Review: ‘Monster of Elendhaven’ by Jennifer Giesbrecht

I want to open this review by making it clear that I love dark fiction. I used to read my Stephen King books before bed, and the main reason that I stopped is that I’d discovered that there were other horror writers in the world. The dark fantasy that I write dips into horror on a frequent basis, and the anime that I grew up on was Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), renowned for its grim and gory sequences. I don’t believe that fiction has a direct, quantifiable affect on reality, just that we have to be responsible for the stereotypes we put out into the world. Reading about a murderer doesn’t make you a murderer, for example.

I’m putting that first because this is not a good review of Monster of Elendhaven, and given its popularity, I want it to be understood that it has very little to do with the rating of its subject matter. In fact, on the surface, Monster of Elendhaven was everything I wanted in a book. It promised murder, sexy monsters, complex queer characters and a Victorian gothic aesthetic. It delivers on at least half of these; the aesthetic and setting of the town of Elendhaven is a gorgeous, post-apocalyptic eldritch world, where the seas run black and the snow only stops six weeks out of the year. There’s also plenty of murder – Johann, the titular Monster, is a Jack-the-Ripper style figure who enjoys murder for the fun of it. Where the book falls down is on queer representation and its plot. And oh boy, it falls down.

(Spoilers to follow.)

The tantalizing mystery of Florian’s family is fascinating, for sure. However, Giesbrecht is (to my understanding) a cis woman writing about two gay men, and this becomes obvious in one singular aspect. Florian’s family was abandoned to a horrible plague, locked into the house under accusation of being sorcerors. (As Johann points out, it was actually true; they had a sorceror child, Florian himself.)

Florian takes it upon himself, being a sorceror, to recreate the plague and deliberately spread it among the people responsible for his family’s death.

If this is sounding familiar and you can’t quite place it, it’s not just you. Replace the word ‘plague’ with AIDS, and the word with ‘sorceror’, and you have a warped, conservative-talking-point fiction of the AIDS crisis. If this plotline had been handled differently, I could almost assume it was on purpose; as it stands, with Florian dying in a form of ‘justice’ at the end and Johann being mysteriously immune, or the implications that Florian was responsible for Johann’s first death, it’s horrifying, and not in a good way. We aren’t far away enough from the AIDS crisis (arguably, it isn’t properly over in most of the world) for it to be fodder for fiction, and giving this kind of plotline to your queer characters – one of whom dies anyway – shows a lack of awareness of queer history.

I’m not saying that queer men or ownvoices literature wouldn’t make this mistake – but this isn’t the first time that cis (and straight, although I can’t make assumptions about Giesbrecht’s sexuality) women have assumed that they knew what they were doing when writing about gay men. I can’t say for sure that a sensitivity reader would have caught this, but I wish somebody had. Write your serial killers, your mad scientists, your dark creepy queers and your messed up gay kids – I love them all. But don’t retread very recent, very fresh wounds while doing it.

In addition to its drastic representational missteps, Monster of Elendhaven just doesn’t deliver on its spooky promises. It feels almost unfinished, with both Johann and Florian’s internal lives done in the barest of sketches and the plot proceeding upon rails set by the author. It’s creepy, certainly; but detailed descriptions of murdering an immortal over and over again, or of badly amputating somebody’s leg, doesn’t make up for a lack of proper suspense or characters who feel like stereotypes.

Sorry, horror fans. But I’d give this one a miss.

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