The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes’ Lackluster Thriller Still Has Some Bright Spots

It is July 17, 1974, and a strange man approaches a child playing alone in a yard. It is classic in its unsettledness; we all know this story, so we instinctively hold our breaths. Strangers and children. Predators and prey. The axioms slowly rise in our minds, like a flush over a face. The stranger is Harper Curtis, with jeans, a gimpy foot, and an austere countenance. The child is Kirby Mazrachi, with brown eyes, frizzy hair, and a bee buzzing under a cup. She’s trapped it; there is a subtle omen here. This is a first meeting, and yet it is not. Harper Curtis tells Kirby, “That’s great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round, like your Ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.” and he departs. He leaves behind a token, a prize, that he is both receiving and giving up. This is a beginning with a hole in it, and a reader is left wondering when they’ll get the key.

It is a strong first chapter, a good opening; Lauren Beukes sets the ball on the tee perfectly. But writing about time travel proves to be a tricky thing. For loops in time really always boil down to one ideology: determinism. This is the beast we are led to think we are fighting against. Will Harper and Kirby get swept by the current? Or will they somehow break the cycle, and get swallowed into a quantum jumble?

The unfortunate reality about Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is that this battle never really occurs. Instead, the thriller novel is gobbled into a long sluice of fatalistic linear storytelling of women getting murdered over and over again, and our heroine, Kirby, muddling around in the background performing the blasé actions of the ‘catch-a-killer’ game while simultaneously not getting anywhere. To put frankly, The Shining Girls is a draining experience.

“Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know.

Except that the names are written in Harper’s own handwriting.

It’s enough. The realization. Like a door opening up inside. The fever peaks and something howls through him, full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and knows how they must die. The screaming inside his head: Kill her. Stop her. […]

Harper takes away his hands and forces himself to open his eyes. He hauls himself to his feet, using the bedpost for balance, and hobbles over to the wall where the objects pulse and flicker, as if in anticipation. He lets them guide him, reaching out his hand. There is one that seems sharper somehow. It nags at him, the way an erection does, with incontrovertible purpose. He has to find it. And the girl who comes with it.”

Lauren Beukes, From The Shining Girls

Right out of the gate something must be stated about The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes is an incredible writer. Her ability to paint tone and depth into a scene is truly impressive; her prose is osmosed with the mood of her subject so finely that it feels seamless. Without question, Beukes is a great penner of words, and I fully appreciated her analogous and metaphorical choices and what I will call the lexis of her work.

But much halts there. A time-traveling serial killer is an intriguing premise for a thriller, one that feels open to imaginative pathways otherwise exempt from most crime-rooted tales. The expectation of more horror, more mystery, more magical realism, more breadth, is high. Yet, perhaps it was too high for Beukes, as she just couldn’t seem to reach those upper levels. We are left with a shallow, dull slog of murder after murder, useless detective scene after useless detective scene, and a weird unrequited love story that feels vapid in its unidirectionalness. It hurts to say that despite Beukes’ attempt to make The Shining Girls “a book that is as much about the victims’ stories as the killer’s,” the most interesting character is undoubtedly Harper, and the book features his thoughts, his activities, and his triumphs and tragedies most prominently, deranged murderous antagonist overtaking spunky jaded protagonist easily. For a book that implies a 5th dimension, it’s irksomely flat.

The book takes the reader through several decades, bouncing along the chill 90s to the Great Depression and back again. Here Lauren Beukes is actually at her best, describing the mood and atmosphere of each cultural time period in wonderfully researched detail (which actually leaves the question of whether Beukes is simply in the wrong genre and that perhaps her skills would better be utilized in non-fiction, historical enterprises). This time hopping should be an experience that feels like a koan, the solution resisting us as the solving goes on. But it somehow doesn’t. Instead, the fatalism of it all rather blunts the thrill and mystery. Should we be biting our nails as Harper encroaches upon yet another bright victim? When in fact, we already know she is dead, or will be, and that all these events are just part of a daisy chain that feels more repetitious than anything. And what of Kirby, our sole survivor? Beukes just shoves her in, and throughout the work she doesn’t seem to have much agency, and in fact at the end (a light spoiler ahead) seems to be the perpetrator of her own demise.

So, is Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls simply a veiled fatalistic tragedy? The paradox is the story, right? Weirdly, it doesn’t feel like this either. Weirder still, I’m not sure Beukes even noticed her own contradiction. (Though I’m sure by now, some people have pointed it out to her.) The finale feels like a larger story Beukes couldn’t quite figure out and lopped off, almost as if Beukes reached the end of her own intellect and could go no further. Now, is it possible that Beukes in fact did fully understand the contradiction and simply failed in her relaying of it to her audience? Yes; however, this ends up not changing the glaring grimy smudge of this supposed reflective gotcha loop—Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is boring, and the lot of what happens in the book has no bearing at all to the final problem. Beukes seems to forget that the infamous Möbius strip has only one side, and makes little use of any imagination and daring she might have to add any profundity to the mathematical simplicity of her deterministic model. In the end, Harper gets everything he wants because of Kirby, and Kirby gets everything she doesn’t want because of herself. One is left wondering, How does this play out in the self-agency of our dead girls? Beukes becomes the thing she hates: a writer of “All The Pretty Corpses,” a genre trope she actively rejects and attempts to remedy in her short essay by the same name at the end of the book’s reading guide. The irony is so strong it almost leaves a taste of pity in the mouth.

It’s two stars for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. But I will leave with this: if Lauren Beukes ever decides to leave behind the world of fiction and instead picks up non-fiction, I might very much swipe that off the shelf.

Excellent photograph of Lauren Beukes via Wired.com – Thank you.

Two stars for The Shining Girls.  

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

When one thinks of folklore it is unlikely the considered would include the United States. More likely candidates would be the isles of Great Britain and Ireland with their abundant fairy faith traditions, or perhaps Malaysia, with its spectacular wealth of ghosts and spirits. The folklore of North America, in most minds, tends to lean toward Mesoamerica and that of Native American or Mayan culture, before the Europeans came and (supposedly) sucked all the good stories out.

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Page of the Nain Rouge from Legends of Le Détroit. Illustration by Isabella Stewart

It’s hard to argue against this perspective; it would appear Americana was less into creating its own lore and fables and more into borrowing from other traditions. This is no doubt due to the melting-pot—but, a few interesting ones stand out. The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens; the mischievous spirit of northern Wisconsin, the Hodag; the red Demon of the Straight, Nain Rouge, of Detroit; the Bell Witch Haunting of Tennessee; of course, there is Bigfoot. A lot of USA folklore exists inside urban legends, those scary stories told at sleepovers with a bag of potato chips and a flashlight tucked near the chin. Strangely, clowns dominate in this arena of tale telling, as every kid who grew up in the Midwest knows the spooky meaning behind the rather confusing idiom, “Clowns can lick too.” The myth and legends of the USA can no doubt present a bit of a challenge to the classical folklorist.

But there is a period of USA history that is indeed loaded with folklore and tall tales. Colonial America, surprisingly, has an enormous body of writings that have survived and remain an engaging treat to any folklorist or investigative individual interested in the study or dabbling of folkloristics.

And here enters fiction; colonial America is a particularly uncharted land. After all my years of reading, I can say that the amount of authors I’ve read that chose to plant their flag in colonial America is quite small. Usually when it happens, it is an indulgent romp of semi-historical account involving romance of some kind, or, it is the Salem Witch Trials. Either way, the pickings are slim. Passing through the bookstore, I spotted a red paperback with an eerie design of pale clutching hands circling a wolf’s head. Gravitating towards it, once it was in my fingers I flipped it over to find the words “this magical and frightening tale of colonial America” and I spanked it to my friend immediately, saying, “Wow, colonial America, something for you!” He bought it promptly, and about a month later, I got to sink my teeth into In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt. 

Narrated in the first person, the small novel opens on a young married woman searching for berries out in the forest by her humble home. Already, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods has the distinctive feel of a fairy tale. Quickly over the next few pages our protagonist becomes lost; darkness swiftly skates into the tall trees; our confused and increasingly frightened heroine desperately tries to find her path back, to no avail. Her mind wanders, her thoughts and memories move in and out. Through a progression of events, she finds herself laid up in a mysterious house, somewhere in the dark and wending wood. A woman named Eliza who lives there tends to our lady’s bruised and battered feet. But there is more to Eliza than meets the eye, and soon the darkness itself begins to speak. 

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[..] It came in a chorus this time, from the front room and outside the window, yes, but now also from other places: from down in the root cellar under the wood plank of the floor where Eliza did her scratching, from the ceiling boards, from the chimney shaft, from the walls, even from my own room. Who is moaning in my room? I thought. Is it me or is it Eliza? Only here I was and here was she. The moaning stopped. “Eliza,” I said. But she did not move at the sound of my voice any more than the Eliza in the front room had. “Eliza,” I said again, more loudly, and though the shape in the bed before me stayed silent, the moan sounded alone once more. 

It came from farther down the hall, from a room I had not yet entered. I took Eliza’s candle with me for there was no light or very little by this door. I stood before it for what felt like a long time. At last I pulled at the latch and held up the candle and there lay Eliza curled on the floor. A smell of wet and burning both came toward me. Her eyes were open. She was looking at me.

“You should go and rest now, Goody,” she said.

I did not move. “Where are you?” I asked.

“In the house in the dark of the woods.”   

It took me some time to like this book. There is a heavy lag in the former-middle of the text that leaches hard at the attention span; however, luckily this drag does not last for long. Laird Hunt’s writing is extremely paced, though occasionally, a blade of beautiful prose slices through, and the style and function is very much like those of colonial writings, giving the novel a genuine feel that fits the period. The story itself tumbles more like poetry, as if Hunt were feeling out the bottom of a murky pool with his toes. With a smart slash of Magic Realism in the signature, the main element of the book is nebulous, evading stringent categories and strict lessons. Laird Hunt seems to be exploring what most fairy tales—modern and old—seek to accomplish: a way of navigating and understanding the dangers and cruelties of the world, safely. Affection and abuse, confinement and freedom, respect and shame are just some of the binaries Hunt traverses on his journey. Our three main characters, Eliza, Captain Jane, and Goody, are all women of tragedy, and rather grimly, Laird Hunt tells their conflicting tales through a combination of metaphor, fabulism, historical fact, and perhaps most of all, memory.

Disquieting at parts but mostly just brow raising, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods is plump with fantastical imagery. Intersecting timelines, astounding insect swarms, flying boats, frightening transformations, a bird with massive human arms, Hunt’s imagination comes in force. That said, often times the force feels just that–forced. It seems that the storytelling itself—the fleshing of characters, the intents of events, the never-ending road of internal dialogue—was left to the wayside as Hunt plowed his pen into his inkpot, determined to make the strange stranger and the magical more magical. It leaves a book that is full of pain, mystery, and resurrection oddly hollow. Reading In The House In The Dark Of The Woods was like going through Samsara, a repetition of circumstances and a square dance of trading places that at best leads to little further understanding and at worst to head-scratching confusion. The scenes are phantasmagoric, the enchantment at times wonderful if not also jarring. But Laird Hunt, so very determined it would seem to be as elusive as he can, gives little to hold on to. The reader is left with a handful of soot, and the novel is quickly lost to the back of the shelf before being hauled out to be exchanged for some credit at a secondhand bookstore.

Nevertheless, there are some bright parts. Chapters 18 through 25 are particularly engaging. For a book of 28 chapters and an epilogue, its a promising show of writing. Hunt is at his best when he gets out of his own head and into the moment. When given a character and a sole perspective, Hunt’s writing flounders, as though he were attempting to build a house on stilts without proper anchoring. But put that character into motion, have them interact with the characters and world around them—damn, then Hunt delivers. Often times the dialogue In The House In The Dark Of The Woods (and there is quite a lot) is like reading an author playing ball with himself. But given some patience, Laird Hunt proves himself to be a capable writer. For a moment, a reader can almost forget all the slosh they slugged through to get there. For a moment, Hunt breaks into something great.         

All and all, Laird Hunt’s seesawing fairy tale of colonial America is a fine read. A good writer, and a good enough storyteller, Hunt has woven a vibrant, detailed tapestry, and though the expression of light and color would seem to outweigh the precision of the needlework, it is still a beautiful piece of art. Give yourself three afternoons, drink it in; a reader can no doubt be swept away by Hunt’s occasional stunning verse or a rolling dynamic scene. Muscle through the mucky parts, and make it to the final page. I thought it was worth it, so hopefully, you will too. 

Dark of the Woods_Hunt_cover

3 stars for Laird Hunt’s colonial folktale In The House In The Dark Of The Woods.  

Wildwood Dancing: A Romanian Fairy Tale

In a castle, deep in the Romanian wilderness, five sisters have a secret.

From eldest to youngest, sisters Tatiana, Jenica, Paula, Iulia, and little Stela, by way of a hidden door in their bedchamber, depart to another world each and every full moon.

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Beautiful Cover Art by Kinuko Y. Craft – Thank you.

Dressed in their best, the young’uns go dancing. But not with boys—oh no. Oh no not with fellow young boys. These girls go out partying with dwarves and trolls, with fairies and beasts and other magical forest folk. Free-spirited Iulia spins and spins until her face gets red; elegant and beautiful Tatiana sways serenely, her cascade of black hair tilting on her head; bubbly Stela jumps and jigs with her tiny woodland friends; Paula does not dance, but discusses her studies—at a table with robed academics while the music plays—enthusiastically expounding her writings and theories.

And then there’s Jena. Sensible Jena. Responsible, plain-looking, opinionated Jena.

With her best friend Gogu (who so happens to be a frog) she observes more than she dances, watches over more than she joins. Are her sisters safe? Is there trouble nearby? Jena understands the Other Kingdom can be a dangerous place, so she keeps her wits about her, keeps track of the time, keeps tabs on all her siblings and makes certain that everything goes smoothly and that everything is fine.

The girls pay their respects to Ileana, the fairy queen of the wildwood, and then set off again across the Bright Between. On five boats uniquely shaped—swan, wyvern, phoenix, wood duck, and salamander—they return to their bedchamber in the early morning, sleepy eyed and full of new daydreams. Their secret secure, their secret still secret.

But secrets have an animation about them. Like young girls, no matter how hard we try to keep them out of harm’s way and keep them locked up, secrets have a way of sneaking off. In a series of unexpected events, the sisters’ lives change. The wildwood holds secrets all its own, and seeds planted long, long ago start to take root. Jena tries with all her might to maintain the order, to keep the two worlds divided and to keep her sisters safe; but the forest has other plans, and the magic around her and within her is set to fly—no matter what she has to say about it.

Wildwood Dancing_MarillierThe long room we sisters shared had four round windows of colored glass: soft violet, blood-red, midnight-blue, beech-green. Beyond them the full moon was sailing up into the night sky. I put Gogu on a shelf to watch as I took off my working dress and put on my dancing gown, a green one that my frog was particularly fond of. Paula was calmly lighting our small lanterns, to be ready for the journey. […]

“Come on,” Iulia urged. “My feet are itching for dance.”

The first time we had done this, in our earliest days at Piscul Dracului—when I was only six, and Stela was not yet born—Tati and I had been amusing the younger ones by making shadow creatures on the wall: rabbits, dogs, bats. At a moment when all our hands had been raised at once to throw a particular image on the stones, we had found our forest’s hidden world. Whether it had been a chance or gift, we had never been sure.

An excellent YA fairy tale, Wildwood Dancing starts the party early and doesn’t let up. Juliet Marillier (who, according to her bio, sounds just as magical as the books she pens) is skilled in her abilities, deftly weaving enchantment and mystery and bringing to life well-wrought characters and magical scenes. Taking the very popular folk tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” Marillier leaves behind its traditional German roots and takes it for a spin out in Romania. A bit of a Rubik’s Cube, the book kicks off right away and doesn’t take unnecessary amounts of pages getting to all the juice: tall, dark, and handsome strangers, danger and intrigue, mythical beings, adventure, wild and sudden emotions, and of course, lots and lots of dancing.

With a handy-dandy glossary in the back and a guide to help with difficult pronunciations, the book feels hale and hearty, and a reader can quickly fall into another world.

Fairy tales are popular in YA right now. Ever since women started getting their hands on them, there’s been an eagerness to flip the script. And why wouldn’t there be? No longer willing to be passive victims in their own stories, women insist on a different kind of tale, a tale that involves autonomy, action, and liberation, the inner narratives of young women and girls at last spilling free.

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More Cover Art by the talented Kinuko Y. Craft – Thank you.

It’s not all good, of course. What reader hasn’t found herself rolling her eyes at overused tropes and ham-fisted scenarios where our heroine shouts, “NOT TODAY, BUCKO!” and kicks comically sexist Evil von Baron Le Pué to the curb while seizing a kiss from the equally preposterous non-sexiest Bad Boy Edward Hot Pants and then using her super powers to blast a sunbeam into the sky to exemplify her extraordinary abilities to overcome all things m-a-n while at the same time riding off into the sunset with one. It can get tiresome, all the mentally ill girls who are secretly psychic or have telekinetic powers, who are not the pretty ones because they are “too skinny” and/or have “wild hair” and are “clever”. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears that YA has problems. But it should also not fall on deaf ears that YA has a lot to offer, and has in fact offered it in abundance. Simply put, perhaps YA has garnered most of its bad reputation over the years on its slow cultural and societal formation into “a girl’s genera”.

So in summary, Wildwood Dancing might be a difficult book to get your son to read. The characters are overwhelmingly female (which can, sadly, be enough of a deterrent) and the tale itself feels traditionally feminine. But books, ultimately, do not have sex nor gender. Wildwood Dancing is a wonderfully told tale about truth, love, and the courage to believe in yourself. It is fun, exciting, and undoubtedly at times titillating (this red blooded woman will admit to some flushed cheeks) and there’s certainly enough fantasy to keep you interested. The sisters are all versatile, flawed, and contain their own desires and dreams. Juliet Marillier does an excellent job of bringing real life struggles to the fore, and just as gracefully guides readers through them, not shunting on painful conflicts and that sometimes human beings don’t get things right; however, with some planning—and some guts—Marillier reminds that we can fix what’s been wronged, and that stumbling is just a part of living.

Read Wildwood Dancing. Why not? Unless you can’t find it. Jump into your boat (your car), sail the Bright Between (your street), get yourself to the Other Kingdom (your local library), and remember, life is a dangerous wildwood.

But, there’s also dancing.

Wildwood-Dancing-by-Kinuko-y-Craft

Four out of Five Stars for Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.


All images are sections of Kinuko Y. Craft’s truly spectacular cover art. Find more of her artwork at http://www.kycraft.com   

Little Writer With Big Kick: L. N. Holmes’s Otherworldly Collisions

Like many with and before me, one of my first compelling reads as a youth was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In the beginning chapters, there is a most enthralling moment – illustrated by an ant and a piece of string – where Mrs. Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit explain how a clever loophole in time and space allows them to travel the universe.

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Illustration of ‘the wrinkle’ – Source: A Wrinkle in Time

We know it as “the tesseract”, or, “the fifth dimension”. In reality i.e. geometry, a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube, consisting of 8 cells, 24 faces, 32 edges, and 16 vertices. It is, in short, a cubic prism. But at this explanation, the tesseract looses its mystique and magic. In the book we understand the tesseract only as this: The way to bridge the gap between worlds.

In reading L. N. Holmes’s too short but gripping chapbook Space, Collisions, I was hearkened back to this moment. The moment where somehow, incredibly, far flung worlds are brought together, and the canyon that once sat between them is closed.

Space Collisions“Across the water, I can see a mosque built from tan and green stones. Further along the shore, cruise ships and freighters have been plucked out of the water and deposited onto the sand, like beached whales. People dot the shoreline, mirroring us, waiting for us on the other side. […]

On our shore, one of the men with the guns shoots off a round toward the sky. I bolt inside my house. From the window, I see everyone scatter and disappear like crabs scuttling into their holes. I haven’t seen any crabs for days. The gunman stands alone on the beach, abandoned by friend and foe alike. Everything is afraid as we wait for the unknown.”

With publication by Ghost City Press, L. N. Holmes’s chapbook is a mere 14 pages, with only 9 pages of story material. It’s small. That being said, Space, Collisions is available for free download. And it is worth it. The book contains three stories: “When Continents Collide”, “Trace”, and “Spacefall”, and though all are good, it is really “When Continents Collide” that is the star of the show. In the story, a man living on the shores of North Carolina waits and watches the collision of the continents of North America and Africa. The tale is like origami, folding into shape; from the sands, he sees the country of Morocco steadily slouching forward from across the Atlantic, and the final moment before the tumultuous slamming of the land masses is so visually serene and moving, one almost forgets it’s a death. I found this story immensely emotive, and striking. There is not much explanation as to why this event is occurring, with the players in the tale themselves full of confusion and uncertainty; however, this is one of the great self-determinations of short story writing. The reader and writer know there is limited time, that things must proceed quickly, and this limitation allows a huge berth of creative freedom. The writer must get to the point, the message, and all other thoughts and burdens are caved into the purpose.

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Portrait of L. N. Holmes, winner of the Apparition Lit April Flash Fiction Contest. Photo provided by L. N. Holmes.

The other two pieces “Trace” and “Spacefall” take up little more than two pages. “Trace” is poetic and nebulous; “Spacefall” is equally poetic, but less nebulous, with a definite tale being told. They exist as a nightcap to the emotion and adventure. Both are finely written, and both leave a sense of more. Along that note, if anything is wrong with this chapbook it is simply that there’s not enough of it. L. N. Holmes has a talented pen and a great imagination, but this chapbook needs a little more meat on its bones.

It’s Four out of Five stars for Space, Collisions. L. N. Holmes is fresh off the boat in the writing world, but nonetheless is bending space and time. So, who knows, maybe by tomorrow she’ll be a best selling author.


Full Disclosure: I was contacted by L. N. Holmes and was asked to give an honest review. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and maybe you’ll make the cut!


The featured image is a photo of the Andromedids meteor shower. In L. N. Holmes’s flash fiction “Spacefall” the Andromedids are present in two women’s sense of love and pining. Source/Photographer: from the International Meteor Organization, taken over East Point Lighthouse, NJ by Robert Lunsford – Thank You.