Welcome to the March update for The Sinister Reader! I hope everyone enjoyed the spin on Lovecraft that we did last month. We got to see some fantastical books, some horrific books and some that were all of those things with a heartbreaking beauty to the writing. While I’ll admit that cosmic horror is a thing I obviously love quite a lot, it’s not the only game in town when it comes to horror. In fact, when one is looking for decent horror, or even anything adjacent, as of lately I’ve noticed that getting a chance to find it can be a bit tough. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty out there and a lot of great scary reads but a lot of it, especially in most retail outlets both online and in brick and mortar stores, centres on only the biggest known names of the genre and most of the spotlight is given to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Now, before anyone gets those pitchforks raised too high, I think that both of these authors have their place in horror and both have made significant contributions that justify how much their work is talked about and praised. The thing is, there are problems with Lovecraft, as we discussed last month, and there’s life in horror beyond King. Again, I don’t want to dismiss these two for what they bring to horror’s table. Lovecraft did his bit to really refine and sharpen up the genre as much as anyone (though he wasn’t the first, let’s be honest) and whether you love or hate him, King has done quite a lot to really push horror beyond its borders and put it out there in the mainstream, especially lately. All of these things taken into account, for the time being, I’m still only going to cover Lovecraft as done by other people because I feel like there are other, better authors who have taken these old concepts and breathed new life into them, making them even more engaging and sometimes a lot scarier. And unless I have something I need to talk about, I doubt I’ll cover much on King here as, if you haven’t noticed, he’s kind of everywhere. And today, we’re going to leave these titans behind us and make our way to an incredible book that you might have missed because of what little shadow it was lurking in but make no mistake, this one is a horrific gem.
Today’s book, Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is easily one of my absolute favorites and I picked it up entirely by accident. You may have heard of this author if you travel in more literary circles but unless you’re big into finding translated works from international authors, this might not have been high on your reading list. For those who aren’t aware, this author is from Barcelona, Spain, and he definitely has that writing style akin to something you would expect from other Latin writers such as Marquez. By that I mean that his prose, even in translated form, is absolutely fucking gorgeous and puts literally everything I will ever do to shame. Seriously, you’ll become a better writer just by reading his prose and despairing that it’s so pretty. But enough gushing about his prose because pretty words aren’t much if there’s no story to tell and I assure you that this one is a good one. With that, let’s get to what he’s given us to review today. It’s a book that I’ve never heard any horror reviewer talk about so I’m going to guess it might have flown under their radar. There are several reasons I think this might have happened, not the least of which is that most of this author’s work falls under the fantasy or magic realism kind of area of fiction. Still, as we’ve talked about before, that’s not always a deal breaker when it comes to horror fans, as a lot of horror can be classified as dark fantasy anyway. In fact, even if you’ve heard of other works by the author, such as Shadow of the Wind (which is so well written that it’s actually kind of painful), this one still might have passed you by on account of the fact that it sits proudly in the YA section of the retail world.
I’ve said before that I know several people for whom the word fantasy gives them hives and I know just as many people who see the YA label and nope themselves right into any other section of the bookstore, even if it means wandering into the romance section. (Side note: can we work this decade to end book shaming?? Seriously, can we just stop looking down on genres because someone once told you that it was bad and you took them at their word without reading anything in the genre? Stay tuned for my Ted Talk.) I know that YA conjures up certain images for some people, mostly involving (unfairly) wizards, volunteering as tribute and vampires who fall in love with teenage girls. The thing is that there is a lot more to the genre than a lot of people give it credit for and there are a lot of authors that are dismissed as “writing for kids” without getting the acknowledgement that they deserve. It turns out that a lot of the genre isn’t dumbed down because kids, and especially teenagers, aren’t stupid and they don’t want to read things that are going to treat them like they need to be protected from the realities of the world. Nor are they all that interested in stories that read more like baby’s first attempt at creep factor when they have access to a whole internet’s worth of horror films, social media sites and even fan fiction that can get way more intense and scary. Most authors understand that in order to get a reader’s attention, especially that of a teenager, you still have to offer them something to really sink their teeth into and talk to the audience on a level that’s going to draw them in and keep them along for a very weird and bumpy ride. No one wants to be talked down to, especially young people, and this is one bumpy ride that gets very dark in places and it certainly doesn’t pull any punches in how it addresses the audience.
To begin, I will say that this is more of a dark fantasy ride but there are some true horror elements to it. This is a book that doesn’t shy away from those elements either but it’s so drenched in atmospheric writing and prose that is genuinely lush and mesmerizing that even the shocking parts are kind of beautiful in their own way. There’s a kind of romantic sense to story, even though it’s not what we might be thinking when someone brings up the idea of romance. From here, I really have to stress that if you’ve got any hang ups about the YA label, this is a good time to shed those. It’s true that there are certain tropes that we think of associated with the genre now because of things we’ve seen done quite a bit in more recent years. If you’re reading this and getting geared up for a teen romance with some minor thrills in between long strings of pining to the tune of things like Twilight or even something a bit more serious that has more teeth to it like Hunger Games, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. This book runs a completely different formula to what we think of from those books or any of the knock offs that came after. It deals with the idea of teen love in a very different way and the perspective is innocent, beautifully naive and, be forewarned, kind of horribly heartbreaking in multiple ways. All of these things play a role in what makes this book unique and what makes it an excellent read.
For one, Marina tells its tale differently and from a point of view that we don’t normally see, especially for a YA novel. The story is told from the perspective of an adult who is remembering back to a major event in his life that happened when he was fifteen. Told in a first person narrative, we follow Oscar Drai as he recalls being restless in his boarding school and how that restlessness set him on a path to find, what he believed, was an abandoned mansion. What he found was a young girl named Marina and her father, a painter named Germán. The house is mysterious enough by itself, a decaying mansion filled with portraits and filled with the colorful history of Marina’s parents, but the action really gets going when the two kids venture off to witness a bizarre ritual. Every month, a woman in a black veil comes to a forgotten grave in a cemetery and on this particular day, under the watchful eye of Marina and Oscar, places a flower at a grave with no name but only a symbol embossed in the stone. As children are given to do, they follow the mysterious woman to the older part of Barcelona and from here, they become entrenched in a mystery neither of them could have guessed was hiding beneath their feet. The world they discover is one of secrets, horrible cruelty, lost love and what can become of a person who allows their obsession with death encompass their life. They are brought to old buildings and even older stories of geniuses, beautiful performers, aristocrats and all manner of other forgotten players who have all played a role in the labyrinth that has been hiding a secret beneath the city.
If any of this isn’t immediately sending you to your nearest book merchant, I’m clearly not selling it hard enough because this book is absolutely lush with details and atmosphere. The fact that it’s told as a memory already casts the whole narrative in a kind of fairytale light with a nostalgia that tinges everything but the writing is so good that it makes you feel like you’re seeing a childhood friend or coming back to a place that meant so much to you growing up after years of being away. I have already mentioned the gorgeous prose but it’s worth it to remember that this is a translated work and a damn good one too. There is not a beat that goes by where you don’t get the feeling of what the author intended and I cannot stress enough that this is a story that goes through all of the feels. There are some suspenseful moments, some heady introspective moments and some moments of vivid horror that I was genuinely surprised to find in a book aimed at younger readers. Like, legit, there’s at least one scene that was both tragic and horrifying in both what the character suffers through and the description of what happens to them. That said, in the hands of a less skilled author, this might be a cheap gory moment but in this, the outcome is haunting. And lest you think that you’re going to be shocked and sitting on the edge of your seat for the whole thing, rest assured that there are some beautifully sweet moments in the story along with a few that hit you hard enough in the feels to make it uncomfortable to read on the bus if you’re the type that cries easily.
As I’ve already said a few times now, I only review books that I would personally recommend you spend the money on and this is one that deserves that spot on your bookshelf. It will leave you completely breathless at the way its written, the story is beautiful and the characters are drawn up in such a way that you feel like these are people you really wish you could know. The romance between the two main characters is treated with a kind of sweetness that encompasses all the most endearing parts of those teenage crushes that we all remember having without any of the realities of actual teenage crushes. That might sound like a negative but it’s part of the indulgence of the book and one that makes it that much more rewarding to read, especially as an adult. This isn’t written to be a realistic look at teen drama. This book is a love letter to the parts of being a teenager that can’t last but can make for some of the best memories. And that love letter is wrapped up in one hell of a gorgeous story that I cannot even begin to do justice to how good it is. This is an excellent read and will absolutely hit the spot if you’re in the mood for decadent, gothic tinged prose that will take you on a wild, beautiful and sometimes terrifying journey.
And with that, we have come to the end of another Sinister Reader for March. If you are looking for that more on my thoughts on YA novels and a sneak peek at next months book, you can check out my Patreon. Contributors will be able to get the next Sinister Reader a whole two weeks early, as well as early access to story updates, news of things to come, book excerpts and movie reviews. If, however, life just doesn’t allow for contributions at this point, liking and sharing my updates through social media and letting friends know about it goes a lot longer ways than you might expect. I thank everyone who has joined me again this month and I very much appreciate all the support. Until next time, may your nightlights burn brightly as you make your way through your next Sinister Read!