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“The Worm and His Kings” by Hailey Piper

Hailey Piper’s novella The Worm and His Kings manages to pack quite a lot into its 126 pages. It’s a cosmic horror tale that depicts a complex interpersonal relationship and includes trenchant social commentary.

The story follows Monique, a homeless trans woman in NYC. Her partner Donna has disappeared, and Monique is determined to find her. It gradually becomes clear that Donna didn’t just disappear; she was kidnapped. As for who kidnapped her and why…those answers are a lot stranger than Monique could have suspected.

In the course of her investigations, Monique discovers that Donna is far from the first homeless woman to disappear recently. These disappearances haven’t made the news or prompted a large-scale investigation because of who the victims are. 2020 became something of a moment of reckoning regarding the way in which marginalized people, and particularly Black people, are often treated as criminals by law enforcement. The Worm and His Kings shows the other side of that ugly coin: the disinterest of law enforcement in seeking justice for marginalized people who are not only innocent of criminal activity, but actually victims of it.

Another strength of the novella is the way Donna and Monique’s relationship is written. I was impressed by how well Piper developed it in such a short time. Monique’s love for Donna and determination to protect her felt believable. Their relationship also felt very real: not an idealized fairy-tale romance, but a partnership between two flawed human beings trying to navigate a world that doesn’t always understand or care about them.

Ultimately, the story adopts a more cosmic scale, spanning large swathes of space and time. Piper handles this expansive work as well as she does the interpersonal narrative. Her descriptions are evocative enough to provoke a sense of awe in the reader. The universe is a big place, home to some strange things, and while our own relative smallness may be scary, there’s some wonder to that as well. Piper does a great job of capturing this tension between fear and wonder.

The one weakness of the novella is the pacing at the beginning. I love horror stories with a gradually building sense of dread, and I enjoy mysteries where the reader’s trying to piece things together alongside the characters. The truth about whether or not a rumored monster in the NYC subway tunnels is real or not is revealed very early in the story, which felt anticlimactic. Some of this could just be length constraints imposed on Piper either by her own desire to keep this novella-length or by the requirements of her publisher. Much of her previous work is fairly short as well. With her strength for characterization and themes, I’d love to see her tackle a full-length novel.

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