Queer YA Spotlight: Out of Salem

Premise: in an alternate 1996 where magic and monsters are a fact of everyday life, fourteen-year-old Z has died in a car crash and awoken as a zombie. Orphaned and ostracised, Z searches for a cure to their state of decay, and along the way befriends Aysel, a fellow misfit who is keeping her lycanthropy under wraps. Secrecy becomes ever more important for these monster-kids as anti-werewolf sentiment builds in their town, following the mysterious murder of a doctor who was performing electroshock “therapy” to try and disconnect fey and monsters from their magic.

Rainbow rep: a non-binary protagonist, a lesbian werewolf (a girl werewolf! That on its own is exciting!), and a queer supporting cast including lesbian selkies, trans werewolves, and sort of gender-ambiguous shapeshifters.

Content considerations: depictions of police brutality, depictions of homophobic bullying, magical plot elements that are clear stand-ins for conversion therapy, intersections of fantasy bigotry and real-world bigotry.

Queerness and “monstrosity” have intertwined plenty over the years, both for good and ill. Monsters, after all, so often represent some sort of social Other, some sort of values or behaviours or appearances that does not suit the dominant norm and is thus frightening to people who do fit into that norm. Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, the undead, are all liminal and transitory and odd in some way or another, so historically they have often been queer-coded as a shortcut to showing their villainy. However, many LGBTQIA+ folks have taken these queer monsters as their own, and felt a strange affinity for folklore, creature features, and the general landscape of the Gothic and the frightening. Out of Salem understands this connection with its whole heart, and it makes for a story that’s both harrowing and heartwarming.

In this world, it is a very everyday fact that magic exists—but of course, not all magic is considered equal nor equally socially acceptable. Z is in a lot of trouble when their eyeball falls out in church and they realise they’ve been reanimated as a zombie (in one of the funniest but also grossest scenes I’ve read all year). Upon discovering this (and after berating Z for “causing a scene”), their uncle is keen to have Z incinerated, as is standard protocol—for the safety of those around them, you understand. It’s the Good and Reasonable thing to do.

He’s only really stopped by the intervention of a neighbour, an elderly witch who agrees to take Z into her custody… but mostly by some bureaucratic red tape that technically legally protects Z so long as they can successfully demonstrate in a local court that they do not experience any flesh-eating urges. A pair of exhausted cops shrug the dispute off and hand Z over to their new caretaker, essentially saying that it’s her problem now and she should call the appropriate authorities if Z shows any behaviour that could be considered inhuman.

The whole thing is disarming and kind of darkly funny, and it sets the tone for much of the novel: introducing us to the matter-of-fact way that magic is treated, the narration’s deadpan dark humour, and the quiet yet unfathomable terror of knowing that your relative will see you burned to ashes if you cease to successfully “pass” as ordinary and unthreatening.

It’s important to articulate that monstrosity and fear of monsters are not metaphors or stand-ins for queerness and homophobia in Out of Salem. Z’s status as a member of the undead, stuck in a body that doesn’t feel quite right, caught in a space neither living nor deceased, and the way that they’re treated because of this, could make a fine thought experiment for what it’s like being non-binary: stuck in a body that doesn’t feel quite right, caught in a space neither man nor woman, and caught on thin ice as the Good and Reasonable People around you watch you, waiting for a misstep that will give them free reign to cast you out or have you destroyed. Not to mention, of course, the potential pun on “dead name”. It’s all very yikes, and could be conceivably used to help a cis, straight reader empathise with the struggle.

However, Z absolutely does not feel like a teaching tool for non-queer readers—in fact, this is one of the most queer-to-its-core books I think I’ve ever read, through its characters, its themes, and just the general way that it constructs and explores its world. Z’s various Othered identities intersect, but they exist apart from one another: they were exploring their gender months before the car accident, and their queerness and their monstrousness are never conflated. They are not non-binary because they are inhuman, or vice versa. They experience microaggressions for being gender non-conforming and for being a zombie, so their zombification isn’t some sort of taken-to-extremes teaching tool to metaphorically show how sad it is being bullied for being different.

This mingling of magic and metaphor only unfolds outwards and gets more intense as the novel continues. Yes, the police are biased against witches, which would make a very neat stand-in for other real-world police biases, but it doesn’t need to remain in the lofty space of metaphor because it goes to great pains to establish that the police are also racist.

It feels like an intelligent inverse of fantasy settings where, for example, there are no brown characters but elves are so totally oppressed. Out of Salem takes a sharp look at how bigotry works and how it would conceivably extend to other marginalised groups like werewolves and zombies and fae, if they existed. Because of course humanity would find a way to marginalise certain groups even in a fantasy setting, because it seems to be in our nature to always want to marginalise someone. Maybe it’s the Black, Jewish science teacher who is just trying to help some vulnerable kids, and makes for an easy scapegoat. Maybe it’s the people who involuntarily turn into wolves every month. Maybe it’s both. Why would humanity stop at just one?

This all sounds very bleak, and well, if I’m being honest, it is. Out of Salem is a harrowing read in places, particularly towards the climax as the town’s monsters become an acceptable target for the grievances of The Good and Reasonable People and the tension unfurls into something that was horrifyingly familiar in the middle of 2020. But the town’s monsters also band together and make this a heartening story as well. The weird, cautious friendship between Z and their werewolf classmate Aysel is so very sweet, and feels very true to life for how people their age interact. The two of them share the narration, alternating chapters, and they both feel like wonderfully fleshed-out and believable characters who you want to root for and protect.

The band of nomadic, trans werewolves fighting for freedom and printing anarchist zines are a fascinating group, and Aysel’s admiration of them also feels very true to the starry-eyed state of being fourteen and getting your first taste of love and political consciousness. Among the hateful adults are a handful of truly decent and lovely role models and parental figures, and damn it, I’d be lying if I said Aysel’s mother’s fierce protectiveness of her “monstrous” daughter didn’t bring a tear to my eye, especially in the climax.

The best fantasy stories are the ones that are, in some way or another, a bit Too Real. The worldbuilding in Out of Salem and how it blends real history and everyday life with magic is seamless and fascinating, and when it’s not delving into the harrowing realities of Good and Reasonable bigotry, it seems like a very fun world to play around in. Z and Aysel and their friends go on some truly terrifying ups and downs, but the ending of the novel is ultimately triumphant. There is hope for us monsters, even if we need to use all our powers to build something new. If you want some fanged and fantastical queer rebellion in your brain, I would recommend giving this a read.

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Filed under Alex Reads

5 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: Out of Salem

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