Horror is a genre that is much more flexible in approach than any other in my opinion. You can tell such unique stories that explore themes like sexuality, trauma, and mental illness through monsters and the unknown. While Nothing But Blackened Teeth does have some supernatural elements and monsters in its pages, what crawled up my spine most was the social dread brought upon by the group dynamics. It’s a very scary book but what truly terrified me most was the unknown element of what a group’s relationship history could unearth.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth follows said group of friends as they gather at an abandoned Heian-era mansion to celebrate a marriage. The mansion is supposedly packed full of girls who were sacrificed to keep the bones of a bridge company. If I were a better salesman, I would slap the walls of this mansion and make a joke about “this bad boy can fit so many skeletons!” This sounds like the perfect venue to celebrate what should be the happiest day of your life right? Things quickly descend into terror as the ghost bride with blackened teeth comes to the party.
This story is full of references to Japanese culture and lore which I cannot personally speak to. I found myself looking things up more out of curiosity to learn more rather than needing it to enjoy the story. There was one thing I did know, which happens to be about Tanuki and their big balls, if that tells you about who I am as a human being. But I will not be focusing on those things for my review of the story. I want to focus on friendship.
Cassandra Khaw created a fully fleshed out circle of friends with utmost accuracy to real feelings, complicated pasts, and the messy interworkings that come with time. Cat, our main protagonist, gives descriptions of her friends as only someone who has known them for years could. Khaw masterfully peels back the exterior layers of their characters, stripping the friends of the carefully curated masks they show the world to who they actually are underneath. Every character in the story is fully fleshed out with a web of emotions and pasts with one another. As I found myself sinking deeper into the abyss of other people’s lives, I could see the different pieces falling into place and could almost tell where some lines were going to cross. But then other things never came to be, truths that will always stayed buried like the many corpses holding this mansion up. Khaw’s writing in the 128-page novella created characters so well realized where some 500-page novels never accomplish such a feat.
Everything about this story is tight, cutting, and horrific. From the web of feelings amongst the group to the turn into the darkness it takes about halfway through, Cassandra Khaw has written a story that leaves you a bit shaken. I do not want to give anything away which is why I speak so vaguely but I want to make one thing clear. The ending of this story is truly horrific in ways you cannot comprehend until you read it. I just hope once you finish it, you don’t see the blackened teeth yourself.
Nothing But Blackened Teeth from Tor Nightfire is available for purchase October 19th, 2021 at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.
The first time I visited my dad’s side of the family in Mexico, I was exhausted after a long day of flying. While my dad was catching up with relatives, my tia took me into the kitchen. She showed me lots of different foods and I said “okay” to all of them, thinking this was an either/or situation. I was wrong. She put one of every kind in front of me; a feast for twenty people. I was so confused, tired, and embarrassed that I picked up a whole roma tomato and ate it, while she looked at me horrified with a face that said “I didn’t know Americans ate tomatoes like bears!” Growing up half-Mexican meant that a lot of things got lost in translation like this.
September 15th through October 15th is Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month. I like using this month to celebrate my heritage, because if there’s anything I got from the Mexican side of my family, it’s knowing how to throw a good party. And while I think we should support Latinx/Hispanic works all year, I also think setting aside time to be intentional about the things I read and the conversations I have is good. Which brings me to this excellent book, Anika Fajardo’s What If a Fish.
What If a Fish is about Eddie Aguado, a half-Colombian eleven-year-old in the Midwest. He’s at an age where people around him start getting confused. They start asking questions like “If you’re Colombian, why don’t you speak Spanish?” and they’re not sure where he stands in relation to his Latinx/Hispanic identity. Some people start saying racist things to him and some people question whether he even counts as another race or ethnicity. Sometimes those are the same people. This leads Eddie to question his own relation to Colombia, a country he’s never visited, connected to him through a father he barely remembers. As he’s struggling with this, Eddie gets the chance to go to Colombia, where he learns to connect with his culture in his own way.
Anika Fajardo’s protagonist perfectly captures the awkwardness of being a mixed-ethnicity middle-schooler. Eddie goes on a journey to Colombia and finds that connecting with his heritage is complicated, messy and joyful. What If a Fish is a treat for mixed-ethnicity readers like myself, who might share the confusion of being an outsider in every culture, but it’s also an opportunity for all readers to see Colombia in a new light. Eddie’s mixed-ethnicity gives him the perspective of a foreigner, without the limitations of being a tourist. While struggling to pin down what it means to be authentically Colombian, Eddie gives a much more authentic view of the country than curated hotel stays or exported stereotypes of Colombianos. This makes What If a Fish a perfect read for Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month, or any other time of the year.
I have never been a huge fan of fantasy, I have always preferred tales of science fiction or horror, but sometimes there are books that break the barriers that we as readers impose on ourselves. In my case Sistersong is one of those books.
A retelling of an old british ballad, The Twa Sisters, Sistersong by Lucy Holland is the story of three sisters, daughters of the King of one of the old kingdoms of Britannia. War is close to their land, and after one fateful day the life of the three sisters will change forever. It is, in a few words, a story of love, self-discovery, treachery, and inevitably of murder.
If I had to describe this book in just one word, I would say “tragic.” I left this book with a broken heart (in the best way possible.) The thing that makes this book so grim is that it feels extremely real. It’s clear that the author did her research which adds to the effect, but the realism mainly comes from the strength of the characters’ voices and their detailed descriptions. There is a scene near the end of the book that I won’t be able to shake off my mind in a while.
Like I said, I’m not a fan of fantasy, but I do have to applaud the use of the fantasy elements in this book. The way they integrated into the world makes them feel like something natural, something believable. In addition, the way the fantasy elements play really well off the themes explored in the book and help build some of the more important plot points.
The biggest strengths of Sistersong are its’ three main characters. When I first started reading, I felt like the three sisters were relying on archetypes and cliches, but as I continued to devour the book I found myself liking these characters more and more, and I saw them grow beyond said archetypes into complex and interesting characters. Some of the most heart wrenching scenes in the book have such a powerful impact because of how well these three characters are written.
Because this is a spoiler-free review I will try to avoid details, but I thought it was worth mentioning that this novel deals with queer themes, including themes of gender identity, and it does this quite well. At first I was a bit distrustful of the places the story was heading, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way it went. I found in this book a well informed trans narrative in which (in some places) I could see myself reflected on the character. I loved that it felt really honest and, to a certain degree, real.
My biggest complaints of the book are probably that some plot points are somewhat rushed and have conclusions that left me a bit unsatisfied. On a similar note, there were some secondary characters that I would have liked to see more developed, especially seeing how it would have elevated some of the emotional moments and made them more shocking.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Sistersong. I would absolutely recommend it to any fantasy fan, fans of queer fiction, and fans of tragic stories. I think this will be a book that stays with me for a long time.
Sistersong is available for purchase now at your local independent book store or wherever fine books are sold.
We as a culture have genuinely embraced the colloquialism “spooky season” to define the thrills dealt by the month of October, and the term never stops bringing a smile to my face. We’re here, friends. We have unlocked passageway through the iron gates guarding the haunted house bearing the banner “Halloween” and traipse carefully up to the chills awaiting inside. Spooky month has arrived in full force, so I’ve prepared a list of five supernatural reading recommendations to read with the lights out. Tales of witches, vampires, ghosts, and secret societies comprise this October reading list. Read at your own peril…
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo Genre: Supernatural Thriller / Occult Fiction / Paranormal Fantasy Page Count: 496
Leigh Bardugo, the bestselling queen of YA fantasy, debuted with an adult paranormal, occult-ridden book about secret societies in 2019. The first novel in the Alex Stern series, Ninth House, features the titular Alex Stern as she navigates the mysterious happenings within Yale University’s secret societies. A high school dropout from Los Angeles and the survivor of a homicide, the anger-fueled Alex moves halfway across the country to attend Yale on scholarship at age twenty. Alex isn’t offered a full ride by her benefactors because of her academic history, though. For Alex, her attendance at one of the most prestigious schools in the country relies on her supernatural abilities to track down who among Yale’s secret societies are involved in resurrecting a dangerous forbidden magic. After her beloved mentor Darlington goes missing and a young woman is murdered on campus, the stakes are raised for Alex, the fracturing societies, and the accidental victims who get in their way.
Ninth House assuredly earns its “adult” and “occult” label in the fiction genre. Grotesque descriptions of the dead, dissecting cadavers, and general stomach-churning events construct a tale not for the weak of heart. Apart from the universally beloved Six of Crows duology, Ninth House may be Bardugo’s best written work thus far in her writing career. If you were a fan of Shadow and Bone back during the trilogy’s original release, you’ve witnessed the evolution of Bardugo’s craft. Ninth House is a remarkable, chilling, atmospheric read with a brash main character whose backstory will tug on your heartstrings. October should be the month you read Ninth House for the first time. Then, you’ll be forced to hungrily anticipate the release of the next book and fawn over Darlington with the rest of us fans.
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride Genre: YA Horror / Ghost Fiction / Coming of Age Fiction Page Count: 256
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride is her debut novel-in-verse and it crackles with electric, haunting energy in every stanza. Readers instantly enter Moth’s headspace, as she relates her grief through poetic verses. After losing her mother, father, and brother in a car accident and living with an aunt who cannot cope with Moth’s detached behavior, Moth drifts through days like a de-winged butterfly. Her sadness and survivor’s guilt consumes her every waking hour. All passion she once had for the freeing grace found in dance has dissipated into the graveyard with her deceased family. Buoyed only by the strength of her spiritual connection with her long-dead grandfather and ancestors through Hoodoo, Moth’s scars mark a tangible reminder of all she’s lost in the carnivorous universe. Then, one day, she meets a Navajo boy named Sani. A road trip searching for roots and ancestors intertwines their lives and changes everything.
Amber McBride exhibits mastery over the poetic verse form. Me (Moth) presents the idea of tethers, whether it be a connection between past and present, ghosts and the living, or youth and ancestry. McBride embraces the supernatural in terms of how Black Americans can find solace in rootwork and Hoodoo, and how Native Americans can discover identity through convening with the spiritual realm. This is a novel where each stanza slowly builds on one another. Carefully crafted diction conveys emotion as the words float and pop like bubbles, guiding readers through history with care. Me (Moth) crafts an artfully layered world where reading feels akin to tiptoeing through shattered glass until you reach the unpredictable, astonishing conclusion.
The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith Genre: YA Witches Fantasy / Historical / Paranormal Page Count: 448
(CW: Violence, Gore, Sorcery, Abuse, Sexual Predatory Behavior, Misogyny)
There’s nothing like a tale of witch-y goodness to set the Halloween season atmosphere. Sasha Peyton Smith makes her writing debut with the YA fantasy novel, The Witch Haven. Set in 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell dully lives out her days as a seamstress. Grief over her brother’s unsolved murder creates a hollow sense of hopelessness in Frances. When a sexual predator tries to attack her, Frances fends for her life–except she doesn’t know how she inadvertently caused a pair of scissors to end up in the man’s neck without ever touching him. News of the incident begins to spread, and Frances is technically guilty of murder. But a pair of disguised witches rescue Frances. Frances is whisked away to a school for witches called Haxahaven, where she learns about her true identity. Haxahaven still can’t protect the powerful witch from men with malicious intents and a boy who walks her dreams with secrets about her brother’s murder.
The Witch Haven thematically examines a time period where feminism was a rising whisper, and the word “witch” should only be uttered through whispers behind a locked room in the dark. Smith flawlessly interweaves magic into a story based on America’s muddied relationship with women’s rights, including the rights nearly non-existent for women of color or indigenous women in the early 1900s. The Witch Haven spills enchanting tendrils of magic over a compelling mystery narrative. Enter into a realm of spells and sorcery this October with Smith’s mesmerizing novel.
The Between by Tananarive Due Genre: Black Horror / Occult / Supernatural / Psychological Fiction Page Count: 288
An amalgam of psychological horror, magical realism, and the supernatural distorts reality in The Between. In The Between, African-American man Hilton James remembers his grandmother dying–twice. During his adulthood, he’s had trouble reconciling the memories of his grandmother lying dead on the kitchen floor, only to mysteriously rise up later as if nothing ever happened and then die a final death rescuing Hilton from drowning in the ocean. Thirty years after the incident, Hilton lives with his two children and his wife, the only African-American elected judge in Florida. A therapist helped ease his nightmares about his grandmother through hypnosis years prior. When his wife, Dede, receives horrifically racist, life-threatening letters, Hilton’s nightmares return in full force. Bizarre dreams begin manifesting in his head until Hilton believes he is actively living through events that never occurred. Reality warps until Hilton’s life is no longer recognizable, and his obsession to hunt down the man threatening his family drives further consumes his mind.
Written in 1995, this debut novel was only the beginning of Tananarive Due’s successful career as an author. The Between works as a stunning portrait of a man who shoulders guilt over his grandmother’s death to the point of questioning his own place in life. Although mental health has slowly begun the social process of de-stigmatization, individuals living with mental disorders for most of history were forced to either seclude their disorders or quietly seek out therapists in secret. Due deftly presents an ambiguous narrative that even breaches the science-fiction realm at one point. Still, talking to medical health professionals about psychological disorders is treated respectfully. The Between is a suspenseful horror novel with sociological and psychological thematic elements to probe your own psyche.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia Genre: Vampire Horror / Dark Paranormal Fantasy / Hispanic Fiction Page Count: 272
(CW: Violence, Blood, Gore,
Vampires were all the rage back in the 2010s Twilight-obsessed era of literature and fandom. Although it is a shame how Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s neon-noir vampire horror novel, Certain Dark Things, got swept under the rug in 2016, the new Tor Nightfire imprint from Tor Books revived the novel for readers to re-discover now in 2021. Certain Dark Things features a cast of damaged individuals, all struggling to outrun the wounds of their past and survive in vampire-riddled Mexico City. When Domingo, a street kid with an abusive past, meets the intoxicating Tlahuihpochtlin vampire Atl, he enters into her dangerous modes of existence. Vampire clans throughout Mexico City clash, and everyone is hunting someone else. They are all out for blood.
Ever since reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and Velvet Was the Night, I’ve found myself lusting for more of the dizzying inebriation I feel when drinking down her words like red wine through a snifter. Certain Dark Things certainly fulfills this longing. Moreno Garcia’s prose unwraps the story like an elastic bandage wrap after an accident. Readers meet Atl, Domingo, Ana, and Nick in media res, with bites of pain and trauma already taken out of them. From there, Moreno Garcia slowly unveils an intricate world teeming with vampiric lore, ravaged familial ties, and grotesque imagery in regards to a few blood-hungry characters. I left the book synopsis short so readers can freshly taste the bitter tang of mystery inside Certain Dark Things without spoilers.
Could you sink your teeth into more spooky supernatural novels or thrilling mysteries? Since this month hosts the horror holiday of the West, here are some additional recommendations for the brave:
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
Revelator by Daryl Gregory
Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney
The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville
Lakesedge by Lyndall Clipstone
Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson
For even more spookiness, check out my September Book Corner, the “Horror / Mystery / Thriller” section of my National Book Lover’s Day reading recs, and the GateCrashers retrospective piece on Stephen King. A wonderous world of haunts and haints are amassing between the pages of these sensory spooky books. It’s up to you read…if you dare. Happy Halloween!
Featured image by Brandie Brimfield. Shop her Etsy store here.
Is there anything scarier than seeing your whole world view change in a matter of seconds?
Jane Shoringfield, a young practical woman, has proposed a business deal to Doctor Augustine Lawrence: they should get married, for purely practical reasons. The doctor agrees under one condition: she will never set foot in his family manor, Lindridge Hall. But things never really go according to plan, and after an accident on their wedding night, Jane has no other option than to stay in the mysterious house, where she quickly learns there is something horribly wrong there.
The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling is many things; a gothic novel, a haunted house story, a mind-bending journey, a tale of obsession and guilt, as well as a horrifying exploration of the darkest reaches of our minds. But above all, it is the story of a doomed marriage.
If someone would have told me this was written at the height of the romantic and gothic movement, I would have believed them, and I mean that in the best way possible. Starling manages to build the perfect atmosphere for a book of this kind, where you’re pulled into a dark, mysterious and frightening world of magic and occultism. As you follow Jane’s journey you find yourself trusting no one, not even Jane herself. Once readers enter the all-consuming hallways of Lindridge Hall, they’re met with things that will make their blood freeze.
As I read this, I truly felt hunted, not only by the apparitions and ghosts, but also by the emotions of the characters and the nature of their actions. The characters in the story were well-developed and fully realized. Each of them (especially Jane and Augustine) feels like the center of their own world while not distracting from the other. Jane, who is our point of view character, works as the pragmatic foil to the world of the supernatural, balancing the possible and the impossible masterfully.
All that being said, my favorite part of the book has to be the way scenes are constructed: the descriptions of events, the power of the emotions, the ways Starling’s words wove the story together. There were moments in this book where I felt utterly disgusted, where I was terribly afraid, and others (not too few) where I felt pure despair. The way this book is written truly entrapped me, even when I was busy, there were times I couldn’t let myself put it down. I would lie if I said I didn’t gasp at some moments… to be completely honest, I even dropped the book once – purely because of shock.
If you are a horror fan, you should read this book. If you like haunted houses, you should read this book. And if you are a fan of gothic novels you NEED to read this book.
I truly believe that The Death of Jane Lawrence itself is haunted. Once you are done, it will follow you. It will hide in the deepest corners of your mind. The emotions within it will leave scars that you will not find until afterward. This is one of those books that possesses you, transforms you, and leaves you wondering who you were before you read it.
The Death of Jane Lawrence is published by St. Martin’s Press and available for purchase today, October 5th, 2021 at your local independent bookstore or anywhere fine books are sold.
Interview With Caitlin Starling
Cass: We have a tradition at GateCrashers where we like to ask you: what’s your favorite sandwich?
Caitlin: This is like asking me to choose which of my two cats is my favorite! On the one hand, you’ve got the pork banh mi at Luc Lac Kitchen in Portland, OR. Savory, a bit spicy, great pickled carrots and radish, lots of cilantro… On the other, you have the tuna meltdown from my college deli: tuna salad, red onions, thousand island dressing, swiss cheese, all on rye, toasted. Absolute stinky gut bomb of a sandwich.
If I have to choose, it’s the banh mi, but it’s a close thing.
Cass:One decision that I found really interesting was that of setting the book in a mirror version of Great Britain. What inspired you to make that choice?
Caitlin: It’s a mix of factors. Because I knew I wanted to really play with some bonkers metaphysical stuff, I wanted to keep the setting relatively familiar. Readers have a base set of knowledge about Victorian England that I could rely on to do some of the heavy lifting for me, and to provide the aesthetics that readers would be expecting.
But I also knew I wanted to skew timelines. I needed the tech level to be roughly congruent with the 1890s, give or take ten years – particularly in terms of medical knowledge. But I also wanted Jane to have survived something similar to the Blitz, with an added dash of horrific WWI chemical weapons. That wasn’t something I was willing to give up. And I didn’t want to have to belabor an explanation as to why there are women doctors in the book. Then you throw in wanting to make calculus a relatively new thing for Jane to grapple with, and needing a different origin point for clandestine occult societies, and you get a very remixed “Britain”.
Cass:One theme I saw all throughout the book is the discussion between the scientific and the esoteric, the possible and the impossible, the logical and the magical. What do you think makes this discussion so interesting and so important?
Caitlin: Magic and mathematics, in particular, are historically wildly intertwined. (Sir Isaac Newton was an alchemist!) And if you dig into more abstract math, like, say, what exactly is up with the number 0, or infinity, or both, or just what the hell is going on with calculus, there’s already this amazing framework for manipulating what appears to be impossible, and for proving it.
If you’re curious, I’d start with Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng and Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Both are written for non-mathematicians (like myself), and the latter, in particular, is what spawned the idea of Jane’s country just catching up to calculus as a way to parallel her personally finding out about magic.
Remember doing proofs in math class? Weird how they’re almost like rituals…
Cass:One thing I loved about the book was the way you built up the atmosphere. What are your necessary building blocks for a scene?
Caitlin: I think I’m supposed to give an answer to do with focusing on the various senses, but honestly, I experience it as just… vibe. Certain words, certain sentence cadences, evoke certain feelings for me, and I just let myself marinate in it. (I do usually have to consciously go back in to add sensory details, for the record.) But there are certain things that I end up focusing on in a given book. For Jane, that was often architectural details and scents, as well as the silences between sentences.
Cass:What is it about gothic horror that attracted you to write in thisgenre?
Caitlin: I’m going to lay the blame for this squarely on a childhood spent loving Jane Eyre, Beauty and the Beast, and ThePhantom of the Opera, and a longtime obsession with villains. But for a long time, I didn’t have a strong interest in writing it myself. Some combination of feeling embarrassed at how operatic the emotions can get, distaste for the type of secret usually revealed, and frustration that, in most cases, our tortured heroine doesn’t get our brooding villainous love interest (for, it must be said, good reason).
And then I saw Crimson Peak in theaters, and it was so lush and sensual and confident in itself that something clicked. I think I had the first scene of Jane written by the next week.
Cass:What do you think differentiates your novel from other haunted house stories?
Caitlin: Aside from throwing math and surgery and occultism into it, probably the particular way I have of obsessing over my characters and wallowing around in their psychology. People have told me it’s very intimate. I try not to pull any punches, but I still am inclined towards, if not happy endings, endings with potential. These characters are getting out of this house more or less intact, but it’s going to take a lot to get them there.
Cass:While doing research for this project what was the most interesting thing you found out?
Caitlin: Aside from Isaac Newton being an alchemist, you mean? Honestly, it’s a tie between the history of medical service pricing (and medical insurance) and the existence of the geyser in household plumbing. The latter is this device that was attached to the pipes near the tub that could superheat the water very quickly (instead of using a hot water heater tank). It was gas flame heated and, as you can imagine, wildly dangerous.
The former is very complicated, but essentially, medical pricing has always been torn between the fact that if you charge the same amount for a given service to everybody, it will be overpriced for a large swath or undervalued by the rich, but if you charge on a sliding scale, the people you charge more to may either hate you for it, or assume that means they can make demands on your time at the expense of those you charge less to. It would all be much easier if you didn’t charge at all, but supplies and living do require money. Many doctors, historically, have essentially been funded by the local rich folk to care for the community (for more or less philanthropic reasons), but wouldn’t single-payer health care not tied to a few people’s vanity and opinions be nice?
(A little of this gets into chapter 4 of Jane, because, unsurprisingly, an accountant and a surgeon have wildly different answers to this issue, and nobody feels good about any of them.)
Cass:I felt this book was one of the few cases in which the cover really encapsulates what the book felt like. How involved were you with the design?
Caitlin: Very little! I might have screamed a little when the team brought Colin Verdi’s amazing art to me, with a few choices mostly regarding the placement of the red thread. In the end, we settled on having the wording in the center of it all – but eagle-eyed readers might notice Jane’s wearing one ring already…
Cass:When choosing the profession of Augustine, was the decision influenced by the similarities between medicine and magic? Can you tell us more about this choice?
Caitlin: The thoughtful answer: Surgery is viscerally transgressive, and one of the themes of the particular curse of Lindridge Hall is things growing out of place – it all hangs together very neatly.
The real answer: Honestly, it’s because I find fictional doctors wildly attractive. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine (and particularly surgery) since I was a little kid, too, and a maybe shockingly large portion of my yearly reading is medical memoirs.
Cass:If you could choose any work of art (painting, song, movie, comic, etc.) to describe what readers can expect from The Death of Jane Lawrence, what would you choose?
Caitlin: This might be too self-referential, but honestly, this piece I did back in college (so, over ten years ago, and over five years before Jane was ever conceived of):
It was my final piece for my intro to drawing class, and when I found it again a few years ago, I couldn’t get it out of my head, or unattach it from Jane. It has exactly the same sort of haunting, visceral quality, a particular combination of power and vulnerability. I can’t remember why I decided to have the upper face obscured, but it being hidden and the way the sheets spread out from it feels almost… occult.
In other words, it’s perfect.
[Image description: a graphite drawing of a nude woman lying on herback, the upper half of her face obscured by a wrinkled sheet. Her chest is bisected by an autopsy-style y-incision, sutured closed. She is surrounded by a deep black background.]
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
– Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone. Season 1, Episode 22: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” 1960.)
Acclaimed writer Tiffany D. Jackson ventures into the horror genre with her YA novel, White Smoke from HarperCollins. White Smoke combines elements of classic ghost horror movies, The Twilight Zone, and psychological horror. Welcome to Maple Street, where the monsters of the past and present are due to incite terror in White Smoke.
Marigold Anderson and her recently blended family are uprooted from their home in Carmel, California to Maplewood, a small section of Cedarwood in a town resembling Detroit, Michigan. A drug addiction cost Mari her reputation as a track star, her enrollment in high school, and almost cost her life. After her mother’s recent marriage to a white man and his tyrannical daughter, coupled with PTSD, anxiety, a rehab stint, and suffering without a weed supply anymore, moving into a formidable house in the middle of the country only worsens Mari’s mental health.
The cost of Mari’s rehab from drugs financially crippled their family. When Mari’s mother is offered a free home from a new artist’s residency program, she takes the deal that seems almost too good to be true. Their new home may seem like a dream, but the abandoned houses surrounding the Maple Street residence gives Mari and her family a sense of unease. When items start going missing and Mari begins seeing ghosts in the house, her terror only amplifies.
A fresh start isn’t going to fix Mari’s problems–especially if she’s living in a haunted house.
“‘We stopped to ask for directions, but no one’s ever heard of this Maple Street.’ ‘Really? Who’d you ask?’ He chuckles and points behind us. ‘Your neighbors.'”
– White Smoke
White Smoke is the type of book that drifts through your mind like smoke, clouding your thoughts and winding its way around your consciousness. Jackson’s writing is intoxicating. You find yourself inhaling her words, blowing puffs of air outward when chilling scenes frighten you to the core. White Smoke pulses with atmosphere, a luring vision of horror reeling you in as the monsters grow nearer.
It’s hard to believe White Smoke is Jackson’s first “horror” novel because she nails every story beat and knows how to mount tension while creating nuance in the branching storylines. However, if you’ve read any of Jackson’s other novels, you already know she is a master of suspense. Jackson takes the monstrous themes of abusive men, systemic racism, oppression, addiction, gentrification, and unfounded allegations from her other works (Grown, Allegedly, Monday’s Not Coming) and expertly entwines these topics into White Smoke. Jaw-dropping plot twists and immersive mysteries are not surprising when it comes to Tiffany D. Jackson’s writing. Like her other novels, White Smoke breaks her characters apart — and breaks readers’ hearts.
If you want to read a chilling psychological horror novel this October, start with White Smoke. The novel beats like a fluttering heart, with terror creeping around the edges. White Smoke is an essential commentary on men and monsters, the power of wealth, the dangers of addiction, and the internal prejudices that can tear a town apart. If you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone, the parallels to “The Monsters on Maple Street” episode become evident in startling ways.
Tiffany D. Jackson, please don’t stop tearing your readers’ minds apart with incredible novels like White Smoke.
As I write this, I think this is the first time I am writing an article where I am open about my bisexuality.
This was something I realized as a teenager, but I went back inside the closet thinking that maybe it was just a phase. It wasn’t until last year that I slowly acknowledged it and it’s been an interesting journey. One of the things that I’ve been doing is obsessively looking up famous bisexual people. I went to sites like Bi.org or the Wikipedia database to look for people who were bi like me. I looked for stories with bisexual characters. I looked for resources on the doubts I had about myself.
So when I heard about Bi Visibility: A Bisexual Anthology, I wanted to read it. Created by Kat Calamia, whose reviews I used to read voraciously on Newsarama, it promised a selection of bi-themed stories, ranging from the mundane to the more fantastical. And while I will admit that I was ambivalent about the anthology, as I felt the stories may not be something I find relatable, I was wrong.
Ever since I came out as bisexual, I struggle with the notion that I am not someone worthy of that space. I was unsure as to whether I conform to certain ideas of how a bisexual person, or in this case, a brown bisexual person like me, should be in terms of what their tastes are. By the end of the day, I realized that it doesn’t really matter how I present myself; what matters is that I should be the best version of myself. As silly as that may sound, it is true. There is no singular vision of bisexuality and that’s the intention behind the anthology; to show the identity as one that is multifaceted.
An anthology works best with the range of stories being told and Bi Visibility follows that. The anthology doesn’t just rely on the identity of having that range; the stories are excellent in how they tackle certain aspects of bisexuality with a reassuring honesty, centered around relatable situations. While I haven’t been in the situations presented in the stories in a literal sense, I have grappled with the questions that the stories deal with. And while I find all of the stories to be well-written, there were two stories that felt personal to me; “LGBTQ-RPG” and “The Bi Card.”
What I appreciated about the aforementioned stories is that there is a whimsical feel to them. I won’t get into the details, but what I appreciated is how writers Jimmy Gaspero (“LGBTQ-RPG”) and Hailey Rose-Lyon (“The Bi Card”) used the premise to delve into those truths about bisexuality. And I know that there’s the temptation to read the scenes and reiterate that the themes of the story are commonplace and that everyone knows the “solution” to the questions about bisexuality that the stories address, but I think that’s why it works. Because while I like to think that I am familiar enough with my identity to talk about it, I am also aware of the fact that I still have a lot to learn. Even if I may know the “answers” in these stories, that doesn’t necessarily take away from the enjoyment and the feeling of reassurance I got from them. And I can imagine that for someone who’s struggling with their identity, these stories have a lot of value.
In terms of the aesthetic, or the “look,” I think the stories look beautiful. In accommodation with the wide range of stories being told here, the artwork is clean and crisp. Having a different artist on each story solidifies the individuality of each of the stories being told here, whether that be the cartoony fantasy book-esque aspect of Beck Kubrick’s art in “LGBTQ-RPG,” or Sarah Stern’s colors with Phillip Sevy’s artwork in “My Voice” (another excellent story), which gives it an almost pulpy sci-fi feel. This harkens back to my aforementioned point about bisexuality being multifaceted. In other words, I think it’s a good presentation of the intricacies and the nuances of the “bisexual experience.”
Of course, with the range of stories about bisexual people, there is an umbrella that unites all of them and that would be Taylor Esposito’s lettering. Regardless of the story being told, there is always a consistency to it that fits the story. It’s adaptable and it’s readable without compromising on its style. In a way, the lettering is almost symbolic of the collective aspect of the bisexual experience; it’s a space where people like me can share our stories and we’re united by our identity.
And finally, while I do wish there were more stories being told because there’s a vast potential to explore further aspects of bisexuality, I am also aware of the fact that this is an unfair criticism, as it is not up to a set of people or one person to tell such a story, as that would be impossible. This anthology has done more than enough to provide readers with a wide variety of stories that address the bisexual experience and it speaks to a need in the comics industry, and perhaps the media industry as a whole, to have more stories about bisexuality.
Because we are gonna be here for a while and we will not be going away.
Check out and support the Kickstarter campaign for Bi Visibility: A Bisexual Anthologyhere before it closes on September 30th, 2021.
Star Wars: Ronin: A Visions Novel by Emma Mieko Candon is an adaptation and expansion of The Duel, the first episode of the recently released Star Wars: Visions show which was produced by Kamikaze Douga. It focuses on the titular Ronin, a former Sith now wandering the galaxy with his faithful droid. Forced into conflict with a Sith bandit to protect a small village, the Ronin is soon brought back into the life he had once left behind. That’s a very vague description, and the official publisher summary gives more, but I think this book works best when you go in as blind as possible, aside from the Visions episode it’s based on which only makes up the first few chapters before it really starts expanding. Ronin thrives with constant world-building as it explores a distant time-period in the Star Wars universe.
Having just seen the trailer by the time I started this book, The Duel was definitely the Visions episode that I was most excited for and filled me with questions about this fascinating take on the Star Wars universe. Things like the strange umbrella saber, the lightsaber sheath and these two red bladed warriors fighting got me so interested and I just wanted to know more, and thankfully Ronin delivers in every regard. Aside from a few brief moments before the events of TheDuel, Ronin opens up with the events of the episode itself but is mostly focused on continuing the story of our titular Ronin. Comparing the opening chapter to the show really demonstrates Emma Mieko Candon’s strength as a storyteller. After finally watching the episode, it looked exactly how the book had described it. The strong action narration is a constant throughout the book, something essential for a story that lives up to the name of the episode that inspired it.
As someone whose real love of the expanded universe of Star Wars really only started when Disney shifted the long, confusing complicated stories of “Luuukes” and Chewbacca getting killed by a moon into Legends, the so-called “canon” of Star Wars has been something I’ve cared about deeply, perhaps a little too much. It’s easy to get caught up in the cameos and connections in a story and focus less on the story itself, and when it was revealed that Visions, and the connecting Ronin novel, were “non-canon” I was slightly apprehensive. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that was a good thing. Allowing these creators their own interpretations of Star Wars would only get rid of restrictions and really let these creators run wild. And Ronin absolutely proved that right. It’s one of the most bold and innovative pieces of Star Wars media I’ve ever read, watched or listened to since the Original Trilogy, taking the standard trappings of the Star Wars universe that we know and love, the Jedi and Sith, Lightsabers and the Force, spaceships and droids and tells a truly unique and wonderful story with them. Whilst Ronin may not be part of the larger Star Wars canon, I found myself caring less and less about that as I read on. That being said, the story of Ronin is one that could easily fit into that canon, and I hope it one day does, as it fleshes out a part of the Star Wars universe that has been barely touched and is rife with potential.
With The Duel being a mostly action focused episode of Visions, Emma Mieko Candon was given a fairly blank slate with these characters, and they flesh them out wonderfully. While I won’t spoil anything about Ronin’s history, having an ex-Sith protagonist makes for a fascinating story. Seeing the Jedi vs Sith argument from a different perspective makes Ronin something truly unique, and the relationship between the Ronin and B5-56, his astromech with the lovely straw hat, is incredibly sweet and one of my favourite person/droid friendships. In classic Star Wars fashion, Ronin also expands the cast of The Duel with a spaceship crew full of interesting characters to join the Ronin on his journey, each with their own fascinating backstories and motivations. That’s very vague, but watching the secrets of these characters unfold in front of you is too good to spoil.
The inspiration of Seven Samurai on the original Star Wars is no secret and much like A New Hope, the Kurosawa influence is abundantly clear in Ronin. Fitting for a book from a Japanese-American author that is inspired by the work of a Japanese animation studio, the Japanese influence is woven throughout the entire book and the world it builds. Every name, place and food is packed full of inspiration from Japanese culture, and even the descriptions of the Force show a clear relationship to Japanese symbolism. Despite being a reimagining of the Star Wars universe in many ways, Ronin’s real respect for it’s influences both cultural and Star Wars make it a wonderful and authentic story and a must-read for Star Wars fans.
I’m far from the only one frequently disappointed and underwhelmed by the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in live-action Star Wars, but once again the books deliver where the movies and shows have not. One of the lead characters is non-binary, and it also features (to my knowledge) the first trans-man in Star Wars, Yuehiro. And whilst he doesn’t have a massive role in the story, although it is important, it was still a very pleasant surprise to see a character definitively shown to be transgender, with even a mention of hormones. There’s also a few prominent queer relationships, and it’s always nice to get more of that in the Star Wars universe.
Overall Ronin is one of the most interesting pieces of Star Wars media in quite a while. Free of the restrictions of canon, it’s not afraid to tell a vast and expansive story that becomes more and more intriguing with every page. Its’ characters are complex and full of fascinating history and heart. For anyone who enjoyed the Visions episode it’s based on, or anyone who enjoys Star Wars at all, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
― Stephen King
With over 60 novels to his name, countless short stories, a best-selling pseudonym, and a laundry list of awards, Stephen King is one of the most established authors of the 20th and 21st centuries. A wordsmith who can make your skin crawl, heart break, or even leave you inspired, there are many facets of King’s writing for you to choose from. The aptly named ‘King of Horror,’ began his meteoric rise with 1973’s Carrie and never looked back. Not without his personal demons, his tortured writing gave breath to those who were silently fighting their own addictions. The man even survived being hit by a car, an event that would inspire several novels and would encourage him to re-attempt finishing his magnum opus, The Dark Tower. Wherever your loyalty lies in the spectrum of King’s genres, Horror, True Crime, Mystery, etc., we can all agree his transcendent writing capability keeps us all coming back for more.
Jon Scott / @JMScott193
Book that got me into Stephen King: So, I was thrown right into the deep end on this one with The Dark Tower series, King’s magnum opus. When I was around 14, a family friend got me a collection set of the first four Dark Tower novels, since she knew how much I loved the fantasy genre. Once I opened The Gunslinger, I was hooked on his storytelling immediately.
Favorite Stephen King book: 11/22/63 is my favorite by him, without question. One of my favorite sub-genres of fiction is alternative history. I am fascinated by the what if’s and what-could-have-been moments in history. Marrying that kind of story with the style of one of the greatest living authors was a perfect union. Yet, King also presents a certain wistful nature for a small town in the 1960s. The scenes where Jake stays in Dallas with Sadie have a nostalgia about them, a yearning for a simpler time.
FirstTime Recommendation: If you are looking to get into the world of King, then I would recommend starting out with one of his first novels, all of which are classics. Salem’s Lot, in particular, shows King beginning to reach the truly grand heights we’ve come to know from him. In addition, it’s also just a super dope take on vampires. However, if you’re looking for something even simpler, check out Mr. Mercedes, King’s take on the hard-boiled crime genre. It’s an incredibly simple, yet downright effective, detective story.
Book that got me into Stephen King: The first Stephen King book I read was Cujo. I was in high school at the time and chose to read it for a school project. At that time, I was familiar with King’s work only through movie and television adaptations, including the 1983 film, Cujo. I still remember the experience of reading Cujo and thinking how unrelenting it was and the shocking ending, very different from the film, was brutal. It’s a feeling that has stuck with me to this today and, all these years later, I still can’t decide if I like the book. It didn’t stop me from reading more of King’s works though.
Favorite Stephen King book: My favorite Stephen King book is Wolves of the Calla. It is the 5th book in The Dark Tower series and contains one of my favorite King quotes: “First comes smiles. Then lies. Last is gunfire.” Wolves of the Calla specifically, and The Dark Tower series, generally, has so many elements of horror, fantasy, and science-fiction. There was just something about the storytelling here that I loved a tiny bit more than the other books in the series.
FirstTime Recommendation: The Stephen King novel I’d recommend to new readers is The Gunslinger. This can start you on your journey toward The Dark Tower, as all paths serve the beam. It is a great introduction to King’s work as you can then venture toward horror stories like Carrie or It, or science-fiction/fantasy elements like The Stand or The Dead Zone. No matter where you turn next, there is plenty to choose from and if you don’t like it, that’s fine too, as Jake says, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Dana Durante / No Social Media
Book that got me into Stephen King: Salem’s Lot. I was 12 years old when the book was first published. My mother was reluctant to let me read it as she had read Carrie and did not think I was ready to read something scary. After much pleading, it was actually my father who bought the book for me and basically lit the fire that is my love for all things horror. The writing was effortless and the pacing was perfect, it was such a great introduction to his writing. It was also one of the first books where none of characters were safe; I had to read to the very end with this overwhelming sense of dread. Writing this makes me want to pick it up again, just in time for Halloween!
Favorite Stephen King book: The Stand. Perhaps not the best book for our current state of affairs, but it really is such a well-rounded piece of American literature. Aside from feeling like I had some sort of phantom-cold while reading it, this novel was one novel I could not put down. I remember staying up and burning through the chapters, while constantly being reminded that at some point, I did require sleep to function. This book never shied away from the horrors that would befall society in this situation, but also the hope that may come out of it. The longest book I have ever read, but well worth it.
FirstTime Recommendation: Pet Sematary. This may seem like an odd-choice, being that it is one of King’s most frightening/disturbing books, but I think this is a great place to start. I was never a ‘dip your toe in,’ but rather a ‘cannonball into the deep-end’ type of person, so if that’s your motto then this is your book. However, for those who need more time to acclimate to the ‘King-Verse,’ I would say Salem’s Lot is the way to go. Be warned, once you start a King novel, you’re a fan for life.
Richard Durante / @ArghRJ
Book that got me into Stephen King: Nightmares & Dreamscapes. As a freshmen nursing student, my time was limited, but I was looking for a new book to keep my attention in-between stacks of medical textbooks. A friend loaned me her copy, and I found myself entranced from the first story on. My heart particularly belongs to The Night Flier, but the entire collection deserves equal praise. From there on, my journey began to King’s next short-story collection, and eventually, to his Dark Tower series, but I always find myself longing for these condensed tales. In all honesty, this had held its spot as my favorite of his works, up until I read one of his classics after the birth of my son.
Favorite Stephen King book: The Shining. With my young son in my arms, I remember rocking him to sleep while reading passages of Danny Torrance wandering through the doomed Overlook Hotel. The book elicited such visceral dread, from the long-deceased guests to the vicious topiaries, I found myself hesitant to turn the page. It was the perfect story to be reading with my infant son, as my insomnia addled mind began to see Jack Torrance’s side of things. All jokes aside, read this novel and skip the movie.
FirstTime Recommendation:Night Shift. This collection of King’s short stories gives readers the widest array of his talents, from the dramatic, to the downright horrific. It’s important to note that King indeed has this range, and even if you don’t particularly like one of the stories, there are so many more to choose from. Most of the people I associate with who state they dislike his works, tend to have not read anything from him, but rather judge his films as an apt sampling. To those I say, pull up a chair, here’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, now shut up and enjoy.
Take this knowledge fearless readers and venture on to the works of Stephen King. As we celebrate his birthday, we wish him continued success and many more years of writing to come. As he once stated in Different Seasons: “Get busy living or get busy dying…..there ain’t nothing in-between”
As September sweeps in and some of us find ourselves back in school, we search for those books that keep our minds eager and active for whatever lies ahead. This month we look to those with heightened abilities as we celebrate all things Super about these Heroes (and their villains)! Whether it be a comic or full-length novel, these pieces of literature will be sure to keep your attention on days when you feel your own power has been drained.
Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn
Renegades by Marissa Meyer
Hero by Perry Moore
Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 1 – Naoko Takeuchi
HAWKEYE: Kate Bishop, Vol 1:Anchor Points by Kelly Thompson
Go Go Power Rangers Vol. 1 by Ryan Parrott, Dan Mora (illustrator) and contributions by Raul Angelo
“From the fun, vibrant art style, to seeing a side of the Marvel Universe you don’t often get to see, Soule & Pulido’s She-Hulk is the perfect way to fall in love with Jennifer Walters.”
She-Hulk Vol 1: Law and Disorder by Charles Soule
The Apocalypse Suite (The Umbrella Academy #1) By Gerard Way
Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman
Teen Titans: Raven by Kami Garcia
Joyride, Vol. 1 by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly
“Young Avengers is a great entryway for a lot of characters that we know or I suspect are going to be popping up in the MCU soon. It was also one of the first comic books I read!”
Young Avengers, Vol. 1: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillen
Dreadnought by April Daniels
Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds
The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey
“My very first superhero graphic novel was Brubaker’s Catwoman of East End, still one of my favorites to this day.”
Catwoman of East End by Ed Brubaker
The League of Secret Heroes by Kate Hannigan
Battlecry by Emerald Dodge
Ms. Marvel, Vol 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson
Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Pena
“For younger readers, DC’s Primer was a great introduction to young superhero characters.”
Primer by Thomas Krajewski & Jennifer Muro
Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction
Pitiful Human-Lizard by Jason Loo
Ironheart, Vol. 1: Those With Courage by Eve L. Ewing illustrated by Luciano Vecchion, Kevin Libranda & G. Geoffo
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
The Ables by Jeremy Scott
“Vicious is an anti-hero origin story that combines unforgettable characters with well-crafted plot. You won’t regret picking this one up.”
Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Wonder Woman: War Bringer by Leigh Bardugo
Black Canary: Breaking Silence by Alexandra Monir
Thor, Vol. 1: Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron
Batgirl: Year One by Scott Beatty
“Power Rangers is a comic that brings the same feeling you remember having as a kid watching the show with characters being a bit more fleshed out and overarching stories throughout.”
Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, Vol. 1 by Kyle Higgins
Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas
Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The IDW Collection, Volume 1 by Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, Brian Lynch, Erik Burnham, and Bobby Curnow
Naomi by Michael Bendis and David F. Walker illustrations by Jamal Campbell
The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby by Dave Pilkey