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Book: “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham
Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Fire, March 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: WILDER GIRLS meets THE CRAFT in this Sapphic horror debut that asks: What price would you be willing to pay to achieve your deepest desires?
Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of a river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.
Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.
One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts―beauty, power, adoration―in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
As someone who loves horror as well as soapy academic settings, it’s probably not a big surprise that “My Dearest Darkest” by Kayla Cottingham grabbed by attention based on that summary alone. She also had me at the promise of a Sapphic romance with hints of “The Craft”, a film that I hold near and dear to my heart (and which will be referenced again soon on this blog…). I hopped into this horror novel with certain expectations, and while there were a couple stumbles here and there, there was a lot of potential and lot that was well executed.
I’m actually going against my usual process and will opt to start with the negative first, mostly because I feel like the positives are greater in the long run and I want to tackle them second. In terms of characterization, “My Dearest Darkest” is a little more on the weaker side than I was hoping for. I really liked misunderstood ‘bad’ girl Selena St. Clair, as her inner conflicts regarding toxic friendships, fear of rejection due to her bisexuality, and hardened spirit due to a traumatic event at the hands of someone she trusted makes for a complex character. She’s rough around the edges, but you also see just how big her heart is. Selena is the exception to the following critique. Everyone else is just kinda dull, from Selena’s mean girl friends to Finch, the new girl who has a strange connection to Nerosi, a strange being that has awakened on the school grounds who can grant favors to those who ask, if only for something in return. Finch has tragic background and a connection to a supernatural threat, but compared to Selena she fades a bit, falling back on meek characteristics we’ve seen many times before. I liked Selena and Finch as a burgeoning pair, but that, again, may have more to do with Selena. And don’t even get me started on various side characters, who are just there to provide exposition when convenient and little else.
But the horror elements. My GOSH the horror elements! Cottingham is not messing around here, bringing in multiple subgenres like body horror, Gothic horror, and Cosmic horror with some ghosties for good measure, and it all works really well. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in this regard, as sometimes YA authors err on the side of caution and make horror moments a little less intense, hedging their bets in case there are readers who may need some restraint. Not this book. There were multiple moments where I was like ‘oh shit!’, from people pulling their teeth out, to descriptions of cosmic limbs in all their tentacled disgustingness, to a VERY creepy moment with a ghostly being that moved in jerky, uneven spurts. Which is totally one of the things in horror movies that really freaks me out.
I also liked the Nerosi mythology and mystery, from an eight eyed stag familiar that brings nothing but trouble to an urban legend about a band that may be based in truth who disappeared years prior. At the end of the day, I pick up a horror novel because I want to be scared in some way, shape or form, and there isn’t any question that “My Dearest Darkest” was super creepy, with knowing nods to Lovecraftian ideas as well as the likes of “The Craft” and “Jennifer’s Body”. And what a glorious amalgamation it makes.
So while I thought that a lot of the characters were pretty cardboard in their execution, I really did like the horror elements, which elevated the book over all. I am very interested to see what Kayla Cottingham comes out with next, because their horror prowess is pretty solid!
Rating 7: While some of the characters felt a bit two dimensional and stiff, there was plenty of gnarly body and cosmic horror to make up for it!