Author ~ Santino Hassell
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 26th October 2015
Genre ~ Gothic Horror M/M Romance
Jeremy has been isolated and adrift since the death of his brother. Most people just see him as the skinny emo kid who wears eyeliner and plays drums. No one gets him. Nobody tries. He thought the indie rock band Stygian would become his anchor, but—lost in their own problems—they’re far from the family he sought.
Still, hoping to get close to Kennedy, the band's enigmatic guitarist, he follows Stygian to northern Louisiana for a summer retreat. They had planned to spend six weeks focusing on new music, but things go awry as soon as they arrive at the long-deserted Caroway mansion. Tempers flare, sexual tension boils over into frustration, and Jeremy turns away from the band to find a friend in his eerily beautiful landlord Hunter Caroway.
Kennedy suspects there’s something off about the creepy mansion and its mysterious owners, but Jeremy thinks he's finally found somewhere he fits. It isn’t until Kennedy forces the Caroways’ secrets into the light that Jeremy realizes belonging sometimes comes with a price.
I looked forward to reading Stygian because it touches on three of my favorite themes in literature: Rock-and-Roll, vampires and the love between men. I had high hopes. The Cronin’s Key series, by N. R. Walker, Rock-star romances by Cecilia Tan and Rhys Ford, and stories of men finding love by a host of talented authors, move me, enthrall me, and leave me hungry for more. So, it was with great anticipation that I approached Stygian. I desperately wanted to love it. I certainly expected it to captivate me.
It didn’t. A story of a band (Stygian), its four members, and a summer “retreat” to write the band’s next album, the book delves deeply into their problems, both personal and those tearing the band apart. Unfortunately, the place they chose for their retreat was a huge ante-bellum mansion miles away from the nearest town, and reputed to be haunted.
Although it’s an important plot point explained at the dramatic climax of the book, all four young men are seriously screwed up, and not always in very likable ways. In fact, I had trouble reading the first few chapters, which struck me, at times, as a bit of a self-indulgent celebration of angst – the more, the merrier.
Jeremy is the hero of this story, a soft-spoken whiny young man still trying to cope with the suicide of his brother, Luke. Apparently, he had such a difficult time coping with his brother’s death that he refused to believe he was gone. His mother sent him to his uncle’s place to get “repaired”. Jeremy’s family is an odd, and apparently cursed, agglomeration of spiritualists, religious fanatics and paranoids who, more often than not, ended up mad or dead before their time. Jeremy’s biggest fear is that he inherited the same mental illness and sad fate as the rest of them.
Watts is the son of very rich and very screwed-up parents who have more money than brains or love for their son. It’s no surprise that he turned out to be an arrogant, insensitive S. O. B., someone who takes great joy in the suffering of others (even causing it) while masking the pain and loneliness that dwells in his heart.
Quince is an orphan who, somehow, managed to keep his sense of humor. He is famous for his dimples and smile, and his ability to see the bright side where no one else does. Unfortunately, that also makes him a doormat. Currently Watts’ lover, he endures his insults, taunts, infidelity, selfish sexual demands and easy willingness to ignore or disparage him when not satisfying himself with Quince’s sexy body. Quince knows that this will end when Watts is ready to discard him. But, unfortunately, he’s masochistic enough, or desperate enough, to put up with it until Watts decides to end it.
Kennedy is the really interesting one here. Muscular, centered, the sanest of the bunch, he’s entirely inaccessible, ridiculously withdrawn, giving nothing of himself, but neither does he whine endlessly like Watts and Jeremy, or indulge in masochism in exchange for the occasional affectionate touch. In fact, he likes and protects the other members of Stygian. His day job is working with at-risk boys and young men; his night job is rocking the guitar in this up-and-coming indie rock band.
Jeremy’s had a terrible crush on Kennedy since he first saw him perform, long before he joined the band. What he doesn’t realize, because of Kennedy’s reticence, is that his love is not unrequited. But Kennedy is wary of Jeremy’s brittle emotional state and afraid to act on his attraction – convinced that, if things go wrong, Jeremy will run, at the slightest provocation, and Stygian will fall apart.
Trust me, learning these back stories (which account for the largest part of this book) is not always a pleasant experience. There’s enough pain to go around, enough angst to populate a whole shelf of M/M romance novels.
This festival of vicious anger, tempered by self-pity, is finally interrupted by the appearance of the landlords, a young brother and sister who are beautiful, but… otherworldly. They appear to have a hypnotic effect on Jeremy and Quince who cannot resist traveling through the woods to their falling-down cabin. Laurel, the “sister”, can’t stop seducing Quince, who gleefully succumbs to her advances, despite the fact that he is incontrovertibly 100% gay and has no interest in women. The more he “visits” Laurel, the sicker he becomes, with bruises, bites and some kind of all-consuming fever, not to mention a drastic personality change from the eternally optimistic boy he arrived as, to the screaming harpy he has become.
Jeremy, on the other hand, almost succumbs to Hunter’s blandishments, but resists. Every time he thinks of Kennedy, he snaps out of the trance that Hunter seems to evoke in him, and refuses the easy comfort and beautiful appearance of the brother.
However, little by little, the two young men are being culled from the “herd”, as it were, convinced that the others hate them, are lying to them, only want to use them, resulting in some repeated and pretty ugly fights back at the house.
Jeremy is more resistant, constantly being brought back to reality by the increasing demonstrations of Kennedy’s love for him, and his growing trust in Kennedy. As it turns out, although Jeremy thinks it’s only his love for Kennedy that keeps him from being “turned”, it is, in fact, the family curse, the powers that he always thought were bogus, but turn out to be real – his ability to see the truth of other worlds, dimensions, other perspectives, even while wallowing in his paranoia.
In a very dramatic, but very short climax, Jeremy and Kennedy save them all from the vampires. It’s no spoiler to let that particular cat out of the bag. It’s telegraphed by the author from the very first introduction of the landlords to the reader. To be honest, I know it’s a tried-and-true device to let the reader see what the characters do not, but I found it a bit annoying that we all know exactly what Hunter and Laurel are, but the members of Stygian don’t have a clue. Instead of leaving me feeling omniscient, the characters just came off as dense – in the way that victims in a slasher movie always walk into the worst possible situation with their eyes wide open. It’s traditional, I understand, but I’d hoped for better.
I also felt that Jeremy was a missed opportunity. With all his family’s crazy spiritualism, insight, and supernatural vision, the author, for some reason, never fully explores it. That’s an area I would have loved reading more about.
And that’s how I felt about the whole book: missed opportunities. After reading Cecilia Tan, Rhys Ford and N. R. Walker, I’d hoped for deep insights into the musicians, music, and even the vampires. But I was disappointed. There was little about the music, or for that matter, the band. And sometimes, what was written was wrong. In one sentence, Mr. Hassell writes that one song was “instrumental more than lyrical”. I know what he meant: the song was more about the music than the lyrics. But “lyrical” is a specific musical (and poetic) term that has nothing to do with lyrics. In music, it means, “melodic”, “flowing”, “non-rhythmic”. Merriam Webster defines it as “having an artistically beautiful or expressive quality”. Many instrumental pieces are “lyrical”, which is why I had some difficulty determining what Mr. Hassell was trying to say. Being instrumental and lyrical is not mutually exclusive.
Although dramatic as can be, the final confrontation with the landlords was way too short, followed by a quick escape from the haunted mansion. Is there a Happily-Ever-After? I have no idea. Perhaps the author left that open for a potential sequel.
It’s just my personal take on the book, but it didn’t have enough depth, range-of-emotion, or dramatic tension for my taste. The writing was serviceable, but not exceptional. I am reviewing an advance copy, so I shouldn’t comment on the editing, but either Mr. Hassell has a tendency to write in sentence fragments (even occasional paragraphs without a verb), or the edits were not completed in the version I read.
I also readily admit that much of my criticism is a product of my own distaste for the slasher/horror/dumb-victim genre in either literature or film.
If you’re in the mood for that kind of thing, Stygian might be a fun read. If not, there’s better gay rock-and-roll and vampire fiction available.