When I picked up Bleeding Violet after months of urging, I was promised guts, gore, horror, and more. Those promises were 100% correct, and I have absolutely 0% regrets that I read this book — but it does come with a cautionary note, because if you are not the sort of person who likes ultraviolence, you will probably not like it. That doesn’t mean that it is bad, it just means that it is not for you, and that is totally okay. I support your decision to not read violent books, and, furthermore, concerns that you may have about textual violence and its effect on readers are totally valid. That’s not what I’m here to talk about today in particular, but it’s definitely a topic worthy of discussion — because such texts are not without social problems that should be considered in larger discussions about literature.
That said, let’s talk about Bleeding Violet. Hanna is a girl whom no one seems to want. In the wake of her father’s death, she’s been shunted to the house of an aunt who doesn’t really like her, her mother has expressed no interest in her life, and she has no human friends or allies. She dresses herself entire in purple and surrounds herself in shades of the same colour in honor of her father, who loved it, and she accompanies herself with a sculpture of a swan, her only real friend.
One other thing: Hanna is bipolar, though she prefers to refer to herself as manic depressive (which is the term I’ll be using through the rest of this review). She has been in and out of hospital wards, she’s on a plethora of medications (when she feels like taking them), and she struggles to balance her mental health. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that she ventures to Portero, Texas in search of her mother and redemption. What she finds there, however, is something quite different.
Her mother greets her quite coldly, but that’s the least of her problems. Portero is a strange, haunted, bizarre place filled with creatures out of nightmares that seep from the numerous doors into other worlds that litter the town. Keys made of the bones of ancestors litter the town, a mysterious mayor has struck fear and terror into everyone, and Hanna suddenly finds herself in a world that oddly…makes sense. For the first time in her life, she is not a freak; she’s actually pretty normal, especially when compared to everyone else.
She makes friends, starts dating a boy, and finds affection in her surroundings as the town grows to grudgingly accept her. Most newbies don’t last long, but she does, and she’s determined to stay there, despite the weirdness. Portero actually in many ways reminds me of Night Vale with its creepiness and almost irreverent nature, although Portero is much more violent. Characters chop each other’s heads off, climb out of the bellies of revolting beasts, sear their hands on keys, and much, much more. Seriously, when people told me Bleeding Violet was violent, they were not kidding. This book is violent.
Two things particularly intrigue me about Bleeding Violet. One is the appearance of a girl in a horror environment, and the fact that Hanna is no Final Girl. This genre is heavily male-dominated despite great texts like Anna Dressed in Blood, another very gory, female-led horror YA (despite the fact that the POV character is male). I love seeing female characters elbow-deep in intestines, covered in gore, going at it like anyone should be able to do, if they are so inclined. Hanna as a horror character stands out in the landscape, as do the other characters — this is not a world where men and women are separated and treated differently. Everyone is a possible victim, and everyone is a possible saviour, and some lie somewhere in between, including Hanna herself.
I want more women in horror, and I want to see more books like this one doing well, because they serve as evidence that other people crave this too — and that, in turn, appeals to editors. There’s something incredibly empowering for me about female horror heroines who take on traditional gender norms and basically chainsaw them apart. Hanna isn’t interested in playing nice, and she’s not afraid to bare her teeth at anyone who tries to tell her otherwise.
I’m also, unsurprisingly, interested in Hannah’s manic depression. As she enters Portero, the hallucinations and confusions she’s had over the course of her life become real — Swan comes to life and interferes when she attempts self-harm, the hallucinations of her father manifest in a more real form — Portero is an affirmation of her existence and brings up interesting questions about mental illness and perceptions of sanity. In a town that to outsiders might seem utterly unbelievable, there is nothing remarkable about the symptoms Hanna experiences, even when she is tipped over into mania and a state of violent aggressiveness; it’s simply par for the course in Portero, nothing to remark upon, most certainly, and possibly even a survival tactic in a city that actively works to kill its own citizens at every turn.
Handlings of mental illness are always complex, and can be especially so in texts like these, where it might be easy to conflate mental illness and evil, or mental illness and horrible decisions. Instead, Hanna remains true to herself throughout, with her manic depression simply being part of who she is. At times, it seems almost like an asset, but it’s gracefully done; she’s not exceptionalised or treated as magical and special because she’s mentally ill. She’s just Hanna, and she takes no shit from anyone.