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'The Invocations' is an ode to angry girls fighting against what waits in the dark

"The Invocations" cover art. (Courtesy)
"The Invocations" cover art. (Courtesy)

A girl walks home alone at night.

Anything could happen to her in the shadows. And terrible things have happened to girls like her before. She considers her options before continuing on into the dark.

That’s the evocative opening scene of Krystal Sutherland’s new novel “The Invocations.”

To most women, the image of a girl alone at night is both terrifying and utterly familiar. To Sutherland, it was the perfect place to begin the story.

“I came to the opening line, a girl walks home alone at night, really as an exploration of that fear, that visceral fear that you feel often as a woman when you are traversing a city street alone at night time,” Sutherland says. “That image for me really carries through the rest of the book and the themes that I decided to explore about what it feels like to be a young woman moving through these patriarchal spaces that are not made for you.”

As Sutherland explains, to be a girl is to fear what lies in the dark.

But “The Invocations” asks, what if women didn’t have to be afraid?

In the story, women can make deals with demons and inscribe power into their bodies to fight back against men who seek to harm them.

But their magic comes with a steep price. They must sacrifice part of their soul.

And to make matters worse, there’s a serial killer hunting women with magic and stealing their power for himself.

Sutherland says she was eager to explore the price women must pay to feel safe.

“Well, the central question that I kept coming back to was if there was some kind of supernatural occult power, what if only women could access it? What would that world look like? What would the cost be to access that power and who would be willing to pay that cost? And why?” she says. “And then I think the most important question from those questions is who would be threatened by that power? And how far would they go to quash it?”While “The Invocations” is primarily a young adult fantasy — its dark tone and chilling atmosphere often veer into horror, a genre where women have often been the victims of the story

Beth Youngeris an associate professor at Drake University, where she teaches about young adult fiction, feminist theory and horror.

Younger says horror has always been fixated on women and the role they occupy in our society, especially within slasher films — where women who step out of line are violently reprimanded.

“The slasher is interested in women who go outside expectations and they get, they get punished for being exploratory for being, sexual for all kinds of stuff,” Younger says. “And the punishment within a slasher is almost always with a knife.”

But in recent years, as more women began creating and producing horror stories, the narrative has shifted. Women have become the heroes of the genre, fighting back against society and serial killers alike.

Younger says that horror can be empowering, especially when it’s told from the perspective of a female protagonist with agency.

“It’s like if you can read or watch something that depicts a woman kicking ass, taking names, like not being slaughtered for some stupid reason. Of course, that has meaning for you,” Younger says. “People still will say, ‘Well, why do you want to watch that? Because women are getting killed?’ Well, it’s more than that.”

In “The Invocations,” it’s three young women — Jude, Emer, and Zara — who team up to stop the slasher’s rampage.

For Sutherland, writing the story from their perspective served as a type of wish fulfillment

“It was absolutely a cathartic experience to write a horror story where women fight back,” she says. “ You fantasize about being that woman who is able to walk out into the night and not fear anything that comes your way.”

Young adult author Ayana Graywas drawn in by the female protagonists of the story

“To me, it was really satisfying to see these ‘unlikable girls,’ these imperfect girls pushing back against that and fighting back and saying we’re not gonna take this lying down,” Gray says.

And Gray says that “The Invocations” has the kind of cross-genre appeal that could attract any type of reader

“I could tell you this book was a mystery and that’s true. I could tell you it’s a contemporary novel with fantasy elements and that’s also true. I could tell you it’s horror and that’s true,” she says. “And when you do that you can actually bring in lots of different readers who normally would say, oh, I like horror. I don’t normally read mysteries. Oh, I’m a mystery author. I don’t really read fantasy because it kind of sates multiple appetites.”

Sutherland  her story will remind readers of the strength women carry within themselves

“I hope that readers walk away with a renewed sense of empowerment and a renewed sense of women as community who look out for each other,” she says.

“The Invocations” is not only a book about the everyday terror that women experience walking through the world. It’s also a story about strength and anger — and the defiance it takes to survive what lurks in the shadows

Book excerpt: ‘The Invocations’

By Krystal Sutherland

Excerpted from “The Invocations,” reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.