I intended to write this piece as a straightforward, concise and informative review. Like normal people do. Honest. Alas, it morphed somewhat into a collection of distracted and disjointed musings on the book itself and my personal scattered reactions to it. Regardless of the end result, I’d like everyone to acknowledge that I started off with a plan, and the best of intentions. Sadly, the plan quickly went to hell, which coincidentally – as my gran would say – is paved with good intentions. Then usually a swift clip around the ear would follow.
I must admit that the announcement about the release of Santino Hassell’s newest novel, Stygian had me triply thrilled. To start with, I’m a keen long-standing admirer of his writing. I’m also a massive fan of paranormal romances in general. Any mention of vampires, in particular, renders me temporarily incapable of containing my excitement. In addition, I’m a pathetic sap for the tantalising allure of the American Deep South setting, which – reminiscent of True Blood and Angel Heart – captivates me every time, despite being undoubtedly highly romanticized.
Stygian is a contemporary M/M romance, featuring some elements of Gothic fiction, set in Northern Louisiana. The book tells the story of four young troubled musicians, who plan on spending six weeks of their summer on a music retreat, working on their new material. The group’s dynamic is seriously messed up following the tragic death of one of the bandmates. The situation doesn’t improve when a new drummer, struggling after his brother’s suicide, joins in. There’s enough guilt, frustration, tension and miscommunication going round to initiate World War III. To complicate things further, there are also crushes and secrets between the hot, tattooed band members. It really goes out of the frying pan and into the fire when their rented accommodation occurs to be a creepy mansion, located in the middle of nowhere, owned by a pair of equally stunning and mysterious landlords. In the southern heat the odd, goosebump-raising events unfold, tempers flare, lust takes hold and shorts hit the floor more than once.
All my boxes were ticked already upon reading the blurb. As a sensible realist, I naturally anticipated things to go downhill from there. Fortunately, that never happened. I finished the book within 12 hours. My initial reaction was an eloquent and articulate one. I simply went: “Arrrgghh” and “F**k” and promptly documented that on Facebook. My secondary reaction consisted of being mildly freaked out and anxiously looking over my shoulder, whilst entering a dark room.
The Southern Gothic element was primarily what sold me on this book. Santino Hassell has never, to my knowledge, written anything like this before. All the obligatory pieces of any decent Gothic fiction puzzle were present, counted and verified. The haunted, foreboding mansion with its blood chilling secrets – check. Dark, mysterious characters and creepy, eerie surroundings – of course. The sense of the supernatural and nervous uneasiness evoking fear – bingo. Chaos, pain and doomed or complicated romance (with the added value of hot, sweaty sex) – hell yeah.
I thought it was a rather clever measure to use the word “Stygian” for the book title and simultaneously the name of the band. The meaning of the word – “extremely dark, gloomy, hellish, infernal or shadowy” – is very apt for many reasons. It is, after all, a creepy book. But it was the word’s etymology that drew my attention. It derives from the Greek mythology and refers to the River Styx, forming the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. To my mind, the concept of crossing the boundaries or overcoming limits is vital in this novel. I see it as referring to both Hunter and Laurel as creatures, whose very existence crosses the boundaries between the realm of the living and the dead, blurring the lines between what’s accepted, normal and ordinary and what’s feared, supernatural and unusual. It can also pertain to the band members, Jeremy and Kennedy in particular, who finally succeed in removing the dividers and conflicts between them, getting rid of obstacles and eventually starting a relationship.
I’m terribly sorry to say that my favourite character is not actually one of the good guys. I was a strange child, always rooting for the antihero. While watching cartoons or reading stories I attempted to understand their motivation and – if possible – justify the actions or at least to find some mitigating circumstances in the their background. There is something about being evil or broken that appeals to me, makes me want to defend it or at least comprehend it. I guess it is not at all surprising that I got into psychology as an adult. I find evil coupled with beauty specifically irresistible and entrancing. Somehow, my brain equates such a combo with desirability. I simply have a thing for hot, bad dudes. That explains why Hunter was the one who captured my imagination and got my attention.
Hunter is otherworldly beautiful. He’s also mysterious, slightly menacing and transcendentally sensual. His nature is one of a predator. He can’t be judged according to the human morality, merely because he’s not human. I don’t consider him necessarily evil per se. Granted, he tries to manipulate Jeremy and control him to get what he wants. He aims to alienate the kid even further from his bandmates – especially Kennedy, who he perceives as a threat. But when push comes to shove, he doesn’t want to harm Jeremy, who – Hunter realises – is special. What Hunter craves most of all, is a companion. Suffocated by the limited space and the company he keeps, he feels deeply unhappy, unloved, depressed and lonely. I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy and fall for his dark allure. Besides, he’s pure sex on legs, which decisively helps his case along. And I’m a sucker for vampires (cheesy pun intended). I definitely wouldn’t mind reading about Hunter again sometimes.
I really enjoyed reading the passages describing the band practice times. My husband, who is a musician and spent a number of years in a band, always says that perhaps only about 30% of his time as a band member was devoted to actual music making – writing, practicing, jamming, recording, and performing. The rest was spent not only bumming around, partying, travelling, hanging around, but also quarreling, bickering and battling egos with his bandmates. That’s what being in a band realistically looks like and Hassell captured that perfectly well. The members of the band are like a close family and they unavoidably fight like one too.
Stygian is an atmospheric, suspenseful, extremely hot and creepy read. I highly recommend it to all paranormal romance lovers. The influence of Poppy Z. Brite, of whom Hassell is a self-confessed admirer, is evident. I would go out on a limb here and encourage Santino to write a horror story next – one of the “really frightening” variety, because I have no doubts that he could pull it off. Needless to say, an abundance of graphic, explicit erotica would have to be applied in order to counterbalance all the horrible terror. Just a thought.
A bilingual Londoner Kasia BB is a literary/medical translator and a proofreader. An avid reader, reviewer and book blogger, she’s currently working on her debut M/M fantasy novel, filled with the shenanigans of assassins and sexy elves. She has a mild coffee and lemon tart addiction, coupled with a slight obsession of all things paranormal. She is a lover of MMA, nature and the great outdoors.