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The Worms and His Kings by Hailey Piper4.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Worm and His Kings is is a stunning and assured novella that gets two crucial themes of cosmic horror right where so many other attempts at the genre have gotten it dead wrong: that of otherness, and of the universe’s fundamental indifference to human existence, let alone our dreams and desires. That may sound like a recipe for storytelling nihilism at its bleakest. But Hailey Piper has delivered an indelible story centered on love and transcendence with a jaw-dropping ending that goes harder than Lovecraft himself ever dared. It’s a tale worthy of attention from the Stoker Award as well as World Fantasy.

Like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, The Worm and His Kings draws inspiration from Lovecraft’s notorious “The Horror at Red Hook”, but it goes off on monstrous directions all its own. Monique Lane is a young homeless trans woman living in 1990 Manhattan, desperately searching for her girlfriend, Donna, missing for three months. Though nearly twice Monique’s age, with a successful career as an attorney (that came to a crashing halt once her firm discovered her orientation), Donna was a truly loving and devoted partner. She literally kept Monique alive during some of the worst times of her life, not the least of which was a botched gender reassignment operation by some sleazy back alley butcher. Monique will simply not rest until the two of them are reunited.

Returning to Freedom Tunnel — a real Manhattan location which was home to a large shantytown population at the time — Monique discovers that there is truth to a bizarre and frightening rumor of a fearsome monster called Gray Hill or the Gray Maiden, snatching homeless women off the streets and disappearing into the underground. Monique witnesses such a snatching first-hand, and, with a kind of reckless courage, chases the creature to an old theater. What else could there be in the subterranean world beneath the theater but a full-on cult, worshiping a being called the Worm, whom they believe will return to claim a bride and settle a score that crosses timelines and reaches back to geological eons before prehistory. Cults, of course, target those who have been sidelined by society, rejected by family and friends, told that they don’t belong and there is no longer a place for them. And Piper doesn’t flinch from depicting how even good people at heart can unwittingly be pulled into evil by the crass exploitation of their dreams of a better and more just life.

Piper roots her story in Monique’s character so strongly that her pain and desperation feel almost uncomfortably real. Setting the tale in 1990 allows Piper to deliver a tactile and immersive portrayal of Manhattan long before the internet era, before 9/11, when it was all too easy to vanish among its teeming millions, and the dominant social mores of the Reagan era made it hellish enough to be gay or lesbian, let alone gender-nonconforming.

Because the story’s sense of place is so solid, we have no trouble adjusting to the shift into dark fantasy once Monique begins her descent into the depths. It’s a trope of horror fiction for characters to journey from the security of normal everyday life into some nightmare realm. But the trope typically resolves with the viewpoint character (if no one else) overcoming the horror and making their way back to the light, however worse for their experience they may be. But the tragedy of Monique’s journey is that she has no light to go back to. It’s a journey from darkness into greater darkness, safe return doubtful. The Worm and His Kings belongs to that rare breed of horror story that not only never lets us back into the light, but has the stones to present this as possibly the most desirable of its potential outcomes. I’m not a religious man, but there’s something very true in the scripture about gaining the world and losing your soul. As Monique learns, if that really is what the world, or even the entire universe, expects of you, perhaps it’s better to hit the reset button on the whole mess.