Genevra Littlejohn reviews Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

First things first, to get it out of the way: a delight in certain sorts of campy horror is in me at the bone-marrow level. My mother went into labor with me early, and I came squalling into the world a bit after eight PM on a Friday Halloween, under a full moon. This led to me being raised to be as passionate about the holiday as you might expect, costumes and sweet tooth included. I stand way, way too close to this subject material to be really impartial in any strong sense, and that is going to strongly color this review.

The movie Hocus Pocus was released in 1993, and starred Bette Midler, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters, cannibalistic, child-stealing witches hanged in the 1600s and accidentally brought back from the dead by the protagonist, Max, a kinda-mansplainy teenager. There’s pretty blonde love interest Allison, sweet but precocious younger sister Dani, and poetically-handsome youth who’s stuck for 300 years in the body of an immortal black cat, Thackery Binx (which is just so much fun to say out loud. Try it).  All the kids have to do is last out through the night, and the Sanderson sisters will return to the grave, but that’s still a lot to ask of a trio of kids when none of the adults in their lives will listen to them. Standard 1990’s movie fare, basically, and though it made a fair amount of money, it didn’t do well in the reviews.  However, its later life on television made it into a cult classic, and I’m pretty sure it’s still running on the Disney Channel every Halloween. I know that I watched my VHS copy of it so many times that it’s got a couple of permanent audio track wiggles here and there.

But while I loved the movie as a young Halloween fanatic, there are two things I identify as that weren’t at all represented in it: 1) a person of color, and 2) queer as the day is long, twice as queer on Sundays.  I have to admit that I probably sympathized more with the counter-culture witches, evil though they were, than with the milkskinned blonde girls or early colonists depicted as the protagonists.  This is all to say that when I heard that the sequel had a black lesbian in it, I made an actual, audible noise, to my cats’ consternation.

The book turned out to be two stories in one cover. First, there’s a novelization of the original movie, and while I admit I didn’t linger here, out of a hurry to get to the good stuff, I was surprised and pleased at several points.  There are things in the original that would put a frown on my face today (casual sexism being the strongest contender), and while the novelization is entirely true to the source material, it also gives us something we couldn’t have in the original: a view into the protagonist’s head, where he editorializes and makes judgments that go a long way toward smoothing out all those rough parts.  At the same time, it still maintains a very 90’s flavor, even in the incidentals, like young Dani swearing to herself that if she makes it out of this alive, she’ll never make her brother watch DuckTales with her again. So if you have the leisure, even if you too have seen the movie a hundred times over, I do recommend giving it a read.  That said, if you’ve seen the movie even once, you can skip to the sequel without missing anything important.

The sequel is unnamed, probably because if they manage to make it into a movie it would just be Hocus Pocus 2 anyway, and it starts on Halloween morning after a 25-year timeskip.  The protagonist is high school sophomore Poppy, Max and Allison’s daughter, who is feeling stifled by what she thinks of as her parents’ paranoia about the holiday. Despite growing up hearing her parents and aunt tell the story of that by now long-ago Halloween, she doesn’t believe it in any visceral fashion. Along with her best friend Travis, and Poppy’s straight-A, totally cool crush Isabella, Poppy more-or-less accidentally treads in her father’s footsteps, and brings the Sanderson Sisters back again, with a twist.  Instead of merely having to make it through the night, they have to defeat the sisters before dawn, or else spend the rest of their lives in a world given over to evil witches.

I genuinely don’t want to spoil you, here.  Usually I’d talk about trigger warnings, about violence or assault or things that threw me out of the narrative, but let’s be honest, this is a Disney novel. The things Disney does that are worth trigger warnings, it usually does by accident, and I’d spill a thousand words of digital ink on those alone.  This novel is deliciously free of such complications.

That said, it was deeper at points than I expected.  If the overarching theme of the original is that scoffing and refusing to listen to others’ concerns will land you in hot water, the second half’s theme is a lot more complex. There are a lot of callbacks to things done in the first half which still have repercussions 25 years later, and a strong understanding that this is the same world. For instance, Max left a bully in the hands of the witches on that Halloween night, and now that ex-bully is the Principal of the school where Max teaches and father of the biggest social irritation in Poppy’s life. If this book is about anything in particular but giving the reader a good time, it’s about overcoming the willful mistakes made by those who came before us, and learning to do better than they.  “You, all of you, despise me for things you believe me to have done—and yet I knew the greatest mark upon my soul was doing nothing at all,” says a character punished for another’s crimes, and that grief reverberates through the centuries until Poppy and Isabella have to learn from it.

How do we make up for what our predecessors did, without at the same time being weighed down with guilt for their crimes? How, in short, do we do better?  The book seems to suggest that the answer is twofold.  First, be willing to recognize those acts in the first place and refuse to repeat them. Accepting that something horrible did happen doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the idea that it will do so again through you.  And second is to eventually be able to allow the next generation to take over.  “What’s the value of youth?” a character chides Winnie Sanderson.  “You were meant for greater things than being young.” Pit that against the ones who want to hold power with their teeth and fingernails if necessary (“Who needs a line of succession when you’re immortal?”) and you’ve got a conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in a greater literary work.

All in all, I gobbled this book like a bag of single-serving Snickers, and I enjoyed every chomp.

Things I liked: Representation! Isabella and Poppy are queer. Isabella and Travis are both black, but really different in personality, without either of them being written in a fashion that struck me as at all stereotypical. Their differences extend even to their conflict-management techniques, with Travis stating that his mother taught him to ignore bullies, and Isabella laughing that hers believes in the power of lawsuits.

There are multiple other people of color as incidental characters who nevertheless are presented with personalities of their own, from a Latinx classmate to their teacher, Miss Chen, with her penchant for black T-shirts. I feel like it’s hinted that one of the young men in their class is interested in other boys, but that’s a squint-and-you-miss-it sort of thing that I might have been wrong about.

I appreciated that Poppy is actually able to learn from the experiences of those who went before her, and while the book necessarily starts with her making the same mistake her father did, she’s able to navigate it more deftly, thanks to being able to draw on his old stories.

I liked that even though this is a YA Disney novel, it doesn’t talk down to the reader. It’s not grimdark and hopeless, it’s not a post-apocalyptic nightmare story, it’s a popcorn novel, but it’s a very fun representation of the genre that respects its reader’s intelligence.

Things I disliked: This is another Disney story with a PoC who gets turned into an animal. I could do with fewer of those in the universe. WoC need to be able to have their faces in view for the representation to be real.  That said, since this is a book and not a movie (for now?) the problem might not be as serious as it is in visual media.

I found myself frowning over the fact that the author’s name appears nowhere on the cover.  I know that this is a thing Disney frequently has done to its creators in the past, traditionally preferring to give generic thanks to their creators instead of specific acknowledgments.  While the author’s name does show up on one single page inside, it would have been nice to see it on the cover, and in at least as big a font as the company’s, as opposed to entirely absent.

And while it’s not actually an outright dislike, it’s just a little odd to have a movie novelization for a movie that doesn’t exist.  I don’t mean that it’s odd to have a new story, but that this reads very clearly like the novel version of a script. There’s a musical interlude, for instance, with lyrics interrupting the action—I’ve never heard the music, so it comes off a little bit like the early-oughts songfic craze that so many fanfic authors were prone to indulging in. But as complaints go, that one’s really, really minor.  I have no qualms about recommending this book to more or less everyone who enjoys reading YA, and recommending it very strongly to anyone who enjoyed the original movie.

Final Verdict: A chipper, Junior Mints-flavored four stars out of five.

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Carmilla is a lesbian vampire novella that predates Dracula by over 25 years. I had been meaning to pick this book up for years, just based off that description, but I wanted to save it for an October read. This year I finally got around to it, and I think it makes the perfect quick sapphic Halloween read.

If you’re anything like me, you probably expect Carmilla to be pretty subtextual. This is the Victorian era, surely this isn’t a blatantly lesbian book? As I began to read it, though, I found more and more passages that were fairly straightforward. As the two girls meet, Laura and Carmilla, they hold hands, smile, and blush. Carmilla fawns over Laura, calling her darling, and making Laura confused and uncomfortable.

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Living in such an overwhelmingly heteronormative time, Laura can’t fathom why Carmilla would act like this. She asks whether they’re related, and muses that maybe Carmilla is a man in disguise trying to seduce her, like sometimes happens in storybooks. (This was a time so heteronormative that Boston marriages and romantic friendships were seen as totally acceptable for straight women.)

So how did a book so blatantly queer get published in 1872? Because Carmilla is a monster. Laura is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to this queer monster. But because she is a vampire, Carmilla’s actions and attractions are unambiguously cast as bad, therefore letting the story get told. (Lesbian pulp followed this formula: the ending had to punish the gay characters, to make the whole book seem like a warning, despite anything that happened beforehand.)

As Carmilla proves, vampires have been associated with lesbianism for more than a century. And this book shows how those fears can be tangled together in a straight society. The idea that the charming young woman your daughter is associating with could be the enemy, that she could invade your home under the guise of something as sweet and pure as female friendship: what a terrifying thought! The lesbian vampire is a monster in disguise, a monster that can appear as angelic as a young, fragile woman. Like lesbian pulp, this image is something I find hilarious now, but in the context of the time period does show the overwhelming homophobia of the environment. (Though even this iteration of vampire lore does offer some sympathy to Carmilla.)

This is a great read for a look at the beginnings of vampire lore as we know it now, as well as having the allure of being able to read a Victorian lesbian story. Unfortunately, the compromise is that the plot of Carmilla relies almost entirely on the reader not already knowing that Carmilla is a vampire, which is pretty impossible to miss as a modern reader. Luckily, this is a short book, and still well worth the read even with that caveat.

Danika reviews Fist of the Spider Woman edited by Amber Dawn

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This book freaked me out. Again, it was one I meant to read in October for my Halloween-y reads, but my inter-library loan didn’t come in until late November. It’s a bit of a shame, because it would have made for a fantastic Halloween read. It’s a short story collection (with a few poems) that mixes erotica and horror. The stories will go from a sexy place into a kinky place into an outright horror place. This kind of slipping between genres was especially unsettling. The standard of writing was high for the entire collection, with authors like Amber Dawn, Michelle Tea, and Kristyn Dunnion contributing. The subjects varied. Some were very much in the horror genre, and some were more light.

Fist of the Spider Woman doesn’t ease you into it: the first story, “Slug”, has the main character having vicious fantasies (again, they start out as kinky… and then often end in slow death), and that’s before the “slug” element takes place. If you read the first story and enjoy it, you’ll definitely like the collection. It is horror, however, so pretty much all the trigger warning apply, including gore, rape, and gaslighting.

This may be my favourite queer Halloween/horror book that I’ve read. I especially enjoyed Amber Dawn’s “The Last Lesbian Rental In East Vancouver” and Kestrel Barnes’s “Shark”. I also personally liked that many of the authors included are local British Columbia authors. For next Halloween, or any time you want to be creeped out and unsettled, I definitely comment this collection.

Danika reviews Dark Angels: Lesbian Vampire Erotica edited by Pam Keesey

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This was another (in addition to The Haunting of Hill House) book I intended to read in October, but didn’t come in to the library for me until November, so I’m extending my Halloween reads! When I went to pick it up, I was surprised to see that it was billed as erotica: I didn’t think I had requested any erotica. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that it’s because originally the book’s tagline was lesbian vampire stories, and was changed to “erotica” in the new edition. Knowing that made the collection make more sense. Although there is a lot of sex in Dark Angels, I wouldn’t exactly call it erotica. The introduction especially takes the subject matter pretty seriously, discussing themes of vampirism and goddesses, dark angels, Lilith, etc. Although some of the stories pretty quickly just get into sex scenes with fangs, others are without sex–including “Bloody Countess”, which is just a long description of various tortures Erzsebet (Elizabeth)Bathory performed on girls.

I have read and own Pam Keesey’s previous lesbian vampire collection, Daughters of Darkness, and I really enjoyed that one. The introduction to Dark Angels explains that while its predecessor was lesbian stories with vampire themes, this collection is vampire stories with lesbian themes. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t enjoy Dark Angels as much as the first collection. There are some stories that I really liked, especially the writing of “Presence” and “Cinnamon Roses”, and the intrigue of “Blood Wedding”, and I did enjoy the explicitly-queer-for-Victorian-times story (“The Countess Visonti”). Overall, though, the erotica stories weren’t particularly titillating to me, and the more literary stories weren’t as memorable as I’d like. (Unlike Daughters of Darkness‘s lesbian-vampire-in-space story!)

Perhaps predictably–we all know the lesbian vampires joke–there is also a lot of menstruation in this collection. Which makes sense, and was something I’d appreciate being addressed in one of the stories, or a few, but the frequent returns to the subject were a little much for me. I was also bothered by the “Tale of Christina” positing lesbian sex as fundamentally incomplete/unfulfilling. Also, “The Bloody Countess” is the longest story in the collection and is second to last. The list of (supposedly real-life) tortures that ran on for 16 pages kind of turned my stomach, and seemed a little weird in the context of “erotica” stories. I also felt like the introduction dragged on for me, especially considering that it didn’t really seem to match the tone of the stories included. As you can probably tell, I wouldn’t recommend this collection. Try Daughters of Darkness instead.