To Summon Nightmares by J.K. Pendragon was pretty much everything I wanted to read when I started it a few days ago and then it just kept right on being everything I wanted at all times. I came home and rambled about it excitedly to my wife every evening (and, sometimes, texted her on my lunch break too).
It’s a paranormal story: Two boys, Jacky and Niall, are lovers. Still teenagers, they struggle with how to deal with Jacky’s abusive father and ultimately decide the best option is to summon a demon. Needless to say, the situation gets more than out of hand. Some years and a point of view shift later, we meet Cohen Brandwein, a popular author and internet vlog celebrity, who is moving to his aunt’s old house in a countryside town to try to get away from the stress of the media’s negative reaction to his coming out as trans. Little does he realize that he’s walking right into the middle of a horrifying set of serial murders, nor that the prime suspect is a hunky, self-admitted witch named Niall…
I loved both Niall and Cohen. Niall’s bravery and determination to do the right thing while agonizing over his sense of responsibility and lingering love is very tangible, but he’s kept from being a tortured love interest by both his sort of strange sense of being slightly off after everything that happened and also his blushing excitability (I was completely charmed by his being one of Cohen’s fans and trying to play off how starstruck he was). And Cohen was a delight as a point of view character. He was the perfect mix of reasonable but not gullible, clever and understandably dubious, risk-taking but with clear limits. He came to life in so many little ways—his decision to walk into town to get gas for his new car, and ending up sweaty and wheezing and Regretting yet still committed to this mission because dammit he started it was just. I feel you, dude, I feel you. It was a delight to get to read about him navigating through a mix of dealing with his family, his new neighbours, a new crush and, you know, horrible murders. And he and Niall were really sweet together.
Add to that a deeply enjoyable plot with a complex entanglement of risks and sacrifices all woven together with a really strong narrative voice, and Pendragon sold me not only on this but on picking up everything else of theirs. The only thing I found an odd choice (and even then, didn’t dislike, and it certainly doesn’t impact my rating) was having a complete point of view switch. I found myself wanting to get back into Niall’s head more, having already been there once, to get the full picture from both sides. That said, I still loved everything we got.
It’s been a few years since Pendragon wrote this, but I sincerely hope they do a sequel someday, because I will read it in a heartbeat. I want to see how Niall adjusts to his own [spoiler], and, of course, how Cohen reacts to [much bigger spoiler]. Because damn, that ending!
I think I probably picked up Long Macchiatos and Monsters by Alison Evans during one of the sales; when I was flipping through my kindle on Thursday to look for something to read, I saw the title and couldn’t remember anything about it, but hey, I’m always in the mood for monsters, so why not? Spoilers: There aren’t any monsters in this novelette, but it didn’t matter that it ran counter to what I thought I was in the mood for, because the charming feel of the writing drew me in almost immediately.
Jalen loves B-grade sci-fi movies, and does not share this trait with any of their friends. They’re sitting in their favorite coffee shop trying to side if they should go alone to the theatre to catch a double feature of really bad films when in walks the handsome (and he knows it) P. They catch each other’s eye, and the story follows a series of experiences they share over the next three months.
It’s a shortish piece, falling somewhere in length between a short story and a novella, and written in first person present tense. It was an unusual choice, but it worked for me because the story itself is very immediate and in the moment; it’s essentially a series of vignettes that trace the start of a relationship through the point of view of one of the participants.
Both characters are different in the ways they’re similar. They both like monster movies, but Jalen likes the sincerity of them, and P enjoys being horrified by them. They both aren’t their assigned gender; Jalen is nonbinary and P is binary trans. They both like coffee, but Jalen likes lattes and P likes macchiatos (and both think the other’s drink is gross). They’re both amputees—Jalen lost several fingers as a child, and P has a prosthetic leg… and they share many other similar differences as well. This may sound like a list of traits, but the story uses it as a motif to spin development between the two characters, the places where they relate and where they don’t, the things they want to learn about each other, the places where similarities immediately spike both understanding and anxiety. All these traits are ways for the two to play off each other, find the rough spots and the smooth ones, without the storytelling of it ever being made overt or hamfisted. There’s very much a theme about understanding identity by building a picture out of small things— without giving the details away, I feel like scene with the strawberry ice cream ties it all together perfectly.
Likewise, the story is about public and private spaces. Location is very important in it, and a lot of the individual scenes play off the mood and setting built in different places. Jalen’s messy apartment they share with their sister, P’s tidy and empty “display home”, and how these places change when it’s just the two of them versus when family comes over. The movie theatre if you’re intending to watch a movie, and the movie theatre if you’re intending not to be watching. A coffee shop you go to alone and one you go to with someone. Again, since this is both about the characters’ understanding of their own identity (“Do you ever wonder if you’re wrong?” “I’m never wrong.” “I wonder all the time.”) and about how identity is understood outside oneself, the constant redefining of spaces in the story is a beautifully played motif.
I found Jalen a really engaging pov character. Their sense of anxiety and frequent second-guessing is balanced by a deliberate willingness to take chances, and their mental voice is philosophical without being pretentious and has a good sense of wit to it. (Speaking of which, the line where Jalen acknowledges that P is acting super pretentious, and is both amused and horrified by how attracted they were to that really set the tone of the story to me). Conversely, P is a bit of an enigma due to Jalen being the pov. There are a lot of scenes where Jalen doesn’t know the specifics of what’s happening with him even if they get the general idea, and while as a reader this was occasionally frustrating—I wanted to know more about P too!—it fit the story’s theme of trying to learn. Some of the points still feel like a loose thread, but I’m torn on if that bothers me or not, given the shape of what Evans is doing here.
The biggest critical note I have is that the flow of the scenes was occasionally difficult to follow, and some of the shorter segments had a different tone to them than the ones around it, so I found myself rereading certain pages to make sure I understood what the switch was doing there and where/when the characters were now. In general, though, I found it a really nicely written short piece, a three month slice of two characters’ lives and how they intersected, and I felt that although I’d have liked to see more, what fit in the story worked well with the time period Evans defined.