“The Introvert Lady” illustration by Basura Especial
Haute Macabre’s Staff Writers Reading Stacks from the month of March
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison
I have had a long time fascination with Joan of Arc, albiet from a distance. I think it stems from any interest in possession and the supernatural in general, and the mysticism that has surrounded her for centuries. Was she actually receiving messages from angels, guarding and guiding her, or was it a force much more malevolant? Or was she simply mad? This book doesn’t answer any of these questions, but does take you through her unprecedented rise to military power, her experiences of divine intervention , and to her ultimate fall and execution. Painfully, I found much of her narration grossly relevant to our current climate, especially when discussing her gender and constant threat of rape and sexual assault, which led me to be simultaneously revolted and motivated.
I am not afraid, I was born to do this
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson has very quickly become one of my favorite writers. Everything I’ve read from her thus far has been painstakingly intimate. The Red Parts follows her and her family during the trial of the man accused of murdering her aunt more than thirty years ago. As someone that absolutely cannot sleep without Law & Order SVU on in the background (much to the dismay of my husband), The Red Parts hit many of my marks: a perfectly composed memoir and the perversion of true crime. I’ll definitely be adding “Jane”, the collection of poems to her deceased aunt, to my stacks.
Whip Smart by Melissa Febos
Many, if not all, of the sex-worker memoirs I’ve read have been … aggrevating, if not straight up self-righteous, egotistical, and trite. Whip Smart (thankfully) tranverses self-righteousness into self-acceptance. Rather than the a-typical “how did I get here, I’m such a good person just pretending to be bad”, Melissa Febos approaches being a drug-addict professional domme with “I belong here, I am as bad as I am good. And I’m good at it, and I like it”. Yes, she does eventually change careers, and yes, she does get sober (and good for that – shooting speedballs sounds like living hell), but doesn’t become any less interesting along the way. This book was very enjoyable, and makes you look at people a little differently: does that guy in line in front of me at the grocery store pay someone to pee on him while he’s crying for his mother?
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have completely disregarded Frida Kahlo my entire life, assuming she was nothing more than a pop culture graphic icon and a unibrow. Bits and pieces of her story have intrigued me – were she and her husband cannibals? she was an lesbian amputee? – but it wasn’t until very recently that I had been introduced to her incredible art (beyond the reprintings on tote bags and trinkets), and I have been actively making up for lost time. The biography by Hayden Herrera is an intense and intimate look at Frida’s painful and incredible life, introducing the the personality and persona that has left a permanent impression on the world.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
I abandoned this halfway through – I’m all for Neil Gaiman, even his young adult writings, but this was too dumbed down to even enjoy as a filler read between more heady pieces. Shame, I had been looking forward to this one for months!
I Miss The World by Violet LeVoit
Set in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, this story unfolds in the form of a raw and winding conversation between siblings that makes for a brisk, fascinating read that feels more like a ride, a darkly humorous noir ride along razor-sharp trains of thought about aesthetic obsession, nostalgia, trauma, depression, and revenge. Perhaps you heard that British scientists recently unveiled the darkest material known to man. LeVoit’s novel is the black comedy version of that material, so dark it threatens to consume your very being, yet you can’t take your eyes off it. There’s something hypnotic about her breakneck dialogue, acutely acerbic yet hypersensitive. You’re amused until she sneakily kicks you right the feels. And before you know it, the tale is over, leaving you feeling like you just got the wind knocked out of you by a relentless series of ideas and revelations that’ll haunt you for days.
Locke & Key: Small World by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodríguez
If you’ve not read the brilliant comic book series Locke & Key, stop here, start there, and allow me to envy you your first journey through what is, in my opinion, one of the finest uses of the graphic novel medium to date. Locke & Key is a six-volume series, a fantastic story interwoven from equal parts awe-inspiring wonder and true horror, marvelous and genuinely scary. It easily could’ve been a novel written by Joe Hill, but the visual storytelling of artist Gabriel Rodríguez enhances the incredible creativity and impressive freakiness immeasurably, elevating the tale of Keyhouse to something truly exceptional. The story is set in and around a very special house, belonging to the Locke family, that contains magic keys, each of which has a unique supernatural function. And that’s all I’m going to tell you because the less you know ahead of time, the better it is. So! Locke & Key: Small World is a brand new, standalone story set in the past of Keyhouse and concerning previous generations of the Locke family. It’s a perfectly self-contained little tale full of great big horrors and makes for a most welcome, albeit brief, return to the terrifyingly imaginative world of Locke & Key. I hope Hill and Rodríguez have plans to create more standalone stories like this in future.
Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation written by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, illustrated by John Jennings
I’ve been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s Kindred for years, so when I saw that it had just been adapted as a graphic novel I jumped at the opportunity to finally read it while continuing to feed my insatiable appetite for comics. Mind you, I’m not trying to claim that reading this version should serve as a substitute for reading the novel itself. However I do think that illustrating Butler’s story makes it all the more gut-wrenching. Kindred is the tale of a modern African-American woman’s repeated experience of being suddenly transported from her home in 1970s California back to the antebellum South. It’s a very powerful story of courageous survival, both that of Dana, a modern woman forced to adapt to life as a black person in the era of American slavery, as well as the people of the period, whose lives become intimately intertwined with Dana’s. By following Dana through her repeated and increasingly long and dangerous visits to an antebellum plantation in Maryland we form an emotional connection with her that serves to help modern day humans better comprehend the myriad horrors of slavery as well as the strength of those who endured and overcame it. It’s dark fantasy with a vital purpose and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula by David Skal
“Dracula never ends. Not in my life, or in yours.” writes David Skal in the opening pages of Something in the Blood. I can attest to that. I have been obsessed with the story of Dracula ever since I stole the book from my mother’s dusty bookshelf when I was but ten years old. It is a story that I hold sacred and there is nothing that will ever compare; it is timeless and as much a part of me as my own blood. I cannot help but to think of this vampiric tale, and by association, the man who wrote it, quite fondly. Over the years I’ve attempted reading other titles by Bram Stoker, with varying degrees of success, but it is the tale of Dracula by which I measure all his other stories, and indeed, all stories, period. However fond I am of the creator of this iconic bloodsucking fiend, I am, however, somewhat conflicted about Something in the Blood. As one reviewer succinctly put it: “…there’s a Bram Stoker-shaped hole at the heart of the book.” And wow, is there ever. The book’s author delves into the lives of everyone who has ever touched Bram Stoker, no matter how obscure or insignificant. And though neither obscure nor insignificant, I would venture to say that at least half this book is about Oscar Wilde (and his alleged syphilis! Whee!) ”I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.” Thusly is Jonathan Harker greeted by the Count after his first nights’ stay in the castle. And so, we, too, learn much of the changes and deaths and rushes of humanity that occurred during the course of Bram Stoker’s life. After the final page, I can say with some amount of authority that I have a pretty good picture of the time during which Stoker lived, and the history and culture of that time, as well as the people with whom he chose to surround himself and those by whom he was inspired. And perhaps having learned these things, it may be interesting to give Dracula another read? I may notice things that had before entirely escaped my attention! David Skal writes with a wry humor that serves as a skillful punctuation to the information and stories he shares, but never overwhelms the reader with it. He lets the facts and data and anecdotes tell the story. It’s a lengthy, rambling story with plenty of digressions, but if you are a fan of Bram Stoker’s stories, especially, of course, Dracula, then I think you will enjoy learning the the story of the man who wrote it, and the life that he lived.
Dracula never ends. Not in my life, or in yours.
Universal Harvester: A Novel by John Darnielle
In a small town in Iowa, sometime in the 90s, someone is splicing freaky home footage into the videocassettes rented from the Video Hut where 22 year old Jeremy Heldt works. Profoundly unsettled, Jeremy tries to quell his curiosity about these creepy, darkened scenes that show up in the shop’s oft-rented movies, such as Reindeer Games or She’s All That; he feels that there is something very much None Of His Business that is going on here. A search for answers spans years both backward and forward, and what follows is an intensely disquieting, atmospheric tale that confuses and compels in equal measure… and even though–perhaps especially though– I didn’t know what the hell was going on, I couldn’t put it down. Though, if you’re expecting a straight up horror story, you may be disappointed–iIncorporating themes of loss, memory, loneliness and belonging, author John Danielle (of Mountain Goats fame, if that’s your thing) has given us a slim novel that defies categorization, but will leave you haunted for long after you’ve finished it’s 200 some pages.
The Graveyard Apartment: A Novel by Mariko Koike
I’ve really been on a “creepy house” tear these last few months and March is no exception. The Graveyard Apartment is a 1988 novel that was translated into English and released in the US in 2016 — it’s a lovely little chiller, but one of the spookiest things has got to be the translation. As someone who learned English as a second language (albeit, as a child) and grew up around ESL parents, the nuances of all things fluency-related are both known and deeply fascinating to me, and I wish I had more insight into the original Japanese prose because the translation is downright bizarre. The sentences are packed with expressions and idioms in a way that seems incredibly unnatural – something would always be “chock full” and not “full,” for example. It’s a testament to Koike’s storytelling that the narrative overpowers the hackneyed language: the plot is unnerving as hell and I read the book in one sitting.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
It’s a scary book set in a house, y’all! This one was described as a “propulsive, edge-of-your seat thriller set in an apocalyptic near-future world” and it’s equal parts dystopia and horror, an unfortunate mix. The gist is that Something Happened and now people are dying from looking at things, so everyone is covering their eyes in order to survive. A group of these survivors ends up in a house together, and they don’t all trust each other, and two of them are pregnant, and one thinks the Something is all in your mind, man, and there’s a lot of potential that ends up being completely wasted on a Dystopia 101 ending where society moves on eye-less and enough of the narrative centers around the protagonist’s pregnancy and children in a weird way that… I don’t know. I kept getting ableism vibes with the eye stuff, and gender-essentialist vibes with the pregnancy stuff, and the dissatisfied feeling I was left with after finishing the book didn’t match the initially captivating, fast-moving plot.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Orphans! Widowers! Houses with names! Jane Eyre-y Gothic novel with a young, romantic protagonist who finds herself living in the shadow of her new husband’s first wife, Rebecca. Some notes of Le Fanu as well. Great characters, great writing, great everything really. If you’re into sprawling mansions and ill-advised love and ghosts and murder and also sitting down for tea at half past four every day, you’ll like this one.
Tell us what you’re reading this month!