Last Thursday, I read Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, and as I turned that final page, I found myself sitting back and thinking, “I need to give myself a day or two before I review this piece.” It’s now been four days, and I can honestly say that I am still not sure how to encapsulate the enormity of what Piper gives us in this short novella in a review.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to Monique, a young homeless woman who has been searching for her missing partner, Donna, for three months. She’s been hearing stories among the others in a secluded homeless community that a strange creature has been stalking the night, taking young women who are never seen nor heard from again.
Somehow, deep down, Monique knows that this creature is connected to Donna’s disappearance and she is determined to stalk this beast to the ends of the earth if need be to save her lost love. As night falls, the beast appears, and Monique is soon on its trail. What she discovers at the creature’s destination could have terrifying consequences for the world and reality as we know it.
What is it about cosmic horror? I’ll admit I enjoy it, but there is often an inherent sense of hopelessness when faced with events and beings on a scale such that we cannot even fathom their breadth or depth. I think that much of this has to do with the fact that often the magnitude of those horrors is given the focus, leaving us with a set of two-dimensional protagonists that we have no real reason to care about.
Piper, did the opposite. Certainly her horrors are grand and mystifying, but the author painstakingly creates a connection to Monique. She is real, and I found myself rooting for her while admittedly from time to time wanting to step in and protect her from the circumstances in which she has found herself.
This grounding in reality with Monique further heightens the horror that will come later in the novel. We have real stakes, now, and we want to see them through.
There is one other aspect of this novel that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to dive deep into while writing this review. Then I remembered that the first statement on Piper’s Twitter account is “Make horror gay af” and I decided to go all in on this.
One of the reasons The Worm and His Kings works so well is because it is gay af. Thinking back over the history of cosmic horror, there has always been a queerness to the sub-genre, even when it was being mishandled by bigoted men who thickly layered their own prejudices onto the text.
What is the central theme of cosmic horror? The “other.” Indescribable, unfathomable, and yes, terrifying. So what happens when your protagonist is another kind of “other?”
In the case of Piper’s work, you have a story about a person who understands this unspeakable horror on a level that no one else could. As the novel reaches its mind-blowing conclusion, Monique comprehends the incomprehensible. She looks at the creatures around her and sees them, not as monsters, but as beings who have also been wronged by the crushing force of a universe that used and discarded them.
And I must say, the final few pages of The Worm and His Kings may be some of the beautiful prose I’ve read from a contemporary author in years. It is sweeping, lyrical description at its most operatic, and I found myself devouring every word, every detail completely enraptured by her soaring aria.
This quick-paced novella is exactly the kind of read fast-paced read that keeps you on the edge of your set while reading, and it deserves an honored place on any horror fan’s book shelf.