Hi pals! Sorry for the radio silence - I semi-accidentally took August off, which felt highly necessary after a summer that involved a week at SDCC for work, leaving my job, and moving to another state. Also, the world is, both figuratively and increasingly literally, very much on fire, which is… distracting. A couple housekeeping things before we get to books today:
My first post for Tor.com went up in July, and it’s all about Southern Gothic horror – read it here.
I’m officially full-time freelance for the first time in my life! It’s terrifying! I’m available for writing, editing, and embroidery commissions – shoot me a note if you’re interested in working with me on something!
Okay, onward. I don’t have a theme this week - I just wanted to dive back in with three books I loved.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power | Nightmare Scale: 7/10
I read this book in a day and the best elevator pitch I can give you is this: it’s what you’d get if you combined Annihilation and Lord of the Flies and then removed men from the equation entirely. (There are, in fact, only two men in this book, both appearing only briefly, and neither of them Have A Fun Time.)
The premise is thus: at a girls’ school on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a group of teenage girls have been isolated for two years by a mysterious condition that causes gruesome mutations, fits, and, inevitably, death. Most of their teachers are dead, and the girls who’ve survived this far have gone a bit feral within the quasi-military/survivalist confines of their new reality. They don’t venture past the edge of the school grounds - the plague hasn’t just affected the island’s human inhabitants, and the horrifying local fauna aren’t exactly friendly. But when Hetty’s best friend goes missing, she finds herself beyond the fence and beyond anything she’s ever experienced before.
Wilder Girls is YA, and accordingly there’s a prominent theme of “teens learning that authority figures are not to be trusted,” but even if you tend to avoid YA, this book is entirely worth it both for the gut-wrenching body horror and the way it immerses you in different modes of female friendship, and the powerful way romance and friendship tend to blur when you’re 16.
CW for this book: oh my god so much body horror; the author has a comprehensive list of CWs on her site here.
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay | Nightmare Scale: 9/10
Paul Tremblay has a very well-deserved reputation as a modern master of horror lit. He’s an expert at emotional terrorism (I very much mean this as a compliment), and is extremely accomplished at walking the line between “supernatural evil” and “a series of uneasy coincidences.” I had to read this book in sips because it was so dark and intense it was giving me stomachaches.
I just want you to know what you’re getting into.
Eric and Andrew and their adopted daughter Wen are spending their vacation at a remote cabin in New Hampshire. You already know the drill - no cell reception, miles from the nearest neighbor, etc. Over the course of a single day, four armed strangers appear and trap the family in their cabin. The strangers are distinctly-drawn characters from disparate walks of life, united by one thing: they’ve all been brought to that cabin on that day by a vision. And that vision tells them that Eric, Andrew, and Wen have to make an impossible choice, or the world will end.
I really don’t want to say any more about the plot here, because it’s a book worth going into cold. Just know that Tremblay is a tremendous writer, and the abiding terror of the plot is that it’s real - real enough that it could happen to you or me, next weekend or next month. It’s cerebral and visceral in equal measure. And it’s a hell of a read.
CW for this book: child endangerment & harm, fairly gooey violence, and home invasion
The Hunger by Alma Katsu | Nightmare Scale: 6/10
Donner! Party! Horror! Novel!!!! If that doesn’t sell you on this book, I don’t know that anything else I say will either, but really and truly you should pick it up.
This is not a fast-moving narrative, but it is a deeply engrossing one. Katsu takes time to fully develop the cast of characters in the wagon train - we spend time with at least half a dozen flawed, complicated point-of-view characters, each running from something back east, each hungry for what they think waits for them in California. For the first three-quarters of the book, character development is the focus, with the supernatural goings-on in the margins, there to make you uneasy. This is a beautiful set-up for the novel’s climax, though - Katsu lays out beautifully how hubris, greed, power struggles and other all-too-human failings leave the group vulnerable to something that lurks just outside the light of the campfire.
Katsu’s monstrous hunger is stitched together from a number of intriguing sources: there are elements here of prion diseases, the Wendigo myth from Ojibwe and Cree folklore, and werewolf-inspired creature transformations. I want to point out here too that Katsu deftly dodges the trap of letting her monsters be symbolic stand-ins for indigenous tribes - I won’t say too much more for risk of spoilers, but just know going in that colonizers are always responsible for their own downfall.
(Two things: first, I’m including the cover for the hardcover edition here because I hate hate hate the paperback cover. Second, Katsu has another book coming next March called The Deep, which is another historical horror novel set – where else – on the Titanic. You can preorder at the link.)
CW for this book: attempted sexual violence, mutilation, child endangerment/harm, and (duh) cannibalism
The Price of Knives [The Dark Magazine]: Ruoxi Chen is a tremendous editor (please pick up The Border Keeper immediately if you like fantasy even a little bit), and, somewhat unfairly, a tremendous short story writer as well. This is a quick, dark, and affecting read, a retelling of The Little Mermaid flipped on its head and rooted in feminism and Chinese mythology.
Preview an Excerpt from The Monster of Elendhaven [Tor.com]: The Monster of Elendhaven is a deliciously grimy and queer little horror novella that hits shelves 9/24 – I really, really loved it. You can read an excerpt from the opening at the link, and preorder here if you’re so inclined.
My own DIY exposure therapy efforts to up my tolerance for horror movies led me to watch It Follows this weekend, which is an incredibly effective, masterfully made, gut-wrenchingly terrifying film. That said, the longer I sit with it, the more frustrated I am by the film’s awful, completely unexamined sexual politics. I may write more on this in the future, but this has been my capsule film review from 2014.