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Young witch Marlinchen and her sisters live under the iron thumb of their father, a wizard intent on preserving the old ways and keeping his daughters safe from the degradations of the rapidly changing outside world. But when Marlinchen falls in love with ballet dancer Sevas, she begins to chafe against her father’s rule. We talked to Ava Reid about her unique Eastern European-inspired world and the gruesome fairy tale that inspired her sophomore novel.  

Juniper & Thorn is inspired by the “The Juniper Tree,” one of the more obscure stories from Grimms’ Fairy Tales in which a woman murders her stepson and the father eats him. What drew you to this story?
I was always beguiled by its unofficial moniker of Grimms’ darkest fairy tale. There are a lot of horrific and grisly stories in the Grimms’ repertoire, many with the same themes. There’s cannibalism in “Hansel & Gretel,” murder and bloodshed galore in classics like ‘Red Riding Hood’ and “Snow White.” So what sets “The Juniper Tree” apart? 

One thing I noted is that there are very few quintessential fairy-tale tropes in “The Juniper Tree.” It’s a strangely quiet, intimate story about domestic violence within a single family.

Once I came to that realization, it seemed most honest to make this retelling a gothic horror novel. It did not feel sweeping in scope or appropriate for an epic fantasy setting. I wanted to maintain this thread of bleak, almost claustrophobic violence, which is the core of the gothic genre. That unnaturalness and upending of a foundational expectation—that parents should love and care for their children—is what makes “The Juniper Tree” so horrible, and what makes Juniper & Thorn firmly a horror novel. 

Despite the fact that Juniper & Thorn and your debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, are set in the same universe, they feel like very different stories. Did your writing process or sources for inspiration change between the two?
I like to think of The Wolf and the Woodsman and Juniper & Thorn as fractured mirror images: If Woodsman is about the pain of being excluded from the narrative, then Juniper & Thorn is about the pain of being forced into the narrative, acting out the same rigidly defined role over and over. So while they are very different books that span different subgenres, the common threads are, I think, what makes an “Ava Reid book.” 

As for the writing process, by dint of the fact that Juniper & Thorn was the second book in my contract, I had to write it fairly quickly and did so in a month. It changed very little from its initial draft. I had a much stronger sense of my identity as a writer and a very clear idea of what I wanted this book to be from page one. 

“I like to set books during periods of upheaval, uncertainty, transformation and violence . . .”

While Juniper & Thorn is set in a fictional world, it’s obviously influenced by Eastern European culture and especially the conquest of parts of the region by Russia. Why did you set your story in this context?
Eastern Europe is the setting of many major contemporary fantasy novels, but with few exceptions, these books present an Eastern Europe that is bleak, wintry, remote, forested and very culturally homogeneous. I was intrigued by writing an Eastern Europe that was different: wind-chapped steppes, black sand beaches, boardwalks, smoke-chuffing factories, vibrant with urban life, diverse and dynamic. Early 20th-century Odesa, Ukraine, the city upon which Oblya is based, was considered the jewel of the Russian empire. It was an entirely planned city that became a regional hub of immigration, export and industry. It is also a city where a large number of Ashkenazi Jews lived, including my own family. 

Enormous change—industrialization, urbanization, immigration—was disrupting traditional lifestyles, often violently. This setting was fundamental to the story I wanted to tell. I like to set books during periods of upheaval, uncertainty, transformation and violence, where what has always been is not synonymous with what will always be. 

The conflict between modernity and magic bleeds into the sisters’ lives in a lot of different ways. Do you think the kind of magic you depict in Juniper & Thorn can coexist with modernity as we think of it?
Magic in Juniper & Thorn represents the old world, a world that is regressive and stubbornly resistant to change. When Marlinchen gives examples of her father’s transformations, they are always instances in which he turns something dynamic or technologically advanced into something lifeless or outdated: a swan into a swan-vase, an electric lamp into a candle. His transformation is reaching backward while the city around them leaps forward. I think it’s inherently anti-modernity. It parallels the way a lot of contemporary European ethnic nationalists imagine their countries’ mythic pasts’magical, in touch with the natural world and of course devoid of any ‘foreign’ or ‘corruptive’ element. Is there a place for this way of thinking in the modern world? Unfortunately, yes, but ideally, these prejudicial, violent attitudes would go the way of the spinning wheel.

Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid jacket

Eastern European names are all about diminutives, a nickname formed by adding -sha to the initial syllable of a name. In a book that draws from those cultures, why did you make the majority of your characters’ names defy this custom?
I wanted to set the Vashchenko family apart from the rest of society as much as possible. They live an outmoded and traditional lifestyle, and the rigidity of their names, which eschew diminutives, represents this attitude of isolation. 

Surnames with the suffix –enko are uniquely Ukrainian, first recorded in the 1400s. Unlike most other Russian and Ukrainian surnames, they do not change with grammatical gender. Ordinarily a father whose surname is Sorokin would have a daughter surnamed Sorokina. But I chose the name Vashchenko specifically because it doesn’t change with gender, to further represent the total dominion Zmiy has over his daughters.

Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a book about witches, there is precious little magic of the wand-waving variety. Instead, your magic is at turns visceral (Marlinchen’s divining ability is all about touch) and existential (Zmiy’s curse). What inspired you to make a magic system that is so sparse and yet so threatening?
I often think about what separates dark fantasy from horror, because while The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark fantasy novel, Juniper & Thorn is very clearly horror. And I always return to the idea that fear is different from horror. Fear is staring down a man with a knife; horror is staring down a monster made of knives. Horror shifts your view of the world, your view of yourself. It is something beyond comprehension. So the magic in Juniper is—by intention—a bit blurry around the edges. And I think that’s what makes it frightening.

There are very few physical demonstrations of Zmiy’s magic, even though he makes plenty of threats. Marlinchen begins the book convinced that her father is all-powerful. The fear that he instills in her is real, but whether it is the result of physical, tangible magic is uncertain. This uncertainty is the nature of horror, and it’s also the nature of abuse. Marlinchen is gaslighted and manipulated into a state of bewilderment and insecurity, unable to trust herself or her perceptions. A more ambiguous and elusive form of magic felt fitting for a book that’s so much about psychological abuse.

“Fear is staring down a man with a knife; horror is staring down a monster made of knives.”

While the characters (Sevas in particular) insist that they are not in a fairy tale, there are a lot of elements of Juniper & Thorn that use the mechanics of such stories. How did you toe that line between being inspired by a fairy tale and creating something completely new?
Fairy tales remain essential parts of our culture because they contain themes or lessons that feel universal, even aspirational: Strangers are dangerous (“Red Riding Hood”), beauty is goodness (“Cinderella”), justice is always done (take your pick). These beliefs are so fundamental that they are rarely ever questioned or even remarked upon. I wanted to write a book that dismantled as many of these foundational assumptions as I could. Sevas, a stranger, is in fact Marlinchen’s savior. Marlinchen, plain-faced, unremarkable, is the story’s heroine. The world of Juniper & Thorn is by design deeply cruel and unjust. Once I had my list of tropes and mechanics, I began trying to take them apart. So while I was obviously inspired by fairy tales, my goal was always to turn them on their heads. 

In several scenes, Marlinchen talks about her storybook-infused views on family, such as the dangers of having sisters or the fact that you can have a kind mother or a mother who’s alive but not both. Why do you think these themes are so ubiquitous in fairy tales?
Folklorists and anthropologists have had hearty debates on this subject. One defining element of fairy tales is their simplicity: There are archetypes, not characters, the settings are always vague, and the plots are straightforward. As Marlinchen says, they are stories that aren’t meant to be questioned. They are answers in and of themselves. Italo Calvino defines a fairy tale by its brevity and concision of language. They occupy a strange space in our culture that seems to be outside the realm of logic or realism—yet they have their own logic that is seductively easy to swallow. 

Juniper & Thorn is a recrimination about how fairy tales are weaponized as instruments of oppression and abuse, and I do believe that is often true. At the same time, I’m not ready to surrender fairy tales entirely, to give them over to the Zmiy Vashchenkos of the world. I think certain motifs occur and remain because of our common humanity. It’s easy to see the strains of misogyny, patriarchy, antisemitism, etc., as nefarious—and they are—but they are also evidence of a shared past. Reminders of this common humanity can be powerful, restorative and brimming with hope.

Read our starred review of ‘Juniper & Thorn’ by Ava Reid.

Your descriptions of the ballet, in particular of Sevas’ skill as a dancer, are breathtaking. What drew you to the imagery of dance?
Ballet is an important part of Russian culture and Russian national identity, particularly in the early 20th century, when the book is set. Iconic ballets like ‘The Firebird’ and ‘Swan Lake’ draw from Russian folklore and fairy tales, and of course, both feature imagery of birds and themes of transformation’so it seemed deeply fitting. 

I also thought a lot about ballet as both an art form and a sport; it requires incredible physical strength and an almost ascetic level of dedication, especially to achieve the success that Sevas has. But unlike many other sports, aesthetics are crucial to its performance. Ballet’s emphasis on beauty, fluidity and effortless grace while camouflaging the physical toll it takes on the dancers knits together very well with the larger themes of the book.

Do you think that Marlinchen would have eventually rebelled if she hadn’t met Sevas? Where would they both be now if they hadn’t met each other?
It’s honestly impossible for me to conceive of these two characters apart from each other, because I wrote them to be soulmates: They understand each other instantly to the deepest possible degree, and even though they appear quite different on the surface, they are perfect mirror images. They have been trapped, misused and pushed to the bleakest point of desperation, and that’s when they find each other. I think it’s easy to see Sevas as Marlinchen’s knight in shining armor, but she rescues him just as much as he rescues her.

Photo of Ava Reid courtesy of the author.

The author's gothic horror novel, Juniper & Thorn, is inspired by Grimms' most gruesome tale.
Review by

The last wizard in the city of Oblya has three daughters, and his youngest, Marlinchen, is meek and subservient, bending to her father’s tempestuous nature and her sisters’ scornful criticisms. But Marlinchen knows the boundaries of her proscribed life and does not stray outside them. That is, until her sisters drag her into the city to go to the ballet. The dance awakens something in Marlinchen, as does the sight of its principal dancer, Sevas. The door to rebellion now cracked open, Marlinchen begins to strain against the cords that bind her to her father’s will. And as she steps out of his shadow bit by bit, there is no returning to the way things used to be.

Ava Reid unearths the darkness at the root of fairy tales.

Set in the same universe as Ava Reid’s debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Juniper & Thorn tells a haunting story of modernization, love and escape from abuse. Reid’s prose is at times heavy and muted and at others soaring and poetic, contrasting Marlinchen’s family home, the only world she has ever known, with Sevas’ seemingly liberated life—a life Marlinchen desperately wishes to experience. The expansiveness Reid evokes in Marlinchen’s interactions with Sevas (via his dancing but also simply his earnest, luminescent presence) is welcome and necessary, turning a claustrophobic story into one that is also transcendent and hopeful. This combination of sweeping, emotional descriptions and scenes of tightly wound suspense brings to mind both Eastern European ballet classics such as Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and gothic horror like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—a juxtaposition that makes Juniper & Thorn an utterly compelling read. 

Readers who would prefer to avoid themes of abuse and self-harm, as well as intense depictions of gore and body horror, should avoid Juniper & Thorn, since these elements recur with frequency. However, readers who are prepared for such territory will find a brilliant novel both tender and chilling, one that will challenge their ideas about monstrosity and magic and drag them from the depths of dread to the heights of hope.

Set in the same world as her debut, The Wolf and the Woodsman, Ava Reid's Juniper & Thorn is a tender, chilling story of love and escape from abuse.
Feature by

Some horror novels grab you by the throat and pull you through them, rubbing your face in the uncomfortable, terrifying things that lurk in the dark. Other horror novels can feel more sinister, slowly creeping up on you out of the banality of everyday evil. Two new novels explore these facets of fear to great effect, creating worlds that are both fantastical and terribly real. 

Black Tide

Set along Oregon’s foggy coast, Black Tide by KC Jones is the story of two strangers who are thrust together when the world comes to an end. Beth might be a disaster (even her mother says so), but her latest gig housesitting for wealthy vacationers at least keeps her from living in her car. The night before everything changes, she meets Mike, a film producer with no new projects in sight. In the early morning hours after their champagne-soaked one-night stand, they realize that something is terribly wrong. The power is out, cell phone service is down and the beach is littered with bowling ball-size meteorites that smell as if they have been pulled from a landfill in hell. Soon the unlikely pair learn a horrifying truth: Far from being an isolated incident, the meteor shower was the harbinger of an apocalyptic encounter with creatures from another world. Stranded together on an Oregonian beach, Beth and Mike must rely on each other if they are to have any chance of survival. 

Jones’ debut novel reads like a summer blockbuster stuffed with adrenaline-pumping action scenes and moments of heart-stopping suspense. Jones deftly punctuates long, tense scenes of Mike and Beth trying to avoid notice by the alien creatures with short, intense bursts of them fighting for their lives. Moments of relative calm allow for character exploration, bringing readers into Mike’s and Beth’s minds as they work through their feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Jones lets both characters take turns as first-person narrators, demonstrating the difference in how they see themselves (flawed to the point of worthlessness) and how the other person sees them (flawed but essentially good).

For readers used to tome-size horror novels, the length of Black Tide may be surprising. It’s just over 250 pages, but anything longer would have detracted from the frenetic pacing and torn attention away from Jones’ perfectly simple, extremely frightening premise: two people trapped at the end of the world, desperate to not be eaten by monsters. 

The Fervor

Alma Katsu’s The Fervor casts a wide net. It starts in 1944 during the waning days of World War II. Meiko Briggs is a Japanese immigrant and wife of a white American man. Even though her husband is serving in the U.S. Air Force, she’s still torn from her new home by the American government and forced to live in an internment camp in the remote reaches of Idaho with her daughter, Aiko. When a mysterious illness starts to move through the camp, rage and distrust rise, threatening the fragile corner of relative normalcy Meiko has tried to create for her daughter. 

Meanwhile, mysterious balloons have begun to appear and then explode across the West, leaving a similar illness in their wake. One of these bombs turns a preacher in Bly, Oregon, into a widower, driving him into the arms of hate movements cropping up across the country. A close encounter with another bomb leads a newspaper reporter to crisscross the region looking for answers, but she finds only closed doors and deep distrust. As the illness intensifies in both the camps and the surrounding towns, the sins of the past collide with the present to create an inescapable web of hatred, fear and desperation.

In light of the rash of anti-Asian violence of the 2020s, Katsu’s historical parable about the horrors—and the virulence—of racism and xenophobia feels particularly pressing. The Fervor gives readers a glimpse into one of the darkest moments of American history, and then gives the already-terrifying ethos of that time a new and frightening shape: As the disease spreads from person to person, it is often accompanied by mysterious, possibly supernatural spiders. The image of near-invisible spiders crawling from one person to another, over eyelids, mouths and bodies, is an indelibly creepy illustration of just how pervasive mistrust and prejudice are. 

The terror only grows from there. From visitations from a ghostly woman in a red kimono to midnight car chases through the prairie, The Fervor delivers a punch that’s equal parts psychological horror and jump scare. It will make you want to read into the wee hours of the morning, even though you may question that decision when the shadows start to move.

KC Jones’ apocalyptic debut and Alma Katsu’s latest eerie novel have one thing in common: They will absolutely terrify you.
Behind the Book by

John Harrington wanted to be a fireman, as I recall. Jodi Amlingmeyer wanted to be a teacher. I think Jason Ault wanted to be President of the United States.

And me? I got up in front of my fifth-grade class and said this: “When I grow up, I want to write a prequel to a best-selling book about English girls who kill zombies with kung-fu.” And now, thanks to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, my childhood dream has come true at last! Sorry, Jason—it doesn’t work out for all of us. Of course, I might be misremembering things a bit. Maybe I wasn’t quite so specific about the kinds of books I wanted to write. But I wanted to be a writer, I know that. And I wanted my books to be funny. You know, like Archie’s Pal Jughead. That thing is a scream! (Or so I thought at the time.)

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure now I didn’t mention the English girls. Or the zombies. Or the kung-fu. Because you know what? Not only could I not have predicted Dawn of the Dreadfuls when I was a kid, I couldn’t have predicted it 18 months ago. No one could have. It was about 18 months ago, coincidentally, that I first heard about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. A publisher, I read somewhere or other, was taking Jane Austen’s classic comedy of manners and inserting zombie hordes and chop-socky ultraviolence. I remember laughing when I read the title. (This memory is a lot more reliable than my one about fifth grade, by the way.) And I’m sure I said to myself what I always say when I run across a brilliant idea: “Why didn’t you think of that, Hockensmith?” 

And it was indeed a brilliant idea—brilliant enough to turn Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into a worldwide smash. It hit the New York Times bestseller list. A film was in the works. Foreign rights were sold to every market but Atlantis and Middle-earth. And I said to myself again (albeit kicking myself now), “Why didn’t you think of that, you putz?” 

What I had thought of was the “Holmes on the Range” series—mysteries starring cowboy brothers who solve crimes using the methods of their hero, Sherlock Holmes. I loved writing these books, but they had not hit the New York Times bestseller list, a film was not in the works, and the foreign rights remained available not only in Atlantis and Middle-earth but more or less everywhere else on the planet. So imagine my surprise and delight when someone called me up and said, “Remember that great idea with the zombies and the martial arts and Jane Austen? Wanna have it?” 

Of course, the conversation was a little more complicated than that. That was the gist eventually, though. Quirk Books, the outfit behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was looking for someone to write a sequel, something 100 percent original with no recycled Austen text, and they thought I was the guy to do it.

Did you catch that, sharp-eyed readers? I said “sequel” there, not “prequel.” Originally, the idea was to do a follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What happens after Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy become the most dynamic ghoul-dispatching duo in Regency England?  

But then we had another brilliant idea—and how fabulous that I didn’t have to kick myself for not being a part of it, this time!  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies raised so many intriguing questions. How did Jane Austen’s demure Lizzy and Jane Bennet come to be warriors so fierce they make Xena seem about as deadly as Smurfette? Why is their once-bucolic Hertfordshire overrun with reanimated corpses hungering for the flesh of the living? Why was the grand Netherfield estate abandoned, thus paving the way for a new owner, Charles Bingley (Jane’s future husband), and his brooding friend Darcy? 

The sequel could wait. We had to explore what happened before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

And so it was that I grew up to write a prequel to a best-selling book about English girls who kill zombies with kung-fu. Maybe I didn’t know way back when that it would be my dream come true, but you know what? It has been. 

Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range was a finalist for the 2007 Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards for Best First Novel. Three sequels have been published since then, and another is on the way. Dawn of the Dreadfuls is Steve’s first book about the living dead and the lovely young ladies who slaughter them. You can read more about Steve and his books on his website.

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John Harrington wanted to be a fireman, as I recall. Jodi Amlingmeyer wanted to be a teacher. I think Jason Ault wanted to be President of the United States. And me? I got up in front of my fifth-grade class and said this: “When I grow up, I want to write a prequel to a […]
Behind the Book by

"Easy" never came into getting published as a horror writer. I began writing my first novel, Banquet for the Damned, in 1997. I finished it in late 2000. It took two years for all of the rejection letters to come back. “No horror” being the usual refrain. By that time, I’d forsaken a career in television for a second time. I was living on a shoestring (again), enduring an existence above an old pub in East London, working nights as a security guard and going mad with sleep deprivation and despair. As a lesson in futility, this is not unique. This all happened before the current digital age, but however your book gets to market, the three core lessons I learned are as relevant as ever if you want to stand out.

1. GO UNDERGROUND
Even if your chosen field is out of vogue in mainstream publishing, there will be a world of small presses in which to cut your teeth. Small presses actively look for new voices. Dedicated well-read fans of the genres actually own the small presses (and that’s not something you can take for granted with the majors). I’m not talking about eBook platforms that publish every single thing sent to them in the hope that one title will go stratospheric; I’m referring to dedicated small publishers who are curators of the genres they love. Start below, down there, la bas; it’s very satisfying to emerge from the underground with a profile and to then attain more mainstream success.

The underground is your friend, and increasingly in the rapidly changing world of books, the underground can be your savior. For quality and innovation, and for precursors to future trends, even for first-class book design and packaging, what emerges from the genre underground often puts what is published above ground to shame. The underground won’t support a career, but it can start one if you have the patience to serve an apprenticeship down there.

A master in my chosen field of horror, Ramsey Campbell, recommended I send my novel to one of his U.K. publishers, a small press, in 2003. The small press, PS Publishing, accepted Banquet for the Damned within a week and produced a beautiful limited edition that garnered critical acclaim and gave me a small profile. Without the advice on the appropriate place to send my novel—to someone not just receptive to the genre, but enthusiastic about it—Banquet for the Damned would have remained an uneaten meal, moldering on the pantry shelves of my hard drive.

2. GET INVOLVED
As well as researching the small press scene, get involved in the actual genre community. Go to open nights and signings and groups and conventions. Opportunities to contribute to small press anthologies will arise and you will meet established authors, the reviewing community, and guest editors. You are no longer just an attachment on an email coming out of the void; you become more than another outline with three sample chapters. One circuit of a dealer’s room and you’ll see a miniature book fair of small dedicated publishers, cover artists, websites and calls for submissions. If you have talent, people in that world will soon notice. If you have the requisite passion, but need tuition and advice, there are panels and workshops at conventions in which accomplished writers give their time. Support the scene and it’ll support you.

3. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
The other part you really have to get right you will do all on your own. Forget about deals and careers for a moment, or even for a few years. The writing is what counts. I have a very old-school approach to writing because it’s the only one I know: read the canon of the field you want to contribute to, acquire the craft of good writing through practice, develop a voice. If it takes 10 years or longer, so be it. Apartment 16 took four years to write and The Ritual another two after that. There was no deadline, deal or publisher waiting for either book, or even any readers besides my dad. And during most of that time, little had changed in publishing: No one was publishing horror in the mainstream beyond some series fiction in the U.S. and the big names from the 1970s. So why did I write them? Because I was driven to. After the two novels were complete and delivered to my new agent early in 2009 (an agent who took me on because he’d read my first small press novel), publishing in the U.K. had just begun to turn its capricious eyes back towards supernatural horror in fiction. There was even an auction for Apartment 16 and The Ritual. How times had changed over a decade.

But I believe the commercial success of these two novels, the critical reception, the foreign rights deals and film options that have exceeded all of my expectations as a former small press writer, only happened because I spent so long gestating, evolving, developing and rewriting those first three novels over a decade, while also contributing short stories to small presses to build profile. In total, it took 15 years to "make it"; 15 years of making writing, and reading better writers, the main purpose of my life.

Why be another literate adult who gets lucky with a fad that is hot right now? Or one who loses patience and just self-publishes first drafts straight to eBook? Be as much of the real deal as you can be. Writing should be a purpose for life. Writing well comes from the repetition of hard work and application. Eventually it will deliver dividends at some level. There is no shortcut to being good at something.

Always write what you feel compelled to write. And if what you are writing makes you feel uncomfortable or even ashamed, then stick with it all costs . . . it’s where the most affecting writing often comes from, particularly in horror. If I don’t feel I’m close to damaging myself by the time I finish one of my novels, I know the writing is at risk of being flat and ineffectual to the reader. The same good practice and principals apply to writing well, and enduring, in every genre and category of fiction.

For those about to go underground, I salute you!

For more on Adam Nevill and his new novel, Last Days, visit his website. And don't miss his list of 10 horror novels every horror writer should read over on The Book Case

"Easy" never came into getting published as a horror writer. I began writing my first novel, Banquet for the Damned, in 1997. I finished it in late 2000. It took two years for all of the rejection letters to come back. “No horror” being the usual refrain. By that time, I’d forsaken a career in […]
Behind the Book by

The Job of the Wasp, the sixth novel from Colin Winnette, slips under your skin. When corpses begin to appear in a strange state-run school for orphaned boys, the novel’s unnamed narrator begins an investigation that steadily builds in surrealist horror. Winnette takes us back to his own creepy school, where a buzzing menace laid the groundwork for what would eventually become this twisted, experimental tale.


In The Job of the Wasp, a new arrival at a facility for orphan boys discovers several dead bodies hidden around the campus. He quickly begins the obsessive work of piecing together what’s happened and why, and along the way, he encounters the possibility of ghosts—and the wasps of my childhood.

The layout of the facility in the novel is drawn from the middle school I attended in Denton, Texas—although one wouldn’t necessarily know it to see the place. The gauze of memory, and the scant details included in the book itself, set the world of the novel at a slight distance, making it hazy and uncertain for the reader at times, just as it is for the narrator. But in order for that to work, to be more than just confusing, I needed a reliable foundation on which to build the dream. I needed a fixed sense of how the facility was laid out—how the yards looked, the lunch hall, where the lake was or the headmaster’s home—and my childhood memories made for a handy map.

My middle school sat on a series of rounded hills on the edge of town. It was an old facility, designed by a local architect long dead. The campus consisted of a series of long, narrow buildings, built almost entirely from red bricks, large panes of glass and some kind of splinter-prone wood. And in the eaves of almost every building, you could find a wasp’s nest.

A groundskeeper was always fighting them, hosing down the nests with chemicals or knocking them with a broom. And they always came back. The kids bolted through doorways, our books held above our heads. We stood warily in the halls, watching the wasps rebuild on the other side of a pane of glass. At lunch, they swooped down to our tables. At recess, they drifted into our field of play. They were everywhere. This constant, unpredictable threat.

These wasp nests were like a viral growth in the joints of our school’s buildings, and I couldn’t imagine the campus without imagining them. They were just always there. And because I was afraid of them then, and writing about fear, I knew I couldn’t ignore them now. The wasps became an integral part of the novel—a story about a young boy living at the heart of a dark and violent secret. Unsure how he fits into it all. Unsure what’s happening or why. Only confident in the presence of the threat, leading him to one of the novel’s central questions: What’s to be done with a threat that will not go away?

 

Author photo by Jennifer Yin

The Job of the Wasp, the sixth novel from Colin Winnette, slips under your skin. When corpses begin to appear in a chilling state-run school for orphaned boys, the novel’s unnamed narrator begins an investigation that steadily builds in surrealist horror. Winnette takes us back to his own creepy school, where a buzzing menace laid the groundwork for what would eventually become this twisted, experimental tale.

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It has finally happened: Hannibal Lecter has become a pop cliche. Opening seven years after Lecter’s dramatic escape, Hannibal gets off to an appropriately grisly start: a showdown between DC drug dealers and a hodgepodge of feds, including a salty thirtysomething Clarice Starling. Starling, now a SWAT-type bad girl, kills several people and is hauled in front of an investigating committee, headed up by Paul Krendler from the Justice Department, who’s held a grudge ever since she beat him to serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Krendler also happens to be on the private payroll of one of Lecter’s surviving victims. Mason Verger is quite the monster himself, another demented patient Lecter chose to toy with rather than treat. Lecter’s ministrations have left Verger paralyzed and horribly disfigured, and thirsty for revenge. Wealthy and influential, he has assembled a bizarre and savage group to bring Lecter in and brutally torture him to death. Up pops the devil, in (where else?) Florence. A disguised Lecter has been deciphering medieval manuscripts in an attempt to trace his lineage. But he’s discovered by a bent Italian cop, who sells him out to Verger. A murderous international chase ensues, while Starling thrashes in bureaucratic fetters, desperate to get into the action. But she, Verger, and Lecter are on a collision course, driven to each other by equal parts lust and hatred.

Hannibal is a novel of both revelation and conclusion. Significant missing pieces of Lecter’s past, as well as the peculiar structure of his psychopathology, are unveiled throughout the book, by Starling and other pursuers as much as by Lecter himself. There is some closure given to the relations between the primary characters (Starling, Lecter) and the secondaries (FBI boss Jack Crawford, Barney the asylum orderly, Starling’s dad no, really). This novel is quite different from Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs. The narrative style includes more descriptive passages and action sequences, as opposed to the hard-edged dialogue landscapes the author favored in previous books. Several strategically placed lines are nearly verbatim repetitions of Ted Tally’s Lambs screenplay dialogue; Harris seems to use the film as a referent for backstory, a way of saying to the reader, There, now do you get it? The characters, though a bit older, seem to have lost some of their previous intelligent plasticity and have settled into pop caricatures (Starling as the Bionic Woman, Lecter as James Bond). The biggest surprise is Lecter, bursting all boundaries as he has his prison shackles, a being of such superhuman ability that he is now clinically classified as something Other than man.

Or at least he starts out that way. The reader learns that the very catalyst of his transformation (an unpleasant childhood matter with a sister, which for some reason hasn’t surfaced until now) is nothing very different from the same banal trauma of the patients who bored him. The realm he rules is one of chaos, yet he hungers for one of order, and that undermines his inhuman appeal. Lecter may be questing for transvaluation, but ultimately he’s just a man, with a man’s fears and desires. It’s strange to see Harris winding up this trilogy of humans on the edge with such a heavy-handed nod to humanity, but he appears to have had fun doing it. And with the immense publicity buzz, and the wheels of the film industry already turning, he has had the last laugh.

Adam Dunn writes for Current Diversions and Speak.

It has finally happened: Hannibal Lecter has become a pop cliche. Opening seven years after Lecter’s dramatic escape, Hannibal gets off to an appropriately grisly start: a showdown between DC drug dealers and a hodgepodge of feds, including a salty thirtysomething Clarice Starling. Starling, now a SWAT-type bad girl, kills several people and is hauled […]
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The compilations of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror come annually as a great blessing to those of us who, from time to time, descend clandestinely out of the literature section of our premiere retail bookstores into the horror and fantasy shelves. We go to see what’s new, hoping against hope that our adolescent love affairs with these genres can be rekindled by a resurgence of quality which, like all fantasy, is both impossible and always in the offing.

We need look no further for guidance than Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s extraordinary anthologies. Each year’s edition begins with a comprehensive roundup of books, films, magazines, and comics from the previous year, which by itself is worth the price of the book.

The lone nonfiction piece among the current year’s vast and delightful heap of stories and poems is “The Pathos of Genre,” by Douglas E. Winter. A distinguished critic of horror fiction (a dubious distinction, but there it is), Mr. Winter struggles manfully over a proper definition of “horror,” and laments the genre’s evolution in recent years along market lines, rather than aesthetic ones. His investigation takes for granted that an aesthetic of horror and of fantasy, for that matter actually exists. It might help a potential reader of this collection to try to set such principles forth: In horror fiction, no matter how good things seem, they will always get worse. The pleasure of the genre derives from the reader’s trust that the author will unleash on her characters a fury of mortal pain and inevitable death unfolding in a manner as ingenious, outrageous, and poetic as possible. Whichever characters survive the ordeal are not stronger by virtue of it, but are invariably bound together by their shared nightmare. In the current collection, Gene Wolfe’s “The Tree Is My Hat ” offers a powerful realization of all these elements of horror, all the more exemplary because of its classic format of diary entries, so familiar to readers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In fantasy fiction, no matter how bad things get, they will always be redeemed, either by the characters’ capacity for wonder, or (paradoxically) by their wise acceptance of their own mortal limitations in a supernatural context where almost anything can happen, and usually does. “At Reparata,” by Jeffrey Ford, is a glorious example of these core aspects of fantasy fiction. The light touches of Ford and certain other authors in the anthology draw the grateful reader back to read the best of these beautiful tales over and over again.

Michael Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.

The compilations of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror come annually as a great blessing to those of us who, from time to time, descend clandestinely out of the literature section of our premiere retail bookstores into the horror and fantasy shelves. We go to see what’s new, hoping against hope that our adolescent love […]
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Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s mega-rich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness.

Khaw roots the novella in the perspective of Cat, who along with Phillip and the group’s resident pot-stirrer, Lin, is one of the wedding’s three guests. Cat has recently emerged from six months of self-imposed isolation to treat her depression, the exact details of which are left purposefully vague. Cat thinks this retreat has done her some good, but Khaw does not shy from portraying Cat’s ongoing experience with depression in the form of long, spiraling trains of thought. These mental soliloquies color the entire story with Cat’s internal angst. Her barely controlled depressive energy bleeds through every page, punctured by curt dialogue among the small fellowship of supposed friends. Supposed is the key adjective, as each member of the five-person crew has some sort of sordid history with another member—or two. Their friendships, especially as seen through Cat’s eyes, are flimsy at best. Despite flying across the world to participate in this marriage ceremony, the bonds between them disintegrate as the haunting begins.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Cat’s relative familiarity with Japanese culture (she is Chinese and grew up in Malaysia) means that she is quick to identify certain beings but doesn’t spend unrealistic amounts of time explaining significant details for the audience, a careful balance of clarity and obscurity that will appeal to Japanese horror aficionados and newcomers alike.

Khaw builds horror slowly and evenly. Rather than sporadically appearing to frighten and terrorize the young squad of not-quite-friends, the spirits of the house appear with steadily increasing frequency until they are simply present in every scene. By the novella’s climax, the tension has increased to such an unbearable degree that the final burst of violence is more expected than surprising.

Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale of foolish young adults, all of whom are poorly prepared for the effects their decisions will have on their psyches (and lives).

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold.

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In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. Known for the rejection of nearly everything as being sinful, life in a Puritan community could be pretty tough, especially for women. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

Abitha, a young Englishwoman, marries into the Puritan society of Sutton, Connecticut, and finds herself relegated to the fringes of the community, an outsider due to her sharp tongue and headstrong manner. She also brought small charms and potions with her from England, remedies from her mother that would be considered witchcraft in Puritan circles. When her husband is killed in the woods behind her house, Abitha must decide how to live as a widow in a community that seems to be waiting for her to fail.

If only that were all she had to worry about. Deep in the dark of the forest, something ancient, primal and hungry has awoken. Can Abitha survive alone when old Slewfoot comes to her door?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The year's best Halloween reads, ranked from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Slewfoot is creepy, crawly, bloody fun. There are some downright spine-tingling moments that are sure to stick with you long after the last page. From shadows in cornfields, to pits filled with bones, to entrails scattered across deserted roads, author and illustrator Brom wastes no opportunity to turn up the spook factor, whether in prose or in the deliciously creepy paintings that illustrate his tale. However, what’s especially commendable about this horror aesthetic is the wayt the reader’s reaction to it changes over time. As the story progresses, these passages don’t simply shock; they reveal more and more about the universe of the story. Without giving too much away, by the end of the book, you’ll be rooting for blood.

Indeed, Slewfoot’s most compelling theme is its fascination with change. We see it most with Abitha, who is an incredible character. As she grieves, finds confidence in herself and gets drawn into the ancient power of the spirits of the forest, the reader empathizes with that transformation. There’s also a continuing meditation on good and evil, dark and light, life and death. Do monsters think of themselves as monsters? Are there elements of dark and light in all of us?

If you’re looking for a witchy, thrilling ride that also has a philosophical soul, grab a copy of Slewfoot—and don’t put it down until you’ve finished it.

In 1666, puritanical Christianity found a foothold in the New World. But Christianity wasn’t the first religion in America, not by a long shot.

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Thiago Alvarez lost his wife, Vera, in a tragic accident. He may also be losing his mind. In powerfully immersive first-person, stream-of-consciousness prose, Gus Moreno’s debut novel provides an inside view of a grief-stricken husband’s worst nightmare that may or may not be his own fault.

This Thing Between Us feels like a fever dream but is written like a one-sided conversation between Thiago and his late wife. Drowning in guilt and incredulity at how everything fell apart in an instant, Thiago tells Vera his troubles, recounting what’s happened since she died and reexamining the tragic events that led to her death. How did their life unravel so quickly? Was their advanced smart speaker really an instrument of torture? The device seems to have had a will of its own—or maybe it was possessed. Or maybe this is all Thiago’s fault—his family’s curse, his destiny. Maybe, he thinks, Vera’s mother was right about him all along.

A few months before Vera’s death, events began innocently enough. Thiago and Vera’s smart speaker (“Itza”) played music without their request, which could’ve been a glitch. Odd packages arrived, even though they hadn’t placed any orders. They heard mysterious sounds in the walls. And then, most portentously, an alarm clock didn’t go off as it should’ve, throwing Thiago and Vera’s schedule into chaos and placing Vera in the exact wrong place at the worst possible time. Now Vera’s gone, and Thiago is lost. And that’s just the beginning.

Leave the lights on! We picked seven books for Halloween reading, rated from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright. Bodies drop. Violence springs up seemingly out of nowhere. Moreno will drop the sword on anyone or anything at any time. But the most surprising and challenging aspect of This Thing Between Us is that it’s as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying—a novel of domestic conflict and suspense as well as horror. The first-person conversational style forces the reader to adopt Thiago’s perspective, as hallucinatory as it may be, and it’s easy to feel as overwhelmed in grief and confusion as he does.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not Thiago’s horrors involve malevolent possession. What matters, he realizes, is the effect of this haunting: “The point of possession was to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. It was hard to see myself any other way.” The question that dogs Thiago (and readers) is what it will take to be rid of this deeply burrowed discontent.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright, but it’s also as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying.

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