Out of Salem: Hal Schrieve reclaims the monsters metaphor for LGBTQ
This contemporary YA fantasy understands queer people, young adults and fantasy narratives too.
Monsters have been a convenient metaphor for all forms of otherness, especially queerness, for decades. Hal Schrieve reclaims that metaphor for LGBTQ people with grace and sensitivity in hir 2019 debut novel, Out of Salem. The plot centers on Z, a fourteen year old teen who was just beginning to express their genderqueer identity when a carwreck left them both orphaned and a zombie. As they try to find a way to halt, or at least postpone, their body’s physical decay, they become friends with Aysel, a classmate who is openly a lesbian, and secretly a werewolf. Soon, the two teens are entangled in radical monster politics as the murder of a local psychiatrist leaves the people of Salem eager to hunt down any and all werewolves in the town.
For a novel featuring zombies, witches, selkies, werewolves, fairies, and shapeshifters, Out of Salem was lighter on worldbuilding than I expected, but the details we do receive — usually from diegetic sources such as news reports and Z and Aysel’s school assignments — create the feeling of a world that is highly textured and truly lived in by the characters. And, because these details are so well-blended into the rest of the story, I as a reader was fully able to accept the existence of magic without needing, say, a heavy exposition on the pseudo-physics of spellcraft.
One unresolved question I did have about the world of Out of Salem was the exact connection between queerness and monstrousness. In this world, ECT is used – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not – to suppress the magic that allows werewolves to transform, which parallels the use of shock treatment and conversion therapy on LGBTQ people in our world. Additionally, the alliances Z and Aysel form along the way are almost exclusively with queer people who are later revealed to be monsters, or monsters who are later revealed to be queer people. The way that Z becomes a zombie just as they are also embodying their non-binary identity suggests that, in some way, queerness causes monstrosity, but the characters don’t especially remark on this phenomenon or consider for themselves any possible connection between their different identities.
However, this question wasn’t a sticking point for me, as Schrieve portrays each character’s specific identity (including religion, race, ethnicity, and body type, as well as gender and sexual orientation) with great sensitivity and realism. This creates the impression that Z, Aysel, and their comrades really are a unique group of individuals who all happen to share certain identity traits, rather than a monolithic group of monstrous queers.
Schrieve also shows sensitivity in writing Z and Aysel as actual fourteen year olds. Like the protagonists of most YAs, the teens act independently at first, unsure of who among the adults in their lives could be trusted with any information, much less actually provide help. Yet as the story progresses, certain adults do step and take responsibility for helping Z and Aysel, with varying degrees of success. In fact, watching as Z led the way in solving their problems, yet also received meaningful support from older characters, was probably my favourite part of the novel — something that I think will resonate with other queer people, too.
So, if you’re looking for a queer contemporary fantasy YA book that clearly understands queer people, young adults, and contemporary fantasy, give Out of Salem a read!