Last Updated on December 18, 2023
Bisexual Sarah is a widow and a midwife. But she’s also one of those born with monstrous deformities. Most often, these children get killed at birth due to fear of the unknown and the power that may rest in them. Lina Rather’s A Season of Monstrous Conceptions is queer historical fantasy horror, deeply rooted in its seventeenth century London. It situates itself on the more literary end of the spectrum – a space in which Tordotcom is doing amazing work at the moment.
In A Season of Monstrous Conceptions, babies are sometimes born with what are considered monstrous attributes. Either, the parents hide these, or the child is abandoned – these children don’t have a place in the codified society. But, they also carry unusual powers. Tethering a fine line between witchcraft, heresy and medicine, Sarah is able to use hers in her work as a midwife – an uncanny knowing of things. And then, she is called to assist Sir Christopher Wren’s wife during her pregnancy. A true renaissance man, Wren sees everything as a challenge and a possible discovery. As time goes on, Sarah will have to decide whether this unusual man is mesmerising or rather dangerous. Her relationship with Margaret, a fellow monstrous-born able to hide her deformity is tender and illustrates the world they live in with a queer lens.
Sarah at one point aptly discusses her queer relationship as two women, living together with little scrutiny as women have such a highly codified role in society that others wouldn’t consider whether there is more to it. Much easier for women than men in the period, I found this really interesting. It doesn’t take up much space in the novella as a whole, but it resonated with me and my understanding of the Early Modern period. Being different, after all, isn’t just down to physical characteristics. Having the great Christopher Wren (of St Paul’s Cathedral fame) be a major character further helped create a rich backdrop to the story, rooting it in time and place.
I loved my time reading A Season of Monstrous Conceptions. It is uncanny rather than diving into true horror – working hard to evoke atmosphere. It would have been great to have a bit more breathing space, time to really dive into the world (and the otherworld) and see what effect that on the mindset of the society in more nuance. But it’s criticism on a very high level – the writing is wonderful and the story is fascinating. A worthy successor to Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black – and a great introduction to her writing for those new to it. As I have been obsessively reading literary horror lately, this fit in well with the general mood and I can only recommend it if that’s your jam too.