Maika is again joining me for this Winter installment of Stacked! And for more Maika-related goodness, 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 daily basis.
The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila – This slim volume of short stories caught me by surprise, which is silly because it was showing up on numerous recommended reading lists not too long ago. Meanwhile it’s been patiently biding its time in my to-read stacks for a couple years. Shame on me. These are intensely disquieting and unnerving tales deceptively dressed in mundanity. It’s what you do not see or are not permitted to see that’s truly disturbing here, along with narrators you cannot trust, and the sparest settings that allow your mind to freely dress them in whatever ways haunt you best. I’ve seen Dávila’s writing likened to Poe, Leonora Carrington, Shirley Jackson, and Kafka, and that all rings true for me. This is the first collection of Amparo Dávila’s work to be translated into English. I dearly hope it’s not the last.
And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe by Gwendolyn Kiste – This is exactly what I want from a short story collection: intensely creative and vivid tales that are equal parts weird fiction, horror, and deep feels woven together with lyrical, evocative writing. It always feels like a cop-out to say this in a review, but the less you know about these atmospheric stories, the better. Let each one be a dark new experience for your imagination, your mind, and your heart.
The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste – I was so taken by Kiste’s short stories that I immediately sought out another of her books. This novel was every bit as creative and beautifully written as the stories in And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe. I’d call it a dark fantasy meditation on loss, grief, and change. Our narrator, Phoebe, tells her tale both in the present-day as a 40-something woman, and back when she’d just graduated from high school and something very very strange began happening to other girls in her class, including Jacqueline, her cousin and dearest friend. Set in an Ohio town whose fate is tied to the existence of a dying steel mill, the atmosphere is heavy with grief and dread, but also an inescapable, bittersweet wonder. What happens to the Rust Maidens is visceral, horrifying, heartbreaking, and beautiful, and decidedly unlike anything I’ve read about before. And as I read, I found myself hoping that someone will option this to adapt as a miniseries or movie, if only because I’d love to see just the right SFX team bring the metamorphosis of the Rust Maidens to life. This was one of those stories that I worried might not stick its landing as it developed, but I was as satisfied as I was emotionally spent by the end.
In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss – I love how many dreamy and quite short short stories were packed into this book. It felt like a vivid feast of dark fantasy, dark fairy tales, and magical realism. Reminiscent of Angela Carter and Kelly Link. Surreal and unsettlings, enchanting without ever being saccharine or twee. I’d read another volume in a heartbeat.
The Seep by Chana Porter – I really enjoyed this queer sci-fi novella – about the softest alien invasion of Earth by The Seep, a hive mind species that merges with nearly every lifeform on earth, including most of humanity creating a seeming utopia – but I was very frustrated by it all the same. Everything I liked best about it – The Seep itself, the Seep-related technology and the way humans interface with and utilize it – only came in tantalizing glimpses and all-too-brief descriptions. On one hand, I appreciate how The Seep and its (their?) technology are technically secondary to the story itself, which is the journey of a trans woman who loses her wife and, secondarily, their shared community to divergent paths in the Seepified world. However none of that would’ve happened without The Seep, so the fact that we get so tormentingly little of it left me feeling unfulfilled by the story. Had this novella been part of a collection of stories or ongoing series set in this world, meaning I’d learn more about The Seep and Seeptech with each tale, that would’ve made this story able to stand on its own better for me. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating, poignant, and beautifully written, and I will gladly read more of Chana Porter’s work in the future.
Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3) by Seanan McGuire – I think there are currently 7 books in this ongoing series, which means I’m way behind. But I’m not in a hurry and I thoroughly enjoy how, each time I start a new Wayward Children story, it feels like I never left that world, but without the tedious hand-holding exposition that some authors employ to make sure you’re caught up on previous events in their series. I love the combination of melancholy and hope that permeates these imaginative, wonderfully queer books, whose characters are bereft outside of their respective magical worlds, yet refuse to stop searching for their respective ways back, and in the meantime find true kinship and relatably imperfect friendship with each other. If you were one of those kids who ever imagined a world made of sweets, this particular book is both a dream and nightmare come true. That is, for as much as the experience of reading a book you consider to be a lived experience.
I thought I’d also mention some books I’ve been leisurely snacking on while reading things like all of the above, because some books are begun, steadily read, and finished, while others are best visited, tasted, and inhabited intermittently:
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
The Essential Gay Mystics by Andrew Harvey
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones If you were the weird outcast kid who grew up loving all things horror then you may see pieces of yourself painfully reflected in Jade, the tough, traumatized main character in Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw, a love letter to horror if there ever was one. And I know, I know, everyone says that about this book, but it’s so true. Jade, a graduating senior, lives in a nowhere town, has a go-nowhere job, and lives in an internal world of slashers and gore and horror as a self-preservation in dealing with her abusive father, absent mother, and creepy predators everywhere she turns. Jade, convinced that the beautiful new girl in town is a “final girl”, fixates on this character, and in the wake of several murders, becomes increasingly obsessed and excited as she believes that she may be living through a real-life slasher movie in her own town. SGJ’s books are bleak and require a fair bit of patience from a reader, but man are they worth it.
Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn A harrowing fantasy of fate and power and vengeance that reads like “Rosemary’s Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler”, along with some Lovecraftian elements and a desperate mythology all its own, this was a quick, brutal read that I began and finished in the course of one afternoon. Survivors from a flooded kingdom struggle alone on an ark, among them the ostracized, despised Iraxi, pregnant with a child that might be more than human. This is the author from whom a few years ago I purchased my “support black women who write weird shit” tee-shirt and it’s one of my favorites and now she’s out there publishing magnificently weird shit and I am thrilled.
The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn I keep getting sucked in by books like this, even though I know better. Another tale of people in their late 20s-early 30s looking back on something mysterious and murderous that happened during their time at university. And YES, on the surface, I love these plots, but it’s the characters that populate the stories that make a huge difference to me. Are they weird and prickly and have incredibly peculiar interests? Great, gimme gimme! Are they people who are desperate to fit in and be popular and it’s just a bunch of dreck about trying to be liked by everyone while desperately praying that no one sees what a pathetic loser they are? Ugh! I need more books about pathetic losers finding their own people and being fun, sociopathic pathetic losers together and then also add some murder and mystery, and that, for me, is *chef’s kiss.*
Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer Have you been dying to get into Jeff Vandermeer’s brain-bending weird fiction/eco-horror, but were perhaps intimidated by his non-linear games with time and sometimes abstract storytelling to really give it a shot? I feel like Hummingbird Salamander might be “Vandermeer-lite”, and maybe a good place to jump in. It’s still got those familiar themes of nature, power, and persistence, sand ecrets and isolation, but the structure is almost that of a detective noir mystery and it may be easier to follow along. A security consultant, “Jane Smith,” falls down a paranoid rabbit hole of eco-terrorism conspiracies and illegal wildlife trafficking after a barista chases her out of a coffee shop to hand her a random envelope. Vandermeerity ensues.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell Stricken by an illness that has left her fragile and vulnerable, Agnes Darken struggles to provide for her elderly mother and her beloved orphan nephew Cedric. As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, Agnes’ business as a silhouette artist is dwindling, and money is ever more scarce. When her silhouette clients start turning up murdered, Agnes, frantic and terrified, consults Pearl, a young spirit medium. Laura Purcell’s stories are always evocative with rich descriptions and historical details, whether its spiritualism and silhouette making as in this tale, or prisons and phrenology, as seen in The Poisoned Thread (also titled The Corset.) Wintry and eerie and immersive, they are all wonderfully haunting tales for curling up on a chilly evening. Although! I will say that the first of Purcell’s books that I read, The Silent Companions, will forever remain my favorite.
A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan I first saw this title recommended by Roxane Gay sometime last year. And when Roxane Gay shares reading suggestions, my ears perk up. The kind of story I’ve taking to internally referring to “MFA nightmare-induced weirdness,” A Touch of Jen is about an awkward couple who is weirdly obsessed with one of their former coworkers. They stalk her on social media, they roleplay as her in the bedroom–it’s a little creepy. After running into her they somehow garner an invite as guests on one of her group trips, and things between the couple begin to splinter and fracture as they both become more obsessed in their own, separate ways. In addition to interpersonal weirdness and fucked up relationships, there are self-help cults and actual supernatural things going on in the story (or at least we are led to believe there are) and this is just weird and fun. If you liked Mona Awad’s Bunny, I think you will enjoy A Touch of Jen.