Hello again and welcome back to Haunted Hardbacks! Today we're reviewing retellings of classic tales of horror. William Shakespeare's enthralling Macbeth, Robert Louis Stevenson's seminal The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Stephen King's supernatural Carrie are all part of the collective memory of horror literature. Check out these modern updates for new twists and chills.
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A note on content warnings: Generally, it can safely be assumed that characters in these stories are unsafe. Reviewers may highlight specific events in the books. For more content warnings, check the author's website.
Title/Author: As I Descended by Robin Talley
Summary: In this queer retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Maria and Lily are their boarding school’s power couple, even if no one but them knows about their relationship. When it starts seeming that popular Delilah will take home a coveted scholarship and also have a chance to out them, the pair decides to tap into the academy’s rumored dark power.
Content Warnings: Drugging, homophobia, death, abusive relationships, paranoia
Thoughts: I always love queer Shakespeare adaptions, but this is easily the best one I’ve read so far. Robin Talley dials the vague creepiness of Macbeth up to a 10. Who would’ve thought that moving the setting from Scotland to rural Virginia would work so well? Turning this tragedy into a Southern Gothic nightmare was an unexpectedly excellent choice.
It takes real talent to create unlikable main characters that you can’t help but root for anyways. Maria and Lily are entitled and toxic to each other, but I was still on the edge of my seat hoping they would fare better than Macbeth and his wife. I find it kind of refreshing when gay characters get to be villains — not in a problematic, “homophobe trying to prove a point” way (Talley, like me, is queer herself), but a “society loves plenty of straight villains, so let’s add some gay ones to the mix” way.
Fans of the original play will love finding all the Easter eggs scattered throughout! Talley clearly knows and respects Macbeth, and incorporates aspects in extremely clever ways. She’s also a master at building atmosphere; I felt like I was at Acheron Academy myself. This is genuinely one of my favorite books, and I highly recommend spending a stormy afternoon getting lost in it.
Title/Author: My Dear Henry by Kalynn Bayron
Summary: Gabriel returns to London in an effort to further his station as a young black man in 1885. But his dearest friend, Henry Jekyll, becomes someone more than a friend to Gabriel and is expelled due to scandal and becomes increasingly distant. Just why is Henry so far away and why is he acting like he doesn’t recognize Gabriel? And just who is the strange fellow coming to and from the Jekyll residence?
Review: I absolutely adored this book. As a lover of the original The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this retelling is a total gem. Imagine the same intrigue, the same mystery, the same mad science, but with a romance between two young Black boys.
My Dear Henry offers nuance and historical context, in both the racism and homophobia of the time. Yet it also offers hope through a supportive supporting cast, even while Gabriel and Henry both suffer at the hands of those who want them to succeed only in very specific roles. Gabriel’s father wants him to say yes to every opportunity given to him, even if it’s demeaning, where Henry’s father wants him to conform to a heteronormative lifestyle and forget all about Gabriel.
If you’ve read the original text, you may know the expected twists and turns, but that doesn’t make their unfolding any less enrapturing. The layers of nuance add a particular sting, but a delectable bite, even as you wish the circumstances for our dear Gabriel and Henry were different. The pining is intense, as is the heartbreak. My heart ached for Gabriel — it’s difficult to read someone else struggling to be just friends with a past romance, especially in a time as trying as 1885 London.
Recommended for readers who want their classics with a twist, where surprise is more in the nuance than the resolution.
Title/Author: The Weight of Blood by Tiffany D. Jackson
Summary: At her fanatical father's command, Maddy Washington has spent her life passing as white. Then her biracial identity is revealed and mocked in a viral video. All she wants is normalcy. So when the white class president convinces her Black quarterback boyfriend to ask Maddy to the prom, Maddy accepts. But some of their classmates don't know that when you plot revenge, you dig yourself a grave...
Content Warnings: Racism, racial slurs, child abuse, religious abuse, graphic violence, police brutality, death
Note: I want to acknowledge that I am white, and do not have Jackson's lived experience. The Weight of Blood is inspired in part by Stephen King's Carrie, but also shows real life cruelty and racist violence.
Review: Tiffany D. Jackson's novel is a tour de force. She perfectly captures the claustrophobic feeling of being an outcast trapped with toxic family. Maddy's father is a suffocating presence. Scenes between the two are truly chilling, and it's easy to fear Thomas Washington. No spoilers, but do you remember the scene where Carrie confronts her mother...?
The lives of Maddy's classmates are also fleshed out, with histories and possible futures. And Wendy, the white class president, is a complicated character. Jackson shows how someone can convince themselves their motives are altruistic, even when the reader can see otherwise.
Something I enjoyed about Stephen King's Carrie that isn't in the 1976 movie was the incorporation of articles and interviews with townsfolk. Jackson similarly interweaves podcast and documentary clips to build tension, while keeping things grounded in the contemporary.
In the end, Wendy, quarterback Kenny, and his sister Kali are all entangled with Maddy in a life-or-death dilemma. Prom night is a cataclysm. All the anxiety and tension explodes as we expect, but Jackson still manages to slip in some surprises.
Horror and hope are a visceral experience here. Whether or not you've read or seen Carrie, I recommend The Weight of Blood to anyone looking for a book that will set your pulse racing.