Visceral, gory, and deliciously unhinged, Sister, Maiden, Monster is a fast-paced, disturbingly relatable pandemic horror that I absolutely devoured and never wanted to end.
Centering around the deadly—and thankfully fictional—PVG virus (polymorphic viral gastroencephalitis), Sister, Maiden, Monster is structured as three vignettes, each concerning a woman with a pivotal part to play in the ongoing apocalypse. Though there is little to connect Erin, Savannah and Mareva in their day to day lives, they’re all infected with PVG. It’s not long before their symptoms start manifesting in vastly different, horrifying ways.
Lucy A. Snyder writes in a highly evocative and effervescent style that makes the pages of Sister, Maiden, Monster turn very easily. Her descriptions are both matter of fact and grotesque, drawing on deep-seated human fears to crawl under your skin and linger in a way that is both repulsive and moreish. There’s an awful lot of teeth, hair and fleshy appendages growing where they shouldn’t, which is good news if you’re a fan of body horror; Snyder more than has you covered.
The body horror serves a purpose, however. The inadequate treatment of the chronically ill—especially women—is a prevalent theme throughout this book, as is feminism, the loss of body autonomy, and the erosion of human rights during times of great crisis. I particularly related to Erin’s struggle to adjust to her new life post-PVG infection. In seeking out alternative treatments with her fellow sufferers, rather than accepting the hopelessly grim fate dictated to her, she becomes empowered; transformed.
The two other POV characters, sex worker Savannah and teratoma-suffering Mareva, are both equally well drawn. Some of the actions these women commit are utterly reprehensible. And yet… I cannot bring myself to begrudge them for any of it, let alone dislike them. There’s a wit and verve to Snyder’s prose that makes even the goriest and most violent occurrences seem outright funny in places. I also love how unabashedly queer all these women are, and the way in which Snyder incorporates our real-life global reaction to COVID-19.
Where Sister, Maiden, Monster slightly lost me, however, was towards the end where things started getting—for want of a better word—silly. Horror is at its best when operating somewhere between reality and unreality; in that liminal space where readers know enough to draw conclusions, but not enough to know for sure. Unlike its predecessors, Part Three is largely set after the world has been utterly transformed by PVG, and it’s at this point some of the gross-out body horror moments start feeling tacky and cheap.
Snyder also introduces elements from Robert W. Chambers’ book, The King in Yellow, such as descriptions of the lost city of Carcosa, the Yellow Sign, and the Stranger in the Pallid Mask. Side by side with all the eldritch cosmic tentacle monsters, this seems to place Sister, Maiden, Monster firmly within Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. This changed the tone and context of the book for me personally and left me feeling a bit confused. As much as I love Lovecraftian horror, I’m not overly familiar with anything outside of what the man himself wrote. I had to Google the Yellow Sign to try and make sense of the ending, and I’m still none the wiser really.
Overall, I had a great time reading Sister, Maiden, Monster. I was never bored, often shocked, it made my skin crawl, and I laughed more than once. I thought it was excellent.