Montserrat grew up gorging herself on classic horror films with her best friend, Tristán, reveling in the craft of suspense, blood and terror. Now a sound editor whose projects are parceled out each week by her misogynistic boss, Montserrat still loves film and her role in creating it. But more and more, her boss is assigning the work to younger editors who can be paid less to do the same job. Tristán’s lot is no better: Once a rising soap opera actor, his life and career were derailed 10 years ago in a tragic accident that left his superstar girlfriend dead. So when Tristán’s neighbor, the legendary horror director Abel Urueta, asks them to help him finish a film that was supposedly imbued with a magical spell by a Nazi defector, the two figure that they have little to lose. But as Tristán begins to see gruesome visions of his dead girlfriend and Montserrat is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure, they begin to suspect that there was more danger to Urueta’s crackpot scheme than he let on.
After bringing new life to the haunted house (Mexican Gothic) and the evil scientific genius (The Daughter of Doctor Moreau) tropes, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in this love letter to classic horror cinema. Much like the horror films to which it pays homage, Silver Nitrate has deliberate pacing and deep character development, but these elements don’t hinder its capacity for utter terror, as it summons the fear of what’s hiding at the edge of your vision, just out of sight in the dark. Moreno-Garcia plays in this space well, recognizing that when the inexplicable happens, the subsequent doubting of your own sanity can be just as frightening as the initial event. After all, as Montserrat points out, the fear of being cursed can be much more powerful than the curse itself.
While the horror is effective and then some, the sentence-by-sentence craft of Silver Nitrate is not to be overlooked. Moreno-Garcia’s prose is enchanting, full of perfect phrases that dot every page. Whether they are describing the brilliant whites produced on old film or the visage of a ghostly apparition, her sentences deliver tidy packages of imagery like motes of light in the darkness, their beauty so great that sometimes you forget—just for a moment—about the things that go bump in the night.
Mexican Gothic author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in Silver Nitrate, a love letter to classic horror cinema.
In their youth, sisters Signy and Oddny and their friend Gunnhild were linked by a prophecy portending great sacrifice and sorrow—but also the potential for great power. The three girls swore themselves to one another after hearing the prophecy, promising to always be there for one another. But their paths diverged after the seer ferried Gunnhild away to train as a witch, allowing her to escape her mother’s constant abuse. Years later, Signy and Oddny’s homestead is attacked and Signy is stolen away by raiders led by a mysterious and vindictive witch, forcing Gunnhild to return to the home she fled so many years ago. From the future king of Norway to one of the very raiders who stole Signy away, Gunnhild and Oddny must befriend unlikely allies in their quest to save their bonded sister and, in the process, confront the prophecy that linked them all those years ago.
Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was lyrical and dreamlike, but The Weaver and the Witch Queen is as precise as a needle, threading together a vivid tapestry of the joys and terrors of 10th-century Viking life under the reign of King Harald Fairhair. Gornichec obviously revels in historical accuracy, and never sugarcoats what it meant to live in medieval Northern Europe. From frank depictions of the lot of Viking thralls (people enslaved during raids) to the threat of being married off for political alliances, she doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of the society that she’s recreated. But despite the less than savory parts of this world, Gornichec’s joy in being able to share it is palpable, suffusing her prose with a wonder befitting a story dripping in ancient magic.
While The Weaver and the Witch Queen includes legendary male figures from Norwegian history such as Harald Fairhair and Eirik Bloodaxe, it focuses on the struggles of women. Eirik and his ilk are certainly interesting characters, but theirs are stories that have largely been told. Gornichec’s novel, rather, is about women in conflict, whether that conflict is with their own mothers, with rival witches or between two best friends. Gornichec exults the cleverness of these women and their power to thrive through their communities and their own strength of will. It’s a saga of blood and magic and hardship that explores what we owe to those we love—and what it costs to actually pay that debt.
Genevieve Gornichec’s sophomore novel, The Weaver and the Witch Queen, is a vivid tapestry of the struggles and triumphs of Viking women, including the legendary Queen Gunnhild.
Inspired in equal parts by action-packed wuxia films (a Chinese genre focused on martial artists) and the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws follows a group of heroes struggling to build a place for themselves in an alternative imperial China. Lin Chong, a former arms master who lost her position thanks to a petty and vengeful member of the royal court, is nearly killed en route to a prison camp. She joins forces with a group of outlaws known as the Liangshan Bandits, who have created a refuge for those who are on the wrong side of the law—and the wrong side of gender and power hierarchies. Lin Chong begins to redefine her life alongside poets, progressive thinkers and others rejected by the empire. But their refuge isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and Lin Chong and her new companions must fight in order to preserve their community.
With The Water Outlaws, Huang explores the space between what is good and what is lawful. Despite often claiming to work for the good of the emperor and the empire, Lin Chong and her compatriots do not always (or even usually) stay within the confines of the law. They lie, cheat and even kill to maintain the peace that they have carved out for themselves within a society they see as corrupt. Their cause is just, Lin Chong reminds herself, even if their methods are not always lawful.
The Water Outlaws is above all else a story of femme and queer resistance. In Liangshan, Huang creates an accepting alternative society that celebrates marginalized gender identities, a mirror of the communities that exist in our own world to protect the most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that The Water Outlaws is a gentle story: Its pages are filled with violence against the Liangshan Bandits and also against women like the noble Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s former students who is trying to work within the confines of the empire to enact change. But amid the darkness its characters face, The Water Outlaws captures the wonder and fun of wuxia, complete with epic fight scenes, death-defying feats of martial arts and the occasional bit of actual magic. Huang champions the underdogs, even in the face of the impossible.
S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws is a glorious, wuxia-inspired saga of femme and queer resistance in the face of oppression.
In their high-octane and highly entertaining update of Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel about a band of noble bandits facing off against an oppressive government, S.L. Huang evokes the joyous spirit of classic martial arts films.
The characters of Lin Chong, a combat instructor who eventually joins the bandits, and Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s aristocratic students, feel like they are in conversation: One strives for big change and the other strives to be a model minority. Did you conceive of them as two sides of the same coin from the start? It’s somewhat unusual for me to plan a character arc to this extent, but yes, that was 100% planned. In the real world, I’m frequently frustrated by a sort of “flattening” of people who are in marginalized spaces; we’re frequently perceived as a monolith who must all have the same views and make the same choices. In reality, there are plenty of difficult intracommunity conversations.
I wanted to portray real-feeling people who cannot be easily “purity tested.” Lin Chong has had to fight and claw to achieve an unusual job and status for a woman, but is determined to keep her head down so as not to lose what she’s wrought for herself. Lu Junyi has more high-flying ideals, but she can also afford to: She’s wealthy and insulated, and her social progressivism is more of an academic than a lived variety. Both are good people on the whole, and both are somewhat frustrated by the other’s politics.
Without giving too much away, I wanted their arcs to, in a way, reflect and cross—and for both of them to fall toward a messier gray area where they have to acknowledge hard truths about themselves and their society.
What do you think Lu Junyi would have been if she could have chosen for herself? Hm, I think it depends on what life experiences she’s faced with. If you plopped her in modern times, she’d probably start off as the type of annoying college student who thinks she knows exactly what all the correct and moral answers are, and is a little bit judgy of people with other opinions. (Lots of us were like that in college!)
On the other hand, she’s open-minded enough that more and more exposure to people different from her would start to expand and complicate her worldview, just as it happens in the book. Although, hopefully less painfully for her.
Eventually, if she were born in modern-day America, I think she’d probably end up doing some pretty amazing media work for a nonprofit she’s passionate about! Elsewhere in the world, she’d probably be doing something similar, though perhaps with slightly more danger to herself . . .
Historically, there’s been a dearth of middle-aged protagonists—especially middle-aged women—in science fiction and fantasy, but that has begun to change in recent years. Why did you decide to center this story around older characters? Partly because there HAS been such a dearth of such characters—I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.
But also, for the story I wanted to tell, I needed characters who had some amount of life experience. I didn’t want this to be a story of only young prodigies; I wanted this to be a story that included people who’d had time to build extensive pasts, histories and baggage.
Many scenes—and characters!—are equal parts humorous and deadly. How did you strike that balance, and why was it important to you to bring it to the forefront? The light but true answer is that I grew up on action-comedy movies! I love action, and I love it even more when it’s lightened by humor.
As much as I tried to treat the themes of The Water Outlaws deeply and seriously, I also wanted it to be escapist and fun.
In addition to your work as an author, you’re also a Hollywood stunt performer and professional armorer. Your love of choreography definitely shines in The Water Outlaws, as does your love of wuxia, the Chinese historical fantasy genre that focuses on martial artists. What originally drew you to those worlds? Honestly, I think the same thing that draws a lot of us to sci-fi & fantasy—a hunger for adventure and a love of imagination.
I’ve said before that I think I ended up doing stunts because it’s basically extreme LARPing, ha. I guess I never grew out of yearning for that immersive experience of living the stories I grew up with. And my favorites were always the ones with swords!
How did you approach translating the fantastical brutality of wuxia onto the page? I tend to write my action in what I like to describe as a “cinematic” way, in that I want it to feel both real and also slightly larger than life. This fits very well with wuxia, which tends to have a similar feel—think, for instance, of martial arts movies that engage in fantastical wire work without any acknowledgment of special powers.
It’s always important to me to engage with the harm and consequences of physical violence—but equally important to me to write glorious, imagination-spanning sword fights!
We don’t see a lot of magic in the early parts of the book, but it’s always hovering on the edges of your world. What was interesting to you about taking this understated approach to magic? This was very much informed by my love of wuxia! Supernatural elements are often extremely understated, or an accepted part of the world that only comes up when it comes up. It’s not an approach I see a lot in European-derived fantasy—where the magical world building is often a central focus—and I was very interested in writing in that paradigm.
Classical Chinese literature also tends toward this approach to the supernatural, that it’s an expected part of the world and not the focus of the narrative. This includes Water Margin, which was the direct inspiration that I was reimagining in this book!
You have a beautiful, poetic way of describing gender and bringing the nuances of gender fluidity to life. Why was it important for you to explore this territory in The Water Outlaws? Well, it’s personal to me and to many of my friends. My day-to-day life intersects with a lot of queer spaces, so the gender diversity of the bandits is simply a reflection of my reality!
(Although I adjusted the terminology and dialogue about it for my fantasy world, as I didn’t want it to feel exactly one-to-one with how any modern culture talks about it today.)
Was there anything in Water Margin that you wanted to put in The Water Outlaws that just didn’t fit? And was there anything you were happy to leave behind in your own retelling? There was so much that didn’t fit! In particular, three of my favorite characters—Hua Rong, Dai Zong and Wu Song—don’t appear in the main narrative. Hua Rong I managed to add into the epilogue as a master archer, but Dai Zong’s main ability, Taoist powers of traveling magically fast, was slightly too story-breaking to introduce. And Wu Song’s tale, which is full of tiger-fighting, adultery and revenge, was just far too large and expansive to do justice along with all the other pieces I was already focusing on.
Hopefully I can add some of them if there are sequels!
In terms of what I was happy to leave behind, there was plenty of that, too. I love Water Margin to death, but part of the reason I wanted to do a genderswapped version in the first place was that the original is such a highly male-centric and misogynistic tale. So that was first on my list to turn on its head in my retelling.
In particular, one of the bits I was pettily excited to cut was the marital fate of Hu Sanniang, one of only female bandits out of the 108. Despite its misogyny, the original rarely has our ultra-violent heroes engage in sexual violence or coercion, thankfully. But unfortunately, the reason for this feels a lot less like a knowledge that it’s wrong, and much more like a scorn of anything having to do with carnal desires. The bandits have a single member who shows strong desire for women, which is somehow equated with him carrying off women by force—and the leader stops him by “finding him a wife,” i.e., marrying him to one of the onlythree female bandits.
That female bandit is Hu Sanniang, an amazing fighter who is capable of beating most of the men, and one of the best characters in the original novel. I strongly object to how done wrong she was by this piece of the original book, and I took great delight in giving my Hu Sanniang a backstory of escaping an undesired marriage and cutting her would-be forced husband entirely.
Photo of S.L. Huang by Chris Massa.
The Water Outlaws is a paean to liberation and resistance—and also an absolute blast.
With remakes and reimaginings an integral part of our current zeitgeist, discussion of such projects often results in a common refrain: If it was good the first time, don’t bother remaking it. Luckily, no one told Elizabeth Hand this when she set out to write A Haunting on the Hill, a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House. Hand’s work both modernizes and deepens Jackson’s setting, pulling readers into the demented halls of Hill House and the minds of its denizens.
Struggling playwright-turned-teacher Holly Sherwin has landed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the form of a $10,000 grant. The funds are her big chance, allowing her the time and flexibility to develop her newest play. When a wrong turn leads her to the isolated Hill House, renting it out as a rehearsal space feels like fate. Against the better judgment of nearly everyone in Holly’s life—her girlfriend, Nisa, her friend Stevie and even the owner of Hill House herself—Holly moves her cast into the spacious home for several weeks of strenuous rehearsals and rewrites. From momentary delusions to black hares appearing out of nowhere, things start to go wrong as soon as they arrive. But as soon as its new inhabitants consider escape, their minds are suddenly changed. Desperate pleas to flee become arguments as to why they should stay as the house insinuates itself into their wildest fears and desires. To survive, they need to leave—but they are beginning to forget why they’d want to in the first place.
While fans of Jackson will no doubt revel in some of the obvious homages, Hand’s fresh text doesn’t require deep knowledge of Hill House lore to be intelligible or frightening. And its modern setting allows Hand to play with the paranoia and worries of a new age. A Haunting on the Hill explores age discrimination and the shadows of abuse as thoroughly as it does infidelity and professional jealousy, turning each into a tool that the house can use against Holly and her friends. True to Jackson’s original and the tradition of the haunted house novel, the eeriness builds subtly before bursting into full terror. There are no rattling chains nor wheezing ghosts; Hill House plays to its inhabitants’ expectations and warps their minds, needing nothing more than a trick of the light or a bit of faulty memory to unsettle and manipulate. But rationality begins to slip away soon enough, replaced by the glorious terror of one of literature’s most iconic haunted houses.
A Haunting on the Hill is a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
From ancient myth to urban legend, the uncanny valley that is the doppelganger has long terrified and mesmerized. Caitlin Starling’s latest novel, Last to Leave the Room delves deep into the realm of psychological horror, poking at our fears of what is alien in ourselves.
Dr. Tamsin Rivers’ ruthless nature is legendary among her colleagues, as is her ability to overlook the vagaries of the law in order to get things done in the name of research. It’s no surprise to anyone when she is tasked with solving a major problem: The city of San Siroco is sinking, and no one understands why. The fact that Tamsin’s experiments on quantum entanglement began at the same time San Siroco started sinking could be pure coincidence, as Tamsin argues to her handler, Mx. Woodfield. But nowhere is sinking quite as quickly as Tamsin’s basement, the depths of which are descending into the ground at an alarming pace. And worse still, a mysterious door in the wall has spit out a perfect replica of Tamsin who has neither her memories nor her acerbic personality. She is pliable, innocent and biddable—the perfect test subject. As Tamsin begins her experiments on her double, her memory and faculties begin to falter, endangering both her professional standing and her personal safety.
Last to Leave the Room is a study in claustrophobia and paranoia, combining the best of psychological horror and science fiction. Starling’s close perspective brings us into Tamsin’s brain, including the subtle, terrible ways it begins to falter. The effect is slow at first, with mismatched details that are easy to miss and a slow tension that ratchets up almost imperceptibly. Starling’s prose shifts with her main character, narrowing the scope of the novel as the walls begin to close in around Tamsin. This constricting perspective becomes viscerally discomfiting, as if the reader is losing pieces of their own memories. It’s psychological horror at its most terrifying, the kind of writing that makes you stop to question—just for a moment—how well you know your own mind and your own world. And that’s before Starling dives into the body horror possibilities that come with experimenting on your own doppelganger. Last to Leave the Room will deeply unsettle readers as it asks two existentially fraught questions: What exactly makes you, you? And who are you when all that is stripped away?
Caitlin Starling’s Last to Leave the Room is psychological horror at its most terrifying as it follows a ruthless scientist who experiments on her own doppelganger.
Set in the isolated backwaters of Ljosland, an alternate version of Iceland, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries follows the eponymous Dr. Wilde in her quest to investigate and catalog the Hidden Ones, mysterious faeries that inhabit the land surrounding the town of Hrafnsvik. Solitary by nature, Emily is more at home making deals with brownies to get information or tromping around the woods with her trusted canine companion, Shadow, than she is engaging in the horrors of small talk or trying to make friends. So it’s not surprising that she accidentally alienates the leader of Hrafnsvik within hours of her arrival, or that she resents the arrival of Dr. Wendell Bambleby, her friend and academic rival. But Emily’s investigation of the Fair Folk of Hrafnsvik pulls her into a dangerous quest that will upend her academic remove and challenge her inadequate social skills. A tale of community and chilling adventure with a bit of romance, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries explores the darker side of the fae.
Author Heather Fawcett has created a world that is simultaneously cozy and threatening, allowing her to explore sentimental themes without being maudlin and delve into dark and deadly magic without dwelling for too long on its horrors. The novel’s early conflicts (spurned hosts) and their repercussions (burned breakfasts and uncooperative storytellers) are domestic, even homey. However, the narrow focus and slower pace of the front half of the novel belies the dark danger that blooms as Emily sifts through case after case of what happens when fae come too close to her temporary home. The consequences of these interactions—youths in the blush of first love who disappear for days only to reappear as husks of their former selves, or a changeling who fills his foster parents’ dreams with unspeakable horrors—make it clear that Fawcett’s fae are not the domesticated beauties of much of modern fantasy. Untrustworthy and unempathetic, coldly beautiful rather than sexy, utterly alien in terms of their motivations and goals, these are the fae of our oldest stories, as likely to curse you as they are to help you.
Full of awe-inspiring shows of power and striking moments of humanity, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries is perfect for readers who love the atmospheric qualities of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrelland the pacing of writers like Zen Cho or Charlie N. Holmberg. Follow the lights into the woods and dance with the fae under Emily’s careful guidance—just be sure not to get carried away.
A tale of community and chilling adventure with a dash of romance, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries explores the darker side of the fae.
Tennal Halkana is a problem. He’s a problem for his family because he prefers drinking in gambling dens to fulfilling the demands of being part of one of the most prominent political families on the planet Orshan. He’s a problem when it comes to relationships, flitting from one affair to another in rapid succession. But most of all, he’s a problem for society: Tennal is a reader, a person with telepathic abilities that were genetically engineered by the Orshan Fedstate. When Tennal breaks one too many rules, his aunt conscripts him into the army and orders him to sync, or completely merge his mind, with an architect, a person who can mentally control other people.
Lieutenant Surit Yeni, the architect ordered to link his mind to Tennal, is everything Tennal is not. The child of a notorious traitor, Surit ensures that his every move is thoughtful, controlled and—above all else—principled. Thanks to that last quality, Surit refuses to sync with the unwilling Tennal. The two men fake the bond instead, all while looking for a way to get Tennal out of the army and to the safety of the wider galaxy.
Ocean’s Echo is a slow burn that eventually blazes into a supernova, a novel constrained in its location but massive in its ambition. Its opening scene in a gambling den is exciting, but that action-packed sequence is paltry compared to what’s to come. Set in the same universe as author Everina Maxwell’s debut, Winter’s Orbit, this standalone novel layers intrigue atop intrigue, ratcheting up the stakes one excruciating notch at a time. Maxwell uses her space station settings as pressure cookers, creating close-proximity environments that force her main couple to change and bond with each other. Tennal’s sharp edges bring Surit’s stoicism into relief, while Surit’s rule-abiding nature clashes with Tennal’s chaotic inability to tell the truth. All the while, the pair is wrapped in a world built with care by Maxwell, a writer with a keen eye for detail and nuanced social interactions. Rather than getting lost in the weeds of the mechanics of faster-than-light travel or how exactly readers and architects were made, Maxwell zeroes in on the small moments of soldiers’ daily lives, from tokens that communicate fellow officers’ genders or the politics of getting a second slice of cake from the mess hall vending machine.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a massive amount of world building to absorb: Between various branches of the military, syncing, readers and architects, the wealth of vocabulary and protocol to wade through can be overwhelming at first. The learning curve will be less steep for readers who loved Maxwell’s first foray into this universe, but rest assured that this is still a standalone novel that reads like one. Perfect for lovers of science fiction served medium-hard, Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional maelstrom and suspenseful military drama.
Ocean’s Echo is the optimal blend of emotional love story and suspenseful military sci-fi.
Horror takes many forms: from the terror of losing control of one’s mind to another entity, to the fear of things that move around unseen in the night, to the inescapable certainty that one day we all must meet our ends. Each of these stories features a different kind of horror, making for a perfect sampler platter for anyone wanting to dip their toes in the murky depths of dread.
In the far reaches of the North, in a chateau abutting a frozen forest and a forbidding mine, a doctor has died. For the powerful Interprovincial Medical Institute, the worrying thing is not the doctor’s death; the Institute’s bodies die all the time. An ancient parasitic life form, the Institute takes over promising young minds and guides them into the field of medicine; all of the unsuspecting human race’s doctors are being controlled by the Institute. What is worrying is that the Institute isn’t sure how the body stationed in the chateau died. To find out exactly what happened, the Institute sends a new body to investigate the chateau and its denizens. That doctor soon discovers another parasite that could upend life as they know it, threatening both the Institute’s supremacy and the humans it seeks to protect.
Hiron Ennes’ debut novel, Leech, is a chilling study in the the loss of bodily autonomy, the terrors of a frigid winter wood and the undeniable creepiness of ancient homes that have long since fallen into disrepair. Set thousands of years after an apocalypse, Leech is decidedly a gothic novel, complete with seemingly cursed family homes, the dark consequences of human progress and unknown dangers lurking in every crevice and icy forest. Tantalizing references to the monsters of humanity’s past, chiefly destructive airships and killer biological agents, feel almost mythic as they fill readers’ imaginations with possible explanations for what exactly went wrong. Full of trepidation and mystery, Leech is perfect for readers who wished that Wuthering Heights had been just a little more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.
Young adult author Ainslie Hogarth’s first novel for adults, Motherthing, opens in the waiting room of an intensive care unit, and it doesn’t get less stressful from there. Ralph and Abby Lamb have moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, to help care for her. Plagued by her rocky relationship with her own mother, Abby had hoped to kindle a better relationship with her mother-in-law but was instead met with distrust and cold condescension for being the woman who ‘took” Laura’s son from her. After Laura dies by suicide at the beginning of Motherthing, Abby thinks that her and Ralph’s obligation is over; they will sell the house and move away, free to start the perfect family that they deserve. But when Laura’s spirit begins to haunt the couple, driving Ralph into a pit of depression and tormenting Abby night after night, it is clear that Abby will have to dig deep if she is going to wrest the life of her dreams from the nightmare that her home life has become.
Deeply dark and often funny, Motherthing explores the contours of what it means to be in a relationship with a mother (or mother-in-law) figure and the porous boundaries among grief, anger and the supernatural. Motherthing can be a difficult book to read on an emotional level, given Abby’s frustratingly optimistic “I can fix him/it/this” attitude, but its scares and surprises are well worth the discomfort it causes—as well as the sleepless nights it will engender.
The eponymous island of Lute by Jennifer Thorne stands apart from the modern world. Even as war lingers on their doorstep and climate change and water shortages ravage the lands around them, the islanders are sheltered and seemingly immune to the turmoil. In exchange for these blessings, the island extracts a tithe: Every seven midsummers, exactly seven of the people of Lute die on what is referred to as “The Day.” Nina Treadway, a transplant to Lute and lady of the island by virtue of her marriage to Lord Hugh Treadway, doesn’t believe in the fairy tale, chalking it up to the superstitions of a quaint and isolated island. But as The Day dawns and brings a series of waking nightmares, Nina must accept her duties as the Lady of Lute in order to preserve the stability of the island she has come to love.
Part idyllic fantasy and part Final Destination, Lute asks a question that harks back to works like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘the Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: What is the price of prosperity? While Lute’s citizens have willingly agreed to that price, it is steep and horrific. The novel’s pages are dotted with gore and loss, sure to pull on the heartstrings—and occasionally the stomachs—of even the most stoic of readers. However, despite the bloodshed and tension, Lute is a story of the creation of a haven away from the pressures of the modern world. More cynical readers might balk at the story’s hopeful tone and occasionally predictable plot turns. However, for those looking for a thriller replete with both terror and fantasy, Lute delivers in spades.
Led by Hiron Ennes' chilling debut novel, Leech, these thoughtful, well-crafted frights will scare you on multiple levels.
The Interprovincial Medical Institute is the sole provider of medicine in a post-apocalyptic world. But unbeknownst to anyone, the Institute is a hive mind, a parasite living within, controlling and training the world’s doctors. When one of the Institute’s bodies dies, it sends a new doctor to investigate—and discovers it isn’t the only parasite interested in the human race. We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
Parasites aren’t new to speculative fiction and horror, but your choice to tell this story from the perspective of the Institute, a hive mind that is both a medical professional and a parasite, is extremely original. What did writing from that point of view allow you to do as an author? Building a narrator out of a many-minded parasite was not easy, but it let me take advantage of a sort of pseudo-omniscience, which was such a boon for world building. Writing from the Institute’s point of view was also an opportunity to delve into the threat a microscopic antagonist might pose. We all get it, parasites are spooky. That isn’t saying much at all. Where the true intrigue lies, I think, is in the mechanism of infection and the cellular changes that take place in a host. A protagonist needs to be proficient in microscopy to see the terrifying devil in those details.
The Institute harks back to classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Were there any particular stories that informed your creation of the doctor? At the moment I can’t think of any fiction that influenced me as much as the stories science can tell us about our own cells. I was particularly taken by the theory of endosymbiosis: Deep in our mitochondria lives a strand of DNA separate from our nuclear chromosomes, an essential piece of our cellular network without which we would die. This strand is circular, like a bacterium’s, leading scientists to propose it is the genome of a foreign organism that hitched a ride inside us back when we were single-celled. It’s been sitting there ever since, perpetuating itself through the maternal line and providing the basis of a fun mind game I like to call “Am I even me?” Is that DNA truly mine? Am I being parasitized by my own genome? Does it care about me, or does it only care about my reproductive success? Is everything I do and think at the behest of a little self-interested string of nucleotides living inside me? You stay awake so many nights thinking about stuff like that, and eventually you write Leech.
Bodily autonomy is always going to be a ripe subject for horror, but it is something particularly terrifying for many people right now. What drew you to writing a book that delved so deeply into body horror and questions of bodily and mental autonomy? I knew autonomy would end up being one of several themes, as a consequence of writing about parasitism, but the narrative quickly shoved autonomy to the forefront seemingly of its own volition. Leech was a demanding animal. It wouldn’t let me stop at the microscopic ecosystems parasites use to commandeer behavior but demanded I touch on the equally parasitic structures of hierarchy, power, abuse and some of the ways these structures rob us of our own bodies.
Despite the fact that Leech epitomizes a gothic novel, it’s also set in a post-apocalyptic world. What led you to marry these two genres? To put it simply, I think they work well together. Gothic literature is usually predicated on the exploration of some sordid past, whether of an individual, a family, an old house or an isolated township—often all of the above. If a single dead child can make for a terrifying poltergeist, what hauntings might manifest from the cruel impulses of a dead society? In what ways will human cycles of exploitation, bigotry and imperialism haunt the future? What monstrous forms might their resurrections take?
There’s a definite shift in the language the doctor uses to talk about humans throughout the book, moving from a clinical analysis, to becoming more familiar, to a sort of horror. Can you talk about this shift in language? Was this a conscious decision, or did it develop organically? The shift in language was a conscious development, and an excruciating one. I can’t count the hours I spent going back and forth, micromanaging colloquialisms, contractions, turns of phrase and intrusive thoughts. At the extreme ends of the story, the narration styles are pretty distinct, but it gets muddy enough in the middle that I’m fairly sure I underwent some sort of ego death while writing it.
There are hints as to what happened to society that caused everything to go wrong. Can you tell us what plunged your world into this dark age and how humanity survived? I don’t think there is any one thing that plunged this world into ruin. The collapse of a society is a slow, mundane and brutal process (a process we are currently witnessing in real time). I don’t know how the world ended, or how many times it ended, but I do know humanity survived by virtue of resilience, ingenuity, mutual aid and cooperation. And trains. I suspect the resurgence of the locomotive was vital to the resurgence of human society. I don’t know why. I just feel it in my heart.
How did your background in medicine inform the writing of Leech? Is there anything that you’ve learned in your studies that you wish you could have included that didn’t quite fit? To be honest, my background when I started Leech was in physics. My background when I finished it was in medicine, which definitely informed some of the details but not the core of the story. There are a few aspects of doctoring I might’ve incorporated if I’d had a more solid grasp of the realities of clinical practice—namely, a deeper exploration of the unique and sometimes mystifying relationships people have to their own bodies. I think I touched on this with Hélene’s (perceived) hypochondria, but I have seen some truly fascinating disconnects between internal and external experiences of disease: Munchausen’s syndrome, functional disorders and one case of a lovely, cheerful patient whose stated history painted a picture of health and who, almost as an afterthought, lifted her sweater to show me a massive open wound she had been nursing for nearly a year.
In gothic literature, deformity and physical differences are often cast as physical manifestations of sin, which is a theme now understood to be ableist at best. You manage to incorporate these bodily differences without that baggage. What drew you to including these elements of the gothic, and how did you navigate including them while avoiding the negative connotations that they usually hold? I won’t claim that Leech is free of ableist baggage; after all, ableism is one of the many flavors in that soup of oppression in which we all grow up swimming. That said, I did consciously set out to subvert traditional, moralistic depictions of deformity. I wanted pretty much every “normal” patient to have some unconventional physical attribute. In a world where everyone has a mechanical limb or a migratory birthmark or a literal doppelganger, it’s hard to view these things as anything but variations of the norm. This allowed the narrative to focus more on the unique roles these attributes play in the characters’ lives and how they might be admired, celebrated, exploited or fetishized on an interpersonal, rather than societal, level.
A few characters speculate about where they think the monstrous, mysterious ventigeaux that stalk the woods near Verdira came from.Do you have an answer, or are they mysterious to you as well? The ventigeaux are a mystery even to me. In the future, if there is an opportunity to dissect them, I might uncover their origins. For now, I share the Institute’s suspicions that they are orphans of biotechnology, but I can’t guess what sort of misguided endeavors led to their creation.
One of your characters tries to make sure that humans don’t regain the ability to make flying machines, believing that they are what caused the apocalypse in the first place. If the denizens of this world recovered lost technologies, do you think they would be doomed to the same self-destruction as their forebears? I’m a utopian at heart, so I genuinely hope not. But I believe that without significantly, consciously dismantling institutions of power, people will end up re-creating the oppressive structures that haunt our past. Not as any function of “human nature” or some such evolutionary psychology nonsense, but by dint of centuries of vicious cultural selection. People tend to emulate their forebears, and the world of Leech is no exception. Fortunately, in that world, as in ours, there are those working to demolish monopolies of power, technology and capital. And in that world, as in ours, there will be monumental successes and devastating failures. Let us hope the former is more frequent than the latter.
Picture of Hiron Ennes courtesy of the author.
We talked to Ennes about fusing gothic literature with post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the terrifying scientific theory that keeps them up at night.
These superbly crafted retellings present an opportunity to revel in tales we might think we know well but that still have the ability to surprise.
The Book of Gothel
Framed as a medieval text found in a German woman’s attic, The Book of Gothel centers on the woman who became the witch who imprisoned Rapunzel in her tower. As a young girl, however, Haelewise is neither powerful nor a witch. She is merely an outsider, marked by both her intermittent fainting spells and her deep, black eyes. Her mother, Hedda, is the respected local midwife, but most in their village believe that Haelewise’s fainting spells are of demonic origin. After her mother dies and her father remarries, Haelewise takes refuge in a secluded tower called Gothel, where she becomes an apprentice to a wise woman. But despite her existence on the margins of her world, Haelewise is soon pulled into intrigue, from princesses fleeing cruel fiancés to princes with wicked spells cast upon them. With secrets behind every whisper, Haelewise must tread carefully if she is to survive.
Mary McMyne’s debut novel is dark and moody, full of distrust, doubt and more than a little bit of drama. Far from being a simple villain origin story, it explores Haelewise’s family, her epilepsy and the stark world of 12th-century Germania. Despite the bleak nature of the era, McMyne’s prose is full of vivid color, whether it’s the mysterious golden fruit that Haelewise finds growing in Hedda’s garden or the madder-red gown given to Haelewise by a childhood friend turned would-be lover. It’s a world where Christianity and older religions and traditions coexist but where even a hint of witchcraft could put herbalists and midwives in danger of being stoned. This atmosphere, combined with the deep longings and confusion of a girl just entering womanhood and the fact that readers have a good idea of the fate that awaits her, shadows The Book of Gothel with an overwhelming sense of dread—but will also compel readers to keep going to the very end.
★ The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, starts in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the 19th century, as the titular doctor is looking for an assistant. He finds one in Montgomery Laughton, an Englishman with alcoholism and a mountain of debt. Montgomery helps the aging doctor create human-animal hybrids, which are destined to work the plantations of Dr. Moreau’s wealthy benefactor. Carlota Moreau, the doctor’s daughter, leads a relatively carefree life on the estate, with plenty of hybrid companions and her studies to keep her company. The only thing marring her life is a lingering childhood illness that requires her to have weekly injections of one of her father’s mysterious serums. When the handsome son of Dr. Moreau’s benefactor, Eduardo Lizalde, unexpectedly visits, the sheltered estate is thrown first into discord and then into total disarray as the Moreaus’ secrets are pulled slowly into the light.
Moreno-Garcia (Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow) is a master of dramatic tension. Her decision to reimagine H.G. Wells’ visionary 1896 novel on an isolated estate instead of an island creates a sense of furtiveness, a constant fear of discovery. The insertion of Carlota, who is not a character from the original book, gives a human face to an inhuman (or, at the very least, inhumane) story, adding something precious that could be lost if the delicate equilibrium of Moreau’s estate is unbalanced.
Moreno-Garcia revels in her setting’s tropical color palette, which is reflected in the rich green of Eduardo’s eyes and the bold colors of Carlota’s dresses. Moreno-Garcia also includes small, down-to-earth details of pastoral life on the estate, resulting in a world that feels immediate enough to slip into. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau will pull readers in even as a pit grows in their stomachs, given all the things they know can—and likely will—go wrong.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes on The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the witch from "Rapunzel" gets a haunting origin story.
Young witch Marlinchen and her sisters live under the iron thumb of their father, a wizard intent on preserving the old ways and keeping his daughters safe from the degradations of the rapidly changing outside world. But when Marlinchen falls in love with ballet dancer Sevas, she begins to chafe against her father’s rule. We talked to Ava Reid about her unique Eastern European-inspired world and the gruesome fairy tale that inspired her sophomore novel.
Juniper & Thorn is inspired by the “The Juniper Tree,” one of the more obscure stories from Grimms’ Fairy Tales in which a woman murders her stepson and the father eats him. What drew you to this story? I was always beguiled by its unofficial moniker of Grimms’ darkest fairy tale. There are a lot of horrific and grisly stories in the Grimms’ repertoire, many with the same themes. There’s cannibalism in “Hansel & Gretel,” murder and bloodshed galore in classics like ‘Red Riding Hood’ and “Snow White.” So what sets “The Juniper Tree” apart?
One thing I noted is that there are very few quintessential fairy-tale tropes in “The Juniper Tree.” It’s a strangely quiet, intimate story about domestic violence within a single family.
Once I came to that realization, it seemed most honest to make this retelling a gothic horror novel. It did not feel sweeping in scope or appropriate for an epic fantasy setting. I wanted to maintain this thread of bleak, almost claustrophobic violence, which is the core of the gothic genre. That unnaturalness and upending of a foundational expectation—that parents should love and care for their children—is what makes “The Juniper Tree” so horrible, and what makes Juniper & Thornfirmly a horror novel.
Despite the fact that Juniper & Thorn and your debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, are set in the same universe, they feel like very different stories. Did your writing process or sources for inspiration change between the two? I like to think of The Wolf and the Woodsman and Juniper & Thornas fractured mirror images: If Woodsman is about the pain of being excluded from the narrative, then Juniper & Thornis about the pain of being forced into the narrative, acting out the same rigidly defined role over and over. So while they are very different books that span different subgenres, the common threads are, I think, what makes an “Ava Reid book.”
As for the writing process, by dint of the fact that Juniper & Thornwas the second book in my contract, I had to write it fairly quickly and did so in a month. It changed very little from its initial draft. I had a much stronger sense of my identity as a writer and a very clear idea of what I wanted this book to be from page one.
While Juniper & Thorn is set in a fictional world, it’s obviously influenced by Eastern European culture and especially the conquest of parts of the region by Russia. Why did you set your story in this context? Eastern Europe is the setting of many major contemporary fantasy novels, but with few exceptions, these books present an Eastern Europe that is bleak, wintry, remote, forested and very culturally homogeneous. I was intrigued by writing an Eastern Europe that was different: wind-chapped steppes, black sand beaches, boardwalks, smoke-chuffing factories, vibrant with urban life, diverse and dynamic. Early 20th-century Odesa, Ukraine, the city upon which Oblya is based, was considered the jewel of the Russian empire. It was an entirely planned city that became a regional hub of immigration, export and industry. It is also a city where a large number of Ashkenazi Jews lived, including my own family.
Enormous change—industrialization, urbanization, immigration—was disrupting traditional lifestyles, often violently. This setting was fundamental to the story I wanted to tell. I like to set books during periods of upheaval, uncertainty, transformation and violence, where what has always been is not synonymous with what will always be.
The conflict between modernity and magic bleeds into the sisters’ lives in a lot of different ways. Do you think the kind of magic you depict in Juniper & Thorn can coexist with modernity as we think of it? Magic in Juniper & Thornrepresents the old world, a world that is regressive and stubbornly resistant to change. When Marlinchen gives examples of her father’s transformations, they are always instances in which he turns something dynamic or technologically advanced into something lifeless or outdated: a swan into a swan-vase, an electric lamp into a candle. His transformation is reaching backward while the city around them leaps forward. I think it’s inherently anti-modernity. It parallels the way a lot of contemporary European ethnic nationalists imagine their countries’ mythic pasts’magical, in touch with the natural world and of course devoid of any ‘foreign’ or ‘corruptive’ element. Is there a place for this way of thinking in the modern world? Unfortunately, yes, but ideally, these prejudicial, violent attitudes would go the way of the spinning wheel.
Eastern European names are all about diminutives, a nickname formed by adding -sha to the initial syllable of a name. In a book that draws from those cultures, why did you make the majority of your characters’ names defy this custom? I wanted to set the Vashchenko family apart from the rest of society as much as possible. They live an outmoded and traditional lifestyle, and the rigidity of their names, which eschew diminutives, represents this attitude of isolation.
Surnames with the suffix –enko are uniquely Ukrainian, first recorded in the 1400s. Unlike most other Russian and Ukrainian surnames, they do not change with grammatical gender. Ordinarily a father whose surname is Sorokin would have a daughter surnamed Sorokina. But I chose the name Vashchenko specifically because it doesn’t change with gender, to further represent the total dominion Zmiy has over his daughters.
Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a book about witches, there is precious little magic of the wand-waving variety. Instead, your magic is at turns visceral (Marlinchen’s divining ability is all about touch) and existential (Zmiy’s curse). What inspired you to make a magic system that is so sparse and yet so threatening? I often think about what separates dark fantasy from horror, because while The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark fantasy novel, Juniper & Thornis very clearly horror. And I always return to the idea that fear is different from horror. Fear is staring down a man with a knife; horror is staring down a monster made of knives. Horror shifts your view of the world, your view of yourself. It is something beyond comprehension. So the magic in Juniperis—by intention—a bit blurry around the edges. And I think that’s what makes it frightening.
There are very few physical demonstrations of Zmiy’s magic, even though he makes plenty of threats. Marlinchen begins the book convinced that her father is all-powerful. The fear that he instills in her is real, but whether it is the result of physical, tangible magic is uncertain. This uncertainty is the nature of horror, and it’s also the nature of abuse. Marlinchen is gaslighted and manipulated into a state of bewilderment and insecurity, unable to trust herself or her perceptions. A more ambiguous and elusive form of magic felt fitting for a book that’s so much about psychological abuse.
Whilethe characters (Sevas in particular) insist that they are not in a fairy tale, there are a lot of elements of Juniper & Thorn that use the mechanics of such stories. How did you toe that line between being inspired by a fairy tale and creating something completely new? Fairy tales remain essential parts of our culture because they contain themes or lessons that feel universal, even aspirational: Strangers are dangerous (“Red Riding Hood”), beauty is goodness (“Cinderella”), justice is always done (take your pick). These beliefs are so fundamental that they are rarely ever questioned or even remarked upon. I wanted to write a book that dismantled as many of these foundational assumptions as I could. Sevas, a stranger, is in fact Marlinchen’s savior. Marlinchen, plain-faced, unremarkable, is the story’s heroine. The world of Juniper & Thornis by design deeply cruel and unjust. Once I had my list of tropes and mechanics, I began trying to take them apart. So while I was obviously inspired by fairy tales, my goal was always to turn them on their heads.
In several scenes, Marlinchen talks about her storybook-infused views on family, such as the dangers of having sisters or the fact that you can have a kind mother or a mother who’s alive but not both. Why do you think these themes are so ubiquitous in fairy tales? Folklorists and anthropologists have had hearty debates on this subject. One defining element of fairy tales is their simplicity: There are archetypes, not characters, the settings are always vague, and the plots are straightforward. As Marlinchen says, they are stories that aren’t meant to be questioned. They are answers in and of themselves. Italo Calvino defines a fairy tale by its brevity and concision of language. They occupy a strange space in our culture that seems to be outside the realm of logic or realism—yet they have their own logic that is seductively easy to swallow.
Juniper & Thornis a recrimination about how fairy tales are weaponized as instruments of oppression and abuse, and I do believe that is often true. At the same time, I’m not ready to surrender fairy tales entirely, to give them over to the Zmiy Vashchenkos of the world. I think certain motifs occur and remain because of our common humanity. It’s easy to see the strains of misogyny, patriarchy, antisemitism, etc., as nefarious—and they are—but they are also evidence of a shared past. Reminders of this common humanity can be powerful, restorative and brimming with hope.
Your descriptions of the ballet, in particular of Sevas’ skill as a dancer, are breathtaking. What drew you to the imagery of dance? Ballet is an important part of Russian culture and Russian national identity, particularly in the early 20th century, when the book is set. Iconic ballets like ‘The Firebird’and ‘Swan Lake’draw from Russian folklore and fairy tales, and of course, both feature imagery of birds and themes of transformation’so it seemed deeply fitting.
I also thought a lot about ballet as both an art form and a sport; it requires incredible physical strength and an almost ascetic level of dedication, especially to achieve the success that Sevas has. But unlike many other sports, aesthetics are crucial to its performance. Ballet’s emphasis on beauty, fluidity and effortless grace while camouflaging the physical toll it takes on the dancers knits together very well with the larger themes of the book.
Do you think that Marlinchen would have eventually rebelled if she hadn’t met Sevas? Where would they both be now if they hadn’t met each other? It’s honestly impossible for me to conceive of these two characters apart from each other, because I wrote them to be soulmates: They understand each other instantly to the deepest possible degree, and even though they appear quite different on the surface, they are perfect mirror images. They have been trapped, misused and pushed to the bleakest point of desperation, and that’s when they find each other. I think it’s easy to see Sevas as Marlinchen’s knight in shining armor, but she rescues him just as much as he rescues her.
Photo of Ava Reid courtesy of the author.
The author's gothic horror novel, Juniper & Thorn, is inspired by Grimms' most gruesome tale.
The last wizard in the city of Oblya has three daughters, and his youngest, Marlinchen, is meek and subservient, bending to her father’s tempestuous nature and her sisters’ scornful criticisms. But Marlinchen knows the boundaries of her proscribed life and does not stray outside them. That is, until her sisters drag her into the city to go to the ballet. The dance awakens something in Marlinchen, as does the sight of its principal dancer, Sevas. The door to rebellion now cracked open, Marlinchen begins to strain against the cords that bind her to her father’s will. And as she steps out of his shadow bit by bit, there is no returning to the way things used to be.
Set in the same universe as Ava Reid’s debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Juniper & Thorn tells a haunting story of modernization, love and escape from abuse. Reid’s prose is at times heavy and muted and at others soaring and poetic, contrasting Marlinchen’s family home, the only world she has ever known, with Sevas’ seemingly liberated life—a life Marlinchen desperately wishes to experience. The expansiveness Reid evokes in Marlinchen’s interactions with Sevas (via his dancing but also simply his earnest, luminescent presence) is welcome and necessary, turning a claustrophobic story into one that is also transcendent and hopeful. This combination of sweeping, emotional descriptions and scenes of tightly wound suspense brings to mind both Eastern European ballet classics such as Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and gothic horror like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—a juxtaposition that makes Juniper & Thorn an utterly compelling read.
Readers who would prefer to avoid themes of abuse and self-harm, as well as intense depictions of gore and body horror, should avoid Juniper & Thorn, since these elements recur with frequency. However, readers who are prepared for such territory will find a brilliant novel both tender and chilling, one that will challenge their ideas about monstrosity and magic and drag them from the depths of dread to the heights of hope.
Set in the same world as her debut, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Ava Reid's Juniper & Thorn is a tender, chilling story of love and escape from abuse.
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