Maika is joining me for this Autumn installment of Stacked and I couldn’t be more excited! They’ve recently read several books that I have had my eyes on, so I am very keen to know their thoughts! Also, in a relevant tidbit of Maika-news, be sure to listen in on their Pages & Portents series over on TikTok, wherein they share bibliomantic reveries, passages divined from books chosen at random from their mysterious shelves, on a somewhat daily basis. I love this.
Certain Dark Things Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Neon noir vampire fiction, where have you been all my life? At once grimy and sexy, mysterious, alluring, and very violent. I loved so many things about this book – the luridly vivid Mexico City setting, the ominously atmospheric yet wondrous world-building… This is a world in which a fascinating variety of species of vampires exist, with varying abilities, appetites, strengths, weaknesses, and life expectancy. Humans have been aware of the existence of vampires as very real and dangerous creatures since the late 1960s, reacting to this alarming news by doing things like banning them from entire nations and turning cities into fortified, ostensibly vampire-free zones. The characters, human and vampire alike, felt as rich and well-realized as the menacing world around them. If you’re looking for a book like Moreno-Garcia’s , this is not it. But I love how distinct they are from each other. Their wildly different styles make me even more excited to read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work. I have no idea if she plans to write more books in this world. I’d be here for it if she did. Either way, I hope someone options this harrowing and beguiling tale and then throws oceans of cash at the project. Done well, this would make a jaw-dropping and riveting miniseries and, one can only hope, result in some seriously sexy cosplay as well.
From the Neck Up and Other Stories by Aliya Whiteley – My first experience with the work of Aliya Whiteley was a novel entitled The Beauty and I…did not love it. However, I did love the way it was written and the startlingly creative mind behind it enough that I pre-ordered this collection of short stories as soon as I read about it. And I’m so glad I did. These stories were all so beautiful, so deeply strange, so poignant, freaky, fascinating, and astonishingly inventive… At the risk of coming across as lazy, I don’t want to go into detail about any of them because most of them are so short, gripping, and peculiar that I don’t want to spoil a single detail. I hope you go into this book as in the dark as I was. Finishing the last story was like eating the last bite of a delicious meal – every bit as satisfying as all the bites that came before, but tinged with sadness by signaling there are no more bites to come. I want more.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolvesby Karen Russell – More dark, weird, fantastical short fiction comfort food for me. Short stories are such mercurial creatures. Sometimes they’re absolutely perfect as they are (*cough* From the Neck Up *cough*). Other times, such as with this collection, they feel more tantalizing than satisfying. By which I mean that I wish they were either much longer or entire books unto themselves. Perhaps that’s not a flaw, but instead another possible form that a good short story can take: an all too brief, in media res glimpse of a world, a moment, or a character’s life that leaves you desperately trying to continue the tale in your own head after you’ve read the last page. These brief, evocative stories are so detailed, affecting, and fascinating, surely there must be more…
All’s Well by Mona Awad – After the singular experience that was Awad’s novel Bunny, I was champing at the bit to read her next novel. While the two books share academic settings in common (albeit different ones), the similarity ends there. Awad has a knack for not just placing you inside a well-realized character, but for virtually sinking you into their very marrow. Miranda Fitch, the central character of this book, an actor-turned-theatre professor, suffers from intense chronic pain. As I’ve seen other reviews mention, I found the first 100 pages or so incredibly difficult to get through because Miranda’s life is such relentless agony. But as punishing as that was, it was also brilliant, because it meant the moment things start to change for Miranda, the moment there’s even a hint of relief, however transient,I felt it too. And it’s intoxicating. As with Bunny, though in its own completely unique way, as soon as this story takes a turn for the strange it just gets darker, stranger, and increasingly intense with the turn of each page. It’s a whole-body Shakespearean fever dream of a novel driven by one character’s unbearable pain, heartbreak, desperation, and a profound love of theatre. I can’t wait to see what Mona Awad does next.
Never Have I Ever: Stories by Isabel Yap – This a wonderfully varied collection of strange short stories – some of them terrifying, some tender, some wistful, some monstrous, some mischievous, and often beautifully queer and infused with marvelous Filipino folklore. This is Yap’s first collection of short fiction. I hope there’s more to come.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell – Once again Laura Purcell satisfies my craving for gothic horror with a dark, sinuous tale of brutal murders, grief, silhouette artistry, and Spiritualism. A thoroughly haunted page-turner with the unexpected bonus of a charismatic pug named Morpheus.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner Even if I was not myself a member of the dead moms club, I would have sobbed my way through every page of this intimate, vulnerable memoir. Firstly, I love Japanese Breakfast, and I am kinda peeved that I was not the first person on the planet to hear about Michelle Zauner’s music– and now that I have found out about her, I’ve grown so obsessed with her that I’m certain I’d be into whatever new project she puts out into the world, no matter what it might be about. In the case of this book, it is an exploration of grief, identity, and food (!!) throughout which Zauner grapples with her mother’s death and a painful disconnect with her heritage.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily XR Pan. I was fairly certain I knew what was in sort for me when I originally purchased this book, but by the time I finally read it I had forgotten even the tiniest inkling of what it was about. And it turned out that reading this immediately after Crying in H Mart was both a beautiful and terrible idea.
My heart hadn’t yet recovered when I began this new story, wherein burgeoning teenage artist Leigh struggles with her mother’s devastating suicide. She comes to the conclusion, after a visitation from a mysterious scarlet-plumed bird late one night, that after death her mother has somehow taken the form of this otherworldly creature. In a journey of smoke and secrets and strange, insomniac magics, Leigh travels backward and forward in time, in addition to traveling to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. As she explores her new relationship with her grandparents, she attempts to unravel the mystery of what the bird wants from her–or maybe what it wants to give her– and how it ties in with her mother’s past, a good deal of which Leigh increasingly realizes that she doesn’t know what she thought she knew, and maybe she knew nothing at all. If you are into a story about art and grief and family and poetry and friendship and love and loss and pain and anger and forgiveness and food and hungry, lonely ghosts, then grab of copy of this book. If you have even the slightest bit of imagination, The Astonishing Color of After will thoroughly capture it. When I turned the last page of the book, I thought to myself while choking back a sob, that this story is the whole reason I read.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung. I had not before heard of this Korean author, but obviously, when I saw the cover of this book I couldn’t resist it. These are bizarre and distasteful, strange and sickening, uneasy, queasy little tales but, and maybe this is the translation, they’re written in a wry, remote tone, which somehow make them easier to stomach. A blend between magical realism and horror, fairy tale and science-fiction, in “The Head”, a woman is tormented by a creature that keeps appearing in her toilet bowl, and ‘The Embodiment’, where a woman somehow gets pregnant just from taking the pill for too long. The final story of a woman who meets a stranger in Poland while visiting for studies is perhaps one of the saddest I have ever read. In my Winter Stacked, I talked about the liminal dread and unidentifiable weirdness of the stories in Ampara Davila’s The Chair. If you liked that one, I think you’ll enjoy Cursed Bunny as well.
…a bunch of mysteries/thrillers that I read in early September and I barely remember:
In The Lightness by Emily Temple Olivia searches for her absent father at a meditation retreat/contemplative penal colony/Buddhist boot camp for wayward girls. A story encompassing some of my favorite dark academia cliquey-schoolgirls doing mysterious stuff feels, but in an unexpected setting, and exploring some interesting themes. That’s intentionally vague because I don’t remember what they were. I didn’t take very good notes on this one, sorry!
In My Dreams I Hold A Knife by Ashley Winstead, we’re again exploring themes of friendship and outsiderness, secrets and murders, and unreliable narrators– with Jessica, as she attends a college reunion ten years after graduation, as the best version of herself. But of course, she wasn’t always this polished and perfect. I want to love this sort of story with insular and intimate and highly fraught university friendships, but the thing is…I want the stories of the losers and the weirdos. This was a popular group of kids. Fuck them. Don’t care.
Broken Harbor by Tana French, the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, was a weird one. It didn’t seem to have that wallop of beautiful sadness exuded by, say, The Likeness. It was missing the rawness and intensity of Faithful Place. Maybe lacking the profound eeriness of In The Woods. But! It’s still the unmistakable, strange melancholy of a Tana French mystery, and I will gobble up every sentence. In this installment, we follow Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (whom we met in Faithful Place and I think we were meant to dislike him, but I was kinda living for him in that story) as he investigates a murder that occurred at the half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland. This is a case with a lot of bizarre bits and pieces that don’t seem to fit anywhere, with an atmosphere made even more tense and charged by his own tragic history with the locale.
Survive The Night by Riley Sager Typically I enjoy Riley Sager’s books. I don’t know that they’re amazing, but they’re usually a lot of fun while I’m reading them. Survive the Night felt …a little lackluster in some way. Also, it seems all over the place. In this story, college student Charlie Jordan grabs a ride home with a stranger just as Christmas break begins. She’s not doing well in general, reeling from grief and guilt after her roommate’s murder, and plans on not returning after the break. During the course of the cross-country drive, Charlie realizes that she knows nothing about her road-trip mate, and, unnerved by his increasingly strange and suspicious behavior, comes to the conclusion that she may be sharing vehicular space with the campus killer. Forget about not coming back after she gets home, she might not come back from this trip at all! It was fine. This was a twisty read, but maybe I expected the twists? Not my favorite from this author, but still a decent afternoon’s diversion.
…and here are several Halloween/horror reads that I mentioned over the course of the month of October, but I thought it might be helpful to have them all in one place!
The Good House by Tananarive Due
Ghost Summer was previously my only experience with Tananarive Due’s writing, and though I believe that it was published more than a decade after The Good House, which I just read, it had all of the hallmarks that I’ve now come to expect from her work. I feel like it’s almost trite to say that a story or a book has “a lot of heart”…I mean, I say that a lot, but what does that mean, anyway? It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this author’s writing, I am tempted to say “horror with a lot of heart.” I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that her stories seem to be written through an empathetic, compassionate lens. That her characters are fully fleshed out, down to their annoyances and imperfections, and their stories are treated in such a way that they’re wholly, profoundly human, and we really grow to care about them.
Also, Tananarive Due writes in such a way that you don’t feel punished for having read and connected with the work. I sometimes feel like a certain subset of writers must really hate us, the reader. That’s probably not true, but it’s easy to feel that way when you see your favorite, beloved characters brutally dismembered on the page before you. I just…never get a sense of that with Due’s writing. Of course, in her books, there’s horror and heartlessness and heart-stopping moments…but there’s also hope. I love that she gives us that, too. I guess that’s what I mean when I say a story “has heart;” that no matter what else transpires, no matter how big and expansive the horror and heartbreak is, she leaves the door open for goodness and hope, as well. I come away feeling good about what I read.
The Good House (unlike the House movie that I wrote about yesterday) is actually a pretty scary story in concept, and I did find myself a little freaked out while reading it. The home that belonged to Angela Toussaint’s late grandmother is so cherished and revered that the local townspeople refer to it lovingly as the Good House. All of this changes one summer when a terrible tragedy takes place during a Fourth of July celebration at the house, and both the Toussaint’s family history and its future is irrevocably altered. Two years after, following her son’s suicide in the house, Angela returns and finally starts to unravel what happened and put things right.
Masterful storytelling combining multiple perspectives across different timelines, witchcraft and family curses, the burdens of inherited guilt, trauma, rich history, and mythology, and an overwhelming, palpable sense of stomach-curdling dread present from almost the very first page made this a vividly enthralling read and an intense page-turner, and I’m going to make it my mission in life to read everything author has every written.
The Man Who Came Down The Stairs by Celine Loup
On a whim, I started looking into lists of fairly recent horror-adjacent graphic novel releases, which is how I happened upon The Man Who Came Down the Attic Stairs by Celine Loup. Surprisingly, I was able to find a digital copy through my library. The book follows Emma, who after giving birth, fears a threatening supernatural force in the house. As her husband becomes increasingly remote and less involved in the life of Emma and her baby, she begins to unravel, growing more and more desperate between the lack of sleep and a newborn that won’t stop crying. Loup explores themes of the isolation of postpartum depression and being an exhausted mother with an unsupportive partner, and weaves in elements of unease and eerie horror for a story that is uncomfortable, unsettling, and profoundly sad.
Goddess of Filth by V. Castro
Things take off pretty swiftly in Queen of Filth by V Castro, as something terrifying and unexpected happens to Lourdes and her best friends, after a boozy seance staged on a summer evening before they get on with the business of adulthood and going their separate ways. Because, of course…someone gets possessed. Don’t they always!
This too, is an interesting spin on a possession story, as it’s not a demon inhabiting the body of shy, smart Fernanda, but instead something significantly older, and perhaps not as evil as they would have thought. The bonds of friendship and female empowerment, contemporary realities, religion, and ancient beings weave together in this short novel to create a story that though I read it in the course of an evening, I won’t soon forget these characters or their ordeal.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw I imagine if you follow horror blogs and “must-read horror of X year!” type lists, then no doubt you have seen mention of Cassandra Khaw’s novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth. A quick and compulsive read, this story of five friends who meet up at a purportedly haunted Japanese castle for pre-wedding adventures is steeped in dread and inevitable tragedy. And as someone very sensitive to confrontation and hostility…oof. There’s a lot of baggage between these individuals and they really seem to despise each other. The writing here is absolutely gorgeous, but even more than that, this atmosphere of stewing resentment and loathing is so present and palpable that it made me physically ill. Well done! I guess! Seriously though, this was enjoyable and unique and if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix The Final Girl Support Group is handled in a decidedly slashery vein, supported by Grady Hendrix’s distinctive humor and his sometimes unexpected emotional insights. I don’t know why I phrase it that way, it’s not like you can’t be both funny and have an aptitude for writerly emotional nuance. I’m sorry to sell you short, Grady Hendrix, you pen some extremely enjoyable and satisfying reads! I tend to think of Hendrix as that really funny guy in class that I always had a crush on but I also suspected that if you scratch the surface of the jokes, there’s not much underneath. That’s not true with this author, and I need to stop thinking that way. In brief, Lynette and a handful of survivors of various massacres and murderous crimes have been meeting for therapy for over a decade–until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette’s worst fears are realized—someone knows about the group and is determined to pick them off one by one.
Survivor’s Club Survivors’ Club is…not that at all. This graphic novel comic series follows another handful of survivors, but these individuals are victims of supernatural/paranormal horrors from the 1980s–killer dolls, haunted houses, and possessions, etc. They meet via the internet and try to figure out what connects them, and why these things occurred, and what is it exactly that’s beginning to happen again? It’s wildly creepy and bizarre and gruesome and I’ll admit, I first grabbed it because I saw that Lauren Beuekes was one of the writers involved with it. I don’t really love how it wrapped up, and overall it felt a little messy…but if I understand correctly, it got canceled, and perhaps they had to rush the ending.
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Brian Boucher says