I need to be rational, but in the darkness it’s easy to conclude that whatever spell I’ve surfaced from is supernatural. Out in the woods, with nothing but the steam of my own breath and the mournful plea of the loons off the lake, phantoms feel material.
This doesn’t scare me. I don’t fear the dark. I know the dark, and it knows me. Within it, I’m safe from the sun’s lovely illusions. I know what I’ve always known: that the monsters worth fearing are the ones that are dangerous enough to hide in daylight.
Premise: when Mars’ twin sister, Caroline, suddenly dies under horrifying circumstances, he suspects foul play. He suspects most of all that it has something to do with Aspen Summer Academy, the prestigious summer camp Caroline had been attending—the camp Mars had to leave behind after vicious bullying. No one believes Mars when he says so, but there’s something truly eerie about Aspen’s sun-drenched meadows and idyllic log cabins. What dark secrets lie behind the camp’s cheery exterior? What violence is being hidden and excused under the banner of tradition? And… what’s that buzzing sound?
Rainbow rep: a genderfluid protagonist; binary gender roles and expectations played for horror (note: in the book, it’s stated that Mars is fine with any pronouns and shifts between them all the time. For the purposes of this post, I’m following the marketing copy and using he/him)
Content considerations: supernatural body horror; violence and injuries described in gnarly detail; systemic misogyny; toxic masculinity; bullying; implied/off-page sexual violence against side characters
Summer camps seem like a perfect horror setting. To me, personally—a kid prone to homesickness, frequently bullied, and decidedly bad at sports—staying in the middle of the countryside with a bunch of strange children doing outdoor activities for eight weeks already sounds like a nightmare scenario long before Jason Voorhees walks out of the lake with a big knife.
And man alive, does Ryan La Sala craft an effective horror scenario out of the sunny, summery setting—even before the really gnarly stuff starts happening. The descriptive prose in this book works overtime to create a sense of claustrophobia out of things that, by all means, should seem lovely and inviting. The days are oppressively hot and painfully bright, the colours washed out of everything. The lush forests are always watching, the whorls in their bark described as unblinking eyes. Campfire light turns a mural full of painted handprints a deep, bloody red.
The campers and leaders have their own brand of encroaching dread. Genderfluid Mars is placed, immovably, in the boys’ cabin, and Aspen’s brand of All-American masculinity threaten to suffocate him at any moment. At one point there’s a truly terrifying midnight hike from which the campers are supposed to “leave as boys, return as men” but even before that, of course, a creepy, ritualistic undercurrent accentuates the cabin culture.
Horrid misogyny is shrugged off as “boys will be boys”, and counsellors stand idly by as other campers bully Mars or try to goad him into violence. A gay bunkmate who’s successfully assimilated (and thus avoided homophobic bullying) suggests Mars try to just be “one of the guys” and not make things so difficult for himself by being, well, himself. The tension occasionally breaks with a scene that manifests these threats, but for the most part no one quite moves, leaving the whole experience soaked in this awful, building dread.
Mars feels drawn to the girls’ cabins, but they’re eerie in their own way. Caroline’s old friends in Cabin H—nicknamed The Honeys—have a particularly creepy undertone. In contrast to the oppressive masculinity of the boys’ cabins, The Honeys represent an ethereal, almost fae-like hyper-femininity: drifting in and out of camp as if dancing on the breeze, lounging in gauzy gowns on old-fashioned picnic rugs, and tending mysteriously to the beehives in the secluded meadow across the lake. Separated from everyone else and always seen as a blurry image from far away.
Mars is not at home with the boys, yet the girls hold this frightening spectral quality—and he’s still convinced they had something to do with Caroline’s descent into madness and death. Never settling on one identity and pressed in from all sides by gendered expectations, Mars has nowhere to turn. Maybe the true horror element was the gender binary we navigated along the way.
Well, let’s be fair. It’s mostly the bees. Like, let’s not discount the claustrophobic gender commentary, but the horror element is definitely the bees.
Holy shit there are some scary moments in this book. The oppressive atmosphere works fantastically well, all the better to prepare you for the awful catharsis when that dread-filled stillness melts away into full-blown supernatural horror. There was a scene that made me go “eughh!” out loud when reading (alone, at night—maybe not the best plan on my part, in retrospect, but I couldn’t put it down!).
Something is going on at Aspen, that’s for sure. I’m not going to tell you what, because solving the mystery alongside Mars is where a lot of that glorious tension comes from. I will say, though, heed that body horror content warning above. It’s very well-done, and detached (…most of the time) through a fantastical lens, but it’s a doozy.
I don’t care if it’s hyperbole, I’m gonna say it: The Honeys is an unhinged masterpiece of contemporary queer horror, and I hope its commercial success helps kick open the door for more projects like it. Its commentary on binary gender expectations, cultures of silence around bullying and hazing, and the general screwed-up pomp and ceremony around “legacy” families and the way greedy adults abuse and constrict their children, are all woven so, so nicely into an atmospheric and wonderfully frightening supernatural horrorshow. Join the hive and give it a read.