Andrew Joseph White’s debut novel Hell Followed With Us was one of the best young adult novels hit shelves in 2022, a primal scream of righteous queer fury set amid a dark, dystopian tale of the end of the world. (Not to mention a book that features everything from disturbing body horror and nightmarish mutant creatures to a devastating man-made plague.) How in the world do you follow that up? With a completely different, yet no less impactful story the explores life, death, what comes afterward, and the people we give ourselves permission to be in between.
White’s sophomore novel, The Spirit Bares Its Teeth follows the story of Silas, a young trans boy and a medium marked with the violet colored eyes that mean he has the power to commune with the dead. After attempting to escape an arranged marriage—and a family that refuses to treat him as the boy he is rather than the girl they see—Silas finds himself shipped away to a sanitorium, a place that’s full of dark secrets and angry ghosts desperate for help.
Centered on an autistic trans protagonist in an alternate history version of Victorian England, The Spirit Bares Its Teeth explores the idea of what girlhood really means, the damage the patriarchy inflicts on all aspects of society, and how important it is to tell stories about trans characters who haven’t yet transitioned.
Here’s how the publisher describes its premise.
London, 1883. The Veil between the living and dead has thinned. Violet-eyed mediums commune with spirits under the watchful eye of the Royal Speaker Society, and sixteen-year-old Silas Bell would rather rip out his violet eyes than become an obedient Speaker wife. According to Mother, he’ll be married by the end of the year. It doesn’t matter that he’s needed a decade of tutors to hide his autism; that he practices surgery on slaughtered pigs; that he is a boy, not the girl the world insists on seeing.
After a failed attempt to escape an arranged marriage, Silas is diagnosed with Veil sickness—a mysterious disease sending violet-eyed women into madness—and shipped away to Braxton’s Sanitorium and Finishing School. The facility is cold, the instructors merciless, and the students either bloom into eligible wives or disappear. So when the ghosts of missing students start begging Silas for help, he decides to reach into Braxton’s innards and expose its rotten guts to the world—as long as the school doesn’t break him first.
Although The Spirit Bares Its Teeth won’t hit shelves until September 5, we’re thrilled to not only bring you an exclusive first look at the book’s gorgeous cover and an excerpt from the story right now.
Mors vincit omnia
Death conquers all
At least the doctors had the decency to kill me before they opened me up. At least they killed me quick. Its funny when you die from bleeding out because it doesnt feel like dying. You just get tired and tired and tired and then youre gone.
After i was dead, i watched them cut me apart. They took out my eyes and sliced them thin like paper. They shaved my head and opened my skull to the brain. They wore masks to conceal their faces and commanded spirits to hold me still so i could not bring the dark room down with my anger. Because they know how angry dead girls can be.
When the doctors were done with my eyes and brain they moved on to the rest of me. My hair teeth skin tongue. Not to study but out of rage. To punish me for failing them. They took a saw to my ribs when i did not crack under their hands. They said my name FRANCES FRANCES FRANCES i am a haunting i am a poltergeist i am stuck here screaming.
What were they looking for? did they find it?
Are you listening?
The last time I spoke to my brother was six months ago. I remember the date exactly: the 22nd of April, 1883. How could I not? It is burned into me like a cauterized wound, an artery seared shut to keep from bleeding out.
It was his wedding, and I was on the edge of hysterics.
I wasn’t being difficult on purpose. I wasn’t, I swear. I never mean to be, no matter what Mother and Father say. I’d even promised it would be a good day. I promised I wouldn’t let the too-tight corset send me into a fit, I wouldn’t tap, I wouldn’t fidget, and I certainly wouldn’t wince at the church organ’s high notes. I would be so perfect that my parents wouldn’t have a reason to so much as look at me.
And why shouldn’t it have been a good day? It was my brother’s wedding. He’d just returned to London after a few months teaching surgery in Bristol, and all I wanted was to hang off his arm and chatter about articles in the latest Edinburgh Medical Journal. He would tell me about his new research, his interesting cases, the grossest thing he’d seen after cutting someone open. He’d quiz me as he fixed his hair before the ceremony. “Name all the bones of the hand,” he’d say. “You have been studying your anatomy, haven’t you?”
It would be a good day. I’d promised.
But that was easy to promise in the safety of my room, when the day had not yet started. It was another to walk into St. John’s after Mother and Father spent the carriage ride informing me I’d be married by the new year.
“It’s time,” Mother said, taking my hand and squeezing—putting too much pressure on the metacarpals, the proximal phalanges. “Sixteen is the perfect age for a girl as pretty as you.”
It was like, then, the ceremony became a fatal allergen. While Father talked with a colleague between the pews and Mother cooed over her friends’ dresses, I pressed my fingers to my neck to ensure my throat hadn’t swollen. The organist hunched over the keys and played a single note that hit my eardrums like a needle. Too many people talked at once. Too loud, too crowded, too warm. The heel of my shoe clicked against the floor in a nervous skitter. Tap tap tap tap tap.
Father grabbed my arm, lowered his voice. “Stop that. The thing you’re doing with your foot, stop it.”
I stopped. “Sorry.”
On a good day, I could stomach big events like this. Parties, festivals, fancy dinners. Sometimes I even liked them, when George was there as a buffer between me and the world, when the music was loud and nobody looked my way. But, I think, that’s only because a legion of expensive tutors had trained me to. They molded me from a strange, feral child into a daughter who smiled and sat with her feet tucked daintily and never spoke out of turn: a daughter who could fetch a good husband the way I should.
So, yes. Maybe, if it had been a good day, I could have done it. But good days had suddenly become impossible.
In the crowd, I slipped away.
Sometimes I pretend my fear is a little rabbit in my chest. It’s the sort of rabbit my brother’s school tests their techniques on, with gray fur and dark eyes, and it hides underneath my sternum beside the heart.
Mother and Father are going to do this to you, it reminded me. I pressed a hand against my chest as I searched the pews to no avail. The church was long, like a gullet, with stained glass stretching up like translucent membranes. And when they do, you will cut yourself open. You will pull out your insides. You promised.
I stepped out into the vestibule—and after all this time, there he was. My brother with his groomsmen, friends from university I’d never met. Stealing a drink from a flask. Swinging his arms, trying to get blood to his fingers. Bristol had changed him. Or maybe he’d just matured while I wasn’t there to see it, and it’d be better if I turned him inside out and sewed him up in reverse so I no longer had to watch him age.
I said, barely loud enough to hear, “George?”
My brother met my eyes, and his first words to me in months were, “That’s the dress you picked?”
Right. I’d tried awfully hard to forget what I was wearing. The corset was tight and the dress was gaudy, with a big rump of a bustle, as was the fashion. Or Mother’s idea of the fashion. I’d studied diagrams from George’s notes of how tightlacing could deform bones and internal organs, memorized them until I could draw them on the church floor with charcoal. Flesh and bone make more sense to me than the people they add up to.
“It was Mother’s idea,” I said plainly. “May I speak to you? For just a second?”
George flashed a grin at his groomsmen. “Sorry, lads. The sister’s more important than you lot.”
So he broke away from the flock, because George would do anything for me and he always had, even as his groomsmen groused and jabbed their elbows into his ribs—and then he led me to a quiet corner in the back of the sanctuary. Away from the people, the mess, the noise.
Without Father to snap at me, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. My hands wrung awkwardly at my stomach and I bit my cheek until I tasted blood.
It’s pathetic you ever thought you’d avoid this, the rabbit said.
George got my attention by putting a hand in front of my face. “In,” he said. I scrambled to follow his instructions, breathed in. “Out.” I breathed out. “There we go. It’s okay. I’m here.”
As soon as you were born with a womb, you were fucked.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The mask I’d built to be the perfect daughter cracked. The stitches popped. I began to cry.
George said, “Oh, Silas.” My name. My real name. It’d been so long since someone called me my real name. I clamped a hand to my lips to stifle the embarrassing gasp, wet and choked with tears. “Use your words,” George said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
I didn’t mean to do this at his wedding. I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t, I swear.
I said, “I need to get out of that house. It’s happening. Soon.” I started to rock back and forth. George put a hand on my shoulder to hold me still, but I pushed him away. I had to move. I’d scream if I couldn’t move. “No. Don’t. Please don’t. I just—I don’t know, I don’t know what to do.”
“Silas,” George said.
“If I get away from them, I could buy a little more time.” Could I, though, really? Or was I just desperate? “Don’t leave me alone with them, please—”
I forced myself to look at him. My chest hitched. “What?”
Then, one of the groomsmen, leaning out to the pews, bellowed: “The bride has arrived!”
“Shit,” George said, “already?”
“Wait.” I grabbed for his sleeve. No, he couldn’t walk away now, he couldn’t. “George, please.”
But he was backing up, peeling me from his arm. When I remember this moment months later, I recall his pained expression, the worry wrinkling his face—but I don’t know if it was actually there. I cannot convince myself I hadn’t created them in the weeks that followed.
“We can talk about this later,” George said. “Okay? Sit, before someone comes looking for you.” Nausea climbed up my throat, threatening to spill onto my tongue. “Afterwards. I swear.”
And then he was gone.
I stared after him. Still shivering. Still struggling for air.
What else was I to do except what I was told? I never learned how to do anything else.
I scrubbed my eyes dry and found my place with our parents. Mother smiled, holding me by the shoulder the way surgeons used to hold down patients before anesthesia. “How is George doing?” she asked me, and I said, “He’s well.” The organist ambled into a slow, lovely song, and the sun shone through stained glass in a beam of rainbows. George stood at the end of the aisle. He found my gaze and smiled. I smiled back. It wavered.
The bride herself, when she walked in on her father’s arm, was tall, with honey-colored hair. She was not the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but she didn’t have to be. She radiated such kindness that it was as if she was made of gold. I loved her immediately. How could I not?
She had violet eyes.
And a silver Speaker ring on her little finger.
The rabbit said, Soon, that will be you.
When I was younger—ten, I think, or maybe eleven—I dreamed of amputating my eyes. It seemed easy. Stick your thumb in the socket, work it behind the eyeball, and take it out, pop, like the cork in a bottle of wine. If they were gone, I reasoned, the Royal Speaker Society would leave me be. They came over every Sunday to savor cups of Mother’s tea, talk with Father about ghosts and spirit-work and economic ventures in India, calculate the likelihood of their children having violet eyes if they had those children with me. “You’ve never played with a ghost, have you?” a Speaker said once, teasing my sleeve. “Because you know what happens to little girls who play with ghosts.” And then he mimicked a hanging, sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes. “Oh, dear, you’re too pretty for the gallows.”
And it has never stopped. It has only gotten worse, louder and louder as I grew into my chest and hips. Now they kiss my knuckles and run their hands through my hair. They wonder about boys I’ve been with and offer ungodly sums for my hand in marriage and my body in their bed.
“Is she lilac, heather, or mauve?” they would ask my mother, holding my jaw to keep my head still. Sometimes they gave me their silver Speaker ring to wear, just to see how I’d look with it one day. “Oh, Mrs. Bell, when will you let her marry?”
Mother would just smile. “Soon.”
I’d grown out of the juvenile fantasy quickly enough; the eyes were a symptom, not the disease. If I wanted to resort to surgery, I’d have to go to the root: a hysterectomy, a total removal of the womb. Until my ability to continue a bloodline is destroyed, these men don’t care how many pieces of myself I hack off—but that doesn’t mean I haven’t popped the eyes out of a slaughtered pig just to feel it.
George’s wife had violet eyes like mine.
He was doing to a girl everything that would be done to me.
I got up from the pew. Mother hissed and reached for me but I stumbled into the aisle, clamping a hand over my mouth. I slammed out the front doors and collapsed onto the stairs.
I spat stomach acid once, twice, before I vomited.
Father came out behind me, dragging me onto my feet and shaking me. “What are you doing?” he snarled. “What is wrong with you?”
It will hurt, the rabbit said. It will hurt it will hurt it will hurt.
George has not been able to face me since.
He knows what he did.
Excerpt from The Spirit Bares Its Teeth / Text copyright © 2023 by Andrew Joseph White. Reproduced by permission from Peachtree Publishing Company Inc. All rights reserved. Cover art by Evangeline Gallagher; Cover design by Lily Steele
The Spirit Bares Its Teeth will be available September 5 from Peachtree Teen, but you can pre-order it right now.
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.