Speculative Horror for your TBR pile

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A book with a teal blue cover has squashed a person, with their hand and blood peeking out from under the book, all on a pink background.
I know my mental to-be-read list is starting to weigh me down, how’s yours? CDD20 via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

Some horror is scary, but what’s based in truth is downright terrifying 

Perhaps one of the best-known authors to discuss larger themes of social justice through speculative fiction is Octavia Butler. Butler, known as the mother of Afrofuturism, redefined the genre of science fiction and, in doing so, influenced a generation of writers to continue the work she started.  

Butler, who was born in Pasadena, California, learned from a young age the solace that writing, particularly science fiction, offered. “I needed my fantasies to shield me from the world,” she once said.  

Her work, while fictional, drew heavily on the world she knew and explored themes of power, identity, and inequity, featuring Black protagonists who face intersecting forms of discrimination. “You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Whether you were part of a greater society or not, you got to write yourself in,” said Butler on her writing.  

Butler became the first published Black woman to write science fiction in the states, having written over a dozen books. Some of her most well-known titles include Parable of the Sower, Kindred, and Fledgling.  

Fledgling is the last novel published by Butler before her death in 2006. It is a thriller that follows Shori, an amnesiac 53-year-old Black vampire who is on a journey to reconnect with her past after waking up in darkness, alone, and without memories. On her journey to discover who she is and why she awoke with no memories she is led to a shocking discovery. As she reckons with this discovery, she must uncover who wanted to destroy her and those she loves. Butler’s Fledgling deals with the intimate connection of ‘otherness,’ power, racism, and autonomy.  

“Or it’s happening because Shori is black, and racists…don’t like the idea that a good part of the answer to your daytime problems is melanin.” ― Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling 

Literary works of fiction have continued to address important questions regarding social justice and inequities; in particular, speculative horror has acted as a medium from which to do so. As a genre, speculative horror possesses the ability to expose violent systems and intersecting forms of oppression through the lens of horror captured on page. The following is a short overview of fictional works that address larger themes of social justice through the genre of speculative horror.  

Tell me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt 

Tell me I’m Worthless follows the story of Alice and Ila. Alice is a trans woman who is haunted by the ghosts of her past and events that occurred in the House. Ila is Alice’s former best friend and sometimes lover, now turned TERF.  

The fictional work engages with themes of trauma, transphobia and antisemitism captured within the experiences of Alice and Ila. While it is tense, tragic, and terrifying, it also explores the intimacies of unpacking and confronting fears. The larger story line invites questions of how violent ideologies rise and spread using the House as a metaphor. Rumfitt masterfully includes the point of view of that evil lurking structure that lures and tempts, known as the House. These tempting promises whispered by the House are analogues to the pervasive and violently discriminatory ideologies transmitted online.  

“There are some who immediately feel safer, knowing that the House is there, and there are some who do not. For someone to be comfortable, another has to be uncomfortable.” ― Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless 

The result is a deeply unsettling story that boldly pulls the reader into the depths of modern discourse surrounding violent ideologies to explore the real-life horrors that impact queer life in the U.K. Readers are strongly encouraged to review the content warnings prior to picking up the book.  

Maeve Fly by CJ Leede  

Maeve Fly follows the story of Maeve, an unhinged 20-something protagonist obsessed with depraved literature and Halloween. By day, Maeve works at the happiest place in the world as the favoured ice princess, while at night she haunts the neon lit streets of LA and regularly frequents dive bars. Maeve lives with her dying grandmothers and her cat Lester who are central characters within the book.  

Narratively, the story follows Maeve’s perspective, an often uncomfortable – if not troubling – positioning for the reader as she possesses an increasingly disturbed mind. Leede expertly incorporates larger questions of violence through a gendered lens. Maeve’s most prominent internal conflict is her own gendered experience in relation to her violent urges.  

For example, she often speaks about how we as society have the desire and need to understand the reasoning of horrific acts. However, when men perform violence, it becomes a naturalized assumption that “men are aggressive” and therefore less shocking. When the same acts are performed by women, however, it becomes a phenomenon so disturbing it is almost unbelievable.  

“Men have always been permitted in fiction and in life to simply be what they are, no matter how dark or terrifying that might be. But with a woman, we expect an answer, a reason.” ― C.J. Leede, Maeve Fly 

This is a work of gruesome, visceral prose situated between the dichotomy of Maeve’s split life. Readers are strongly encouraged to read the content warnings.  

The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi  

The Centre is a dark and gothic debut novel that follows Anisa Ellahi, an inspiring Pakistani woman in her 30s living in London. While Anisa predominantly works to translate Urdu-English Bollywood films, she dreams of becoming a translator of “great works of literature.” When her ex-boyfriend Adam, who speaks upwards of 10 languages, refers her to the mysterious and invite-only language school called The Centre, Anisa’s life begins to change. Soon after leaving The Centre and newfound success in her translation career, Anisa returned to the school where she develops an obsession with discovering the sinister truth of the language.  

The plot hinges on the truth of The Centre but deals with larger themes of race and identity to displacement, patriarchy, and colonialism. In particular, the racial and gendered horrors lurking behind late-stage capitalism.  

“Sometimes, it felt like I was cutting up my own tongue with a knife and fork before consuming it with that same tongue.” ― Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi, The Centre 

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