YA feminist horror is one of my new favorite genres – there’s nothing like a squad of friends battling the forces of evil (and the patriarchy) in between classes. My Dearest Darkest by Kayla Cottingham is a Pretty Little Liars-style journey into peer pressure, manipulation, and gaslighting through a paranormal lens, and with a heartwarming sapphic love story to balance out the scares.
Finch has wanted to attend Ulalume, an elite private school on a remote and sinister peninsula, ever since she heard of it, despite the expense. Luckily her piano audition goes well, but scholarships are the least of her concerns when she and her parents are in a catastrophic car accident on the way home, after veering to avoid what looked like (though couldn’t have been) an eight-eyed stag in the road. Finch could have sworn she drowned when the car went in the lake, but she recovers, although finds herself changed – pale, cold, with a weak heartbeat. When she starts at Ulalume, more odd things start happening including strange new feelings for the local queen bee, Selena. But new love may be no match for what’s waiting for Finch in tunnels under the school…
I really enjoyed the romance between openly bi Selena and newly-out lesbian Finch. Their growth from enemies to friends to girlfriends is a realistic journey that is easy to root for, and Selena’s supportive advice as Finch fumbles through coming out is tender and respectful. In some ways the author prioritizes the romance over the horror plot, so readers will have to decide if a happy ending is worth a plot hole or two. The horror plot is an original take on the deal-with-the-devil or cult narratives, adding in an insightful element of gradual, insidious manipulation. The setting also contributes a Gothic atmosphere, complete with creepy forest, bleak lighthouse, and dank tunnels. In short, while some plot elements could be stronger, this female-centered ghost story compellingly asks what it’s worth losing to find the power and belonging you’ve always wanted.
A worthy addition to the realm of progressive horror novels, this is a good read for those who loved Plain Bad Heroines or other queer love stories where things go bump in the night.
This title is also available on Overdrive.