An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

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

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

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

the cover of The Dead Take the A Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the cover of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces by Linda Cheng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gory, Queer Cosmic Horror: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

the cover of The Dead Take the A Train

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This plunge into cosmic horror follows Julie, an almost-thirty-year-old woman with a diet mainly consisting of alcohol and whatever brand of drug she has lying around, through the streets of New York as she tries to keep herself afloat doing odd monster-hunting jobs. What really kicks the story off, though, is her best friend from forever ago bouncing back into her life with the desperate need to hide from her abusive husband, forcing Julie to reckon with feelings she never really thought she’d have to grapple with again. Julie also has to hunt whatever horrific creature keeps killing everybody at her crappy ex-boyfriend’s firm, and it turns out she might have helped bring it into the world. Fun!

First things first, this novel doesn’t shy away from the “cosmic” or the “horror” elements of its genre, something I greatly appreciated it. We have eldritch-style creatures around every corner, three of which have pretty big influence over the plot: The Proctor, The Mother Who Eats, and Akrasiel. Before we get to any of them, we are introduced to Julie during one of her grand misadventures as she attempts to rid a bride-to-be’s body of the monstrous eggs that a horrid creature is trying to implant inside of her. Yeah. It’s as gruesome as it sounds.

That’s another thing this book does right. If you want gore, you have found the right place! This book did not disappoint at all in that regard. Detailed descriptions are given to every awful, bloody thing that happens in this book. Every action has a consequence, and Khaw and Kadrey make sure that you know it. Where I might have expected other stories to refuse to look at the carnage, one of the strengths of The Dead Take the A Train is that it refuses not to look. If someone is eaten, you see the blood get splattered on the walls. If a monster wears a human skin suit, you see the way they acquired that human skin suit. There isn’t a whole lot that is simply left to the reader’s own devices; this is horror that believes what it describes is much worse than anything you could think of on your own. And it’s right—so many times, I thought I knew the extent of the gore I was about to witness, and so many times, I was decimated by what was actually on the page.

I also appreciated the romance… mostly. (More on that later.) Julie is ride-or-die for Sarah the second she sees her again, and their friends to lovers approach to being together is so romantically stupid that even two side characters, Dead Air and St. Joan, call them out on it multiple times. Everyone wants them to kiss. It is so apparent that these two need to be together, and I kind of love how quickly they get attached to each other again after not talking for so long. When Julie does what she inevitably was always going to do in order to beat her big bad in this book, it felt perfect for Sarah to be there with her. Right before she does it, we see Sarah attempt to stop her, and she’s smart about it in a way that surprised me—Julie and I figured out what Sarah had done/was trying to do at the same time, and I absolutely loved it. I wasn’t entirely sold on Sarah’s side of things until a few chapters before this scene, and this is the part that really pulled the romance together for me.

One thing I found interesting about the structure of this story was the multiple points of view. There are, to be entirely truthful, too many points of view. However, a lot more of them worked well for the story. Julie is the main character and the main POV, but we also routinely get a peek into how Tyler, Julie’s ex, is doing as he works on things adjacent to the main plot. Some characters only come into play for one section or two, but I was mostly fine with those, and I absolutely adored the tiny bit of story we got from a small character named Clarice. The bits and pieces we saw from inside characters who were about to die or from the monstrous entities that set out to kill them worked extremely well most of the time, but by the end of the book, I felt like I should have been keeping a list of all the characters who got some POV time because I had forgotten half of them. The world both feels too big and too small at the same time. I know that doesn’t make sense, but what I mean is that I know a lot about how magic functions in this world, but everything is also kind of written like I’m familiar with the rules way before I reached that point in the story. Something would happen, and I would have to put it in a stack with the rest of the things that happened without adequate explanation. Then something else would happen later to explain it, and I would finally have a new rule of the world, but by then, it was too late for me to apply it.

Spoilers ahead.

Another part of the story I found interesting is Sarah herself. She is interesting to me because she didn’t become a fully-developed character until we got to the end of the book. I didn’t really expect a lot out of her in regards to the monster-killing side of things—she is new to all of this, and she’s shown a remarkable amount of guts for looking scary things in the face, but she’s never actually fought one of them. However, when she stuck her neck out for Julie at the end and tried to save her without caring about the consequences she’d face, it hit like a wake-up slap to the face. I found myself wondering where this version of Sarah had been the whole time. Instead of being this demure angel, suddenly here she was with substance. When she proceeded to try and give her life up for Julie’s, I was surprised because that was something I had never expected her to do. She calls herself Julie’s spouse when she goes to look at her dead body; she uses the monkey’s paw to bring her back to life, side effects be damned. She became so much more at the end than she had been throughout most of the novel, and I kind of wish we’d seen more of this version of her before the last, like, hundred pages. While we’re on it, I’m all for major character death with a resurrection, but Sarah bringing Julie back seemed to happen too quickly and too perfectly. I wanted Sarah, Dead Air, and St. Joan to have to deal with Julie’s death in a real way. She kills herself in Sarah’s arms in order to kill the angel-thing that wants to eat New York. That’s a lot to handle, and it seemed like the writers didn’t want Julie’s people to have to really and truly accept that fact.

End of spoilers.

Despite all of this, I found myself really enjoying this book, and I will definitely be ready to read the sequel when it comes out. Trigger warnings for: lots of gruesome death (multiple self-inflicted), Lovecraftian abominations, and vivid descriptions of dead and dying bodies (seriously, if you aren’t comfortable with maggots, eggs, and/or eyes, stay away).

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

the cover of Manhunt

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I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.