Published by: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Reviewed by: fabulous guest reviewer, Anna
Get ready for: In Santino Hassell’s Stygian, rural Louisiana serves as the backdrop for four young musicians who are forced to confront conflict both with one another and with the [SPOILER SPOILER] vampires who’ve made them their prey.
Plot: Jeremy has been isolated and adrift since the death of his brother. Most people just see him as the skinny emo kid who wears eyeliner and plays drums. No one gets him. Nobody tries. He thought the indie rock band Stygian would become his anchor, but—lost in their own problems—they’re far from the family he sought.
Still, hoping to get close to Kennedy, the band’s enigmatic guitarist, he follows Stygian to northern Louisiana for a summer retreat. They had planned to spend six weeks focusing on new music, but things go awry as soon as they arrive at the long-deserted Caroway mansion. Tempers flare, sexual tension boils over into frustration, and Jeremy turns away from the band to find a friend in his eerily beautiful landlord Hunter Caroway.
Kennedy suspects there’s something off about the creepy mansion and its mysterious owners, but Jeremy thinks he’s finally found somewhere he fits. It isn’t until Kennedy forces the Caroways’ secrets into the light that Jeremy realizes belonging sometimes comes with a price.
Review: Okay, wow. This book hit so many high notes for me it’s not even funny.
I have a soft spot for young people figuring themselves out, and I love these characters (all of them, even- maybe especially!- the most abrasive of them). Hassell doesn’t just give us a cool rockers-meet-vampires story. He gives us a whole world of frail humanity, and superhuman (subhuman?) attempts to undermine it.
Stygian is the story of Jeremy, Kennedy, Watts and Quince, disaffected queer kids who make up the eponymous band. They’ve hauled themselves out to rural Louisiana in an attempt to find their musical footing together and work on their second album, and with them they’ve brought a heartbreaking tangle of complex flaws, failures, hang-ups, expectations, and hopes. And then they find a much less human set of troubles challenging their ability to negotiate these hurdles.
Stygian is the kind of book that you (I know I did!) probably devoured as a teenager. I don’t do gore, but I totally dig the deep psychological chills and spine tingles one gets from well executed horror. This book is Hassell’s beautifully crafted homage to Poppy Z. Brite’s particular brand of Southern Gothic fiction. My physiological response to the creeping sense of wrongness experienced by Jeremy and his bandmates ranged from vague unease to goosebumps to the inability to continue reading in the dark of my room, despite my backlit iPad (this necessitated turning on a light, not putting the book down- don’t be ridiculous).
The language is evocative in the extreme, and the writing cinematic in its scope, worldbuilding so concisely- and yet in such detail- that I was immersed in the band’s surroundings along with them. As I read I felt the green-yellow heat of a southern summer dripping from the pages, crickets singing and grass crunching underfoot just out of earshot, and I was almost as crushed by the romantic misfires between the four and the toxic sex triangles incited by their sinister neighbors as they were.
Stygian is incredibly stylish, yes, but style is not all it has to offer. Hassell’s greatest strength is characterization, and he does not disappoint. Stygian is a band with most of its members caught in a rictus scream of pain, guilt, and misery, and after delivering themselves to an atmospheric and remote location in order to find their musical stride together, their real task is going to be finding ways to make peace with their internal demons and resolve the conflicts they face within themselves, with each other… and with the vampires next door.
Things you might not like: This book has paranormal themes, rockers, drug use, a little murder, and a good dose of recreational sex… if those aren’t on your list of “things you read”, you might enjoy this less than I did.
Things you will love: the slow build of heat between Jeremy and Kennedy, the creeping menace of non-sparkling vampires, and Hassell’s beautifully evocative prose.