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All Gothic Fiction Coverage

Sarah Perry’s new novel, Enlightenment, opens on a late-winter Monday in 1997 in the office of the Essex Chronicle, a small newspaper in the English town of Aldleigh. Fifty-year-old Thomas Hart, who’s been quietly writing about literature and ghosts for 20 years, needs to write something new, his boss tells him, suggesting astronomy—the Hale-Bopp comet will soon be visible. That same day, Thomas receives a letter from the town museum with new information about the Lowlands ghost, who’s rumored to haunt the nearby Lowlands House, and who may be a 19th-century astronomer from Romania named Maria Vaduva. These two events will send Thomas on a quest to fill in the details of Maria Vaduva’s life and work.

Intertwined with Thomas’ story is that of 17-year-old Grace Macaulay, who’s linked to Thomas through their Baptist church; Thomas has also helped raise Grace after her mother died in childbirth. Grace stumbles into her first love, which sets off a series of complications that will rupture Thomas and Grace’s friendship. The story follows the two over the next 20 years, landing on pivotal moments for both.

But this plot description does little to give a real sense of Enlightenment. Despite its contemporary setting, the novel has a 19th-century feel, with an omniscient voice and a narrative peppered with letters, newspaper columns and (fictional) historical documents. And while it’s partly a ghost story, with an occasionally Gothic feel, Enlightenment is also a novel about the love of astronomy. There’s a feminist story, too—that of Maria Vaduva, the neglected 19th-century astronomer—woven around Thomas’ and Grace’s stories. But mostly, this is a novel about friendship and belonging, the grief after a friendship is lost and the difficult path to forgiveness.

Many of Perry’s sentences are startlingly beautiful, creating an atmospheric sense of setting and character. If some of Enlightenment’s goings-on are a bit elliptical, and if some secondary characters feel a little wispy, not quite coming into focus, that too seems part of the novel’s aim and its charm. There’s a hint of the literary romance and mystery of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, though Enlightenment is more playful. Wide in its scope despite its narrow small-town setting, this gentle but insistent and inventive novel will tug on you in surprising ways.

Sarah Perry’s inventive, atmospheric novel Enlightenment has a 19th-century feel despite its contemporary setting, with a hint of the literary romance and mystery of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
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At one point in Kirsten Bakis’ second novel, King Nyx, Anna Fort, the protagonist and narrator, contemplates the tendency of evil men to wreck the lives of everyone they come upon, especially women and girls. Such men can never have enough money or power, and cruelty is their intention. Anna has spent a good deal of her life reacting to men like this. One was her employer and father-in-law; another a mysterious magnate named Claude Arkel who invites her and her eccentric husband, Charles, to stay as guests on his private island.

On a late autumn day just after World War I, we find Anna and Charles (who are based on real people of the same names) waiting for a boat to take them to the island. All the while, Anna hugs a cage whose cover barely protects the two little parrots inside from the cold. Anna’s obsession with their care hints at the lengths she’ll go to protect the vulnerable, introduces themes of captivity and freedom, and serves as a callback to the titular bird, King Nyx. Despite the mighty moniker, King Nyx is a toy made of tin. To the lonely, impoverished and motherless Anna, the toy—thought of as female despite the name—was a childhood friend and a totem. It will turn out that it still is.

Once on the island, the Forts meet Frank and Stella Bixby, a couple who enjoy a strange, and as we learn, very dark dynamic. The couples take to each other right away. Charles and Frank bond over their mutual weirdness, and Stella and Anna both need a female confidant. Stella is a fantastic creation: She’s quick-witted, mouthy, drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and has a heart of gold. Indeed, the injection of humor in some very tense scenes comes courtesy of Stella craving a cigarette or blurting out a bon mot.

Bakis, author of Lives of the Monster Dogs, creates an atmosphere of gut-churning dread from the first chapter, when two strange women warn of trouble on Arkel’s island while the Forts wait for their boat. Trouble happens quickly, and there are scenes so anxiety-producing that you might want to put the book down and check to see that your windows and doors are secure. King Nyx is a scary good book.

 

Kirsten Bakis, author of Lives of the Monster Dogs, creates an atmosphere of gut-churning dread from the very first chapter of King Nyx. This is a scary good book.

Perhaps the most commonly touted piece of advice for writers is to write what you know. It’s clear that Shubnum Khan has taken this counsel to heart with this dazzling novel (her first published in the U.S.), spinning a magical and richly atmospheric gothic coming-of-age tale set in Durban, South Africa, the same city the author herself calls home.

In a piece for the literary journal Portside Review, Khan described her hometown as “a place where people leave.” Slow and stuck in time, the coastal city is somewhere to go when one wants to forget and be forgotten in turn. Durban is the perfect backdrop for Akbar Manzil, the gothic mansion at the heart of The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years. Once a palace of wonders and luxury for an extremely wealthy family, Akbar Manzil is now a moribund manse haphazardly converted into apartments and home to a ragtag group of misfit tenants. Amongst the complex’s denizens are teenager Sana and her widowed father, newly arrived and looking to start fresh after a terrible loss. Whereas the other residents drift through the grounds blind and incurious to their home’s quirks and mysteries, Sana resists the soporific effects of the estate and delves into abandoned corridors and locked rooms, determined to shine a light upon the shadows, secrets and spirits that lurk within. But Sana’s relentless pursuit of the past is not without consequence. Her discovery of a star-crossed romance that took place many years earlier agitates a grieving djinn and threatens to throw the lives of Akbar Manzil’s present-day residents into chaos.

Cinematic in scope and rendered in redolent prose, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is a deeply immersive and inventive exploration of the many facets of love, loneliness and grief. Khan’s descriptions of Durban ground the story despite its fantastical elements, making the novel all the more compelling. Fueled by its vivid details, bewitching setting and a colorful cast of characters (including the house Akbar Manzil itself), this engrossing read acts as a potent reminder that the past does not merely hold the power to hurt us, but also to heal us.

Fueled by its vivid details and colorful cast of characters, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years is a richly atmospheric gothic coming-of-age tale set in Durban, South Africa.

As Emilia Hart’s debut novel opens, it’s 2019, and 29-year-old Kate Ayres is plotting her escape from both London and her abusive boyfriend. She’s recently learned she has a secret place to run to: Her great-aunt Violet, an eccentric entomologist whom Kate barely remembers, has died and bequeathed her niece Weyward Cottage in the remote village of Crows Beck, Cumbria. 

The story then drops back to 1942, when 16-year-old Violet Ayres is confined to the grounds of her father’s Cumbrian estate, Orton Hall, and looked after by a governess and nanny. Violet’s father won’t let her visit the nearby village of Crows Beck or go off to school, though Violet doesn’t know why. He disapproves of the way the girl spends so much time outside, climbing trees and rescuing animals, and he warns that Violet is beginning to turn out like her mother, who died when Violet was a toddler. 

Interspersed among Kate’s and Violet’s stories is the first-person account of Altha, a young woman from Crows Beck who is being tried for witchcraft in 1619.

These three timelines—2019, 1942 and 1619—braid together the quests of Weyward’s women, keeping the tension high as each character faces danger and difficult decisions. As Kate and Violet begin to understand their connections to other women of Weyward Cottage and to the natural world, each also begins to rely on her own strength.

Featuring beautiful descriptions of the plants, animals and insects of rural Cumbria, Weyward also makes good use of objects, such as family pieces passed down through generations. And as befits a gothic story, the novel includes plenty of tropes—the madwoman in the attic, an anxious main character, a dark and crumbling mansion, even a servant named Miss Poole (an apparent nod to Jane Eyre). Most of the novel’s men are portrayed as unremittingly villainous, and some readers will wish for a little more complexity there. Still, Weyward is a satisfying, well-plotted historical page turner and a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature.” It’s perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.

Weyward is a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature,” perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.

Seven years after her mordant debut novel, Dietland, amassed critical acclaim and a cult following for its no-holds-barred skewering of the diet and beauty industries, Sarai Walker second novel is finally here. With The Cherry Robbers, Walker has concocted another slyly subversive feminist fable, this time in the form of a grief-laced gothic thriller that takes on weighty topics such as marriage, women’s health and generational trauma.

In 2017, Sylvia Wren is a world-renowned, notoriously private painter living in New Mexico. She’s rarely seen in public and turns down virtually all requests for interviews. However, in a moment of errant curiosity, Sylvia reads a letter from a journalist who plans to write an exposé detailing what she has uncovered: that Sylvia Wren is in fact Iris Chapel, the sole surviving heiress of the Chapel Firearms fortune, who disappeared 60 years ago.

Suddenly the secrets that Sylvia has spent decades running from catch up to her, and with nowhere left to hide, she attempts to exorcize the ghosts of her past by chronicling the family curse that claimed the lives of her five sisters, relegated her mother to an asylum and prompted Sylvia to abandon her life as Iris.

Exquisitely tense and satisfyingly spooky,The Cherry Robbers masterfully blends psychological and supernatural horror. In sensual yet spritely prose, Walker conducts a darkly erotic exploration of female desire, duty and destiny via an ensemble of nuanced female characters, each with distinct personalities and rich inner lives. Readers know the grisly fate that awaits the Chapel girls, but Walker still manages to maintain a high degree of suspense and intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages.

For fans of Diane Setterfield and Shirley Jackson, as well as readers who relish multilayered, thought-provoking family sagas, The Cherry Robbers is not to be missed.

In The Cherry Robbers, Sarai Walker maintains a high degree of intrigue that will keep readers frantically flipping pages in this story of a reclusive painter whose grisly family history is suddenly exposed.
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Set in 1893 London, Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands follows an appealing cast of characters as they try to unravel a mystery involving missing working-class women and a menacing group called the Spiriters. Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard takes on the case, and his investigative efforts are shared by journalist Octavia Hillingdon, who’s on the hunt for a good story, and university student Gideon Bliss, who’s romantically linked to one of the missing girls. Readers will enjoy losing themselves in O’Donnell’s atmospheric adventure, which explores themes of feminism, class and Victorian mores.

Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson takes place in 1800s Massachusetts, where Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, open a progressive girls’ school after his dream of establishing a utopian community fails to bear fruit. Trouble brews when Eliza, a smart, inquisitive student, starts experiencing seizures and episodes of mania. After Caroline and other students experience similar symptoms, Samuel enlists the help of a doctor who proposes an unusual treatment. Beams’ ominous historical thriller is rich in period detail and brimming with tension, and its questions concerning gender and female agency will inspire great reading group discussions. 

A Black teacher encounters ghosts both spiritual and emotional on a visit to her hometown in LaTanya McQueen’s When the Reckoning Comes. Mira is in town for her best friend’s wedding, which is taking place at the Woodsman, a renovated tobacco plantation that’s supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the enslaved people who were forced to work there. Mira hopes to see her old friend, Jesse, who was arrested for murder years ago. But events take a terrifying twist, and Mira is forced to come to terms with the past. Reading groups will savor McQueen’s well-crafted suspense and enjoy digging into topics like historical accountability and the weight of memory.

The House of Whispers by Laura Purcell tells the story of a 19th-century maid named Hester who goes to work for Louise Pinecroft, a mute older woman who owns Morvoren House, a lonely estate in Cornwall. Staff members at the house harbor strange beliefs related to fairies, superstitions that are somehow connected to Louise’s late father, a physician whose questionable work with patients took place in caves thought to be haunted. Beyond its eerie aura and propulsive plot, The House of Whispers boasts many rich talking points, such as Purcell’s use of Cornish legends and her ability to create—and sustain—a mood of omnipresent foreboding.

These atmospheric thrillers—quintessentially gothic, decidedly unsettling—are perfect winter book club picks.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
If your dream vacation is getting cozy in a tiny English village

Jackson Brodie returns to bookshelves after a nine-year hiatus in Big Sky. Brodie is doing the typical PI work of spying on an unfaithful husband in the village of North Yorkshire when he encounters a man about to jump to his death from a cliff. Brodie intervenes and, in doing so, becomes embroiled in a complex case of murder, betrayal and sex trafficking. Meanwhile, police detectives Reggie Chase and Ronnie Dibicki are also caught up in the dizzying plot when their routine assignment to interview witnesses in a cold case brings them into contact with some of the same individuals as those in Brodie’s case. Atkinson expertly balances plotlines and viewpoints from chapter to chapter, giving readers a panoramic understanding of the characters, their motivations and the consequences of their actions. All of it coalesces into a wild, frantic finish in which each plotline is neatly tied together.


★ Your Life Is Mine by Nathan Ripley
For fans of “My Favorite Murder,” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and all things Manson-­related

Blanche Potter thought she had put her past behind her. She never talked about what happened when she was 7 years old. She changed her last name. She moved to a new city. She started a life of her own. But as the daughter of Chuck Varner, a deranged mass shooter, Blanche realizes the past may be buried, but it never goes away completely. Blanche learns that lesson the hard way in Nathan Ripley’s shocking new novel, Your Life Is Mine. Things are going well in her career as an up-and-coming filmmaker when she is told that her estranged mother, Crissy, has been shot and killed at her trailer home. News of Crissy’s death, brought to Blanche by a sleazy journalist who knows of her past, opens the floodgates of her memories and traumatic childhood. But as she tries to reconcile her past experiences with the recent death of her mother, someone else is gunning for her as well. The cult of Chuck Varner lives on, and it’s up to Blanche to stop it before his crazed follower can strike again. Ripley pulls no punches here, creating a tense and atmospheric story of personal identity and survival, while asking whether you can ever escape your past.


Gone Too Long by Lori Roy
If you’re looking  for a mystery that’s almost too real

Lori Roy portrays the rise of white supremacy movements to chilling effect in Gone Too Long. Set in modern-­day Simmonsville, Georgia, the story follows Imogene Coulter, the daughter of a Ku Klux Klan member, as she buries the sins of her father but unearths an even darker mystery. While sorting through her father’s KKK hideout, Imogene discovers a young boy. Along with Beth, a child abducted 10 years ago who has been raising the boy during their captivity, Imogene begins to discern the truth about her father’s role in the ordeal. But with another Klan member determined to reassert control of the situation, Imogene’s own life and the lives of her family are in peril. This darkly addictive tale is ultimately an engrossing portrait of survival and perseverance. With richly detailed prose, Roy pulls readers close into Imogene’s and Beth’s perspectives, creating empathy for both characters as their trauma and the threats against them, past and present, unfold.


Murder in Bel-Air by Cara Black
If your dream vacation is stylishly stalking through the streets of Paris

Sydney Leduc had one job: pick up her granddaughter from her play group and bring her home. But when Sydney fails to show up, her daughter Aimée is thrust into a convoluted case of murder and international intrigue in her attempt to find Sydney. Author Cara Black swiftly builds up the tension in her riveting new Aimée Leduc mystery, Murder in Bel-Air, en route to an action-packed finale. While retrieving her daughter in Sydney’s place, Aimée witnesses police investigating the death of a homeless woman at a nearby convent’s soup kitchen. She quickly learns that the last person to speak with the victim was none other than her own mother, adding to the mystery of Sydney’s whereabouts. The discovery of a bundle of cash stashed away in the convent’s laundry further complicates matters. Before long, Aimée and her unique cast of teammates are caught up in an international conspiracy involving a potential coup, a downed airplane and a dirty bomb. Hounding her every move are agents of the DGSE (France’s external intelligence agency), the CIA and a mercenary known as the Crocodile. Rich in Parisian settings and vernacular, Murder in Bel-Air is easily accessible and enjoyable to new and longtime series readers alike. 


The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell
For fans of Fingersmith and Alias Grace

Laura Purcell captures the menace and gloom of Victorian-era England in The Poison Thread. Dorothea Truelove is rich, attractive and intelligent. As an act of philanthropy, she spends time with the women incarcerated at Oakgate Prison. Dorothea’s pet fascination is phrenology—using the shape of an individual’s skull as a gauge for temperament and disposition—and she believes the technique can reveal criminal inclinations. When she meets prisoner Ruth Butterham, Dorothea is keen to test her theory. Ruth, who has been charged with murdering the owner of the dress shop where she was employed, is resolute in her claim that she can kill through the power of her stitches. The tale is narrated in turns by the two women, and Purcell skillfully contrasts their voices and stories, spinning a fascinating mystery that’s rich in disquieting detail and atmosphere.


Wherever She Goes by Kelley Armstrong
If you’re looking for a mystery with a deeply emotional hook

Kelley Armstrong’s gripping thriller, Wherever She Goes, is narrated by librarian and troubled mother Aubrey Finch. Aubrey’s marriage to successful lawyer Paul is strained, but they’re still raising their 3-year-old daughter together. Haunted by memories of past mistakes and her parents’ deaths, Aubrey finds that the life she’s built with her family is slowly eroding away. At the park one day, Aubrey watches helplessly as a little boy is forced into an SUV. She contacts the police, but when no further information about the abduction surfaces, they question her claims—and her mental health. A practiced hacker, Aubrey begins hunting for the child via computer, putting her own safety and reputation on the line. Armstrong balances the mystery of the kidnapping and the tension of Aubrey’s inner conflicts with moving scenes of a fragile marriage as Aubrey and Paul work to save their relationship. The latest from the bestselling author of Watcher in the Woods makes for pulse-racing summer reading.


★ Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman
For fans of The Secret History and Gone Girl 

Cambria Brockman’s riveting debut, Tell Me Everything, takes place on the campus of an exclusive New England college, where six friends form a destructive connection. Introvert Malin comes out of her shell at Hawthorne College, bonding with five other students: Ruby, Max, John, Khaled and Gemma. They’re a close-knit group, but as graduation approaches, their relationships begin to unravel. Gemma drinks too much, and John is increasingly cruel to Ruby, who is now his girlfriend. Malin, meanwhile, excels academically while concealing her very dark past. The anxieties of senior year peak at semester’s end as she struggles to uphold her self-assured facade. She isn’t the only one in the circle who’s hiding something, and when a murder occurs, the six friends’ lives change forever. Narrated by Malin, whose intelligence and cunning drive the story, Tell Me Everything is an edgy exploration of loyalty and human desire. Readers in search of a true page-turner will savor this electrifying novel.


★ The Other Mrs. Miller by Allison Dickson
If you’re looking for a thriller you absolutely cannot predict

Fans of Paula Hawkins will be thrilled by Allison Dickson’s The Other Mrs. Miller. Phoebe Miller is starting to believe her best years are behind her. Heiress to a fortune left by her philandering late father, she passes the days in a haze of alcohol. Arguments with her husband, Wyatt, add to her feelings of discontent. But her life takes an unexpected turn after the Napiers move in across the street. Ron, a doctor; Vicki, his wife; and Jake, their attractive and flirtatious teenage son, appear to be a model family. Vicki is eager to be friends, but Phoebe doesn’t quite trust her. She also suspects she’s being watched by the driver of a car that keeps returning to the neighborhood. When Phoebe receives a series of frightening notes that may have some connection to her father, she begins to fear for her life. With an impossible-to-predict plot and a very unexpected murder, Dickson’s book is required reading for suspense addicts. 

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson If your dream vacation is getting cozy in a tiny English village Jackson Brodie returns to bookshelves after a nine-year hiatus in Big Sky. Brodie is doing the typical PI work of spying on an unfaithful husband in the village of North Yorkshire when he encounters a man about to […]
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Wild and wicked women—long may we praise them. Long may we be them.

Three magical tales mine the rebellion and persecution of willful women in America’s past and present to chilling effect. If you have any feminist leanings, these books will inflame them. If you don’t, these books may incite them.

There’s a fascinating interplay of past and present, and fiction and reality, in Plain Bad Heroines, Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel for adults. Two stories unfold in parallel. One begins shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when the scandalous and not-so-subtly titled bestselling book I Await the Devil’s Coming—an incredible, quotable and, best of all, real piece of queer history—ignites a dangerous fervor at a tony Rhode Island school for girls. The book’s author, Mary MacLane, writes about ambition, sensuality and lust, including her attraction to other women. Two girls in particular, Clara and Flo, become gloriously, passionately entangled with the book and with each other. They see themselves in the text in ways they never have before, and they form a club to honor MacLane. When MacLane writes, “Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?” and “I wish someone would write a book about a plain, bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her,” it is easy to see the appeal.

But the book becomes both talisman and curse. Soon Flo, Clara and another classmate end up dead, all three found with the same copy of the infamous red book, leaving the school’s principal and her partner to sort through what happened and manage both the guilt and the ongoing threat.

Alas, the curse doesn’t end there. A century later, another rebellious teenager becomes obsessed with MacLane, as well as with Flo and Clara’s story, and writes a history that gets optioned for film. This second storyline focuses on the conflicts and passions surrounding the film’s production, which is plagued by some of the same omens that bedeviled Clara and Flo.

Plain Bad Heroines is smart, feminist and funny (as well as beautifully illustrated by Sara Lautman), and invites more psychological reflection than fright despite its significant body count. A sense of dread builds, then dissipates and builds again, without ever truly finding release. Danforth propels her story not with scary moments but with beautiful writing, indelible characters and complex relationships.

In contrast to Danforth’s metafictional take, Alix E. Harrow’s second novel, The Once and Future Witches, is a more traditional witches’ tale. Magic and history abound in this suspenseful saga, which boasts an impressively rich and notably inclusive cast of secondary characters.

In 1893, put off by the elitism and stodginess of the local suffragists, three long-estranged sisters reunite to form a more inclusive movement for women’s rights, one that encourages the embrace of their magical powers. In doing so, the Eastwood sisters make an enemy of a dangerously overzealous politician who is both more and less than he seems. Witchcraft is far from the only activity Gideon Hill wants to suppress. He criminalizes suffragists, unionists and all manner of “unnatural women” and threatens anyone who would give them aid. The only thing the women he targets have in common is their refusal to cooperate with the powers that be. Still, they unite against the common threat, sparking a magical battle royal in the town of New Salem. Fairy-tale elements and the sisters’ tentative, tender steps toward forgiving past wounds add depth to the struggle.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Alix E. Harrow discusses being caught between fairy-tale magic and real-world rage.


Magic Lessons, Alice Hoffman’s new prequel to her beloved 1995 bestseller, Practical Magic, organizes its strong feminist themes organically. Heartbreaking and heart-healing, this intense and gorgeous novel answers a unique question: How does a bastard and orphan, criminal and daughter of a witch, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, grow up to become a heroine and mother in Massachusetts? Lush and enchanting, Magic Lessons reveals the nearly tragic but ultimately triumphant origin story of Maria, matriarch of the illustrious Owens clan introduced in Practical Magic.

As an infant, Maria was found abandoned in a field. By the age of 19, she had witnessed ample evidence of love’s destructive power in the lives of countless women who were beaten, betrayed, bought and sold by men who should have protected them. Maria’s birth mother had to give up her child to protect her from her father, who supposedly loved her too much. Maria’s adoptive mother, Hannah, was accused of being an abomination by a man she thought loved her. So when Maria meets the right man, a good man who only wants to love her, she doesn’t trust him. Plus, she’s already met the wrong one, who cemented her distaste for romantic love.

This is an impressive tale—equal parts love story, history and horror. One of the novel’s most terrifying aspects is that, much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this fictional tale is grounded in the well-documented persecution of women in 17th-century New England. Eventually love wins out, but that is only one part of a broader story in which an abused, neglected and discounted woman rises, finding a way to save herself, safeguard her family for generations and make systemic change for others along the way. The whole thing is absolutely riveting and rewarding from start to finish.

Three magical tales mine the rebellion and persecution of willful women in America’s past and present to chilling effect. If you have any feminist leanings, these books will inflame them. If you don’t, these books may incite them.
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Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland is a story you simply won’t see coming. You might think you’ve figured out the pillars of its structure after a few chapters, or come to truly understand its protagonist after walking a few dozen pages with her, but to read this powerful, moving and terrifying novel is to enter into a constant state of change. The story envelops you slowly, like a cocoon, wrapping you in its ever-increasing depth and heart until you emerge, at the end, transformed.

Sorrowland follows Vern, a pregnant woman who flees to the woods in a desperate attempt to escape the religious compound that was once her home. She fights for survival, first as an expectant mother, then as a fierce parent and protector of twin children. But the compound, it turns out, isn’t willing to let her go so easily, and not just because of its cultlike grip. Something darker is at work in Vern’s life, something at the core of her existence that she’ll have to face if she’s ever going to have a future.

As Vern gradually awakens to the wider world and its wonders and terrors, Solomon charts her journey through prose that is both economical and fiercely emotional. What’s most striking is the way in which Solomon captures Vern’s creeping, often frightening realization that the world is altogether more complex and monstrous than she once thought. 

Full of horror, love and incisive observation, Sorrowland is so perfectly plotted that readers won’t be able to predict what’s to come any better than Vern can. It’s a truly powerful piece of storytelling.

Full of horror and love, Sorrowland is so perfectly plotted that readers can’t predict what’s to come any better than its characters can.
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In Peter Cameron’s latest novel, an American couple referred to only as “the man” and “the woman” check into the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel in an unspecified northern European country. This is no ski junket; they are finalizing a long-awaited adoption of a child they hope will mend the widening rift in their marriage.

So far, pretty normal, right? But not long after check-in, the man finds himself in the hotel bar, where he is befriended by an ex-circus performer of indeterminate age and treated to the local alcoholic delicacy, a lichen-derived schnapps “tasting faintly of bleach and watercress and spearmint and rice.” The town’s two main attractions appear to be the orphanage and an enigmatic healer who goes by the name of Brother Emmanuel.

The man and woman’s first appointment with the orphanage lands them—possibly by accident—in the healer’s den, which might or might not have been fortuitous, given the woman’s apparently untreatable cancer. This turn of events then cascades into a series of Waiting for Godot-esque moments in which anticipation is frequently met with frustration and further delay.

As in Samuel Beckett’s famed play, we learn a great deal about the Americans as they await their next disappointment, chatting among themselves and with the Fellini-ish cast of supporting characters. Every time the reader begin to adjust to a new normal, Cameron slips in something to unsettle it all, such as the hotel’s doors (one of which the man kicked in after losing his room key) being UNESCO-certified artifacts salvaged from a Cairo opera house. That’s the kind of revelation that will make minibar charges seem trivial.

Perhaps What Happens at Night might have been more aptly titled When Serling Met Sartre. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of all the elements that make us human and all the situations that test our humanity.

Maybe these characters should have read a Yelp review before they booked this reservation. It’s likely that the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel doesn’t get many repeat customers.

Perhaps What Happens at Night might have been more aptly titled When Serling Met Sartre. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of all the elements that make us human and all the situations that test our humanity.

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Thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright has always assumed the role of outcast, even in her own mind. She finds solace among the taxidermic specimens of the natural history museum, and she takes her assignment to oversee their care as they are removed from London during World War II very seriously. Jobs like this are almost never available to women, and Hetty is determined to prove her worth. But upon arriving at Lockwood, the manor home where the specimens are to be kept safe, Hetty immediately encounters setbacks. The first is the dangerous Major Lockwood, whose domineering attitude is offset by that of his meek, charming daughter, Lucy.

Lockwood Manor, with its empty rooms, unending chores and possible ghosts, functions as a central character. Lucy’s mother, the late Heloise Lockwood, suffered immensely in the house, always concerned about being followed by a woman in white—a ghost, a demon or perhaps something conjured by her own mind. The dead woman is shrouded in mystery, from her questionable parenting choices to her untimely demise. 

When the museum specimens begin to disappear and move about the house, Hetty doesn’t know what to do or think. Are the animals moving of their own accord, or is foul play involved? How can she best protect them while keeping the peace at Lockwood and ensuring her future employment with the museum?

Comparisons between Jane Healey’s debut and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent are accurate, as The Animals at Lockwood Manor fits beautifully into the category of gothic fiction. Healey juxtaposes a sweet same-sex love story against the bleak backdrop of World War II, although the novel avoids focusing too closely on the war itself. Instead, the romantic escalation drives the plot forward, though frequent dream sequences threaten to derail the momentum.

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 

This is a strong debut, full of creepy cliffhangers, lovely descriptions and a believably inelegant heroine. 
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Fiction that transports us back to another time can, at its best, make us feel at home in an era into which we’ve never set foot. Unless, of course, the author doesn’t want us to feel at home. In the realm of great fantasy fiction set in a past we think we know, it’s often to a storyteller’s advantage to lure us in with a false sense of familiarity, only to reveal something else entirely. 

With Things in Jars, Jess Kidd has woven a spellbinding alternate version of Victorian London that is both recognizable and like getting lost in some mist-shrouded parallel world only spoken of in myths. It is into this version of London, where tattooed ghosts lurk near their own gravestones and seven-foot-tall housekeepers spend their idle time reading potboiler fiction, that Kidd drops Bridie Devine, a private detective with such distinctive style and intense charisma that we fall in love with her immediately. 

Jess Kidd’s Victorian London is both recognizable and like getting lost in some mist-shrouded parallel world only spoken of in myths.

When we meet her, Bridie is coming off a tough, failed case, but she’s got a new one on the horizon. The secret child of a wealthy man is missing, and the child may be much more than just a lost little girl. Armed with her own wits and accompanied by an unlikely spectral assistant, Bridie sets out to learn the truth about the child and along the way finds some ties to a past she tried to leave behind. 

Equal parts historical thriller and fabulist phantasm, Things in Jars is instantly compelling, but what sets it apart is the prose. There’s a playful, lithe familiarity to it as Kidd dances across delightfully apt phrases like a master. Even as the novel sweeps you up in its narrative, it also sweeps you up in its sentence-by-sentence construction, making it both a whirlwind read and a novel you could happily get lost in for weeks, dissecting every paragraph. 

Things in Jars is the kind of lavish, elegant genre treat that makes you wish Kidd would churn out a new Bridie Devine mystery every three years until the end of time. 

With Things in Jars, Jess Kidd has woven a spellbinding alternate version of Victorian London that is both recognizable and like getting lost in some mist-shrouded parallel world only spoken of in myths.

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Making a brand-new myth is a tricky thing. It takes a deft storytelling hand to weave folklore where none may have existed before, along with a keen eye for little details of horror and beauty that can convince a reader that the dark tale unfolding before them is as abiding as the legends that creep around their own homelands. In Melmoth, Sarah Perry brings us a gorgeously wrought tale that feels as timeless as its title character and as real as the monster you’re sure is sitting at the foot of your bed.

Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman working as a translator in Prague, has a relatively simple and quiet life, and while it’s not exciting, that’s exactly what she wants. Everything changes when her friend Karel reveals a letter passed on to him from an old friend—a letter claiming to reveal not only long-ago sins of history but also a mysterious figure called Melmoth, an eternal witness damned to wander the earth for all time and seek out those cursed by their own sins. Karel is troubled by the letter and the files that accompany it, and he seems consumed by it all . . . until he disappears. Left with nothing but confusion, Helen also becomes consumed by this ancient presence and what it means for her own sins.

The simple premise of a shadowy figure who stalks you and witnesses your sins, even if you’re not prepared to confront them, is the driving force of Melmoth, and Perry doesn’t waste a word of this lean, taut novel, effectively conveying an ever-encroaching sense of absolute dread. The story builds, unfolding layers of darkness without ever becoming garish or pretentious, until by the end you’re happily trapped in its eerie embrace.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Sarah Perry for Melmoth.

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Making a brand-new myth is a tricky thing. It takes a deft storytelling hand to weave folklore where none may have existed before, along with a keen eye for little details of horror and beauty that can convince a reader that the dark tale unfolding before them is as abiding as the legends that creep around their own homelands. In Melmoth, Sarah Perry brings us a gorgeously wrought tale that feels as timeless as its title character and as real as the monster you’re sure is sitting at the foot of your bed.

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