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 Caroway’s secrets into the light that Jeremy realizes belonging sometimes comes with a price.
What ho, there are mild spoilers ahead !
Miki: the first thing that i think it needs to be said is that Santino Hassell is way above the *standard* of writers not only inside the genre m / m but also in literature in general. So you know that the book will be at least very good, and that makes the reading of each of his books a challenge in some way, at least for me. Will it blow my mind again? Will it surprise me again?
Fra: 100% agreed there Miki. There is no doubt in my mind that Hassell is one of the most talented writers I have come across in the past few years. It seems to me that there’s very little that he cannot do and exceedingly well at that.
For me is the exceptional world building and flawless characterisation that have done it with every single one of Hassell’s books to date.
Miki: Yeah. He sets the bar high (for his books, and for any other author). That´s why, in this case and after the way Sutphin Boulevard affected me, the impact of Stygian was less….overwhelming, maybe. As you said, the world building is amazing, and i liked that he tried with another subgenre like the paranormal/gothic (which I love and I read a lot), but at the end it was not as intense as his previous books.
Karen: I read Stygian at Halloween, which was the perfect time to start it, and what I noticed first about it was despite the band members of Stygian being established and with history the book lacked that linear approach that appears in so many others. The characters flow and we get snippets of band and individual history woven in as well.. Combined with the eery house in the woods it made for a very seductive read.
While I can see what you meant about the impact Miki, there was still huge amounts of emotion in Stygian, and while it didn’t kick me right on the heart like SB, I was glad that it didn’t.
Fra: I think this was the perfect Halloween read: creepy and evocative, full of tension and memorable characters – I did find it intense, although it was perhaps too short to properly explore and dig into all the potential. Of course this might just be because I like my books long.
Miki: No, i agree, but despite all that, those feelings, that intensity, was maybe more superficial than with his other books, at least for me. Maybe it was due to the fact that i read a lot of “creepy” books and comics, so i´m used to hard core readings.
Fra: possibly, I read a lot of paranormal and gothic myself – heck one of my first books boyfriends and one true love was Lestat – so yes I get what you are saying that if the book had been slightly longer a lot more deep diving could have happened. But I have to say that I found the book very intense.
All in all this is an excellent book, it is descriptive, evocative and suspenseful – Hassell manages to convey not only the Southern Gothic atmosphere with a couple of masterful sentences, he also accomplishes the delivery of a powerful literary analysis of paranoia and manipulation while exploring and giving merit to the ideal of friendship as family that we choose for ourselves. All in the context of both figurative and literal hauntings.
Karen: I really enjoyed the gothic brooding atmosphere of the book, and how it affected the band members and their relationships with each other, and I could have read so much more of that.
However, and this is difficult without spoilers, the psychological aspect was much more gripping, why some people are controllable and others not.
Miki: That’s probably the best aspect of the book. The mix between the terrorific atmosphere and the impact on the psychological aspects of each character. Much more than the romance, which for me it wasn’t that….credible?
Karen: I don’t think that it wasn’t credible, I felt that it added another layer of tension, and was necessary, but it wasn’t as successful as the psychological part for me. What I found fascinating was how some people can almost embrace manipulation, and others resist.
Miki: Maybe the word I’m looking for is solid. The romance wasn’t as solid as other aspects of the book. (My english is a bit limited, sorry ^_^)
Fra: I agree, Karen, for me the most impressive achievement of the characterisation in Stygian is the painstaking description of both manipulation and paranoia. Jeremy is insecure and plagued by self doubt – he wants to belong so hard that it hurts to see. His need to belong is not only confined to the being accepted as a fully fledged member of Stygian, his sense of alienation comes also from his past and throughout the book I found the re occurrence of sentences like “it is never about me” or “I need my own glue” very telling of the mental state he is in. By no means weak he is none the less very vulnerable and thus wide open to being manipulated. On the other hand Stygian is a close knit band, they are each other’s “glue”, they have “no boundaries” and are constantly “handsy with each other” in other words they are the family they choose for themselves, but they are fractured and in tatters, and yet they are still together, still willing to make music as a cathartic exorcism of all their ghosts.
Jeremy’s paranoia is the direct result of his sensitivity being laid raw by his surroundings, which, in turn, trigger a very specific set of dark memories, and the attraction for Kennedy whose perceived rejection brings forth all of Jeremy’s self doubt.
Likewise it seems Quince’s need to appease Watts and remold Stygian at all costs leave him vulnerable to being manipulated as well and ultimately changed in unimaginable ways.
In fact the similarities between Jeremy and Quince’s fate, one who eventually finds the strength to resist the attempts and one that utterly succumbs to the “mindfuck” are, in my opinion, quite stark.
Both characters are not weak per se – but they are vulnerable and that is where manipulators latch on – in this case figuratively and literally – to exploit them.
Conversely rock solid Kennedy and abrasive Watts seem to be completely immune to Hunter’s mind games.
Hunter says exactly what Jeremy wants to hear by using ill gotten information to his advantage: he recreates himself into the surrogate family Jeremy is craving for.
Hunter plays on Jeremy’s need to belong, his grief at the loss he has endured and his attraction for Kennedy. That alone – even without the creepy setting, the fatiscent mansion and the outright scary forest – is one of the most horrifying thoughts conveyed in this book for me.
Where information obtained either in confidence or by sheer acts of eavesdropping become the basis for manipulating others – that is the truly scary element of this – and in fairness of some of the best written gothic and horror stories.
In fact I think this is one of the best characteristics of the book – we expect it to be paranormal because of the Southern Gothic setting and yet even when we are confronted with the actual paranormal element – from the Black family “insanity” to the actual showing of fangs and supernatural activities – we are never ever – not even once, told what the Caroways are. It easily places the story on the border between psychological thriller and actual vampire story.
Truly terrifying, more than the blood and the preternatural characteristics of the villain is his actual unbridled power to manipulate, to use Jeremy’s insecurities to create a binding sense of intimacy and belonging.
Miki: True. Hassell follows a known pattern of authors that use those elements wisely, true masters in the genre, without being obvious and literal. We can´t take as valid examples those awful recent books portraying “vamps”.
Fra: Stygian’s tagline describes the characters as disaffected – to me not only are these characters seriously disaffected, they are – like I said above, haunted both figuratively and literally.
From Watts’ constant taunting to Jeremy’s paranoia via Quince’s need to ensure the band makes new music to Kennedy’s possessiveness, Hassell gives us the full gambit of negative emotions to bring into a haunted house, we are also faced with ghosts – the ghost of what they used to be as a band, the ghosts of all of the people lost along the way. With Jeremy is very firmly the ghost of his dead brother but also his past and the essential necessity to compete with what Caroline used to be.
I think it is a credit to Santino that he brings these four together in a haunted house already equipped with the solution to all of their problems. Throughout the book, as readers, we can see that the very fact they are all in the same place is what can put Stygian back together – not the sophomore album, not – in my opinion – the resolution of the UST between Jeremy and Kennedy or the devolution of Watts and Quince’s relationship; but the ability of all members to communicate and work together to create another reality. After all didn’t the river Styx have the power to heal and make people invulnerable?
I could be here forever beating on the possible mythological connections of a band called Stygian that teeters between the living and the (un)dead!
I mean, Stygian is a paranormal novel: the paranormal manifests itself with two properly fleshed out “monstrous” characters – however I thought that the ghosts of the past – from Caroline and Luke to the baggage each band member carries, worked as paranormal markers just as well as Hunter and Laurel Caroway.
Jeremy’s newbie status is the catalyst for all of the characters agency: he longs to belong, to the band, to Kennedy and this longing forms the basis for Hunter’s Caroway’s manipulations.
Karen: While the four band members have distinct personalities, it is as a dysfunctional group where they actually shined for me. I know that sounds odd but they seemed to bring out both the best and the worst in each other, and underneath it you feel that this weird symbiotic relationship defines them all. However Brian I found the most interesting especially his response to the Caroways. I actually found him the most vulnerable in many ways of the bunch.
Fra: *barges in completely inappropriately* OMG I LOVE WATTS – I want to read all of the Watts stories!!!
Karen : So, having read Stygian, Sutphin Boulevard and ICoS I think that Santino Hassell is a terrifically versatile writer. Often people say ‘I would recognise his/ her writing style anywhere’ I don’t get that with SH, which is something that I really appreciate and value.
Miki: I believe that is the most hard thing to achieve as a writer, and Hassell can do it instinctively. There are very few authors with that talent, innate, in the literature world in general. I think the m/m genre is a little too constrictive for him. He´s so much more than that (with all due respect for the genre) but let’s be honest, some people can only write one thing, and one thing only.
Fra: I agree, Santino is an incredibly versatile writer although I do think that there are recognisable traits to his talent: namely his powerful world building and his capacity to draw characters in the most economical and effective manner. Just as an example I am going to take a secondary character, who we only meet once and that just delivers a small yet critical part to the novel’s development. 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.
Miki: Yeah, but one thing is to observe some traits that the author likes to explore, or need to convey to his readers, and another completely different thing is when you can only write those things, and nothing else. Hassell does what he wants because his writing is limitless.
Fra: From the beginning – and this is another of Hassell’ strengths – there is no doubt that the book is going to be full of tension.
Told in the point of view of Jeremy, the novel opens with a statement on the place the band rents to supposedly get their act in gear and produce a new album. “The Mansion was a monstrosity” and “The summer was going to be awful”. In the space of two paragraphs Hassell has set the tone to both the world building and the disaffected state of his characters.
The characters interactions with each other and with the mysterious landlords creates all the tension in the book. A tension masterly underlined by the environment they find themselves in.
The relentless heat punctuates arguments and band practices. The torrential rain and thunderstorm underlines the denouement of both the sexual tension between Jeremy and Kennedy and Jeremy’s realisations about Hunter and Laurel.
This tension – sexual and otherwise – is the red thread on which the characters move; from very early on in the novel, through gestures and taut dialogue, Hassell conveys an impending sense of strings strung too taut and ready to snap at any moment.
There’s the tension between all band members, the constant push and pull of a friendship on the brink of breaking masterly counterpointed by the intense need of Jeremy to belong and fit in.
But this is a broken dynamic – Caroline’s death has left Stygian a ghost of its former self – to survive they need to change and remold, Jeremy doesn’t see this, in fact I think that none of the Stygian members do – the tension here is due to the fact that they are trying to recreate the exact dynamics of before the accident without understanding that they should instead use the intense loyalty to one another to create something new.
There is sexual tension – the relationship between Jeremy and Kennedy is a constant hot and cold cycle – I particularly liked that all the UST is described in details in the stagnant heat and that the resolution to it comes at the same time as the thunderstorm.
It is hot and sweet and romantic the way these two push each other away only to get back together again.
But I find myself thinking – like I have been for a while in the presence of some great queer books I read recently – are the sex “intermissions” really necessary? I mean many of the sex scenes in Stygian would have worked for me if they had been fade outs. It almost feels as lip service to a genre that is getting to be way too small of a box for Santino Hassell’s talent.
Miki: Eeeeexactly. It would be fantastic to see him break those boundaries.
Fra: Be it the dystopian world in shades of grey of ICoS to the NYC of Sutphin Boulevard to the Caroway’s mansion and surroundings of this latest offering, Hassell has a wondrous way of tying his characters to a place like no other writer at the moment.
The overgrown vegetation surrounding the mansion, the dust and antiquated feeling inside, a house that is dark and creaking with gloomy corners even with all the lights on – the shack is surrounded by “cobweb covered grass”, the heat is a formidable presence, oppressive, unrelenting it affects the surroundings and the band, it gives a languid feeling to everything that happens in the novel.
Fra: I love vampires, I love vampire stories; Lestat is my spirit animal and my one true love. Stygian marks yet another glorious return to vampires as they are supposed to be: stunning preternatural predators. Not sparkling, well meaning, creatures, if anything a return to the idea of vampirism as the forbidden sensual exchange of fluids. In fact more than vampires the Caroways remind me of the demonic succubus who take people’s life force to sustain their own supernatural existence.
Miki: Me too. I love it, and Hassell respects all of the fantastic masters that this genre has. And that´s a difficult task. We need more vampires like Spike in this world.
All and all another great read from one of the best writers in the genre. Highly recommended.
Go, do the thing and buy the book: