Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Gothic (page 2 of 3)

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).

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The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.

When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.

It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.

When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.

Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).

Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.

So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!

Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!

And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?

Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.

An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.

NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.

Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.

Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.

My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.

But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rebecca:

  • “I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
  • “It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
  • “Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
  • ” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
  • “This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person

Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews

I’m a sucker for a content warning. If the news anchor says “the following content may be distressing to some viewers”, you’d better believe my eyes will be glued to the screen. When the ladies of the My Favorite Murder podcast warned their listeners about the twisted, sickening premise of Flowers In The Attic, I knew I had to give it a go. After all, they’d read it as teenagers, how bad could it really be? Keeper Upperers, consider my lesson learned…

Flowers In The Attic - VC Andrews - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Flowers In The Attic is a (relatively) contemporary (supposedly) gothic novel, first published in 1979. It’s the first book in the Dollanganger Series, so named for the family at the center of the story. It all starts in 1957, with a beautiful family of six (mother, father, and four adoring children) living a comfortable suburban life in Pennsylvania. Naturally, tragedy must strike. The father is killed in a car accident on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. Given that he was the family’s breadwinner, and his wife had no marketable skills, the remaining Dollangangers are forced to flee their newly-repossessed house and throw themselves at the mercy of their estranged (but very wealthy) maternal family.

All of this is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, the second child and eldest daughter. Her perspective reminded me a bit of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: a grown woman telling a story from her younger perspective… but that’s about all these two books have in common. Harper Lee’s classic American tale of racial injustice and coming-of-age was confronting in a way, but Flowers In The Attic is grim and sickening on a whole other level.

See, the mother feeds Cathy and her siblings (older brother Christopher, and younger twins Carrie and Cory – all Cs, yes, very clever) some cock-and-bull story about how their grandfather is evil. She says the kids will have to hide out in a far-flung wing of the family mansion until she convinces the old coot that kids aren’t so bad to have around, then he’ll welcome them with open arms and give them all his money. Sounds hinky, right?

When the family arrives, they are given a very cold shoulder by their grandmother – by which I mean she hands them a printed list of heinous “rules” they must follow in order to keep their existence a complete secret from everyone else in the house (even the help! imagine!), under the very serious threat of physical violence. Oh, and there’s a lot of God-talk too: no being naked in front of each other because it’s sinful, no thinking about what anyone looks like naked because it’s sinful, no looking at yourself naked because it’s sinful… you get the drift.

The mother is exempt from all of this, for the most part. She cops a flogging, but at least she gets to move around the house and the servants know she’s there. She tries to reassure the kids that they’ll only be locked up for a few days, but those days turn into weeks, and then the weeks into months. On one of the daily food drops, the grandmother reveals to Cathy and Christopher that they are all, in fact, the product of an incestuous union between their mother and her half-uncle. Heaven forbid! That’s why the kids have to be kept secret, it would seem. If the grandfather knew that his daughter’s marriage to his half-brother had produced progeny, he’d… well, it’s not clear what he’d do exactly, but it would be bad.

Are you following this? It’s a bit convoluted, I’ll grant you. So, here’s a little mid-point tl;dr summary for you: Mummy married her Uncle, and now the kids are locked in the attic so the rich Grandpa won’t write them all out of his Will. Ick. Now, I’m not going to tease you with content warnings or thinly-veiled references to more icky stuff (that’s the carrot that lured me to Flowers In The Attic in the first place). Consider everything from here on out extremely spoiler-y (and gross). Proceed at your own peril.

Things really start to drag in the middle. I mean, there’s only so much of kids whinging that they want to go outside a reader can take. Plus, the holes in the logic of the story become less “mysterious” and more mystifying. I tried to assume that it was all part of a masterful plot, that Andrews was being clever and leading me down rabbit holes, but 200 pages in I had to concede. The fact that they all just seemed to forget entirely about those extensive rules by the second act was what killed Flowers In The Attic for me. On day one, it was all “not a PEEP out of you until AFTER 10am or YOU’LL ALL BE WHIPPED!”, and (it felt like) the next minute the kids are all screaming their little lungs out by breakfast and no one gives a shit.

So, let me skip ahead. It turns out the reason that the evil grandmother was so hard on them with all this God business was that she was worried history was going to repeat itself… which, of course, it does. It comes on gradually, with Cathy suddenly noticing her changing body, and catching her older brother staring at her now and then, but eventually they’re snuggling and making out and there is a particularly awful incident whereby Christopher forcibly rapes Cathy, only for her to later tell him that she “secretly wanted it” and he “didn’t need to feel bad because they did nothing wrong”.

Feel free to take a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. I know I needed to take a few, myself.

The thing is, I’m really only assuming the grandmother’s motivation and role in the whole business. As a villain, she’s completely two-dimensional. Her dialogue and mannerisms are laughably cliche, like a child’s imagining what an evil grandmother would be like. At one point, she is literally (in a dream, no less) likened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. There’s no insight into her past, her marriage, her motivation for keeping up the charade when (clang!) we find out the grandfather has actually been dead for months.

Ah, yes, the big twist reveal (as if we needed another): the mother and grandmother kept the “flowers” locked in the attic even after the grandfather passed away. The ladies have actually been trying to kill the kids off, by putting arsenic in their daily food deliveries. Andrews explains this strange new malevolence by having the kids overhear the servants say that the grandfather wrote a “codicil” into his will, stating that the mother would never inherit a dime if she had any children. Yeah, sure. Sounds legit. What lawyer wouldn’t sign off on that?

That’s the final straw for the kids (not the locked-in-the-attic-for-three-years thing, not the starved-for-two-weeks-because-Cathy-took-her-shirt-off thing, not the their-mother-didn’t-visit-them-for-months-because-she-was-honeymooning-with-her-new-husband thing, not the death-of-one-of-the-twins thing). Arsenic in their desserts? No, thank you! They hustle up everything of value that they can carry and run away. And they decide not to dob in their mother and grandmother for the imprisonment and attempted murder because…? Something about not wanting to go to a foster home? Wanting their deeply disturbing incestuous union to continue? Holy heck, I could barely bring myself to care by that point. I was just glad to be done with Flowers In The Attic and the terrible, schlocky writing.

Flowers In The Attic is a strange hybrid: a barely-comprehensible poorly-written story full of holes that still managed to disturb and horrify me. At first, I was frustrated by the mistreatment of the children, but all too soon I was frustrated by the children themselves, and the whole ludicrous set-up. I was sickened by the abuse and incest, but also by the fact that this is marketed as a young adult novel. I’m hardly one to restrict any young person’s access to any reading material, but damn. Even for kids that have a taste for the macabre, it’s a bit much, and the quality of the writing and the strength of the resolution (or lack thereof) just doesn’t justify it. If you’re going to serve young readers up a heaping plate of “adult themes”, best you give them some redeeming quality to wash it down with. They’d be better off reading Lolita.

It would seem that I’m pretty much alone in my opinion, however – maybe because I never did, in fact, read Flowers In The Attic as a young adult and as such have no nostalgic attachment to it. The book was an immediate sensation, and went on to sell over forty million copies world-wide. Of course, that success was not without controversy, with schools and libraries removing it from the reach of young readers (with limited success). Controversy also tainted the novel’s supposed inspiration; Andrews maintained all her life that Flowers In The Attic was “based on a true story”, but there is basically no evidence (beyond Andrews’ account and the reported corroboration of an unidentified family member) to support that. I’m not saying people aren’t held captive against their will for years on end, and that terrible things don’t happen… but Flowers In The Attic is so preposterous and flawed, I’m disinclined to believe a word about it.

Still, the legend lives on. There have been two film adaptations of Flowers In The Attic, a stage-play, a slew of sequels, prequels, re-tellings… even after Andrews’ death, the ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took up the torch and continued publishing under her name. There are now more than 80 books in circulation for the VC Andrews brand, but I can tell you what: as far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough. If you get your jollies being scared, read some decent true crime. If you want some campy gothic fun, read classics like Dracula. If you want taboo, pick up some Henry Miller. But, for the love of all that is good and gory, don’t bother with Flowers In The Attic, not even to see what all the fuss is about.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Flowers In The Attic:

  • “Disturbing and infuriating all wrapped up in one. Don’t think I’ll be continuing the series. Not a fan of terrible parenting, child abuse or incest. No thank you.” – aziza
  • “good read will have to put it down due to getting angry” – Brandy
  • “I liked the movie but I’m halfway through the book and can’t stay interested. Oh look they’re still in the attic…still….yup, still there. Next chapter…still there.” – Kellyann

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

We’re never too old to try something new. Jeanette Winterson, of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame, decided to have a crack at writing the trans experience last year with Frankissstein. In that spirit, I’m going to try something new with my review, too. See, given the content of this novel, it really doesn’t feel right for me to review it from only my own perspective. I’m allowed to have my own opinion, of course – everyone is! – but I think I would be doing you all a disservice by not calling in someone to speak to this book with me. So, here we have it: the first co-written Keeping Up With The Penguins review.

Frankissstein - Jeanette Winterson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Writing this review with me is Cathal: a very, very, very (very!) dear friend of mine. We sell books together at a local book store, and also share a lot of mutual love over on #bookstagram. Cathal read Frankissstein around the same time that I did, at my urging. Cathal is a non-binary trans-masc person, like one of the central characters, so he has a particularly important perspective on the most salient aspects of this book.

Frankissstein tells two interweaving stories: a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Shelley in 1816, living with grief and writing Frankenstein; and an imagined near-future with Ry Shelley, a scientist grappling with the new reality of sex bots, artificial intelligence, and capitalist exploitation of those technological developments. Alternating between these two timelines makes for a strange hopscotch of historical fiction and speculative dystopia. Mary Shelley’s life story is fairly well-known, so we probably don’t need to lay too much of that out for you (other than to say that Winterson’s depiction of her, as a brazen outraged feminist who calls Lord Byron out on all of his bullshit, is amazing). Ry’s story is a little more complicated…





Ry was assigned female at birth, but identifies in the book’s timeline as trans/non-binary. It would seem, though, that they pass as masc/male, given that other characters constantly misgender them and mistake their name as being short for “Ryan”. Here’s where the problems begin…

Ry, as a character, is completely flat. Their only notable characteristic is their trans body. It is the only topic of conversation, the only factor at play in their relationships, and that bears little resemblance to the varied, interesting, and complex lives of trans people. Even making room for the demands and constraints of speculative fiction, Frankissstein fails even the most basic test of reflecting anything about actual trans lives and experiences.

Reviewers really, really went for Winterson’s throat on this, how she presented a supposedly-trans narrative. Sheree, as a cis-woman, didn’t want to discount their remarks, but at the same time she worried that their (rightly) impassioned responses might give the wrong impression (or, the right impression, not clearly explained) to other cis-readers. That’s why Cathal came on board for this review, to elucidate.

Winterson is a queer woman, a queer author, and in writing Frankissstein clearly sought to queer a canonical work of literature. Unfortunately, she missed the mark by a long margin. In real-life, she has made public comments that were deeply offensive to trans communities, and it would seem that those attitudes have parlayed into her work. Ultimately, Frankissstein is not a trans story, it wasn’t written by a trans author, and – as Cathal can attest – it wasn’t written for a trans audience.

In fact, it would seem that perhaps Winterson and her team willfully overlooked aspects of Ry’s story that would be hurtful and harmful to trans readers: being called a “freak”, being called a “hybrid”, the constant and unnecessary misgendering, the fetishisation of Ry’s body… While, perhaps, an argument could be made in favour of the artistic merit of any one of those choices, taken as a whole – in a story that only serves a privileged cis-gendered audience – they seem exploitative and cruel.





The only arguably effective attempt that Winterson made to address trans politics and experience in Ry’s story was “that” incident (if you’ve read the book, you know where we’re going with this, and if not, trigger warning!): Ry is violently assaulted in the men’s bathroom at a bar. This section was really resonant for Sheree. In her view, it made a really important statement about the “bathroom debate”. There have been some truly nonsensical arguments made about the supposed “danger” that trans people pose by using the same bathroom as cis-gendered people (particularly trans women using the same bathroom as cis-women). This scene presented the stark reality: in truth, trans people are at far greater risk of being victimised in that situation than being the perpetrators of violence.

Cathal saw it a bit differently. That assault was presented, he felt, as the price Ry had to pay for being who they are. Ry accepted the fact of their rape, without any retribution or resolution to that injustice. It was extremely graphic, no subtlety at all – right down to the use of in-your-face shouty caps – and alienating in its unavoidable gratuitousness. Also, Ry’s emotional reaction and trauma as a result of the rape is completely silenced; in fact, it barely comes up again for the rest of the novel.

Ultimately, we (Cathal and Sheree) still land on different sides of this one, but we can definitely understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Where we can completely agree, however, is the historical fiction timeline. Winterson’s talent as a writer truly shines in her depiction of Mary Shelley’s life. She pays due attention to the ways in which Shelley was mistreated, without painting her as a martyr or a voiceless victim. Winterson doesn’t romanticise Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, unlike so many who have written before her. The reader is encouraged to consider Frankenstein as a cautionary tale. As an adaptation, of sorts, it will make the reader appreciate the original even more. For those who haven’t read it, it will surely encourage them to pick it up.

That strand of Frankissstein is a complex and multi-faceted story all on its own. We both feel that, had we read the Mary Shelley story as a stand-alone novel, we would have loved it wholeheartedly. As it stands, however, we urge you to exercise caution when deciding whether to read Frankissstein for yourself. If you’re looking for a book that will open your eyes and teach you something new about the trans experience, give it a miss. If you want to read a beautiful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s life, go ahead and read it – just skip past the Ry chapters.

Note: thank you, again, to my wonderful friend Cathal, for his tireless patience as I pieced together our thoughts for this review. We had a lot of really frank conversations, and I’m so grateful that he took the time to do this. Be sure to check out his #bookstagram and show him the love he well and truly deserves!

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)



Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.





It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado is not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly, in my view, it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie


Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s career, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day.

So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.

The story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so.

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.

You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stresses him out so much that he ends up getting really sick. He recovers just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. When he finally reunites with his creation, the poor creature tries to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asks the doctor to build him a wife, so he doesn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounds pretty reasonable, but then the monster threatens to kill everyone Frankenstein loves if he doesn’t comply – which is, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of Frankenstein for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities.

The doctor heads for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster follows hot on his heels. Frankenstein gets to work back in the laboratory, but inside he is still freaking out that the female he creates might hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurs to him, it’s the final fucking straw. Frankenstein has had a gutful, you guys! He destroys all his work and tells the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually takes the news quite well. In sum, his reaction is: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he kills Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he means business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he goes ahead and marries his adopted sister (whom he refers to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster shows up and takes her out. The doctor, enraged, chases him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapses from exhaustion and hypothermia before he can catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.

Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.

The themes of the story, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.

Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions of Frankenstein floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan
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