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

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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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.

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

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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.

Folk Horror Misogyny: The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi

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I read this during Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon in the last hour before I went to sleep, and I think this is a perfect choice for a horror graphic novel to read on an October night.

El and Vee are two queer teens living in the small town of Shudder-To-Think. As they get close to graduation, Vee can’t wait to get out, but El feels unable to escape: there are no universities she could apply to that she could afford. On the first page, they wake up together in a movie theater missing their memories of the last few hours. Vee wants to let it go, but El is determined to figure out the truth.

This isn’t the only weird thing about Shudder-To-Think, though. It is a dying ex-mining town with an underground fire that won’t go out. Flayed bodies appear and attack people. There are strange, mutated deer lurking in the woods. There’s a girl who is a sinkhole. They have a town witch that hasn’t aged since she was a child. At first, these feel like disparate atmospheric horror elements, until everything starts coming together.

I loved the atmosphere of this creepy town, and I think the artwork captures it perfectly. It’s such a claustrophobic feeling, and monstrous elements really just underscore the inherent horror of being a young queer woman of color stuck in a town that is indifferent to them at best and deadly at worst.

I’m also always a fan of queer friendship in books: El and Vee have been connected at the hip since they were kids, and although they have fights and serious disagreements, they love each other deeply and always circle back to each other. I love seeing friendships that are central to characters’ lives.

The plot is hard to discuss without spoiling anything, but I was really satisfied with how it all came together in the end. It’s hard to say I liked the plot, because it is upsetting, but it’s very well done. This is a feminist horror story that gave me folk horror vibes, though admittedly I’m new to that subgenre. It’s more psychological horror than outright scary, so if you’re looking for an October read that has dark themes and is more on the sinister than terrifying side, I highly recommend this one. I will continue to pick up anything Carmen Maria Machado writes; she’s never steered me wrong.

Content warnings (includes spoilers): Sexual assault as a major theme, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, violence, death

Young Adult Breakthroughs in the Florida Bayou: The Immeasurable Depth of You by Maria Ingrande Mora

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Photo by Shelby, painting by Peter Price

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Thank you to Peachtree/Peachtree Teen and Netgalley for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. (Published March 7, 2023) 

I adored this YA coming of age gem! The book follows Brynn, a young bisexual teen struggling with severe anxiety, as she’s forced to spend her summer away from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio to instead live with her father on his houseboat in Florida. Brynn’s mother sends her away for a “technology free retreat” after discovering an alarming internet post on her daughter’s blog. While exploring the bayou, Brynn meets a mysterious girl named Skylar who shares that she’s bound to the water. Upon discovering this, Brynn makes it her mission to help Skylar escape before the end of the summer.

Originally, I believed this book to be a queer romance, but that’s my mistake for failing to properly read the synopsis. Brynn’s queerness is explored as she makes connections throughout the story, but the plot focuses on her individual journey more than any single connection. The depiction of Brynn’s mental state was well executed, and compassionately showcased the debilitating impact anxiety/OCD/ADHD can have. Despite her proclivity for self-sabotage, Brynn is a character who was easy for me to sympathize with, all things considered.

Despite the heaviness, the novel remained hopeful and at times, funny. Brynn was a complex protagonist, witty while insecure, introspective and angsty. Her interactions with her parents were reminiscent of conversations I had at her age. The narrative voice felt authentically “teen” and not simply an author attempting to write youthfully.

Additionally, the atmosphere was beautifully constructed, with detailed prose that made the bayou come alive. (Side note: I read the book while in Florida, which made my reading experience extra special.)

My main critique is of Brynn’s relationship arc with Skylar. I would’ve enjoyed more interactions between the two. Their dynamic would’ve been more intriguing if we’d seen more of them together on the page; their progression felt a bit rushed. However, Brynn’s relationship arc with each of her parents was well done.

Overall, this was a positive reading experience, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s work. 

FINAL NOTE: I would encourage readers to check content warnings, because there were several heavy topics addressed throughout the novel including (but not limited to): death, grief, suicide, and natural disaster.

Shelby (she/her) is a reader, writer, and actor based out of Louisville, Kentucky. When she’s not emoting on the page or stage, Shelby enjoys traveling, hiking, and in general, being a silly goose. You can find her on Bookstagram @storytimewithshellbee or Booktok @storytimewithshellbee

A Quiet & Queer YA Horror Story: A Guide to the Dark by Meriam Metoui

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Mira and Layla are trying to make their way to Chicago for the last leg of their college tour road trip when they’re stranded in a small town and forced to stay at the Wildwood Motel. To Layla, this is a minor setback while she’s more focused on figuring out her confusing feelings for Mira. But though Layla doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, Mira senses something dark and wrong about their room and increasingly can’t seem to escape visions of her dead brother. With several days left until their car is fixed, Mira and Layla need to figure out what exactly is happening in Room 9 and how they can survive until the final night.

Parts of this book worked so well. I loved the diverse cast of characters and liked how well-rounded they felt for a book that takes place over just a handful of days. The slow escalation of suffocation from being trapped in a small room in a small town felt tangible. Part of this dread came from the inclusion of real photographs taken by the author interspersed throughout—fitting, since one of the characters is a photographer. I thought it was a wonderful way to convey how things were just a little off even as they weren’t yet noticed by the characters. I think the atmospheric set-up and the use of the haunting of the room as a metaphor for grief are the strongest parts of the book and deeply engrossing.

That said, for a YA horror this book moved a lot slower than I expected. It alternates between three perspectives: Layla, Mira, and the room itself. The result is that the four days spent with these characters takes its sweet time. I found it difficult to keep switching between the Mira and Layla perspectives because tonally they sounded so alike. It also meant that sometimes the same event is described twice over in a way that became a little repetitive. I was caught by surprise when the ending picked up so quickly considering how much it lingered in the set-up and was left a bit unsatisfied by the resolution. I think that if readers go in knowing that this is not going to be an action-packed horror, they’ll have a better time. For those looking to linger for a bit in an atmospheric creepy book exploring grief, I think it’s worth a read.

Trigger warnings: violence, suicidal ideation, drowning, grief, child death, fire, car accident, homophobia

A Supernatural Noir Novella About Love at All Costs: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

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What would you give up everything for? If you knew you were doomed, would you keep fighting?

In fewer than 140 pages, the award-winning Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk posits these questions with a heroine whose love and determination propel her through a fast-paced investigation to catch a killer and save her soul.

Ten years ago, Helen Brandt sold her soul to the devil to revive her brother from an accident that claimed her whole family. He’s not exactly grateful to be yanked from paradise by the sister who’s been branded a warlock, but in the meantime, Helen has met the love of her life in a lesbian bar and made a living as a mystic in 1940s Chicago. Just before Helen reaches her expiration date, she’s given one last mission, with the reward being the return of her soul. While her ultimate fate is still eternal damnation, if she catches an infamous serial killer, she can live out the rest of her mortal life with Edith Jarosky.

To say more would be saying too much, but rest assured this is a story that builds on itself until the end. My favorite novellas work in perfect choreography, with no paragraph wasted and every storytelling element woven together around a central ribbon. To me, Even Though I Knew the End is one such novella. Rich in atmosphere and with a poignant thematic core, it is paced to keep the reader achingly aware of the protagonist’s countdown clock as the stakes of her mission only increase.  

Helen is an intensely devoted, driven, and charismatic protagonist. The natural affection between her and Edith makes their relationship heartwarming. As revelations about Edith come to light, I do wish she got more of a chance to shine with her own contributions, especially as she is Helen’s driving force. The couple are shown to work together in perfect harmony, and I would have loved to see their teamwork demonstrated more, as well as have Edith’s character explored. 

Two other characters stood out to me in particular. Without getting into spoilers, if you enjoy powerful, charismatic (and not-so-charismatic) beings in your supernatural fiction, this cast will be for you. Edith’s complicated relationship with her brother rounds out the dynamics. With a smoky atmosphere evoked in pointed descriptions, even though I know the end, this is a book I would happily revisit.

A note on the worldbuilding: This is set in a world with nonbinary angels, where being gay will not condemn you, but warlock deals and sacrilege will.

Other content warnings include death and violence as well as references to period-typical homophobia, sexism, ableism, institutionalization, and conversion therapy. 

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

A Fraught, Erotic Fever Dream: Mrs. S by K. Patrick

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Every so often I read a novel that just has the perfect summer energy about it—and even though I read a review copy of Mrs. S by K. Patrick (Europa Editions, 2023) in the spring, I was thinking of summer the entire time. Perfect for fans of novelists like Emma Cline, Mona Awad, or Leon Craig, Mrs. S is an unforgettable novel. 

This novel is the kind of fascinating, character-driven historical fiction I’m drawn to. Set at an English boarding school sometime in the second half of the twentieth century (the timeline isn’t clear), an unnamed narrator arrives under the position of matron at the school. As butch lesbian from Australia, our narrator feels like an outsider in more ways than one. That is, until she meets Mrs. S, the headmaster’s alluring and captivating wife. At first, Mrs. S seems to be the narrator’s opposite in many ways—primarily through her self-assuredness and her carefully performed femininity—but as the summer wears on and the two women grow closer together, the narrator comes to realize that the two have far more in common than she thinks. 

A lesbian affair conducted in secret at a British boarding school? There is no novel I would rather read. Plus, a butch lesbian protagonist is a refreshing perspective. I read Mrs. S in one sitting, and it was exactly the kind of fraught, erotic, fever dream novel I hoped it would be. I loved the narrator’s insular personality and her struggles with her queerness were issues I could both sympathize and identify with. Although this novel is framed as the narrative of an affair, it is really more about the narrator and her thoughts, feelings, and journey to come to terms with who she is—a journey that isn’t close to complete by the novel’s end. 

The narrator’s relationship with Mrs. S has the kind of chaotic, fated, anxiety-inducing intensity that I hoped for. Mrs. S has an untouchable, unknowable air about her that always keeps the narrator (and us) on the outside, even when she appears to let us in. Nevertheless, we fall in love(?) with her alongside the narrator, and the second half of the novel seems to hurtle toward the end. While it seemed to take a long time to get to any kind of movement in the plot between these two characters, I now think that that’s a result of this novel really being about the protagonist’s trying to find a place in the world. 

Speaking of places, the boarding school setting is so fabulous, and there’s a reason why queer authors return again and again to the idea of a girls’ boarding school, a place that supposed inculcate “proper” heterosexist codes of femininity and often ends up complicating them instead. Mrs. S’s status as the headmaster’s wife further undermines the “power” of the boarding school as an institution and I think there’s so much to be said about the usefulness of this setting for Patrick. The atmosphere of this novel—contributed to by Patrick’s sensual descriptions—is part of what kept me reading. 

I highly recommend Mrs. S as your queer novel of the summer! 

Please add Mrs. S to your TBR on Goodreads and follow K. Patrick on Twitter

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

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

Danika reviews The Restless Dark by Erica Waters

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During October this year, I tried to pack my TBR with seasonal, Halloween-adjacent reads, and The Restless Dark looked like the perfect match. It’s a sapphic YA horror/thriller book set at a true crime podcast event where listeners compete to try to find the unrecovered bones of a serial killer. As the retreat continues, though, it begins to seem like the danger isn’t past…

Lucy only narrowly escaped being one of the Cloudkiss Killer’s victims, and she was the last person to see him alive. She’s gone on this retreat not out a love of true crime — a genre that’s profited off and sensationalized her trauma — but because she hopes to find closure. Carolina, the other point of view character, has come to try to assure herself she’s nothing like the Cloudkiss Killer, even though she may have killed her boyfriend. (Or maybe it was an accident? She can’t remember.)

Lucy and Carolina end up in a group with Maggie, a psychology student writing a paper about all the fascinating characters at this retreat. They almost immediately end up in a tense dynamic with each other: both Caroline and Maggie are interested in Lucy, but Lucy falls for Maggie. She appreciates that Maggie gives her agency, and she’s frustrated that Carolina keeps trying to protect her. She doesn’t want to feel like a victim anymore. Carolina, though, is worried that Lucy is beginning to become violent herself, and she knows how much that can destroy your psyche, because that’s what she’s going through.

This plays out at Cloudkiss Canyon, which the locals all avoid. It’s coated with an ever-present, unexplained fog, and the legend is that the fog will show you your true self, the one you fear and avoid, if you let it. There’s a dreamlike quality to their time here, and it’s unclear if something supernatural is happening or not. Carolina, especially, seems to be losing time, which is all the more worrying when it becomes obvious someone is hurting people at the retreat.

The setting and danger contribute to a tense, claustrophobic environment where everyone starts to turn on each other. They seem to be acting out of character — is it the fog affecting them, or is this who they really are?

This isn’t a mystery; I found it pretty easy to predict who was responsible for everything going wrong, but in a way, that just contributed to the tension, and I found myself compelled to keep reading just to get to the point where it all came to a head.

The Restless Dark is a moody, atmospheric story perfect for fall reading. I was completely absorbed while reading it, even if it’s not a book I found especially memorable. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s chilling without being gory, this is a great choice — and I always appreciate an F/F/F love triangle.

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.