Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Bee reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

This book had me in two words: queer. Gothic. I have long-held passions in both areas. The gothic is the realm of the outsider, the rejected, the monstrous. It lends itself to queer interpretation–and that is mostly what queer gothic is. Just interpretation. The height of gothic literature was, of course, the 18th and 19th Centuries, beginning with The Castle of Otranto and spidering out into different sub-genres and interpretations right up to the present day. There are queer interpretations of gothic literature, definitely: my favourites include Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage,” and Skin Shows by Jack Halberstam. There is obviously The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also the interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as being an allegory for the closet, and the ambiguous sexuality of Dracula. The gothic is queer, inescapably. So when I saw Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, my true reaction was to say, “oh. Finally.”

The anthology spans identities, each story offering up new characters with new queerness. A large proportion of the stories are about WLW–women who are seduced by vampires, who dance with the ghosts of their murdered wives, who kill their lovers, and fall for monsters from the deep. Sometimes these women are the ones who are monstrous, which is of course, the potential of the gothic. This is the most exciting thing for me, a feeling which is only compounded by the fact that their queerness is not what makes them monstrous. They are given power in their monstrosity.

The contributors to this anthology understand the genre to its core. There was not one story that felt amiss, each with the kind of rich and immersive prose which typifies gothic writing. I was pulled into each chilling tale easily and readily, the language acting as a kind of through-line for this diverse collection of stories. Even though each is by a different author, with a different approach to the genre, they read as part of a whole. The anthology is cohesive and interconnected, with some stories sharing similar themes and imagery in a pleasing way–the same hallmarks of the genre, used to different effect.

There are all kinds of queer women in these pages. Some of my favourites were the stories that explored the idea of a woman out of time–a woman with an identity which we might now refer to as butch, but constrained by Victorian sensibilities. There is something eminently enjoyable about a rakish and debonair Byronic hero in cravat and breeches, but oh wait! She’s a woman, and she’s here to seduce your wives. I enjoyed the troubled Kat in “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple, who has exactly the right amount of tortured soul.

And on that point–seduction. I haven’t yet mentioned one of the drawcards of the gothic, that being the simmering eroticism of all things dark and disturbed. There’s a reason why we find vampires so sexy. The authors of Unspeakable haven’t forgotten this, either. A number of the stories are filled with just the right amount of sexual tension and saucy contact. It is sometimes devilish, and always welcome. “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt stands out: a story with a folk tale feel which absolutely sizzles.

The stories that don’t have that note of the erotic are filled with another gothic (and queer) emotion: yearning. The sense of something lost, of a need to pierce the veil, to find some fulfilment and compromise your own goodness to do so… these are all gothic elements that are woven through the stories of Unspeakable. Remember that while the gothic is horror, it is also romance: it is heightened emotions, a deep plunge into the psyche and the human condition. “Moonlight” by Ally Kölzow is one such narrative, which left me with such a deep sadness that I am still thinking about it, days later.

It bears mentioning that a lot of these stories rely on tropes. These are, of course, conventions of the genre, and some might call them clichés. I think it is important to be reminded, however, that applying these “clichés” to queer narratives is something completely new. It is a reinvention, and it is inspired. Even though some of the stories are familiar and predictable, the expected outcome is the desired outcome: we deserve our turn with these stories, and they are all the more enjoyable for it.

This anthology is a powerhouse of an introduction to the work of some very exciting writers. Their dexterity within the genre is admirable, and made this collection an utter pleasure to read. For lovers of the gothic, it is an absolute delight. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, it is a perfect introduction (although be prepared for any further forays to be a lot more subtextual on the queer front). It was so soothing for me to be able to read within a genre so dear to my heart, and to see it full of queerness. At the risk of sounding over-the-top and extremely sappy, my devoted thanks go out to Celine Frohn and the contributing authors. They have created something truly special, which feeds the monster in us all

Susan reviews Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Lia Cooper’s Essex Colony has the set up of a really cool survival horror movie: the first colony on Essex Prime went radio-silent almost a year ago. Soran Ingram, an AI whose lover was the Executive Officer of the colony, is part of the crew sent to investigate–only to discover that most of the colonists are dead, and the XO has become a sentient wolf-creature.

So what I’m saying is that if your life is missing a robot/werewolf romance in space, you’re welcome!

I found Essex Colony to be quite rushed; I was hoping for more suspense, more cat-and-mouse, more time spent on the build up of what went wrong, more pay-off for the characters who were blatantly being set up as working against the protagonists for Capitalism. There is some of that, but a lot is handled off-screen or summarised. A little disappointing for me, but it’s a very short book, so I’m assuming that there wasn’t the space for anything but the characters going from plot point to plot point, mostly stumbling across the plot rather than actively discovering it. It still works, and I was still invested in Soran and Aster getting off this planet alive, but it felt a little too straightforward.

Most of the world-building is interesting; the werewolf mythology works particularly well, and the explanation for what happened to the colonists appealed to my Doom-movie-loving heart! … I never thought I’d say this, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go more Doom, because having every single human turn out to be a horrific bigot at heart was disappointing. I’m also morbidly intrigued by the world-building that isn’t explained; we’re told that the Earth is dying, but also humans are referred to as Anglo-Earthers, which sounds to me like some horrific western supremacist nonsense happened before the book even started.

I liked Soran as a character; she was a lot more human and human-like than I was expecting from the blurb (this is even called out in the text, because why would anyone make a robot that they couldn’t have sex with), but I can appreciate her being exactly what she appears to be. And Aster, the XO, was fun, and it was very easy to see why Soran liked her! I would have liked to see a little more of them actually interacting, rather than meeting up, exchanging plans, and then both running off in opposite directions all the time, but I’m assuming that the space constraints of a novella didn’t allow for it.

In fact, I think most of my issues with Essex Colony could have been worked out with a little more space. The climax is quite muddled, to the point where I’m not sure what the characters were trying to achieve, but everything was definitely exploding and on fire! Like the lack of build-up, it would probably have been improved by having more room to breathe, and the ending might have felt more tidy rather than leaving most of the threads unresolved. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the first book in a series–I didn’t see anything on the Nine Star Press website to say s –but if it isn’t, there’s a lot left unanswered, and I could see it being frustrating.

So it had some flaws, but I did enjoy Essex Colony! Sci fi/survival horror is one of those genres where I will read and watch everything I can in it, and this is a fine addition to that roster. But honestly, I might start recommending it for the sheer novelty of finding a robot/werewolf pairing outside of fandom.

[Caution warnings: bigotry, murder]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi is a surreal, lyrical horror novel that follows generations of women haunted by their racist, xenophobic house, which wants to keep them all inside its walls forever. The story loops forwards and backwards through time to tell their stories and the house’s.

The language and imagery are beautiful, and work together well to create the surreal atmosphere of this house – to the point where when it switches point of view to someone who’s never been to the house, it’s like a breath of fresh of air. White is for Witching is excellent at leaving things unspoken and telling the shapes of stories between scenes; relationships, horrors, explanations, all told through gaps and the things people don’t say, which works so well for a narrative where reality is a hard thing to pin down. The sense of menace that works under the layers of the story are really well done, especially the scenes where it actually bubbles to the surface.

The characters can sometimes feel completely unknown to a reader, which is a function of the narrative and its spaces. I never felt like I understood Miranda or Elliot, but I don’t think I was ever really supposed to. Ore is the point of view character who makes most sense, the one who is not actually invested in this house or its inheritance, and she doesn’t show up until halfway through – that breath of fresh air I mentioned! And the way that the narrative loops and twists through all of the characters’ stories without snarling is really well done.

White is for Witching is very well-written, beautiful, and strange. It’s not a book that I would normally have picked up, and I’m not sure that it’s one I completely understood. But I absolutely recommend it if you like surreal literary horror.

[Caution warning: eating disorders (specifically pica), racism, xenophobia, children in danger.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sash S. reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

“The Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left.”

Body horror. Boarding school. Queer girls.

Wilder Girls promises a lot of cool things. Marketed as ‘a feminist Lord of the Flies’, one expects a grimdark pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, mixed with comfortingly familiar tropes of YA romance and maybe some creep-factor akin to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Erin Bowman’s Contagion.

Instead what happens is a mix of half-executed ideas that drift away from their potential, fizzling out and sadly getting lost.

Our story starts at the Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school on an island which is under quarantine due to a virus. The ‘Tox’ is deadly to some and not to others. Some are irreparably transformed, some cough up blood, some are taken to the infirmary and never seen again. This set-up is really cool and raises a lot of questions: What was this place like before? Why are the effects of the virus so wildly different? Who are all these teenage girls and how are they coping?

Unfortunately the backstory is never fully explained. Instead we get a feel for the loose structure of things on the island, just barely held together by the Headmistress, one other surviving teacher and the hope of an eventual cure. There’s routines of sorts and a strained peace between the different cliques of girls, dynamics that could have been compelling had the author spent just a little more time fleshing them out. Our main trio are a bundle of intense ride-or-die friendship and simmering romantic feelings, until two of them have an argument and the third goes missing.

And that’s where it all falls apart, as the novel phases out many of the things which initially made it interesting.

The main character’s internal monologue is full of stumbling, halted sentences and half-finished thoughts, a style that meshes well with some readers but may not for others. Her decisions, frustratingly, don’t always make sense. We don’t get much character development from her in the first instance and she comes across as fairly flat without an engaging narrative voice. The breaking of the trio emphasises this lack of development further; we don’t get much time to see them bouncing off one another, or invest in their relationship. As the story moves away from the school setting, we see less of the background girls who seemed so full of potential.

In short, things just… happen, without a lot of payoff.

The body horror is excellently written and one of my favourite parts of the book. There are gloriously creepy descriptions of transformed girls and strange things in the woods. There’s tension around the island and in the cliques, all built up as a ticking time bomb of female teenage fury waiting to explode into the second half of the novel. Sadly, the mystery falls flat. The author drops tantalising hints at the world outside of the Tox, but fails to deliver. The lack of resolution is disappointing, though the ending does leave room for a sequel, so maybe that itch for world-building will be scratched in the future.

There is also a secondary plot written from a different point of view which hints at hidden depths to a particular character, but again, lacking in payoff.

There’s romance, too, but it’s not the focal point of the novel. Our leads are unapologetically queer – “Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree” – and directly address this in one of the most powerful lines in the novel. It’s great and so, so necessary to see a fiercely, unapologetically queer teenage girl in YA fiction and I fully appreciate that about Wilder Girls.

However, the romance builds, comes to fruition, clatters to a halt and subsequently isn’t mentioned again. It’s almost treated as an afterthought. The true feeling of love comes from the main character and her missing best friend, which is touching, but if you were expecting an explicit queer romance set against the backdrop of a horror story, you’re out of luck.

Wilder Girls seems to have a mixture of reviews on the extremes of those who either love it or hate it, so it’s worth checking out just to see for yourself. There are good bits, namely in the body horror and setting and raw potential, but it’s hard not to be disappointed, as as it’s certainly not the modern Lord of the Flies that was promised.

Rating: **

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.

Emily Joy reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeannette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for sexual assault and pedophilia

I must first admit that I am new to Jeanette Winterson’s books. Previously, I’ve only read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I know that she is a well-known lesbian author. Otherwise, I don’t know much. I picked up The Daylight Gate because I wanted to know more, and, as a historical fiction lover, I was drawn to this book, and hoped that it might get me started in the right direction. In the end, I think this book is more of an outlier for her works.

This review contains very mild spoilers, but I have been careful to preserve the twists as much as possible.

The Daylight Gate is a highly fictionalized account of the witch trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. Alice Nutter is a wealthy female landowner, and although no one quite knows her age, she is regarded as beautiful. She is a private person, and mysterious even for those who know her. This novella follows several characters, but ultimately it is about how two young women become involved with each other and with black magic, and how that relationship results in a dungeon full of suspected witches.

When I picked this up, I was imagining something akin to books I’ve read about the Salem witch trials⁠ — innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately finding themselves caught up on the wrong side of a rumor. The Daylight Gate is not that. It is the opposite of that. This is a book about black magic, and what happens when two young women become involved in it.

The two young women I mention were previously lovers, and their lives intertwine throughout this book, bringing many surprising twists and unexpected revelations for the reader. I honestly couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the reader experience while figuring out the twists was one of the best things about this book.

[We] were lovers and we lived as lovers, sharing one bed and one body. I worshipped her. Where I was shy, she was bold, and where I was hesitant, she was sure. I learned life from her and I learned love from her as surely as I learned astrology and mathematics from John Dee and necromancy from Edward Kelley.

Their relationship is never perfect, and I could not bring myself to care about them as a couple even in the beginning. My apathy towards them seemed justified when one eventually turns to black magic, and in a bargain for her soul, sacrifices the other to “the Dark Gentleman”, for him to rape. So… that was a bit startling.

This rape is not the only one in the book. Rape is treated as very commonplace, and occurs or is mentioned in nearly every chapter. While I wouldn’t have minded the griminess and violence of this novella, the constant presence of rape was unsettling in a way that made the book itself unenjoyable for me. There is a young girl who is abused terribly by her family, and particularly by her brother who takes her with him when goes out to “pay for his drink”. I don’t want to talk about this at length, but it is worth noting that the man who rapes this girl most often is later revealed to be her father, which some readers may want to know before choosing to read this book.

Other aspects of this book, while disturbing, are not unbearable, and suit the genre. Horror is meant to illicit a physical response in readers, and this book definitely succeeded in that. The (nonsexual) violence and rather horrific magic made me shudder, which I think is a success in the horror genre.

There is also a general feeling of despair and inevitability throughout the narrative. It feels as though the idea of the “dark ages”, usually applied to the early Middle Ages, has instead been transported to the Renaissance. Everyone is unhappy, dirty, abused, and starving. Which, while that isn’t necessarily untrue of many people during this time period, this book seems to exaggerate in order to create a truly bleak existence. This kind of atmosphere, although it felt inaccurate, was compelling, and I read this book in one sitting.

As for the magic, it is truly thrilling and terrifying. As I stated earlier, I picked this up assuming it would be about innocent people caught in a rumor, and the beginning of this book does lead you to believe that the people involved are ultimately innocent. As the book progresses, however, the amount and shock value of the magic only grows, and definitely helps make this book a page-turner.

This book is a blend of horror and historical fiction, and if that is your cup of tea, you might enjoy it more than I did. While its good qualities do not outweigh the bad for me, it did keep my interest, and it might keep yours, as well.

Ren reviews Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

This novel was a delight. I’m a big fan of Welcome to Night Vale, and so I was over the moon to discover that creator Joseph Fink had written a book about a trucker in search of her missing-presumed-dead wife. I expected dark wit. I expected oddities galore. I expected to laugh. And while I did experience all of those things while reading this book, it quickly revealed itself to be much more than a lighthearted stroll through the Sci-Fi Woods.

Keisha Taylor is looking for her wife, Alice. Alice – as the title suggests – is not dead. She works for an organization that kills mostly-boneless creatures called Thistle Men, who hunt gleefully in the name of Terrible Freedom. Believing that the Thistle Men may use Keisha as a weapon against her, Alice leads Keisha to believe that she’s dead (for her own good, of course). Keisha is pretty mad when she figures this all out.

It’s a cliché to be sure, but the rest of the book is so good, I was able to let it slide.

Keisha meets her first Thistle Man in a diner. He attacks a man in broad daylight, takes a bite out of him, and no one – Keisha aside – seems to find this strange. When she picks up a teenage hitchhiker named Sylvia (who has own tragic backstory involving the Thistle Men), the two of them band together to unravel the mystery of the creatures and put an end to them. There is a war going on in plain sight, and only a select few can see it. Androgynous oracles watch from the corners. A shadowy woman whispers in ears and urges acts of violence. The book burns slowly and paints a nightmare of Things That Go Bump in the Night; along the way, it threads in painful themes of entitlement and unfounded hatred that send the reader’s mind sharply back into the worst parts of our present world.

This was a system of violence and laws that protected Thistle from the likes of her, five foot three, a gash down her chest, and a constant fear she wouldn’t recognize a heart attack if it came because it would feel like her panic attacks.

Keisha’s anxiety is another point of note. The story is told mostly through her perspective, and she is honest and frank about the many ways in which her anxiety affects her. She holds conversations with strangers – both dangerous and otherwise – in a manner which appears outwardly calm despite the fact that internally, she’s fighting (fighting to breathe and fighting to stay still and fighting to maintain her grip on the façade of normal). Even the bad guys can’t understand how they can look her in the eye and not see fear. And Keisha’s answer simple.

You’ve got me really wrong, Officer Whatever. I’m always afraid. Life makes me afraid. And if I’m already afraid of life, then what are you?

There are several books – many of them reviewed on this site – to which I owe a debt, because they aided in my unlearning in regards to being queer. They gave me strong, funny women in stable relationships with strong, funny women. They introduced me to the concept of chosen families. And as a child who always found it easiest to relate to fictional characters, I saw people living happy lives and realised queerness was not synonymous with limitation. An ache in my chest eased – an ache I had been carrying for so long, I had no memory of its appearance. It was liberating, and the way Keisha’s anxiety is written in this book is the closest I have come to feeling anything akin to that since.

She considered that anxiety was irrational, and listening to it was like listening to a child. It’s not that they are never right. It’s that the correct info is mixed in with a lot of imaginary things, and, like a child, anxiety can’t tell the difference between the two.

She was always afraid but she did what she needed to do.

Make me more afraid. I’m not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid.

Oftentimes the anxiety hinders her, but in this story of cannibal Thistle Men and government conspiracies and First Evils, there are times when it makes her powerful. Keisha’s anxiety is as much a part of her as her physical body, and she learns it can occasionally be used as a weapon. The ending comes and goes without Keisha’s anxiety being ‘cured,’ for which I am appreciative.

This book is full of twists and turns, and it offers monsters, action, a sprinkling of romance and a great deal of heart.

Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.