by Molly Collins (@History Bot)
We all know vampires. They hate garlic, they can’t cross moving water, the sun burns them, they’ve got to hang out in their coffins pretty regularly, they suck blood, and they live for a long, long time. This week over at HOWL Society, we read a book that sticks to traditional vampire lore, and still manages to subvert all our expectations and provide a fresh new perspective.
BEHIND THE PEN
Jewelle L. Gómez is an author, poet, playwright, and activist of Cape Verdean, Ioway, and Wampanoag descent. Her publications include poetry collections, short stories, essays, anthologies, and of course our book club read of the week, The Gilda Stories. Gómez is the recipient of several awards and accolades and is currently the Playwright in Residence at New Conservatory Theatre Center. This is her first novel, but a new Gilda novel is in the works under the temporary title Gilda: The Alternate Decades and there are several more short stories in the same world, the full list of which can be found on her website.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
The Gilda Stories is a vignette-style episodic novel about an escaped slave called Gilda, who is adopted and turned by vampires. We follow Gilda as she hops from city to city throughout time, starting in the 1850s and eventually reaching the year 2050. Gilda makes new friends and family, and the book explores themes of empowerment, femininity, blackness, and sexuality. The Gilda Stories won two Lamda Literary Awards and is a “revolutionary classic by a pioneer in black speculative fiction,” according to Tananarive Due.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
This was a week where HOWLers—myself included—were perpetually behind. The Gilda Stories is not a particularly long book, nor does its prose present a challenge to most readers, but it is a book meant to be savored. It also proved to be divisive early on, particularly in regards to the prose and storytelling style. Some readers felt like they were floundering, because we were thrown into the story and it seemed like we were expected to already know and be familiar with the characters. There was also a lot of telling over showing, and the book is more a philosophical musing than a plot-forward adventure. It did seem like HOWLers were able to tell whether or not they meshed with the style early on, so although there were several DNF announcements at the beginning of the week, those who decided to stick with stayed till the end, no matter how long it took them.
The Gilda Stories is not quite horror; it touches briefly on horrific events, but several HOWLers expressed that they didn’t feel like it quite fit the genre. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how The Gilda Stories fit into the history of horror literature and literature as a whole. @wytwavedarling pointed out early on that the style reminded her of traditional slave narratives as well as literary bildungsromans—coming-of-age stories—but with vampires. Other readers pointed out how it felt like it could be in conversation with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and the similarities to Octavia Butler’s later novel Fledgling, a HOWLS book club read from 2020. These allusions provided a richer reading experience for many, although it did lead to some HOWLers pegging the style as feeling a little too academic.
As we rolled into the last discussion day (following a brief intermission to look at photos of baby cows), responses were mixed. For some, the melancholic atmosphere worked really well, and they loved the meandering narrative. For others, the mosaic style didn’t work for them, and they came away “whelmed” as @Senobyte put it. Nevertheless, most readers were happy that it was chosen as a book club read, especially since it’s not something they would have picked up on their own.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- In the Afterword for the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Gilda Stories, Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls the book: “A precise and prophetic work. A neo-slavery escape narrative. An Afro-futuristic projection.” And before that, in the introduction to the work, Gómez speaks of how she was spurred into writing the book, and the ‘pent-up fury’ that went into it. The passion in all of this language, and the way it carefully bleeds through this long-form narrative of vampires and personal history, is absolute–and while the book may disappoint readers coming to it from a horror perspective for a tale of vampires and violence, I would answer that it is an important, worthwhile work that takes influence from classic slave narratives, classic novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Giovanni’s Room, and moves the narratives into a contemporary space that is at once a coming-of-age tale for a slave-turned-vampire and an examination of growth, love, and hope.
- I’ve been really enjoying 90’s fiction lately and this really hit the spot—it felt really sentimental and touching, and I loved watching Gilda through the years to her end. It was more philosophical than horror, but I’m really glad I read it.
- My expectations for this book may have been a little misguided, but I can see it resonating with a lot of readers who know what they’re getting into. It’s not horror, but it asks a lot of questions that make it a worthwhile read.
- A complex, haunting narrative about power negotiations, family, and finding one’s place in a difficult world. The story moves slowly, but with a relentless beauty.
- Experiencing 200 years of history across the US through the perspective of a Black lesbian woman with vampiric powers made for a beautiful and compelling read. This book needs to be in more classrooms!
- I want to hand this book to my teenage self. Reading it in 2022 it seems almost familiar because we have more stories like this these days, but in the early 1990s I can only imagine how revolutionary this was. I loved the ways in which Gómez chose to subvert classic vampire tropes and the ways she used this story to explore identity, belonging, and power.
- A powerful, nuanced work which brings a new perspective to vampires as living history. The focus on empathy in power leaves a lasting impact.
The Gilda Stories are integral to one’s understanding of feminist horror, and we think everyone interested in those roots should pick this book up! Although it may not resonate with all readers, its position amongst great literature is irrefutable. It is a thought-provoking and touching read, and will leave you with a new perspective on horror fiction.