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 Horror Reading Challenge 2020

prideskullThis year, I’ve set myself a challenge of discovering good queer horror. I’ve already started, but I thought I might formalise this whole venture with a post.

Even though I’ve gone out of my way to read queer fiction, I’ve struggled to find a lot of horror amongst it, even though that’s one of my favourite genres to read and write. When I look for lists (I love a good recommendation list), there’s often a lot of queer horror from the 80s and 90s, or even the 1890s! (Hello, Dorian Gray.) It’s not surprising as the history of queer horror fiction is a long one. I often read older fiction and have reviewed a few queer classics on here, but I was in my teens during the 90s. It’s not news to me that there was some great queer media happening in that decade. I want a list that tells me something I don’t know. I also want to know about more trans and gender diverse fiction, something that wasn’t so abundant during that period. So, I’m going to make my own list of more recent queer horror.

Who am I?

I’m a queer man (trans, bi) in my early 40s, which for fans of generational labels apparently makes me a young Gen-X. I’m an English and media graduate. I’m based in the UK. I’m white. I work in an indie bookshop. I have a 12 year old son. I have a history of trauma and related mental health problems.

I love reading across a variety of genres, but my favourites are sci-fi, horror, Gothic, literary, historical and classic noir. My favourite horror sub-genres are cosmic, weird and folk horror. I love fiction that experiments and pushes the envelope; I love to be surprised. I’d rather a writer try something new and not fully succeed than play it safe and retread old ground.

I also write weird, queer, Gothic, sci-fi and poetry. Really, all sorts. I write a lot about trauma, whether I mean to or not.

What do I mean by queer?

I’m using queer as an umbrella term in place of the increasingly unwieldy LGBTQIA+ acronym, though I realise not everyone in that acronym identifies as queer. Here, it’s a shorthand for stories with significant LGBTQIA+ characters. It’s also the name of an actual Queer Book Club I joined a few years ago, which started off my reviews of queer fiction on my blog. It’s not an accident that I’ve chosen a more politically charged label, but that doesn’t have to be relevant to this challenge.

What’s the scope of this challenge?

I only do positive reviews on my blog, so in the end what I hope to have is a list of recommended queer horror fiction, linked to more detailed reviews, which I’ll write as I go. I’ll include horror hybrids, Gothic and other dark fiction if I feel it’s of interest to horror fans. I’ll focus on books from the last 10 years, because I’m hoping this will be a new resource, not a rehash.

I’m going to focus on long-form fiction – novels and novellas. There’s some great short fiction out there, but there’s so much, and I don’t think I can do justice to it all. There are also practical and financial limits to how much short fiction I can realistically access, so it seems fairer to focus on longer stuff. I read and review both adult and YA. I’ll probably include some graphic novels.

I’ll end up reading a bunch of fiction that either I don’t like or I don’t think is horror and that won’t be included. (Though I might review the non-horror anyway.) This list will be subjective. It will be a product of my tastes and biases. I’ll comment more on things closer to my own experience (e.g. being queer, some types of mental health experience) and less on things I don’t have personal experience of (e.g. representation of race), but I’ll try to keep in mind all types of diversity in what I choose to read. I’ll include books I feel broadly positive about, even if there are elements that make me uncomfortable, not least because darker fiction is inherently an uncomfortable experience, but if I spend a whole book cringing my arse off about the queer representation or some other aspect, it’s not on the list.

I’d welcome recommendations, so please point me in the direction of queer horror you’ve enjoyed from 2010-2020. Obviously, I’ve met a few writers whilst working on my own writing. In the past, I’ve reviewed some of their books, but I won’t include any books on the list that are written by writers I know, because I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest or for this to become a promo exercise. This is a list made by a fan of horror fiction for readers of horror fiction.

I’ll be buying the books, mostly paper, some ebooks, myself with the help of my trusty staff discount.

I hope you’ll join me for the ride. I’ll start an index for this challenge on the Horror/Gothic tab on this blog (there’s also an index of all my queer book reviews under the Reviews Index tab). When I’ve got a good size list, I’ll put it all together in an overview post.

My Year in Books 2019

Year in Books 2019Here’s my Goodreads page for this year: a light one for me, as my non-fiction reading slowed me down. I’m still working on the Gothic novel that saw me digging in to some nature writing.

My Goodreads Year in Books Page 

I’d hoped to have more queer books to share. It ended up being the older ones I enjoyed more this year, though I’m still stewing over how to review Maupin’s Tales of the City, which filled me with both joy and discomfort. I’ve already reviewed my favourite, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. My plan for next year is to focus back on queer fiction again and hopefully I’ll find some more recent recommendations. I still have a few I plan to review from this year.

My top three recently published fiction novels were My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Normal People by Sally Rooney and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. My Sister, the Serial Killer was a surprisingly quick and darkly funny read for a book that deals with both murder and child abuse. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a look. Normal People is the story of a relationship that begins in school and goes on into adulthood. What stood out for me with this one was both the naturally flowing storytelling style and the way Rooney handles trauma and other mental illness. I’m a fan of Ottessa Mosfegh’s Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a woman’s wilful descent into narcotic annihilation – another darkly funny story that, like Eileen, takes the ugliness and awkwardness of existence head on. (None of these have queer characters, I should mention.)

My favourite horror read was The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, a disturbing story of a village where the women have died and the arrival of The Beauty, a species of fungus people who the villagers hope will replace them. The story is full of primal fear and the precariousness of existence, and underneath, darker currents around desire, gender roles and body horror.

I’m currently snuggled up with a copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Call Down the Hawk, a little Christmas present to myself. I’m a big fan of her Raven Cycle, and this is the first of a new trilogy set in the same world, with some of the same characters. There’s no way I’m going to finish it today, so that’ll have to wait until next year. I’m enjoying it so far and am fairly confident there’ll be a review coming soon.

All the best for the New Year.


Short story: Falling on Medium


white feathersGabriel has fallen to Earth and God has left his throne. Read Part 1 of Falling.

I’ve just had the first two parts of my short story, Falling, published in The Mad River on Medium. It’s four parts in total and will all be published in the next few days. I’ll stick links to the whole thing up here when it’s finished. (Medium have created new friend links to get past the paywall, so I can now share those here, but the first part is free, anyway.)

Falling is a story of queer angels, old gods, syncretism, identity and social media tribalism. Some sort of hybrid mythic sci-fi mix. (I’m not very good at sticking in one genre, but I’ve really blown the envelope up here.) I hope you enjoy it. Most of my short stories have been coming out pretty long this year, so this is a bit of experiment in posting a longer work in parts, to see how it goes.

Queer Book Club: Every Day by David Levithan


Every Day is YA speculative fiction. Every morning, A wakes up to find themself in a different life, in a different body. They spend only a day in each person’s body and then move on. A has always moved from life to life, unable to make long-term relationships, careful not to leave a lasting mark on the lives they touch. But then they meet Rhiannon and fall in love and everything changes.

Every Day was a random second-hand bookshop find for me, although I read and enjoyed another Levithan book earlier in the year (you can find the review in the index), so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Each life that A touches was well realised, a brief glimpse into someone else’s reality. Levithan jumps from life to life with incredible skill.

A is effectively gender fluid, taking on the gender of the person whose life they’re borrowing. They’re also pansexual/bisexual. I’m not sure why there is a male pronoun used in the blurb as A is explicit about not identifying with one gender more than another in the story. Probably marketing department shenanigans. Gender is handled quite subtly for most of the story—for A it’s not that big a deal, but it’s clear in the way the A interacts with others that their varied experience has given them a lot of empathy for others. This particularly comes across in A’s concern for the way that Rhiannon is treated and devalued by her shitty boyfriend and there’s a nice feminist undercurrent to that. There’s a little more explicit gender reflection towards the end and in some ways I preferred the more subtle gender and identity stuff because the whole model for the story gives ample opportunity for that sort of reflection. The trans person that A hops into towards the end becomes a bit of a vehicle for this. I liked the diverse representation (and overall there is plenty), but found it a bit odd that this was the only character that got an enormous coming out back story.

The only thing that is missing for me in the story is a little more existential reflection from A. There is a little, but as the whole set-up is such a huge opportunity for that, I think more big questions could have been asked. There are some slightly bland generalisations about people being 98% similar and religions all being similar which I was fairly ambivalent about. I guess that the big questions of existence are just something Levithan didn’t want to go near, maybe so as not to alienate people, so the story keeps a tight focus on personal experience and identity. Having said that, I’m happy that no explanation is provided for A’s hopping, though I’m sure it would drive some readers nuts.

This is worth reading for the deft way Levithan realises the different lives that A glimpses. Each chapter is a day and there are so many different experiences brought to life in the story. For me that’s really the main attraction of the book.