Vampire and “vampire-adjacent fiction is, pardon the pun, eternal in the publishing industry, across every kind of vertical and subgenre. From speculative fantasy and young adult fiction to dark romances and gory horror, there’s basically a book about bloodsuckers for every kind of reader. Therefore, it’s particularly notable when someone manages to put a fresh or thoughtful new spin on the genre. And granted, Alexis Henderson’s House of Hunger isn’t technically about vampires, as we traditionally understand them—the novel never defines the strange Northerners who only travel by night, drink blood, and indulgently party until dawn—-but that’s part of what makes this story stand out from the pack.
House of Hunger follows the story of Marion Shaw, a young woman who toils away in the slums of the Southern town of Prane, scrubbing floors to survive as her brother wastes all their money on his drug habit. Dreaming of a life in the decadent North, where rich old-moneyed elites drink blood to hold on to their youth and vitality, Marion answers a newspaper advertisement seeking a bloodmaid—the girls who are paid to bleed for their betters—and is chosen for a position at the prestigious House of Hunger, one of the oldest and most notorious of its kind. There, she finds herself indentured to the service of Countess Lisavet, a chronically ill woman who needs the blood from a quartet of girls just to stay alive.
At first, life as a bloodmaid doesn’t seem all that terrible: Marion is pampered beyond her wildest dreams, educated in etiquette and history, and after seven years of employment, Marion will receive a pension that will essentially set her up for life. But things are not entirely as they seem at the House of Hunger, and as she grows closer to Lisavet and her fellow bloodmaids, she’ll begin to suspect that darker—and deadlier—forces may be at work.
Though House of Hunger is quite a bit different than Henderson’s debut, The Year of the Witching, the ease with which both stories balance blood-soaked gore with themes of female autonomy and thorny moral questions of survival is both unique and compelling.
Lush and evocative prose brings the dark, rich world of bloodmaids and their employers to creepy, effective life, and it’s central villain, Lisavet, is a disturbingly compelling figure with plenty of secrets of her own and a capital d-dark family history. The hypnotic hold she has on most of her household is smartly entwined with an exploration of power dynamics, as she exploits those from marginalized and impoverished backgrounds, whose limited sexual experiences with other women make them particularly susceptible to her advances.
And Marion herself makes for an intriguingly complex heroine: desperate to improve her station, full of longing for a more comfortable future, and racked with guilt by both the actions of her past and what her desire for an easier life might mean. Her attraction to Lisavet is presented as genuine, though Henderson is careful to show us that finally feeling seen for the truth of who she is a heady part of her desire for her employer. (Does Lisavet truly care for Marion in return is a question that is smartly left ambiguous, and capable of being read both ways.)
Henderson’s deliciously dark worldbuilding is the novel’s standout element as she crafts a country split into an industrial South and a more elitist, decadent North, where bizarre practices like employing young women solely for the purpose of drinking their blood are not only normal they’re aspirational and a symbol of status among the noble classes. (It’s considered an honor to be chosen as a bloodmaid.)
The history of the various houses and their complex, often competitive relationships with one another is fascinating and something I would have been happy to read a lot more about. (The small cottage industry that ferries impoverished girls north with the promise of better lives if they’ll only bleed for the rich is disturbing enough that it could power a novel in its own right.)
The grisly secrets that lurk in the basement of the House of Hunger are unlikely to surprise any reader familiar with even the vaguest themes of Gothic fiction or the specifics of the life of historical Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory, but the way that Henderson largely refuses to look at the specifics of the horror head-on somehow makes everything even more disturbing. And the sense of tension and foreboding that slowly builds throughout the book’s pages is both enticing and propulsive—it’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in its breathless pace and breeze through it in a day or so. But take your time to sink your teeth into it Henderson’s tale if you can—this is a story that tastes best savored.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.