Danika reviews When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll

When I Arrived at the Castle cover

I loved Emily Carroll’s previous book, Through the Woods, which is an unsettling and beautiful horror graphic novel, so I was excited to pick up her next book. When I found out it was a sapphic vampire horror erotica graphic novel, though, I couldn’t believe my luck.

Emily Carroll’s art style is gorgeous and compelling, and the black, white, and red colour scheme works so well in this. The story has a haunting, almost fairy tale feel that slips into the dreamlike. Do I completely understand what happened? No. But I was enthralled by this gory and sexy story. I really want to read more queer horror erotica. This, like Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn, is equal parts erotic and disturbing. There is plenty of gore and blood, but it’s juxtaposed with the sexiness, which just heightens that feeling of unease.

Caroll is a master of page design, and almost every spread is arranged differently: the view through a keyhole, an all-text page telling a story, a coffin illuminated in a ray of light. I’d want them framed and on my wall if there wasn’t the nightmare factor.

a page from When I Arrived at the Castle, showing two figures in the doorway of a room filled with two stories of red doors. The text reads: "Doors. Like a nest of ravenous baby birds, their mouths yawning from floor to ceiling. And I a worm, dangling from her beak."

I read this in October (I’m… a bit behind in reviews), and made for a perfect Halloween themed read, but for those of you who like to get creeped out all year round, definitely add this to your TBR.

This seems to be out of print, unfortunately, and pretty difficult to get your hands on. My library had it, luckily, but hopefully it gets reprinted soon, because I would love a copy for my permanent collection.

anna marie’s 3 best sapphic books of 2021 so far, with honourable mentions

Here are some of the best sapphic books i’ve read so far this year, which i think everyone should read immediately considering how incredible, prescient, inspiring and sexy they are. 

  1. The gilda stories by jewelle gomez
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

this is my favourite vampire story i’ve ever read and i’m sad it took me so long to get to it because it’s a delight. Jewelle Gomez writes so tenderly about Gilda, the main character, who becomes a vampire after escaping slavery in the south in the 1850s. We then track through time, in and out of different people’s lives and into the future, but always following Gilda’s path. The way this novel animates history, demonstrating it’s ongoing effect on the present/future as well as community, especially black queer community, through the figure of the vampire is wonderful and inspiring. The changes that are made to traditional vampire lore/representation (which is so heterosexual usually) allow the novel to explore a whole wealth of meanings and experiences normally forgotten or seen as unimportant. The way the vampires in this novel drink blood is one of my favourite things about it because it’s so reciprocal and caring, basically a form of mutual aid between vampires & non vampires and not just a transactional or sometimes violent relationship. the afterword in my edition is by alexis pauline gumbs which was also so beautiful and definitely worthwhile reading too if you have access to it! – about black feminist legacies and the implications of writing a queer black woman vampyre both in the 1990s & in 2016 or so when a new edition was published.

Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes – all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of the struggles of those times sustained her, somehow.

  1. Lucy by jamaica kincaid  
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I think some might find the inclusion of this book on a sapphic book list a surprise but i wanted to include it because the eponymous character, in my opinion, has a sexuality that is queer (or at least not heterosexual), because it includes making out with her best friend, peggy. Much like the novel this short novel is based on (Villette by charlotte bronte), Lucy is a judgemental and, to some, unlikeable character but i love her! I found being ensconced in her life and hearing directly from her was so fascinating; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes curious.

Kincaid’s novel is mostly a coming of age story about what happens to lucy when she moves from the west indies to north america to work as a nanny for Mariah and Lewis’ children. She develops a complicated and interesting relationship with Mariah along the way and thinks about her own mother back at home. All the relationships in this novel are extremely vivid and extremely fraught with differing emotions and differing levels of power which makes for a really variegated glimpse into lucy’s mind and life. I don’t think i’ll forget lucy as a character or her experiences for a really long time!!

  1. Plain bad heroines by emily m danforth
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I’m pretty sure this 600+ page novel was made for me to enjoy – as someone who identifies in a lot of ways as a plain bad heroine (sometimes known as a dyke), i felt like i had to read this this year and i’m so glad i did. It’s a campy horror film pastiche with sapphism at it’s centre. Part fin-de-siecle horror book, part love letter to horror films and literary gossip novels, it combines the best of all these into an ambitious and at points genuinely terrifying (at least for me) novel that includes two main storylines, one at a rhode island boarding school in 1902 and a contemporary one which follows three plain bad heroines as they attempt to make a horror film about what happened.

It’s at times uncomfortable, at times sexy, at times gruesome and sweet, and whilst i did have a preferred storyline (the 1902 one which starts off with the tragic deaths of flo and clara by yellowjackets as they run away from family obligation and heterosexuality), i thought they ultimately melded together so well. A delicious, lesboerotic romp with a fun and distinctive writing style which included footnotes!! My favourite!!! Absolutely would recommend this to anyone who can read. 

Honourable mentions go to children’s murder mystery novel jolly foul play by robin stevens, which is set in a 1930s boarding school, and the mercies by kiran millwood hargrave, an ambient and beautifully written historical fiction novel set in the late 1610s in norway.

Danika reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

You liked me best when I was like an oil painting; perfectly arranged and silent.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through. In case you need more convincing, though, I will forge on ahead.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She was dying as a casualty on a battlefield when he came in as her savior, turning her and nursing her back to health. She is overwhelmingly in love with him: “And God, how I adored you. It went beyond love, beyond devotion. I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

I should specify that the name Dracula never appears in the book. Constanta is telling this story to him, explaining what brought her to killing him, and she decides that because he took her name away–renaming her Constanta–she would similarly rob him of his name. It feels silly to talk about a book about vampires being a meditation on an abusive relationship, but it really is. Although this is fantastical, her descriptions of how she–and later, the other “brides”–are treated feels all too realistic.

He is patronizing, possessive, at times adoring or absent or cruel. Constanta learns to walk on eggshells, not speaking asking more than two questions in a row. He wants to be her only source of joy: “Vienna made you irritable as much as it made me blossom. I wouldn’t realize until later that you were irritable precisely because I was in bloom, because there were suddenly so many sources of joy in my life apart from your presence.”

Constanta was a devout Christian before being turned, and she still practices her faith, to his disdain. She also hunts despicable people, those that she believes the world will be better off without. She finds monsters who are untouchable and kills them. He believes this is petty, childish. He studies humans from a scientific distance, believing that they are superior to humans. He mocks her concern with human society. After all, they live for centuries, making each plague or war an inconvenience that they travel to escape from, but nothing to take too seriously.

Vague spoilers:

She is unhappy and confused by his mercurial affection, but she’s still captivated by him and relies on him. Their relationship changes when he manipulates her into accepting new “brides,” seemingly becoming bored with just her company. At first, it’s Magdalena: a commanding, powerful woman with political correspondents around the world. She is resentful of him bringing her into their relationship, but she can’t help but fall for Magdalena herself. At first, this arrangement works: Magdalena and Constanta keep each other company in his absences (often in bed), and he is charmed by Magdalena’s energy. Soon, though, his controlling nature saps her of her vitality, and she is left a shadow of the free, vital woman she once was.

Still, they might have continued this way for centuries more, until he adds Alexi to their mix. Alexi is a young man (“no more than nineteen”) who adds fresh life to their home–but Alexi also challenges him and refuses to accept their limitations, leading to constant stand-offs and tension. Constanta could endure her own pain, but she can’t stand to see Magdalena and Alexi suffer.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and gory scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person. She begins to see it through a different light, and she doesn’t apologize for her actions. She recognizes that they loved each other, but that they couldn’t live this way, and that all three of them were in danger if they let it continue.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Mo Springer reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Trigger Warning: This book has scenes of sexual assault.

Gilda starts out her journey as Girl, running from a plantation in which she was a slave and her mother died. She is taken in by a vampire, who gives her her name and gives her longevity, a life without end. Her journey takes her from her birth as a vampire in the 1850s, to 1870s, 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 2020, and finally to 2050. Gilda learns what it means to be a vampire, part of a vampire family, the importance of mortals but also of herself, but most importantly what it means to truly love.

This was an enjoyable, episodic story that did not have a central villain or character arc, but through the different eras Gilda lives we experience different conflicts, characters, and mini-arcs that make up her whole journey. There were some recurring characters and plot threads that helped give the story cohesion and narrative flow. The different time periods were interesting to learn about from the point of view of the same person, learning and changing with society.

Gilda’s arc feels very much like it is based around the idea of found family. She runs away from the plantation when her mother dies and finds the original Gilda who turns her, and Bird, the vampire who will teach her and then leave on her own journey of self-discovery. Gilda then finds family in other vampires, Sorel and Anthony, then later in one who she turns, and in another, more ancient vampire that I won’t spoil the name of. At the beginning of her story she is alone and in danger, but through the many decades she learns to find ways to connect to the world around her.

I almost wanted to have chapters from the other vampires’ points of view. There is Bird, a Lakota woman who spends her immortal life working to help and reclaim land for indigenous and native peoples. Sorel and Anthony, a couple who spend their lives together, but one of which is scarred by a decision to turn the wrong person and the destruction they wreak. There are many more characters whose stories we are given glimpses of through Gilda, but I would have rather have seen them myself than be told about them.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but once we reached the 1970s and on I felt the story was missing opportunities to explore more of the time period. I would have really liked to have seen a discussion about how vampires would have approached the AIDs epidemic. There is a lot that goes into how and why to turn someone, and we are shown what happens when the wrong person gets turned. Gilda herself struggles with the decision of who to take into immortality.

Gilda mainly enjoys and has relationships with women. She takes on several lovers during her long life, and we do get to engage with those storylines, this book is not a romance. It feels realistic in how it approaches romance, how most people love more than once, if not several times, and for vampires with immortality this would be true as well.

I do want to note that Gilda is described as a lesbian by the blurb, and I won’t gatekeep labels. However, I do feel it would be negligent not to mention that Gilda does have some erotic involvement with a man during one time period. This relationship is not described as romantic, and Gilda makes it clear she is not romantically involved with this man after they share a bed. This falls into an interesting part of the vampire lore of this book, in which vampires are described as having familial connections to one another but there are also these erotic scenes between them.

Overall, I will be honest that I am conflicted on this book. There were parts that left me feeling confused about the choices that were made in the narrative and description of relationships. Having said that, I did enjoy reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a story about a black, queer vampire as she explores her long life and the people she meets.

Sinclair reviews Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Content Warning: This review contains spoilers, but only specifics about the world, nothing plot-specific past the first chapter. I knew almost nothing about this book when I started reading it, and it was such a pleasure to be surprised, so if you like vampire stories, or Octavia Butler, I highly recommend it and you can stop reading this review now and just go pick up the book.

The opening of Fledgling by Octavia Butler is an intense sensory overload, where the nameless narrator is, too, on sensory overload, starving and being burned alive by the sun’s rays. She finds some meat to eat, and it proceeds to be one of the most sensual scenes I have ever read (and I have read a lot of erotic literature).

I didn’t know a lot about the story as I read it, and I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s experience of the meticulous, expertly woven unfolding that Butler does in the first few chapters, building a new world and explaining to us readers, slowly, what it is to inhabit this world. The nice thing is, the main character and narrator, Shuri, has completely lost her memory, and though she previously had a place in the world, has to re-learn everything she knows about how her tribes communicate, the social politics, and how things manifest. She slowly re-learns what her brain injury took from her, and in the process, builds her life from scratch.

Did I mention Shuri is a vampire?

Did I mention Shuri is Black, but the vast majority of vampires in this book are white, and Shuri is the result of a genetic experiment to encourage vampires to be able to withstand sunlight (which she can)?

True to form, Butler uses this particular trope of the vampire to discuss and investigate race relations, among other things, like sexism, classism, homophobia, and ageism.

As a person in kink and D/s relationships, I particularly loved how Butler depicted the symbiotic relationship between vampires and humans. It’s slightly different than in other vampire lore, but, as a fan of the genre in general, I found it believable and exciting. I loved how there was both a choice and a physiological component that bound them to each other, with a point of no return after a certain amount of contact.

Fledgling is the last novel Octavia Butler wrote and published, and I have read critiques and assessments that said it was clear Butler had created an entire world, and that Fledgling was just the tip of the iceberg in that world. I felt fairly satisfied with it as its own story, after I read it, knowing that there weren’t any others in the series, but the idea that Butler had a trajectory of the story already in her mind, but that is now lost and I will probably never read, does feel incredibly sad for me. I will only have to imagine into the future of Shuri’s world for myself.

Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home: Carmen Maria Machado’s Reclamation of CARMILLA

Carmilla: Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home graphic

Carmilla is a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula by decades. It’s a story I’ve come back to over and over, in the same conflicted way that I am drawn to lesbian pulp. In fact, I wrote a post about queer culture’s tendency to reclaim toxic representation, and how Carmilla and lesbian pulp fits into that. On the one hand, it’s validating to read about queer characters in classic literature, when our presence has been erased from much of history. On the other, Carmilla is literally a monster. I vividly remember my university Gender Studies class about Monstrous Women, and how the pinnacle of this is the lesbian vampire who lurks in the shadows, ready to pounce on innocent women and violently convert them.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CDkpc6dg8Rq/

Carmilla is a complex character, though. She’s in some ways pitiable and even relatable. She also seems to love Laura in some way, and their relationship is passionate, if veiled and macabre. I’m not the only queer woman drawn to this flawed but compelling character: it’s been adapted into a YouTube series (with canonically queer characters, including a nonbinary side character) that became popular enough to get its own movie and book adaptations.

I’ve always felt conflicted reading Carmilla, though, because while I could reclaim the character, it was with the knowledge that the author and story was painting her as monstrous—and that her sexuality was just an expression of this villainy. I was both repulsed by and attracted to this story—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. When I discovered that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing a new edition, I was eager to get my hands on it. I couldn’t imagine that an introduction and new editor could make a huge difference, but if anyone could reclaim this queer narrative, Machado could: the same person who wrote, “I think a lot about queer villains, the problem and pleasure and audacity of them” (In the Dream House).

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCx4_o_p4Br/

I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. This edition rewrites the entire narrative of Carmilla while keeping the vast majority of the text exactly the same. Originally, Le Fanu published the chapters serially in a magazine, then later bound them together with an introduction which claimed that the story came from Doctor Hesselius’s notes. Machado adds another layer. She claims that Le Fanu pulled this story from stolen letters, disguising and censoring the women’s story. Machado claims that the real letters from Veronika (“Laura”) were explicit about her and Carmilla’s romantic and sexual relationship.

In this version, it isn’t queer women who are trying to alter the author’s intention in order to claim Carmilla. Instead, it’s Le Fanu whose heteronormativity has obscured the real story, which can now be unearthed in its true form. This edition also adds a few footnotes and illustrations, though I desperately wanted there to be more of both. The meta-narrative that Machado creates is one in which vampires do exist—and that’s not all. In one footnote, Laura lingers outside of the woods, and the footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” (Another footnote, after a lengthy description, succinctly states, “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.”) And Robert Kraiza’s illustrations are beautiful and compelling.

It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. It was always interesting to read this classic lesbian text, but it was through the lens of heterosexism. Having a queer author shape this story makes it feel entirely new—not a guilty pleasure, but a triumphant one. Machado brings Carmilla and Laura into the fold. In this version, Laura watches in horror as her male supposed protectors execute her lover in front of her, claiming it is for her safety. Veronika dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine.” Veronika writes, “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.”

Unfortunately, shame, guilt, and fear intermingling with desire is still a common feeling for many queer people, especially when they are first exploring their sexuality. Laura is drawn to Carmilla at the same time that she feels “something of repulsion,” which can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. Laura even wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive of romance. Under Machado’s framing, instead of being horrific, Laura and Carmilla’s relationship seems somewhat familiar. Unhealthy, sure, and conflicted—but not inhuman.

After reading this book, I was filled with pride for how queer readers throughout time have reclaimed and reshaped the narratives meant to destroy us:

I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman in literature throughout time, for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately.

I finished that book knowing that Machado understood why I kept reading Carmilla, and she had created a version more hospitable to readers like me. Instead of feeling like I was fighting through the text, I was guided through it with a sympathetic hand. The lesbian vampire has long been the cruel caricature of queer women, a weapon used to portray all desire between women as pathological and even violent. Machado has taken that character, and in the grand tradition of reclaiming queer villains, she has humanized her. After long being the spectre haunting queer representation, Machado has invited Carmilla in, finally bringing the original lesbian vampire home.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

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

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

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

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

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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

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

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

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

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Babusha reviews the Kate Kane series by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Look, the books I’m talking about here were released at a time when –

  1. I thought I was straight
  2. I thought Twilight was the epitome of vampire romance.

So after four years of going through some intense self-reflection and some brief boycotting of vampires altogether, I realised that I still loved vampires–I just like them as lesbians now.

Which is when I found these books.

The Kate Kane series is literally my go-to comfort read, next to the Whyborne and Griffin series. I mean, a wisecracking lesbian detective with a sense of dark gallows humor that made me emote and laugh my ass off, annoying whiny emo stalker ex-boyfriends who give me a sense of teenage romance lit catharsis, motherfucking hot vampire princes and interactions ranging from awkward to near “sex against a wall” with faery ex-girlfriends, werewolves and Tash the Teetotaler Lesbian: how could I not love this series?

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing this, because I really wanted more and was super bummed there wasn’t, but when Alexis Hall announced he’s going to be writing more of this series, I had to gush about this for a bit.

So this series is darkly funny supernatural detective stories following half-faery half-human, noir  detective stereotype but gay Kate “Katharine” Kane. The book starts with her being hired to investigate a werewolf death outside a club owned by the “Prince of Cups” Julian Saint Germain before &%$& starts getting real between the werewolves and the vampires.

Julian is hot, flirty, and super interested in Kate. The only thing is, Kate has issues with vampires because of said dickhead creeper ex-boyfriend from high school who’s still leaving her portraits on her pillow–because you know… a good guy does that, not his literal evil soulless alter ego.

(Gold star for everyone who gets this reference and for people following AH’s twitter thread of Giles lust!)

With scary dodgy powers she draws on from her scary morally dodgy mom, the Queen of the Wild Hunt, dealing with the guilt and regret of the death of her partner and sometimes epically bad shagging choices while dealing with vampire politics, werewolf supermodels and even Witch Queens to investigate her case, Kate is the epitome of Disaster Lesbian and really shouldn’t be dating hot sylph-like vampires but oh look wait now she’s eating meringue with her.

Professional pride is very overrated, I agree.

The book is so freaking funny and hot with a distinct kind of British “we might as well all die now” humor with Kate and Julian’s push and pull dynamic, funny as all hell running gags of Kate’s constant imagining of her gravestone with inscriptions describing increasingly embarrassing, hot and mundane ways she could die during her investigation and “fucking Patrick” getting punched a lot which made me laugh and yay in my heart of hearts. The next book just gets weirder and hotter, where she is not only trying to do her day job, but also has to deal with some faces from the past, hot sex, strange new roommates, other people’s girlfriends, literal trials and occasional tales of the Pudding Nun’s various adventures.

I have a weird sense of what’s comforting, but it’s any book that makes me laugh so much and yet it also helped me confront my vague sense of shame I felt being super into something that is decidedly problematic as a teenager. I had liked Twilight as a kid, and yes, I was a dumbass teenager, but just because it’s making a comeback on the internet, don’t mean I have to be ashamed and avoid it like it was the plague, just punch it and get on with my day.

It was just a phase after all, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out looking for my own motherfucking vampire prince now!

Definite four and a half stars, the half for the catharsis.

Content warnings: blood, knifeplay in sex, possessive creepy behaviour from dickhead ex-boyfriends, near alcoholism, light gruesomeness