Happy Halloween! This month I wanted to share a horror-fantasy reading-rec, and this is a book I’ve wanted to cover since I read it last year in one sitting the night before an exam. House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland is a thrilling combination of fantastical and terrifying and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a creepy autumn read, or looking to improve the mood and ambience of their prose!
Warnings ahead for suicide, manipulation, body horror, and general discussions of death and horrific topics, so if that bothers you, reader discretion is advised. This book is written for a YA audience.
This story follows a teenaged Iris Hollow as she unravels her family’s mysteries. When she was 8, she disappeared for a month, along with her two older sisters, Vivi and Grey, and they came back wrong. Their baby teeth had come back, their hair turned white and their eyes turned dark, and weirdness follows them everywhere. Soon after, their father suffered a mental break and committed suicide, the oldest sister, Grey, had a falling out with their mother and left home to become a fashion star, and Vivi took off to become a punk-rocker. This left Iris at home to cope with getting through high school as normally as possible. That is, until Grey disappears again, leaving only a trail of breadcrumbs behind. Iris teams up with Vivi and Grey’s boyfriend Tyler to find the missing sister, and escape the man in a bull’s skull that’s been stalking them for days.
What makes it work?
Sensory Descriptions – Specifically Smell:
Grey Hollow is a fashion designer, and she’s known most famously for her iconic perfume – a blend of sweetness and smoke, the fresh wild woods, wet animal, and rotting flowers, the stomach ache you get after eating too much sugar. It’s a visceral description that tugs at the memory and becomes a motif, so that every time those sensations come back, you know it’s connected to the Hollow’s mystery. This mixture of sensations is especially effective because it focuses so strongly on smell, which is the sense most commonly associated with memory, as well as physical reactions. You smell cookies and your mouth waters. You smell roadkill and you feel nauseous. When most descriptive language focuses on sight and sound, this both sets the world apart from others and grounds you firmly in it.
Juxtaposition of beauty with horror:
This book plays with the blurry line between the two. At one point, Iris uses the analogy of a poison dart frog – colorful and vibrant but with skin seeping enough toxins to kill a grown man. Soft white flowers that smell of corpses. Grotesque costumes that nonetheless draw the eye. This is the reason we read horror, isn’t it? It gives us an insight into humanity, what we fear and why, but also how to beat the monsters in the dark. Or at least, learn how to live with them.
“You are like the death flowers that grow rampant in your wake: lovely to look at, intoxicating even, but get too close and you will soon learn that there is something rank beneath. That’s what beauty often is, in nature. A warning. A disguise. Do you understand?”
The sisters’ love for each other also borders this Halfway point. Their care for each other is a wholesome and moving testament to their close bond, despite all the hardships they traverse together, but at the same time, the question lurks under the surface of how far would they go to protect each other? What lines can be crossed if it means your sister stays alive? What lines have already been crossed? Who gets to draw those lines? Does their love justify what they’ve done? It’s a dilemma where it’s difficult to unravel who’s the victim of the horror, and who’s the monster.
The mystery is the fear of the unknown, as well as what keeps you turning the page in a thriller like this book. It keeps you asking, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and lets the characters jump to the worst conclusion. All the while, they remain in stubborn denial of the reality they’re watching boil up around them, because recognizing the truth of their world would be worse than simply ignoring it as long as possible. This balance of needing to know more, but not wanting to know the whole story, leaves Iris in a precarious situation between the bliss of ignorance and the power that comes with knowledge. This tension keeps the pace up through the story, intensifies the mood, and keeps you invested in the story into the dead of night.
How to learn from this book:
(the following is a slightly rewritten version of some musings I shared on tumblr when I first read this book, but I think they’re still relevant to this discussion, so I wanted to share them here again.)
It is incredible how no two people will ever tell the same story, even given the same prompt.
When I started writing Runaways, I was afraid that the plot was too predictable, too obvious, too elementary. I’d been writing Storge so long with all its complicated plots, and even though fantasy stories about civil war and rebellion somewhat overdone, my story is so inextricably tied to Laoche and my world and my characters that I’ve never been able to find another book that matches its vibes. But there are dozens and dozens of books about fae and changelings out there, and the premise of Runaways always just felt so obvious to me. There was no other way this story could be told.
I picked up a middle grade book last year in the library called The Last Changeling, which took place in the lands of seelie and unseelie. I was afraid that I’d read it, only to find that my idea was already done. It wasn’t even remotely close. It was such a relief and such a fun, almost goofy, story that took place fully in the faerie world and followed a hostage prince and midwife’s apprentice. Even though it lit up all the same keywords in the synopsis, it was a startlingly different concept.
I picked up a YA book last year in the library called House of Hollow, which follows three strange sisters trying to protect each other from the supernatural. I was afraid that I’d read it, only to find that my idea was already done. It wasn’t even remotely close. It was such a relief, and such a compelling, dark, intense story that took place bordering two worlds completely unlike mine. Even though it lights up all the same keywords in the synopsis, it is a startlingly different concept.
I had an absolute blast reading both stories – drawing the similarities and feeling slightly smug about coming up with an idea good enough to be published; drawing the differences and feeling slightly smug about coming up with something so original and intrinsically mine that it can also be published. These books will not push each other off the shelves, they will play to different strengths of the genre, different tastes for different readers. A thread of a common trope, but three distinctly colored threads weaving together to create a fascinating tapestry of storytelling.
In that way, aren’t these books kind of like sisters too?
You can find Krystal Sutherland’s other books and information at her website. Thanks for reading this review! Next week I’ll be sharing my October Goals list as well as some exciting big updates! If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing by leaving me a tip on my Kofi or donating using the secure box below. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!
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