Kayla Bell reviews Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn

Gothic fiction is my jam. I love the slowly building sense of dread that is the cornerstone of the genre. If I could have the job of any fictional character, it would be the creepy groundskeeper of the haunted manors in gothic ghost stories. I also (as you can imagine from me writing for this website) love queer stories. Looking back, my favorite horror and gothic books have consistently been those with queer elements. So as soon as I saw Unspeakable on the list of books up for review, I knew I had to read it. I’m happy to say that this short story collection lived up to my high expectations.

While all of the stories include gothic elements, they are all very different. The stories run the gamut from classic, historical gothic horror to modern-day shapeshifter romance. This collection is stronger for the diversity in storytelling that it holds. I loved the ones that had explicit sapphic relationships, but the ones without them were just as good, too.

One feature that really stood out to me in this collection was the setting. As I said, I love classic gothic stories. So every story that took place in an old, desolate home overlooking a grey sea made me very happy. The stories that I thought used setting to their advantage the most were “Hearteater” by Eliza Temple and “Quicksilver Prometheus” by Katie Young. Both of these stories used the grey, dark classic gothic setting to show the inner minds of their main characters. “Quicksilver Prometheus” also stood out to me because of its brilliant use of historical elements. That was definitely one of the best stories in the collection for me. Other stories that had amazing settings were “Moonlight” by Ally Kolzow and “The Moon in Glass” by Jude Reid.

Three of the other stories also stood out to me as being exceptionally good. The first was “Laguna and the Engkanto” by Katalina Watt. This sea creature horror story incorporated the culture of the Philippines to create a truly unique and horrifying tale. Watt’s writing was also featured in another one of my favorite recent anthologies, Haunted Voices. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.

“Homesick” by Sam Hirst almost made me cry. I wasn’t expecting such a profound and beautiful love story between two ghosts. In my opinion, it also had the best opening line in the book (and maybe of any short story I’ve ever read). This one was simple, but incredibly beautiful. It will certainly stick with me.

Finally, “The White Door” by Lindsay King-Miller turned a classic story on its head and proved that gothic stories can absolutely work in a fantasy setting. I was impressed by how well this one drew on standards set by classic works in order to create something completely unique. It also had an amazing and very chilling ending.

Overall, I really loved this anthology. I can see myself rereading it at night in October, waiting for something spooky (and potentially even sapphic) to happen.

Kayla Bell is the pen name of an author, reviewer, and lover of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can catch up with her on Instagram @Kreadseverything for more book reviews and updates about her writing.

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

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Carmella reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is an atmospheric gothic novel from debut author Jane Healey. Set during World War II in an English country house, it contains all the genre’s staples – supernatural disturbances, hidden rooms, spooky dreams, dark family secrets – along with a good helping of sapphic romance. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre and thought “OK, but what if Jane fell in love with Bertha Mason instead?”, then this is one for you!

When the Natural History Museum’s collections are evacuated during the London Blitz, a menagerie of taxidermied mammals are sent to Lockwood Manor – along with their newly-promoted director, Hetty Cartwright. What with the manor’s imperfect storage conditions, the creepy atmosphere, the unwelcoming servants, and Major Lockwood’s sexist arrogance, Hetty would have enough trouble keeping her collection in order. But then some of the animals start to go missing.

While Hetty investigates who’s responsible for her missing charges, she grows closer to the Major’s delicate daughter, Lucy. Lucy’s mother and grandmother both passed away recently in a horrible car accident, causing Lucy’s childhood nightmares and sleepwalking to relapse. In her dreams, she wanders the house, desperately searching for a room that doesn’t exist, and remembering her mother’s warnings about la diablesse – a devil-woman in white who haunts the manor.

The romance between Hetty and Lucy is slow to build, and it’s touching to watch them slowly discover their attraction to one another. Healey is a master at ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to her characters’ feelings.

And how could I review this without mentioning the eponymous animals? The taxidermied collection in Hetty’s care are characters in their own right: the truant panther, the faded hummingbirds, the towering polar bear. Hetty worries about them constantly, and you feel invested in their welfare too.

Then there are the human animals. Throughout the novel, Hetty compares other characters to the creatures in her care: Lucy is a cat, the housekeeper is a Rüppell’s fox, one of the maids is a chipmunk. This adds a fun flare to character descriptions, but also reflects that people can be just as beastly as animals – particularly Hetty’s host, Major Lockwood.

The Major is a wonderfully dislikable antagonist. He reminds me of gothic leading men like Rochester, Heathcliffe, or Maxim de Winter. Except that instead of asking us to believe he’s actually a romantic love interest (despite his patriarchal beliefs, violent temper, and mysteriously dead wife), Healey lets him be the villain of the piece. As someone who always wants gothic heroines to realise how awful their leading men are, I appreciate a novel that finally gives me what I’m looking for!

I’m a big fan of gothic literature, so I was delighted by Healey’s inclusion of so many classic gothic elements. If there’s a gothic trope you can think of, it’s probably in this book. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel predictable or formulaic – the tropes are thrown in more like nods to Healey’s predecessors. You can feel the influence of Jane Eyre (fun fact: Healey was named after her), Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Angela Carter, The Woman in White – and probably a load more that I’ve missed on my first reading.

If you’re a fan of gothic or historical fiction – particularly authors like Sarah Waters, Laura Purcell, and Daphne du Maurier – then I would highly recommend The Animals at Lockwood Manor. It’s a tense, claustrophobic read, full of opulent descriptions and chilling twists. The novel is published on 5 March by Mantle in the UK and 10 March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US.

Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.

Quinn Jean reviews Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Reign of the Fallen cover

[this review contains minor spoilers and discusses depictions of violence and substance abuse in the novel, particularly in paragraph three]

Reign of the Fallen is a refreshing and original addition to both the fantasy and the queer YA genres, a welcome departure from more formulaic and predictable novels that populate both areas. Sarah Glenn Marsh’s protagonist is a flawed, confused, intelligent and charismatic young woman named Odessa. Her already complex and dangerous life as a mage who raises the dead becomes even more complicated when monsters and unseen enemies descend en masse into the mythical kingdom she calls home. Marsh spends much of the first third of the novel explaining the magical properties and politics of the kingdom and populating Odessa’s world with compelling supporting characters including a Princess who moonlights as an ingenious inventor, a coarse and brash but kind fellow necromancer, and a sea-faring pirate mistress who flirts with Odessa incessantly. At times this initial storytelling exposition gets slow and somewhat tedious but Odessa’s grounded and relatable first-person narration and the promise of more action and development prevents these chapters from feeling too stale.

While the book is labelled an “LGBT love story”, Odessa begins the story with a heterosexual male partner, Evander, who works with her as a necromancer; it is quite some time before there are any more than brief references to any characters’ queerness. Thankfully in this fantasy universe queerness is generally accepted without issue and Odessa herself as well as many of her friends are openly attracted to people of the same gender. But the queer overtones in the novel only really get going with the introduction of Evander’s sister Meredy about halfway through, a fiery and strong-willed beast mage. Oh, and a raging lesbian. Her presence becomes the motor behind much of the rest of the story and she prompts both Odessa and the novel to action. It is worth bearing with the more conventional beginnings of the novel, in regards to both fantasy and heterosexual norms, in order to reach the chapters that blow apart expectations and formulaic arcs. The ensuing drama is compelling and well worth the wait.

As may be expected in a novel starring a mage who raises the dead, there is quite a bit of violence in this book and much of it, while often unrealistic, is graphic. In addition, a major character becomes dependent on a substance that leads to their life unravelling and mental state rapidly deteriorating. While the substance is referred to as a “potion”, it is a clear metaphor for alcohol or mind-altering drugs, and some readers may find it distressing to see addiction depicted in such glaring detail. The novel is to be congratulated for how many bisexual, gay and lesbian characters it features, but it is disappointing that there are no trans characters where they could easily have been included also.

For the most part, Reign of the Fallen is a highly successful merging of the fantasy and queer coming-of-age genres, and the second half of the novel is a particularly fun and interesting read.