Gothic Horror Infused with Queer Rage: Grey Dog by Elliott Gish 

Grey Dog cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Elliott Gish’s debut queer Gothic novel, Grey Dog (ECW Press, 2024), is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Intense, foreboding, and atmospheric, Grey Dog is the latest in queer horror, and it’s a must-read!

Set in 1901, the novel is structured as the diary of Ada Byrd, a spinster and schoolteacher, who arrives in the isolated small town of Lowry Bridge under a cloud of misery after things went awry at her last post. Starting afresh with new students, Ada explores the surrounding woods and makes new friends who know nothing of her past. Slowly, Ada begins to hope for a future at Lowry Bridge and a place in the community. Maybe, in this new place, Ada can leave her past behind. 

Slowly, however, strange events begin to take place: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. Ada believes that something disturbing and inhuman lurks in the woods, pursuing her from afar and presenting her with these offerings—offerings that both repel and intrigue her. As the creature she calls ‘Grey Dog’ encroaches, Ada’s sense of reality blurs and her past returns to haunt her as she confronts the rage simmering inside her. 

I hesitate to say more without giving the plot away! One of the charms of this novel is its suspense and mystery, which quickly gives way to horror in the second half of the novel. Gish has the incredible ability to generate a sense of fear and danger in even the most seemingly innocuous moments. By structuring Grey Dog as Ada’s diary, the novel is confined to her perspective, which unravels more and more as the text goes on, although there are clues that Ada may not be as honest as the diary form suggests she will be. The reader feels as though they are living in Ada’s head and experiencing the confusing, haunting events of the novel along with her. 

As historical fiction, Gish pays close attention to the social and gendered contexts which confine and police Ada throughout the novel. Ultimately, Grey Dog is a book about rage—queer rage and women’s rage—and the pain of emotional and physical abuse. Ada can only repress her anger at the injustices of her life and the lives of those she loves at the hands of those who seek to control her. When the dam finally breaks, the result is both extraordinary and dreadful in equal measure. 

I loved Grey Dog. I could hardly bear to put it down. I’m reading it for the second time this week and it’s just as fantastic as it was the first time. This novel has become a new favourite for me and I look forward to reading Gish’s future work!

Please add Grey Dog to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Elliott Gish on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

Haunted by the Past: She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

the cover of she is a haunting

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Horror is a very broad genre, and, I am inclined to say, a particularly personal one, seeing as what scares one person may not scare another, or, on the other hand, it might scare them too much. I myself love a good haunted house, but psychological horror freaks me out in concept alone, to the point that I won’t touch a book when I see it labeled that way. Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting, I am pleased to report, is my favorite kind of horror, that particular style where it’s kind of about the ghosts, but it’s not really about the ghosts. Or rather, it is, but it’s about what the ghosts represent more than the don’t-look-behind-you scariness.

That’s not to say this book isn’t scary, of course. I personally do not tend to get scared while reading books, so I am not the best judge, but I thought the book did a good job creating a creepy atmosphere and some really unsettling images (all those bugs *shudder*). The scariest thing in this book, though, is not the ghosts themselves but the very real horrors of colonialism, as well as the impacts of it that linger through to today. While this book is aimed at teenagers, it does not shy away from those atrocities, but nor does it dwell on them, exactly.

Beyond those horrors, however, this is also the story of Jade, a closeted seventeen-year-old wrestling with a complicated family dynamic and her relationship to Vietnam as a Vietnamese American who is visiting the country for the first time. As a protagonist, I adored Jade. I thought she felt very authentically seventeen, which is to say that while she was occasionally frustrating, she was trying her best. 

I also thought all of the relationships in the book were well-drawn. Her romance with “bad girl” Florence was endearing, and their interactions made me giggle a few times. The more complex dynamics with the parents worked equally well for me, and in fact I found her mom to be a standout character for me by the end.

Regarding the ending, I will say there were one or two elements that felt on the edge of overly dramatic, but I thought the book did enough well that I didn’t really mind. Emotions were running high, after all, and real life can be overly dramatic too. Regardless, I felt the book ended on a high and, frankly, down-to-earth note that left me satisfied.

I look forward to more horror from Trang Thanh Tran, and reading more horror in general this year, because this book reminded me that it is a genre I enjoy when it is done in the particular way I most vibe with, as this one was. If you are looking for a creepy haunted house that’s grounded in both the past and the present and the ways they affect each other, I highly recommend She is a Haunting.

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.

A House Haunted by Fascism: Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

the cover of Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I feel so conflicted about Tell Me I’m Worthless, because it’s one the most thought-provoking and memorable horror books I’ve ever read. The sections I liked were captivating, and in the first chapter, this felt like a new favourite book. But there were also sections of this book I found unreadable.

I have to start by saying that this comes with strong content warnings (listed at the beginning of the book), including for rape, racism, transphobia, fascism, antisemitism, eugenics, and more. These topics aren’t just included: they are the central pillar of the story, and they’re described in detail. Be prepared for that going in.

This is a haunted house story, but it’s more about two people trying to live in a society so soaked in fascism that it’s easy to absorb it unconsciously. Both these main characters are bigoted. They’re deeply flawed. And they’re also compelling.

Alice, a white trans woman, and Ila, who is Jewish and mixed race, entered a haunted house three years ago with their friend Hannah, a cis white woman. Alice and Ila had a complicated relationship with a sexual and romantic element, while Hannah was always a bit removed from the other two. They each experienced their own trauma there that night, and Ila and Alice both believe that other sexually assaulted and scarred them. Hannah never left the house. Though Alice and Ila escaped, they can’t seem to free themselves entirely of its influence, and Ila convinces Alice they have to return to get closure.

While this house drives the plot—and even gets its own point of view—most of the book takes place outside of it, following Alice and Ila separately as they live in a sort of fog, unable to process what happened to them. Ila has made being transphobic practically a full time job, regularly giving talks at different institutions. The focus on these aimless, dissatisfied main characters is common in litfic, but less so in horror. Personally, I was drawn in by it, especially paired with the distinct, often meta writing style.

That writing style is precisely my hang-up with this book. Some of the writing was so effective, like the Hill House motif, but there were several points where it descended into pages and pages of hateful stream of consciousness that did not work for me at all. For example, there would be long tangents describing a dream or pages of a nonsensical auto-translated transphobic screed. At times, I completely zoned out. I understand what it was trying to do, but it really took me out of the story.

Still, it’s hard for me to put much stock in that when overall this was such a thought-provoking and powerful read. It’s a brutal book, but it’s purposeful and effective. If you’re looking for a horror book that will challenge you and leave you thinking about it long after you finish, you need to pick this up.

How Queer is Queer Enough?: A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll

the cover of A Guest in the House

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Emily Carroll, and A Guest In the House was no exception. The subdued, gothic scenes of the quiet horror of compulsory heteronormativity interspersed with technicolour dream sequences were extremely effective. I felt deeply for Abby, who seems to sleepwalk through her life, doing what’s expected of her, until she learns about her new husband’s deceased first wife, Sheila. Soon, Sheila is appearing to her in dreams and then even when she’s awake, casting doubts about whether her husband is responsible for her death. As Abby begins to doubt her husband, her careful quiet life unravels, and she goes to dramatic lengths to try to save herself from Sheila’s fate.

This was one of my favourite books I read in 2023. The artwork, as usual for Emily Carroll, is stunning. The story is unsettling and captivating. And that ending! I stayed up reading because I had to know what happened next, and then I finished the book not sure how to interpret those final pages. I ended up researching reviews to find different theories. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately picked it up and read it cover to cover again, and while I still have questions, I now have my own theories!

As I read through Goodreads reviews, I became aware of two things. One, people hate an ambiguous ending. And two, somehow many (most?) readers completely missed the queer content of this book, even though it’s not at all hidden. I ended up writing a whole post about this on my queer books newsletter with Book Riot, Our Queerest Shelves: “How Queer Does a Book Have To Be For It To Count?

The description of the book mentions Abby being “desperately in love for the first time in her life,” which can only be referring to Sheila—she has no romantic or sexual interest in her husband. She imagines herself as a knight saving Sheila. She pictures Sheila in revealing clothing, and when the ghost of Sheila calls her out on it, Abby blushes and stammers. More importantly, (spoiler, highlight to read) Abby and Sheila kiss on the page!! It may be a little distracting that they’re murdering someone at the same time, but there’s a kissing scene! (end of spoilers) How can that be misinterpreted as straight?

I’m still a little frustrated that I didn’t hear about this being a queer book, despite researching queer new releases and already being a fan of Emily Carroll. As I said in my Our Queerest Shelves post, “It’s disappointing that we still live in a world where queer people are still apparently harder to see than ghosts.”

If you can handle an ambiguous ending and don’t need your queer reads to be light and happy, I highly recommend this one. It’s an absorbing story with such stunning artwork that I want to frame pages and hang them on my wall. Emily Carroll continues to be one of my favourite graphic novelists, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

The Official Sapphic Sequel to Haunting of Hill House: A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand

the cover of A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

To say I went into this with high expectations would be an understatement. As soon as I heard there was an official sapphic The Haunting of Hill House sequel coming out, it became my most anticipated book release of the year. I am firmly in the camp that believes the original Hill House book is queer and have been arguing that for the past decade, so I’m happy that we now have both the Haunting of Hill House TV reimagining, which has a queer woman main character, and this official sequel, where three of the four main characters are queer.

As someone who loved the original, I came into this not sure how a sequel could live up to it, and obviously it’s impossible for another author to be Shirley Jackson, but Elizabeth Hand’s style and themes felt complementary to Shirley Jackson’s in a satisfying way. There are nods and references to the original, but this stands as its own story—I definitely don’t think you have to read the original to pick this one up.

We’re following Holly, who is a playwright who has been making ends meet as a teacher, but just got a $10,000 for her new, witchy play. She has taken the fall semester off to work on it, and when she stumbled on Hill House, she instantly decides this is the place she needs to write it. Her girlfriend, Nisa, is contributing the music, and she has the two main actors cast: her friend Stevie, and the aging star Amanda.

This is exactly what I want from a haunted house story: it begins atmospheric and foreboding, with each individual event able to be shrugged off, like a hare falling through the chimney or an image of something in the woods or a small, hidden door that seems to call to Stevie…

In some ways, Holly’s plan seems to work. When she finally convinces the owner of the dilapidated mansion to rent it to them for a few weeks, they seem to be making great strides in the play. Everything is clicking together, and their performances are stunning. Meanwhile, though, all the little annoyances they have with each other and the secrets they’re keeping seem impossible to keep buttoned down. Amanda is paranoid that they’re all judging her. Nisa has been sleeping with Stevie and Holly doesn’t know. Despite the problems, despite the strange tricks the house plays, Holly is determined to have them complete this project and bring her dream to fruition. Then the snow begins to fall, stranding them there, and everything comes to a head…

One interesting aspect to this is that each of the main characters is kind of insufferable. They’re selfish, all trying to manipulate each other to gain more credit or stage time. They can be cruel. They’re hiding things: they all have things they’ve done in their pasts that are nothing to be proud of. But they’re also such interesting characters, especially in how their personalities clash and play off each other. While in the original, I really felt for Eleanor, I didn’t have one character I was necessarily rooting for—Stevie comes closest, but I don’t feel like he is as much of a main character as Holly and Nisa are. That didn’t take away from my enjoyment, though: I still was invested in what would happen to them all.

While this takes place in the present day and it’s a different writer, I think it captures the tone and feel of the original well. My expectations were high going in, but this creepy gothic haunted house story was able to live up to them.

One quick post script: this book has a lot of songs in it. They’re sung in the audiobook. That can be a plus or a minus of that format, depending on who you are. Either way, I recommend looking on YouTube for “Hares On the Mountain” so you can hear the folk song that comes up several times in this story.

Content warnings for cheating bisexual characters and for discussion of child sexual assault and grooming.

Gory Bisexual Horror/Fantasy: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

the cover of The Dead Take the A Train

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

One thing about a Cassandra Khaw book: I never know what I’m getting into. Even two-thirds of the way through this, completely invested in the story, I still kept thinking, “What genre is this? And also, what’s the plot?”

Julie is a 30-year-old exorcist for hire, not quite scraping by in New York City by taking on the deadliest and most gruesome jobs carving monsters out of people and going head to head with demons. Her arms are wrapped with barbed wire magic, which she tears from her flesh in order to use those spells. She keeps a suitcase full of fresh organs in case she needs to swap any of hers out on a mission gone wrong. She also is not making enough to pay her rent, never mind support her drug habit.

She just broke up with her ex-boyfriend, Tyler, who works for an investment company that is mostly invested in souls, body parts, curses, and making deals with unfathomable gods. It’s a dog-eat-dog environment where you’re more likely to be killed gruesomely than be promoted, but Tyler loves it there, and he sometimes hires Julie for the jobs he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty for. When Julie doesn’t go along with one job, though, he plots revenge.

Just as Julie is beginning to wonder how she can possibly scavenge up any cash, her high school friend Sarah shows up suddenly at her door. She’s been secretly in love with her for years. Side note, my favourite bisexual woman stories are the ones that name a bunch of faceless ex-boyfriends, and then there’s ✨ her ✨. This is definitely one of those books. After a lot of prodding, Sarah finally admits that she’s here because she’s running from her abusive ex, Dan… and then has to make Julie promise not to torture and kill him.

And that’s sort of the plot. Two bisexual girls falling for each other while their ex-boyfriends try to ruin their lives. It’s probably the goriest book I’ve ever read—the descriptions are truly skin-crawling—but it doesn’t feel like horror to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be afraid. If you’re the kind of person who needs to understand the magic system of a fantasy world, this is not for you. It’s a mess of different types of magic, demons, curses, Eldritch gods, and other inexplicable weirdness. It’s dense with world building, without any one structure weaving it together. This totally worked for me, but you need to just let it was over you.

In fact, I think that complements the setting well, because New York City—as the title suggests—plays a major role in this story. And this tangle of different kinds of magic felt like a reflection of many different worlds all living in parallel inside of NYC. Also, did I mention that lay people have no idea magic is real? Despite the unending encounters Julie has with possessed brides-to-be, foxes puppeting zombie bodies, and so much more, it somehow goes completely unnoticed; she can walk onto the A Train covered in blood and viscera, and no one looks twice.

In some way, it actually reminded me of a noir story. Julie is trying to track down Dan, and she is constantly getting injured. That dogged pursuit in a gritty environment while getting beaten down and somehow surviving felt like it would be at home in that genre… just with a lot more tentacles than usual.

Then, just to keep things interesting, at the heart of this gritty, gruesome, often gross story is a ridiculously cute bisexual F/F pining love story. I love a sapphic friends to lovers story. I won’t spoil it and say whether they get together in the end—also, this is only the first in a duology—but I will say the pining is not one-sided. I’m also annoyed that I had such trouble finding out if this was a queer book before I read it, because so much of the book is about Julie and Sarah’s relationship.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this big, sprawling book. I haven’t mentioned the angel, or what the plot turned out actually to be about, or Tyler’s point of view chapters, or how about halfway through the book we start to get one-off POVs from other characters. And I have to squeeze in the fact that there’s a character who is cursed to not be able to die until he has sold every book in the bookstore to the Right Customer, and as a former employee of a used bookstore, I felt that in my bones. I’m pretty sure I’ve met someone with that same curse before.

If you can stomach gore and a whole lot of weirdness, I really recommend this one. It kind of reminded me of Welcome to Night Vale, with a lot more blood. So if that’s your vibe, you need to pick this up.

Content warning: gore, blood, violence, body horror, relationship abuse (not described in detail), drug use.

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: More Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

the album cover of Snow Angel

If you have Reneé Rapp’s album Snow Angel playing on repeat, these are the sapphic books you need to read! Pick up the one that matches your favorite song, or get the whole stack if it’s too hard to pick. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop. Click here for Part One! 

“Pretty Girls”

the cover of Girls Like Girls

In the p.m., all the pretty girls/They have a couple drinks, all the pretty girls/So now, they wanna kiss all the pretty girls/They got to have a taste of a pretty girl

Pretty Girls is a song for people who keep falling for “straight” girls, and a celebration of those exploring their sexuality, even if it feels frustratingly drawn out to the other person. In the same vein, Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko, inspired by the sapphic anthem of the early aughts, follows the story of Coley and Sonya, two teenage girls in rural Oregon who each find themselves falling for the other girl. This lyrical debut novel fills out the gaps in the plot to Kiyoko’s music video, but balances the overall sweetness of the summertime romance with an exploration of grief and what it means to be out in today’s society. I think Pretty Girls would fit in beautifully during the summer romance montages that Girls Like Girls lays out.

“Tummy Hurts”

the cover of she is a haunting

Now my tummy hurts, he’s in love with her/But for what it’s worth, they’d make beautiful babies/And raise ’em up to be a couple of/Fucking monsters, like their mother and their father

In Tummy Hurts, Rapp explores a past relationship through an analysis of heartbreak, grief, and bittersweet predictions of the continuing cycle of unhealthy relationships. This song contradicts and supports the exploration through using a childlike imagery of an upset stomach and the consequences of an unhealthy romance. If you are looking for a book that explores being haunted by a past relationship or dysfunctional relationships, I would recommend reading She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. In this horror young adult novel, Jade is visiting her estranged father and her only goal is to end the five-week visit with the college money he has promised her—but only if she can seem straight, Vietnamese, and American enough. However, Jade can’t ignore the effects of colonization on the house or a ghost bride’s warnings to not eat anything. She is a Haunting explores the concept of places being haunted by dysfunctional family dynamics, just as “Tummy Hurts” explores the haunting of a romantic relationship.

“I Wish”

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers cover

I wish I could still see the world through those eyes/Could still see the colors, but they’re not as clear or as bright/Oh, the older we get, the colors they change/Yeah, hair turns to gray, but the blue’s here to stay/So I wish, I wish

“I Wish” is the Pisces moon of Snow Angel, with Rapp singing about how she wished she didn’t know about death as a concept. This sweet ballad mourns the loss of an important figure and the resultant loss of innocence in the world around her. Similarly, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers explores themes of existential dread, fear of not living up to people’s expectations, and a loss of innocence once you grow up. Twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes to Vegas to celebrate getting her PhD in astronomy, but accidentally ends up getting drunkenly married to a strange woman from New York. This triggers a rush of questions about herself, including why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled in her life, and Grace flees home to move in with her unfamiliar wife. Honey Girl is a story about self-growth, finding queer community, and taking a journey towards better mental health, and it honestly made me cry as much as I Wish did the first time I listened to it.

“Willow”

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Willow/I’ll cry, Willow/Willow/I’ll cry for you

Willow is another sad ballad, in which Renee talks to her younger self (metaphorically) under a willow tree, and tries to reassure them that everything will be alright. This concept of wanting to take away someone’s pain, regardless of your own, made me think of one of my favorite novellas, Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk. Elena Brandt is the hardboiled detective of mystery noire past, with her private eye set up in a magical 1930’s Chicago, and a lady love waiting in the wings for her. However, Elena’s days are numbered and she decides to spend the last of them with said lady love, Edith. Just as she is about to leave the city, a potential client offers her $1,000 to find the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. To sweeten the pot, the client offers something more precious—the chance to grow old with Edith. As Elena dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life, she learns that nothing is as she thought it was. If you want a read that will capture your mind and heart for an afternoon, then grab a copy of C. L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew the End. 

“23”

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

But tomorrow I turn twenty-three/And it feels like everyone hates me/So, how old do you have to be/To live so young and careless?/My wish is that I cared less/At twenty-three

Finally, 23 explores the emotional turmoil and questioning that can come with turning twenty-three years old. Rapp’s lingering lyrics ask why she doesn’t feel like she has been succeeding in life, especially when compared to society’s expectations and assumptions about her career. By the end of the song, Rapp expresses the hope that she can grow into herself as a person and learn to love herself more by her next birthday. In the same vein, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kahn is about a nineteen Black year old college student named Alice, whose summer was going to be perfect until her girlfriend broke up with her for being asexual. Alice had planned on remaining single as to never experience being rejected for her sexuality again, but then she meets Takumi, and Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood. A huge theme in Alice’s story is that of figuring out what you want to do and/or be as opposed to what your family and friends (or society) expects from you, whether it is about your sexuality or career choices. I think Alice would be wistfully listening to 23 right before the climatic third act, as she contemplates what to do.

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Sapphic K-Pop Horrormance: Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng

the cover of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Content warnings for self-harm, homophobia, racism, sexism, suicide, violence, and gore.

Sunny, Candie, and Mina were a young K-pop group on the rise, starring in a popular TV show that launched their career. That was before everything fell apart. Before Sunny and Candie turned against each other. Before the ritual that went wrong. Before Mina jumped to her death.

Now, Sunny is 18 and feels like the best years of her life are behind her. She squandered her shot at fame, and Candie won’t speak to her. They used to be be inseparable, but now she won’t take Sunny’s calls. While following Candie on social media, Sunny discovers that she’s entered herself into a K-pop competition. To her manager mother’s delight, Sunny joins the same competition, but it’s not really to try to relaunch her career. She wants to reconnect with Candie and finally talk about what happened to Mina, as well as the secrets they’ve been keeping. Meanwhile, something is wrong with the workshop: girls keep getting injured, the hallways seem to rearrange themselves, and Sunny could swear she can see Mina out of the corner of her eye sometimes.

The story rotates timelines between the K-pop competition and the lead-up to Mina’s death. This is described by the publisher as a “speculative thriller,” and I think that fits better than “horror.” There are horror elements, including some unexpectedly upsetting gore, but the majority of the book has an off-putting and surreal feel.

At the workshop, Sunny is placed with Candie as her roommate—but Candie continues to be standoffish even in close proximity. Because I don’t think this is a spoiler, I’ll say that Sunny and Candie’s relationship isn’t strictly platonic, but Candie pushed her away to maintain her image. That history simmers below the surface, and in some ways, this is a bit of a horrormance: their fraught relationship is at the centre of this story.

I don’t want to give away the supernatural element, because the answers to what happened to Mina and what’s happening at the workshop are unspooled throughout the story, but I will say it’s a different focus than I’ve seen in a horror novel before. On the other hand, there is a scene with teeth and scissors that I will truly never be able to get out of my head (bad choice of words…) Because the book is mostly dreamlike and unsettling, that scene really shocked me.

There is more going on here than just shifting hallways and girls with the wrong faces, though. It also touches on the pressures of the K-pop industry and the difficulty of fame, including racism and stalking.

If you’re a fan of K-pop, horror, dark fantasy, sapphic romance subplots, and surreal settings—or any mix-and-match of those—pick up Gorgeous Gruesome Faces. This is Linda Cheng’s debut, and though I thought there were a few clunky lines (especially the dialogue tags, which shows just how picky I’m being), the premise and atmosphere was strong enough to override any drawbacks, and I look forward to seeing how her writing develops in her next books.