A review by Brad Proctor
My first experience reading Hailey Piper was her short story Unkindly Girls in the Worst Laid Plans anthology which gave me just a small peek at the writing talent she possesses. I was excited to read some of her longer fiction as I have heard nothing but good things about her other works, The Possession of Natalie Glasgow and Benny Rose, the Cannibal King.
Alright now to talk about the book I’m actually here to review. First off I love the title, The Worm and His Kings. Sounds epic, right? I’ll say it again in a deep bass voice, The Worm and His Kings. A story with that title just feels like it is going to be grandiose and mighty and sprawling. We do get glimpses of this larger world, this grander universe, this unfathomable infinity. Strip away all of the cosmic horror window dressings though and at its core this is a much more personal and intimate tale about love, discovering one’s identity, and acceptance.
New York City, 1990. (Go Yanks!) Our protagonist Monique finds herself living on the streets after a series of unfortunate circumstances. Monique’s girlfriend Donna is missing. Slipped through the cracks. In the City That Never Sleeps what’s one more missing person out of a population of millions? With no one to turn to for help Monique takes it upon herself to uncover the truth behind Donna’s disappearance. Only after hearing rumors of a monstrous creature stalking the night and snatching up other women from the streets does Monique begin to wonder what if Donna isn’t missing, what if she was abducted?
We follow Monique on her search as she traverses through the gritty and grimy underbelly of the city before descending down the wormhole, much like Alice in Wonderland, into a shadowy, disorienting, alien subterranean world that defies the laws of logic and understanding. Despite the mind shattering new reality Monique is confronted with, finding Donna is all that matters. Monique’s love for Donna is a love that she would tear a universe apart for.
Let’s backtrack a little and talk about that love. Get a bit more perspective on how important it actually is here. The love that Monique and Donna share is a powerful thing. This love burned down the life that Monique once had but in that same instance it sundered the shackles of the person she was expected to be by those she thought loved her. It was this love that freed her, allowing her true self, her true identity to climb out of the shadows and into the light for all to see. No one had ever loved Monique, or accepted her for the person she truly is like Donna.
The characters in this book are well done but Monique really shines. She has a raw emotional depth to her. Through the use of flashbacks we learn that Monique is haunted by both the mental and physical scars of her past. It is this pain but also her perseverance that propel the narrative forward. Piper has crafted a character that you feel for, sympathize with, and cheer on despite the odds being stacked against her.
With all of the otherworldly cosmic horrors at play Piper did an excellent job of not letting the narrative get away by keeping us firmly grounded in reality by something recognizable, love. Love is the thread that held this narrative tapestry together. I know I keep harping on this theme of love, and I’m one who does not care for a love story, but this one was very well done and cloaked in horror which is seemingly the best way for me to ingest a love story. And it culminates in really the only way cosmic horror should when dealing with elder gods or beings beyond our comprehension to understand, in an utterly bleak fashion.
I don’t normally do this but there were a few passages that really stuck out to me that I wanted to mention.
“We’d tear the universe apart for the people we love, but sometimes we forget to love ourselves.”
“She once fantasized tragic deaths. Only later did she dare fantasize tragic lives.”
“Healing and harm could be a matter of perspective.”
A viciously bleak tale harbouring but a sliver of hope. The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper is mind-warping cosmic horror firing on all cylinders while seamlessly weaving in timely social commentary on gender and identity. With razor-sharp prose reminiscent of Clive Barker, Piper pulls you along through the wormhole for a story that is at times riveting, heartwarming, and horrifying.