Not a self-improvement book for MRAs (Design: Tina Tiller)
Not a self-improvement book for MRAs (Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksSeptember 18, 2022

Reader, there are tentacles: A review of the paranormal queer novella set at Otago Uni

Not a self-improvement book for MRAs (Design: Tina Tiller)
Not a self-improvement book for MRAs (Design: Tina Tiller)

A fragment of the void falls in love and absconds to Dunedin. So begins Marie Cardno’s How to Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Terrifying Monster).

I don’t normally review romance, and I didn’t know what to make of How To Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Terrifying Monster) when it showed up in my inbox. I asked a friend more familiar with the genre whether she wanted to take a look at it instead, and she responded “nah babes it’s yours, you have” then sent me a photoshopped picture of a can of Monster Energy that read 





I, uh … f—I mean I guess?! OK, well, how do we handle HTGAGWYATM? Let’s start with an elevator pitch: what happens when a stray fragment of the void realises it’s really into butches? Specifically one butch, who’s just stepped through a portal and started biffing fireballs around.

I don’t know whether it’s professional for a review to contain phrases likeFem!Nyarlathotep/Otago Uni!Warlock!Gideon Nav” but here we are. I don’t know what else to tell you: the group chat is teaching me a lot of new terminology today, and it’s a book where a writhing, boundless protean fragment of the crawling chaos meets a tall, funny, broad-shouldered Kiwi lesbian and reifies out of sheer desire.

This causes a few problems. Namely that the void (aka the Endless) doesn’t like bits of it gaining sentience and buggering off to Dunedin of all places (could it not bugger off to Timaru? It seems like the howling cosmic void could handle Timaru – more familiar), but also that being a horrible monster with very little understanding of humankind can make flirting pretty hard. Sian – our Lovecraftian investigator/serial pisstaker – is pretty hard to rattle, but even she finds her new paramour Trillin a lot.

The small part of Sian that still existed behind the fear wondered if she could get a paper out of what the being’s eyes looked like. No, not a paper. A poem. 

Shattered crystals, each piece reflecting a different horror. Distant galaxies collapsing into one another, heralding the deaths of millions. Long, pale, many-jointed limbs reaching from the ocean floor and crick-crackle wrapping themselves around anchor chains. Flickering somethings at the corner of your eye, the edge of the mirror, slipping sidelong from reflection to reflection. Sian’s throat was hoarse from screaming.

But very quickly, after scaring Trillin off, she starts to realise that she’s actually super into that. However, her colleagues at Otago hold a staunch anti-apocalypse position which presents a few problems to her newfound desire to engage in some more intimate fieldwork, so she works in secret to help Trillin form a human body, until the Endless arrives and forces things to a head, leading into a final confrontation.  

And that’s … it. It’s a novella, and short for a novella (around the 25,000 word mark), and the immensely readable prose means it blows by rather quickly. It feels like the opening act of a bigger story, a really good appetiser that I wish had been a main instead.

The novella is a powerful form, but this felt at times like it should’ve been a novel, there’s so much depth to its paranormal Ōtepoti, and an obvious love for the city that I would’ve liked to see explored more, particularly from Cardno’s warm and witty lens. Still, it’s a fun book, and especially considering the tight confines it manages to have a lot of depth. A lot of it hinges on Cardno’s prose, which performs an impressive balancing act between fun flirty quirkiness and muscular and toothsome cosmic horror description; flesh is malleable, identity is tenuous and liminal, everybody’s having a gay old time.

Jokes aside, I don’t want to give the wrong impression: it’s relatively tame (on this extremely instructive day I’ve also been educated on the line between romance and smut and told it is the former) – there’s a lot of very excellent flirting, lots of confusion and miscommunication and a nonzero amount of yearning, tentacles gripping wrists in order to gently lead a lover onwards instead of, well … gripping them for other purposes.

But also it’s an oddly touching book about the boundaries of the world and the self: Trillin is a rogue fragment of a greater being, that is a landscape in-and-of-itself, trying to establish an independent mind. She has become a self for love. It’s a fun little tension – to explore another’s boundaries she first has to figure out her own. There is something deeply queer about the struggle to reclaim one’s own body, to cleave oneself from a hostile system, to experiment with new shapes, new identities, the terror and exhilaration of the unmoored self. 

There wasn’t anything else to be part of here. Nothing to shape herself out of. Just what she’d brought with her from the Endless.

Her body started to unravel.

Back in the Endless, this would be a good time for her to stop being herself for a while. To slip back into the totality of unbeing that non-individuality offered. Not the part-her part-other-fragment with its hungering want, but the nothingness of the Endless, a nothing she had not been for so long. Even when she was still experimenting with her edges and had sometimes lost pieces of her body, she’d never let go of that core tangle of memories and thoughts that was her. 

Like Trillin, it’s a hard book to pin down as just one shape, but maybe that’s OK? Queer stories are so rarely just one thing; it’s short, silly, fun, funny, toothy, grotesque, tender, a book about outsiders trying to find each other when they barely know themselves. 

Also there are tentacles, which I’m informed some of you reprobates are into. Do with this information what you will.

How to Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Terrifying Monster) (Paper Road Press, $20) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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