Book Review: The Writhing Skies by Betty Rocksteady is the Invasion of Jellyfish We Were Hoping For
Betty Rocksteady is a unique writer. I first discovered her in Perpetual Motion Publishing’s anthology Lost Signals (Edited by Max Booth III) with her story “The Desert of Wounded Frequencies,” which is fantastic. Then I came across her again in the follow-up anthology to Lost Signals, Lost Films with her story “Elephants That Aren’t,” which is one of the standouts from that collection. So, when the opportunity came for me to get an ARC of her new novella, The Writhing Skies, I instantly went for it. This is a weird novella that’s not for the faint of heart. Don’t let the cover fool you, this isn’t some cartoonish fun horror story. This is a dread inducing punch to the stomach, which leaves you feeling hurt and empty inside. It’s weird, it’s gross, it’s beautiful, and it’s everything that’s horrible in the world wrapped up in a cute odd Betty Rocksteady bubble.
In The Writhing Skies, we are introduced to our protagonist, Sarah, who wakes up in her apartment, only to find a strange jellyfish like creature trying to get into her bed. So like most of us probably would, she escapes her apartment and begins to wander through the town. It’s dark, it’s mysterious, there are jellyfish alien creatures everywhere, and they seem like they’re taken straight out of a hentai film. Sarah only has one goal in mind; she has to get to her boyfriend Derek. She knows deep down that Derek will make everything ok. She will be ok, if only she can find him. In a world where the skies are watching, and gooey jellyfish slime is everywhere, Sarah journeys into her town to find her boyfriend, and get to the bottom of what’s happening. As a side note, each chapter ends with a wonderful illustration drawn by Betty Rocksteady herself. They start off cute and creepy, and by the end, they rip your heart out. It’s very effective and very well done.
There are three important elements that someone writing horror has to pay attention to, or keep in mind and Betty Rocksteady uses all of them well. The first are the characters in the story. The characters don’t have to be likable, but they need to feel realistic. Characters can make or break a novel. Rocksteady’s characters are interesting, complex, and react the way many of us would. The second is atmosphere. Horror is interesting. Many people think that horror is a genre about scares. But, scares don’t matter. You watch a film and you get shocked with a jump scare. Is it surprising? Yes. Is it scary? No. Horror is a genre about atmosphere. You as the consumer need to be invested in the atmosphere of the story. Is it odd? What makes it so odd? Why is it so compelling to read? The atmosphere needs to invoke a sense of urgency, mystery, or dread. This novella is full of dread and the atmosphere while bizarre from time to time really is chilling. The third and final necessary element for a horror story to be good is the development of anxiety. Horror might not be a genre about scares, but it is a genre about anxiety. Think of any great horror novel you have read. Think of how anxious it made you feel. The precursor to fear is always anxiety. This is what makes horror effective. Anxiety, dread, atmosphere, and characters; you mix all these together and sprinkle in some Max Fleischer inspired artwork and you have The Writhing Skies.
The Writhing Skies is a novel that builds on anxiety, dread and unease. The less said about the novel, the better it is. You will find yourself questioning the story, with each new reveal, and with every question your anxiety will grow. With each page that turns, you will feel the dread and mystery building. By the time you get to the climax, the book hits you so hard you want to throw it across the room. Which, I would have, if I wasn’t reading it on my kindle. When that climax hits, and you feel the dread ball up in your stomach, you know you’ve read a great horror book. After the climax, the ending becomes one of the best pay off’s I’ve read in a year full of great novels. This is a master class in building unease, tension, anxiety, dread, with great characters sprinkled on top. It’s a difficult read, it’s disturbing, it’s harsh, and disgusting. But, there’s heart here. In the end, that’s what we read for, heart and characters. This book has a whole lot of heart, and enough disgusting gross goopyness to make even the more hardcore horror readers squirm in their seats.