week or so of summer vacation with him in Houston when I was eleven. Most of that time went by in a blur, but there are a few things I clearly recall and which I actually think about quite often:
He was living with someone at that time, a new-to-me girlfriend who seemed very sweet and kind, and I warmed to her–as much as a shy little kid can–right away. Every night we would all play a game before bed. It was like Mad Libs, except there wasn’t a book for filling in blanks, we just made it up as we went along. I felt so clever and and smart after every round of story-telling, and I loved listening to my dad’s goofy stories and the silly way he played with words and language. As someone who spends a lot of time writing today, I think the whimsy of those games continues to make its way into my own words.
My dad rented studio space near his apartment, and every morning we’d head over there so he could work on whatever it was that he was doing at that time. He had a low wooden shelf jammed with an enormous back catalog of Heavy Metal magazines, and never having seen the likes of such darkness and weirdness, I would spend hours and hours curled up on a sagging sofa marveling at them from cover to cover. Ranxerox terrified and exhilarated me, Druuna’s naked, tentacular adventures may have been the catalyst for the first sexual stirrings in my weird little bod, and the art–oh, the cover art! From Julie Bell to Frank Frazetta, Jefferey Catherine Jones to Olivia De Berardinis, Crepax, Moebius, and my very favorite, Luis Royo…! Until that point, the fantasy and fairy tale stories I knew had a very certain look to them: dreamy and delicate, ethereal wisps of things. But Heavy Metal showed me a very different, raucous, rowdy, bold, brilliant type of fable; it showed me how to look for beauty in the things I found odd or repellent, or hideous, and horrifying. I never saw art –or stories– the same after discovering my dad’s cache of Heavy Metal magazines, and you can see that in everything from the clothes that I wear to the art on my walls to the books of art that I curate and write about.
During my visit that summer, there was something big happening. The Harmonic Convergence, an event of “cosmic importance,” was what they called the world’s first synchronized global peace meditation, which occurred on August 16–17, 1987. People were congregating in “power centers” and doing all sorts of new-age things, and as this also closely coincided with an exceptional alignment of planets, I think the woo-woo was probably off the charts. My dad called it “The Harmonica Convention” and wanted us to see what it was all about. I was scared because I thought I would have to talk to people about things. I don’t know why I thought that, but I was scared of talking to people, and that was always a huge fear.
The night before the event, we found a tiny baby bird that had fallen out of it’s nest, and I was desperate to ensure its survival. We kept it warm in a little shoebox with scraps of cloth, and tried to feed it so that it got nourishment, and we ended up staying all night keeping a watch on it. The next day I brought it to the Harmonic Convergence space with us, and I don’t remember looking a single person in the eye, because I sat down on the grass with my baby bird and never once looked away from it. I heard so many voices above me telling me that I was doing a good job, and there were so many heartfelt wishes and sweet sentiments murmured by passers-by. I may have replied, or maybe not. I don’t recall. Did anything big happen? I have no idea. There was only me and the littlest thing I’d ever held in my hands. And my dad cheering me on in his weird-dad way. And I was not scared of a single thing that day.
When I arrived home that summer, my (late) mother complained that I was squirrelly and secretive. I think what happened is that I discovered some big things about myself–about who I was and what I might become, and how things just “clicked” for me in many ways. It felt so private and personal, I never would have been able to articulate it, and I didn’t want to. The me who came home was very different from the me that had left, and all of the things I did and saw and learned–they were mine and mine alone.
My dad died last night. I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know if I’m “allowed” to grieve a man that I stopped communicating with twenty years ago; I feel like those rights aren’t mine to hold anymore.
I think right now, right in this moment, I’m sad for a version of our relationship that hasn’t existed since I was eleven years old, and that he’ll never know how that summer shaped me.
My AC has been out for five days, and I’m hot and tired and existing in a sort of fever dream fugue state, but I wanted to get it together for long enough to share some art that I am SO freaking beyond excited about in the pages of my forthcoming book, The Art of Fantasy: A Visual Sourcebook Of All That Is Unreal.
Fantastical artists pictured here, names all out of order because I cobbled all these words together from something I already posted on Instagram: Chie Yoshii, Colleen Doran, Paul Lewin, Tristan Elwell, Julie Bell, Atsuko Goto, Brom, Carrie Ann Baade, Julie Dillon, Victo Ngai. And I would love to include 200 more artworks in this post, but why would you bother buying the book if I did? Hee hee!
And don’t forget to get your preorder goodies, including a signed bookplate, by clicking on this link and doing whatever it tells you to do. I don’t honestly remember. I’m too hot!
Pre-order your copy of The Art of Fantasy by August 1 from any retailer and be one of the first 100 readers to receive bonus goodies! Details here.
Behold, my office wall’s final form! Did it take a lot of holes in the wall to get here? Sure it did! Did I drop many tiny nails on the carpet and retrieve far less than I lost? I mean, it happens. Did I map out a strategy for efficient use of time? Look—
Summer is rough for me. Always has been. I know it is for a lot of people. From mid-June until late August, I feel like the human equivalent of a rotten, infected belly button, and the mere act of existing feels like an enormous effort.
As we’re getting into the part of the year when the seasonal ennui really gets its grip on me, I’ll let you know that this installment of Stacked is very half-assed. Why bother at all, you might wonder? I’m wondering that as well. But if I don’t follow through on at least something, I will feel like an even lousier rotten belly button, so here we are. While I’ll make sure to share all the titles of everything I read from April through June of 2023, not all of those books will get a review.
Here’s where I try to explain my process, how some of these things have reviews, and some don’t, even though some of them might actually have been more exciting or compelling reads. I try to be diligent about recording my thoughts pretty quickly when I finish a book I’ve read for NetGalley (I don’t want my rating to go down, hee hee!), and so once I’ve written it for Netgalley, I just put it in a draft here to hang out on the blog. But library books or items from my personal collection that there’s no urgency to review right away? If they are exceptionally blah, I’ll forget them in a day or two. And if conditions are right, like, say, I’m hot and tired and miserable? I’m apt to be forgetting the really good ones, too. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of Netgalley ARCS in this blog post, though it’s possible some of those ARCS are published now.
You might wonder how I grow my “To-Read” lists or where I get my recommendations. I was going to start that sentence, “People often ask me…” but that’s a total lie. No one ever asks me that. Sadie Hartmann has loads of horror suggestions over on Instagram, and on YouTube, Elizabeth has tons of thrillers and horror reviews at Reading Wryly, and Jen Campbell’s channel brims with lists of speculative and literary fiction as well as poetry.
When I was in elementary school, in the sixth grade, I was a bookworm. Are you shocked?? I hope you were sitting down for that! I never really thought of myself as a nerd, though. Until popular mean girl Mary Josenhans told my sister (also named Mary), “Your sister reads ALL the time. She’s a NERD.” First of all, I don’t know why sixth-grade Mary J. was talking to my fourth-grade sister. Stay in your lane, kid! Secondly, she said “nerd” like it was gross, dirty, or bad. Like it was something to be ashamed of. Like my sister should have been ashamed of me.
I don’t think my sister ever was, but from that day forward, I harbored a fierce, fiery hatred in my heart for Mary J., for trying to make my sister feel something ugly about me. It was worse than making me feel directly bad about myself, see? And those feelings of shame and ugliness and uncoolness were wrapped up for me in nerdery and book wormery for the longest time. Not that it ever stopped me from reading or loving the things that I loved, but it sure put the kibosh on ever getting a sense of feeling …”cool” for loving any of it at all?
(Also, for the longest time, I dreamed about walking up to Mary J. and straight up punching her in her mean, stupid face.)
But yesterday, while exchanging book recommendations via Instagram DMs with one of the very coolest humans I know, it occurred to me…wait a second. This person is COOL AS HELL. And we are talking about books. One of my favorite things in the world. We are having a cool conversation about a cool thing. AM I A COOL PEOPLE???
Oh, fuck off, Mary Josenhans. Go read a book.
Linghun by Ai Jiang The grieving families who inhabit the neighborhood of HOME will go to unspeakable lengths for the opportunity to move into houses which *may* possibly be haunted by their loved ones. That’s what Wenqi’s parents are hoping for, the chance to connect with the spirit of their son, Wenqi’s older brother. Wenqi herself, as do many characters in this story, suffers from heartbreaking neglect– her parents and the other mourners are so obsessed with communicating with the dead and those they’ve lost, that they’ve nothing left to give the living. An aching meditation on the unclimbable mountain, the unhealable wound of grief, and how the melancholy of loss makes for dolorous ghosts among the living, Linghun will surely haunt my heart for some time to come.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno is another book about grief and loss, but this one gets really freaky, glitchy, and hallucinatory. Thiago tells us of his late wife Vera, her funeral, the day she died, the life they shared, the…haunted, or possibly possessed, or possibly interdimensional cosmic horror entangled smart home device Vera ordered and installed before her tragic demise. Anyway. Grief fucks you up.
A Good House For Children by Kate Collins is a spooky, spellbinding contemporary gothic haunted house story, following Orla, a former artist/current mother who acquiesces to her husband’s wishes that the family pick up and move to a grand old house in a small village by the sea. The villagers hint at the house being “bad,” and a string of deeply unsettling things begin to occur in past and present timelines. A feminist ghost story with a haunted house where time isn’t quite fixed or linear, A Good House For Children is gorgeously creepy with many marvelously cozy elements, and the writing was lovely & soothing like the author also writes about knitting & baking in their spare time.
Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward Looking Glass Sound lulls you with the setting and circumstances of a coming-of-age experience that takes place among three friends over the course of an ill-fated summer in the late 80s. It’s one of those stories that softly strangles with a fraught, undefined sense of doom and vague, looming dread that has nothing to do with horror but rather the sweetly unbearable, eerily desperate poignancy of the passage of time, how hope and youth and friendship and loyalty will never feel the same again after you cross a certain threshold. It becomes a kind of fever dream, turned around and bewildering, where the people and their stories keep changing, moving, slipping from your grasp; nothing’s as you thought, and maybe you never properly understood the stakes of the story to begin with–or even whose story it really was. Circuitous and labyrinthine in its leading one towards and away from the truth, depending on whose truth it was, Looking Glass Sound left me with the most breathtakingly frustrating and beautiful ache in my heart, and honestly, it’s all I could want in a book by Catriona Ward.
Spin a Black Yarn; Novellas by Josh MalermanIt’s not enough to say this collection of stories was “weird.” I read a lot of weird stuff. I genuinely can’t say, story or theme-wise, if this collection was any more or less weird than anything else. I guess I mean to say it was a bit weird in tone and consistency. These five stories were at turns sinister and suspenseful, with two tales that actually elicited a proper goose-fleshed shiver, but then two other stories were a bit of a slog. The good: a nice balance of haunted house eerieness, cosmic horror mental deterioration, and creepy deathbed confessions. The not-as-good: a horrible couple gets what they deserve, and Russian brothers avenge the murder of their sibling. This last story read almost like something by Dostoevsky, with all the suffering, nihilism, intensity, and tedium I recall from Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov. I will always read a new title from Josh Malerman. Will I always love them? Probably not. And I can’t say that I loved this one, but the three stories I enjoyed in this collection were particularly good.
No Child Of Mine by Nichelle Giraldes I typically enjoy ghost stories with haunted houses and family curses, but this story of a couple’s unraveling after moving into a new house and learning of their unplanned pregnancy really missed the mark for me. It wasn’t the dual timeline element; I really enjoyed learning of Essie and Sanjay’s relationship in the present day, as well as Ana and Isabel’s beautiful bond in the past; it wasn’t the slow-burn pacing, I can appreciate taking the time to thoughtfully build a story up. No, I think what was missing is that the circumstances which connected these two couples across time was a more complicated situation than the author ultimately addressed, and I think the whys and hows of it even occurring at all needed more exploring. I get that the mystery of the paranormal should leave something up to the reader’s imagination, but I think, as a reader, I needed just a little bit more to work with.
The Sight by Melanie Golding Faith has grown up in the Harrington Carnival and loves her life with the performers–but they haven’t always loved her family back. A strain of divinatory curse seems to afflict some of the women in her clan, and the rest of the circus seems to think having death-predicting soothsayers hanging around is extremely bad luck and probably not great for business. Her grandmother Daisy was more or less banished when she spoke of a tragedy she foresaw, and Faith, having acquired the same “gift” as a child, has experienced similar visions –and their consequences in terms of being ostracized from her carnival friends and family. Now a pariah with no income, Faith must find a way to pay for her terminally ill mother’s home care, and along with her best friend Betsy, they hatch a scheme to capitalize on Faith’s gift. But what happens when in one of her “Oracle of Death” visions, it is Faith herself who is seen wielding the knife responsible for a stranger’s death? This is a fairly straightforward thriller with a hint of the supernatural and a twisty bit that I will admit I saw coming about 3/4 of the way through, and I won’t say what it’s about or who it pertains to, but if you’re paying attention to what’s there in front of you–and maybe what’s not actually there–it will fall into place for you as well. I thought this was a fairly compulsive read weaving together ideas of fate and destiny, family and tradition, and death and loss.
The Stranger Upstairs by Lisa MatlinSocial media influencer and self-help author/therapist Sarah Slade thinks she’s hit upon a great idea–buy a notorious murder house, make renovations while documenting the whole thing and hopefully getting lots of likes and follows along the way, and then sell the restored home for a tidy profit. Right away, things seem a little weird; her husband barely wants to sleep in the house, no one local wants to do any work on the place, not only do the neighbors refuse to interact with them, but someone is actively trying to drive them away with threatening notes and dead rats, and even Sarah’s cat, Reaper, is acting off. The house, however, is the least of Sarah’s problems. The glossy social media facade hides a failing marriage, a past scarred by secrets, and, as it turns out, a host of mental, emotional, and pathological personality issues; Sarah is not the person her clients and employers believe her to be and for all of these reasons and more, she is probably not the best choice for providing anyone any therapy or counseling. As we watch as Sarah becomes ensnared in the house’s grip, we wonder if it’s the house itself or Sarah’s spiraling mental decline (and if you’ve read enough haunted house books in the past decade, you may have some other theories.) I enjoyed this story for its atmosphere and tension, and I loved the bones of the story itself. I even loved the *idea* of Sarah. I am not sure that I loved how the character herself was handled, especially all the wine-drinking. Far be it from me to say how characters suffering with substance abuse issues should be written, but something about Sarah’s drinking feels sloppily approached. Then again, alcoholism is kind of a sloppy thing to deal with (my family is full of them, so I feel like I can comment on this somewhat.) And this could just be a me-problem. But I found those portions of the book very uncomfortable to read. Otherwise, The Stranger Upstairs was pretty solid.
Dark Corners by Megan GoldinSo a lot of this murdery thriller following a true-crime podcaster took place around Daytona Beach. And as a more or less lifelong resident of the place (I moved away last year), I was curious to see if they could convey the true and utter nastiness and skeeziness of the shitty little town I grew up in. I don’t want to give the author too much of a hard time or focus on the wrong thing here. but a major plot point was an “influencer convention” that was being held at a hotel in Daytona, and the main character was unable to find a room anywhere because there were IT, energy, and medical conferences being held in town at the same time, and all of the hotels were full. Yeah…no. No one will ever have an IT, energy, medical, OR influencer convention in Daytona Beach, FL. Bikeweek? Sure. NASCAR? Of course. Anything that requires a few more IQ points is most assuredly not going to happen in Daytona. And the influencer convention would have to take place somewhere much more glamorous than the sandy cesspool of Daytona could offer. All that aside, the story of this podcaster getting pulled in by the FBI to find a missing influencer was compelling enough to tear through it in a few days, and I will say that reading about social media influencers is a lot of fun, like reading about rich people is always a hoot. It’s a trip to see how the other half lives. And technically, while I found the writing and the language to be pretty plain and simple, no bells or whistles, the pieces of the story came together in a satisfying way in the end.
Mister Magic by Kiersten White Is there anything weirder and eerier than a childhood mystery recalled through an adult lens? Something you may have done or experienced or been a part of that, in retrospect, as an older person, just seems so surreal and farfetched and bonkers that there’s no way that could have happened, you must have dreamed it or imagined it? That’s how a swath of internet users of a certain age feel about an eccentric show called Mister Magic that mysteriously disappeared from the airwaves many years ago and which, strangely, one can now find no evidence of having existed. There are no producers, transcripts, camera people, or records of the show online–the blog posts and message boards even speculating about it seem to vanish without a trace. But the child stars who were at the heart of the show are quite real and are being gathered together for a podcast interview, which may, in fact, be heralding a reboot of the show. Once reunited, the characters start to feel pieces of themselves clicking back into place, it feels like being home–but at the same time, something strange is happening, and the reconnecting that’s happening is more than just lonely adults reunited with old friends. Wounds are being reopened, and traumas are surfacing. There is so much from their past with this tv program that has been repressed or that they never realized the truth of, to begin with, and there is more at stake with the reboot than they could possibly know. The author seems to be exorcizing some intensely personal demons with the book–which once you think about the locale and start putting pieces together, you guess it before the story gets there. But whether you relate to or have experiences with that kind of trauma or not, this was a great read, and I tore through it in less than a day.
Maeve Fly by CJ Leede Oh my god. Imagine a love letter to Los Angeles, written by a savage, sociopathic Weetzie Bat; a Takashi Miike film inspired by a series of Lana del Rey songs; a main character who is a Disney Princess channeling Patrick Bateman. Imagine there is also a reference to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” in these pages. You guys–the perfect book really does exist.
All the Dead Lie Down by Kyrie McCauley I really connected with our main character Marin. Always anxious, with a perpetual pit of dread in her belly, constantly fretting at how things can go wrong, a permanent state of caution and worry. And a perfect foil to Evie, the beautiful eldest sister to the girls Marin has been charged with nannying after her mother has died, and she has accepted an invitation to live with the Lovelace family at their secluded New England estate. Evie is bold and brash, and beautiful, and Marin is instantly intrigued. But the sisters are hiding something, and strange, unsettling things are happening in the old home and on the spacious, increasingly spooky grounds, and as Marin and Evie’s romance blossoms, a sinister decay deepens. I didn’t realize this was YA before I read it, but I found it to be the perfect balance of cozy-creepy atmosphere and charming love story, with some delightfully disturbing surprises.
Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller So you take the Bluebeard story and give it a contemporary setting by way of a heroine obsessed with gothic romance tropes and 1950s Hollywood glamour and wrap it up in Anna Biller’s exquisitely packaged campy ambiance that borders on satire (but is it satire, or is it a very genuine homage?) as well as her very specific feminist philosophies revolving around catering to the male gaze and misogyny as a form of agency and empowerment, throw in some sketchy ghosts, family trauma, toxic friendships, terribly chic fashion, and salacious food porn and you have this head-scratcher of a book that you can’t seem to put down even though you find this brand of feminism too uncomfortable to either contemplate or participate in.
The Chateau by Jaclyn Goldis Four friends convene for a girl’s trip at a luxurious French estate, the ancestral home of grande dame Seraphine, who has called the women together for reasons of her own. There are tensions between the group from the start, and it’s not an entirely comfortable visit, despite the opulent accommodations. A shocking murder delays Seraphine’s revelations, however, and the four work mostly separately and against each other to unravel the mystery of the brutal crime–and why they were summoned to the chateau in the first place. Much in the way of secret, scandal, drama, and tragedy tangles these women together, and they’re not the most likable bunch, so it’s tough to know who to root for with these unpleasant characters. Despite that, this is definitely the sort of summertime twisty suspense r that I’m always happy to find and immerse myself in over the course of a June or July evening.
You Can Trust Me by Wendy Heard I had such a good time with this one! At first, as the story and the characters were being built up, I didn’t quite know where things were headed. Summer and Leo are two kindred spirits who found each other at just the right time in their lives. Summer is unbearably lonely having lived off the grid, with virtually no identity for her entire life, and gets by on her clever thievery and pickpocketing skills. Leo is a young woman who experiences a terrible tragedy, leaves home and winds up desperately panhandling in the streets of L.A. Their paths crossed, Summer took Leo under her wing, and they now live a free-spirited, nomadic lifestyle, stealing from clueless strangers and scamming bored rich men. And then, having come upon what she thought was a major score, Leo unknowingly targets the wrong billionaire and disappears somewhere on his luxurious private island. Frantic to reunite with her one true friend, Summer uses every trick up her sleeve to scam her way onto the island during an investor’s retreat so that she can get to the bottom of everything and bring Leo home safely. Despite being a somewhat twisty thriller, I loved how the themes of friendship, found family, and long-term effects of grief and loss were woven into the fabric of this story, and overall, I thought it was a really good time (which I always feel weird saying about murdery books, but eh, you like what you like.)
The Only One Left by Riley Sager The anticipation for a new Riley Sager book is exciting and nearly overwhelming. The plots, usually consisting of a woman realizing she’s in a strange/perilous/weird/haunted situation and trying to get to the bottom of things while staying alive, are the sorts of tales, written in Sager’s relatable (but never “basic”) voice and propulsive storylines, that immediately hook you and leave you breathlessly tearing through the pages. And then you get about 3/4 of the way through the book and realize, “Huh. Riley Sager’s done it again. I’m gonna hate how this ends, aren’t I?” The Only One Left, the story of a 30-something caregiver with a troubled past put in charge of caring for an old woman long suspected of murdering her entire family in an enormous crumbling cliffside mansion, is another one to add to the list. The stories sail along so thrillingly and adroitly, you can’t imagine how they’ll be wrapped up in a clever bow at the end…and that’s the thing. They never are. They always go off the rails in the most head-scratchingly unsatisfying way. This one plays out the same way. I know reviews are for readers, not authors, but Riley Sager, if you ever read this–I do actually love your books quite a bit, and I will be chomping at the bit to read every single new one you write. I don’t love how most of them end, but honestly, that’s a minor complaint. If I’ve enjoyed the journey–and I always do, Riley Sager– the ending isn’t the most important thing.
My Darling Girl by Jennifer McMahon If you’ve been looking for the Hallmark Christmas movie cozy-times version of an “is it family trauma or is it demonic possession?” horror novel, Jennifer McMahon’s My Darling Girl is everything you’ve been pining for. And you might think I’m saying that in a snarky, sneery way, but you know what? I am totally not. My advice? Save this for December when the wooly socks, hot chocolate, and twinkle lights come out of storage, and have a good time with it.
Her Little Flowers by Shannon Morgan Prickly middle-aged loner Francine lives with her occasional lodgers and her full-time ghosts in the relative isolation of her family’s crumbling estate. She spends her days tending her garden, immersing herself in herbal lore and the language of flowers, and silently communing with the various spirits on her property. Francine’s sister Madeline comes home to stay for a spell after the death of her 7th (!!) husband, and with Madeline’s arrival–which happens to coincide with the arrival of a handsome new lodger– there is no small amount of sudden and terrifying upheaval. Francine’s small world, kept so quiet and well-guarded, explodes around her in a whirlwind of long-kept secrets, terrible tragedies, and ghostly heartbreak. I found this story to initially be a bit meandering, but it picked up near the final chapters, and near the end, I was weeping uncontrollably.
The Fetishist by Katherine Min This book was an unexpected jolt, a startling “zjzjzjzzttt!!” metal fork to the socket of my reader’s soul. I had no idea what it was meant to be about other than a philandering Asian fetishist of a mediocre white man–but really, that’s just dumb Daniel, and that’s not even the whole of him, and he’s not even the half of it. There’s dazzling, dizzyingly passionate, and talented Alma, the love of his life, but whose orbit he felt eclipsed by; brittle desperate Emi whose affections he spurned; and furious, grief-stricken Kyoko–Emi’s daughter, hell-bent on vengeance, for she is convinced her mother died by suicide after Daniel ended their affair. Tackling themes of classism, racism, colonialism, and exploitation, as well as of regret, revenge, and redemption, and motifs of art and music and beauty, and language and imagery that is at turns bleak and playful (a passage in which comatose Alma, her coma toes, coma tossed comes to mind, hee!) these characters are full of surprises and The Fetishist is a singular and extraordinary book.
Malice House by Megan Shepherd Bamboozles and bonkers! I began reading this book because I thought it was one thing but it veered in a weird and wild direction and has become something else entirely! Is there a specific term/phrase/genre for the kind of book where everything goes along all normal-like, and then the story just veers sharply and becomes super weird and crazy? I am not talking about speculative fiction or magical realism. Have you read this book? Can you talk to me about what I’m getting at here. I also thought it was kind of funny that the character name-dropped Kelly Link (well, she mentioned Get in Trouble) and Victor LaValle.
Station Eleven by Emily Saint John Mandel People, patterns, the passage of time. Humanity, the interconnectedness of it all, this beautiful, lonely planet. This story is not at all what I thought it was going to be.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan A suburban neighborhood turns against a new family in a series of flashbacks and have never had a book make me feel so distressed and uncomfortable.
The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig in which I finally read a Chuck Wendig book and learn I am perhaps not a Chuck Wendig fan. Was this the wrong book to start with? It left a horrible taste in my mouth.
Carmilla: The First Vampire by Amy Chu this was an interesting adaption of Sheridan Le Fanu’s story, but is it weird to say that I wish that beautiful sofa had featured more prominently in the plot?
The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling was my first DNF of the year. I had to read 74 titles before I found one I couldn’t force myself to read; that should give you an idea of how patient I can be. I had my suspicions about it but gave it a go anyway. It turns out that I truly hate love stories. I got about a quarter through the book when I realized I was just wasting my time and could/should be reading something I enjoyed. Shortly thereafter, I had to do the same with The Quiet Stillness of Empty Houses by L.V. Russell (which sounds like something I should have enjoyed from the title, so I’m still a little sad about that one.)
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire A really beautiful YA (?) thriller (?) about a school for children who tumble through doorways or portals to fantasy lands but who are cast back into the real world and who are now unmoored and adrift. The boarders at the school begin dying in brutal ways, and they must solve the mystery of what’s happening. I think this is a series?
Baby Teeth by Zoje StagePsychopathic Hannah terrorizes her mother because she wants her papa all to herself. It was an interesting premise, but I found Hannahs’s machinations remarkably sophisticated for a seven-year-old? I think I might have really enjoyed this book anyway.
Such Pretty Flowers by K.L. Cerra In investigating her brother’s gruesome death, Holly cozies up to (and with) his shady girlfriend Maura, a florist, who lives in an amazingly atmospheric gothic apartment, which was almost a character itself. And that’s…all I remember. I really loved the idea of that apartment, though.
The Island by Adrian McKinty Against her better judgment Heather, a young, new stepmother, goes on a side trip with her bratty stepkids and her husband to a remote Australian island, and not long into their jaunt, they meet a strange pair of brothers, part of the larger clan that owns the island, and a terrible tragedy occurs. Poor choices and bad decisions worsen things, and Heather and her family soon realize they may not make it off the island alive. I had a weird time with this book. Half the time, Heather annoyed me, I thought every time she opened her mouth, she made the situation worse, and yet she really was a great character, and this book had some unexpectedly beautiful writing, far more gorgeous than you’d think a story like this might have called for.
…again, just because I don’t have anything to say about these books doesn’t mean they weren’t good, or even great (looking at you, The Marigold!) My head’s just not in it at this point. Anyway, that’s it for this quarter!
LEKYTHOI Smells of the brine of the ocean and resinous petrified sap of ancient trees, like cool, polished sea glass and golden amber laced with tiny bubbles, heaped tall in vessels of dusty clay and submerged in rich, grassy olive oil. Offerings to appease the sirens, left on the crashing tides of lonely islands amidst tumbling, clackering piles of sailor’s bones.
PELANONThere is a work by pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse that depicts two robe-draped figures refreshing a small altar of bronze statuettes, making humble offerings to the household gods. Not of divine nectar and sacred ambrosia, but rather commonplace, earthbound flowers, honey, and fruits –a quietly luminous but very human and everyday moment of ritual and reverence. This fragrance is the incense of that span of heartbeats and intent, ensconced in a golden beam of fading afternoon sunlight.
ENAGISMATATranslations of Homer turn up many instances of the evocative phrase “the wine-dark sea,” which, if parsed literally, may simply be describing rough, stormy seas–but I first heard the turn of phrase as the title of one of Robert Aickman collections of weird, unsettling stories. If you’re unfamiliar, this author revels in disquieting tales of haunted psychology and thoroughly unnerving but initially routine and unremarkable experiences. They’re not quite ghost stories but perhaps just quotidian situations and circumstances, slightly off-center, low-key, and almost indefinably mysterious.
If you’ve ever observed the turned-inside-out-mixedup-madness of a multicolored knitted sweater, you can see how you wear the chaos of your clothing so close to the skin, the nightmare side of something so ordinary, carried unknowingly right next to your heart. Enagismata smells of the syzygy-space where these weird divisions of unbothered/uneasy align: both a dark-fruited velvety-opulent wine with a strange, vaguely unearthly terroir and a secretive, slithering salinity, dark and bottomless from the most lightless depths of the ocean; the ways in which these elements relate to each other is in a constant flux that recalls shifting voids and pocket dimensions just outside our experience of reality. But so close, we can almost feel it. Hear it. Smell it.
A Girl Knittingsmells milky and fruity, except not fruit, but milk that once held fruit. And not even real fruit, but Saturday morning cereal fruit-shaped puffed grains and marshmallows. There’s also a textural element; it smells of rustic textiles, musky, warm fleece with tiny flecks of twig and vegetal detritus not entirely combed out, a fuzzy, wooly strand of yarn spun straight from a freshly shorn sheep, knit with clacking wooden needles into a bulky beanie to keep your ears warm while you slurp your sweet, creamy, fruity cereal milk.
By Day She Made Herself into a Cat is a deep, profoundly relieving gasp of cool, nocturnal air when you’ve been exposed too long to a brutal slash of sunlight. It’s exactly as the notes suggest, amber and inky black musk in perfect proportions. It smells like swallowing the dark stillness of a midnight dream. This is one of those scents that is very much A Whole Vibe, and if your vibe is Must Love Cats And Darkness, you will probably dig this one.
White Cat is a crisp, airy lemon wafer with a creamy, fluffy vanilla marshmallow filling. But there’s a resinous, ambery element as well; it’s a cookie by way of incense– you don’t eat it, you scent the room with it.
Portrait of Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange née de Parseval is the perfumed approximation of your favorite TikTok cat; a whirlwind of musky fur, murky herbs, and backyard grassy litterbox bedevilment scratching at your tattered window screen to the frantically building beat of Darude’s Sandstorm. This review will not hold up with time, and it won’t make sense a year from now, and I don’t even care because I know in my heart this is true. This is a scent, that, like the silliest memes, makes me giggle and makes me want to share it with someone and make them giggle too.
Cat at the Table has notes of gentle white tea and mellow, soothing sandalwood and boasts label art by Leonard Foujita (whose paintings of unsettling girls with their unsettling dolls are some of my favorites!), and maybe it’s because Foujita’s cat has a Richard Scarry Huckle the Cat quality, but or maybe because it’s just a still cat at a table, the calm before the storm, but there’s an undeniable air of charming mischief to this scent, but also of quiet playtime, of nurseries and storytimes and naps. Of milky tea parties in heirloom china cups, puddings sticky with drizzles of marmalade, and the amber-eyed gaze of an old family cat watching with interest as the children’s tea play and sup and grow.
BeauFort London Terror & Magnificence. This is the very gothest thing: tarry, leathery shadows, wet stony paths leading into the teeming dark, and moonless midnights presiding over all. Like being enfolded by bat wings, encased in obsidian, enveloped in a stark abyss. A silent secret from the mouth of one just dead. This departed speaker whom no one hears is you.
Vetiver Bucolique from Mad et Len evokes a sort of sleazy Rococco decadence stalked by a gloomy, predatory nihilism. Oh, you thought I would talk about the various notes and helpful info? Ha ha! I will not! It smells like the kooky, kinky salaciousness of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s iconic painting, The Swing, if you scratched out the creamy pastel frivolity of the faces in some sort of freaky Raskolnokovian frenzy.
Estate Carnation from Solstice Scents is a perfume I’ve talked about everywhere else but here, I guess. Time for a proper review! Ha! As if you’re ever gonna see me write an actual, proper review! Anyhow, Estate Carnation is a deeply gothic glamour amber, a musky murky chypre-adjacent fragrance that smells simultaneously like the figure in the white nightdress running from the manor house with the lone candle lit in the window at midnight and the surprise succubus that this figure is secretly possessed by–it’s all the iconic tropes of Avon Satanic Romance novel, and it’s perfect. If you love deep, mysterious scents and only have the budget for one fragrance this year, Estate Carnation should be the one.
Jo Malone’s Mallow on the Moors is a fragrance I mentioned in my Sephora Haul video the other day, and I hoped it might be a little haunted. Not really in the way I was expecting, though. More like a parody from someone who didn’t realize they were writing a parody, which some might look at as a little unfortunate for their creation (no one wants to be unintentionally funny, you know?), but hey, it could also be fun, right?
Imagine you’re a buttoned-up gothic novelist who’s never even taken a lover, and fate has led you straight into the arms of a rakish lothario, a real Bluebeard type. Imagine swoons, sighs, ghosts, old gothic castles, manor grounds, bodies buried in the poison gardens, dead wives in attics, and all that jazz. And then the camera pans out, and this is a Hammer horror production directed by Anna Biller starring Lana del Rey, and it’s trying real hard to be ethereal and phantasmal and misty moors and mossy castles, but somehow it is all high camp and glinting artifice, real Real Housewives of Manderley energy. As to what it smells like, imagine the luminous violet powder of broken, scattered Guerlain Meteorites and the brassy hairspray, champagne-tossed-in-your-faceness of Tom Ford Jasmine Rouge. Imagine all of that sprayed on Dita von Teese in La Perla clutching a guttering candelabra channeling Frau Blücher.