Pandemic novels have been flooding the literary marketplace since COVID-19 hit the world like a freight train. Horror is no exception to this. Of course, with this flood of stories dealing with one of the most traumatic world events in modern history, it can be exceptionally difficult to stand out from the pack. How many times can you deal with that trauma? How do you play with those themes while staying unique?
In Sister, Maiden, Monster, the latest novel from Lucy A. Snyder, the answer is cosmic horror. Set a few years after the COVID-19 pandemic, a new virus strikes mankind: polymorphic viral gastroencephalitis or PVG. This virus mutates its victims into different types: Type 0, Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3. The higher the number, the more dangerous the victim becomes as they need things such as human blood or human brains to survive. The book keeps its perspectives attached to three women, Erin, Savannah, and Mareva, and their personal struggles as the world come apart. As each woman’s tale continues, we the audience discover the otherworldly origins of the virus.
First of all, I have to credit Snyder for this writing decision. It’s always a good idea to focus on the human element in such a huge disaster. Even if we all have experiences with the pandemic, it’s difficult for the reader to grapple with the consequences immediately. By keeping them grounded in the experiences of one person at a time, Snyder’s terrifying ideas remain relatable and easy to understand.
These realistic details don’t keep Snyder from going hog-wild, though. This novel boasts extreme, grotesque displays of horror. Body horror litters every page, practically every letter, of the characters’ stories. Gore colors every surface. Blood, brains, spinal fluid, and orgasmic murder herald this new apocalypse. Readers sensitive to the more extreme scale of horror writing should probably avoid this one especially when Snyder connects the unreal terrors to the more depraved aspects of the human condition.
Furthermore, Snyder’s characterization is phenomenal. Each of our three POV characters exist as distinct people. Erin reads as a quiet, closeted young woman unsure of her future. Savannah, by contrast, feels like a jaded yet confident sex worker with a wonky moral compass. Finally, Mareva is a lonely, traumatized, and adrift girl just desperate to survive. One of the hardest aspects of first-person narration with interchanging viewpoints lies in keeping the characters unique from one another. At times, the characters’ voices sound the same. However, Snyder’s characterization saves each section from feeling identical.
Additionally, the worldbuilding, when focusing on real-life consequences, feels authentic. This is especially true for Erin’s chapters, but it carries through in the continued human reactions to the escalating pandemic. For example, when the PVG types are discovered, the government’s first instinct tends to criminalize the patients. and privacy rights get stripped. Rights to intimacy, rights to public spaces, and rights to a trial disappear overnight. Old buildings quickly reconvert to facilities to either hold patients or to disappear them. Snipers position themselves downtown to deal with any “threats.” It’s a terrifying scenario because it’s happened over and over again in our history.
However, that reality sometimes muddles the message of the story. What do I mean when I say this? A lot of Erin’s POV chapters deal with the isolation of her position. We, as the reader, sympathize deeply with her struggles. Her family dies very quickly in the wake of the disease. She no longer gets to live with her lover. Phones and laptops transform from comforting media dispensers to personal spies. Snyder seems to really love delving into the real-life consequences of criminalizing a new marginalized group.
At the end of the day, though, this is a cosmic horror novel. Therefore, the plague ends up having a very terrible, malignant source. By Snyder’s own “rules,” Erin, later Savannah and Mareva, are dangerous. They do carry calamitous qualities that spell doom for humanity. Their plights mirror real marginalized people, but, by the speculative nature of their condition, even a sympathetic narrative makes them monsters.
This thematic muddling doesn’t end here, though. One of the most disappointing moments in the novel is the death of the only named Black female character. The trope feels like an out-of-date cliché. In response, the narrative decides to use concepts such as white guilt, white women’s tears, and the disposability of Black bodies to justify the writing decision. This, by far, feels like the most exploitative part of the novel. Why does the book feel the need to shoehorn in an explanation of these concepts? What do we gain from it? Especially when these concepts, and the characters’ death, are never revisited.
Nor is this the only time it happens. A similar problem occurs a little earlier in the book. A side character introduced earlier in the novel ends up revealed as a closeted trans person. The implication here is that they are closeted but the story is never explicit. The narration, provided by Savannah at this point, never switches from the pronouns assigned to them (or her) at birth. Considering the novel’s interest in queer sexuality and expression, this revelation sounds like a great idea. How does a plague that so thoroughly changes the body affect the psyche of a closeted trans woman? Instead of exploring that concept, Snyder quickly kills the character off after dropping this revelation. She never even gets to get out of the closet.
Perhaps this wasted potential comes from editing. It’s possible these little thematic hints are used for a greater purpose in the story. However, in striving to make a tighter story, the plotlines disappeared. Only a whisper remains of their original breadth. As a reader, though, these whispers feel like a tease. I can’t help but think, “Wouldn’t this novel go from good to great if it went all the way? If it connected race, gender, and body horror altogether?”
In the end, though, the novel mostly connects itself through the lens of cosmic horror. To be fair to Snyder, it’s not a bad cosmic horror story. I like the connections Snyder makes from the traditional tropes to angels, cephalopods, and religious euphoria. I especially enjoy these connections mirroring ghosts of religious trauma and abuse in the characters’ lives. Plus, the gory descriptions of bodily fluids, terrible change, and humanity’s doom make for intense, riveting imagery. However, this aspect of the plot might be stronger if Snyder didn’t hint at broader problems without following through.
Even if some possibilities are never explored, Sister, Maiden, Monster still boasts a well-crafted pandemic horror story. The novel definitely creates its own brand of pandemic fiction, making it a unique reading experience. Just be mindful of both your own limits and the narrative’s limits going in. So long as you consider this, you’ll have a good goopy, fleshy time. Sister Maiden, Monster is out today February 21st, 2023.
Lyana Rodriguez (they/them) is a queer Cuban-American writer living in Miami, Florida. Their greatest interests include monsters, animals, nature writing, and staring way too long at the birds in their garden. You can find more of Lyana’s writing in their intersectional horror blog, Dark Intersections.