Maggie reviews Queer Little Nightmares edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli 

the cover of Queer Little Nightmares

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Queer Little Nightmares, an anthology edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli is a fun and sometimes terrifying collection of queer horror writing. The Lesbrary was provided with a review copy, and I was more than happy to spend time with this collection. Queer Little Nightmares let writers experiment with queerness and horror in a variety of ways. I highly recommend getting your hands on this one if you want some innovative horror writing.

As with any anthology, some stories caught my attention more than others, with my favorites being “Wooly Bully” by Amber Dawn and “Glamour-Us” by Andrew Wilmont. 

“Wooly Bully” is a story about coming of age, queer awakenings in a small town, and werewolves. I absolutely loved all the sensory details, the limits of the narrator’s community, and how deeply she feels within that setting. The enforced gender roles as they learn agricultural skills, the way she is put off by the boys but is fascinated by Brenda, the slow realization that the feelings are real and reciprocated—it is a delightful story of teenage growth and queer desire, and the setting was filled in to perfection. The sort of story where the 4-H fair culture of my youth is turned slightly on its head. 

“Glamour-Us” is at the other end of the spectrum, about a future where it is possible, for enough money, to purchase either a synthetic body or a self-projection that can be customized, with the rich of course using it as a form of eternal youth. Within the LGBT community though, there is immediate debate as to whether that sort of glamour is a brilliant way for people to transition without struggle or for people to experiment or for people who don’t see themselves as one particular gender and want to flip between projections, and whether such technological assistance is exploitive and something the community doesn’t need. I think the story does a great job of bringing into a short story both an echo of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but make it trans,” the sort of inner community debate that would absolutely happen in these circumstances, and how the threat of bigotry is still a horror that always lurks, no matter the technology.

But I enjoyed much of this anthology, and it’s the sort of collection where everyone will have immediate favorites but those favorites will be wildly different. This plays to the biggest strength of this collection which, in my opinion, is the whole range of horror presented, in both prose and poetry format. Horror and monster standards such as werewolves, devils, and creepy carnivals make appearances, but authors also explore how horror interacts with queerness in novel ways, from body horror to love and desire. The editors put together a stunningly broad collection that doesn’t leave you bored. I never knew what sort of story was coming next, and it was a very fun read. I also appreciated that they included both short stories and poetry. I think it presented a varied picture of the complex themes and manner queerness interacts with horror.

In conclusion, if you’re a horror fan you could certainly do worse than picking up Queer Little Nightmares. The range of material gives full scope to queer imagination, and perhaps you will discover new fav authors to follow in the future.

Content warnings: It’s hard in an anthology, particularly a horror anthology, to be comprehensive with warnings but you will find gore, bigotry, body horror, cannibalism, sexual assault, and death at various points within this collection.

Danika reviews Eat the Rich by Sarah Gailey, Pius Bak, and Roman Titov

the cover of Eat the Rich, showing a skewer with meat, an eyeball, and a finger on it

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It’s Halloween, and I know exactly which book you should read cover to cover today.

Joey is meeting her boyfriend’s family, and it’s understandably stressful. They’re wealthy; she’s not. He’s worried about trying to stay sober back there. She wants to impress them. But she’s on her way to becoming a lawyer, so she’ll be joining the elites soon. She’s up to the challenge of learning how to blend in.

It goes about as well as you’d expect at first. Joey feels judged and out of place. She becomes friends with the family’s nanny, Petal, even as Petal advises her that being seen with the help will not be good for her standing in this society. As she explains this to Joey, the baby picks up what appears to be a human jawbone on the beach and begins playing with it…

This is a short graphic novel, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think you can probably guess that this rich community is eating people; it’s revealed pretty quickly. The twist (mid-story spoiler) is that it’s not a secret. It’s in their contracts. You retire, and you get hunted for sport and eaten. But in the meantime, you get paid well, you get good health benefits, etc. For some people, it’s the best option on the table. That’s capitalism for you. (end of spoilers)

This an over-the-top, gruesome, funny, anti-capitalism, queer graphic novel that I enjoyed from beginning to end. In just a few pages, I completely fell for Petal, who wears a “Loud and Queer” t-shirt and assures Joey that yes, she knows how awesome she is. I think I can safely say that if you like the title and cover, you’ll love this book, and it’s such a fun one-sitting Halloween read.

Danika reviews The Restless Dark by Erica Waters

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During October this year, I tried to pack my TBR with seasonal, Halloween-adjacent reads, and The Restless Dark looked like the perfect match. It’s a sapphic YA horror/thriller book set at a true crime podcast event where listeners compete to try to find the unrecovered bones of a serial killer. As the retreat continues, though, it begins to seem like the danger isn’t past…

Lucy only narrowly escaped being one of the Cloudkiss Killer’s victims, and she was the last person to see him alive. She’s gone on this retreat not out a love of true crime — a genre that’s profited off and sensationalized her trauma — but because she hopes to find closure. Carolina, the other point of view character, has come to try to assure herself she’s nothing like the Cloudkiss Killer, even though she may have killed her boyfriend. (Or maybe it was an accident? She can’t remember.)

Lucy and Carolina end up in a group with Maggie, a psychology student writing a paper about all the fascinating characters at this retreat. They almost immediately end up in a tense dynamic with each other: both Caroline and Maggie are interested in Lucy, but Lucy falls for Maggie. She appreciates that Maggie gives her agency, and she’s frustrated that Carolina keeps trying to protect her. She doesn’t want to feel like a victim anymore. Carolina, though, is worried that Lucy is beginning to become violent herself, and she knows how much that can destroy your psyche, because that’s what she’s going through.

This plays out at Cloudkiss Canyon, which the locals all avoid. It’s coated with an ever-present, unexplained fog, and the legend is that the fog will show you your true self, the one you fear and avoid, if you let it. There’s a dreamlike quality to their time here, and it’s unclear if something supernatural is happening or not. Carolina, especially, seems to be losing time, which is all the more worrying when it becomes obvious someone is hurting people at the retreat.

The setting and danger contribute to a tense, claustrophobic environment where everyone starts to turn on each other. They seem to be acting out of character — is it the fog affecting them, or is this who they really are?

This isn’t a mystery; I found it pretty easy to predict who was responsible for everything going wrong, but in a way, that just contributed to the tension, and I found myself compelled to keep reading just to get to the point where it all came to a head.

The Restless Dark is a moody, atmospheric story perfect for fall reading. I was completely absorbed while reading it, even if it’s not a book I found especially memorable. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s chilling without being gory, this is a great choice — and I always appreciate an F/F/F love triangle.

Danika reviews House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

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On paper, this should have been the perfect book for me to read Halloween month. I’m fascinated by the historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, I love a (fictional) obsessive and unhealthy sapphic relationship, and this sounds like it would be a blood-soaked, sexy Gothic in the vein of A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson. Unfortunately, although I liked House of Hunger, I ended up feeling like it pulled its punches a bit, not quite living up to my expectations.

I find this a difficult book to categorize. At first, I thought it was YA: we have a 19-year-old protagonist, and the cover seemed like a YA style to me. It wasn’t until a scene mentioned snorting lines of cocaine that I realized… this definitely isn’t YA, though it does have a very readable writing style.

This is set in a fictional world that reminded me of Victorian England. Marion lives in the South, where she is barely scraping by working as a maid and caring for her angry, addicted, ill older brother. Her employer and her brother are cruel to her, she has no real friends, and she feel like she has no options. So when the opportunity arises for her to apply to be a blood maid, she takes it. She would live in the North in luxury, with enough money to pay for her brother’s treatment. Sure, it means her employers drink her blood for its health benefits, but that doesn’t seem much worse than the job she has now.

Her blood is deemed to be particularly high quality, and she is taken to the home of Countess Lisavet (the Elizabeth Bathory stand-in). There, she joins a harem of blood maids, all desperately in love with Lisavet, craving her attention. Marion falls hard, even as she struggles in this cut-throat world of wealth that’s so different than what she’s known. This is where I have some difficulties with the book: it sounds like it would be a scandalous story of orgies, drugs, and blood, but while there is the occasional unsettling and gory scene as well as brief mentions of sex, it isn’t nearly as dark as I expected. On the other hand, there are enough mentions and occasional scenes that I wouldn’t recommend this to teen readers or people sensitive to horror, which puts it in a tricky in-between spot to me.

The setting and plot were just what I wanted from it: the claustrophobia and helplessness as the blood maids slowly waste away, the passion and sudden cruelty of Lisavet, the dangerous devotion Marion has for her, the slowly-dawning realization that staying will eventually destroy her — but I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected. I felt a bit of distance from the story. This is one that I would love to see on the big screen, because I think it would be beautiful and haunting. But the audiobook didn’t really grab me.

Those are pretty minor complaints, though, so if the premise appeals to you, I still recommend picking it up. And of course, I love a good capitalism and racism commentary: the rich are literally feeding on the poor (especially poor Black women) and draining the life out of them. I think I just came in with such high expectations that even a good book fell a little bit short for me.

Danika reviews The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

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This dark fairy tale dances on the line between fantasy and horror. It follows Devon, a book eater, who is part of one of the aristocratic houses of book eaters (think vampires, but they eat books instead of drinking blood). She is one of very few women book eaters, which means she is primarily valued for her ability to get pregnant. (We only are introduced to cis book eaters.) She’s raised on a strict diet of fairy tales and is expected to be married to two successive houses, producing an heir for each and then leaving the child with them.

When we meet her, though, she’s on the run with a mind eater child. Instead of being born with a craving for ink, Cai craves human minds. She should have left him to be controlled by the house, weaponized and dehumanized, but she refuses. She’ll stop at nothing to keep Cai safe–including finding people for him to feed on, leaving them either dead or robbed of their memories and senses. Her only hope is to find the secretive house creating a drug that stops mind eaters from having to feed on minds to stay alive.

This book rotates between current day and how Devon ended up here, starting from her childhood. Despite having a rough idea of Devon’s past before getting those chapters, I was just as absorbed in her backstory as in the present day perspective.

From the premise, I thought of this as a horror novel, but despite the bloodiness and, well, the idea of a mother hunting and sacrificing people to her mind eating son, it reads more as a fantasy to me — a fantasy novel with teeth.

This is a fascinating look into the horrors we can do for love, especially maternal love. At several points, Devon reiterates that love isn’t necessarily a good thing. Her love for her son has left a trail of bodies in its wake. And to be clear, Cai isn’t just a monster. He is a sweet, intelligent boy who doesn’t want to feed on people. Despite her love for him, though, Devon knows her life would be better without him. Maybe the world would be, too. She’s daydreamed about his death even while stopping at nothing to keep him alive. Maybe that’s the horror, more than the deaths.

This narrative is also concerned with the gendered ways people are raised, and the limited set of expectations and imagination we have because of them. Book eaters are said to be without imagination; they can’t actually write any stories themselves. They can only conceive of what’s been fed to them, and with Devon and the other book eater women, those stories are carefully selected to encourage them to be passive and obedient.

Because this is the Lesbrary, of course Devon is sapphic, and she also has a minor romantic subplot with another woman. This is a small part of the book, but it was interesting.

I will say that this felt a little distanced, like watching the story unfold from above instead of being right in the thick of it. I’m not sure how to describe that or why it gave me that impression, but I know lots of readers balk at that sort of story. For me, it matched the generally thoughtful and even philosophical tone of the story, but your miles may vary.

This was a thought-provoking and unsettling read that is perfect for fall.

Content warnings: body horror, gore, violence, domestic abuse, and violence against children

Larkie reviews Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

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Trigger warning for suicidal ideation 

A compact novella with a haunted house story, strained friendships, and a hungry ghost, I had high expectations for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Were they met? Kind of, but overall the book fell a little flat for me.

First off, there are five leads: the main character Cat, rich white guy Philip, engaged couple Talia and Faiz, and snarky comedian Lin. They’ve rented out a haunted Heian period mansion (which, of course, is said to be haunted) for Talia and Faiz’s wedding. Most of the book focused more on their friendship dynamics and how quickly they fall apart, like…literally from the get go they’re already at each other’s throats. This trip sounds like it would have been a nightmare even without a ghost trying to keep one of them as her eternal companion. 

The creep factor started in early as well, as Cat indulges some morbid fantasies around the legends of the house, and in the beginning I really enjoyed it. Cat has a tendency to go on rambling tangents that have a bit of a darker turn, due in part to her previous struggles with her mental health, and it really adds to the setting. 

However, after the first visual appearance of the ghost, I found a lot of the scares to be a bit of a let down. The characters seem more focused on fighting each other and discussing how the narratives of horror movies usually spin out than they do on the ghost, who is perfectly happy to watch them destroy themselves rather than contribute much of anything on her own. It feels like Khaw is trying to spin the narrative on who horror movies usually treat as fodder—the queer characters, the comic relief—versus who is allowed to be the hero. But it bogs down the whole story and detracts from some of the excellent imagery and visceral horror that is there. Maybe I would have liked some of the later horror sections more if they were really allowed to shine, but the horror elements feel like they’re secondary to the somewhat forced melodrama of the characters.

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.

Rachel reviews The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

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A fast-paced, truly unputdownable fantasy novel, Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters is the kind of expansive adventure novel that draws you in and keeps you there. Dean’s writing represents a fabulous new voice in fantasy literature. 

The world of The Book Eaters introduces us to a secret lineage of aristocratic beings who live on isolated and private estates. For them, secrecy is necessary, because books are food. After consuming a book with their “book teeth,” the eater retains all of the content of that book. They give a whole new meaning to the idea of “taste” in literature. Some book eaters prefer romances or fairy tales, while others eat crime thrillers or comics. Encyclopedias taste bland, and the book eater children are punished for bad behaviour by a diet of dictionary pages. 

The novel centers on Devon, a book eater whose value as a female book eater comes from her ability to procreate. While Devon’s brothers enjoy the many freedoms their gender provides, including eating all of the books they want, Devon is permitted only to read fairy tales and other relatively empty pieces of fiction, limiting her knowledge and her capacity for choice. When Devon is married off and has a son whose hunger is not for books, but for human minds and memories, she must make a critical choice between the life she has always known and her son’s future, which could easily come at the expense of her own. 

I truly could not bear to put this novel down. I finished it in a day almost immediately after it was released. It has a thoroughly fast-paced writing style and a world that seems wholly original in its construction. I think this book is perfect for fans of authors like Ransom Riggs who are interested in dark and paranormal horror. This is not a light-hearted fantasy novel; it is intense and harrowing at times. I was absolutely gripped until the very end. 

I feel like there was a period of time this year where I was reading fiction that sounded interesting, and it ended up being about queer women without being overtly marketed that way (that I had seen). So, let me definitively say: this book is queer! It was really interesting to read about a queer main character whose resistance to an oppressively heterosexist space was just one dimension of her rebellion. I feel like Devon was a thoroughly realized character with her own motives and desires that she was compelled to pursue in order to fully embody herself. I loved the queer dynamics in this book, and I found myself rooting for these characters and for their happiness. 

I cannot recommend The Book Eaters enough, especially as the perfect queer read for the Halloween season. 

Please add The Book Eaters on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warning: Forced marriage, child abduction, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Small Angels by Lauren Owen

the cover of Small Angels

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Dark, Gothic, and atmospheric, Lauren Owen’s new novel Small Angels (August 2022) is perfect for fans of spooky queer fiction and it’s out just in time for autumn! This book is definitely one to add to your Halloween TBR. 

Small Angels begins in a small English village with a story that unfolds across decades—or centuries. In the present day, Chloe has looked forward to her wedding to Sam for months, and to her there is no more perfect place to hold the ceremony than at the local village church, Small Angels, in the place where Sam and his sister Kate, grew up. But Small Angels is no ordinary church, and the residents of the village know to stay away. Soon, the locals recount harrowing stories of violent hauntings and dark rituals associated with the church and the infamously reclusive Gonne family who tended it, and what’s worse, Chloe begins to see and hear things she can’t begin to explain. 

At the same time, Sam’s sister Kate has been reluctantly drawn home for her brother’s wedding. Narrating her memories, Small Angels and the nearby Gonne family estate hold many painful memories. Escaping her parents’ fighting as a teenager, Kate was drawn into the lives of the four Gonne sisters and their complex relationship with Small Angels. She learns that the woods behind Small Angels are home to a malicious and unsettled ghost whose violent death has led him to haunt the woods and the Gonne estate. For generations, the Gonne’s have appeased the ghost and prevented him from attacking the villagers beyond the woods, but a terrible event disrupts the tentative harmony of the Gonne’s and the ghost. 

Chloe’s wedding begins to awaken something in the woods beyond Small Angels, and if Kate and the one remaining Gonne sister can’t stop it, there’s no telling what might happen. 

Although the plot of this book seems complex, Owen unfolds Small Angels beautifully. There is a lyrical, unsettling quality to the novel that threads together a number of events and perspectives in a way that I found engaging and intriguing. Owen develops the world of the novel slowly, framing the events around an isolated English village as both out of time and place, and yet vividly real nonetheless. 

The ghostly mystery and paranormal action of this novel make it a perfect read for fall, and Small Angels strikes an excellent balance between literary fiction and horror writing. Each of the characters was effectively drawn, and multiple perspectives allowed for a thorough representation of the world in this novel and all of its intricacies. I felt as though the pacing of this book left me unable to put it down, and I finished Small Angels in a matter of days. I highly recommend this book for fans of Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, or Julia Armfield. 

Not to mention, this is a queer novel! I haven’t seen that aspect of this text as widely talked about (probably due to my own failing), and I didn’t know when I started reading that the novel would be partially centered around a lesbian love story, but it was a pleasant surprise and a very happy discovery. I highly recommend Small Angels as a spooky read for any time of the year, and I’ll definitely be reading Lauren Owen’s fiction from now on. 

Please add Small Angels to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Lauren Owen on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

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I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.