I read Stygian by Santino Hassell a few weeks ago, and immediately read it once more, just to allow the story, the characters, the layers of meaning and superb writing to sink in. Though this is my first book by this writer, it surely will not be the last. Stygian has elements I would normally not be drawn to - it's YA (not that I'm a snob about it, it's just not my fist choice in sub-genres), and the main characters are members of a rock band (again, nothing against it, it's just not my preferred poison. I'm more a historical gal with the pretty frocks and balls and musical evenings and men in cravats and waistcoats. Oh, and kisses stolen in a shadowy garden). Plus, it has paranormal elements, specifically vampires, which, again, is not a thing I actively seek out in books these days. Once upon a time I lived and breathed only for vampire stories, but I may have OD'ed on them back in the day. So how did I end up reading this book and loving every word of it? I read a review of Stygian at Inglorious Bitches (https://ingloriousbitches.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/stygian-by-santino-hassell-a-rocking-gothic-paranormal-romance/) and was curious to read more from a writer who could elicit this very enthusiastic response from one of the reviewers:
"The old man who speaks to Jeremy in the parking lot is described “The man had a Benson & Hedges voice” – I mean that’s seven words and Hassell has created a complete character with them and that, in my book is absolute talent."
My reader's heart went boom boom boom when I read that sentence because I could immediately visualize that old man without ever having read one page of the book itself. It was just that vivid and succinct. The reviewers also spoke glowingly of how the horror element was centered more on the psychological thriller aspects rather than a reinvention, or worse, a repetition of, the vampire mythos. Yet again. Yawn. But the big hook, the ultimate reason I decided to give this writer and this book a try is because the reviewers remarked on its Southern Gothic atmosphere. I was on full alert by this time and cautiously eager to read something from a new-to-me writer.
I dearly love Southern Gothic though it's probably not the most well-known genre. I dare say if you ask 100 people what Southern Gothic is, you would get 100 different answers. However, the funniest and truest definition of Southern Gothic I’ve ever read is embodied in this quote by Pat Conroy:
“My mother, Southern to the bone, once told me, ‘All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”
Yes, indeed. That's it in a nutshell. Carnivorous homicidal swine, a questionable relationship between father and daughter culminating in a tragic death of a mother figure. Perfect. It's dysfunctional family stories on steroids, it's bizarre and weird, it's dramatic in a way uniquely its own, it's tangled up in history and tradition and challenges to tradition. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, and sometimes it's both at the same time. But always, always entertaining. And so, here I am.
Stygian is a truly wonderful book. Santino Hassell created complex characters in Jeremy, Kennedy, Watts, and Quince. Jeremy is the "outsider" in the group, the new kid trying to fill the shoes of a long-time member who died in a car crash and feeling like a failure most of the time. Plus, he's in love with tough, emotionally closed off Kennedy who appears not to return those tender feelings even a smidge. Jeremy fits the SG hero to a T: the outcast, someone who is outside the norm. Though he was close to his brother, Luke, Jeremy really has no family left after Luke committed suicide. He has had little or no contact with his "mentally unstable" father or that side of the family. His mother shipped him off after Luke's death to a religious fanatic uncle who attempted to exorcise a demon from Jeremy after his emotional meltdown.
Jeremy woodenly raised one shoulder: "My mother's family is full of religious fanatics, and the Black family, my dad's side, is made up of drunken, depressed lunatics who...believe in weird mystical shit." (34)
Religious fanatics and drunken depressed lunatics? Yep. That's Southern Gothic at its finest. If you haven't read Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, you should. Crazy zealot uncle is present and accounted for in that story too.
However, all of them - Jeremy, Kennedy, Quince, and Watts as well as Laurel and Hunter Caroway - are all outsiders. The members of Stygian are truly people who have no roots to ground them, no family to speak of other than each other, nobody who will miss them if they just...disappear. Like Watts, moody as hell, who appears to be such a jackass with his unending sniping at Jeremy, treating Quince as if he's his personal sex toy, an object to alleviate his boredom or frustration, having conniptions at the drop of a hat, and generally just acting like a prima donna blaming everyone but himself for the mess the band is in and their lack of progress on a sophomore album. A trust fund baby whose "family" cared more for the trappings of wealth and status. But that's not all Watts is.
"Why the hell do you think he holds on so tight to this band and freaks out when he thinks things are going wrong?" The sound of a striking match followed the question, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. "Whether the crash was his fault or not, I do know Watts is barely keeping it together. The music and the band, me and Quince - we're his glue. Even if I'm tired of the responsibility." (37)
Or Quince whose child-like enthusiasm is so engaging and heartbreaking, whose past includes a string of foster homes, a propensity for larceny, and yet so trusting and so very vulnerable to anyone who might value him for the really sweet open person he is.
Quince plopped down on a hard-backed chair, running his hands over the velvety fabric. His face lit up, making his blue eyes and sun-bleached strawberry blond hair the brightest points in the room. (6)
He leaped to his feet and grabbed an object from the dust-coated clutter of pictures and figurines. After brushing it off, he held up a large silver watch. Only a kid who'd done a dozen stints in juvie for larceny would spot something of value amid all the antique junk. (7)
Quince put his arm behind his back. Sometimes he seemed like a sad-eyed little kid, even though he had about four or five years on Jeremy. (10)
"Stygian wasn't just a band. We were like a family, and we need that. All of us." (11)
Kennedy's past, like the hard bodied dude himself, is a more of a mystery. His family is dead, and beyond his devotion to helping at-risk kids at the youth center, it's difficult to know for sure what kind of family life, or lack of it, he experienced. Although I have my suspicions. Kennedy has both feet on the ground, very realistic versus idealistic.
...Kennedy was a complete enigma. He was an untouchable brooding mass of simmering discontent, but strangely accessible when he was trying to be helpful. (20)
Santino Hassell took the time and care to develop such a startling depth to Watts, Jeremy, Quince, and Kennedy, and he did it in the simplest, most effective way of all. Showing, not telling.
Southern Gothic has its roots in Gothic style fiction and the motifs, though very different, serve much the same purpose. An isolated, abandoned, dilapidated plantation house surrounded by trees dripping Spanish moss as opposed to a forbidding castle situated on a craggy mountain top. Swamps, alligators, snakes, oppressive heat instead of a dense forest, wolves, and biting cold. Wealthy plantation owners as a Southern equivalent of aristocracy. Secrets and lies and dirty nasty little things that make the imagination sit up and say "Howdy!" It's mysterious and otherworldly. It's atmosphere. Stygian has atmosphere in spades.
Jeremy's description of the Caroway place at first glance sets up the scene perfectly: "dangling Spanish moss", a crush of trees to obscure and help hide the pale yellow wood of the old house, "grass scraped past Jeremy's ankles", "tall enough to hide yellow-jacket nests and fire ant mounds", surrounded by land "bleeding into the wooded area" which led to the swamps. Shriveled plants resembling tiny brown skeletons. Such a delicious description of the claustrophobic sense of some, as yet, unknown, unseen threat. A musty, cobwebby interior that appears as if time passed it by decades ago, creaking stairs, a weird "hushed silence" leaking from an upper floor, an entire wing sealed off, a draftier than usual hallway leading to the bedrooms, and a "faint creaking from within the bowels of the house."
The devil is in the details as they say, and the details placed with such care and so tantalizingly really add so much to the creeping sense of dread and set up the horror to come perfectly. Plus, the atmosphere, the setting, the tone, the characters all work together to unify Stygian into a taut, spine-tingling story. I admit to a few cold shivers down my spine when Jeremy begins to have strange dreams almost immediately upon moving into the Caroway house.
Somewhere in the depths of his dream, someone was playing the piano. The notes were faint, but with each quiet step down the hallway, Jeremy could hear more. The increasing tempo, the growing intensity, the way something so beautiful could almost sound like a threat - Liszt. The piece about the gondolas. The one Luke always played.
The music washed over him, halting his careful footsteps. It grew louder, more sinister, and his stomach coiled before the piece ended abruptly. The notes faded, and from somewhere close by, someone whispered his name. Jeremy spun around.
The hallway behind him stretched long and empty with only a faintly moving shadow at the far end disrupting the stillness.
He ghosted toward it, but a sinking feeling told him the shadow was not his brother, and there should have been no strangers here.
(...) The shadow started to detach itself from the darkness, but before it escaped it's veil, the whisper returned, and Jeremy opened his eyes. (28-29)
It's not a coincidence that Jeremy's brother, Luke, played piano, and piano music features in his dream. I have two theories about Liszt's La Lugubre Gondola (The Black Gondola) which I could almost hear playing in the background of Jeremy's dream. Jeremy admits to a connection beyond death with Luke in dreams (part of the reason his mother sent him to Weird Religious Zealous Uncle to be exorcised), and this music is very dark, very morbid, very gloomy, very somber. The dark, low notes are slow and haunting, adding even more gothic atmosphere. If it hasn't been part of a soundtrack for a horror movie, it really needs to be. La Lugubre Gondola is, after all, a lament by the composer for his son-in-law Richard Wagner and was written after Liszt had a premonition in a dream of Wagner's death.
So I'm torn between believing Luke was trying to warn Jeremy to be on guard against the Caroways and wondering if it was the first volley in Hunter Caroway's Machiavellian machinations to bend Jeremy to his will, to color his perspective of not only his band mates but the person closest to him, Luke. Because how better to gain a foothold into Jeremy's psyche than by distorting his memories of Luke and tainting that precious connection with his brother, making it all the easier to assume complete control of his thoughts and actions? I want to believe it was Luke, but after a second reading my fear is that it was the beginning of Hunter's influence.
The horror in Stygian is definitely not merely due to the nightmarish images of the bloodsucking duo, Laurel and Hunter Caroway, feasting on the blood of Quince or poor Amy. Rather it's in the way the members of the band, especially Jeremy and Quince, begin to lose control of their thoughts, their will, to the sinister influence of these two predators, the way they are manipulated, the way paranoia was fomented and allowed to run rampant amongst the four.
While reading what happens to Jeremy and to Quince, in particular, I couldn't help but draw comparisons between these characters and two characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula - Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Jeremy, like Mina, is more innocent than Quince. He's introverted, reflective, a character that brings all the pieces together, unites these four to defeat the threat. He is a much more complicated character than Hunter as Mina is in comparison to Dracula. Jeremy has a softer, gentler quality, but with a hint of steel hidden beneath the vulnerability.
"I know the deal," Jeremy snapped. "But those people are a bunch of strangers. I guess it's asking too much not to be treated that way by my front man."
Watts rolled his eyes, but instead of shooting back a snide remark, he crossed his arms over his chest. Nobody else spoke.
Having no interest in patting them on the backs and reassuring them that he wasn't so mad after all, Jeremy left the room It was a pitfall he'd fallen into early on - taking crap and then apologizing for being visibly upset. Like he was the one with the problem. Jeremy had gone so far trying to fit in with Stygian that somewhere along the line he'd given them the impression that he was a subservient doormat, and he didn't know how much more he could take. (19-20)
Quince, like Lucy, is more sexual, more extroverted than Jeremy, more child than adult, less reflective. He placates Watts' surliness, he tries to "fuck the aggression out of Watts" to no avail, and he takes his insults and Watts' lack of respect generally without objection. Quince embraces Laurel's seductive influence very much as Lucy embraces Dracula's seduction. Quince's inherent passivity and lack of self-examination leaves him more vulnerable to the threat that Laurel poses much in the same way that Lucy loses herself in Dracula.
What the original members of Stygian were was family in the truest sense of the word, that indefinable "glue" that held them together. That family was fractured after the loss of Caroline, as death and loss often do in all families. But it's also what all of the remaining members want to recreate, to preserve. All of them have dealt with loss in their lives, all of them have experienced disappointment in ones they loved, and all of them have very good reasons for their anger. Ironic then that the thing that brought them together initially - their fractured pasts - is the barrier to getting what they need now. Each man looks through a distorted prism, exacerbated by the sly, cunning manipulations of the Caroways. They cannot see clearly the others for what they are and could be: four of the best friends as well as a pair of lovers.
I do wish Stygian had been a bit longer; it would have allowed more development for the romance between Jeremy and Kennedy. For a time I wondered which man - Kennedy or Hunter - really cared for Jeremy. Honestly, I did feel a little sorry for Hunter (even as I abhorred the way he messed with Jeremy's mind) because I believe Hunter was truly lonely.
My initial disappointment in the cliffhanger ending was somewhat assuaged when I discovered a follow-up providing a few answers. Take You Farther, available in the anthology Lead Me Into Darkness is free at All Romance. Here's the link:
(https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-leadmeintodarkness-1914049-166.html). I really hope this is not the last I'll read of Jeremy, Kennedy, Watts, and Quince. And yes, I can't help but wonder about Hunter, too.
Stygian, in the same vein of all really good Southern Gothic tales, draws from that very dark pool where houses fall apart, towns fall apart, and people fall apart; where the threat of violence is always lurking like an alligator in the swampy waters of rivers like the Sabine, just waiting to reach up and take a bite out of an unsuspecting victim. Where issues of honor, love, and trust are juxtaposed against mistrust, abandonment, and loss. I am so happy to have read this lovely book and even happier to have discovered a writer of the caliber of Santino Hassell. Bravo, Mr. Hassell!
ETA: Isn't that a wondrously beautiful cover???