Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #21: Valjeanne Jeffers

Mona Livelong

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

I think too often we expect our books to be extraordinary. We expect them to play with genre in unexpected ways, to subvert our expectations of language and narrative. To tell something inimitable in a way that no one has ever told it before. This is a noble goal for a writer, but if you establish it as the basis for your concept of quality, you risk losing sight of why people love stories for their familiarity, their ordinariness.

Generic books can be a joy to read precisely because they don’t defy expectations, because they play our comfortable narrative straight. It’s why we read Stephen King novel after Stephen King novel, Agatha Christie after Agatha Christie, James Patterson after James Patterson. How many Dresden Files novels follow the same structure? Discworld? These books aren’t the ones we reach for when we want to broaden our intellectual depth—sometimes we just want a great story.

Works likes these by and featuring minorities are something of a scarcity though, which is an important (if not central) aspect of Valjeanne Jeffers’ first Mona Livelong novel. It should be appreciated as the straightforward piece of genre fiction that it is, but also acknowledged for filling the lack of representation in these kinds of books. It doesn’t do anything too extraordinary but adjust the identity focus. Instead of the predominant white male perspective, we have a supernatural detective tale featuring a black woman. Throughout my reviews in this series I’ve mostly latched most onto what these authors do differently, how they play with and subvert genre expectations. But Mona Livelong reminds me of the value in making fun, simple, straightforward genre novels.

Valjeanne Jeffers’ Mona Livelong advertises itself as a steamfunk horror novel. A story about the eponymous paranormal detective solving, well, paranormal mysteries, the novel has much in common with what we might classify as urban fantasy. Set in an alternate history where the United States has truly divided into two countries post-Civil War, the “steamfunk” trappings are mostly contained to the setting’s aesthetic shell: Livelong’s bodice-centric wardrobe and the quirky locations she finds herself in, mostly. Livelong has two intertwining cases to take on in this book: A haunted house and three connected murders. The novel features ghosts, violence, mysteries, voodoo, psychic powers—all the stuff one expects and hopes for in a horror-mystery narrative.

The plot, again, isn’t the most mind-blowing thing in the world, but entertaining exactly because of its familiar tropes. The shift in identity causes some welcome thematic and character development adjustments, and these are all for the better—subtle variations on tropes remind us of how to revitalize said tropes. I’m reminded of Alan Yang’s Critic’s Choice TV acceptance speech for Master of None, where he states: “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. Because you guys crushed it for so long, anything else seems kind of different.” So it is with Mona Livelong. It’s a straightforward urban fantasy novel in a lot of ways, but gives off a different vibe due to its centering of “anyone else”.

This book has typos, has pacing issues, but that is almost beside the point because it’s good at simply being enjoyable. It has a compelling, reasonably interesting plot that is familiar enough to breeze through but not predictable enough to be boring. It isn’t a big publisher book, so much of the writing’s downfalls can be chalked up to a lack of intensive editing.

It’s far from perfect, but it could be exactly the sort of entertainment someone out there is looking for. Again, the importance of representation in James Patterson-tier novels is just as important as it is for the high literary canon. Many out there need to read pulp novels with black women protagonists, whether as a source of reflection for black women or for the realization of some white man going “Oh, I didn’t know black women liked steampunk too.” Mona Livelong isn’t sophisticated because it doesn’t need to be—it’s simply pleasurable.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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