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: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls coverWilder Girls is a YA sci-fi/horror novel about a girl’s boarding school blighted by the Tox, a disease that mutates both students and wildlife. As stated on the book’s cover, this is a story for older readers.

Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine for eighteen months and supplies are scarce. There’s never enough to eat. Many girls and almost all the staff have died of disease or at the hands of the wild, mutated animals, which stalk the overgrown forest on quarantined Raxter island. The remaining girls have banded into small groups to take care of each other and only Headmistress and Miss Walsh remain of the staff. Hetty has her girls, Byatt and Reese. Byatt is her best friend; her friendship with frosty Reese is a little more complicated, mixed in with romantic feelings she hasn’t fully explored and has never admitted to anyone but herself. They all wait on Raxter for the Navy and the CDC to discover a cure. Their only job is to survive long enough for the cure to come.

This is a fast-paced novel that I flew through in a couple of days. Whilst the plot pulls things forward and offers a backdrop, the real focus is on Hetty’s friendships with Byatt and Reese and interactions with the other girls, and the decisions she makes for survival. The psychology feels real and appropriately brutal, given the circumstances, though at times it’s extremely bleak. This is not a story that takes a positive view of humanity, though there are moments of levity and hope in the close friendships of the girls.

The ending is particularly brutal, surprisingly so, and was my least favourite thing aspect of the story. It makes sense as the darkest take of an already bleak psychology. However, I would have liked to see more explicit reflection on the decisions made, even under pressure. The ending leaves readers with a lot of heavy-lifting. I enjoyed the rest enough that I’d still recommend the book. Whilst the ending could have been rounded out more, there were some moral ambiguities to the story that I enjoyed, particularly around Byatt’s character, and these benefited from not being spelled out.

The horror primarily comes in the form of body horror, through the Tox mutations unique to each girl. Although the disease causes suffering, there’s also a sense that it’s freed the girls from unwanted family expectations, from restrictive school uniform and gender limitations, from an uncertain future. Nothing is more valuable than the intense bonds of friendship they’ve made, which seem likely to last a lifetime, however long that will be. The story offers a chance to reflect on the things we value under the worst circumstances.

There are lesbian and bi characters among the cast, including Hetty, who is bi. Whilst there’s romantic friction between Byatt and Reese, the story doesn’t offer a complete romantic sub-plot, so readers looking for one will likely be disappointed. Friendship is much more a focus. I liked the way the relationships were written as hesitant and clumsy, full of doubt and self-sabotage. A more positive romantic plot may have felt trite against such an otherwise brutal story, but as it was, Rory Powers served up something that felt real and this approach grounded the more fantastical elements. That balance between the real and the speculative was the main strength of the story.

Read as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge.

Queer Book Club: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching coverWhite is for Witching is a horror novel set in a haunted monster house, with queer and black characters. I picked it up as part of my Queer Horror Reading Challenge, but then realised it was published in 2009, which places it outside the scope of my challenge. However, I really enjoyed it, so I want to share a review here anyway. It would definitely be going on my list if it was within the time frame. I’m going to include some slight spoilers as to how the story progresses, but not anything about how it ends. It’s a difficult story to talk about without giving a little away.

I think the novel is aimed at an adult audience, though the main characters are older teens. It would be appropriate for either older teens or adults, with the warning that there’s very dark, unsettling subject matter in here, including an eating disorder, racism and racist attacks against immigrants.

The novel is set in Silver House in Dover, a large family home that’s been turned into a bed and breakfast by the family’s most recent members. Miranda and Eliot live there with their father, following the death of their mother overseas. The main focus of the story is Miranda, who suffers from an eating disorder called pica and is compelled particularly to eat chalk. Her late great-grandmother Anna Silver, or GrandAnna, as she was known, also had the disorder. GrandAnna’s presence looms large in the family’s history and is tied up inextricably with the house. Miranda’s grief at her mother’s death causes her to have a breakdown and, even after she comes home from a stay at a psychiatric hospital, she’s clearly not okay. Despite everything, Miranda wins a place at a Cambridge college and meets fellow student Ore. They fall in love, but Miranda’s health continues to decline. There are sections from Miranda’s point of view and from Eliot and Ore’s. There are even some sections from the point of view of the house.

The structure of the novel is non-linear and a little unusual. It begins at the end of the story, with testimony from Eliot and Ore, and then goes back and forward in time to tell the story of what happens to Miranda. I found the beginning disorienting, but soon became immersed in the family’s lives, so it’s definitely a story that’s worth sticking with beyond the first few pages. By the end of the novel, I wanted to read it all again, and did go straight back to those first few pages to see what clues they held in light of the rest of the story.

The location of the house in Dover isn’t an accident – it functions as a symbol of a certain sort of British insularity and racism. Miranda’s obsessive eating of white chalk seems to be a manifestation of the haunting that’s destroying her. Attacks on immigrants and immigrants held in detention are all going on as Miranda’s health declines – the house eats her as she eats up its poison. It’s an incredibly intense story, very sad, with the ever-present knowledge, as the story progresses, that Miranda still isn’t eating food.

The house itself is truly sinister, full of the ghosts of three generations of dead Silver women, who watch the living ghost of Miranda, each with different intentions. Silver House is up there with the great monster houses of the horror genre, its malevolent will stretching across generations as we slowly learn the true extent of its crimes.

White is for Witching is an uncomfortable read, both as a horror novel and a spotlight on the sickness of racism, but in the best way. Excellent queer horror.

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 Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Wayward Girls by Andrew Katz

The Vampire Gideon coverI found this quirky horror novella by accident when looking up a submission call, and loved it, so here’s a review. Asexual vampires have got to be fairly rare these days and that’s what gets this book a place in my queer horror reading challenge – though the story focuses on M/F relationships.

I have a bit of a soft spot for vampires (as long time readers of this blog will know) but let’s face it, they’re often done badly across a range of media and they often rely heavily on tropes. This novella is a genuinely original take on an old favourite, with Gideon trying to redeem his undead existence by offering a suicide hotline to mortals in distress. The story takes us through many of his conversations with callers, including Margot, a teenage girl living with an abusive uncle, who Gideon decides to help beyond the hotline. The eccentric title suggests humour, and there is humour, but the book never shrinks away from tackling serious subject matter with frankness and respect, in a way that’s not overwhelming, leaving room for contemplation and even hope. There’s also plenty of reflection on the importance of human connection, whether it’s romantic, familial or friendship. This idea of connection is at the heart of the story.

I found the frank conversations about suicide tremendously refreshing. We’re now urged to talk about mental illness and suicide, but there’s seldom space made for what those conversations entail. The characters in this novella are flawed, sometimes petty, not always particularly admirable, but they feel real and their struggles feel real. Katz uses the horror genre to stage a deep dig into these aspects of human existence. Through flashbacks to Gideon’s mortal life, we learn slowly about his traumatic past and his tumultuous present, realising that behind the helpful facade he’s tried to cultivate, his monstrous nature occasionally bursts out.

Gideon is a thoroughly unreliable narrator, not least about his own life, which leaves some work for readers to do in piecing things together and drawing conclusions – personally I like this approach, but some readers may find this frustrating. Whilst there’s hope, the ending is somewhat ambiguous and felt a little unsatisfying, though it’s consistent with the characters and themes, so I can’t really fault it. Amongst a deeply flawed cast, no character has all the answers in this story, but the ideas explored provide plenty of food for thought. Overall, this is a skilfully crafted read that handles its subject matter with honesty and courage.

An adult horror novella, read as part of my queer horror reading challenge.

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.