Hey bookwyrms, I’m gonna cut straight to the chase here cos I’m actually not really in the writing mood today, just wanted to give a quick update. Regular readers probably read my State of the Blog post a few weeks back, where I talked about how I was planning on having a regular schedule of reviews and whatnot. Yeaaahhhh, I’ve already done a complete U-Turn on that.
Turns out that’s not how I like to blog. And I knew that already, but for whatever reason I decided “hey, pumping out content for your hobby blog even when you don’t feel like writing” would be a great idea. But it’s not. I’ve sat down a couple times this week to write a review that, according to my regular schedule, is ‘due’ tomorrow. But I didn’t feel like writing it. Truth be told I haven’t been doing much reading or writing lately; not cos I’m in a slump or anything, I’ve just been watching shitty reality TV with my girlfriend and playing video games. I just wanted to do other things, and that’s fine. As I sat there trying to force out a review and not enjoying myself very much, I just thought why am I doing this?
This is my hobby, it’s supposed to be fun. And it is! I love blogging and reviewing books and chatting to fellow bloggers and readers about what we’re all reading. But sometimes I want to watch that shitty reality TV or play a video game or go for a walk. I’m much happier and much more comfortable being a casual blogger, rather than forcing myself to churn out content for readers who I know don’t mind either way.
I actually felt pretty guilty for a while about writing this post, given that barely a few weeks ago I promised readers ‘regular’ content, so for a while longer I tried squeezing blood from the proverbial stone to get that review finished and posted for tomorrow. I wasted another hour sitting in front of my computer feeling shitty about it before I realised my readers don’t mind whether or not I’m posting on a regular schedule. It literally doesn’t matter. And if I’m not enjoying my hobby, what’s the point of doing it?
So that’s that. I am still gonna be posting, but only when I feel like it. And if that means sometimes there’s a glut of content for a week and then I go for a while without posting anything, then so be it. On the plus side I’m still gonna be doing everything else I mentioned, including the author interviews and Comic Club (I’m really excited about that one), I’ll just be doing it on an irregular schedule. And hey, all that means is every morning when you wake up you’ll have the excitement of wondering whether there’s a new Parsecs & Parchment post to read! Happy reading bookwyrms.
Ok so a while ago I mentioned I was embarking on a project to read Stephen King’s entire back catalogue in order. I’m making very slow progress to be honest, other shiny books keep capturing my attention and keeping me from moving forward. I have read his first few though, and instead of writing full reviews for every King book I read (cos that guy has wrote a lot of books) I’m gonna do mini reviews three at a time. Here’s what I thought of the first three King books.
CARRIE King’s debut novel revolves around Carrie White, an unpopular friendless misfit and bullied high-school girl from an abusive religious household, who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. I started this with little idea of what to expect writing wise. I’d seen the film before, so I knew the story, but this was my first foray into King’s fiction, and from the reputation the guy has I assumed this was going to be a great read. In the end, it was fine. A decent enough read at the time but hardly memorable, with some bits I thought just didn’t work. It’s a very raw book and is unrelenting in examining how cruel people can be and in the end is a sad tale of the tragic consequences of torment and revenge. Special mention to Carrie’s mother Margaret, who is a genuinely great character. A religious fanatic with a very difficult history, a woman full of bitterness and self-loathing that she projects onto her daughter in the most appallingly abusive ways. She’s a detestable woman, but someone with a wretched past that manifests itself in ways that you can abhor, but definitely understand. I didn’t get why this was an epistolary novel though? It added nothing to the story and distracted me quite a lot from what was going on. Also, having read King’s book On Writing before this, where he laments that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, I’m just saying there sure are a lot of adverbs in this book…
SALEM’S LOT Salem’s Lot on the other hand is a much better story. It centre’s on main character Ben Mears, a writer who returns to his hometown to discover that many of the town’s residents are becoming vampires. Aside from having two deeply sinister villainous characters in Kurt Barlow and his ‘business partner’ Richard Straker, Salem’s Lot excels at pulling back the curtain on the dark, depraved lives people lead behind closed doors. The vampire story is good, but it’s the examination of this dark side of the people who live in Salem’s Lot that really made this story work for me. My main criticism is that King had a tendency to ramble on at times, a tendency I would soon discover was not, unfortunately, a one-off.
THE SHINING The Shiningcentres on the life of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on the job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses ‘the shining’, a psychic ability that allows him to see the hotel’s horrific past. Before long a winter storm leaves the family isolated and the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel start affecting Jack’s sanity, putting his wife and son in terrible danger. While I found Carrie a bit meh, and Salem’s Lot good-but-rambly, The Shining was the first time I was truly impressed by King. Watching Jack’s slow descent into menacing insanity, haunted by his past and the consequences of his alcoholism, was a distressing and unnerving experience and there were points in this book where I was genuinely fearful.
Since finishing these books I’ve also read The Stand (and have actually already read and reviewed Pet Sematary, way out of order) and hope to move on to The Dead Zone soon. I’m in two minds about whether to include his novels written under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, but at the moment I’m leaning towards ‘yes’, so there’s a decent chance I’ll also read Rage and The Long Walk before that. Anyway, I’ve been saying I’d start on this project proper for a while now, so I’m glad I’ve finally begun!
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Recently Finished: SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan This was such a delightful book. It’s basically just the story of a computer programmer who finds happiness in baking bread when her favourite soup and sandwich takeout closes and the owners gift her their (possibly sentient?) sourdough starter. It was recommended to me by eriophora (@BasiliskBooks) on Twitter when I asked for some nice gentle reads with little stress (I’m really feeling the need for those types of stories right now) and this really hit that spot. The highest the stakes get is wondering whether or not Lois will get a spot at the local farmers market. I loved it and if you want something nice and wholesome about someone just learning to be happy then I would definitely recommend Sourdough.
Currently Reading: THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER by Alexis Hall I’m a few chapters in to this one and already I absolutely adore it. It’s a sort of Lovecraftian lesbian Sherlock Holmes reimagining where ‘Holmes’ is a drug-addled sorceror tasked to investigate the attempted blackmail of her former lover. Told from the perspective of ‘Watson’ (Captain John Wyndham) the duo are beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, harassed by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. It’s a joyous, bizarre and unapologetically fun story and again, a perfect fit for the kinds of stories I feel like reading at the mo.
Next Read: WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN by Nghi Vo Tor Books sent me this ARC and I can’t tell you how excited I am to read it. It’s Nghi Vo’s follow up to her majestic The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which was a story whose words flowed through my mind like silk over soft skin. Set in the same world and part of The Singing Hills Cycle, it’s nevertheless a standalone that reunites us with the cleric Chih, who finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover – a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty – and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
Let me know in the comments what you’re reading at the mo, I love to chat about the books we’re all reading. And hey, if you enjoyed this update why not follow the blog for more reviews and bookish chat.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Described as a tale of revenge, cultural identity and the cost of breaking from tradition, it follows four Native American men who are tracked and hunted by a malevolent entity after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives, leaving them helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.
I’ll tell you what I loved about this book, and that’s the superb characterisation and atmospheric tension-building. Lewis, Gabe and Cass are such real characters. They’re no saints, they’re deeply flawed in many ways and yet they’re fundamentally good, worthy people. There’s an almost twisted slice-of-life vibe to the first part of the book where we’re invited into Lewis’ life as a postal worker, meet his partner, friends and his dog while slowly watching him psychologically unravelled by the weight of his guilt. One of my favourite things about this book is that for a long time I couldn’t tell if there was anything supernatural going on at all or whether this was more of a psychological horror about the effects of guilt, remorse and the lengths people can go to in their search for redemption. The truth is it’s both, and for me great horror writers are the ones who are able to tell a story about the human experience while tying it up in some aspect of otherworldliness. I realise that sounds pretentious as anything haha, but when you dissect good horror I think that’s what it is, and Jones excels at it.
There’s a fair amount of gruesome violence and I’d forgive you for rolling your eyes and dismissing this book if I was to describe it as slasher revenge horror, and it kind of is, except that it’s also very smart and doesn’t resemble any of the tropey mess that makes up the core of that genre. Instead there’s genuine tension and palpable fear, uncertainty is instilled in the minds of both the reader and the characters and the result is a story that feels both vibrant and unnerving. It’s a book whose premise is deeply-rooted in Native American history, mythology and culture and while I was unfamiliar with most of these references prior to reading the book, it was still accessible enough to someone as ignorant as I am to still grasp how important this culture is to the characters and still feel compelled by the plot. In fact one of the strongest parts of this story was the complicated relationship the characters have with their own culture and is a major theme of the book.
The Only Good Indians is a strange book with a unique writing style that worked for me in some ways but did leave me confused in others. It’s an unsettling horror book and there’s this combination of colloquial, but also disjointed, prose that’s pretty darn masterful at keeping you simultaneously comfortable and close to the characters and yet really on edge the whole fucking time. Having finished the book I can absolutely see what Jones was doing with his storytelling and I appreciate his skill in pulling it off (it’s actually quite impressive from a craft perspective) but sometimes it took a lot of work to keep on top of and there was more than one occasion where I had to skip back a few pages to make sure I knew what was happening. I went into this book knowing nothing about the author, or even a great deal about the plot, and just wasn’t prepared for how unorthodox the writing would be, so I’d say if you’re into unsettling horror with some pretty gruesome violence you should read The Only Good Indians, but be aware going in that you’re just gonna have to roll with the weirdness at times and accept it and I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way. Overall an unnerving, challenging book with lots of smart things to say about the development of indigenous culture.
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Happy Sunday bookwyrms, hope you’re all having a lovely book-filled weekend. And hey, thanks so much for all the blogiversary well wishes, I was overwhelmed by all you fine folks getting in touch, you’re the best.
And on that note, having taken a week off to recover from the madness of the blog’s birthday week, I’m happy to say I’ve been busy preparing a new and improved schedule for Parsecs & Parchment! Long term followers probably know I’m not the most organised of bloggers haha. I have a very haphazard approach to what I post and when – a review here, an update there and no consistent days or schedule to set your watch by. But that’s all about to change!
So what can you look forward to from P&P in the future?
First off, the bread and butter of the blog isn’t changing; the backbone of the blog is still gonna be the much-beloved stalwart of the blogging community, the hardy book review, all meat and potatoes like. Only difference is I’ll be posting them on a regular schedule (get me, right?). So you can look forward to at least one review a week, posted every Thursday, and should I start building up a glut of backlogged reviews there may even be some super special bonus posts from time to time if you just can’t get enough review goodness.
Second (and I’ve been thinking about this for a while) I’ll be starting a Comic Club that I’ll be hosting at least once a month on a Tuesday, where I try and work my way through the significant pile of graphic novels and trade paperback comic collections that make up a significant chunk of my TBR. One post a month is a minimum so if I get really into something for a while there could well be some bonus posts here too.
Third, author interviews! In my head I wanted this to be a feature from the blog’s inception, but I just wasn’t organised enough to make it a regular thing. You can still check out my interview with the wonderful Gareth L. Powell, author of the superb Embers of War books, that I did back in September 2019. I’ve already got an interview lined up with Deck Matthews, author of The Riven Realm series, and lots of ideas for other authors I’d like to collar for a chat, so keep your eyes peeled for those.
On top of that I’ll still be posting my reading updates whenever I’ve got new stuff to talk about, as well as a periodic non-fiction edition that readers responded to very positively when I did this as a one-off a few months back. I’ll also be creating an archive page where you can easily access past reviews, as well as commissioning a custom logo for the site now I’ve proven I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve also been toying with the idea of a total cosmetic overhaul, though I’m still not sure about that. I actually like the minimalist aesthetic I’ve got going at the mo, but it does bug me that the homepage doesn’t have a layout that displays a bunch of recent posts in tidy little boxes for easy browsing. And finally, I quite like the idea of committed followers getting to know me a bit better. I do think my personality shines through in my writing somewhat but I think once a month I’m gonna start doing a round up of the month gone by, what I’ve read and reviewed, but also just a little bit about what’s been going on with me for those who might be interested. I know a few other bloggers who do this and I personally like it a lot, makes the community we’re part of feel that much more friendly and accessible, you know 🙂
That’s about it for now. There are a couple other things that I’d quite like to do, but at the risk of taking on too much at once I’m gonna hold back on them for now. In the meantime I hope you enjoy all the juicy goodness you can look forward to squeezing out of Parsecs & Parchment in the near future. Happy reading bookwyrms!
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Cut the cake and pop the champagne, it’s Parsecs & Parchment’s first blogiversary! I feel like I’m stuck in some kind of time warp cos, despite 2020 lasting for seven years already, it only feels like yesterday I posted my first review. The world might be a trash fire right now but I’m glad to say amidst it all I’ve found a great community of like-minded book lovers to escape from it all from time to time.
I was actually on holiday in Nice, France around this time last year when I decided I wanted to start a blog (holidays, remember them?). I’d started listening to Calvin Park’s Under A Pile of Books podcast and binged through all the episodes while sitting on the balcony of my Airbnb sipping Carrefour rosé cider in the warm dusk of the Côte d’Azur. I’d also started following some of the folks from The Fantasy Inn on Twitter, noteably Sara and Jenia, who happened to be organising a readathon around the same time. I enjoyed getting involved in that and found this little community so welcoming I just wanted to be more involved. I don’t think they know it, but right at the start it was these three folks that did the most to make me feel welcome and encouraged me to be part of the online book community. So a special thanks to them, I raise my glass to you.
Obviously since then I’ve made new pals who share my love of all things speculative and found a bunch of other really quite wonderful blogs to follow. The recommendations I’ve got from you all have improved my reading life immeasurably.
I was a big SFF nerd beforehand obviously, but in hindsight the range of books I was exposed to was quite homogenous and I wasn’t adventurous at all, despite what protestations past me might have had if you told him that. Not to say none of those books were any good (I still think A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, despite how unfashionable that might be now) but over the past year my horizons have expanded beyond recognition and some of my now favourite authors are writers who I would likely never have heard of without the book community.
Jade City and Jade War by Fonda Lee are hands down some of the best fiction I’ve ever read; everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written blows me away; Snow Over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Serna and Coil by Ren Warom, both published by small press Apex Publications; and most recently I’ve finally started getting into some of the fantastic self-published fiction that graces the shelves of the SFF world these days, with books like The First of Shadows by Deck Matthews and The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang. These are just a small selection of the amazing books I’ve encountered over the last year that otherwise I simply would not know about.
So I owe a big debt of gratitude to all you guys, for your recommendations and insightful reviews, as well as for your kindness and warmth in welcoming a new member into your flock. Here’s to you all and long may our little community flourish. Cheers!
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Recently Finished: THE FIRST OF SHADOWS by Deck Matthews I decided to pick this up after reading Rin’s review on her blog The Thirteenth Shelf. Rin is someone whose reading opinions I value a lot when it comes to books I’d also like as we share a lot of opinions on what makes a good story. THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is a frenetically-paced high fantasy novella(!!!) that packs a ton of engrossing world-building and heart-pounding action into a very small space. I’ll be writing a full review soon and also delighted to announce an upcoming interview with Deck Matthews himself, so keep your eyes peeled.
Currently Reading: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones This is my first Stephen Graham Jones book and I’ve struggled to settle into it. A dark blending of classic horror and dramatic narrative, it follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way. The story is interesting but the prose is quite odd and I find I’m having to do a lot of going back over stuff to understand what’s going on, which is affecting my enjoyment somewhat.
Next Read: THE SWORD OF KAIGEN by M. L. Wang I’ve wanted to read this one for a while after hearing everyone in the book community rave about it for months. I don’t know anyone who has a bad word to say about it and I thought what better time to finally dive in than Self Published Fantasy Month 🙂
Let me know what you’re reading and follow the blog to never miss a post!
Before jumping into this, I do want to thank Jon for hosting me and helping him celebrate his blog this week! It was a lot of fun to contribute something and join all the other book lovers here!
I am a relative newcomer when it comes to horror. I have primarily been a scifi or fantasy reader for most of my fiction life. I have since only just begun reading the genre as of three to four years ago. I dipped in years previously, reading the occasional classic from King. It wasn’t until I read Thomas Ligotti’s THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE and David Peak’s THE SPECTACLE OF THE VOID that I realized that horror actually had a lot for me to consider.
My road to horror is certainly not paved by old 80s slashers or a love of the ghoulish, though I’ve come to appreciate the latter of late. I grew up in a fairly conservative household, which meant that I naturally avoided, if not outright scorned, these things. So it wasn’t until my direct encounters with lovers of horror that I became curious about it. I did have to shed some preconceived notions as well as ill formed misconceptions of horror and its enthusiasts, but what a surprise love that I have for the genre now.
Yet, what I keep being struck by is the intersection that horror has with my own dearly held religion, Catholicism. I was raised in a faith-filled home, driven by my mother’s own pious tendencies. There was a kind of strange relationship I had to balance with horror, because of the various subversive aspects of the genre. At least, that is what I had first believed, but thinking on it for a while now, I think it is because of my faith that horror actually makes more sense to me than any other genre.
This isn’t to say that Catholicism doesn’t have a rich history with horror. From William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST to various tropes of the supernatural, cults, and the unseen, there has always been a strong, dare I say, religious undertone to the genre. Take this with a grain of salt, since as I said, I am a newcomer, but this is the source of my interest in horror as a subject.
The idea of fear and the unsettling aspects of human life are as prevalent in horror as they are in Catholicism. Horror is grounded in symbols and tropes that are made new by every writer that sets pen to paper. And like the genre, Catholicism has its own symbols in the sacraments that are repeated weekly by every member of the faith. These are the calling cards of both and they present their own similar rituals and deep faith in what they are.
The bodily experience that is perverted in say Clive Barker and others, also have strains in the experience of the martyrs. Look at some of the stories of the early saints: It has been told that St. Lucy scooped out her own eyes to deter a suitor, who admired them. St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, was flayed alive. When St. Agatha refused the local Roman Governor, he had her breasts torn off. This is not to ignore the focal point of Catholicism, Calvary and Christ’s crucifixion.
Maybe the strongest part to all of this, is the belief in something that is real. Most of horror is based upon things that were superstitions or terrible events taken to extremes. Some readers here may be quick to say that Catholicism is also based off of similar fables, of which my only response is, “Sure, if you say so.” Yet, when you sit down to read horror, especially a good horror, you give yourself over to a new reality, no matter how terrifying it might be. You live in that world for as long as the pages carry you.
Catholicism is also like this, but you carry it with you every day and every moment you are awake. Everything drips with the meaning of God and you have to choose to give yourself over to faith with every action you take. It is this tension between the two that I have found myself.
Despite the vast chasms in the subject matter at times, I cannot get away from these inherent qualities I have found in both horror and Catholicism. I’m thrilled that this is all still so new that these reflections will only grow deeper, but who’s to say if that will happen? I can’t say if the parallels drawn here will resonate with anyone or if these are just the scribblers of a novitiate, but it is my hope that maybe we can have a healthier and deeper conversation between horror and religion, wherever that might take us.
You can find Alexander on Twitter at @PylesOfBooks and on his website Pyles Of Books. Also be sure to check out his short story MILO, a science fiction tale that Gareth L. Powell described as “short, sharp and chilling”.
‘I don’t read horror’ or ‘I don’t like horror films’ are things I’ve heard plenty of times, and they’re even things I’ve said at points in my own life—which is odd when I spent so much of my childhood obsessed with ghost stories and loved anything spooky. I do have an overactive imagination, though, so if a story freaks me out it’ll stay with me for weeks and, during my childhood and teens, I’d genuinely lose sleep because I was too frightened to close my eyes.
The older I got, the more I decided to prioritise my sleep over anything else. Yet now that I’m older still I’ve begun to appreciate the horror genre more and more, and so much of that has come from discovering the kind of horror I like. Like any genre, there’s so much within the horror umbrella and, if one story doesn’t work for us, we can’t assume that any story that falls under that umbrella won’t.
As Halloween approaches, it’s the perfect time of year to read and watch horror—but, in my opinion, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to terrify ourselves in the process! Have you ever watched Sleepy Hollow (1999) or The Mummy (1991)? Congratulations, you’ve watched a horror film!
They might not seem like the kind of stories we’d define as horror today because, for many people, I feel like the term ‘horror’ has become synonymous with body horror films such as the SAW franchise or slashers like Halloween, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. In comparison, Sleepy Hollow and The Mummy (which just so happen to be two of my favourite films) are campy, adventurous romps. (This is no shade on you if you do find either of these films scary!)
But if you were investigating a series of murders and found yourself pursued by a headless horseman, or you accidentally woke an ancient Egyptian mummy who started sucking the flesh off his victims, you’d be pretty horrified, wouldn’t you?
The scenarios the characters are in are 100% horror scenarios, but the stories are told in such a way that we don’t want to sleep with the light on. So when we talk about the horror genre, I guess we have to ask whether it’s ourselves we expect to be horrified or the characters? And if it’s the latter, does that mean these stories don’t count as horror?
Personally, I think we can definitely call a story a horror story even if it doesn’t frighten us—in fact that’s the kind of horror I love! I enjoy being a little creeped out, but I hate that kind of sick fear that makes you wish you’d just decided to watch that rom-com instead.
Body horror, for example, isn’t my thing, and it’s why you’ll never catch me watching a SAW film. They’re too gross for me, and I don’t like the kind of horror that comes from physical torture. I’m also not a big fan of anything with creepy dolls and, while I love ghost stories, I tend to stay away from horror films with ghosts because I will never sleep again.
For me, the kind of horror I love is the kind of horror that gives me characters I love and root for. Horror is a genre built on putting its characters in danger, and if I don’t care about what happens to them then, for me, that story isn’t doing it right. Horror is at its best for me when I desperately want the characters in danger to be safe.
It’s why IT: Chapter One was such a successful film for me, despite my fear of clowns that initially made me unsure if I’d ever watch it. Now it’s one of my favourites, and I’ll often put it on in the background while I do chores because I love those kids so much. The idea of something happening to them had me on the edge of my seat. That, for me, is horror done right.
Since then (and before then, too) I’ve even read horror I’ve enjoyed! I loved Joe Hill’s NOS4R2 because he made me care so much about his heroine, Max, who has to face the biggest fear from her own childhood to save her son. The Diviners series by Libba Bray has become one of my favourite series, and it’s definitely a series that falls under the horror umbrella; Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Deathless Divide are alternate history novels that are also horror thanks to her inclusion of zombies; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is a fantastic, fresh homage to classic Gothic horror; and let’s not forget Mira Grant’s Feed and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which are both horror and both two of my favourite novels.
So, for someone who once said she doesn’t read or watch horror, it looks as though I actually like it quite a lot!
Alternatively, I recommend giving the Books in the Freezer podcast a try; the hosts focus on a different theme in each episode, from underwater horror to romance in the horror genre, and I’ve found the podcast so helpful in discovering the kinds of horror that sound right up my street. They also give each book they mention a rating so, if you’re still a little nervous around the genre, you can pick up a book that’s guaranteed not to give you nightmares.
Like any genre, we just need to find the branches of it we like before we dismiss it completely.
You can find Jess on Twitter @jessticulates and at her blog Jessticulates where you can find the ramblings, rantings and ravings of a self-described book unicorn.
First off you can’t tell me you looked at that cover without wanting to drop whatever you’re doing and charge through the doors of the nearest bookshop to demand they sell you a copy right now. I mean I guess you could, but I wouldn’t believe you, cos it’s actually not possible. That daguerreotype picture, the gold lettering, the fucking blood splatter. Don’t let anyone tell you covers don’t sell books; I was hooked on this well before I knew anything about the plot or the author. And a good thing too, cos THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING might well turn out to be one of my top books this year!
It’s the story of Immanuelle Moore, a young mixed race woman in the puritanical settlement of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law and women are expected to be meek and obedient. Her white mother’s union with a black ‘outsider’ has cast her once proud family into disgrace and rumours of her ancestors consorting with the witches of the Darkwood cause many to look on Immanuelle with fear and suspicion. When a chance mishap forces her into the depths of the woods and she finds herself face to face with those same witches, Immanuelle begins to confront why her mother chose to consort with them, while uncovering even darker secrets surrounding the prophets and the stifling theocracy that rules over Bethel.
I expected this book to be dark, but I didn’t expect it to be this dark. There’s a lot of troubling themes explored, from severe misogyny and racism, to paedophilia and sexual assault. Like the best horror stories, it shows us that the most disturbing things that can happen to us are all to real and are committed not by witches and monsters, but by people and the oppressive systems that rule over our lives. I really came to despise the Prophet and his egomaniacal lust for power, but what this book did well was put him in context; he’s the result of a social system that places people like him beyond reproach and all others (but especially women, and even more especially, black women) as subject to his whims and desires, dressed up though they are in the words of holy scripture.
Opposed to this it would have been easy to root for Immanuelle regardless, but Alexis Henderson didn’t take anything for granted. Immanuelle is everything. I’d probably die on a pyre myself to save her from all the shit she goes through in this book (and reader, she wades through a ton of shit). She’s a mixed race woman in a white society that quite literally frames whiteness as all that is good and holy, and blackness as cursed and evil; she’s a woman in a violently patriarchal society, where men can take as many wives as they wish (literally carving sigils into their wives foreheads to display ownership) while women are subjected to corporal punishment for the crime of ‘tempting’ men into indiscretions. Despite this, Immanuelle is strong-willed and refuses to be entirely ground down by her oppressive environment. She’s still very much a part of her society though and conforms to most of the strict customs demanded of her. Henderson does a phenomenal job of portraying the contradictory push and pull of these two forces shaping Immanuelles’s actions and changing views of the world as she navigates through the story and, for me, that was one of the most compelling parts of this book.
And what is any horror story without a hefty dose of atmosphere? Henderson absolutely nails this. From the oppressive puritanical land of Bethel, to the Darkwood with its legends of witches and missing children, to the horrifying effects of the plagues that promise to be unleashed should Immanuelle fail to defeat the power of the vengeful witches of the wood. I was honestly pretty well freaked out at parts of this story, it was really bloody disturbing actually. It’s a tale built on tropes we’re very familiar with, but Henderson wields them with such power and skill that they buzz with a seemingly uncontrolled energy that fills your imagination with horror and anger and hope all at once, finally building to a crescendo that floored me stone dead. And when I say that I mean I was listening to the audiobook on my walk to work and literally stopped in my tracks, standing stock still, mouth hanging wide at the nightmare that was unfolding before me.
THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING is utterly compelling, horrifying and knows exactly what it wants to say and doesn’t flinch at saying it. It explores some very difficult topics with a deft skill that still doesn’t shirk from laying bare the injustice and abuse of power on show. And it’s all told in a perfectly-paced story that sticks the knife in at just the right moment, lets you rest, think you might be ok and then twists that fucker in again. Alexis Henderson is a wonderful writer and, given that this is her debut novel, I’ll no doubt be reading everything she publishes forevermore.
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