An Interview with Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur was kind enough to stop by today to talk about his new collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, which is currently available for pre-order and will be published this summer by Lethe Press. To kick things off, allow me to introduce Charles by way of his author bio.

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. His forthcoming short fiction collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, will be published by Lethe Press (Summer 2021) and his editorial debut, We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020, is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press (August 2021). He currently resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with his herd of disobedient pets and husband, Matt.

The Burning Day and Other Stories CoverWelcome, and congratulations on The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories! It’s a fantastic collection! Care to give folks a sense of the types of stories they’ll find in its pages?

Genre-wise, it’s a pretty balanced mix of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative horror. It’s entirely short stories, too, which seems a little odd for a collection (most authors tend to have novelettes or even a novella) but for more mainstream speculative fiction I find the short story is where I excel, at least for now. I do often enjoy dipping into non-human narratives as well, from a sentient star to a kind of merman to rivers who can shift into humanoid form. The stories by and large all feature a bit of action, a lot of angst, and probably plenty of queer characters and themes.

It strikes me that many of the stories in the collection center around the pairing of longing and hope, or the idea of being in a dark time, but coming out on the other side of it, regardless of whether they’re science fiction, fantasy, or a slip-streamy type blend of genres. Is that something you consciously had in mind when deciding which stories would go in the collection and what order to put them in? Are there other themes you had in mind, or something particular you hope people take away with them after reading the collection?

I’ve tried, though never been entirely satisfied with the results, to sort of look at what I write and where I write from. At what I’m trying to “say” in a broad sense. So I tend now to try and have a more focused approach. When I was picking the table of contents for the collection, and setting it all together, I wanted to somehow capture both my trajectory through time and thematically in my work. So when I was picking a first story, I went with one of my first professional sales, “Rubbing is Racing.” It’s a quick, brief story that touches on some grim themes but focuses on freedom, release, and a kind of rebellion against a broken system. As I structured the rest of the collection, I did keep most of my earlier works in the front, but found as I went that the impact of my stories seemed to change as I grew, as a person and a writer.

So in the earlier part of the work there’s “Shoot and Ladders” and “A Million Future Days” and “Spring Thaw,” works that are fairly grim, that grapple with being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be, unable to really embrace yourself, scared to take action. It’s a theme I feel culminates in “The Sound of,” that really gets at the fear of helplessness and hopelessness, of complicity in the face of corruption. And I tried to make that a kind of anchor in the collection. A low point in terms of optimistic outlooks. And from there I tried to dig back out, to find more power in rebellion again, the energy and drive of “Rubbing is Racing” but less of the directionless energy. More organized and better able to see past that feeling of lack of agency. From there, I hope that people start to see a more proactive take on resistance and change, ways of breaking down toxic systems and expectations and embracing something affirming and just.

In addition to your own fiction, many people also know you as an incredibly prolific reviewer. Personally, I’m constantly in awe of the amount of fiction you read and review each year! I know you’ve written about this a bit in other places, but what’s your philosophy, or the approach you take to reviewing? Dare I ask, how do you find time to balance your review work with everything else in your life? Do you ever sleep? Do you still have time to read just for fun? On a possibly related note, do you find your reading habits have changed since you became a reviewer, and are you able to turn your critical brain off and simply read for pure enjoyment?

Reviewing is something of my coping mechanism. I do it a lot, and around basically everything else that I do, whenever I can. My general philosophy is as straightforward as I can make it and boils down to be “Be compassionate and own your opinion.” By which I basically mean I try to be the reviewer I want to see in the world, the kind of reviewer I would want both to read my own work and whose reviews I’d want to read. My general thoughts are that a review put out into the world becomes a text. That text, like those that I review, is then there. Other people can react to it, can review my reviews, and I keep that in mind, that I have to own what I write, that I need to be both deliberate and responsible when it comes to what I do. Which so far has served me quite well.

As for time? Well, again, short fiction is my coping mechanism. So every time I am somewhere and can’t do something else, I’m reading. Any time I feel directionless and bored, I seek out something to read. Which has probably saved me, though I don’t know I balance it well with writing and other things. Especially 2017 and on, I’ve struggled to write, and reviewing became something that was…safe, I guess. That was something I could feel good about. So I probably have drifted into letting it take over a lot of my creative time and energy. And I don’t have regrets about that, though I’ve been trying lately to rebalance things a bit.

For reading, I do find it difficult to read outside of my reviewing. Mostly because I do a lot of reviewing and the stuff I read to review are works I want to read, that I’m excited to read. I have a TBR pile of books that is epic, though, and I do want to get to the point where I’m reading more novels, where I can reading graphic novels and manga more. Even when I’m reading for fun, though, I’ve always liked reviewing. So I don’t feel that it’s stretching a different muscle or anything. Even before QSR I was on Goodreads A Lot and loved to dive deep into what I was reading. It’s just how I like to engage with texts. Which is how I’ve been able (I feel) to keep on doing the work with short fiction reviewing so long. It’s genuinely something I like doing, so it’s more that my critical brain and fun brain walk hand in hand.

I’d like to talk a bit about your Liver Beware! series in which you drink and review the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. What inspired the series? Did you read Goosebumps as a kid, or are you coming to the books fresh with an adult sensibility? Are there any other series or any other authors whose body of work you’d want to give a similar treatment in the future?

Thanks for asking about this! It’s definitely a project of mine that…probably surprises people a little, because it’s rather random. But the Goosebumps books were how I learned to read. When I was young I was not a strong reader, and struggled with getting into books. Until Goosebumps. They were what really made me look forward to going to library, and I’d sneak reading them in my desk at school, and just generally devoured them for a few years. I’d tried to return and to a reread in…2010, I think, and got as far as Deep Trouble before I stopped. The books, while nostalgic for me, are very hit and miss in terms of quality (for me as an adult reader, at least), so I let that lapse. Around the time that I was launching my Patreon, though, I was thinking of things I could offer patrons to…sweeten the pot, I guess (because a lot of my Patreon is just sort of fund the work I do for free at Quick Sip Reviews). And I thought it would be great to return to do a more concerted reread, one that would allow me to balance the uneven quality of the books with booze! I’ve had so much fun with the series, and do plan to migrate them over to public access (I have done so for some, but I’m way behind that part at the moment).

I had read…most of the books already (and as I said, I’d made a go at a reread before). But most of them either I didn’t remember well or had sort of mixed up with the show (which I loved watching when I was younger). So most of the time it’s all new to me! As for what I might do next…I’m not sure. I don’t have as strong a connection to any other middle grade series (though I’ve quite enjoyed the more recent Frightville books by Mike Ford). I’ve actually been weighing changing gears a little and doing drunk reviews of X-Men comics. Like, story arcs. Because I’ve very much been meaning to return to reread my old comics and they are often…well, much of the time they could probably only be improved by the addition of alcohol. But we’ll see! Liver Beware! still has through the end of the year, so I’ll probably wait to make a final call after that (after 62 months, I might take a wee break first).

As if reviewing and writing wasn’t enough, you’re also making your editorial debut this year with We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. Could you talk a bit about your process in putting together the anthology, both in terms of selecting stories to include, and deciding on their order within the book?

I’m really honored that dave ring of Neon Hemlock approached me about being involved with the series, and he even let me name it! It’s something I’d been thinking about since the Lethe Press Best Ofs discontinued, and though I’d never done editing before, this plays into my strengths. Namely, I get to read a lot of short fiction. Which I do now anyway. And I put out monthly lists of works with queer content and themes (that project is on its fourth year now). So this was sort of the natural extension of that. It was also much more challenging than I had thought it was going to be, though, because it’s one thing to just read and reflect on stories, and another to try and make the call of what can be considered a “The Best.” What helped was really thinking about it as being a voice in a conversation. Not an authority, really, though editing in general is a form of gatekeeping and it’s important to not lose sight of that. But that this was going to be a The Best that could be stories I just really loved and wanted to share with others.

Logistically, the process worked a lot like with The Best American series that John Joseph Adams edits with guest editors each year. I took on the JJA role of reading as absolutely widely as I could, and pouring over the submissions. Because of the nature of the project, we feel it’s important to leave room for authors to put forth their own stories, first because there’s a lot I can’t personally get to in my regular reading, and because queerness is such a complicated thing, and we didn’t want the only person deciding what stories were “queer enough” to be, well, me. Now, it’s not perfect solution, and there’s a heavy and complicated conversation to be had about queerness in SFF, but I do feel we did our best to be inclusive and careful about it, and I am 100% thrilled by the result. What happened was I cast as wide a net as I could and passed on my favorites to my co-editor, C. L. Clark, and they got to add any that they felt I missed, and then they made the final decisions about what went in (with some discussion on where to draw the line for length purposes).

For order within the book, I thought it important to lead with something with energy and get to some of the more difficult and grim stories a little later (in the center of the collection), before rising again to end with a complex but lasting resilience and hope. I’m still quite new at this kind of organizing, but I tried to provide something where people could take breaks but where I hope they feel like there’s a flow from piece to piece, a kind of energy as the stories feed into each other, that will get readers to say “just one more” and then find that they’ve reached the end and still want more. We’ll see if that pans out, though.

Back in 2017, you and Nicasio Andres Reed took a deep (pun maybe intended) dive into one of the greatest Star Trek characters of all time, Garak, from Deep Space 9, looking at Garak-centric episodes of the series, along with media tie-in fiction featuring him. If you were offered the opportunity to write your own tie-in novel/graphic novel/comic series featuring Garak, would you? And if so, what sort of story might you tell?

Oh glob. So, I absolutely adore what Una McCormack has done with the character, building off of the phenomenal acting (and writing) of Andrew Robinson. Together they have done so much to take Cardassians in general and complicate them and get them on a level that I feel is important, especially given recent global political trends. I also love how McCormack worked so much of Cardassian literary traditions into those novels. What I would do…you know, if I could do just something completely one-off, I think I’d like to turn the tables on that a bit. We’re always seeing Garak as a sort of window into Cardassia, and Cardassian art and literature, but I’d be interested to see him taken through something much more human (something that I feel could have been done better in “Our Man Bashir”). I actually wrote a little fic about Garak being loaned The Picture of Dorian Gray and I think it would be really interesting to see Garak find some human literature that actually spoke to him on a deep level. That might break through his own disdain for art from other cultures. Given how Star Trek itself grows out of the human literary and artistic tradition, I think it would be an interesting meta twist that would allow for some insight into not Garak as a Cardassian, but Garak as a person. But seriously I could go on about Garak all day so will try to hold myself back from saying more.

Switching gears completely, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Haha I feel I have a fairly bland employment history, actually. I’ve been a lifeguard, a dishwasher then cook at a bar and grill, worked for university housing, and then got into prepress at a commercial printer. Of those, being a cook (where I got to work alongside my twin sister) was probably the most interesting/unusual. I had no experience going in, and was often overwhelmed, and the work was exhausting and often disgusting. But I did learn how to take that sort of situation and try to have fun with it. I’d sing along to the radio (I am not a good singer) and get my sister and the waitresses to laugh. We talked about starting a band called Fish and the Chips (I was going to be Fish), but only my sister could play an instrument. I’m actually not sure that the job has really worked its way into any of my stories…yet.

Now that The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’m partly completely unsure what’s next for me. Aside from the collection and We’re Here (which will continue next year with editor L. D. Lewis), I’m trying to climb back into writing more regularly. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry. I hope to maybe collect up all the romance short fiction I’ve written over the years that has largely been lost to presses closes or breaking contracts and find a place to rerelease it. I have ideas for longer works, but I’m slow and I also have my reviewing work. So…we’ll see!

Thanks for stopping by!

And thank you!!!

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May & June Events: Panels and Podcasts and Readings (Oh My!)

I can scarcely believe that May is already well underway, which means Wendy, Darling officially comes out in less than a month! I cannot wait to share my dark, feminist take on what happened to Wendy Darling after her time in Neverland with all of you! The official release date is June 1, 2021, and May and June are going to be busy months with various readings and panels related to the book’s release. If you’d like to hear me read, or listen to me chat with other authors, here are some of the places you can find me over the next little while. I’ll continue to update this space with links and other info as it becomes available!

PANELS

Peter Panel FlyerThe Peter Panel – May 22, 2021 from 7:-8:30p.m. EST

It seems that 2021 is the year of the boy who never grew up! Aiden Thomas, Kayla Ancrum, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and I all have books inspired by Peter Pan out this year, so of course we had to put together a Peter Panel! Join us as we discuss our novels, with four different takes on Neverland and the works of J.M. Barrie who inspired us all. Martha Brockenbrough will moderate the chat, which promises to be far-ranging and a lot of fun. The event is free and you can register here.

Sturgis Library Panel PosterSturgis Library LGTBQIA+ Pride Month Fiction Talk Celebration – June 8, 2021 from 6:30-8p.m. EST

In celebration of Pride Month, Richard Kadrey, Sam J. Miller, Cassandra Khaw, and I will be talking about writing, offering up plenty of queer reading recommendations, and doing a Q&A session. The event is free, but registration is required. More info and details on how to sign up are available here. ETA: It was a fantastic chat with wonderful queer reading recommendations and great craft tips for writing multiple POV characters among many other things. In case you missed it, the archived recording of the panel is available here.

READINGS

Celebrate Horror 2021 – May 28, 2021

Sadie Hartmann (aka Mother Horror) is once again organizing a horror reading extravaganza. Dozens upon dozens of horror writers contributed videos of themselves reading excerpts of their work and the whole thing will go live on May 28 on the Nightworms YouTube channel. You can hear me read an excerpt from “The Nag Bride” an original novelette appearing in my upcoming collection, The Ghost Sequences (out in October from Undertow Books). Other authors reading include Tim Waggoner, Rio Youers, Linda Addison, Paul Tremblay, Wendy Wagner, and many, many more!

NYRSF Reading – June 9, 2021 at 7 p.m. EST

Rescheduled! Due to unforeseen technical difficulties, the NYRSF event is moving to Wednesday, June 9, 2021. On that new date and time, I’ll be reading an excerpt from Wendy, Darling and chatting with the wonderful Barbara Krasnoff about the book. You can visit the NYRSF facebook page to learn more about the series. ETA: The archived recording of the reading and my chat with Barbara is available here.

Ephemera Reading Series – June 16, 2021 at 7p.m

Found family and chosen family are themes woven throughout Wendy, Darling, and so I’m absolutely thrilled that the theme for this installment of the Ephemera Reading Series is Family! I’ll be reading along with Arkady Martine and Brent C. Lambert, and there will be a musical performance by Irene Zhong. I cannot wait for this event. It’s going to be so much fun! More info here. ETA: If you missed the event, the video is available here. Brent and Arkady both read amazing excerpts from upcoming works and I can’t wait to read them rest of them, and Irene performed two beautiful songs. I highly recommend checking it out!

Space Cowboy Books Reading – June 17, 2021 at 9p.m. EST

I’ll be reading in conjunction with the wonderful Space Cowboy Books, discussing Wendy, Darling, and just chatting about books and reading in general. The event is free. For more information and how to register, visit this link. ETA: If you missed the event, the video is posted here. Jean-Paul at Space Cowboy Books asked from truly fantastic questions!

PODCASTS

Tiny Bookcase – May 17, 2021

Not only did I have a wonderful chat with Ben and Nico, but we all wrote flash fiction stories to the same prompt and swapped them “on air” as it were. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see how we all managed to take the same prompt of “fortified” and run with it in completely different directions for our tales. You can listen to our chat here, and hear three original flash fiction stories, including my own fairy tale about a princess who dreams of being of a castle.

CBC Montreal – All in a Weekend – June 13, 2021 – 8:30-9:00am

Not a podcast, but an actual real, live radio show! Back in the day, before these new-fangled podcasts and streaming on demand, people consumed their media at specific times of the day. Ask your parents, kids! Anyway, I will be chatting with host Ainslie MacLellan about Wendy, Darling live (eep!) on Sunday morning. Since I can’t go home to visit Montreal just yet, this feels like the next best thing! More info on the series here.

Breaking the Glass Slipper Instagram Live – June 18, 2021 – 1pm

Okay, I completely failed to post about this one in advance, but luckily the interview was recorded and is available here. I had a blast talking to Megan about writing Wendy, Darling, reimagining classic tales with a dark and feminist bent, the writing process in general, and of course, our fictional crushes!

Genre Talk Podcast – June 21, 2021

I recently had a lovely chat with the Genre Talk folks about reading, writing, Wendy, Darling, and SFFH in general. The episode should be available June 21, but in the meantime, here’s a link to the podcast in general so you can check out some of the other episodes and conversations with other wonderful guests.

Liar’s Club Oddcast (Date TBD)

What happens when you get a bunch of Philly area writers together to talk books and writing? A whole lot of laughter and general silliness, it turns out. Gregory Frost, Keith Strunk, Merry Jones, Fran Wilde, and myself got to chat about reading, writing, critique groups, and of course play everyone’s favorite game – two lies and a truth. Turns out the Liar’s Club is awfully good at telling fact from fiction, or maybe I’m just a terrible liar. I’ll share the link to my specific episode when it’s available, but in the meantime, you can browse their other interviews here, including a recent chat with the wonderful Sam J. Miller!

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Howls from Hell Review

Howls from Hell Anthology CoverHowls from Hell is a forthcoming anthology from the HOWL Society (Horror-Obsessed Writing and Literature Society), edited by members of the Society, and showcasing the work of sixteen emerging writers from among its members. The anthology officially releases May 18, 2021, but is available for pre-order now. The Society was kind enough to provide me with an early copy for review.

The cover art by P.L. McMillan, who also contributes a story to the anthology, is striking, and each story is accompanied by an original illustration. All the illustrations, along with the design and layout work is done by Society members as well, proving this is a multi-talented group. The anthology as a physical object is sharp, professional-looking, and very nicely put together. Beyond the connecting thread of the HOWL Society, the anthology is un-themed, allowing authors to tackle a wide variety of subjects and approaches to horror. In these pages, you’ll find everything from quiet horror to the hyper-violent, supernatural horror, body horror, rural and suburban horror, and genre mash-ups with science fiction and fantasy. The variety of themes and approaches to horror is impressive, with a few stories in particular that  stood out to me.

“She’s Taken Away” by Shane Hawk is presented in the form of a police transcript of a conversation between Dr. Jay M. Landry and Annie Ellis, whose twin sister has been put away for terrible crimes. The piece is short, but with a strong voice, playing with the good twin/evil twin trope and exploring nature vs. nurture as the twins’ paths diverge and one sister engages in increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.

“Suspended in Light” by Alex Wolfgang is one of the quieter and more subtly unsettling stories in the anthology. A film student takes on a job cataloguing old film reels donated by a daughter cleaning out her mother’s estate. The first reel she watches features a man staring unnervingly at the camera, then setting up a second camera which seems to look back through the screen at her, causing her image to appear in a film shot over 80 years ago. The story effectively builds a sense of dread as it plays with the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, and looks at the sinister side of immortality on the silver screen, and what it means to capture memories through film.

“Possess and Serve” is a solid piece of sci-fi horror, imagining a future where individuals can subscribe to a service that allows them to summon an Assumed Control Unit officer to temporarily remotely possess their body to deescalate conflict and deal with other potentially dangerous situations. Sarah is one such officer who is summoned to the scene of a crime only to find that another Assumed Control Unit officer has possessed the body of the person who summoned them and is using said body to commit a horrific act. The story is tense, and nicely shows both the potential good enabled by technology and the ways technology might aid and abet the worst aspects of human nature.

“Sprout” by M. David Clarkson is another piece with a strong voice, offering up an atmospheric story of nature reclaiming and repurposing life to its own ends in gruesome ways. The story also explores the dynamics of power in a relationship built solely on lust, and the dangers of both feeling owed access to someone else’s body and blaming them for your actions.

“A Fistful of Murder” by Lindsey Ragsdale closes out the anthology with a unique twist on the cursed object trope. While making a purchase at a pet store, a man receives change which includes a $10 bill with the word kill written on it in red ink. The cashier is seemingly unable to see the message, but a mere accidental glance is enough to fill the man with an uncontrollable urge to cause pain and take life. The story brings into questions the idea whether violence is essential to the nature of man, or whether external factors – for example the literal idea of money as the root of all evil – is to blame.

With its wide range of themes and styles, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, making Howls from Hell a satisfying read for horror fans.

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And Then the Gray Heaven Review

And Then the Gray Heaven CoverOnce again I’m dipping my toes into the non-genre waters with an upcoming novella from Dzanc Books. And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz, which will be released on June 15, 2021, is a lovely meditation on loss, processing grief, queer found families, art as legacy, and networks of people supporting each other through the roughest times in their lives.

Jules is mourning the death of their partner, B, an artist and museum exhibition designer. Their grief is complicated by the fact that the hospital refuses to recognize their relationship, so Jules has to break into B’s hospital room to be with them at the end. B’s family is similarly wary of Jules, except for B’s brother, Alvin, though even he wasn’t there for B or Jules when they needed him the most. Following B’s death, Jules feels unmoored and alone. Seeing this, Jules’ neighbor Tina sends a family member to keep an eye on Jules – Theo. Theo and Jules strike up an immediate, sweet, and supportive friendship, which is the true heart of the novel. When Alvin unexpectedly arrives with a portion of B’s ashes to give to Jules, Jules hatches a plan to honor B’s memory by burying them within various museum exhibitions they helped design. Theo becomes Jules’ partner in crime, and they set off on a journey of remembrance and healing that brings Jules into contact with other people who were important to B’s life – an extended queer family that helps support Jules through their grief and helps them see that despite their initial feeling, they are far from alone.

We held cups of coffee with both hands and looked at each other. I said nothing. I was thinking about how I hadn’t talked to anyone about what had happened yet. This is what people have families for. I felt crushed into a fine powder–I was pigment. Windowsill blue. Ash taking air before gusting apart. No one to talk to and no reason to reach out. I didn’t want our friends to worry, and I had no information or comfort to offer them.

And Then the Gray Heaven feels deeply grounded in every day life, while also dealing with immense and complicated subjects like loss, love, grief, and neuroatypicality. The characters are richly drawn, and the web of support – the larger queer family – that B and Jules find around them at various points in their lives is heartening and immensely touching. The connectivity between people is mirrored through art, which weaves in and out of the story in various ways, from Jules’ first job as an airbrush artist, to B’s line of work. Art doesn’t merely connect individuals personally, but reflects a queer lineage and legacy, as subsequent generations of artists honor those who came before in their work, extending the network beyond a specific place and time, and opening up a larger world of people seeing and understanding each other.

The setting of the novel mirrors Jules’ journey, from the close confines of their apartment to the larger world of their roadtrip with Theo. As their network of friends grows, the world opens up, bringing them from the claustrophobia of grief and loss, back into the open spaces of hope and possibility. At such a short length, Katz manages to pack a lot into their work, making for a very impressive debut.

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March and April Virtual Events

Just over a year ago, I was planning to attend my first ICFA Conference. As the date of the conference grew closer, messages between attendees and emails from the organizers flew thick and fast as everyone tried to figure out whether the event would proceed safely. Ultimately, ICFA was cancelled, and this year, like so many other events over the past year, the conference will be entirely virtual. Even though there won’t be any of the famed poolside gatherings I’ve heard so much about, the line up of presentations, panels, and authors readings look wonderful, and I’m excited to be participating in the conference for the first time. I’ll be participating in a few other virtual events this month and next as well. I’m looking forward to all of them. If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll check them out!

International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts Conference – March 18-21, 2021

Author Reading – March 20, 2021 – 11 a.m. EST

Host: John Kessel

Sofia Samtar
Greg Bechtel
A.C. Wise

I’m thrilled to be reading alongside two such wonderful authors. As mentioned, there are a ton of other incredible program items scheduled throughout the weekend, all around the theme of Climate Change and the Anthropocene.

Penguin Random House Spring Book & Author Festival – April 6, 2021

Fairy Tale Retellings Panel

Heather Walter
Olga Grushin
A.C. Wise
Renée Ahdieh

The festival is aimed primarily at librarians, but it’s free for anyone to register and attend. I look forward to discussing re-told fairy tales with this wonderful group of authors!

Skeleton Hour Panel FlyerHWA Skeleton Hour – April 8, 2021

Writing Horror in a Post-Covid World – April 8, 2021 – 6p.m. PST/9p.m. EST

Hosted by Kathryn E. McGee

Panelists: Richard Thomas (Moderator), Sarah Langan, Usman T. Malik, Josh Malerman, A.C. Wise, and Lucy A. Snyder

This promises to be a great conversation with an excellent group of people. The event is free and the link to register can be found via the facebook page above.

Flights of Foundry - April 16-19, 2021

Author Reading – April 16, 2021 – 8p.m. EST

Panel – April 17, 2021 – 4 p.m. EST

What Makes Your Skin Crawl? Modern Horror Beyond Borders

Moderator: A.C. Wise; Panelists: Eugenia Triantafyllou, Clara Madrigano, Nibedita Sen, and Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
This panel will look at recent horror fiction across a variety of media including novels, short stories, and film with a particular focus on stories and authors from outside the US. What trends do we see emerging in modern horror fiction? What do we want to see more of, and which stories still aren’t being told?

The panels and readings look fabulous this year! The full schedule for Flights of Foundry can be found here.

Second Life Book Club – April 28, 2021

A Conversation with A.C. Wise – April 28, 2021 – 12 p.m. SLT/3p.m. EST

The Second Life Book Club is a long-running, popular series taking place within Second Life. I’m delighted to be taking part, reading from my upcoming novel, Wendy, Darling, and chatting about writing and books in general. Earlier in the month, Sam J. Miller and Nino Cipri will be participating in the Book Club as well, on April 14 and April 21 respectively. The whole series is well-worth checking out!

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Lagoonfire Review

Lagoonfire CoverLagoonfire by Francesca Forrest is the second novelette in the author’s Tales of the Polity series published by Annorlunda Books. I reviewed the first entry in the series, The Inconvenient God, for The Book Smugglers in 2018. The novelettes each stand alone fairly well, centering on Decommisioner Thirty-Seven, also known as Sweeting, as she deals with a discrete case involving the decommissioning of gods once their worshippers have moved on.

In Lagoonfire, Sweeting is sent to investigate an incursion of sea water in a new development under construction to determine whether it might have been caused by Laloran-morna, the former god of warm waves. Even though she decommissioned him, the process didn’t entirely take, leaving him with a limited version of his powers. Since the development is going up in an area once sacred to Laloran-morna, Sweeting’s superiors suspect the former god may be trying to sabotage the construction, even though the now-mortal Laloron-morna currently lives in a compassionate care facility, close to dying. Over the years, he and Sweeting have become friends, and when she goes to ask him about the seawater, which he claims to know nothing about, he tasks her with helping him fulfil his dying wish to get a message to his lost love.

Sweeting quickly discovers the situation is far more complicated than it initially seemed. Laloron-morna’s love may be a forgotten goddess of an ancient people that most believe are only a myth. As she attempts to gather more information, Sweeting runs into a history professor named Ateni whose research seems to support her theory, but shortly after they meet, Ateni is accused of terrorist action and arrested. Convinced of Ateni’s innocence and trying to prove it, Sweeting gets herself caught up on the wrong side of the investigation as a possible co-conspirator as she seeks to unravel the mystery, clear Ateni’s name, and keep her promise to Laloron-morna before his time runs out.

And then the sun returned in full force, drawing mist up from the ground all around us and from our sodden clothes. It was clammy and uncomfortable–but also unearthly, beautiful. I turned slowly, letting my arms pass through the glowing streamers. So soon they would fade away, but in that moment, it was like being among celestial beings, clothed in light. I caught sight of Ateni’s face, lips parted, eyes shining. Yes, this was better, much better, for a dedication to Laloran-morna’s unknown love. I returned to the water’s edge and poured the palm wine, Ateni and the ghostly curls of mist my silent witnesses.

Forrest once again perfectly blends magic and bureaucracy with touches of humor to bring the unique world of the Polity Series to life. Lagoonfire expands on The Inconvenient God, introducing more of Sweeting’s co-workers, along with several other decommissioned gods who act as an occasionally snarky, occasionally helpful chorus, but also as a found family, supporting each other and Sweeting. Sweeting’s character is deepened as well, as we learn why she’s so reluctant to share her name and prefers to go by her title or her childhood nickname. Coming to terms with the past is a major theme in the novelette, as is the question of who controls the narrative of history. Love, loss, memory, friendship, and found family are also resonant themes. Even at a short length, Forrest delivers a satisfying story and plenty of character development, while exploring the way history, including personal history, continues to shape the present. Identity, as a people, and as an individual person, can be shaped by history, but it’s always worth asking – whose history? Who is telling the story, and what do they have to gain by telling it that way? Forrest creates several interesting and effective parallels between the personal and the political when it comes to understanding the past and the ways in which the past informs the present and the future. Lagoonfire is a highly enjoyable novelette, and I hope there are more entries planned in the series.

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Evil in Technicolor Giveaway!

Evil in Technicolor CoverVampires! Ancient sunken temples! Mist-wrapped moors! Monster team-ups! Evil in Technicolor edited by Joe M. McDermott and published by Vernacular Books in October 2020 has it all, offering up an anthology packed with original novelettes putting new twists on classic monsters inspired by Hammer horror films. Contributors include E. Catherine Tobler, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Nick Mamatas, Craig Laurence Gidney, and more. The anthology also includes my own contribution “A Thousand Faces Minus One”, which combines Hammer horror movies with the music of Kate Bush to tell the story of a man haunted by his past who grows increasingly paranoid and begins to believe that the haunting is literal.

Kirkus gave the anthology a starred review, and included it on its list of Best Indie Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal Books of 2020.

Intrigued? You’re in luck. Now’s a chance to grab a copy of your very own! I have three e-book copies of the anthology to give away, and I’d love to send you one. Saunter on down to the comments and tell me about your favorite movie monster, Hammer horror or otherwise. It could be a classic like Dracula, a relative newcomer like the Babadook, or you could tell me about a monster you’d love to see realized on the big screen who hasn’t gotten their turn in the spotlight yet.

Comment between now and Saturday, February 13, 2021, and on Sunday, I’ll pick three winners to receive a copy of this excellent anthology. Get to it!

ETA: Thank you to everyone who entered. The random number generator has declared Miriam Tessmer, Jennifer Crow, and Martha Linbo-Terhaar the winners. A copy of the anthology is on its way to each of you!

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Call it Horses Review

Call It Horses CoverOccasionally I do remember to stray outside the bounds of SFFH genre reading. My latest such foray was Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden, courtesy of Dzanc Books who were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy of the book due to be released in March 2021. I’ve read several books published by Dzanc now, and I’m regularly impressed with the works they publish, books that are unafraid to experiment with voice and style, primarily literary, but also straying into genre territory with titles such as The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Darger and Nino Cipri’s collection Homesick.

Like Homesick, Call It Horses is the winner of the Dzanc Prize for Fiction. Set in 1990, the story follows the journey of three women – Frankie, Mave, and Nan – as they take a road trip into the desert, fulfilling Mave’s last wish as she’s dying of cancer. The novel is framed as a series of musings from Frankie (Mave’s niece) written to Mave’s lover, Ruth. Frankie’s parents died when she was sixteen, and Mave essentially raised her, though her role was more of a guardian, living in the house next to Frankie’s and keeping an eye on her from that distance, treating her more as an adult and a friend than a child in need of parenting. One of the core threads in the novel is the relationship between Frankie and Mave, which speaks to the larger questions the novel asks about love. What forms does love take? Does love need to be expressed to prove itself? Is love a finite resource, and are some people only capable of giving and receiving so much of it in a lifetime?

These questions are explored in a myriad of ways through the complicated relationships that exist between the characters. Nan is married to Dillon, who was the one truly passionate relationship of Frankie’s life, first a childhood friend, then briefly a lover. Frankie is married to Clay, a man she doesn’t love, but who is kind, gentle, and understanding. Ruth passed away several years ago, but she was the one true love of Mave’s life, and there hasn’t been anybody since. As a child, Frankie wrote letters to Ruth and received letters in exchange which fired her imagination, but as an adult, Frankie realizes she never really knew her.

Often you wrote of the desert, how in Sinai you heard the original language inside of language. How in Persia there could be no larger sense of night, of scope. Mostly you wrote about words themselves and about my own letters to Mave, which you’d been reading all along. Words without limits, blurred at the edges like bog land; words as rooms one walks into, words holding million-year-old-species like amber — see the trilobite and the ancient fern, the spinal column of something extinct still preserved in a word’s withered curve.

These explorations are quiet and meditative, as is everything in the novel. The story repeatedly touches on grief and loss, but not as dramatic touchpoints in the character’s lives, but rather as an inevitability, the cost of living. There’s an interesting tension between stillness and motion in the book. The story is that of a road trip with the characters literally always in motion. The narrative itself is constantly in fluid motion throughout time, recollections folded inside recollections in a non-linear exploration of the women’s intersecting lives. Yet at the same time, each character feels firmly stuck in place. They are either unable to pursue their desires, or uncertain what those desires are, caught in lives that aren’t fulfilling, and unable or unwilling to move on from their pasts. Ruth ends up representing a kind of ideal for all of them – the perfect love, the perfect life – but she is not a desire to move toward, she is safely in the past where she can remain idealized rather than realized, and no one has to hurt themselves further by trying to live up to her or confronting the reality of her existence.

The novel leans heavily into the literary and the poetic. It is grounded in the mundanities of everyday life, and yet dreamlike in its treatment of time, and fantastical in the flowery dialog the characters employ. It is a study in contrasts, and an interesting read for the rhythm of its language and its intimate exploration of the characters’ inner lives and the constant push and pull that exists between expectation and reality.

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Eurasian Monsters Review

Eurasian Monsters CoverEurasian Monsters edited by Margrét Helgadóttir is the seventh and final installment in the Fox Spirit Books Monsters anthology series. Like the other installments in the series, including African Monsters, Asian Monsters, European Monsters, and more, this book is a lovely physical object. The 8.5 x 8.5 square format gives the anthology the feel of a children’s book of dark fairy tales or ghost stories, and each entry is accompanied by its own illustration. The majority of the stories are original to the volume (published in December 2020), with a few reprints thrown in, and includes work by authors such as Haralambi Markov, Alex Shvartsman, Bogi Takács, and Ekaterina Sedia. The anthology also offers a mix of stories originally written in the English language, and translations. As the title implies, all the tales offer their own take on monsters, legends, and supernatural creatures in various Eurasian settings. Overall, it was an enjoyable anthology, with a few stories in particular that really stood, highlighted below.

Daemons in Their Time by Marta Magdelena Lasik (translated by Piotr Swietlik) offers a fascinating blend of a technologically advanced world and old mythology. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose as a rusalka follows a man through a desert wasteland, trying to get him to admit he’s not human, while he refuses to believe could possibly be anything but human.

You are lying. Perhaps even without knowing it, but you’re not telling the truth. I understand riddles. I recognize the correct answers even if I don’t know them. When you answer my question, my puzzle, I know, with the wisdom of a centuries-old rusalka, that it is not the correct answer.

Of all the stories in the anthology, this is probably the one that edges closest to science fiction, yet there’s also a timelessness to it, despite the post-apocalyptic setting. The story deals with questions of identity and self knowledge, and coming to accept truths, even when they are difficult to face.

Bagatazh by Karina Shainyan (translated by Mike Olivson) has the feel of a classic ghost story, told around a campfire. Indeed, much of the story does take place in the vicinity of a campfire, as Katya, one of two guides tasked with guiding tourists on hike and camping excursion, begins to suspect they are being stalked by a local legend.

Boom. There is something large stirring in the night shadows beyond the fire. Katya recoils, as the air wheezes into her lungs and freezes, transforming into stone. Boom, says the heart, beating painfully in her eardrums. Boom-boom-boom. The dark mass stirs and mutters. The low flames dance as the details of the approaching figure come into view. Recognizing it, Katya relaxes, and realizes she can breathe again.

Tucked within the eerie, supernatural tale is the story of a woman who feels caught between two worlds, and thus like she belongs nowhere. Katya’s predicament is mirrored by the monster of the tale, a massive ancient frog, cursed by the spirits of the mountain for refusing to pay tribute to them because it claimed to be a creature of the water as much as a creature of land, not living full time in either, and thus owing allegiance to no one.

Nine Tongues Tell Of by Haralambi Markov is lovely story of the friendship that develops between an orphaned woman caring for her elderly grandfather, and a nine-headed mythical creature. Similar to Katya in Shainyan’s story, Damyana in Markov’s story never feels entirely as though she belongs to the human world. While the hala she faces is terrifying, and does have its monstrous aspects, the gifts she gives it in order to keep it from devouring her ultimately become an act of healing, allowing her to let go of her grief and lighten her spirit.

When her grandfather died and she truly became an orphan, Damyana brought his ashes, neatly packed in an urn–a ceramic box decorated with cherubs and painted in a mournful green. All seven heads shed tears then and gently the hala took the box into one of its maws and stored it away for safe-keeping.

As with many of the stories in the anthology, the monster in Markov’s tale shows itself to be more compassionate than many humans in its own way. While some of the monsters are truly monstrous, most stand in for various states of mind – anxiety, fear, a lack of belonging, or a desire to be loved. The humans are often the monstrous ones, where more often than not, the monsters simply are what they are – obeying their nature, and holding up a mirror to the mortals who encounter them.

The Visit by Maria Galina (translated by Mike Olivson) tells the story of Sergey Stepanonvich, a middle-aged man who is visited one night by Ded Moroz, a frightening Santa Claus-like figure. At first Ded Moroz claims he has come to make amends for Sergey’s childhood disappointment when he wished for a telescope for Christmas, and instead received a drum. Ded Moroz tells him that had he received the telescope, he might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, instead of ending up in a dead-end job he hates, divorced, alone, and overall let down by life. He brings gifts of food and whiskey as an apology, but the longer they talk, the more Sergey begins to suspect that Ded Moroz’s motives may not be entirely pure.

At the border where light met shadow, he could see red, gold, green, and silver reflections, somewhat unclear and out of focus. But if you looked at them indirectly, from the corner of your eye, they somehow became a sled with a high back, decorated with shining patterns, and unmoving white silhouettes which stood out from the snow, either wolves or huge dogs…

The slow unfolding of the tale, and the ultimate reveal of Ded Moroz’s nature is nicely done. The imagery is evocative, and the author deftly blends touches of humor with an increasingly dark exploration of whether simple external factors have the power to shape our entire lives, or whether humans are ultimately responsible for creating our own success and happiness, but would rather look to those outside forces as convenient things to blame when our lives don’t go as we imagined.

Veruska and the Lúdvérc by Bogi Takács spins a classic fairy tale of a young, kind-hearted girl named Veruska who discovers what appears to be a strange, orphaned bird, and takes it home, only to find that she has unwittingly brought home a monster.

Yet suddenly she heard a popping sound. The chick jumped off the oven-ledge and squealed with human words, in a little girl’s voice. “What shall I bring? What shall I bring?” Veruska rubbed her eyes, opened the curtain over the ledge and tried to see better in the light of the full moon. The fledgling suddenly looked much larger, like an adult’s fist in size.

The lúdvérc at first seems only mischievous, pulling pranks which Veruska is blamed for, but then turns more sinister. If Veruska isn’t able to fulfil its demands, it threatens eat her, as it has eaten many children like her before. The story unfolds in a satisfying battle of wits, as Veruska must rely on her cleverness to out-trick the trickster to save her life and that of her family.

Each story in the anthology offers its own unique take on the monstrous, with a wide variety of supernatural beings that range from frightening to tragic and everything in-between. It’s a fantastic addition to the Monsters series, all of which are well-worth checking out.

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My Favorite Books of 2020

The year is almost done. I’m still trying to catch up on all the wonderful books that came out this year. I will always be trying to catch up on all the wonderful books that came out in any given year. It’s a delightful problem to have. I will never truly feel sufficiently caught up, but that’s not going to stop me from sharing a list of my favorites novels and novellas thus far!

In fact, I already started the process with a post at Vernacular Books. But, as is my way, I have more books to add! To quickly recap, here are the books included in my Vernacular post. You can read about each in more detail over there.

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
No Man’s Land by A.J. Fitzwater
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Riot Baby by Tochi Oyenbuchi
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

And now that your TBR pile is already teetering perilously, the list grows…

The Grand Tour by E. Catherine Tobler

The Grand Tour CoverThis is a collection I’ve been waiting for since I first encountered E. Catherine Tobler’s circus stories. Did my need to read it will the collection into being? Probably not, but you’re free to thank me anyway. The Grand Tour brings together many, but not all, of Tobler’s stories set in and around Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Like the circus itself, the stories move fluidly through time and space, revealing wonders and terrors along the way. Tobler’s writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, and the collection offers up a delightful blend of horror, science fiction, fantasy, history, and even a hint of romance. There are vanishing acts, found families, and jars of marmalade that hold moments in time. There are people donning costumes in order to shed their disguises and become their true selves. It’s a truly gorgeous collection, and once you’ve properly immersed yourself in Jackson’s world, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Kraken Sea as well so you can go back to Jackson’s roots and see how it all began.

Thin Places by Kay Chronister

An atmospheric, moody, and haunting collection full of beautifully written stories. A few in particular truly stood out, namely “Too Lonely, Too Wild”, “Roiling Without Form”, and “Life Cycles”. If you’re new to Chronister’s writing, this is an excellent place to start in order to get a sense of her strong voice and her eerie and lingering characters and settings. If you’ve read her work before, then you know how wonderful it is, so why not treat yourself to a whole collection?

Docile by K.M. Szpara

A near-future science fiction novel that presents a frightening and all-too-plausible look at the economic systems designed to allow the wealthy to hold onto their position and power, while everyone else is caught up in a endless cycle of debt passed down from generation to generation. Elisha sells himself into service as a Docile in order to protect his sister and pay off his family’s debt. As a Docile, he must absolutely obey the will of his owner, Alexander Bishop III, whose family just so happens to be behind the invention and manufacture of Dociline, a drug designed to completely remove a Docile’s will. Elisha saw Dociline ruin his mother’s mind, leaving her an empty shell, and swears he will never take it, meaning he will be fully aware of everything that goes on during his term of service where he must completely submit himself to Alex’s will. Docile is by no means an easy read, exploring uncomfortable territory around consent and abuse. The discomforting nature of the story is deliberately done, and it is balanced and grounded by characters that feel deeply human, whose choices and actions grow out of their worldviews, no matter how unsettling those world views might be.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

Set in Lemberg’s Birdverse, this novella explores transformation and self-discovery, as two trans elders seek answers about themselves and where they belong in the world. The prose is poetic, and the worldbuilding rich and immersive. The fact that the story centers on two grandparents taking on an epic journey filled with magic and danger sets it apart from other quest stories, and highlights one of the novella’s central themes – to be alive is to be constantly in the act of becoming, and one’s self is not a finite, but a thing that constantly evolves and grows. Earlier this year, I wrote a post discussing the novella in more depth, which can be found here.

Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory CoverA fast-paced space opera, which like Szpara’s Docile explores systems of debt, and questions of who has access to resources. Ash Jackson is a salvage pilot doing her best to hide a chronic illness that would leave her out of a job if her employers ever found out. After an encounter with a mysterious alien artifact, Ash’s entire world beings to unravel and she is caught up amidst companies out for profit, conspiracies, and secrets, unsure who to trust or where to turn. The writing is sharp and brilliant, the worldbuilding fantastic, and the characters highly relatable, which makes the situations they are forced into even more brutal and heartbreaking. Not only does Osborne do a fantastic job of exploring the uncaring nature of corporations and the distribution of wealth, she perfectly captures the physical and emotional cost of war and its ongoing impact long after the fighting itself is done.

The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper

Piper blends cosmic horror with the real-world horrors of transphobia and a system that allows people to fall through the cracks into poverty and homelessness. After losing her job, falling out with her family, and nearly dying at the hands of a back-alley surgeon, Monique is simply trying to survive, living in the abandoned tunnels beneath New York City. When the only good thing in her life, her girlfriend Donna, disappears, Monique sets out to find her. She knows Donna was taken, and that she isn’t the only one. Others have disappeared, people like herself and Donna that nobody else will care about or miss. Monique encounters a creature known as Grey Hill, a monster out of urban legends, who is responsible for the disappearances. She gives chase, and finds the mystery goes much deeper than a lone creature snatching people away. There’s a whole secret society living beneath the music hall with a plan to unleash horrors of cosmic proportions. Piper offers up truly unsettling and haunting descriptions, striking imagery, and a unique monster in Grey Hill. The cosmic horrors waiting to be unleashed are a troubling mirror for the real-world horrors Monique faces. The doctor who nearly ends her life and the cult (and their cosmic masters) she encounters underground are two sides of the same coin – uncaring beings who see people like her as fodder, a means to an end. The Worm and His Kings is a highly-effective novella that explores horror on multiple levels – both supernatural and mundane.

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

This tense and eerie novel is either the perfect thing to read during a pandemic, or the worst, depending on your state of mind. Written well before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Tremblay accurately captures so many aspects of a global medical catastrophe – the scramble for resources and a response, the distrust and misinformation, the paranoia, and the breakdown in communication leaving people stranded. Natalie is eight months pregnant when the virus hits, a rabies-like sickness that turns people and animals  into violent, zombie-like creatures. She and her husband are attacked in their home, her husband is killed, and Natalie is bitten. Natalie turns to her friend and college roommate, Dr. Ramola Sherman, for help, and she and Rams begin a desperate race against the clock to get Natalie to a hospital where she can hopefully be vaccinated before it’s too late, or if worst comes to worst, her baby can be safely delivered even if she succumbs. Tremblay puts a unique spin on the (don’t call them)zombies trope with ravenous creatures who spout unsettling nonsense that sometimes sounds like religious doctrine. The characters and relationships at the heart of the story lend it real emotional weight, making for a surprisingly effective ending that had me tearing up at times.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun CoverA highly satisfying epic fantasy with perfect pacing that makes it feel like a fast read despite the hefty page count. Roanhorse weaves together multiple storylines and points of view, as the characters are slowly drawn together for the impending celestial event known appropriately enough as Convergence. Serapio was blinded and scarred by his mother as a child to make him a living vessel for a lost god; Xiala is a sea captain who frequently finds herself on the wrong side of the law, and is equally feared and revered for her ability to command the sea through song; Naranpa is the current Sun Priest, caught at the heart of a conspiracy to depose her. The worldbuilding is rich, the characters wonderful, and the writing beautiful as Roanhorse explores the notion of epic destiny and what happens when the purpose you’ve been building toward your entire life goes completely off the rails.

The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Where Kingfisher’s delightfully creepy The Twisted Ones (published in 2019) took on Arthur Machen’s classic horror story “The White People”, The Hollow Places takes on Algernon Blackwood’s cosmic horror novella “The Willows”. In the wake of her divorce, Kara (known as Carrot to friends and family) moves into her uncle’s Wonder Museum to take care of the place for him while he has surgery. The Wonder Museum is an establishment crammed full of strange taxidermy and other oddities, and when one more oddity arrives – a small carving from the Danube region labeled “corpse otter” – Carrot thinks nothing of it. Until a mysterious hole appears in one of the Wonder Museum’s walls, and she and her neighbor Simon, who runs the coffee shop next door, discover an entire world behind the wall. The novel is rife with intensely creepy imagery and truly skin-crawling moments, and captures the spirit of Blackwood’s original novella, while giving it a fresh spin. The cosmic horror on display here is of the vast, uncaring universe, coupled with the awesome and terrifying power of nature variety, rather than the squamous, tentacled variety, which is refreshing as not as many authors seem to be playing that corner of the sub-genre playground. I highly recommend picking up The Twisted Ones as well and giving that a read while you’re at it!

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

A glorious manners and magic novel reminiscent at times of The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, while being utterly its own thing. Beatrice is a powerful sorceress, practicing magic in secret, collecting grimoires in order to learn how to make The Great Bargain and bind a major spirit to her will. She isn’t merely seeking power for her own sake, but also to help her father with his business, and ensure her family’s financial future without having to get married. Her family, and society at large, has other plans for her however. Marriage, however, means Beatrice will be forced to wear a collar that will suppress her powers in the name of keeping any potential children that might be conceived safe from demonic possession. In her quest for grimoires, Beatrice crosses paths with Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe. Beatrice learns that Ysbeta is after the same thing she is, and they strike a deal to share knowledge, which quickly blossoms into a friendship. At the same time a romantic relationship blooms between Beatrice and Ianthe – one which could endanger all of her plans, even as it delights her family. The novel is sumptuous, filled with glorious descriptions of fashion, food, and buildings, and the characters are wonderful. The intricate social relationships, and delicate balance Beatrice must keep between all the people in her life in order to pull off her plans mirrors perfectly the bargains she must make with the spirit Nadi in order to accomplish her goals. Everything in her life is a negotiation, and there are rules to be followed and cleverly subverted. The worldbuilding is fantastic, the choices Beatrice faces brutal and heartbreaking, and the characters’ and the way they deal with each other brings it all together. Even when there is subterfuge involved, characters respect each other, have honest conversations, and genuinely try to understand each others’ viewpoints, something which doesn’t happen often enough in fiction. Polk provides a masterclass in a narrative that offers up plenty of tension and obstacles for characters to overcome without relying solely on said characters butting heads literally or figuratively.

The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller

The Blade Betwen CoverMiller perfectly blends crime, mystery, and the supernatural in a story set in a fictionalized version of Hudson, NY – a town with a bloody past rooted in the whaling industry, currently caught between dying and gentrification. Ronan finds himself on a train from Manhattan, headed back to his hometown. Hudson is the place he deliberately left behind, where his mother committed suicide and he was ruthlessly bullied by homophobes as a kid. He hadn’t intended to return, and in truth, he isn’t entirely certain why he has, as he has no memory of boarding the train of what he’s doing there. The first person he encounters on his arrival is Dom, his best friend, and first love, now a cop married to another former classmate, Attalah. Ronan quickly rekindles his friendship with Dom, which leads to a rekindling of their romantic and sexual relationship as well, even as he deepens his friendship with Attalah over their mutual hatred for the outsiders taking over their town. Attalah and Ronan develop a plot to drive out the gentrifiers and retake Hudson, but in doing so, they accidentally tap into something larger and more powerful than themselves, a supernatural force fueled by hate, which neither of them can control. The Blade Between is beautifully-written, the fantastical elements meshing perfectly with the real world issues of eviction and substance abuse, and the complicated and messy human relationships at the book’s heart. The Blade Between is by turns painful and hopeful, not shying away from the ugliness and hatred humans are capable of, but showing their capacity for kindness and caring as well. Miller’s Hudson is both a haven and a hell, a thin place slipped out of time where great wonders and great terrors exist side by side, and occasionally, the ghosts of long-dead whales sail the skies.

Despite the length of this list, I’m always looking to add to my TBR pile. What books did you love this year?

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