Casey reviews The Haunting on Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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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.

Abigail reviews Child of Doors by J.S. Little

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This book was a wild read from start to finish. It has been a while since I read some truly weird speculative fiction like this. That’s about as specific as I can be about the genre of this book. It was part horror, part paranormal, part science fiction, part fantasy, and possibly meant to be somewhat allegorical. It reminded me a lot of Philip K. Dick, or Cordwainer Smith: the kind of science fiction that is infuriatingly philosophical in a way that is impossible to reason out a real meaning and actually learn anything from it. That is because, of course, these are the types of stories that are meant to draw out feelings and not thoughts. Despite how confusing the narrative was, it did draw me into an emotional connection with the characters. One of those emotions was fear. As I mentioned, there are some elements of horror in this book. There is plenty of gore and death and body horror, so if you don’t like those, you might want to skip this book. If you grew up on creepypasta, X-Files, and horror manga (like I did), Child of Doors may be right up your alley.

The events are told from the point of view of Arc Litchfield, a lesbian who is described as having dark skin and is at one point ambiguously described as “exotic” by another character, leading me to believe she is a woman of color. Aside from that, Arc’s appearance is never elaborated upon, except to say that she is out of shape. So the hero of the story (and she is a hero, in a very traditional sense of the word. It becomes quite clear early on that there is something very special about Arc that no one else in her world seems to have.) a fat lesbian of color, provides representation for demographics who do not often see themselves in this sort of traditional spec fic setting. Every other character is a woman as well, with the exception that proves the rule being the bad guy.

The antagonist, for lack of a better word, is a tall man in a suit, faceless, but with its head cocked to one side as if scrutinizing its potential victims. This is a creature of the type so common in ghost stories and horror media that it is instantly familiar and yet, at least in my opinion, still very scary. This book got me wondering what it is about faceless monsters that drills so deep into our subconscious and makes us so uneasy? I didn’t come up with an answer, but I certainly appreciate the stylistic choice the author made to use the “faceless man” monster in Child of Doors to such good effect.

The problem I run into reviewing this kind of story is that any criticisms I have might just be a case of me “not getting it.” For example, the pacing is uneven and jarring. This might be the author’s method of getting the reader into the mindset of the main character, who experiences blackouts and lost time repeatedly throughout the narrative. I certainly felt myself feeling the effects of confusion and desperation as her terrifying circumstances wore on Arc throughout the story. The narrative was hard to follow, and was left with so many questions and loose ends that I wished were explained better. Perhaps this too was on purpose, for it emphasizes the uncertainty of life and the complexity of the world and of our own minds. It seemed like Arc understood more about what was happening to her than the reader could be expected to glean from the narrative. Maybe her deepest thoughts and feelings of acceptance for her fate and role were her own private business, and the reader, an outsider, can only accept the character’s decisions based on their respect for her agency as a survivor and a hero.

In summary, this book is everything I have been looking for in speculative fiction! A book in my favorite genre with a protagonist who is not a white, straight male? Yes please. It’s definitely the kind of book you have to read at least twice to understand it. I plan to pick it up again soon just so I can enjoy it again, and maybe the second time around I will gain more insight into what exactly happened. Even then, if it’s still unclear, what really matters to me is the beautiful story, the words, the interections, the brief vignettes of normalcy that end up ripped apart by terror and chaos. It’s these elements that make the story resonate in an impressionistic way and feed your mind and your heart. That’s what I love about speculative fiction, and it’s why I fell instantly in love with this shining example of the genre.

Danika reviews Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn

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This book freaked me out. Again, it was one I meant to read in October for my Halloween-y reads, but my inter-library loan didn’t come in until late November. It’s a bit of a shame, because it would have made for a fantastic Halloween read. It’s a short story collection (with a few poems) that mixes erotica and horror. The stories will go from a sexy place into a kinky place into an outright horror place. This kind of slipping between genres was especially unsettling. The standard of writing was high for the entire collection, with authors like Amber Dawn, Michelle Tea, and Kristyn Dunnion contributing. The subjects varied. Some were very much in the horror genre, and some were more light.

Fist of the Spider Woman doesn’t ease you into it: the first story, “Slug”, has the main character having vicious fantasies (again, they start out as kinky… and then often end in slow death), and that’s before the “slug” element takes place. If you read the first story and enjoy it, you’ll definitely like the collection. It is horror, however, so pretty much all the trigger warning apply, including gore, rape, and gaslighting.

This may be my favourite queer Halloween/horror book that I’ve read. I especially enjoyed Amber Dawn’s “The Last Lesbian Rental In East Vancouver” and Kestrel Barnes’s “Shark”. I also personally liked that many of the authors included are local British Columbia authors. For next Halloween, or any time you want to be creeped out and unsettled, I definitely comment this collection.

Danika reviews The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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For October, in honor of Halloween, I’ve been picking up some appropriate books. This one I was especially excited about, because there aren’t a lot of lesbian horror books. Besides, the premise really appealed to me. Here, I’ll just paste part of the the blurb.

Sarah Crowe left Atlanta, and the remnants of a tumultuous relationship, to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant-a parapsychologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on a desolate corner of the property.

I love lesbians and book and any combination therein, so a lesbian book about a book (the manuscript)? I’m in! I was a little worried, partly because the blurb doesn’t mention it, that the lesbian content would be more of a one-off line about her ex-girlfriend. I was totally wrong, however, and part of what I enjoyed about The Red Tree were things like Sarah lamenting that with her luck, her new neighbor would be straight. (Woe!) And it was just as literary as I was hoping: Sarah is an author, and the book is mostly comprised of her journal entries. There is also a fictional editor’s preface, explaining the context of the entries (namely, Sarah’s subsequent suicide), and included within the entries are lengthy excerpts from the manuscript Sarah discovers, as well as a short story of hers. The whole thing is fiction within fiction, so in those aspects it was exactly what I was looking for.

In fact, I spent the whole first half of the book wanting to thrust it into people’s hands and say “This! This is what you want to read in October!” It was just the right kind of creepy and atmospheric. Slow-moving, not grisly, just unsettling and compelling. Also, I loved Sarah as a character, though you might disagree. She’s sometimes rude and sarcastic, and generally caustic, but believably so. She’s also self-deprecating, so she doesn’t spare anyone. I found it quite funny and times, and definitely a well-rounded, memorable character.

As for the plot, most of it is just setting up the story, establishing the mood, slowly heightening the creepy factor. The manuscript excerpts fill you in on more and more of the bloody back story of the property, and that tree in particular. As I’ve said, it’s precisely the kind of understated creepiness that I’m looking for in a Halloween read. It is almost 400 pages long, however, and I felt like around the middle or three-quarter mark, it began to lag a little. Still, rounding on the end of the book I was glued to my seat to finish the last fifty pages, wondering how she was going to wrap this up. Unfortunately, I felt disappointed.

[spoilers, highlight to read] I’m not usually one to see the end of stories coming: I tend not to look to critically at the clues in the story until I see them in hindsight. I don’t usually read mysteries partly because I get lost and can’t figure out what’s happenings. But I saw this ending coming a mile away and was really hoping that I would be wrong. I just feel like it’s the most common trick in the book for creepy stories. And because I saw that coming, it wasn’t nearly enough of a shocker to be the final reveal, to me. I expected there to be something else in addition to that, at least, but that was the whole punchline. It really dragged down the book for me. Where I would have rated it maybe 5/5 for a great ending, it now feels more like a 3.5/5. Alas. But the other rating on this book on Amazon and Goodreads seem almost all positive, so that may just be me. [end spoilers]

Overall, I think I would still recommend this one for a creepy read, but I would warn against expecting a stupendous ending, or expecting much of a resolution. I still enjoyed most of this book a lot.

Edited to add: I should note that I wrote this review immediately after finishing the book. Reading some other reviews, I realize that I misunderstood the ending, at least in part. I still feel disappointed, but not to the same degree… I may feel differently about this book after some time to think about it.

Alyssa reviews Sometime Yesterday by Yvonne Heidt

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In addition to being a romance story, Sometime Yesterday by Yvonne Heidt is also a horror mystery. I really enjoyed this book; it had a couple iffy parts, but overall I had fun reading it and was caught up in both the romantic plot and the mystery.

There are two lesbian couples in Sometime Yesterday, which mirror each other: one in the past, and one in the present. In present day we meet Natalie, a painter who has just divorced her ex-husband and purchased an idyllic-looking house in a small town. She soon meets Van, a butch landscaper with a tragic past and a chronic avoidance of commitment. Natalie’s new house turns out to be haunted, and through the haunting, she and Van learn about the two women who used to love each other in that house. The lovers of the past were doomed by circumstance, but Natalie and Van have a chance at a future together.

I enjoyed the romance in the story the most, although the haunting, which escalates over time, gives it vital tension. Van and Natalie make a believable pair, and reading about them was a sweet experience. The haunting and its mystery unfold well, although it was at times too gory for my tastes. If you don’t like gore or violence, I would look for your romance elsewhere. For the record, since I like to note these things down in my reviews, the cast is mostly white (except for an important background character who I believe is supposed to be Hispanic), and the characters are gay but not very queer. I’d also like to warn for the following triggers: abuse, rape, and murder.

I would definitely recommend Sometime Yesterday if you’re looking for an enjoyable lesbian romance, and don’t mind some ghosts thrown in—or vice versa.

Danika reviews The Abandoned by Ross Campbell

I learned about The Abandoned from Good Lesbian Books’s Lesbian Fiction list. A lesbian zombie graphic novel?! Sounds too good to be true! I tried to brace myself before reading it. Maybe there would just be gay undertones. Nope! It’s established from the first couple of pages that Rylie is into girls, though romance isn’t really a big plot line in the book. And when I actually got The Abandoned in my hands, it looked even better. A fat lesbian PoC protagonist?! And the art is amazing. Rylie is just as awesome as she looks. She and the other characters in The Abandoned have their own interesting personalities and interactions with each other. Rylie is the only person of colour character, but there are other queer characters. Honestly, the only complaint I have is that there isn’t more! I read The Abandoned in one sitting. Apparently, there were supposed to be two additional volumes, but they got cancelled. I wouldn’t say, as some reviews do, that this volume ended on a cliffhanger, exactly, but it is open-ended. The Abandoned also has some hardcore zombie gore. You do see people torn apart. So if you like zombie gore and lesbians, I highly recommend this!

Laura reviews Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn

Fist of the Spider Woman, edited by Amber Dawn, is an anthology of 16 poems and short stories written in the queer space where fear meets desire. With subject matter ranging from vampires to pubic lice, this coolly creepy collection is the perfect paperback to pick up as Halloween draws near.

As Dawn notes in the introduction, “Fist’s contributor’s know what it means to operate outside of the norm. This puts us in a position to uncover distinctively queer, distinctively woman-centered horrors, and bring life to empathy-worthy victims and villains rarely seen before.” Yes, yes, and yes. The overall execution is marvelous; I’ve been turning these stories over in my head for weeks now, and I’m still not sick of it. If you’re looking for vivid characters and situations, this collection has it in spades.

While I wouldn’t say that all the pieces are hits, none are misses, either. A few are just stunningly, dazzlingly, take-your-breath-away beautiful. Here are a couple of my favorite passages:

From “All You Can Be” by Mette Bach:

“Do you believe in fate?” Brianna asked. “Do you think that maybe all this was meant to happen so that we could meet?”

Sal, who had always been an atheist and a practitioner of science, mathematics, and calculable randomness, heard her voice declare without hesitation, “Yes. I believe in fate.”

“I really like you, Sal.”

The phrase, like butter melting on toast, seeped into Sal.

“I really like you too, Brianna.”

From “Shark” by Kestrel Barnes:

I’d been scared that Carling would be born a shark, but she wasn’t, I soon satisfied myself of that. Her eyes were green as the tidepools and filled with life. Her mewls held no menace, her mouth was toothless and birdline. She smelled like the rainforest after it rained. She couldn’t swim, not in the bath, where I carefully examined her — no fins, no gills, no cartilage, and no tail. After that I knew for sure Carling wasn’t a shark. She was just my little sister.

For a memorable fix of fantasy mixed with a little terror, you really can’t do much better. Check out this exquisite read out for yourself: $17.95 from Arsenal Pulp Press.