Genderqueer fourteen-year-old Z Chilworth has to adjust quickly to their new status as a zombie after waking from death from a car crash that killed their parents and sisters. Always a talented witch, Z now can barely perform magic and is rapidly decaying. Faced with rejection from their remaining family members and old friends, Z moves in with their mother’s friend, Mrs. Dunnigan, and befriends Aysel, a loud would-be-goth classmate who is, like Z, a loner. As Z struggles to find a way to repair the broken magical seal holding their body together, Aysel fears that her classmates will discover her status as an unregistered werewolf. When a local psychiatrist is murdered by what seems to be werewolves, the town of Salem, Oregon, becomes even more hostile to “monsters,” and Z and Aysel are driven together in an attempt to survive a place where most people wish that neither of them existed.
- Title: Out of Salem
- Author: Hal Schrieve
- Cover Artist: Jon Gilbert
- Publisher: Triangle Square
- ISBN: 1609809017
- Publication Date: March 26, 2019
- For Ages: 12+
- Category: Young Adult
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.
- Content warnings: transphobia (challenged), homophobia (challenged), mention of suicide
I’d like to thank Triangle Square for providing an advance copy via Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review.
Out of Salem is an incredible swirl of ideas and genres, an inventive and intersectional horror story that subverts popular zombie tropes and uses sci-fi/fantasy elements to force readers to confront their own privilege. Set in an alternate version of the United States in 1997 — where folks like werewolves, fae, and selkies exist and nearly everyone is capable of performing magic — the book examines bigotry, reactionary politics, police brutality, and the intersection of class, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and disability in the face of such dangers. I can safely say that this is the only work of art that has ever made me sit down and do some serious introspection AND made me wonder: “Can you really still see out of a dislocated eyeball?”
The main characters are Z (they/them/theirs), a genderqueer zombie, and Aysel (she/her/hers), a fat Turkish-American lesbian werewolf. (You see now why I was dying to read this book.) Both explore their identities throughout the novel, but that exploration is less about finding themselves and more about finding a way to explain to the world who they are. Author Hal Schrieve (xie/hir/hirs), who is also trans, makes it clear that there’s no confusion on Z’s part about being genderqueer. For Z and Aysel, coming of age means learning to verbalize what they know in their souls to be true about their respective identities.
The community that Z and Aysel discover and the found family that they ultimately form is a huge part of that coming of age story. Finding other people who share their experiences — whether as queer teens or as magical beings or, for Aysel, as a non-white kid in a majority white town — helps them understand themselves better and feel less alone. Schrieve draws parallels between so many of these marginalized identities and how they are treated by the government and society: lycanthropy is linked very closely with mental illness, for example, and hir point about the ways that the system fails and oppresses both werewolves and the mentally ill is crystal clear.
For all the heavy issues Schrieve examines in Out of Salem, though, it’s the small, quiet moments that struck me the most about this book. There’s a straightforward clarity to hir prose that lets hir grasp of emotional nuance shine through, and xie tucks away tiny pockets of emotional truth in perfect, random little details that would feel like throwaway lines in the hands of another writer. I was never prepared for these lovely little moments, and they took my breath away every time.
Schrieve obviously understands and respects hir teen audience, which is always heartening (but unfortunately never a given) in a YA novel. Though there are some rich metaphors, xie makes little attempt to layer the political and cultural statements in subtext, choosing instead to lay them out explicitly and matter-of-factly. Obviously teen readers are more than capable of comprehending subtext, but Schrieve’s approach feels appropriate: xie seems to be saying that the plot of the story, and our own very similar current political climate, are so urgent that there’s little time to be coy about the state of things. I think teen readers will connect with this sense of urgency and appreciate being treated with such forthrightness and respect.
Representation matters, and a lot of readers will see themselves represented in these pages. Story also matters, and Out of Salem is an incredible one: it has inventive world-building, thrilling suspense, authentic and touching friendships, compelling body horror, and a clever subversion of the typical zombie narrative. There is so much going on in this book that, frankly, Hal Schrieve has no right to make it all work, but xie does…simply, beautifully, and miraculously, xie does.
I am so glad I found this book, and I hope you pick it up as well. I give it 4.5 out of 5 coffins.