Beyond Dark Academia: The Real Horror in Magic School Is Systemic Inequality

Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of magic school stories, from contemporary and urban fantasy colleges to second world universities, private schools, academies, and boarding schools. Many of these tales contain horror elements, even if they aren’t monsters and mayhem through and through. Increasingly, these sorts of stories—especially ones set in some version of higher education—are getting branded as “dark academia,” an aesthetic that uncritically privileges a certain, exclusive sort of scholarly “life of the mind” and mixes that ideal with elements of mystery, crime, danger, and, well, general darkness. And that’s a problem.

There are compelling reasons for “dark” or “gritty” representations of college and grad school, even and especially in a fantasy setting. But as a subgenre, magic school stories tend to skip over those compelling reasons in favor of external monsters and villains. In the process, they miss the fact that the murderer isn’t just calling from inside the house—it is the house. Or, rather, it’s the ivory tower (and its self-appointed gatekeepers).

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A Murder Mystery in Space: Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

There’s nothing I love more than a good locked-room murder mystery, an eternally beloved subgenre of crime writing that embodies humanity’s dogged need to know. But these can also be, more often than not, one-dimensional narrative dioramas that stick to the basic formula without distinction. This is, unsurprisingly, not the case with Far From the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson’s newest novel which marries shades of gothic horror with a sleuthing mystery and hard sci-fi rooted in real astronauts’ accounts of living in space.

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Pixar’s Lightyear Achieves First Teaser Liftoff

In case you forgot that Disney is making a Buzz Lightyear movie… well, Disney is making a Buzz Lightyear movie. Lightyear isn’t about the toy we know from all the Toy Story movies; it’s about the human test pilot who inspired the toy, and who is now voiced by Chris Evans. Not that Evans says much in this first teaser, which makes unforgivable use of David Bowie’s “Starman” and continues the Toy Story trend of referencing Star Wars … maybe a bit too much.

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Pesky Pirates and Purple Prose: Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today we’re going to look at a book by Ray Cummings, an author who was ubiquitous in the pulps during the period between the World Wars of the 20th century, but who is not well remembered today. It’s a story of action and adventure, set on a space passenger liner caught up in a titanic struggle between worlds—a story where our heroes must contend with the titular Brigands of the Moon!

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Telling Our Stories: When Mexican Folklore and Oral Tradition Meet Sci-Fi

When I tell people about my latest book, The Last Cuentista, the first thing they ask is how a story like this even happened. I can see where a merging of Mexican folklore and sci-fi might seem incongruous to most. But to me they’ve always been interlaced.

My love of sci-fi began in black and white. Family holidays were spent with heaping plates of food, and Rod Serling ushering in a Twilight Zone marathon. We’d seen every episode so many times, we all raced to be the first to blurt out,“That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed…” or… “It’s a cookbook!”

So yeah, science fiction felt like home.

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Why Fantasy Should Seem Real

As a young child devouring every fantasy book I could get my hands on, I was incredibly lucky to have not only a mentor in my school librarian but also an unlimited transatlantic supply of books from my grandmother’s bookshop back home in the UK. One of the books Grandma sent me was Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood; that and the duology of The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown cemented my profound love of McKinley’s characterization and accessibility.

I’d read lots of high fantasy before encountering McKinley, and the enormous difference between her heroes and, say, Tolkien’s struck me as both new and welcoming. McKinley’s protagonists are people, not archetypes—fallible, unsure of themselves, practical, vulnerable. As a young reader I could fit myself into Aerin or Harry or Robin or Marian (or Cecily) in a way I’d never been able to fit into Tolkien’s people.

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Unwelcome Is a Reminder to Always Look a Gift House in the Mouth

In the Before Times, I might have felt a little judgey toward poor Hannah John-Kamen in the trailer for Unwelcome. You had one task! Remember to leave the blood out for the redcaps! But these days I can barely remember to brush my teeth—and my living conditions don’t involve murderous tiny neighbors and a whole town full of people who hate me for moving in. So maybe I should cut her some slack.

Unwelcome, the new film from Grabbers director Jon Wright, stars John-Kamen (Killjoys) and Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending) as “a couple who escape their urban nightmare to the tranquility of rural Ireland only to discover malevolent, murderous goblins lurking in the gnarled, ancient wood at the foot of their new garden.”

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Horror as Strength: Queer Armor in Stephen King’s IT

I grew up terrified.

When I was 12, I wasn’t particularly afraid of clowns or monsters or troubled ghosts, but as puberty hit at the start of middle school, I was terrified of myself.

I was a gay boy in the early 90s and though I didn’t quite have the vocabulary for it, I knew that I wasn’t like any of the other kids at my all-boys prep school, where masculinity was modeled, crafted, and policed in very specific ways; ways I feared I did not—and could not—match. I knew the game “smear the queer,” and played it as the smearer and the smeared with a knot in my stomach, because it taught me the inevitable violence attached to being different in that way. Smearer or smeared, those were the only options. Though no one ever said so explicitly, every message I received told me that if I was gay, I was doomed.

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Reading the Wheel of Time: Bandits, Assassins, and Carneira in Robert Jordan’s New Spring (Part 12)

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled Reading the Wheel of Time. This week, Moiraine torments Lan but fails to get what she wants from him, and Lan finds exactly what he didn’t want to find in Chachin. Meanwhile, Sylas struggles to remember that Prince Consort Brys and Gareth Bryne are not the same person, and continues to spell Malkier incorrectly. Bukama would be so disappointed in me.

And now, on to the recap of Chapters 21 and 22!

[Malkier deserved remembrance. But at what price?]

Series: Reading The Wheel of Time

Fear of Desire: Dracula, Purity Culture, and the Sins of the Church

I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was fourteen. I was shocked how Christian the book was (which should tell you something about how deeply I thought about books written by white Irish guys in the 19th century). I underlined, for instance, when Van Helsing insists, “Thus are we ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him. He has allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more. Like them we shall travel toward sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause.”

I underlined this passage because I was a Southern Baptist youth group kid. A religious kid who loved horror, but a religious kid all the same. Even buying my mass-market paperback edition of Dracula felt transgressive. But here, near the end of the book, I was reading lines that would have sounded right coming from any minister or missionary’s mouth. I had known, of course, that the Church was the enemy of the vampire—holy water and crosses (and garlic because, uh, Rome is in Italy?) are potent weapons against this fanged menace. But Stoker’s enigmatic slayer was explicit. He was practically evangelistic in his fervor.

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