Last year, my book club and I read the fantastic J-Horror inspired Say Her Name by James Dawson, and as a massive fan of horror as a genre, I was absolutely invested in it. So, in fact, were my book club – you see James has a superb talent for dark, meandering plots and witty, intelligent dialogue with a splash of pop culture to keep it fresh. I’d been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Under My Skin ever since, and when the beautiful proof landed (complete with sprayed pink edges) I was ecstatic. An X-Files inspired Point Horror-esque teen supernatural thriller? It ticks all my boxes…
Sally is the quiet girl at school. Plain clothes, the same hair since she was little, and wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Her biggest passion in life is Satanville, a US Supernatural Romance drama series that she watches every week without fail with her best friends Stan and Jennie, closely followed by her love of singing. When she’s cast in the school production of Little Shop of Horrors, her talents gain her the understudy position for the main role which puts her firmly on the radar of Melody Vine, the school’s number one Mean Girl in Town. Melody begins to make the mousey Sally’s life increasingly difficult with her snipes and bitchy attacks, and Sally’s only means of coping is the knowledge that in a few years time she’ll be out of the school forever. Or is it? One afternoon, a mysterious accidental visit to an enticing and exciting tattoo parlour promises Sally the power and confidence she’s always dreamed of. Could she possibly get a tattoo behind her parent’s backs? It would certainly show everyone at school that Sally Feather has an adventurous streak in her, and when she sees the gorgeously vibrant pin-up girl Molly-Sue, she falls in love. But things start to reflect her beloved Satanville show more than she could possibly imagine when Molly-Sue starts to talk to her… And the tattoo has dark intentions…
Another Dawson triumph? You betcha! James manages to pull out the classic tropes from horror fiction and from high-school archetypes and uses them with a knowing wink and a great sense of charm and fun. Saxton Vale High School is the perfect mesh of bubblegum Mean Girls Americana and wry British wit, at times seeming hauntingly familiar before becoming dreamlike and surreal. You can tell James loves the classic hallmarks of the genre, and he uses them cleverly and knowingly and it makes for such fun reading. I especially love the way the mysterious tattoo place vanishes when Sally goes back to find it – it’s all very “The Cursed Monkey Paw” and it’s a massive treat to fans of spooky stories.
Under My Skin has such a powerfully strong, confident voice about it too, much of it driven by the sassy, outgoing Molly-Sue, who’s every spunky one liner is underpinned by a malevolent sense of danger. Her lines are fun and bouncy, but always with a lurking sense of unease about them. Sally’s character arc is brilliant too, and her slow breakdown into instability, as well as the way she claws herself back is absolutely engaging and powerful. Another superb part of the way the book is written is how on the ball James is with his pop culture references and knowledge of the general teen sphere today. He takes great joy in discussing fanfic writing, shipping and Tumblr in a way that lends the story a snappy modern sense of intelligence and relevance to its audience – it’s a book that understands the YA universe perfectly and is never afraid to talk down to it. Despite the tongue-in-cheek nods and supernatural scares, Under My Skin deals with some seriously dark and mature issues of identity, mental health and abuse, and it doesn’t pull punches which I think helps to treat these issues in a way that doesn’t patronise its young audience. Oh, and opening the book with the finale creates a great sense of dramatic irony (I never though in GCSE English I would use that term in my actual life, but here we are. Mr. Sparshott would be proud) and gives the whole plot a sense of tension, dread and inevitability. I loved the way the pace kept hammering throughout the book, real eyes glued to the page stuff! Also, Chapter 28 made me physically shake with emotion… So powerful.
Under My Skin is a great read for fans of creepy tales, and it somehow manages to not take itself too seriously, yet deal with some serious ideas with power and voice. James has been described as the “hardest working author in YA”, and honestly, with the work he does for diversity and education for young people, I think he’s one of the most important authors writing today.
Thanks for reading, as always.
The official publication date for Under My Skin is the 5th of March, but you can order from here. Not content to release one book this year, James also has All Of The Above due in September of this year.