Darkly: Blackness and America’s Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor Darkly was an illuminating, insightful read that gave me pause with every sentence. Part personal memoir, part cultural critique, part valuable history lesson, Taylor meditates on the Black experience and gothic culture through a collection of observations on music, film, art, philosophy, architecture, decay, and violence– and through these observations invites us to more closely analyze and question the aesthetics of those dark things we hold dear.
Something that struck me, in particular, is where Taylor asserts that: “goth is above all privileging the imagination over reason, choosing the fanciful over the pragmatic, forgoing restraint for excess,” and she further comments on the privilege of this frivolity and how this ostentatiousness is typically seen as a sentiment only for white people. That Blacks must be ever vigilant (due to the very justified paranoia that they can’t afford distraction) and therefore there’s this sense of gravitas or this sense of pride that they’re supposed to keep up and aren’t allowed strangeness or bizarreness. In this interview she brings up the phrase that gets tossed around, “What kind of White nonsense is that?” and further posits the often unasked question, that ”how is it that white people are allowed nonsense, but somehow Black people are not?”
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Eh. It’s a mystery-thriller from Ruth Ware. A journalist goes on a bespoke, luxury cruise, thinks she hears someone being thrown overboard in the next cabin and investigates the incident after being told there was no one actually staying in that cabin. You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I don’t think Ware’s efforts are necessary staples of the genre, but they are pretty fun whodunits, why-dunits, and maybe-even-youdunits. Like…I’d pay full price for them at an airport bookshop, but I’d leave it on my seat for the next passenger because I don’t see the need to make it a permanent addition to my bookshelf.
I think what I exceptionally don’t love are her characters, which typically seem to be people with messy lives that are in some fashion or another, either slowly or spectacularly, going to shit. Which hey, that could be any of us. I can’t be too judgy, I guess. But these individuals are annoyingly reckless and irresponsible (or at least they seem so to me, but I can be a little stodgy sometimes, and also maybe I see something in them that makes me feel very uncomfortable about how carelessly I behaved in my twenties) and there’s something …disagreeable about them that makes me not very sympathetic to whatever corpse-ridden mess they find themselves in. However. I’m on my library’s waitlist for the new title from this author so what do I know, anyway?
The Witch Elm by Tana French If Ruth Ware is the “eh it’s ok” of the psychological crime thriller authors, then I would venture to say that Tana French is the one of luminaries of the genre. What I enjoy most, I think, about French’s stories, is that neither the plots nor the perspectives/point of view take a predictable course, the characters don’t know each other or themselves very well, and even the detectives can’t necessarily be trusted. In The Witch Elm, Toby is a carefree, #blessed sort who doesn’t have to try very hard at anything and things just generally turn out okay for him with no effort on his part. Until…they don’t turn out very okay at all, after a home break-in, during which he is beaten to within an inch of his life. Struggling to recover from his injuries with the realization that he might never be quite the same again, he and his inexplicably rock-solid girlfriend move into his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. During an extended-family visit, a skull is discovered in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden and as the mystery deepens over the course of the investigation, Toby begins to consider the possibility that his past may not be exactly the way he remembers it.
The girlfriend was so weirdly loyal that I was halfway expecting/hoping for her to have somehow orchestrated the whole home invasion incident AND have been responsible for the decades-old murder, but that’s just my imagination running away with me and I guess thank goodness no one is counting on me to solve any crime. I enjoyed the heck out of this story, and it’s interesting to note that the plot is inspired by a real-life tragic and grisly unsolved crime.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I am not sure what I can say about this highly-acclaimed book that hasn’t been said. I mean it’s on everyone’s “best of 2020” lists for a very good reason. In 1950’s Mexico, a well-to-do young woman travels to an isolated estate to investigate her cousin’s frantic claims that her new husband is trying to kill her. A glamorous heroine who is tough, smart, and funny; the creeping decay and dread of an ancestral home in which resides some truly detestable and disgusting characters, disturbing dreams, ghosts that walk through walls, and a wonderfully interesting and super gross twist on the mechanics of the familiar haunted house trope. What’s not to like?
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due In a similar “most likely to have all the things I like” vein, these engaging short stories by Tananarive Due tick every box for what I want in a summer read. (I think I read this in September, so that still counts, as far as I am concerned!) A vast spectrum of supernatural business, characters that I care about, masterful writing that is emotive and nuanced but not super dense or difficult. It’s got everything!
Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom Medical historian and biblio-adventurer Megan Rosenbloom’s investigation of books bound in human skin doesn’t just reveal details about the anthropodermic books, or the collectors who greedily hoarded them, or the craftspeople who created them; she passionately and humanely explores the people these books used to be. Along the way we learn of gentleman doctors in their mahogany-shelved libraries, flaunting strange collections; the gruesome and clandestine theatrics of midnight corpse-thieving grave robbers, midwives to royalty, 19th-century highwaymen in their final hours, poets and paupers, murderers and scientists–but as full as this book is of characters, Dark Archives provides an emotional examination that renders these pages, and I am quoting from The LA Times here, “…surprisingly intersectional, touching on gender, race, socioeconomics, and the Western medical establishment’s colonialist mindset.”
Come for the weird books facts, stay for the unexpected and powerful human questions. Additional questions, I might add, you can find answers for in our recent interview with the author!
Malorie by Josh Malerman. A Bird Box sequel exists. I read it. It was fine. Fast-paced, intense. It felt like it was missing something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on (maybe an extra 50 pages?) Maybe a bit rushed, sort a “direct to video” vibe. Also, like it was literally written for the screen. I finished it in the span of an afternoon, so I can’t say it didn’t keep my interest, but there are probably more interesting entries on this list. See directly below.
Bunny by Bunny Awad The less I say about this one, the better. It’s wild. One of the most imaginative things I have ever read. Dark and funny and wicked and perfect, and the setting is one with which I’ve developed a fair bit of a fixation. I have a peculiar fondness for characters deeply involved in high-level educational pursuits, especially in niche or obscure areas of study. I think it’s because I lived at home and worked crazy-stupid hours at a fast food restaurant while I attended community college classes–most of which I only showed up for half of the time because I have immense anxiety when it comes to classroom settings.
My failure to properly fulfill what I guess has been beaten into my brain as a sort of “All American scholastic obligation” has led to a deep sense of shame about my lack of credentials* but has over time cultivated a deep and abiding fascination with the whole university experience– especially the weird sort of bubble that students who live on campus, who do not have to work to support themselves, and who are consumed with their research and studies, seem to exist in. Anyway, I did say I wasn’t going to divulge much about this book, and I did not! I mostly talked about myself! A bunch of Goodreads reviewers apparently thought it was too weird and it broke their poor, dumb brains, but if you revel in stories that elicit gleeful hisses of “whaaaaat the fuuuuuuck?!” then I am certain you will enjoy the bizarre delights of this wonderfully demented little gem.
*Which is not to say I am regretful about my lack of education in this context; I 100% do not wish to be saddled with decades of student debt, but I’ll admit to a certain insecurity about my lowly associates degree that took me the better part of ten years to obtain.
Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda My second favorite book of the year! (Number one on the list is Bunny.) The stories in this collection are loosely based on traditional Japanese tales of yokai, the ghosts and monsters that figure prominently in the country’s folklore. At turns clever, tender, and empowering, and brimming with strange wonders coexisting with mundane, everyday scenarios, Where The Wild Ladies Are is a lighthearted and whimsical-bordering-on-absurdist exploration of these classic stories and the supernatural beings that cavort amongst them, through a contemporary, feminist lens.
Spectral Evidence by Trista Edwards I haven’t read much in the way of poetry recently…or any poetry in these last ten or eleven months at all, come to think of it. And if there was any year that we needed a breath of the poetic and sublime to transcend this timeline, even for the space of a moment or two–it is now.
I received this volume of poems and illustrations a few months ago, and I am working my way through the collection, each line aquiver with a predestined sadness, the tragedy of an unavoidable outcome that you’re determined to see through. These poems evoke the foreknowledge of the moment when everything changes, but how you keep marching toward it, and somehow even returning to it. To look backward on your innocence and forward toward your annihilation. How you can’t have it both ways, except when you can.
The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear on Film by Matt Glasby Though I’m a life-long fiend for all things horror, my love for the genre does tend to wax and wane. Sometimes I become a bit unplugged, only to dive back in with a voracious ferocity that’s probably a bit alarming from an outsider’s perspective. Matt Glasby’s The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear on Film, and has marvelously rekindled my love for all things horrid, haunting, and harrowing. Glasby examines some of the most frightening films created and explores with us what it is exactly, that makes them so scary. Which sounds like it might be a dry, scholarly affair, but it’s not even a bit! The analysis is tightly written, wryly humorous, and exceptionally insightful, and, coupled with the spare elegance of the striking black and white artwork—I’m utterly immersed and enthralled and I haven’t been able to put it down.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – I first read Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell before I began writing for Haute Macabre, which means I never reviewed it here. Suffice to say, it’s one of my favorite novels. It’s a book that I enjoyed so utterly, in which I was so completely immersed, that I mourned the end of it. To this day I wonder what its characters are up to. So I was elated when I learned that Susanna Clarke had a new novel coming out and Piranesi did not disappoint. It’s much shorter than its predecessor, but no less wondrous. It’s every bit as magical without having anything to do with magicians. And I hope that the dedicated team who spent a decade adapting Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for TV decide to do the same for Piranesi. This is such a visually dazzling story, I’d love to see it adapted with the same degree of enthusiasm and care.
The Seventh Mansion by Maryse Meijer – I’ve greatly enjoyed reading everything that Maryse Meijer has published thus far and her first novel is no exception. In fact, I loved this story, about a boy who falls in love with a skeleton, so much that I decided it was high time I reached out to Meijer for an interview. Stay tuned for that…
A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History by Baba the Cat and Dr Paul Koudounaris – I first wrote about this singular history book when I had the great honor of interviewing its feline author. If you’re even mildly interested in cats, world history, American history, or some combination thereof, you really ought to read this book.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin – I don’t know which I loved more, the concept of this breakneck, visionary tale – which makes massive cities intimately human without sacrificing their scale – or the glorious diversity of its cast. This book made me miss New York City even more than I already do, which is saying something. I’m also a big fan of people taking elements of the Lovecraftian mythos and doing things with it that fly in the face of Lovecraft’s prejudices. I wrestle with the concept of “The Death of the Author” on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it works for me and other times I cannot get past OR financially support a creator, no matter how fond I am of something they created (I’m looking at you, J. K. Rowling). But I love the idea of taking amazing things created by problematic people and doing something wonderful with then, which is exactly what N.K. Jemisin is doing with this new series of books.
In the Woods by Tana French – Speaking of problematic things, I love Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled crime novels featuring Detective Philip Marlowe. In the Woods is the first time I’ve encountered so much of what I love about those books, complete with a haunting, melancholy ending, but without the sexism and occasional racism or homophobia, and set in Dublin instead of Los Angeles. It’s a beautifully written labyrinth of mysteries, murder, and criminal investigation, interwoven by the personal and professional relationships of differently damaged humans. I found it completely engrossing and it’s just the beginning of what’s now a six-book series, so I can’t wait to read more.
Featured image: Woman Reading by Candlelight by Peter Ilsted (1861 – 1933)