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.

Susan reviews The Price of Meat by KJ Charles

The Price of Meat by KJ Charles cover

KJ Charles’s The Price of Meat is a queer horror pastiche of penny dreadfuls, with several nods to Sweeney Todd. Johanna Oakley forces a devil’s bargain with a detective; she will spy on Sawney Reynard, a potentially murderous barber, in exchange for her lover, Arabella, being released from the asylum she’s trapped in.

If you pick this up expecting a romance, you are likely to be disappointed; the queer relationships are present and important, but definitely in the background to Johanna’s investigations and the horrors happening in Sawney Reynard’s shop. What we get is very sweet, and I enjoyed Johanna and Arabella immensely (especially when Arabella finds out what Johanna’s doing), but it’s not the absolute focus.

I think this is partly because of the style the story is written in: it feels like a penny dreadful in tone and style, and in the visceral details of the descriptions. I really liked that, and I thought it worked well for the story being told! What also worked was that Johanna is the sort of all-purpose capable protagonist I see in this type of story–confident in her own ability to shoot, fight, or disguise herself as needed–but a queer woman! I am delighted by that just on its own.

I found the historical and literary references to be interesting–the liberties that are mentioned were a real thing, although not quite in the same way, and the references to other period tales of cannibals was quite cool! And I found the medical horror to be interesting, especially for the way it wound into Johanna’s story!

I enjoyed The Price of Meat, and if you’re in the mood for a queer horror novella I think it’s worth picking up!

[Content warning: cannibalism, mentioned sexual assault and threats thereof, false imprisonment, offscreen medical abuse, medical torture and disfigurement]

Marthese reviews My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross movie cover

‘’Something within me sighed in relief and slotted into place like a bridge completes’’

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross was nothing like I expected. This was a library find and knowing that there was a lesbian movie with the same title, I borrowed it. Only, I had no idea what the movie was about and the book blurb didn’t offer many hints as to what was to come.

The plot follows Mona and Tamsin. Mona’s family own a pub, where she works but she also volunteers at the Fakenham’s estate to look after a horse; which is where she meets Tamsin again. Tamsin is back from boarding school and up to no good. This is perfect for Mona, who is interested in crime and gambling her money. Throughout the book, there are many hints that something will happen that summer and indeed, what happens was shocking.

‘’from the first real moment of our meeting I was already a criminal and she was distinctly witchy’’

Tamsin and Mona do get together. They love booze, dressing up and drama – lots of drama. What struck me was that what they loved about each other the most was probably the drama. They are inherently toxic for each other, and they know it. Tamsin has a superiority complex. She’s critical and cynical. Mona just wants to leave her family and is very jealous and spiteful. Both are alcoholics. Family relationships are an important aspect of the plot. The plot gets thicker when they live in Tamsin’s house alone for the summer.

While the plot was not what I expected, the writing was great. Some things were executed really well such as the chapters which were all named after a drink or food which was then mentioned in the chapter. If we had to keep in mind the time and place that this book fictionally took place in, the ideas about society and women and the nuclear war (cold war), the ideas presented feel very real. This does not mean that I want to read on how the protagonist thinks that ‘’with a tan and a pair of heavy breasts you need not worry about independence.’’ I am using more quotes than my usual reviews so that you, as potential readers, know what you are signing up for.

The ending was very disturbing, which is why I think this book belongs to the ‘horror’ section. The kind of horrors that are more disturbing because they could happen. This is not a Bury-your-gays book, but the ‘villains’ are queer. I kept hoping for the best and for a while, I thought it would happen but no, it didn’t. Mona and Tamsin liked to power-trip each other and scare each other on the regular.

My thoughts on this book are mixed. On the one hand it was executed half-well. There are still some sub-plots which I feel were left open and not like the main open-end but just left hanging. There was constant mention of one girl that went missing. It’s not explicit what happened to her and I felt like it was a wasted opportunity. Had I known what the book was about, I would have been ready for it, but as it was – I wasn’t. Some words left me perplexed. It took me many chapters to realize that ‘mesen’ meant ‘myself’.

The book offers a lot of introspection and is very depressing. This book has a whole list of trigger warnings. There is a lot of family issues, a lot of body image issues – this book could be very triggering. There’s a lot of body shaming as well and some animal neglect and child neglect. There’s also murder and suicide. There’s a lot of harmful bodily stuff, things that would make medical professionals cringe. There’s a lot of sexism, coming from everywhere, including the protagonists. It does offer a lot of thoughts on women. I particularly liked the message on the bodily fluids. I don’t think it’s something that a lot of writers touch upon and it’s something many people live every day.

In conclusion, while this book is Sapphic, unless you are in the mood for a dark read – don’t read it. Just when I thought there was hope for Mona…there wasn’t. This is the ultimate example of what peer pressure and being caged and  wanting attention and having darkness that is not addressed in a healthy was could lead to. It’s pretty disturbing and I was also not sure if the two protagonists actually loved each other or whether it was a matter of two dark souls meeting and corrupting each other further.

Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.

Danika reviews Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

I found Into the Drowning Deep because I was looking for deep sea fiction. I’ve had an interest in the deep ocean since I was a kid, and I was craving a book to satisfy that itch. Throw in some killer mermaids, and how I could resist giving this one a go? It wasn’t until after I had decided to read it that I found out that has a bi woman main character and a F/F romance! That’s almost unheard of! I almost always find out about queer books online, on queer book blogs, and then seek them out, so it was fun to just stumble on one.

I absolutely loved this book at the beginning. The premise is that seven years ago, the ship Atargatis went to the Mariana Trench to make a mockumentary about mermaids. Unexpectedly, they seemed to find them! Unfortunately, the “mermaids” were deadly, and no one on the ship survived. Only a bit of footage shows what happened to them, and it’s believed to be faked. Now, another ship is being sent to follow up and find out what really happened.

The book begins by gathering up a large cast of characters, who will all be on the ship. Most of them are scientists, researching things that could be helpful in their search. It’s a fairly diverse cast: there are Deaf characters, characters with autism, bisexual characters–but I didn’t notice a lot of racial/ethnic diversity, though I could have missed it. It seemed odd that in a book with so much other diversity, all the main characters were white (the only character of color I noticed was Michi, who is a poacher and possible murderer).

Unfortunately, it did start to drag for me in the middle. Part of that was the many points of view that get cycled between, which I always find exhausting. But it also felt like what was coming was inevitable: they were following the Atargatis’s path. Their security measures weren’t functional. Why wouldn’t the exact same thing happen again?

There’s also a lot of science packed into this book: Grant clearly did a lot of research (though the one thing I googled from the book seemed to be incorrect–deep sea fish exploding when brought to the surface). Most of the characters are scientists, and a lot of the scenes revolve around their research. This was at times fascinating, but could also get a little slow.

Luckily, it picked up again near the end. There’s a lot of high-stakes tension, especially between the two characters I was most invested in (Tory and Olivia–the queer characters, obviously). This does get pretty grisly, so do go in expecting some horror element, but I didn’t find it scary (probably because it did feel so inevitable). Goodreads lists this as #1 in the series, but I’m not sure if that’s because there was a (now out-of-print) novella prequel, or because there are going to be more books in the series. It wraps up satisfactorily, but I’d be happy to pick up a sequel (or the prequel, if it goes back in print!) (Even though, to my disappointment, not much actually happens in the deep sea in this book. Most of it takes place on the ship, on the surface.)

Anna Marie Reviews PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE by Porpentine Charity Heartscape  

“She resolved to never call something good again. If something was truly good there would be no need to call it good, and it wouldn’t need to pressure her to think so. It would help or hurt her, that was all. Things were only good if they drilled to the end of time and could be accounted for on your final resting day.”

[just to note: this review was written by someone who does not experience transmisogyny]

I think I’m simultaneously the worst person to read this book and also one of the people who it will connect with on a very deep level. I really had no idea what I truly had got myself in for with regard to PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE though, so if I can say one thing with this review it’s to be prepared for a lot of stuff and to make sure to take care of yourself whilst you’re reading it (whether that means you go slow or you have to stop and not read it at all!). On her website where I ordered the book Porpentine writes content/trigger warning for everything and holy moly is she right. To illustrate here are what I would consider the major content warnings [but this isn’t a full list! be kind to yourself!!]: physical + sexual violence, blood, body horror, death, trauma/ptsd, drug use and sex.

PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE drew me in originally because of the name (I am a Psycho Nymph definitely) and it basically charts the story of a traumatised trashgirl named Vellus and her also traumatised ex-magical girl girlfriend Isidol. It’s a pretty grotesque, blood filled sick story written by a trashwoman for other trashwomen, Heartscape said in an interview that “It is very much written for weird women with cocks who are exiled from society”.

The reading experience was one of horror, sensitivity, relatability, fear and softness. The novel dashes in and out of your comfort zones with a brutality that can leave you reeling. I think I would have been less grossed out and shocked by the novel if I had actually looked into what guro-wave as a genre was (basically eroticism and the grotesque, as far as I can see), because it says that’s what it is in the description its just the title seemed so Me in so many ways I had to pick it up!

Within the novel mental illness is made incredibly and distinctly bodily, present and gross, refusing to be inverted and covered up. Despair Syndrom with Temporal Purge or DSTP, (a parallel with (complex)PTSD) is an illness that is formed from experiencing traumatic events and consists of various colourings that affect your body, some are parasites, some cause you to shoot beams of slime and light out, and others do even wilder things. As someone with [c]ptsd I found the presentation of DSTP to be painfully resonant; my experiences of it are bodily and I regularly feel like I’m producing all this traumatic sludge. I do, however, tend to be uncomfortable with the discourse that suggests that if only mental illnesses could be “seen” in whatever form, then they wouldn’t be made invisible when this isn’t true. Physically disabled folks’ disabilities do get undermined and invisibilised, even when they are incredibly physically present, and I think its important to just remember that.

A very cool thing I learnt whilst writing this review was that the physical structuring of the book was made to be accessible and to allow the reader to get a break – porpentine said “I want a book that’s more legible for people with brain damage” – and that’s why the massive eyes that break the text up are there!!

The book breaks a lot of boundaries, both in terms of the content itself and the relationships between humans/animals/machines, magic/mundaneity, life/death, creating these wild, fluid, liminal trauma spaces and shifting understandings of what bodies are and how they work. As a reader I also felt that my own boundaries were broken too and in ways that I’m not entirely convinced needed to be. After a while I felt like the relentless horror was pretty gratuitous but maybe that’s because of the genre and my own sensitivities. I would really recommend this review if you want to look into more perspectives!

PSYCHO NYMPH EXILE is a love story and a survival story and a belonging story. Vellus and Isidol’s relationship feels familiar and so heartfelt, and even after so long on from reading the book they have stayed with me in their own weird wild way.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.

Audrey reviews Maplecroft: the Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest

maplecroft

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and then she killed her father and stepmother, and then she used her inheritance to buy a big house called Maplecroft. Parts one and three of that sentence happened in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. Part two is debatable. She was acquitted.

In Cherie Priest’s world, there are strange goings on in Fall River. The Bordens knew it. Their family doctor knew it. Outside investigator Simon Wolf (who does he work for, again?) might know it. And Lizzie is determined to save the town that turned its back on her. The story is told through the main characters’ journal entries, and chapters alternate among voices.

Penguin labels this paperback original a fantasy. You might find it in horror. It’ll be in some genre section. This was my first Priest book, and it boasts the holy trinity: Lizzie, Lovecraft, and lesbians. Once Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraftian horror, there is really no going back. The actual Lizzie’s story is creepy enough, as is the actual Maplecroft. Add the words “Miskatonic University” and a full-blown relationship between Lizzie and Nance O’Neill (the actress with whom Lizzie was rumored to have had an affair), and this takes off into the stratosphere.

Priest’s Lizzie is…more physically able, perhaps, and attractive, perhaps, than Lizzie Borden historically was. This Lizzie is straightforward and capable, if a little liable to fly off the handle (sorry), and she makes a good monster fighter. This Lizzie would make a fascinating addition to, say, a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (in print, not onscreen). She’s complemented by her older sister Emma, who’s chronically ill but mentally exceedingly sharp and fit. Emma makes a lousy monster hunter, but a great scientist. Unfortunately, it’s not quite 1900 in New England. Thus, while Lizzie fights monsters, Emma coolly assumes a male persona who carries on academic correspondence and publishes research papers in respected journals. It is this correspondence that serves as a catalyst for the adventure in this book, although the evil that comes to Fall River was already creeping in. Emma simply helped unleash it sooner.

The household is tense. Emma’s very happy with her counterfeit persona (almost excessively so–this is fascinating, but unexplored), and she disapproves of Lizzie’s romantic relationship with young actress Nance. Nance is indeed somewhat of a flibbertigibbet, which will complicate things for everyone, but her affection for Lizzie is real. And Lizzie’s love for Nance is real, too. But that’s not the primary concern here. There’s a Big Bad in town, and a Bigger Bad on the way, and we get to see what our new heroine is made of.

Chapelwood: the Borden dispatches (#2), is due in September. Lizzie’s next adventure takes her to Alabama. The setting doesn’t make my pulse race, but Priest has already done the New England thing, and she’s done it well, so why rehash? I get it. And I’ll still read the second one. Maplecroft offers a fresh take on the monster hunter concept, and more importantly, the take-away message here is this: it was terrific fun.

Casey reviews The Haunting on Hill House by Shirley Jackson

hauntingofhillhouse

Reviewing Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house story The Haunting on Hill House seems a little seasonally inappropriate for the beginning of the New Year, but I’m going to go ahead and talk about it anyway, especially since it’s often not talked about as a queer / lesbian book, which is a shame, I think.

I read this book, or rather, listened to the audiobook version in late October.  Even if you’re a bit wimpy like I am, I suggest both this format and season, because they’re just such a great fit.  Bernadette Dunne, the voice actress who reads the novel, is just brilliant and chilling and does a great job embodying the different characters and voices.  And of course, around Halloween is always the best time to read scary stories.

Published in 1959, The Haunting on Hill House is considered by many to be the perfect haunted house story, as Shirley Jackson is considered a master of the gothic genre.  I couldn’t agree more.  Jackson employs perfect restraint, allowing the horror to remain psychological and mysterious and just out of reach.  Like in the masterful near-perfect Turn of the Screw by Henry James, you never quite know what it exactly happening, if it’s in the minds of the characters or an evil actually residing in the house.  Jackson’s writing is similarly restrained and lean, but incredibly muscular.

The story itself is simple enough: four strangers gather at a house with a haunted reputation, one of them an academic of the paranormal, with the intent of discovering if the house is indeed haunted and of capturing some evidence of this.  It’s a self-consciously contrived situation, full of ironically witter banter between the characters who have been thrust into this unnatural relationship, living together in some kind of odd instant family.

Wait, what’s the lesbian part, you’re probably wondering?  Remember, this book was written in the fifties era of censorship, where any explicit queerness was a sure-fire way to not have your book published or heavily edited (you know, the lesbian has to die / be left by her treacherous bisexual partner for a man, etc., in order to make sure they’re not condoning the ‘homosexual lifestyle’).  So the lesbian part of this book definitely falls into the category of subtext.

But even to the 21st century eye, this subtext is quite obviously not accidental.  In fact, I think it’s quite clearly coded.  Theodora, one of the investigators at the house, agrees to come stay at the house in the middle of nowhere because of a fight with her ‘roommate’ that sounds an awful lot like a lover’s quarrel.  The other woman at the house, Eleanor, forms a quick and emotionally charged bond with Theodora that is not unlike a crush.  The former owner of the house is an old spinster who had a woman from the village staying with her as a ‘companion.’  In other words, the house is pretty gay.  I’d wager to say, actually, that one theory for what’s so scary in the house for Eleanor in particular is the possibilities of (queer) sexuality.

Although by today’s standards this book isn’t really that scary, I would caution you about reading (or listening to) this alone at night in a big old house.  Like I did.  Also, I will freely admit Jackson’s novel made me hesitant to venture into my dingy basement to do laundry.  Just sayin’.

Casey, aka the Canadian lesbrarian, is a bisexual writer with an MA in English who lives in Vancouver.  When not reading queer Canadian lit or reviewing it, she’s teaching ESL, running, or drinking tea.  But not at the same time.  Find her on twitter.