Twelve Days of Bookmas: The Secret Skin

Book cover: The Secret Skin - Wendy N WagnerJune Vogel has no desire to return to Storm Break, but when her brother remarries she agrees to come home for the summer to care for her wayward niece. As strange events multiply and family tensions heighten, is it Storm Break or June herself that will destroy the Vogels?

I haven’t got quite as many reviews completed as I hoped over the festive season, but I’ll round out my Twelve Days of Bookmas with Wendy S Wagner’s Gothic novella The Secret Skin. I read The Secret Skin for Spooktastic Reads, intrigued by the notion of a “sawmill gothic” and by the luminous cover art. It’s perhaps appropriate that a novella so engaged with hauntings should be overshadowed by works that went before it: The Secret Skin feels like an homage to Rebecca from its opening line (which begins Last night I dreamed, demanding I complete it with I went to Manderley again) to Storm Break’s cruel rose garden and its controlling housekeeper with her unwavering allegiances to the dead.

But The Secret Skin embraces other Gothic tropes, too. June is effectively a governess to her unnerving niece Abigail, who mutters dark threats on behalf of a creepy toy. The Vogels carry secrets in their very skin, the period suggesting Cthulhu in spite of the diagnosis of ichthyosis (it’s ichthyosis). The staff are distant or unpleasantly overfamiliar; the house full of inexplicable noises, stuck doors, even a possessed bathtub (which Wagner succeeds in making scary, rather than silly). The elements combine to create a suffocating atmosphere where it’s unclear just how many different forces are in play as June’s distress mounts – let alone how much of it is real.

If the prose is not quite as emotionally evocative as I think it sets out to be, Wagner does a fine job of invoking the senses: primarily hearing, but also touch. June was taught that she was too ugly to reach for beauty; that she could look but not touch. The prose reflects how important sensation is to her, as the narrative explores the poison of seeing and judging but doing nothing, suppressing feelings until they fester into rage. While it’s tempting to lay Storm Break’s disquiet at Abigail’s door, the child insists it is June that has awakened the house. Meanwhile June is undergoing another kind of awakening, unable to resist her attraction to her fragile new sister-in-law Lillian and driven to protect Lillian from both Storm Break and from her own toxic secrets.

I enjoyed The Secret Skin, although I felt it would have benefitted from a longer page count or fewer subplots, allowing a slower accretion of claustrophobia and more ambiguity before unfolding its poisonous climax. Nonetheless, it’s a lush, queer, and very Gothic novella that explores the damage we do when we try to force ourselves (and others) into socially acceptable shapes. Don’t get too excited about the sawmill – it’s a nod to the Pacific Northwestern setting and the Vogels’ business interests rather than an integral part of the story.