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.

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

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.

How Queer is Queer Enough?: A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll

the cover of A Guest in the House

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I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Emily Carroll, and A Guest In the House was no exception. The subdued, gothic scenes of the quiet horror of compulsory heteronormativity interspersed with technicolour dream sequences were extremely effective. I felt deeply for Abby, who seems to sleepwalk through her life, doing what’s expected of her, until she learns about her new husband’s deceased first wife, Sheila. Soon, Sheila is appearing to her in dreams and then even when she’s awake, casting doubts about whether her husband is responsible for her death. As Abby begins to doubt her husband, her careful quiet life unravels, and she goes to dramatic lengths to try to save herself from Sheila’s fate.

This was one of my favourite books I read in 2023. The artwork, as usual for Emily Carroll, is stunning. The story is unsettling and captivating. And that ending! I stayed up reading because I had to know what happened next, and then I finished the book not sure how to interpret those final pages. I ended up researching reviews to find different theories. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately picked it up and read it cover to cover again, and while I still have questions, I now have my own theories!

As I read through Goodreads reviews, I became aware of two things. One, people hate an ambiguous ending. And two, somehow many (most?) readers completely missed the queer content of this book, even though it’s not at all hidden. I ended up writing a whole post about this on my queer books newsletter with Book Riot, Our Queerest Shelves: “How Queer Does a Book Have To Be For It To Count?

The description of the book mentions Abby being “desperately in love for the first time in her life,” which can only be referring to Sheila—she has no romantic or sexual interest in her husband. She imagines herself as a knight saving Sheila. She pictures Sheila in revealing clothing, and when the ghost of Sheila calls her out on it, Abby blushes and stammers. More importantly, (spoiler, highlight to read) Abby and Sheila kiss on the page!! It may be a little distracting that they’re murdering someone at the same time, but there’s a kissing scene! (end of spoilers) How can that be misinterpreted as straight?

I’m still a little frustrated that I didn’t hear about this being a queer book, despite researching queer new releases and already being a fan of Emily Carroll. As I said in my Our Queerest Shelves post, “It’s disappointing that we still live in a world where queer people are still apparently harder to see than ghosts.”

If you can handle an ambiguous ending and don’t need your queer reads to be light and happy, I highly recommend this one. It’s an absorbing story with such stunning artwork that I want to frame pages and hang them on my wall. Emily Carroll continues to be one of my favourite graphic novelists, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

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.

A Literal Dead Poets’ Society: All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

the cover of All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

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The days have started getting shorter as darkness takes up more and more space every day. The evening air isn’t quite cold enough to keep you inside, but every gust of wind chills to the bone, and the woods behind my apartment are filled with piles of dead foliage sprouting mushrooms. There’s just something about fall that keeps my attention set on horror all season long. It was in that spirit that I picked up All That Consumes Us in October, a book which bills itself as a “gothic dark academia novel.” That alone was enough to get me interested, but by the time I was done, Erica Waters’s latest work easily made the list of my favorite reads this whole year.

It’s safe to say Tara Boone is not having the best time with her freshman year at Corbin College. She longs to be a writer, but she’s stuck working two jobs to pay tuition and taking the education track so that she has even the slightest hope of having a career to pay her student loans with. When she gets a chance to enroll in Magna Viri—an elite, somewhat secretive honor society that only accepts a few students every year and promises free tuition, great jobs, and connections after graduation—she jumps at the chance, even if that chance comes as a direct result of the untimely death of one of Magna Viri’s freshman students.

Magna Viri isn’t quite the godsend it seems, however. Some of the older students seem sick, almost hollowed out, and even her fellow freshmen are beginning to show signs of wear. Tara at first chalks it up to how overbearing and aggressive the group’s advisor is, but it rapidly becomes clear that something far worse is going on as she begins writing in her sleep. She wakes up at her desk again and again with words that aren’t hers scrawled on paper in front of her, a story far darker and more violent than anything she’s ever written before.

Tara is one of the most painfully relatable characters I’ve read in a long time, from the overwhelming impostor syndrome to the constant comparing herself to the more elite students to the feeling like if only she wasn’t being held down by her lack of opportunity maybe, just maybe she could be as good as them. Tara’s every thought and feeling is achingly real because they’re so familiar, in a way that I think just about every working class creative has felt at some point or another.

The supporting cast is also incredibly diverse. Tara’s classmates come from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them are queer, her roommate is nonbinary, and the romantic interest has a chronic illness. That diversity isn’t just for show, either; each character’s interaction with the secrets at the core of Magna Viri is fundamentally shaped by their identity. I found all of them to be as well-crafted and memorable as Tara herself. Even as the story becomes more and more supernatural, the characters keep it grounded in a way that makes every punch hit that much harder.

I’m going to put a spoiler warning for below the break here, as well as the content warnings for All That Consumes Us, because I can’t fully describe why I loved this book without revealing a big part of the mystery. If what I’ve said so far intrigues you, I strongly encourage you to go read this book, and then come back for the rest after.

Content warnings: gaslighting, loss of bodily autonomy, possession, underage drinking and alcoholism, emotional abuse and manipulation, and brief scenes including violence, transphobia and misgendering, and hospitals

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The best thing about horror, to me, has always been the metaphor. Good horror, to my mind, isn’t just about sending chills up your spine or giving you that adrenaline rush of fear, it’s about using the safety of fiction to explore the things that frighten us. That includes the obviously terrifying things, like the thought of having your body literally controlled by someone else, but it also includes the awful things that have become so ordinary that we ignore them entirely or even just accept them as part of life, using those obvious things to blow them up to the point where the inherent wrongness of them becomes apparent.

All That Consumes Us has plenty of the former, but it is packed to bursting with the latter. For those of you who read this far without reading the book first, signing up with Magna Viri is signing up to be possessed by the ghost of a former member, someone who’s genius they considered so great that it could not be allowed to disappear just because they died. You create that person’s work for your four years at college, and in exchange you get to put your name on it. It started out with the best of intentions, as a partnership, but overtime became corrupted, and now the students of Magna Viri are being drained utterly dry for the sake of their ghosts.

The ghosts of Magna Viri work incredibly well as a scathing metaphor for so much of what plagues academic and creative work. They are the toxic productivity that demands that we expend ourselves physically or else be considered worthless. They are the commoditization of creation and the treatment of creators as tools that enrich the elite. They are the idea that there are only a few truly great works and everything else is simply derivative. They are the colonization of young, diverse minds, forcing them to focus on mainly the works of dead white men in order to be considered educated, and to mimic them in order to be considered skilled.

All That Consumes Us forces you to reckon with the cruel realities of academia and creation that we all too often take for granted, and it does so in a package that is diverse, suspenseful, compelling, and deeply unsettling. Currently, it’s sitting at the top of my list this year, and I think it’s going to be difficult to dethrone. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Sapphic Gothic Fairy Tale: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

the cover of Down Among The Sticks And Bones

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My favourite holiday of the year is Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, particularly the October readathon. My roommate and I spend all day reading horror books and snacking. It is a delight. Last year, I read Every Heart a Doorway and really enjoyed it. The horror/fantasy novella series felt like a perfect fit for the October readathon, so I decided I’d read one every year. Each follows different characters, and this one has a sapphic main character (who was also a side character in the first volume).

I still love the writing style, including the little asides to the reader, and I was especially delighted by the first chapter: The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children, which explains how easy it is to see families that seem picture perfect on the outside while missing the real difficulties and messiness of raising kids. Jacqueline and Jillian grow up with parents who are determined to have perfect children to further their own image. They were hoping for a boy and a girl, but they’ve made the best of having twin girls by assigning one the role of tomboy (Jillian) and one the expectations of femininity (Jacqueline).

This beginning section explores gender roles, showing how both Jill and Jack chafe against these expectations, and how every person is a constellation of many characteristics that are gendered in a variety of ways. They are raised to compete with and judge each other, and they have no safety with their parents. It’s no surprise they want to escape.

As is the premise of this portal fantasy series, they find a door to another world—but it’s a gothic world, with vampires and resurrected corpses. Before long, they both feel at home here, able to explore the sides of themselves that they repressed as children. Jillian is enraptured by being chosen by a vampire lord, enrobed in the fancy dresses she was previously denied, and with freedom she couldn’t previously dream of. Jack is able to find value in hard work and her own intelligence instead of just as an adornment. Both can see a future for themselves in this world, and Jack even finds a girlfriend. But this is a gothic story, so you know we’re not heading towards a happy ending.

I enjoyed this book and will definitely be continuing this series, but I did like Every Heart a Doorway better. This is the backstory of two side characters from the first book, so I already knew the ending of this one. Spoilers, highlight to read: I knew that Jack and Jill change their gender presentations from what was assigned to them as kids. I know that they don’t stay in that world. And, the biggest spoiler: I know Jill is a murderer. End of spoilers. It was hard to have much tension with that in mind.

I still am glad I read this one, but it was a little disappointing after loving book one. This is an atmospheric gothic read with sapphic and OCD representation in Jack. It has engaging writing and a dramatic plot. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it before the first book. I’ll be interested to see how the rest of the series compares, but I’m predicting that I’ll enjoy the books set at the school more than the books set in the different worlds.

Not every book in this series is sapphic, but it seems to include different kinds of queer representation throughout.

If you’re looking for a queer gothic fairy tale to read on a blustery Autumn evening, definitely check this one out. It works as a standalone, so you don’t need to read any other books in the series—though you’ll probably want to. And it’s short enough that you still have time to read it before October ends!

For some other perspectives on this Down Among the Sticks and Bones, check out Marike’s and Til’s reviews.

The Original Sapphic Vampire: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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A young girl, Laura, becomes haunted by a figure in a dream that preys on her. Ten years later, that girl, Carmilla, shows up at her home and claims to know her from the dream as well. They become fast friends, but Carmilla holds a dark secret: she is a vampire who is slowly draining Laura’s life away. An old family friend, who coincidentally had a daughter who met the same cruel fate, comes to the rescue, and all is well in the end.

In this day and age, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Carmilla. But it’s easy to see how it could have caused such a scandal when it was published. By modern standards, it’s eroticism leaves something to be desired. But in a time when the glimpse of a clavicle would be enough to set anyone off, it certainly tells a provocative story.

Throughout the story, Laura speaks of a mesmerizing attraction to Carmilla mixed with revulsion.

“I was conscious of a love growing into adoration and also of abhorrence.”

These feelings of repulsion mixed with a curious desire are highly indicative of the nature of internalized homophobia. It’s a feeling many queer people are familiar with when they grow up in an anti-queer environment that tells them their very existence is a monstrosity.

Knowing that Carmilla is coded as sapphic, her entrance into the story also conveys a stereotypical belief about queer people. As she sneaks into Laura’s bed at night to bite her when she is a child, it can be interpreted that Carmilla is a predatory pedophile. It would be easy to write this off as a sentiment of the times, but unfortunately, it’s a belief still strongly held to this day by homophobic people.

There is no denying how erotic and sexual in nature Carmilla’s feelings are for Laura. With romantic language like, “But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together,” and “I have been in love with no one, and never shall…unless it should be with you,” Le Fanu makes certain there is no room for misinterpreting Carmilla’s affections.

Carmilla as a sapphic character is further villainized with signs of a mental health disorder, making it seem as if all queer desires are simply a symptom of unwellness, which in turn makes mental health issues seem evil. Laura describes an incident with Carmilla, “It was the first time, also, I had seen her exhibit anything like a temper. Both passed away like a summer cloud.” The sudden mood swings she undergoes between pleasant and angry could be interpreted by modern standards as bipolar disorder.

Le Fanu creates a fascinating tension between science and superstition. The characters in Carmilla often talk about being learned, understanding the true spread of illness, and pride themselves on their logic. However, faced with the truth of an immortal being who has taken on several names over the centuries (all of which are just anagrams), it’s hard to cope with the idea that perhaps certain superstitions are real.

Overall as a story, it’s a bit underwhelming. There is a great deal of buildup to reveal Carmilla’s true identity only to have it done and over so quickly in the end. As the General arrives to tell his tale of woe to his friends, Laura, and her father, they come to realize Carmilla for the villain she is. And just like that, with barely a fight, she is vanquished, and everyone goes on about their lives. It’s totally anticlimactic.

However, it’s still amazing to see how the legendary vampire and lore surrounding it persists. One of the things that stood out was how all the characters are constantly stating Carmilla’s unnatural beauty and how attracted they feel to it. This is a quality shared by many vampire stories even today. The folklore of the vampire is just as immortal as the being itself.

Sci-Fi Meets Historical Fiction Meets Classic Lesbian Vampire Novel: The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

the cover of The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Equal parts science fiction, historical fiction, and lesbian fiction, The Gilda Stories (1991) by Jewelle Gomez is a classic queer vampire novel. 

The novel begins in the Southern United States in the 1850s and follows Gilda, who escapes from slavery and is taken in by two lesbian brothel proprietors who also happen to be vampires. After the women turn Gilda, the novel unfolds across two hundred years, stretching into the present and the future, as Gilda tries to navigate an uncertain world that seems to become more and more un/familiar with every chapter.  

I very much enjoyed this novel. The Gilda Stories is unlike any vampire novel I’ve read before, and I can see why it’s won two Lambada Literary Awards, including the award for science fiction. Indeed, this novel is more sci-fi than gothic, and Gomez envisions an expansive world in which her character searches for connection, community, and companionship as she moves around the country in different times and incarnations. 

I did feel that the novel struggled with pacing at times, because the text is so focused on Gilda and her perception of herself/connection to others. It is often very introspective in a way that could at times be slow/confusing. The Gilda Stories is a novel that requires careful reading even though it is relatively short. Gomez manages to pack a lot of character development into only a few pages. 

The Gilda Stories is hugely representative of the kind of inclusive, representational historical fiction that reconsiders and represents marginalized perspectives in the past, and I really recommend this novel for its status as classic lesbian fiction! 

Please add The Gilda Stories to your TBR on Goodreads

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.

Rachel reviews The Disenchantment by Celia Bell

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Celia Bell’s debut novel, The Disenchantment (Pantheon 2023), is a stunning example of queer historical fiction at its finest. 

Set in seventeenth-century Paris, The Disenchantment follows Baroness Marie Catherine, who lives in a world of luxury, entertainment, and intrigue. However, there is also an undercurrent of darkness racing through Parisian nobility: rumours of witchcraft, deliberate poisoning, and fraud abound, and the voracity of the rumour mill means no one is completely safe. Marie Catherine hides her own secrets. Her tyrannical and distant husband is an oppressive and regulatory force, and when he is home she does all she can to protect her children from him by telling them fairy stories. However, when he is away, Marie Catherine is free to engage with her intellectual pursuits, including salons and spirited conversations with female scholars and writers. 

Furthermore, at the heart of Marie Catherine’s liberated existence beyond her husband is Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti. Androgynous, bold, and seemingly fearless, Victoire and Marie Catherine are lovers, and Victoire quickly proves to be a source of joy in Marie Catherine’s life. She admires Victoire’s confidence and freedom, and as the situation becomes more and more volatile in her home, Marie Catherine knows she must escape. When a violent murder occurs involving those close to Marie Catherine, she is faced with a choice, and the one she makes leads her down a path she could never have predicted, and toward people who are committed to protecting their own interests. 

I loved this novel. It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away, but the twists and turns of this plot are completely gripping. Bell’s writing is immersive, and captures the atmosphere and drama of this plot so thoroughly that I was hardly able to put it down. Lesbian historical fiction is undeniably my favourite literary genre and this book did not disappoint. The Disenchantment is well-researched, comprehensive, and draws on little-known moments of French history, expertly weaving fiction and fact together to create a wholly original novel. This book is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (2022) or Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (2008). 

Marie Catherine and Victoire were characters I loved and believed in, and Bell captures their unique and sometimes warring motivations. However, Bell doesn’t only pay attention to upper-class perspectives in this novel, and the text is a much wider examination of Parisian society in this period. This novel felt like a mix of genres in the best way—part literary fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, mystery, and Gothic. It kept me guessing until the very end and felt like a thoroughly original, gorgeous historical portrait. 

I highly recommend The Disenchantment for fans of queer historical fiction and/or literary fiction. This is undeniably one of my top queer reads of the year. 

Please add The Disenchantment to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Celia Bell 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.