I am kicking off spooky book season with a review of the fantastic Hawk Mountain by Conner Habib. This was one of my favorite reads this year. Habib’s debut novel is an emotional and tense queer horror novel with an excellent plot twist and gruesome body horror.
Todd, a single parent, is at the beach with his son Anthony when he runs into a childhood classmate. Jack relentlessly bullied Todd in school, but now he is thrilled to reconnect with Todd. Todd is thrown off because they have not seen each other since they were at odds in their teens. Jack ends up sleeping on Todd’s couch and spending the night. Anthony and Jack quickly hit it off, and Jack continues to sleep over. Todd begins to question Jack’s motives and whether running into each other at the beach was a coincidence. I will share nothing more to avoid spoiling this twisty story.
I loved how dark and tense this story was. The twist about a third of the way into the book made me audibly gasp. This is not the book to de-stress; I was at the edge of my seat. Habib delivers the body horror. There is one horrifically explosive scene that I will never forget. This is a character driven story; you really get into the psyche of Todd. Flashback chapters from Todd and Jack’s childhood are interspersed in the first part of the novel. There are also some sections told from Anthony’s point of view. I was impressed at Habib’s ability to write in a child’s voice. Anthony’s sections are written in a childlike stream of consciousness. The novel concludes with a powerful, emotional ending. This is the first time a horror book brought tears to my eyes.
If you are looking for gay horror novels to read this fall you can’t go wrong with Hawk Mountain. Below are my thoughts on the gay themes in the book. Feel free to stop here to avoid some light spoilers.
Warning Light Spoilers:
Hawk Mountain focuses on toxic masculinity and the internal unrest of closeted gay men. The violence in this book is caused by society’s failure to accept gay men. For me, this book is about how being so deep in the closet can make one project and externalize their self-hatred onto others, with disastrous and extreme consequences. Reading this book, I was heartbroken for closeted people who are unable to openly be themselves, especially queer people from my parent’s generation who grew up in a time when coming out can be met with such oppression.
A magical painting, a deranged abusive husband and a menacing bull can all be found in Stephen King’s, Rose Madder. Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It is a unique entry in King’s bibliography. Rose Madder reads as a thriller, with some magical elements, inspired by Greek mythology. Norman Daniels might be the most evil and terrifying villain King has written. This was a fun read that I’d place in the middle tier of my King rankings.
Rose Madder begins with a brutal prologue that details a violent moment of domestic abuse between Rosie and her husband, Norman. The novel picks up years later, on the day Rosie decides she’s had enough. While Norman, who is a cop, is away at work, Rosie steals his bank card and leaves, hoping to never return. Upon arriving at a new city, Rosie finds refuge at the Daughters and Sisters Shelter and eventually finds a job and apartment. Meanwhile, Norman is hell-bent on locating Rosie and getting his revenge. The magical elements of the story come into play when Rosie finds a painting that catches her eye at a consignment store. However, the painting ends up being more than it seems.
I really enjoyed the tension that King maintained throughout the book. I was scared for Rosie as Norman closed in on her location. There were passages that had me at the edge of my seat. My favorite character in the story was Gert, another woman at the shelter. Gert teaches the women self defense and is the key character in my favorite scene. Norman was a great villain you love to hate. The passages told from Norman’s perspective were so disturbing and twisted. I felt unsettled reading those. I also enjoyed all the Greek mythology King wove into the story.
The magical sections of the book felt jarringly placed. It didn’t feel like I was reading the same book at times. I wish King had more smoothly integrated the magical elements into the real-world sections.
I have two problems with Rose Madder that I’d like to see reworked if it’s ever adapted for the screen (spoilers to follow). Norman Daniels is a twisted, evil man. For some reason King decided to add gay elements to his violent tendencies. King also suggests that Norman’s behavior originates from his dad molesting him when he was young. The gay serial killer trope is overdone and harmful. One does not become gay because they were molested by someone of the same sex and gay people are not any more likely to be serial killers than anyone else. Norman Daniels would have been plenty terrifying and deplorable without the addition of these gay elements. My second gripe is with the role of the black woman in the painting. This woman is one of the few black characters in the novel She appears to be Wendy (a previous victim of Norman). In the painting she acts as a servant to the blonde women. The optics of this are not good.
I enjoyed my time with Rose Madder. I find this to be one of King’s most unique novels. I had no clue where he was going with the painting and enjoyed the book’s suspense.
Trigger Warnings: Domestic Abuse, Miscarriage, Lots of Violence
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is a workplace thriller that centers on challenges Black women face in the office. The story’s protagonist works in a major publishing house as an assistant editor, the same job Zakiya had before quitting to write this novel. Thus, the novel offers commentary on the publishing industry. I had the pleasure of seeing Zakiya speak about her bestselling novel at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, CT, one town over from where she grew up. While I enjoyed the majority of The Other Black Girl, I feel like Zakiya tried combining too many genres in one novel, resulting in a confusing ending.
Nella is the only Black assistant editor at Wagner Publishing. She is thrilled when a new Black female employee is hired. Nella hopes this new employee, Hazel, will be a much-needed friend that she can confide in at the predominantly white office. However, after Hazel takes some questionable actions, Nella becomes unsure whether Hazel is an ally or a rival. When Nella finds a sinister note telling her to leave her job at Wagner, she questions whether Hazel might be responsible. The story transitions into a thriller with multiple twists and secrets, originating back decades at Wagner. I wish that Zakiya had simplified the conspiracy elements, as they were confusing and not well explained. She either needed more pages or an additional book to explore these ideas. Though I will say I loved the mechanism of the major twist!
The novel does an excellent job of featuring examples of microaggressions that Black employees face in a white dominated office. Additionally, there is commentary on the publishing industry. The wealthy, white heads of publishing are gate keepers that determine what books and types of characters will be sold to consumers. This book helped me learn how much power editors have with altering author’s manuscripts and deciding which books will become mainstream. Not only are more writers of color needed, but we need editors of color too!
Zakiya’s event at Southern Connecticut State University was a fantastic event. In a cute moment her father, who is a journalism professor at the university, introduced her to the audience. Zakiya did a reading from the novel and then answered questions from the moderator and audience about the story and the writing process. In one interesting moment Zakiya mentioned how typically Black writers feel pressure or are encouraged to only write two types of Black characters. Either flawless characters that other Black readers will be proud of or Black characters that endure horrible hardships. Zakiya hopes that there will be more space in the future for loveable yet flawed Black characters. She cited Raven Leilani’s fantastic Luster as a recent novel with a complex, likeable Black female protagonist. One sweet moment was when Zakiya mentioned her first Black teacher who taught what has become one of her favorite books, Kindred by Octavia Butler (which has been sitting in my TBR for far too long).
The Other Black Girl, while not perfectly plotted, is an important read with great characters. This book will spark many important conversations about BIPOC experiences in the workplace and the flaws in the publishing system. I am looking forward to the Hulu adaptation being produced by Zakiya and Rashida Jones!
Only Stephen King can get me to read a novel about an Iraqi war veteran turned hitman on a quest for revenge. King’s latest release, Billy Summers, is a thriller without supernatural elements. Billy Summers’ only rule, as a hitman, is he only accepts targets that are “bad guys”. He hopes his latest high-paying assignment will be his last. Billy poses as a writer in an office building across from a courthouse, waiting for an opportunity to take out a murderer as he is escorted up the courthouse steps to stand trial. He uses the downtime waiting for the day of the assassination to write a memoir, ironically becoming the writer he is disguised as.
The first half of this book was excellent. I love when authors make their protagonists writers, it is one of my favorite literary tropes. Billy suspects the individuals managing the hit are spying on his laptop, so he purposely writes his memoir in a dumbed-down voice, to hide his intelligence. Convincingly writing in different versions of one character’s voice is impressive and displays why King is a master storyteller. There are many parallels between Billy Summers and King’s outstanding Misery. Both novels feature male protagonists writing stories that are featured within the novels. Additionally, both Billy and Paul Sheldon are isolated indoors for the majority of their stories. I suspect Billy’s periods of isolation were inspired by King quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic. King does drop in references to another work in the Stephen King Universe, fans of The Shining will be pleased.
About halfway through Billy Summers there is a major plot shift that drives the action for the remainder of the book. I found the plot in the second half to be less compelling and began looking forward to finishing the novel so I could move on to my next one, which is never a good sign. There is a horrendous instance of brown face in the book, that made me wince. Billy uses many disguises in the novel, one of them is a Mexican gardener (Billy is not Mexican) and involves layers of spray tan. After his first coat of tan Billy is described as “a white man with a desert tan”. After a second coat Billy is still not convinced and says: “This might have been a bad idea” (p. 395). Yes, Stephen King this was a horrible idea to include in the story. The disguise is wholly inappropriate! How did your editors approve this? Please do better! The frequent digs at Trump that I have come to appreciate in King’s latest works are present, but do not make up for this unnecessary, and highly problematic plot point.
I would only recommend this book to Constant Readers (King’s name for his die-hard fans). If you are a Stephen King completionist like myself, I’m sure you will be picking this up no matter what reviews say. For everyone else, there are plenty of better options in King’s massive bibliography to choose from.