The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

In this shape-shifting tale, aspiring novelists come together at a possibly haunted estate with a famously reclusive writer–for what turns out to be as much horror as inspiration.

Alex, the glum protagonist of Julia Bartz’s The Writing Retreat, has recently crossed into her 30s. Stuck in long-term writer’s block, her dreams of making it as a novelist are just about dead; she holds a thankless and “bleakly underpaid” position in publishing; her sex life is equally bleak; and she still mourns her traumatic friend-breakup with the more successful Wren a year ago. So it feels like a shocking and undeserved honor to be accepted to a fantastically exclusive writing retreat hosted by Roza Vallo, the wildly successful novelist Alex has idolized since she was 12 years old. The catch is that Wren has been accepted, too.

Roza’s Blackbriar Estate in the Adirondacks in New York is grand, dramatic and supposedly haunted. Roza herself is famous, rather controversial and private: the five young women attending the retreat must sign NDAs. Alex’s adoration of her enigmatic hero is enormous, and she senses this is her big shot at turning her life around: “If I lived in a pocket of Roza Vallo’s brain, however small, I sensed it would bolster my own existence.” She is also nearly crippled by anxiety about being near Wren–but that concern is quickly overshadowed by the terms of Roza’s intensely competitive program for the retreat. The five writers in attendance must each complete a whole novel in just 28 days, and the best of their works will win a million-dollar advance on a publishing deal. Even as the high-speed writing race ramps up and the drama with Wren continues to smolder, it emerges that something still more sinister is going on behind the scenes at Blackbriar Estate. Inexorably, The Writing Retreat evolves into a locked-room mystery, as eight women–five young writers, two staff and Roza–find themselves snowed in at Blackbriar and beset by potentially fatal threats that may be supernatural or simply human evil.

Bartz imbues her writing with a shape-shifting momentum: the plot’s focus moves from the small, painful dramas of competition and jealousies in friendship into horror and psychological suspense. Blackbriar Estate is both magnetic, in its haunting history and narrative possibilities, and stifling. The world of writing and publishing can be, at turns, solitary, socially supportive, triumphant and backbiting, and The Writing Retreat encompasses all these possibilities and more, as it explores friendship and family traumas, artistic crises and human nature. Bartz’s debut subverts genre in the interest of entertainment, satire and chilling thrills.

This review originally ran in the January 19, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 words.

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

This was a striking, chilling novel, which I’ve chosen to tag as horror although it is of the disquieting sort and relies less on jump-scares and gore (although the gore is not entirely absent). It contains very apt, detailed descriptions of contemporary young people and family dramas; characterization and specificity are strengths of Giddings’ writing no matter what she does. But it quickly moves beyond writerly deftness into seriously troubling subject matter, to make this a novel both thought-provoking and book-club-worthy, and riveting.

We meet Lena when she is a college student burying her beloved grandmother, Miss Toni. Her mother (Miss Toni’s daughter) Deziree is present, and can be a good friend to the younger woman; but Deziree is frequently ill, and it was Miss Toni who Lena thinks of as Mom. Now she is faced with a stack of bills: medical bills for Deziree and for Miss Toni, bills for the funeral, the house, general costs of living. She must maintain a high GPA to keep her scholarship. Her college roommate Tanya is a great friend but from a walk of life that makes her unable to empathize with financial strain. A letter arrives. “An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project. It offered Lena and her family health insurance if she was selected to be a participant. Also housing and a weekly stipend… It was addressed specifically to her.” The money is so good – and more importantly, the medical care for Deziree – that Lena leaves college. If she can last a year in Lakewood, it could be life-changing.

Lena is a young Black woman in an unnamed Michigan city with a college and a sizable Black population. Lakewood is a small Michigan town in which she is almost the only Black face. Place is not one of the biggest elements of this story (and maybe I overemphasize it because you know it is always an important one for me), but the city/small town divide definitely accounts for part of Lena’s estrangement; she notices the differences in noise and quiet, and the anonymity of the one versus the sense of being watched in the other, which is of course very much about race as well as population density. Lena is very aware of race. With a single exception, the participants in the Lakewood Project are Black, Latinx or Native American. The staff, doctors and observers are all white. She is conscious about performing a “safe” version of herself in the town of Lakewood. The study itself involves acting, but so does her larger life.

I’ll stop here, because I hope to encourage you to read this book and be surprised by its turns as I was. But you can safely see from here that Lakewood is about the sinister side of medical research studies and race and racism in this country, both throughout history and in the present. Giddings is a rising writer of note, and this novel is quietly terrifying.

Rating: 8 teeth.

Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

Mothers and motherhood haunt this alarming, dark, weirdly funny novel of family ties and the power of just the right recipe to heal all wounds.

Ainslie Hogarth’s Motherthing is a grim, disturbing novel of family drama and mental illness, yet a bizarrely funny glimpse into one woman’s mind. In its opening pages, Abby, who narrates, and Ralph have recently moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, hoping to nurse her through her depression. But instead, Laura takes her life, Abby purloins Laura’s coveted opal ring and Ralph falls into despair. “Because even though he’d been strong when we’d moved in, strong enough to move in–equipped with resources he’d downloaded from a website called the Borderline Parent, and a swear-on-your-life promise from me that I could handle this temporary uprooting–being near her stirred rotten dangerous things inside him.”

Abby, very much in the throes of dealing with her own mother’s shortcomings and abuse, has identified Ralph as part mother, part god, the “Perfect Good” in her life and “the most genuinely good person in the entire world.” “Ralph would make eggs too, not specially because I was there, but because a person has eggs for breakfast. And soon, I remember thinking, clutching fistfuls of duvet to steady my overwhelming joy, I would be a person too.” In flashbacks to her childhood, she recalls a beloved couch she calls Couchy Motherthing, and constantly circles and ponders the ideal mother figure; she relies on a cookbook “for the mothers of good, happy, wholesome families, with lots of mouths to feed. And that’s the kind of mother I am too, even if I’m not yet”–because Abby desperately wants to have a child of her own, to embody the kind of mother that neither she nor Ralph got to have. She works at a nursing home where she considers her favorite resident her “baby” and, simultaneously, the perfect mother she never had. This fantasy is disrupted by the appearance of the woman’s real daughter, which might just push Abby over the edge. Because paired with her nurturing impulse, Abby secretly harbors intense rage, “murder so much more manageable right now than creating a whole entire family.” Her love verges on violence.

Hogarth (The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (Annotated)) rocks readers via Abby’s turmoil, her swings from devotion to fury, self-loathing to self-aggrandizement. Motherthing keeps readers as unstable as its narrator, struggling to manage the traumas and the waves of emotion. Abby copes with a focus on a few objects that she imbues with special significance: Laura’s ring (symbol of rejection, as Laura judged her daughter-in-law “more of a Kay Jewelers type than a vintage-family-heirloom type”), Abby’s cookbook and the recipes she hopes will save Ralph (an obsessed-over jellied salmon and an unusual iteration of Chicken √† la King). The result of these roiling thoughts and images is a darkly comic, kaleidoscopic novel of unhealthy fixations, love, murder, the gifts and wounds that family can inflict and one woman’s fight to save herself.

This review originally ran in the August 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 little dogs next door.

Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror ed. by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto

Forty-something short-short horror stories collected here, and as one might imagine, they vary in how memorable and loveable I found them. I think I will choose “Katy Bars the Door” by Richie Narvaez and “Human Milk for Human Babies” by Lindsay King-Miller as my favorites; and I read one that still makes me angry, but I think I will not name it here, out of spite. Short-short stories are delightful, and I do love a themed collection like this; I would do such a thing again. I appreciate as well the wide range of what constitutes ‘horror’ to different writers: the grisly, the ghostly, the suggestively disturbing, the creepy in different senses. Your mileage as always will vary – you will love the ones I forgot as soon as I finished them, and vice versa. Ah well. Happy horrors, friends.

Rating: 6 beads.

Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

This singular novel of teenaged hijinks, a mysterious missing book, potentially profound evil and PTSD is wry, shockingly violent, philosophical and laugh-out-loud funny.

Stephen Lloyd’s Friend of the Devil offers a captivating blend of madcap mischief, terrifying and gory malevolence and thoughtful ruminations on humanity. Gruesome, deadly serious and frequently hilarious, this novel is an unusual cocktail.

Sam Gregory works as an inspector for an insurance company, responsible for rooting out fraud or solving cases like this one: a valuable antique book gone missing from the library of Danforth Putnam, a snooty boarding school on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. A war veteran, Sam pops pills to clear his mind of the traumatic memories and bad dreams that haunt him. He feels only a jaded weariness at the privileged antics of the students (and for that matter, the staff), but dutifully searches for the missing volume, sure there’s nothing here but another case of a drug-addled teen or disgruntled employee.

Sam is so wrong. But on his way to shocking, elemental horrors, he (and readers) will meet magnetic characters like the indomitable Harriet (D&D dungeon master, student journalist, extreme nerd and loyal friend) and bitter, acerbic Dale (a charity case at Danforth, which no one will ever let him forget). Despite his initial impressions of the school, Sam will take away unexpected lessons from these and other inhabitants of the island. What haunts Danforth and its very special missing book will turn out to be seriously sinister, and by the time Sam approaches its true nature–supernatural, or simple human evil?–the stakes will be ultimate.

Sam’s sardonic wit and tough-guy demeanor impart a flavor of classic noir. Harriet, who moves swiftly and unstoppably from bullying victim to plucky heroine, is a pure pleasure. Lloyd, who is also a TV writer and producer (Modern Family; How I Met Your Mother), showcases a talent for description and rich sensory detail from the first pages, when readers meet the rarified denizens of Danforth, “a diverse group… in every way but one. They were all filthy rich.” His characters are colorful, lovable or repellant, and the almost casual facility with which he kills them off is impressive.

Lightning-paced and undeniably weird, this is not a tale for everyone, as it bounces around between witch hunting and mythical evils, teenaged betrayals, PTSD, petty crime, bloody violence and delightful dry humor. But for the right reader, Friend of the Devil‘s unusual brand of gore and laughs is wildly, wickedly entertaining and positively unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the March 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 Junior Mints.

Sundial by Catriona Ward

This unnerving novel of family history and impossible choices is part ghost story, part terrifying reality.

Catriona Ward (The Last House on Needless Street) places mundane, everyday frustrations alongside profound chills in a novel of family, tough choices, secrets and terror. “It’s the chicken pox that makes me sure–my husband is having another affair.” At the beginning of Sundial, readers wonder what feels just a little off about the suburban household where Rob and her husband, Irving, bicker and feud and raise their two daughters, Callie and Annie. Irving has a nasty temper; Rob is bitterly frustrated: “These days I don’t understand why anyone bothers to watch soap operas or go to movies. Living is enough. It is so intense and painful.” Annie is a sweet, docile child; Callie has a discomfiting fascination with murder and death. When the bones of small mammals begin to show up in Callie’s room, Rob feels that things have gone far enough, and takes her elder daughter away for a spell–to Sundial, Rob’s family home in California’s Mojave desert, an abandoned hippie commune and site of terrible unnamed wrongs.

Through flashback-style stories Rob tells Callie, readers learn of Rob’s past: she had a twin sister named Jack, and the sisters shared an unusual upbringing, surrounded by half-wild dogs, scientific experiments, wayward graduate students and shadowy, evil acts. Something dark lived or lives in Rob, or Jack, or Callie, or possibly all of them, and it gradually dawns on readers that Rob is mulling the unthinkable choice to save one daughter or the other. Her secrets come out only slowly and in fits and starts, and it’s often unclear what is imagined, what is paranormal and what is plain human malice. “It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?” The novel’s perspective shifts between Rob then, Rob now and Callie, so a character may appear innocent in one chapter and dangerous in the next. At least one of these narrators is surely unreliable, but it takes until the final pages to piece together the unsettling enigma of Rob’s family history and the possible futures for her girls.

With the special horror of creepy children and the very real torture of abusive adults, Sundial serves up a deeply, deliciously disturbing family mystery, populated by ghost dogs and misguided scientists as well as apparently nonthreatening neighbors. A slow burn leads into a quick ratcheting up as this psychological horror deals its final blows.

This review originally ran in the January 6, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 cinnamon candies.

The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers: And Other Gruesome Tales by Jen Campbell, illus. by Adam de Souza

This delightful book, I’m pretty sure, came from another Shelf review. Jen Campbell teases her reader, in a brief foreword, with a playfully sinister tone; she notes that “brilliant, horrible tales” once “known far and wide” have somehow been replaced with “‘happily ever afters’ where nothing really awful happened and, well, a lot of them became boring.” She wants to restore the gruesome; thus this book, which offers fourteen tales from around the world (each presented with its country of origin), adapted and tweaked by Campbell. They are indeed deliciously gruesome, and complemented by Adam de Souza’s illustrations, which nod to each story’s cultural origin. I really liked this intersection of fairy tales, traditional storytelling, modern twists, and horror. Campbell’s afterword neatly bookends the collection with a cozier tone, now that we’ve gotten to know each other and all.

The title story is Korean, and straight horrifying. “The House That Was Filled With Ghosts” (Japan) I enjoyed for its victorious ending (bit of a ‘happily ever after’ here, Campbell!). “The Adults Who Lost Their Organs” (Germany) reminds me of a story I knew as a child but cannot name now… “The Man Who Hunted Children” (South Africa) is I think the “Hansel and Gretel” reference. “The Wife Who Could Remove Her Head” (El Salvador) had a refreshing outcome for the rebellious wife; likewise a bit of justice in India’s “The Son of Seven Mothers.” But my absolute favorite was definitely the final story, from Spain: “The Woman and the Glass Mountain.” There are book lovers, adventures, a wedding in a library, triumphant women, and queer love. I am smitten with this story and this whole book, and will put it in the growing pile of fairy tales & folktales that are somewhat simultaneously creepy and weirdly comforting. What a treat. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys tracking storytelling in human history and across cultures, or fairy tales and their origins, or spookiness in general. Good times.

Rating: 8 fingers.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This was a delightful quick read: five spooky stories, with brief introduction and conclusion to bookend. Carroll’s illustration style is lovely – I almost want to say simple, but deceptively so, for sure. She communicates a lot of emotion. I am reminded of the graphic versions of Gaiman’s work. I loved the woman “with starry eyes,” and indeed there were tiny little stars in her pupils.

These tales are deliciously unnerving, creepy, and enigmatic – it’s not always clear that there is something to be scared of in the end, but there sure might be. There’s a lot of question of who to trust, of things that go bump in the night and come out of the woods (as “most strange things do”). Friendships and familial relationships are perhaps less stable and trustworthy than they first appear. There might be monsters, after all. Houses and spaces hold nasty potential. I’ve decided to call these stories dark fairy tales; they definitely recall that style and the traditional setting (and at least one is a clear reference).

This is the kind of horror that is just deeply fun, and in this graphic format, even sumptuous. There are multiple spreads that I could see hanging on the wall. I love the idea of keeping this around for quick, easy, luxurious, high-impact reads. Carroll deserves her accolades. I’d buy another volume of this work in a minute.

Rating: 8 teeth.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties are both highly varied – in length, form, and style – and also absolutely related. They each handle gender in our real world, including issues of body image, sexuality, violence, lust, and family structures, but frequently do so by calling in supernatural forces, post-apocalypses, fairy tales or other fictional reference points. These are narratives to get completely lost and absorbed in, not necessarily pleasant reading, but compelling.

“The Husband Stitch” starts the collection off, and is why I own it: my friend Vince teaches it and I’ve heard him talk about it several times. It is a quite discomfiting story of a woman’s life from girlhood on, including her marriage and motherhood to a boy. It’s about gender expectations, and it feels true to our world, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It also makes reference to the classic urban myth/horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck – remember that one?

“Inventory” lists the narrator’s partners, of different genders, over the years, until the reader understands that in her world there has been a global pandemic that has all but wiped out the human population. (This was published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at an off-angle while ostensibly focusing on sexual/romantic relationships.

“Mothers” sees a woman showing up on her former lover’s doorstep with a baby, which she deposits, saying “She’s yours.” The trick is that the partner is also a woman, who has imagined their life together as mothers many times, but simultaneously comforted herself that it wasn’t possible for them to make a baby. This central riddle is never solved; by the end, it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an interesting thought experiment. The passage about “the major and minor arcana of our little religion” pleased me greatly.

“Especially Heinous,” the longest story in this collection, I felt was the weakest of the collection. I like both the form and the frame: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” it offers very short synopses of 272 episodes of that show, seasons 1-12. I have watched this show some; as a person mostly ignorant of pop culture references like this, it was gratifying to know the subtext. But it didn’t really work out for me. This alternate version of Benson and Stabler have themselves an alternate version, Henson and Abler, sort of evil doppelg√§ngers who muck up their cases and relationships. It’s otherworldly, paranormal, and weird (none of which I shy away from!) but somehow didn’t come together. Maybe the large number of short pieces didn’t hold together for this many pages. I definitely got bogged down here and reading became a bit of a task.

But then things came right back together again. “Real Women Have Bodies” sees a world with another, different epidemic, in which women sort of… fade out, and become invisible. But where do they go? Our female protagonist works in a high-end dress shop, and finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and both wind up in a position to witness the ways in which women change and are disregarded. (No metaphor here, I’m sure.) It’s lovely and haunting, which could be said about the whole collection.

“Eight Bites” is another perfectly apt observation of the world, in which a woman gets gastric bypass surgery – the last of her sisters to do so – and thereby horrifies and enrages her daughter, who rejects the societal bullying that gets us here in the first place.

“The Resident” features a writer heading to an artists’ residency where she struggles to relate to others, eventually finding herself humiliated – again. This story has a neat trick at its conclusion.

And finally, “Difficult at Parties” (a phrase that echoes from an earlier story) depicts the aftermath of a trauma. Not for the first time, this story is so realistic and painful that it is hard to read, but also spellbinding and crystalline.

NPR‘s Annalisa Quinn states that this book is “full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.” I’m glad I read that line; it helps me to think about this kind of writing – fabulist realism, perhaps – as defamiliarization. Making our very own familiar world strange helps us to see it more clearly.

I’ll be thinking about these stories for some time. Machado has a gift. Keep your eyes open for her later memoir, In the Dream House. Also, thanks Vince for the recommendation.

Rating: 8 dresses.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton

I cannot recommend this to you enough: find something that you believe in, right down deep in the depths of your silvery plumage, and then throw your heart at it, blood and valves and veins and all. Because I did this, the world, though brambled and frothing at the mouth, looked more vibrant; blues were bluer, and even the fetid puddles that collected under rusting cars tasted as sweet as summer wine.

I have so much to say about this book, but in trying to avoid spoilers I think much of it should remain unsaid here.

Hollow Kingdom is set in contemporary Seattle, and its protagonist and most-of-the-time narrator is a domesticated crow. (Chapters do alternate perspectives, so we get a handful of other voices – very colorful ones that make enormous contributions, and come from all over the world. But our star keeps the mic for the majority of these pages.) His name is S.T., which is short for Shit Turd (naturally), and he has enjoyed a good life with his human, Big Jim, and a bloodhound named Dennis with a deathly fear of windshield wipers and alpacas. The book begins “after,” however, and S.T. is here to tell us what happened to Big Jim and his neighbors: we meet the beloved human only in past tense. He got sick and started acting strangely (more strangely than usual), and then his eyeball fell out, and then things went from bad to worse. Eventually S.T. is forced to venture out of the home and into the wider world, where he’ll have to interact with wild crows, for whom he feels mostly contempt, as well as many other forms of nature, likewise distasteful. And he takes Dennis with him, although he feels a similar disdain for the (not so bright) dog, at least at first. S.T. mostly knows the outside world from television and the opinionated Big Jim. And now he’s up against the worst of times with his limited knowledge and his distrust of the natural world – which may be all that’s left.

Among many remarkable features of this unusual novel, I enjoyed S.T.’s voice: salty, foul-mouthed, neurotic, loyal, loving, admiring of humans (whom he calls MoFos – Big Jim’s influence again) and their inventions, sarcastic, self-deprecating and hilarious. He hates penguins (“hambeast-bellied egg timers”) and says of Dennis, “Man’s best friend indeed. More like man’s neediest parasite that would trade you for a bull-penis dog chewy at the drop of a hat.” Squirrels are “five-star sexual deviants” (borne out by later events). The other voices that occasionally interweave with S.T.’s chapters are equally singular, apt, and surprising: there is a Scottish cow named Angus, a young camel in Dubai, and an irascible, tyrannical cat right there in Seattle, among others. (Genghis Cat thinks of his humans as Mediocre Servants, or “dildo-nosed potatoes.”) A very large part of S.T.’s ongoing struggle is wrapped up in his confusions about identity: unmistakably crow, he believes himself to be an honorary MoFo, meant to be human but trapped in black feathers; in the new world, though, he’s going to have to make new allegiances with those who look more like himself. His relationship with Dennis likewise evolves: he begins scornful of the bloodhound’s apparently lesser intellect, but their partnership deepens in tough times, and he discovers that even if Dennis does not talk like the crow does (and as most animals in this world do), he may have a lot to offer. The lessons abound, but Hollow Kingdom never loses its joyful, wacky ridiculousness, even as it gains in wisdom and profundity. Sounds like a hell of a thing, right? This is an unusual and startling book from the first pages, and keeps on surprising to the end.

I also marveled at how many notes I made as I read. I generally make a few notes, but this tight-packed bookmark with overflow onto the other side is rare.

Many of those notes I will not be sharing here because I’m avoiding spoilers. But I can point out that S.T. has a vocabulary: I had to look up formicary, synanthropic, fuliginous, voltaic, collacine, pedipalp, myotonic, and chatoyant. I also loved his use of so many collective nouns: clowder of cats, murmuration of starlings, collacine of maggots, quarrel of sparrows, and of course the constant reference to S.T.’s own murder (of crows) – these are just a few. I’m a big fan of collective nouns.

Hollow Kingdom approaches a few commonly-occurring incidents in literature (which I am still not naming here) with truly fresh eyes. The voice of a domesticated crow navigating an identity crisis in the context of a wider-world crisis is new and inventive. This book is filled with tragedy, but is simultaneously hilarious, hopeful, even joyful.

Trust, it turned out, was a very beautiful and fragile thing with a taste like wild raspberries and experienced only by the very brave.

There are Big Thoughts alongside toilet humor, and commentary on the importance of relationships even in the most bizarrely changing world imaginable. Lots to love. Buxton has a rare and fascinating mind and I love the weird voices she’s created here; I’ll definitely look for more from her.

Rating: 8 Cheetos.
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