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STARRED REVIEW
June 19, 2024

The best SFF novels of 2024—so far

The year’s biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
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Book jacket image for The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka

The Parliament

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
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Book jacket image for The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

The Familiar

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
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warmhands

The Warm Hands of Ghosts

The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse ...
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Book jacket image for The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Tainted Cup

Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy spin on Sherlock Holmes will dazzle readers with both its imaginative world building and perfect pacing.
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mooringsmackerelsky

The Moorings of Mackerel Sky

A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.
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Recent Features

The year's biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
STARRED REVIEW
June 26, 2024

The 11 best SFF novels of 2024—so far

The year’s biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
Share this Article:
Book jacket image for The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka

The Parliament

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
Read more
Book jacket image for The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

The Familiar

Full of hidden perils and twisting machinations, The Familiar is Leigh Bardugo’s most assured and mature work yet.
Read more
warmhands

The Warm Hands of Ghosts

The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse ...
Read more
Book jacket image for The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Tainted Cup

Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy spin on Sherlock Holmes will dazzle readers with both its imaginative world building and perfect pacing.
Read more
mooringsmackerelsky

The Moorings of Mackerel Sky

A lushly crafted tale of a Maine fishing village cursed by a mermaid, The Moorings of Mackerel Sky is a debut to submerge yourself in.
Read more

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Recent Features

The year's biggest trends so far appear to be water, the perils of bureaucracy and Villains Who Are Good, Actually.
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Ghost stories rely on a few basic tenets: ghosts exist, they can influence the corporeal world and they have an interest in doing so. In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply depressing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial’s outcome hinges on whether the characters can accept these tenets. Roos Beckman, a young woman in post-World War II Netherlands, has been accused of killing Agnes Knoop. Her psychiatrist, Doctor Montague, is trying to establish an insanity defense for his young patient, whereas Roos is trying to prove that Ruth, her spectral companion, both exists and is the true culprit. But van Veen’s focus is on what happened before the murder, how Roos discovered who she was outside the constraints of the abusive home where she conducted fraudulent seances with her mother.

The domineering stage mother, unwilling child performer and floral names (roos is Dutch for “rose”) are all reminiscent of the musical Gypsy. However, unlike Gypsy’s Mama Rose, who is often interpreted as a tragic figure rather than a villain, Roos’ Mama is wholly unsympathetic. For all its ensanguined spectacle, My Darling Dreadful Thing’s most disturbing sequences may be Roos’ descriptions of her life with Mama, which are rivaled only by Agnes’ stories of her own past or the distressingly casual racism several of the antagonists display towards her for her Indonesian heritage. This is a ghost story, but its supernatural horrors are constrained compared to the concentrated hostility the real world directs at its most marginalized. And van Veen is not so naive as to expect her characters’ resilience to be infinite. They are strong but brittle; they break, despite everything spirit companions (real or hallucinated) do to help.

Roos’ trial is never more than a frame, and is dispensed with in a bewilderingly short sequence near the novel’s end. Van Veen’s focus never wavers from Roos, and the result is an unremittingly bleak but well-crafted story, where even joyful moments are limned with Roos’ desperation and our sense, as readers, that none of this will end well for anyone.

In Johanna van Veen’s beautifully written and deeply disturbing My Darling Dreadful Thing, a murder trial hinges on whether ghosts are real.

Jennifer Thorne’s Diavola is an exercise in delicious twists and masterful suspense, told in the smart, snarky voice of Anna Pace, a jaded Manhattanite on a vacation quite literally from hell.

Anna’s swanky upcoming family trip certainly doesn’t seem monstrous on the outside. A marketing artist by trade and a painter by passion, she’s thrilled at the prospect of renting a Tuscan villa in the picturesque Italian countryside. The problem is her family. Thorne immediately places readers in Anna’s anxious thoughts, and her dread at having to see her parents and siblings, let alone take an entire trip with them, seeps into your bones before any of the other characters even arrive on the page. From a never-ending cycle of guilt trips to spiteful gaslighting, the tension between the Pace siblings and their alternatively aloof and agitated parents is so palpable that you wonder why they torture themselves every year. It’s soon clear that their stay at Villa Taccola might be the last straw.

As ugly stories and past grudges are revealed and Italian wine flows freely, the vengeful spirits of the villa decide it’s time to feast, and events quickly spiral out of control. Thorne pays homage to a cornucopia of mythology, sprinkling in some art and architecture history for good measure, as the Paces struggle to make it through each night. Diavola is a ferocious, maximalist horror ride, an impressive display of Thorne’s skill at crafting unsettling and disorienting scenes. There’s a rottenness lurking within the Pace family—Anna included—but it’s hard not to sympathize with them as they battle night terrors, horrifying visions and spirit possession. After all, whose family is perfect?

Diavola is a ferocious, maximalist horror ride, an impressive display of Jennifer Thorne’s skill at crafting unsettling and disorienting scenes of terror.
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In S.A. Barnes’ slow-simmering creepfest Ghost Station, the stress of deep space travel can do things to a person. If longtime spacers develop the condition called ERS, they’ll start to see things that aren’t there, hear voices that no one else hears. They sometimes turn irritable, even violent. 

The story begins with Dr. Ophelia Bray, who is very out of her element. A psychologist by trade, she’s been assigned to a small exploration team investigating an ancient, lifeless planet. The crew is mourning the death of a teammate, and none of the surviving members have any interest in Ophelia’s therapy sessions or letting their guard down. They also don’t seem to care if their work increases their chances of ERS. But as the explorers investigate the planet, stranger and stranger things begin to happen. It seems they aren’t alone on this world after all. Ophelia and the crew are going to have to trust one another to figure out what’s happening to them if they hope to escape alive. 

Barnes is no stranger to sci-fi horror; her excellent Dead Silence stood out for its atmosphere and sheer scariness, and fans of that novel will be more than happy with this follow-up. Like any great horror story, Ghost Station takes its time, but is sure to ensnare anyone craving intergalactic horror. Barnes patiently increases the sense of unease, building suspense with small moments that are odd on their own and increasingly strange taken together: an empty spacesuit in an abandoned station, a shape running through a snowstorm seen through a window, a rash on the skin. Things pick up steam in the later acts, especially after a couple of shocking moments right after the halfway mark.

In this golden era of sci-fi horror, Barnes leads the charge with her thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and an ever-present sense of dread.

With its thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and ever-present sense of dread, Ghost Station is another sci-fi horror hit from S.A. Barnes.
Review by

It’s impossible to read The Parliament without thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” a 1952 short story that was famously adapted on film by Alfred Hitchcock. The Parliament is similar on its surface, if considerably more visceral in its avian brutality. But it is far from a simple retread of old territory.

Author Aimee Pokwatka concocts a cast of law students and nonbinary theater kids, regimented librarians and apple-juggling cosmetic chemists, all trapped in the historic Elmswood Public Library, where Madigan “Mad” Purdy is teaching a class on how to make bath bombs to a group of preteens. Unfortunately for all of them, a horde of tiny owls have inexplicably determined that everyone in or near the library is food.

However, The Parliament truly separates itself from its forerunner in the “horror with beak” tradition by two things: the depth, detail and intelligence of its characterization; and Pokwatka’s choice to wrap bloody, terrifying scenes (such as a woman being skeletonized by hundreds of thousands of owls like a wounded capybara in piranha-infested waters) around a fairy tale. A fictional book titled The Silent Queen lies at the heart of The Parliament, a story that brings to mind Patricia McKillip’s oeuvre or a Guillermo del Toro reimagining of a Disney fairy tale. In it, all 8-year-old girls are brought to the Mountain every year, where the Monster lives. The Monster takes something from each of them in payment for an Enrichment, anything from a beautiful singing voice to the ability to heal any wound. Queen Alala rules her domain from the top of a vast tower, her voice the price she paid the Monster for her own peculiar boon. Mad reads Alala’s journey to her students to hold them together, while each of them struggle with their own demons and wonder if any of them will survive the night.

Pokwatka manages to tell two remarkably compelling, detailed stories. Both are in completely different genres, and both could easily stand on their own, but Pokwatka renders them inseparable. Queen Alala might as well be in that library herself, or Mad could be out questing to find her voice. This master class of intelligent and beautiful writing transforms The Parliament from simply a tale of murderous animals into the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.
Review by

Nestled in the mountains of Kentucky, not far from the Red River Gorge, is a valley whose ghostly victims hunger for flesh and pain. When graduate student Clay finds the valley while doing research for his doctorate, the possibilities seem endless—it could very well be the next new climbing hot spot. He enlists fellow student Sylvia and climbers Dylan and Luke to join him as he maps the area. It’s miles away from the road, let alone civilization, and as soon as they get there, things go wrong. Starting with the disappearance of Luke’s dog and culminating in an accident that leaves them cut off from the rest of the world, the valley seems determined not just to end their lives but to make them suffer in the process.

There is no final girl in This Wretched Valley, Jenny Kiefer’s startlingly bloody survival horror debut. Readers know from the very beginning how our heroes’ stories end, that their lives and deaths will become forensic mysteries for coroners and the conspiracy-obsessed. Despite this, Kiefer has crafted characters whose will to live is so strong that it’s possible to believe they just might make it. Modeled loosely on the infamous 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident, in which nine young Soviet alpinists died under mysterious circumstances, This Wretched Valley pays careful homage to its outdoorsy roots, weaving in enough jargon to let you know that Kiefer has done her research. Even Luke’s dog’s name, Slade, is a reference to the real Kentucky town in the Red River Gorge that often serves as home base for climbers. 

Kiefer’s insider knowledge sets the table, but her pacing is the main course. Despite the novel’s relatively short length, it feels like a slow burn at first, as the forest holds back its malice. But once the floodgates break, Kiefer doesn’t slow down. From gangrenous injuries to more gruesome body horror, the climbers (and readers) are put through a gauntlet of nonstop action that grinds to a sudden, deadly stop when the valley finally gets its due. A masterclass in both suspense and gore, This Wretched Valley is a treat for climbers and horror lovers alike.

A master class in both suspense and gore, This Wretched Valley is a treat for climbers and horror lovers alike.
STARRED REVIEW

Our Top 10 books of January 2024

Jami Attenberg’s guide to writing, Derek B. Miller’s World War II art heist and Abbott Kahler’s thriller debut are among January’s top reads.
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Book jacket image for The Curse of Eelgrass Bog by Mary Averling

Mary Averling bewitches with her debut middle grade novel, The Curse of Eelgrass Bog, which straddles the line between slimy and sweet, concocting a fantasy

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Book jacket image for Lunar New Year Love Story by Gene Luen Yang

Gene Luen Yang’s writing and LeUyen Pham’s illustrations blend seamlessly to introduce readers to Vietnamese American Val and her evolving relationship with love.

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The Curse of Pietro Houdini boasts a little bit of everything—a truly fascinating setting; rich, quirky characters; tragedy, suspense, warmth and humor. Derek B. Miller

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Book jacket image for My Friends by Hisham Matar

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hisham Matar imbues each scene of this scintillating novel with rich, nostalgic emotion, combining history and fiction as he follows a young

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Book jacket image for Where You End by Abbott Kahler

A woman loses her memory and the only person she can trust is her twin sister in Abbott Kahler’s scary, tense and provocative debut thriller.

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Deborah G. Plant’s indictment of America’s criminal justice system, Of Greed and Glory, has the power of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto.

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Book jacket image for 1000 Words by Jami Attenberg

Bestselling novelist and memoirist Jami Attenberg collects and distills her #1000wordsofsummer project in a wise and frank new book.

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Book jacket image for The Fruit Cure by Jacqueline Alnes

Jacqueline Alnes’ memoir, The Fruit Cure, is a spellbinding, cautionary tale about falling prey to fad diets to resolve medical ailments.

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Book jacket image for The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin

Manjula Martin’s searing memoir, The Last Fire Season, recounts her experience living through the 2020 Northern California wildfires in mesmerizing prose.

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Book jacket image for The Parliament by Aimee Pokwatka

Far more than simply “‘The Birds,’ but with owls,” The Parliament is the kind of captivating novel that comes along all too rarely.

Read More »

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

Jami Attenberg’s guide to writing, Derek B. Miller’s World War II art heist and Abbott Kahler’s thriller debut are among January’s top reads.
STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

These five titles explore family and kinship in Native American communities

Across genres, grief and uncertainty are tempered by embracing community.

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Métis author Michelle Porter weaves a beguiling and intricate story out of sparse, interlocking poetic fragments in her fiction debut. Her expertise as a poet and writer of nonfiction is on full display in this genre-blending book, which is deeply rooted in Métis storytelling, matrilineal knowledge and spirituality. It feels more like a collection of stories told by elders gathered around a fire or in a kitchen than a traditional novel. This unique structure creates a surprising momentum, effortlessly drawing readers into many meandering plots.

The story follows several generations of Métis women as they face turning points in their lives. Geneviéve (Gee), in her 80s, has checked herself into rehab for drinking. Gee’s 20-something great-granddaughter Carter, adopted by a white family, meets her grandmother Lucie for the first time when she requests Carter’s assistance in her decision to die by suicide. Carter’s estranged birth mother Allie attempts reconciliation, often through texts. Meanwhile, Gee’s sister Velma has recently died and is trying to make peace with her life from the spirit realm.

However, these women and their complex relationships are not the novel’s sole focus. It also charts the life of a young bison, Dee, whose herd’s ancestral territory is now crisscrossed with fences that force bison to adjust to human constraints. Dee’s chapters are some of the most poignant in the book—she longs for freedom and adventure even as she learns that her survival is bound up with that of her herd.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, Gee’s dogs and the grassland itself add to a rich mix of human and nonhuman voices. In contrast to Carter’s wry and resigned narration, Dee’s voice bursts with unconstrained joy and heartache. Gee is constantly cracking jokes, her sister in the spirit world speaks with a melancholy longing, and the texts from Carter’s mother are clipped and full of simmering regret and pain.

A Grandmother Begins the Story is a beautiful meditation on the interconnectedness of spirit, land and family. It’s about what gets passed down from mothers to daughters and what doesn’t. It’s about the stories that persist through generations—sometimes hidden, but always present—and what happens when those stories break open into new shapes.

Chapters from the perspectives of bison grandmothers, dogs and the grassland itself add to the rich mix of human and nonhuman voices in A Grandmother Begins the Story.

Emily Dickinson famously pronounced that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” providing the enduring metaphor of a spritely little bird that dwells within each of our souls. With Swim Home to the Vanished, poet and first-time novelist Brendan Shay Basham suggests that, in contrast, grief is a thing that may be best embodied by fins and gills.

Basham’s peripatetic novel recounts the extraordinary odyssey of a Diné man named Damien after his younger brother drowns in the Pacific Northwest. Still reeling six months after Kai’s body washes ashore, Damien finds himself irresistibly called to the water, the source of his loss but also the source of all life. When gills begin to sprout behind his ears, he quits his job as a chef and makes his way south—first by truck, then by foot—to a small seaside fishing village. There he encounters village matriarch Ana Maria and her two daughters, Marta and Paola, with whom he shares a certain kinship, as they too have recently lost a family member. However, the early hospitality offered by these women may not be as it seems. Rumors of their supernatural origins swirl, and Damien soon finds himself caught up in poisonous family dynamics and power struggles that threaten to consume not only him but also the entire village.

Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Basham’s own brother died in 2006, and while Damien’s grief causes him to lose the ability to speak, Basham’s words course across the page, sucking readers in with their vivid imagery and raw emotions.

Basham has a particular gift for transmuting inner intangible turmoils into corporeal form; the various characters’ physical transformations from human to creature are a creative epigenetic exploration of the ways in which trauma and grief shape who we are. For readers desiring straightforward writing and an unambiguous narrative, Swim Home to the Vanished may frustrate with its dreamlike nature, but for fans of poetic storytelling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.

Brendan Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands.
Review by

Mia is of two tribes: Her mom is Jewish, and her dad is Muscogee. Mia’s dad and his new family live in Oklahoma, far away from California, where Mia lives with her mom and stepdad, Roger. Since marrying Roger, Mia’s mom has begun to take participation in Judaism much more seriously.

Exhausted by her experiences at Jewish day school and frustrated with her mother’s refusal to speak about her dad, Mia works out a secret plan to visit her dad in Oklahoma and learn more about her Muscogee heritage. While Mia initially feels like an outsider there, it doesn’t take her long to bond with an older cousin and feel at home with new traditions. But Mia’s mom quickly realizes that Mia’s not on the school trip she claimed to be and comes to get her. Will this incident be the final fracture in Mia’s family, or will it create a bridge between tribes?

Inspired by author and cartoonist Emily Bowen Cohen’s real-life experiences growing up Jewish and Muscogee, graphic novel Two Tribes (Heartdrum, $15.99, 9780062983589) examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family. Cohen supports the story with a vibrant but realistic illustration style peppered with the occasional abstract image.

Where Two Tribes shines is in its portrayal of Mia as a self-possessed 12-year-old who is attuned to the importance of embracing differences rather than pretending they don’t exist. Cohen provides a nuanced picture of how Mia has in some ways come to resent her Jewish heritage because of the way it’s been placed in opposition to her dad’s Indigenous culture.

The story is somewhat unbalanced by Mia’s Jewish family and rabbi, who are portrayed more antagonistically than the other characters. For example, when Mia’s school rabbi makes a racist joke about Native Americans at dinner with Roger and Mia’s mom, it’s brushed off by all the adults as a simple mistake rather than a genuinely problematic remark. However, Mia’s family and her rabbi eventually begin to understand how they have failed Mia in certain aspects.

With its incredibly complex subject of personal identity, Two Tribes might have benefited from the additional space given by a traditional novel form to explore its themes more deeply rather than coming to a picture-perfect resolution. That said, perhaps the increased accessibility of the graphic novel format serves this book well. For children just coming into adolescence, a biracial background—especially involving two marginalized groups—can make for a tangled web of difficulties. By seeing their stories represented, things might start to make sense.

The graphic novel Two Tribes examines the complex tensions and beautiful facets of a childhood between cultures and in a blended family.

Sixteen-year-old Winifred Blight lives in a small house near the gates of one of the oldest cemeteries in Toronto with her father, who runs the crematory. For as long as Winifred can remember, her father has been in mourning for her mother, who died giving birth to her. Winifred, too, has been shaped by this absence, as she knows her mother only through the now-vintage clothes and records left behind. 

Desperate to assuage her father’s grief and form her own deeper connection with her mother, Winifred goes to her favorite part of the cemetery one day and calls out to her mother’s spirit—but she summons the ghost of a teenage girl named Phil instead. Soon, Winifred no longer aches with loneliness, nor does she care that her best (and only) friend doesn’t reciprocate her romantic feelings. But Winifred and Phil’s intimate connection is threatened when a ghost tour company wants to exploit the cemetery and Winifred’s con-artist cousin risks exposing Phil’s existence. To protect Phil, Winifred will have to sacrifice the only home she’s ever known.

Acclaimed author Cherie Dimaline’s Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a lyrical coming-of-age ghost story that’s more interested in capturing emotion than explaining the nuts and bolts of its supernatural elements. Phil is a specter who appears when Winifred thinks of her, but her body is, at times, corporeal; in one scene, Winifred braids Phil’s long hair. The novel instead focuses on how the bond between the girls lessens the grief that roots them both in place as Phil slowly reveals to Winifred what happened in the months leading up to her death.

Dimaline is a registered member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Winifred and Phil’s Indigenous identities play crucial roles in the novel. Winifred’s mother and great aunt Roberta were Métis, and Winifred infers that Phil is Ojibwe. The stories Phil tells about her life as a queer Indigenous girl growing up in the 1980s are often harrowing, as she recounts moving from the reservation to the city to escape a miserable situation at school only to find herself in even worse circumstances that ultimately lead to tragedy.

Wrenching and poignant, Funeral Songs for Dying Girls is a haunting tale about what it means to search for home—not the place, but the feeling you carry with you.

This lyrical ghost story portrays how a bond between two girls—one living, one not—transforms the grief that roots them both in place.
Review by

A line from Jessica Johns’ haunting, atmospheric and beautiful debut novel, Bad Cree, has been tumbling around in my head since I set the book down. “That’s the thing about the [prairie]. . . . It’ll tell you exactly what it’s doing and when, you just have to listen.” Johns’ protagonist, a young Cree woman named Mackenzie, tries to hear things she’s been ignoring: grief, her family, the lands she grew up on. But there’s something else lurking just outside her perception, something more dire. Strap in for a dread-filled novel that examines the impact of grief on a small community. 

Mackenzie hasn’t been sleeping well. To be more specific, she hasn’t been dreaming well. Every night, her subconscious shows her terrifying things, painful memories and, always, a murder of crows. Soon she notices crows outside her apartment window, following her to work and watching from power lines. Something is wrong, and she fears it has to do with the years-ago death of her sister. Mackenzie’s auntie pleads with her to come home, to be among her people, the Indigenous Cree of western Canada. There, with her mother, cousins and aunties, Mackenzie searches for what haunts her mind. Hopefully she can find it before it finds her. 

Jessica Johns on the lingering nature of loss—and what makes a great dive bar.

Bad Cree began as a short story, and it’s still tightly written, brisk and efficient as a novel. Johns does, however, slow down when it comes to themes she clearly cares about, such as female relationships. A bar scene midway through the narrative does a particularly lovely job at enriching the portrayal of the community of women who surround Mackenzie. Their camaraderie shows just how important these relationships can be to people feeling lost or alone.

This web of powerful, positive connections stands out all the more in the face of Bad Cree’s truly frightening moments. The dream sequences are both spectacle and puzzle, a mix of memory and fiction, but it’s clear that something beyond just bad dreams is happening to Mackenzie. The unanswered question of what exactly that is provokes a consistent feeling of dread, and the climax is tense, horrific and exciting.

Bad Cree examines how grief can warp someone, how it can terrorize a person by slowly turning reality into nightmare. But there is also a beautiful hope at the center of Johns’ vision: Grief can be tempered by embracing your community. Alone, Mackenzie is just one person, but by returning home, she becomes a thread in a human fabric, woven together to make something stronger.

Jessica Johns’ Bad Cree examines the impact of grief on a small community, mixing truly frightening moments with warm camaraderie.

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Across genres, grief and uncertainty are tempered by embracing community.
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STARRED REVIEW

October 30, 2023

The five best new haunted houses in horror

There will always be a place for Hill House and The Overlook Hotel, but these five homes offer entirely new floor plans of frights for horror fans.

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Ever since I was a kid, I have loved reading books featuring a haunted house with a creepy resident; a feisty, determined heroine; and strange goings-on that gradually turn scary. But rarely, if ever, have I read a haunted house book that features such gorgeous prose as Alix E. Harrow’s latest novel, Starling House. Early on, Harrow describes how 26-year-old narrator Opal McCoy has been dreaming of the titular house since she was a child: “I often wake up with the taste of river water and blood in my mouth, broken glass in my hair, a scream drowning in my chest. But that morning, the first one after I set foot on Starling land, there’s nothing but a deep quiet inside me, like the dead air between radio stations.” 

Opal works hard at Tractor Supply Company to try to save enough money to send her younger brother, Jasper, to a fancy boarding school. Their mother died a mysterious death, their father has never been in the picture and they live in a dingy motel room in the dying town of Eden, Kentucky. Opal is desperate to escape Eden, which offers nothing much besides two Dollar Generals and a strip-mined stretch of riverbank, thanks to the operations of nearby Gravely Power. 

The big, churning wheels of this lusciously plotted book begin to quickly turn when Opal takes a job cleaning for Starling House’s current owner, a reclusive young man named Arthur Starling. Opal finds herself increasingly intrigued by Arthur despite his odd ways and off-putting looks. But Gravely Power representative Elizabeth Baine, in hopes of obtaining the mineral rights to Arthur’s land, demands that Opal spy on Arthur and his residence, threatening Jasper’s future if she declines.

Alix E. Harrow had never written about her home state—until she left it.

Harrow invents a rich backstory for Starling House, making clever use of footnotes and even a fake Wikipedia page for 19th-century author Eleanor Starling, who married into the family and wrote and illustrated an unsettling children’s book, which may have been the source of Opal’s Starling House nightmares. Opal uncovers many different versions of the same stories about the house and its inhabitants, past and present, and the truth is hard to sort out. “The Gravelys are either victims or villains; Eleanor Starling is either a wicked woman or a desperate girl. Eden is either cursed, or merely getting its comeuppance,” she concludes.

Excellent social commentary unfolds in the matchup between feisty, sarcastic Opal and the greedy power company. Harrow has tons of fun along the way, noting in Eleanor Starling’s Wikipedia page, for instance, that “director Guillermo del Toro has praised E. Starling’s work, and thanked her for teaching him that ‘the purpose of fantasy is not to make the world prettier, but to lay it bare.’ ” Alix Harrow does just that in Starling House, a riveting fantasy overflowing with ideas and energy that clears away the cobwebs of corporate power and neglect.

Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House is a riveting Southern gothic fantasy with gorgeous prose and excellent social commentary.

Empty nester Margaret Hartman is thrilled when she and her husband, Hal, buy a gorgeous old Victorian home. But the house soon begins testing them with annual September “shenanigans”: blood oozing down the walls, creepy spirits of 19th-century children and a demonic boogeyman that even an experienced priest can’t exorcize. Margaret and Hal weather three cursed Septembers, but Margaret in particular is in it for the long haul. When Hal disappears on the eve of the fourth September and his and Margaret’s daughter, Katherine, arrives to search for him, family secrets are brought to light.

From the ghost of a murdered maid to swarms of giant flies, the house’s antics become routine for Margaret, and her wry, witty narration will also accustom readers to these supernatural events. Despite the house’s horrors, it still provides Margaret with a haven, a purpose and an emotional connection to an eerie spirit community. But when author Carissa Orlando reveals why Margaret is so good at putting out proverbial fires and quelling very real ghosts, The September House takes an unexpected emotional turn. Margaret knows that ugly secrets can be carried well beyond the grave, and it’s better to heal, forgive and protect when you can. Her interactions with Katherine are particularly tense and anxiety-inducing as Orlando explores an estranged parent-child relationship impacted by intergenerational trauma. 

The September House pulls inspiration from classic settings such as the Bates Motel, Rose Red, the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, but Orlando’s characterization of the old Victorian is fresh and fascinating. The house serves as an analogy for the deterioration of family and mental health, with the collapse of a person’s mind being more terrifying than any specter lurking in the shadows. Some of the body horror moments may feel familiar, but Margaret’s delightfully matter-of-fact voice puts a new spin on even the oldest of tropes, and the novel’s horrifying events unfold at a furious pace. The September House is a riveting adventure that will grab you by the ankles and drag you down into the pitch-black basement you’ve been warned to avoid.

Carissa Orlando’s darkly funny and unexpectedly emotional The September House follows an empty nester who refuses to leave her extremely haunted Victorian home.
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Do you ever get a little creeped out when you visit your grandparents’ house? There’s something about the stillness of unused rooms and the sweet, dusty smell that can give you a slight sense of dread. But if you were to visit the Montgomery house in T. Kingfisher’s A House With Good Bones, you’d leave with more than an uneasy feeling. In fact, you might not leave at all! (Cue thunder and lightning.) 

Sam Montgomery has to move back in with her mom. The archaeoentomologist’s latest dig (she studies insects in archeological sites) has been put on an indefinite hold, but the good news is that Sam loves her mom, Edie, who lives in Sam’s grandmother’s old house in rural North Carolina. But Edie seems tired and nervous, very unlike her normal self. Sam has strange dreams about her dead grandmother, vultures circle outside all day, ladybugs spill out of the faucets and Sam swears that bony fingers touch her hair in the middle of the night. But Sam’s a scientist. Shouldn’t there be a reasonable explanation for all of this? Determined to find out the truth, Sam starts unearthing secrets about her family that were better left undisturbed. 

Kingfisher is in her element when the tension is at its highest. She keeps a narrow focus on Sam and the handful of other major characters, amplifying the sensation that threats are imminent. Danger in horror can sometimes feel arbitrary and nonspecific, but in this house, you know what’s haunting you. As things get stranger and stranger, the writing gets choppier, like Sam’s panting breath and racing heart. And Kingfisher isn’t afraid to embrace the weird: A House With Good Bones’ climax is strange, scary and unforgettable.

That being said, don’t write off this book if you’re not a horror enthusiast—A House With Good Bones is also laugh-out-loud funny. Sam’s inner monologue is full of hilarious observations about living with her mom, not having reliable internet and simply being 32. The aforementioned vultures? They have names and belong to a neighbor. The book is balanced with knife’s-edge precision between fright and humor in a way that brings Jordan Peele’s sensational Get Out to mind. You’ll be craving the next tense moment, because it means the next joke is right around the corner too. 

A House With Good Bones shares another key trait with Get Out: Both works derive their frightening power from placing reasonable people in unreasonable circumstances and forcing them to respond. It’s nerve-wracking for a character to ask “Is this real?” when faced with something strange; it’s downright terrifying when the answer is “Yes.”

Impressively weird, nerve-wracking but still laugh-out-loud funny, A House With Good Bones is another horror hit from T. Kingfisher.
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Louise Joyner left home as soon as she could, fleeing the humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, for a career in industrial design in Silicon Valley. Her brother, Mark, stayed put, his meandering and dysfunctional lifestyle patronized to his face and savaged in his absence by his family, as is so often the case with mildly disappointing scions of good Southern families. But now, Louise and Mark must figure out what to do with the relics of their recently departed parents’ lives: their father’s idiosyncratic economics research, their mother’s vast collection of Christian puppets and their house. However, some revenants will not go quietly into that good night. There are burdens this family has politely buried for far too long, and the Joyners are about to discover that some hauntings are neither stagecraft nor hellspawn. Some hauntings are homemade.

Author Grady Hendrix is a Charleston native, and How to Sell a Haunted House completely nails its Lowcountry setting. This reviewer is also a South Carolinian and can confirm that neither the idea of a Christian puppet ministry nor the actual Fellowship of Christian Puppeteers are made up. The depiction of Carolina culture is also accurate, especially Hendrix’s portrayal of how someone who grew up in it, left and then came back would perceive it: familiar and peculiar, unsettling and comforting, prompting a reckoning with how deeply strange its version of normal truly is. Hendrix only departs from this reality in one way: In no gauzy South Carolina summer that I can recall did the knickknacks acquire a vengeful sentience and wreak havoc on the strained psyches of a family’s prodigal offspring.

How to Sell a Haunted House effectively marries tropes ripped straight from the pages of a midcentury pulp magazine to a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma. Families are warm and lovely but also stifling, just like the summers; rituals are banal but also sacred, their violation the gravest of transgressions; and there are always skeletons (or puppets) in the sewing closets. How to Sell a Haunted House may be a heightened tale of horror, but it is built on something true. And it’s a lot of fun, as well.

How to Sell a Haunted House blends pulp horror with a Pat Conroy-esque chronicle of Lowcountry generational trauma—plus haunted puppets.
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A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

The Death of Jane Lawrence takes place in an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain. The eponymous heroine is headstrong, wonderfully smart and knows that to live independently, she must wed. It seems illogical, but finding the right man would allow Jane to continue her own hobbies and pursuits, as a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden.

Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option for Jane. He agrees without too much fuss, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. She’s to spend her nights above his medical practice, while he retires to Lindridge Hall for the evening. Eventually, of course, Jane finds herself spending the night at Lindridge Hall following a carriage accident, and where she slowly and methodically uncovers the skeletons lurking in Augustine’s closet.


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Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent, twisted job steering clear of the obvious plot beats. There are surprises galore in the secrets these characters keep and the lengths they’ll go to conceal them. Key to many a successful horror novel is having a main character to root for, one whom readers will want to see come out of everything not only alive but also stronger. Jane is absolutely that kind of character, a beacon of light in a dark world through her sheer tenacity alone, making her exploration of Lindridge Hall a white-knuckle reading experience.

Fans of Starling’s debut, the sci-fi horror novel The Luminous Dead, will find the same steadily growing sense of eeriness here, despite the markedly different setting. Jane isn’t exploring caves on an alien planet, but her journey still feels claustrophobic, almost asphyxiated by the estate’s mysterious walls. Are the horrors she senses of a supernatural nature? Or are they merely born of a man with too many internal demons? “Both” is also an option, and Starling keeps readers guessing until the very end.

For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, The Death of Jane Lawrence is a must-read.

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the latest atmospheric, well-plotted horror novel from author Caitlin Starling.

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Born of a real-world nightmare, Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory is a beautiful and bracing novel that melds historical fiction with speculative elements. Like many masterpieces, it is grounded in a fearsome experience. In late 2012, still reeling from the death of her mother, Due received an unexpected call from the Florida attorney general’s office. They told the acclaimed horror author, screenwriter and scholar that her mother’s uncle, Robert Stephens, had likely been buried on the grounds of the state’s now infamous Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that became a site of grotesque abuse. Researchers and state officials were looking for family members to approve exhumation at the site in order to document what happened.

As Due vividly remembers, “All this came as a shock.” Here was a close relative that she hadn’t even known about, and her family had already seen its share of violent trauma. In fact, she reflects, “When I first got the call, I thought it was in reference to another [boy] on my grandmother’s side who was actually put to death as a juvenile. And that was a family story we had heard about, but I had no idea about Robert Stephens.” 

Getting to the root of what happened to Stephens would require excavating a painful history and risking reviving intergenerational trauma, but it was also a way to honor her mother. Due knew she had to see it through. Within months of that call, Due traveled to the town of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle to witness the moment when her great-uncle’s remains were brought to light.

“It was really almost as if history was trapped at that site.”

Upon arrival, one of the sheriffs on site pointed her down the road and told her to “follow the mudhole. I was like, what mudhole?” For Due, who was born in Tallahassee and was raised in Miami, with its distinctly urban and Latin American flavor, “this small Panhandle town was a whole new world.”

“The whole experience was so immersive,” Due says. “It was really almost as if history was trapped at that site.” While in Marianna, Due attended a meeting of Dozier survivors. A man recounted “a beating so severe that the poor child couldn’t see his parents on visiting day because his clothes had actually been whipped into the skin of his back.” 

What Due witnessed in the swampy Florida heat transformed a strange obligation into a visceral and deeply felt mission, and cemented her desire to write about the boys at Dozier. She “couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a child at this hell house.”

Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Finding the right genre and narrative for a subject this brutal, though, was a challenge. Though the former journalist had written a memoir with her mother, Civil Rights advocate Patricia Stephens Due (Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights), excellent memoirs had already been published by survivors, and Due felt too removed from the events to take a nonfiction angle on the subject. Ultimately, what Due really wanted to do was give Robert a better story than he had experienced in his short life. To do that, she needed to write a novel.

Due cares deeply about the social history she’s bringing to life, and sought to make dark realities accessible to readers. But she is also cognizant of the dangers of that quest and was loath to create anything that could be exploitative. This, Due is clear, is one of the greatest hurdles with this kind of material: “When we’re writing about difficult times in history, the line between trauma porn and honoring the past can be very thin.” That said, ignoring the violence that took place in real life was not an option. “I felt I had no choice but to have my protagonist experience at least a taste of what those survivors had talked about.” 

Getting it all right felt urgent to Due, but also posed a perilously high degree of difficulty, the literary equivalent of performing a triple axle. In a testament to her skill, The Reformatory deftly delivers on all of its author’s aims. 

Though it springs from the same grim institutional history as Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Nickel Boys, Due’s supernatural period thriller is riveting and highly original. Set in the 1950s, the novel centers a fictionalized version of Robert Stephens, a 12-year-old African American boy living in Florida whose life is changed when he tries to rescue his sister, Gloria, from being harassed by a wealthy white teenager. Thanks to the attacker’s powerful father, Robert is quickly arrested, convicted and sentenced to six months at the Dozier-esque Gracetown School for Boys. His stint at the cruel institution, euphemistically known as “the Reformatory,” comes 30 years after a fire that killed 25 boys, many of whom were buried on the grounds along with the bodies of other inmates. The ghosts of these dead boys haunt the school and Robert becomes their emissary, communicating with them and acting as an intermediary between the corrupt warden and the spirits seeking both revenge and release.

Before ‘The Reformatory,’ the longest Due had spent on a single work was two years. This one took seven.

This spectral element unlocked something crucial for Due: “The ghosts can represent the violence without me having to basically write a book that is just about beating after beating after beating, murder after murder after murder.” That blending of genres, history and the fantastical, struck an important balance, enabling her to tell hard truths without inflicting maximum trauma on herself or her readers. 

Weaving history and the speculative is one of Due’s talents as a writer, but that particular mixture also has an established literary tradition as seen in works by other Black authors, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison. The rich history of how the African American experience has found expression in horror is a story Due has long worked to tell, both as executive producer on Horror Noire, a documentary on the history of Black horror, and through her groundbreaking college courses on the Black horror aesthetic. While the creative path that emerged felt like a fit to the veteran horror writer, it was still rocky. Threading the needle between truth and exploitation required skill and more time than she had ever devoted to a project. Before The Reformatory, the longest Due had spent on a single work was two years. This one took seven. 

For part of that time, Due was immersed in and, she admits, “hiding behind” the research process. In 2018, she published a short story also titled “The Reformatory” in the Boston Review that tackled the most difficult scene from her work in progress. Then came COVID-19 and a jolting sense of her own mortality.

Read our starred review of ‘The Reformatory’ by Tananarive Due.

“It was COVID that really kicked me in the pants and made me realize on a deep visceral level that I could die without finishing the book,” Due says. The memory of that time is still vivid. “This was before the vaccine. This was when we didn’t know what was going on. So it was during that time that I put myself on a very strict page quota and I kept a chart up on my wall.” The placement was meaningful. “There was a day I didn’t write, and all those zeros were right in my face. That was the kind of discipline it took to finally finish the book. It was a real push.”

That life-altering visit to Marianna was a perfect matching of subject, artist and moment: The result is a genre-crossing masterwork. Ten years after it was begun, The Reformatory has come to fruition.

Photo of Tananarive Due by Melissa Herbert.

In her masterful horror novel, Due fictionalizes her great uncle’s experiences at the notorious Dozier School for Boys—the same institution that inspired Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.
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The Reformatory is a fantastical, elegant and miraculous delivery of justice for historic atrocities by master of horror Tananarive Due. The NAACP Image-award winner reimagines the deadly abuse that took place at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys—including the tragic experience of the author’s own relative, Robert Stephens, who died in 1937 at the institution—as a 1950s-era tale of ghosts and redemption. 

From the start, Due reminds us of the humanity of these children. Twelve-year-old Robert “Robbie” Stephens Jr. lives a hard life marked by striving and discipline, watched over by his 16-year-old sister, Gloria. Their mother is dead and their father, a would-be union organizer, fled to Chicago to find work and escape the Ku Klux Klan. The money he sends home never lasts long. Still, Robert retains his child’s sense of wonder and sweetness, as well as nascent otherworldly abilities he strains to use to connect with his mother. And despite Gloria’s emphasis on discipline, she takes thoughtful care of her brother, trapping wild game after church as a treat or adding smoked pork from a neighbor to their greens “so he could remember the taste of something other than cornmeal and soup.” 

With ‘The Reformatory,’ Tananarive Due honors her family ghosts.

Due excels in both style and storytelling, her sentences singing with specificity and creativity. The conflict that changes Robert and Gloria’s lives is simple and fleeting, but Due’s finely honed choreography makes the precise, exacting nature of Jim Crow racial etiquette visible. Here as in every other page of The Reformatory, historical context emerges organically, interwoven through story and character. When white teenager Lyle McCormack’s leering gaze—and overbearing, insistent physical presence—fixes on Gloria as they walk home, Robbie recalls one of the rules his father taught him. “He was never, ever to wink his eye at a white girl or white woman. Foolishness like that can get you killed.” Even though he doesn’t yet fully understand the sexual undertones and dangers implied in his father’s warnings, it makes Robbie see red that the rule doesn’t go both ways. Instinct overrules home training, and in a violation of racial codes several layers deep, “Robert ran toward Lyle McCormack, swinging his foot at the bigger boy’s left knee.”

Due captures every nuance and every horrible, deadly implication of these moments with surgical precision. Red McCormack, Lyle’s infamously vindictive and racist father, sees what happens, and Robbie is soon sent to the reformatory. And Robbie and Gloria’s threatening encounter with Lyle seems bucolic when compared to subsequent ones at the school, a site of institutional cruelty where the souls of Black boys snuffed out too early yearn for family and freedom. There, his ability to see ghosts puts Robbie in an awkward but powerful position. His second sight not only becomes a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory and what happened to the boys who went missing there, but it also may offer the possibility of salvation.

Due’s humane and meticulously researched retelling reminds us that nothing is scarier than the demons that walk among us. Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.

Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.
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Living through a real-life slasher attack changes a town. For Proofrock, Idaho, the Independence Day Massacre has left scars but has also drawn in new residents—some for the horror of it all, and others for the offer of free college in the aftermath of the traumatic event at the center of Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Set four years later, Don’t Fear the Reaper returns to Chainsaw’s protagonist, Jade Daniels, who is not the same slasher-obsessed girl she once was. She is older and wiser, less compelled by the tidy plots of the films that once captured her imagination. But when a vehicle convoy transporting serial killer Dark Mill South wrecks outside of Proofrock, a whole new terror is unleashed on the town. The killer is out for revenge for the death by hanging of 38 Dakota men in 1862, and he walks into Proofrock with carnage on his mind. Over the course of 36 hours, the town’s carefully rebuilt peace is shattered as Dark Mill South carves his way through its residents, high schoolers and older townies alike. Jade’s fight to survive will test the very mettle of her being and every lesson she’s learned from her beloved horror films.

Jones’ second entry in his Indian Lake Trilogy is an all-consuming dive into the aesthetics of slasher films of yore, married with prose that takes itself seriously enough to be captivating but not so seriously that it feels needlessly glum. Don’t Fear the Reaper is a love letter to horror classics: Its characters reference iconic Final Girls and blood-spattered, seemingly immortal murderers in their dialogue even as Dark Mill South (a hulking monster whose preternatural gift for gore is remarkable even compared to his predecessors) plays out those tropes in front of them. Even the chapter titles are named after classics of the genre, from It Follows to Silent Night, Deadly Night. However, Jones doesn’t just deftly employ the tropes of slasher films; he expands them, giving his cast of teen characters the depth and motivation that is often lacking in a film genre that demands a tight 90-minute timeline. A perfect mix of compelling writing, characters who never cease to surprise and just the right amount of schlock, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a modern essential for anyone who loves rooting for the Final Girl.

A perfect mix of compelling writing, characters who never cease to surprise and just the right amount of schlock, Don’t Fear the Reaper is essential reading for anyone who loves rooting for the Final Girl.

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