Queer Book Club: Bunny by Mona Awad

The 13th review for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge feels like a cause for celebration, so get out your tiny pink frosted cupcakes for Bunny by Mona Awad, a satirical horror novel for adults.

Samantha Heather Mackey loved writing until she won one of the limited and much sought-after places on Warren University’s MFA writing programme. Since then, she hasn’t been able to write much at all. Everything about the place sucks the life out of her, not least the group of women who share her tutorial group. Samantha’s named the saccharine-sweet clique the Bunnies, as that’s what they call each other: Bunny. If it weren’t for Warren drop out, Ava, Samantha would have gone crazy. But even though she’s repelled by them, the Bunnies fascinate her and, when she receives an invitation to one of their select gatherings, she’s drawn into their world.

This is a delightfully strange book, taking the old trope of sorority horror and running with it into bizarre new territory. It’s a twisting, twisted, often funny tale that becomes weirder as it progresses. The prose is assured and enjoyable; the plot feels fresh and unpredictable. I’m glad to have stumbled upon this unusual gem. I remember late at night catching old sorority horror films on TV as a kid and it’s always been one of my favourite tropes, with its heady mix of social claustrophobia and weird hazing rituals. Bunny doesn’t include a sorority, per se, but it’s got the same mixture that’s so enjoyable when it’s done well, as it is here.

As far as queer representation goes, Samantha is a dreamer and often seems detached from the life around her and her own desires. There’s also a fair amount of repressed emotion going on with all the characters. Samantha’s maybe bi, but whether she’d use that label for herself is another matter. She’s nowhere near that point. Bunny handles the desires and insecurities of the young women in an entirely transgressive way that blends social satire with bizarro horror elements, allowing for an exploration of the mess that is friendship and sexuality in a fresh and unpretentious way. Unlike the Bunnies.

I should stress, this is an odd book. It probably won’t be what you’re expecting, because it’s not quite like anything else. The somewhat trippy bizarro elements and unreliable narrator mean it won’t be for everyone, but it’s worth a look if any of the things I’ve mentioned above would float your boat. Unlike many stories about secret college societies, it’s genuinely surprising.

Queer Book Club: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

I neglected this blog over Halloween, so here’s a queer horror review to make up for my absence.

The Daylight Gate was recently re-released by Windmill Books, so I decided to re-read it over Halloween. I first picked it up a few years ago in the local library and I remember being surprised by how bleak and nasty it was, but now I’ve read more of Winterson and revisited this one with my eyes open, I got a lot more from it. The grimness comes from the poverty and degradation on display, from human beings forced to extreme lengths to survive, resorting to dangerous pacts in a desperate bid for power. Or sometimes for love. There’s a spikey combination of realism and sinister magic that shines a light on the impossibly precarious position of women and outsiders at the time, with James I’s agents on the hunt, to cries of “Witchery Popery Popery Witchery.” But it’s not a story of helpless victims. The characters, for better or worse, each try to take their fate into their own hands; they’re often stubborn, mistaken, perverse and deluded, but most have a fierce will. It’s transgressive in a way that’s deeply unsettling. There’s little comfort on offer here, but it’s hard to look away.

1612, Pendle Hill, Lancashire. A poor, desperate rabble gather for what locals suspect is a dark sabbat. And then there’s wealthy, respectable Alice Nutter, who protects them on her land, who allows them to live in squalor in the notorious Malkin Tower. What’s the connection between Alice and the suspected witches? And with King James’s hunters on the prowl, why will she risk everything to protect them?

Winterson takes the real-life Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire as a jumping off point, from which she spins a story of horror and ill-fated love. For people looking for a dignified portrayal of witchcraft, or even for historical accuracy, this isn’t that book (nor is it trying to be), and I’ve noticed that’s upset some people. For a speculative exploration of desperation and devilry, this is a powerful tale and one that lingers in all its disturbing goriness. There are elements of folk horror mixed with subtle and not-so-subtle Satanism, with a sprinkling of alchemical magic.

There are plenty of twists in this tightly plotted short novel and enough mystery that I’m wary of giving any more details away. Some of the pleasure of reading The Daylight Gate is in the ways the story challenges and plays with perceptions of characters, their power relations and their motives. Although reading it a second time, aware of many of those twists, I still appreciated that progression.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was the first queer fiction I ever read and, I’m sure like many people, that gives me a soft spot for Jeannette Winterson, even though I don’t like all her writing. This was originally written as part of a series commissioned by Hammer Horror and it’s fascinating to see what happens when Winterson fully embraces the horror genre. For me, it’s a success. Not what I was expecting when I first read it, but on a second read, a rich and disturbing tale of power and the lack of it, of obsessive love and desperation. As a northerner (albeit from the other side of the Pennines) the dark mythologising of the North (of England) was an added bonus for me.

Read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge. Content warning for rape, incest and child abuse (I don’t always give these for horror reviews, but it’s particularly stark in this story, though not glorified).

Queer Book Club: One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau

I took a break from my Queer Horror Reading Challenge to read the International Booker shortlist with some folk at the bookshop where I work, before the winner was announced. Not quite light summer reading, but it was good to dig into some good literary fiction. Here’s our cringey discussion on Youtube, if you’re interested (probably more cringey to me than anyone else).

Now, back to the queer horror with Joey Comeau’s One Bloody Thing After Another.

This is an odd little adult horror novella about Jackie and Ann, teenage friends each dealing with some pretty grisly mother issues. Jackie’s mother died of cancer and now she reappears in moments of stress, still vomiting over the toilet bowl as she did in her final days. Jackie can’t stop getting into trouble, as she storms through life, a violent mix of yearning and rage. Ann’s mother lives in the basement now, howling and feasting on the flesh of living animals. Ann and her sister are struggling to find enough kittens to feed her. Jackie has a crush on Ann. Neither of them is telling the other about their problems or their desires.

The whole story is delivered in a jaunty narration style, as if the narrator is greeting readers with a manic papered-on grin and assuring us Everything Is Fine, as one more horrible thing is piled on another. The style overlays dark humour on an otherwise bleak story, marrying absurdity to human tragedy in a union that Comeau somehow manages to pull off without it feeling tacky or exploitative. In some places, the casual tone with which horrible events are delivered adds to the shock.

This is a story about lost mothers and what Jackie and Ann will do to try to get back to them. The narrative pulse is pure hurt and trauma from start to finish, but with that vein of dark humour that pulls us through. It’s transgressive, sometimes in bad taste, often grisly, with an underlying truth that grounds it. I enjoyed the oddness of it, the unpredictability and the chaotic tumble of anger and horror that comes quickly and left me spinning, trying to pick up the pieces. A quick read that’s got a bit of wet, lightly gnawed meat to it.

Queer Book Club: A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney

A Spectral Hue coverA Spectral Hue is a weird ghost story for adults – either a short novel or long novella. Xavier, a post-graduate art student, visits the run-down coastal town of Shimmer to research the history of African-American folk artists inspired by the town’s strange marsh bell flower. The flower’s distinct purple-pink colour appears over and over, across different generations, in the varied art of local artists. From the moment Xavier first sees a quilt by Shimmer artist Hazel Whitby, he’s captivated. And Xavier’s not the only person to be held in thrall by the distinctive artworks and the colour that inspired them.

This is a wonderful ghost story, with elements of Gothic, both in the ways it dances the line between sensuality and fear, and in its exploration of generational trauma. The prose is fluid and often beautiful and there’s a whole cast of queer black characters. There’s a real sense that Gidney cares deeply about his characters in a way that made me care about them too, from perfectionist Xavier, to grieving Iris, to wounded Linc, whose lives become entwined with Shimmer’s legacy and with each other. With deft pacing, we learn how each of the main characters came to be where they are, their strengths and their wounds, and the story of how racial trauma echoes down the generations. There’s solace and power in art, but also a grief that can overwhelm even the strongest person. The story offers no easy explanations or easy solutions, but a lot of complex humanity and satisfying speculative mystery.

If I’m going to be picky, my only real criticism of this story is it took me a while to get into the style of sliding back and forth in time with very little use of past perfect tense. I know it’s less popular in the US, but some here and there would have made for a smoother read for me in the beginning. Having said that, I stopped noticing a little way in, so I must have got used to the frequent temporal shifts. In the ebook edition I read, there were more than the average number of proofing errors – mostly missing words – but the fluid prose makes up for them. Hopefully later editions wil catch them.

This book is a treat for readers of queer fiction because there are so many great queer characters. Of the point of view characters, I especially enjoyed Iris, whose history of wrestling with a religious upbringing, a supernatural gift and a queer identity made for a rich and vivid narrative strand that managed to avoid all clichés. It’s also a book that takes speculative fiction seriously for the possibilities it presents. Going in, I wondered if the story might be a ‘Colour out of Space’ re-imagining, but it’s original in its take on the idea of a haunting colour and I was never able to fully predict where the story would take me.

Read as part of my Queer Horror ChallengeA Spectral Hue is more ghost story with hints of cosmic weirdness than full on horror, but it’s subtly unsettling with a whole ocean of darkness flowing under the surface. I’d definitely recommend it to horror fans.

Queer Book Club: The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

The Drowning Girl cover

When India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends) picks up a naked woman from the side of the road, her tentative grip on sanity is wrenched away. Or does that happen at all? Truth and fact are moving concepts in this Gothic tale of ghosts, mythology and madness.

Imp is schizophrenic, as were her mother and grandmother. Their suicides haunt her like the figures from art and mythology she obsessively collects in dossiers; they haunt her like Eva Canning, the woman who appears in her life one dark night and may be a siren and may be a werewolf. As Imp’s obsessions begin to merge with her experiences of Eva, readers are sucked into Imp’s frightening internal world. By her side is Abalyn, her trans girlfriend, a grumpy computer game reviewer, who tries to support Imp on her quests for the truth.

After enjoying Agents of Dreamland, I decided to pick up another of Kienan’s books. It has the same disregard for linear narrative, the same love of fragmented story telling, but the narrator is very different from the characters in that novella and shows off just how broad Kiernan’s range is. Imp is a brilliant character study – distinctive and compelling from the first page. It’s the mastery of voice and atmosphere that really sets this book apart and assured me I was in safe hands from the start. Beyond that, the way art and mythology and other cultural artefacts – both real and fictional – are woven together to form a narrative labyrinth is the perfect unsettling ride. Imp is the poster girl for unreliable narrators. The uncertainty and ever-shifting sense of reality veers from unsettling to genuinely disturbing at times. This is such a rich feast of a book, a tense psychological ride that’s both fascinating and disorienting. As soon as I got to the last page, I immediately wanted to start again, to go deeper into the mystery and see what I’d missed the first time.

I think this is a book that hangs on readers being interested in Imp, because the progression of the plot isn’t the main focus of the story and in places Imp’s constant avoidance and digressions slow things right down – which is all thoroughly enjoyable, if you’re invested in Imp and her experiences. I also found myself simply marvelling at the craft. It’s not a book for readers who struggle with uncertainty or who need a pacey, plot-driven read. But if you’re happy to be dragged along by a character who is actively avoiding her own plot, then throw yourself into these dangerous currents and turn your back on the shore.

The Drowning Girl is a Gothic novel for adults, read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth coverI know I’m late to the party with this one, but I got here in the end and I’m glad I did. The book’s genre is hard to pin down, combining elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror into something that’s probably called dark space opera. Gideon the Ninth is set in a world of necromantic houses in service to an absent God Emperor Necrolord. Like Warhammer 40k without the hyper-masculinity – very much without it, as there’s gender equality and plenty of great female characters, including a female lead who is casually and unapologetically attracted to other women. It’s aimed at an adult audience, but the main characters are young and it would suit older teens who can handle darker content.

Ninth House childhood rivals Gideon and Harrow find themselves caught up in a deadly necromantic puzzle, the winner of which will become a Lyctor, an aide to the Emperor in his constant battle against threatening forces unknown. There’s plenty of death and treachery, but the book overall is surprisingly jolly for a tale of necromancy, thanks to its sardonic, take-no-shit narrator, Gideon, and an entertaining cast of weirdos and necro-geeks drawn from the empire’s nine houses.

The story is pacey, with plot twists and action constantly pulling the story forward. It’s good genre fun, not too deep, but a real joy to read – exactly what my pandemic-addled brain is in the mood for right now. There are horror elements in the form of an unknown threat stalking the ancient palace long abandoned by the First House, and some intriguing undead monsters.

This is not a story for people who like lots of space devoted to explicit world build, because Muir very much throws readers in at the deep end. It’s also not for people driven insane by anachronistic speech styles, because the dialogue is very present-day-millennial. However, Gideon’s voice is strong and really carries the narrative. It’s not perfect – there’s something about the way scenery is described that I struggled with at times and the prose is a bit rough around the edges in a few places, but there’s so much to like here that I found I didn’t care. It’s one of those stories that dragged me in, transported me to another place and didn’t let me go.

I read this as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge and would definitely recommend it for people who are looking for a lighter read with a dark aesthetic. That’s lighter as measured against the other horror I’ve covered in this challenge – there are still plenty of deaths and murders and monstrous bone constructs, but there’s also the fun of a writer clearly revelling in her subject matter.

Queer Book Club: The Devourers by Indra Das

The Devourers coverThe Devourers begins when Alok, a lonely academic in modern-day India, meets a man claiming to be half-werewolf. The story unfolds through scrolls the stranger has Alok transcribe, which take him back to the Mughal India of the Shah Jehan, following the lives of long-lived flesh eaters and the mortals they hunt and love.

This book is unique and powerful, balanced on the line between desire and terror for much of the story, playing with the Gothic sublime with a skill that’s electrifying. I was seduced by the richness of language, the characters and their relationships and the grizzly, visceral horror and violence of the flesh-eaters’ lives. Although the creatures sometimes known as werewolves, sometimes rakshasa, are fascinating, it’s really Cyrah, a human woman one of them falls in love with, who is the heart of the story. Through her trauma, and the uncompromising way she lives her life, Cyrah gives a new perspective to the idea of power. Her sections feel the most fluid and alive.

Through this beautiful, violent tale, Indra Das explores fractured identity, colonialism, gender, queerness, trauma and the risks we take to truly feel alive in our own skin. It’s also a story of stories, of different beings trying to construct a narrative and a legacy from their chaotic lives. The themes are woven seamlessly with the story and the supernatural elements, as we’re seduced along with Alok into this world of animalistic violence and transgression. Reading The Devourers is an intensely visceral, emotional ride, but one that’s remained with me on an intellectual level, with so many layers to unpick. This is speculative fiction at its very best.

The Devourers is an adult horror novel. Read as part of my queer horror reading challenge.

Queer Book Club: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland coverAgents of Dreamland is an adult cosmic horror novella, part of Tor’s Re-imagining Lovecraft series, and my favourite so far.

The novella is a jigsaw of interconnecting points of view and fragments plucked from different points in time, a puzzle concerning the activities of a doomsday cult and the interactions of two agents sent to investigate by shadowy organisations in the US and UK. There are mythos nods to Yithians and Fungi from Yuggoth and a distinctly Delta Green vibe, for fans of table-top roleplay games, or X-Files for the less geeky. The way the story circles around these cosmic mysteries feels like a perfect way to handle the subject matter and reflects the unknowable nature of the horrors at work. The pacing and structure fits the novella length beautifully and each point of view is distinct and rich in character.

This is a tricky book to review without giving away spoilers. One of the joys of reading this story is piecing together the disparate parts, coming up with theories and finding connections. For example, I’m convinced that one of the main characters, the aloof and mysterious Immacolata Sexton from the British agency “Y”, is queer, but I can only explain why I think so by joining up some dots that would totally spoil the fun. (A lack of LGBT+ Goodreads shelving would suggest I may be off-base with my theory.) At one point, there’s a hint that a myth central to the story has been straight-washed in its classic cult cinema rendering, which sent my brain spiralling off. I’d love to read other theories about this, so feel free to drop them in the comments below. I may be wrong, but I’ve decided to double down and stick this story in my queer horror list.

For Lovecraft fans, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘dreamland’ in the title seems to be the name of a special Area 51 bunker where cosmic secrets are housed, not Lovecraft’s dreamlands. No one was tickled in the making of this novella.

This was an extremely rewarding read – exactly what I want from a modern Lovecraftian story. Exceptional story telling. If you like cosmic horror, I can’t recommend it enough.

Reviewed for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

The Cabin at the End of the WorldThe Cabin at the End of the World is an adult horror novel. Seven year old Wen and her two dads, Eric and Andrew, are holidaying at a remote cabin in a New Hampshire forest when a group of four strangers arrive, bearing weird home-made weapons they claim are tools. They tell the family that they must choose one of them to be sacrificed willingly, or everyone else in the world will die. So begins a nightmare ordeal.

This is an incredibly tense story of love and sacrifice, where the claustrophobic action of the present is woven skilfully with the past experiences of the characters, as previous hurts and traumas surface under pressure. The limited cast of characters, small time-frame and enclosed location serve to ramp up the tension and focus the narrative in a way that heightens the emotion and occasional extreme violence. The story is dark and bleak, but is woven through with humanity and connection, and never cheapens the value of a human life.

I appreciate that the story has gay dads in it. I don’t seem to come across a lot of fiction with queer parents in. Without going into spoiler territory, the whole story seems to subvert some common gay tropes – I’m not sure how deliberate this was, but it definitely added to the story for me. There’s plenty of philosophical meat to this novel, plenty to think about at the end, without the story feeling self-consciously “deep” or stylistically weighty. There’s a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity right up to the end, which I liked, but which I know won’t suit everyone.

My only real gripe, and it’s fairly minor, was an odd choice to switch between first and third person in some of the joint Eric and Andrew sections towards the end of the novel. Sometimes it happened mid-sentence, which I found difficult to process, and which threw me out of the story somewhat.

Overall, a skilfully wrought, tense and disturbing horror novel with two gay main characters. This one’s going on the recommendation list for my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

More queer horror reviews coming soon.

Queer Book Club: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts coverAn Unkindness of Ghosts is an adult sci-fi novel set on a generational ship, ruled by a white supremacist group. Aster is one of the dark-skinned lower-deck residents, who is also looked on with suspicion for being neuro-atypical. She’s a skilled healer who brews much needed medicine in her secret botanarium. Her fierce intelligence and passion for medicine lead her to an unlikely friendship with the Surgeon, “God’s chosen hands” on the ship. But when his cruel uncle looks set to take over and starts to press his vendetta against Aster, something has to change.

I’ll get straight to the most important part of this review: I flat out love this book. The story tackles a lot of dark subject matter and it never flinches or fails to show life in all its complexity. This won’t be a book for everyone. It can be a tough read at times and the situation on the ship can feel overwhelming and helpless. It’s in part a slave narrative, with all that entails. (Take this as a content warning for all types of violence associated with a slavery or segregation context.) Though the story is bleak at times, the way it’s written never feels exploitative or gratuitous, and there is a lot of space given to hope and friendship.

The characterisations are so detailed and consistent, even when character flaws and foibles are maddening at times. The way Solomon writes is uncompromising in the best way – we may be floating through space in a giant ship with these people, but their stories feel completely real. Aster is stubborn in the face of oppression, even when it hurts her time and time again. Her best friend Giselle’s mental health problems make her cruel and rash at times. Her adoptive mother, Melusine, loves Aster unconditionally, but still resents the motherly role that’s constantly thrust upon her because she’s seen as a matronly type by the white upper deck people. The Surgeon, Theo, pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable with his gender presentation every day, though he knows it makes his privileged peers view him with suspicion. In every way, people act like people, through small acts of rebellion and inevitable acts of trauma, through loyalty, friendship and kindness as well as petty and extreme cruelty.

As far as representation goes, there’s a very diverse cast of characters, though the words they use to describe their identities are not our words. Many of the lower-deck people seem to have intersex traits. Aster and Theo are both gender-nonconforming in different ways. Melusine is asexual. There are many other queer characters and most of the major characters are black. Aster is probably on the autistic spectrum. Giselle suffers from severe mental health problems, including psychosis. I’m not qualified to speak on all of these identities, but I think Aster and Theo’s gender identities are handled very well, particularly in the way they’re woven together with the culture and realities of the ship, so that the world building and diversity mesh seamlessly. They talk openly to each other at points in the story about their gender feelings, as well as reflecting internally, so it’s something that’s tackled directly, even if they’re not in a position to realise their ideal expression, or even able to fully separate that ideal from their varied traumas.

Overall, I can’t really praise this enough. If dark and unflinching sci-fi is your thing, read this book. It’s bloody brilliant.