photo by Melissa Semião, TheeWhiteWitch
What the Haute Macabre Staff Writers have been reading in the month of April
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Thus far 2017 seems to be a year in which I finally read some things I’ve been meaning to read for far too long. Better late than never, sure, but oh how I wish I’d first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle years ago. I loved everything about this utterly haunting, unrelentingly sinister, and thoroughly claustrophobic story. It’s a captivating study of the relationship between the remaining members of the once prominent, now infamous Blackwood family (the rest of whom were all fatally poisoned years ago): the Blackwood sisters, Mary Katherine (younger sister and narrator of our tale) and Constance (elder sister, acquitted of said murders), their invalid uncle Julian (obsessed with documenting Blackwood family’s tragic past), and their strained relationship with the nearby villagers. Aside from the need to venture into town for supplies, such as groceries and library books (a harrowing task undertaken by Merricat), this peculiar trio live a very isolated, self-contained, ritualistic life together, which is fascinating all by itself. Then their cousin Charles comes calling, ostensibly to visit, upsetting the balance of the Blackwood household, a predicament that Merricat is determined to resolve. And so an already strange and stifling situation steadily escalates…
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez
After binging on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and everything Kelly Link has published to date, I’ve been starving for more Weird fiction. Things We Lost in the Fire is an astonishing collection of short stories set in modern day Argentina, a country shaped by its history of civil and political violence, which very much informs Enríquez’s writing. These stories are dark, very dark, very unsettling, and wonderfully original. Some are just plain scary while others are more melancholy and different flavors of haunting. While it’s fair to describe them all as Weird Horror stories of one sort or another, their diversity is breathtaking.
“From women who set themselves on fire in protest of domestic violence to angst-ridden teenage girls, friends until death do they part, to street kids and social workers, young women bored of their husbands or boyfriends, to a nine-year-old serial killer of babies and a girl who pulls out her nails and eyelids in the classroom, to hikikomori, abandoned houses, black magic, northern Argentinean superstition, disappearances, crushes, heartbreak, regret and compassion.”
But here’s the best part: Mariana Enríquez is not a new author. As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this is simply the first of her books that’s been translated into English. Now I’m hungry to read everything else Enríquez has published. Please, someone, get to translating.
Treasures Island!! by Sara Levine
I can’t talk about Treasure Island!!! without also mentioning the book that lead me to it, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. In one of my favorite essays in the book, entitled “Not Here to Make Friends”, Gay discusses both the issue of what it means to be considered likable as a woman and the perplexing situation these days in which people are automatically critical of their entertainment media as soon as they encounter characters they somehow deem unlikeable, particularly female characters. I will own up to having done this myself in the past, but thanks to Roxane Gay the scales have since fallen from my eyes in this regard.
“That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd. It implies that we are engaging in a courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable, varying standards. Certainly we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.”
“I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things—human.”
Levine’s Treasure Island!!! is narrated by a woman in her mid-twenties, recently graduated from college, and now floating from one unfulfilling job to another. Already unrepentantly self-obsessed, she become preoccupied with Treasure Island, the 19th century adventure novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and decides to henceforth live her life in accordance with what she perceives to be the story’s “Core Values”: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING. Make no mistake, this woman is completely self-involved. With the idea of seeking adventure she instead embarks on an escalating series of self-created misadventures that impact both herself and those close to her. She even does one thing that I found absolutely horrific, but I thoroughly enjoyed this madcap book. It’s as much a story about the narrator’s hilarious obsession and ludicrous behavior as it is about her friends’ and family’s efforts to cope with her behaviour and relate to each other. And, sure enough, plenty of reviews of this book cite the narrator’s bad behaviour and unlikability as reasons they disliked the book, as though that has something to do with the quality of the writing. But I would direct all of those people to go read “Not Here to Make Friends” and then think carefully about their criticism.
“Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare to be so alive.”
Penny Dreadful Comic #1 written by Chris King, illustrated by Jesús Hervas
I’ll come right out and say it: Vaness Ives is my Patronus and I miss Penny Dreadful something fierce. Perhaps you, like me, are still in mourning for the premature ending of the Penny Dreadful TV series. Whether or not you found its finale satisfying (for the record, I most certainly did not), we long for more time with its characters in their ceaselessly dark world, both sumptuous and squalid. Short of plunging into Penny Dreadful fanfic, this brand new comic book series is our best and only chance. It picks up right where the TV series left off and, if her presence on the cover is any indication, I’m hopeful we haven’t seen the last of the beguiling Miss Ives.
Abandon Me : Melissa Febos
In last month’s Stacked, I discussed Melissa Febos’ “Whip Smart”, her memoir about her time as a part time professional dominatrix and full time drug addict. Abandon Me is a far cry from this – a series of personal essays of her experiences post-Whip Smart, and it almost felt like an entirely different person writing. The difference voice doesn’t diminish the experience of reading her: she’s a gifted and deeply persona writer, so that you feel in either tone a strong sense of confession. Abandon Me discusses Febos reaching out and connecting with her biological father and his family and a toxic and desperate relationship with her partner. Reading Abandon Me felt like the phone calls between friends late at night, when you’re lonely and at a loss, and need a comforting voice to tell you it’s ok to just be you.
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
OK, so to be honest, I bought this book at an airport because I was desperate for reading material due to the fact that the book I really wanted to read was left behind on the kitchen table by the idiot who was traveling (it me). I was never a big reader of Lawson’s website, The Bloggess, and I don’t really have a good reason why that is, but anyway, I did somehow end up reading her post about Beyoncé the giant metal chicken, which was a total scream. I hadn’t intended to read this particular book, but I was fascinated by the enthusiastic, googly-eyed taxiderpy raccoon on the cover, so there you so. In Furiously Happy, Lawson writes with dark humor and brutal honesty of her clinical depression, anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, mild OCD and trichotillomania, chronicling her moments of terror and misery but also her moments of pure, unbridled, ridiculous joy. The writing is humorously compelling and exhausting in the same way that I found Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, except that Moran was attempting to write a book about feminism, and yet I think somehow Lawson did it better, and that wasn’t even her focus. And I’ll confess, sometimes I think the hyperbolic, ridiculous brand of humor that colors their writing irritates me so much, because, well, it reminds me so much of myself. On the flight I grew frustrated with these instances, blushing with embarrassment and being mad at them for making me acknowledge my own absurdity, and yet I also found myself frequently turning my face to the iced-over window so that my seatmate couldn’t see how hard I was laughing. And if you suffer, like me, or like Jenny Lawson, or like millions of others, from depression or various other mental illnesses, that kind of laughter is a miracle–and totally worth the cost of an overpriced airport book.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I’m the sort of person who must read the book before watching the movie, end of story. So, as soon as I realized there was to be a film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel (which, okay, I’d never even heard of, but the trailer looked quite beautiful), I raced to the library to find the novel. To sum up: Philip, an orphaned, unsociable fellow, was raised by his uncle Ambrose, whom he loves and admires tremendously. During travels abroad in warmer climes, Ambrose meets, falls in love with, and marries the titular cousin Rachel–and then dies shortly thereafter under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Philip is at first jealous of his cousin, and of course his hatred of her grows upon learning of his beloved uncle’s death. Rachel, however, is surprisingly likeable, and soon Philip’s attitude toward her begins to change…
I had high hopes for this book, as I’ve enjoyed many of du Maurier’s novels and short stories, and while it full of atmospheric details and beautiful writing, the plot is neither as extraordinary nor suspenseful as I’ve come to expect from her body of work. Also, Philip is a moron; you will most likely want to throttle him. I will say this, though–during the course of the book, I changed my mind about cousin Rachel two or three or four times. Is she a twisted murderess, a victim of circumstances, or a human with a fatal flaw?
What have you read this month?