‘A genuinely unsettling horror novel’

RULES FOR VANISHING by Kate Alice Marshall

Reviewed by CAROLYN PERCY

Once a year, a road appears in the woods at midnight, and waiting on it is the ghost of Lucy Gallows, beckoning to those brave enough to play her game. Sara knows her sister Becca disappeared while playing Lucy’s game, but it’s been almost a year and everyone else has given up looking for her.

Sara, however, is determined to find her, and so she, along with her closest friends, enters the woods. But there are things far more sinister lurking along the road than the ghost of a murdered girl, and not everyone will survive.

Publisher’s Weekly described Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall (left), in their starred review, as an “exquisitely unsettling dark fantasy”, and unsettling is definitely the right adjective. It’s also been compared to The Blair Witch Project; an apt comparison, not only as the story is told through a mixture of different types of found footage, but also because, like the film, the tension is often unbearable (though I mean that in the best way possible). In fact if Rules For Vanishing were a horror film, it would be one of the ones where the atmosphere is just as much a part of the horror as the events, stretching the tension to near breaking point, so that when the scare lands – no matter how subtle it is – lands hard.

Told in the form a case file, the story flips between a series of taped interviews between Sara and a paranormal investigator and the events themselves, in the form of transcripts of recovered footage. The interviews take place in the present, after the events in the woods, so we already know that things go very wrong.

This foreknowledge hooks the reader in from the beginning, as we want to find out how we got there and what happened. Of course with games there are rules: to win, Sara and her friends must go through a series of gates and, whatever happens, no one must stray from the path.

Inevitably, this rule ends up being broken, but it’s not immediately obvious. Because of the nature of the road, which messes around with reality and people’s perceptions of it (to the point of even messing with the footage), not only are the characters unreliable narrators but we, the reader, are an unreliable audience.

Things don’t always happen the way they appear to and people aren’t always who, or what, they appear to be, and this confusion adds to the genuinely unsettling nature of the horror as we feel that our minds are being messed with as well.

The scares are mostly of the insidious, otherworldly variety, gradually increasing in intensity without turning into cheap “jump-scares”.

This is sustained by the switching timelines, especially as it soon becomes clear that the interview isn’t the end of the story, and that the survivors may have brought back more with them than just trauma.

The majority of the cast are, at their core, likeable characters (even if they don’t always do likable things) with easily understandable motives, who, again, wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. But this doesn’t make them stereotypes or caricatures. Though some may dislike unreliable narrators, they certainly add a layer of complexity, and your opinion of them will likely change several times over the course of the story.

Rules For Vanishing works well as a standalone, but with a few mysteries left dangling – the background of the paranormal investigators (the only characters whom we learn comparatively little about), who compiled the case file and who requested it – it would also make a great series. One of the most genuinely unsettling horror novels, YA or otherwise, that I’ve read, and definitely one of the best of last year. 

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CAROLYN PERCY is a regular reviewer of contemporary horror fiction for Horla. She also contributes reviews to other sites and platforms including Wales Arts Review. She has a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea and is a librarian. 

THE CITY WE BECAME

by N.K. JEMISIN

Reviewed by CAROLYN PERCY

YOU know how some cities are so vibrant they feel as though they’re alive? How people say they have a soul? Well that’s because they do.

Cities are not just made of bricks and mortar, but the stories people tell about them, the cultures, hopes, fears and dreams of those who live there and those who pass through, growing and growing to the point where the city becomes sentient and chooses a living avatar to represent it. New York is the latest city to undergo this. But something goes wrong, and the city is left vulnerable to attack by an ancient, otherworldly enemy that has been thwarting this process for millennia.

But New York is different, because it’s not just one city but a conglomerate of five distinct boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. So New York doesn’t just have one soul, she has six. And now it’s up to those individual avatars to find and awaken the Primary, and expel the Enemy from the city before disaster strikes. That’s if they can find each other. And, when they do, if they can work together.

Brooklyn-based author N.K. Jemisin (left) made history in 2016 when she became the first African-American woman to win a Hugo Award for best novel for the first book in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, and for the second time in 2018 when she made history became the first author to win a Hugo for every novel in a trilogy. The City We Became is the first instalment in her new trilogy “The Great Cities”, the germ of which began in a short story from her 2018 collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?, ‘The City Born Great’ (a slightly modified version of which serves as the novel’s prologue).  

While Jemisin has said that this trilogy is a way for her to have a little “monstrous fun”, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have anything to say. The City We Became is a brilliantly written Urban Fantasy and & Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; one that not only acknowledges his legacy and influence on the genre but also interrogates that influence, confronting the issue of his racism head on.

Lovecraft hated New York; he couldn’t stand all the people of different races mixing together. In The City We Became, the ‘Enemy’ is an entity from a reality beyond ours (and is implied perhaps to be a minion of Lovecraft’s Old ones) and manifests as various white women dressed all in white (earning the nickname “The Woman in White”). And the tools it uses to undermine the city?

Racism and xenophobia; gentrification and the homogeny it brings, erasing a city’s history and eroding its uniqueness, making it just like everywhere else. Forces that are given an eldritch makeover, yes – in the form of ghostly white tentacles it uses to infect and take control of various people in things, including alt-right groups (the depiction of a Men’s rights group is particularly hilarious in its skewering) – but sadly were already present.

And they’re often more chilling when they’re presented with little to no horror make-up. For example, New York’s primary avatar is a homeless young black man, so what does the Enemy use to try and stop him? What he’s most afraid of: the police.

Obviously, there is a lot that could, and rightly should, make readers uncomfortable, or, at the very least, make them have a long, hard think. (I also recognise that, as a white person, there is a layer of experience that I’m missing.) Revelations late in the story also adds further layers of moral complexity that will surely be built on over the next two books.

That said, what is a city but a community or several communities come together? Even if they don’t always get along or see eye to eye. Well what family does? In an interview with TIME, Jemisin stated that:

“When I contemplate existential evil, I don’t see some abstract devil, I see people torpedoing themselves just to maintain a status quo and systemic advantages that actually in the long run aren’t helpful for everybody… The consistent theme throughout my work is that these are all societies that could be great, and they aren’t because people gotta be a–holes.

That’s really what it breaks down to. There are self-sustaining systems at work which discourage people from working together and doing what is good for all. We can stop those, but it has to be a choice…You’re not going to save the world with technology; you’re not going to save the world with some new scientific innovation. You’re going to save it with people choosing to fight against things that they perceive as wrong.”

As well as comic-books (the cover in particular has a pulp, comic-book feel), Jemisin also identified Sentai as a big influence (a genre of Japanese TV that sees a team of warriors get together to save the world from evil forces; while maybe not the best example, the Power Rangers franchise is the one that will be most familiar to western audiences). The main cast of embodies all of this – they are diverse in every sense: gender, race, age, sexuality, culture, and socio-economic status, and the majority of the book is them not only getting to grips with their new roles but also learning to work together. In this way, she uses them to send up and deconstruct the stereotypes about each borough (that Manhattan is charming at a surface level but vicious underneath, for example, and that Staten Island is the part of New York that doesn’t want to be part of New York) but in a way that’s accessible to those whose only knowledge of the city comes from film and TV. But they’re also fully rounded characters; even the ones who aren’t always particularly sympathetic are still interesting.

Though we only see things mostly from the points of view of Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx) and Aislyn (Staten Island), the others aren’t neglected, and there’s room for us to learn a lot more about them over the course of the rest of the trilogy I wouldn’t hesitate to name The City We Became as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and a great start to a series that I’m really excited to continue! An entertaining ride with a lot of fat to chew.

*The City We Became, 448 pages, is published by Little, Brown Group and is available via Amazon and booksellers.

REVIEWER CAROLYN PERCY reviews contemporary fiction for Horla. She also contributes reviews to other websites including Wales Arts Review. She is a librarian and holds a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales.

 

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