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

the cover of A Guide to the Dark

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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

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

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

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

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