In our previous Halloween Reading Roundups, we have looked at books for babies, preschoolers, and grade school kids, books for middle-grade readers, and looked at our first batch of books for teens and adults. In this final installment for 2020, I have five more YA and adult books to share featuring witches, monsters, curses, and other creatures of the night. Happy Halloween!
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These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling
First up in this final installment of this year’s Halloween Reading Roundup is These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling. This YA novel mixes contemporary urban fantasy with a queer romance subplot that has a spin we’re not yet completely used to seeing in LGBTQ fiction. A trigger warning for fire applies to several sections of the book.
Hannah is a 17-year-old soon-to-be high school senior who lives in Salem, Massachusetts. She works in a witchcraft store that caters to the town’s many tourists, but she also happens to be a real Elemental witch who is learning to control the elements. Her ex-girlfriend, Veronica, is also an Elemental, and the two are part of the same intimate coven which is making their antagonistic break up even harder than it already would have been.
Also complicating her summer is the mounting evidence that someone is practicing dark magic in town. Hannah is convinced it’s the work of a dangerous Blood Witch but none of the adults in her coven seem to be taking her seriously and she can’t even talk it out with her non-magical best friend without having her magic stripped away for good. What she can talk about with her BFF, however, is the cute new girl she just met; but is Morgan really flirting with her, or was she just being influenced by the magical necklace Hannah was wearing?
As the darkness in town builds, both Hannah and Veronica find themselves at the epicenter of increasingly brutal attacks and under the watchful gaze of their coven leader and a new local detective. Is there really a Blood Witch in town, and who is behind the escalating violence?
I absolutely loved this book and devoured it in one day. Although the central mystery of who was behind the attacks was, in my opinion at least, very obvious from about a third of the way through the book, this actually added to the tension because I found myself yelling at Hannah to see what was right in front of her before it was too late! Although none of the characters here are the most original I’ve ever come across, they still gripped my attention from page one and kept me turning the page wanting to know what happened next.
I especially enjoyed the different take on LGBTQ romance found here. So many queer stories are focused on coming out narratives or the protagonist falling in love but rarely do we see the other end of these romances. These Witches Don’t Burn shows us the heartbreak, confusion, and conflicting emotions that come with a breakup but through a queer lens. There is also a small homophobia plot in the background here that made the story (unfortunately) feel more realistic, and I liked how this paid off by the end. There is a lot made here of the parallels between witches and the LGBTQ community in the persecution they have historically faced and the lengths many must still go to in order to stay safe, and this is handled in a sensitive and thought-provoking way.
These Witches Don’t Burn is the first in a series and the next book, This Coven Won’t Break was next on my list…
This Coven Won’t Break by Isabel Sterling
The second book in the series picks up just a few weeks after the events of the first. In This Coven Won’t Break, Hannah is headed back to high school for her senior year where she is the talk of the hallways given her attempted-murder at the hands of a classmate. However, a bigger problem is that although the magic-suppressing drug she was given has worn off, any attempt to access her powers leaves her in excruciating pain. Two other things are also complicating Hannah’s life; the trial of her would-be killer is due to start in only a few weeks’ time, and the witch hunters are ramping up their efforts to permanently strip all witches of their magical abilities.
With Hannah splitting her time between school, preparing to testify with the DA’s office, and working with the Council to help stop the Hunters, her only opportunities to relax come from her Reg (non-magical) best friend Gemma whose new knowledge of magic puts them both at risk, and her girlfriend Morgan. Being around Morgan is the only thing that helps Hannah’s powers work properly – something no one is able to explain – but the pair cannot be permanently together.
As the Council prepares to launch a dangerous mission to stop the Hunters and their magic-stripping drug once and for all, Hannah must work with a team of all types of witches, many of whom fear the others, to bring everyone together and end the ongoing threat to their safety.
I may have actually enjoyed This Coven Won’t Break more than the first book in the series. This is largely a heist story, differentiating it significantly from the previous book while keeping it firmly in the same universe. With the drama between Hannah and Veronica largely put to rest, the story also has the opportunity to widen its scope. We get plenty of world-building with lots more details about the magic systems of the other clans, the hierarchy and politics of the magical world, and much more.
The witch hunters were particularly terrifying antagonists. Armed with a “cure” for magic, they have convinced themselves that they are “saving” the witches whose magic they destroy by returning them to true humanity. The whole narrative is scarily reminiscent of certain religious groups and their belief that homosexuality can be cured in conversion camps and the dialogue in the scenes where the witches are able to talk with the hunters will be uncomfortably familiar to any LGBTQ individual who has faced individuals with a similar savior complex.
The only thing I really disliked about this book is that it is the end of the series. I had believed this was going to be a trilogy (which it sort of is given the limited existence of a prequel – This Spell Can’t Last) and the ending seems to be setting up for a third book, which made it especially galling to read on the author’s website that Hannah’s story concludes here. I really hope that one day we get another book in this series that explores how the witch clans move forward given all they have learned here and the new changes we see being made at the end of this book.
The Last Halloween: Children – Abby Howard
Last week I read a collection of short stories in graphic novel format by Abby Howard and this week, I picked up her long-form graphic novel The Last Halloween: Children.
In this bizarre and sinister tale, every human has a monster assigned to them, but this is no Monsters Inc. When a human dies, their monster dies too, but if the monster kills their human, they will become immortal. A powerful being known as the Phagocyte maintains a balance between the human and monster worlds, preventing monsters from destroying humanity entirely, but on Halloween the Phagocyte is severely injured and presumed dead, allowing the end of the world to begin.
Mona is a ten-year-old girl who would just like to enjoy Halloween like any normal child, but after being scared out of her home by a monster, she finds herself teaming up with a group of undead tweens: Riley the vampire, Shirley the ghoul, Robert the haunted doll, and Banjo the wereopossum. Together, the children set out on a quest assigned to them by the ghostly Dr. Fugue – to rescue the phagocyte’s only heir. But are the children even on the right quest? Does Fugue have any idea what he’s talking about? And why is Mona’s parent hanging out with that awkwardly adorable vampire?
The Last Halloween was a strange book that mixed grotesque gore and terrifying monsters with sarcastic laugh-out-loud humor and surprisingly sweet side-plots. There’s a lot going on here with multiple plot threads running simultaneously and a whole cast of characters to keep track of, but somehow it all holds together in a cohesive way and never becomes overly confusing.
It’s worth noting that this is no short story. While many graphic novels are naturally short in comparison with their prose companions, The Last Halloween: Children runs to an impressive 409 pages so don’t expect to whiz through it in a single sitting – if you could even stomach doing so. After the story concludes, there are several more pages given over to a look at the story’s construction including many pages from the author’s sketchbook and the usual overview on how she puts together a page.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did The Crossroads at Midnight, but that’s a minor concern at best. Mona is now one of my favorite comic characters thanks to her oh-so-human reactions that are so much more believable in any given situation than 99% of reactions you usually see in fiction. I also adored the rest of the undead tweens as well as the burgeoning relationship between Mona’s non-binary parent and Riley’s lonely vampire father, so I will definitely be picking up future volumes from this series.
One character I found especially creepy was Robert the living doll, who is most likely based on an item that appears in my next book…
Cursed Objects by J. W. Ocker
The only non-fiction book in my Halloween Reading Roundup this year was Cursed Objects by J. W. Ocker. As you can probably guess from the title, this book is a guide to over 40 real objects that supposedly carry a curse, many of which you can go and see for yourself in various stately homes, museums, and graveyards around the world.
The book is divided into seven sections, largely based on the types and locations of the objects such as “Cursed Under Glass” for those items now residing in museums; “Cursed in the Graveyard” for statues, tombs, and runestones; and “Cursed in the Attic” for the type of deceptively everyday objects that you might well have lurking in a family member’s attic or basement. The item I believe Robert from The Last Halloween is based on appears in this section: Robert the Doll.
The vast majority of items in this book were ones I was unfamiliar with, despite a lifetime of reading books and listicles about the paranormal. This was great because I didn’t feel like I was simply re-reading information I already knew. There were, naturally, a few particularly famous examples included too such as the Tomb of Tutankhamen and the Hope Diamond, but most of the items here will only be well known to their own communities, where they are most likely infamous. There’s a lot of inspiration to be found in these pages and I felt myself brimming with ideas for new stories thanks to the wealth of information on each page.
One major let down to Cursed Objects was its complete lack of photographs. Instead, the book relies on cartoon-style illustrations which, while great quality, don’t satisfy the desire to actually see the objects that the author is discussing. While some objects will admittedly have been hard to get a photograph of, such as The Basano Vase which might not even exist, the vast majority would not have caused such problems and I found myself annoyed that I had to constantly resort to googling for photos in order to see just how creepy that supposedly cursed statue really is.
Whether or not you believe in curses, Cursed Objects will be a fascinating read, either as a guide to those objects (and how to avoid coming into ownership of one yourself) or as a look at the human psyche and our ability to blame bad luck on anything more than simple, random happenstance.
A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill
My final book in this year’s Halloween Reading Roundup was by far the most difficult to read, and also to summarize here, but I’ll give it a try.
A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill follows one family over the course of many decades, beginning in the late 1960s and concluding in 2013. Broken up into seven parts, each part is set in a different year with some parts following just a few years after its predecessor and others leaping a decade or more ahead. Each one is narrated by Noah, the youngest child of the family. In the early parts that focus on his parents and older sisters, he tells their story to the best of his knowledge, and the story moves to his first-hand point of view around a third of the way in.
All through his life, Noah has seen monsters. All his family sees them, catching glimpses in the corners of their eyes, but Noah really sees them. As his family suffers tragedy after tragedy, his monster friend is a constant in his life, a playmate, confidant, and even – later on – a lover. Their relationship continues until Noah begins to suspect that the darkness he knows has been encroaching upon him all his life might be too powerful and he begins to distrust his friend and the otherworldly Lovecraftian city she inhabits.
As he grows older and tries to live something approaching a normal life, Noah can’t help but feel that something is missing from his life. Turning a corner no longer leads him to places it shouldn’t, but when a final tragedy strikes at home, Noah realizes what he must do to set things right.
Any book that opens with the line, “I started collecting my older sister Eunice’s suicide notes when I was seven-years-old,” is immediately signposting that it will not be an easy read, and A Cosmology of Monsters is challenging in the extreme. It would be easier to list the trigger warnings that don’t apply to this book but key ones that readers should be aware of include suicide, depression, statutory rape, the murder of young children, child abuse, and religious homophobia. A number of sexually explicit scenes are also scattered throughout, some with dubious consent issues. The real horrors in this book are therefore often horrifyingly mundane but tinged with an element of the supernatural. Is it worse to imagine that a human is capable of murder without supernatural intervention, or to imagine our actions are being manipulated by monsters that we are powerless to resist?
A Cosmology of Monsters uses the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft as an initial structure, imagining how that shadow world might press in on our own and cause the slow but inevitable destruction of a family able to see through the veil into it and witness things no human should. The entire thing could be seen as an extended metaphor for the fear caused by hereditary mental health conditions, or it could be taken literally. Honestly, I’m not sure which is more terrifying.
This is a slow burn of a story that traces less a descent into madness and more the destruction and eventual restoration of one family, and the price paid by that family and those around them for that restoration. I found the ending difficult to parse: was it happy, or was it the most unimaginably awful thing I had ever read? – however strange this may sound, I can’t actually tell.
A Cosmology of Monsters is powerful, provocative, and one of the best books I have read this year. Despite the visceral feelings of disgust it frequently stirred up, I know I will be reading it again in the future in order to better understand many of the earlier scenes. I cannot recommend it broadly; it will be far too much for many readers, yet for those able and willing to read through, it is a true gem.
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.