an extended (and rambly) breakdown of the Official Playlist

BEFORE YOU START: this playlist breakdown is RIDDLED WITH SPOILERS FOR THE DEVOURING GRAY. If you haven't read the book yet, I urge you not to read on. 

If you do want to read on, you may want the playlist this is all based on for reference. Here it is!

I released this playlist nearly a year ago, right before the release of THE DEVOURING GRAY. To celebrate the release of THE DECK OF OMENS, its sequel (4/21/2020), coming up in just a few months, I decided to release a super-spoilery extended edition of said playlist. Hope you enjoy it!

1. The Pines by Roses & Revolutions


So, the thing is that they’re mostly oak trees in Four Paths, not pines. But I put this song first on the playlist for several reasons--Roses & Revolutions is local to the exact region of Upstate NY I wrote this book about, and the atmosphere of the song automatically puts me in the headspace of being back there. There’s this nostalgia to the song that feels ominous, too; the gentle chanting in the background, the lyrics that speak to a place that means so much to people because they can “leave all our secrets behind.” And that, more than anything else, is the first impression I wanted readers to have of Justin Hawthorne--and of Four Paths.


2. Pilgrims on a Long Journey by Coeur de Pirate


Violet Saunders’ first point of view took me fifteen tries to get right. I wish that was an exaggeration--if anything, there might be even more drafts of it somewhere, tucked away in an ancient notebook or long-forgotten Word doc. It wasn’t because I didn’t know who she was. It was because I knew exactly who she was, but I couldn’t figure out how to convey that to the reader. So much of Violet’s early character arc came down to balancing the person she believed herself to be with the person she was perceived as, and trying to show the reader that neither of them were the person she actually is.


I figured her out the same way Violet figures things out: piano. Music is an important part of my life, and piano is arguably the most important facet of that--I played for ten years, but gave it up entirely after a massive life change that happened in early high school. Listening to old classical piano pieces that I had loved alongside more modern compositions meant as part of a soundtrack, like this one, reminded me of what made me give up on something I’d loved so much, and it let me sit down with the character in my head--lonely, scrappy Violet--and actually listen to her. For a long time, I called this piece “Violet’s Theme,” because I’d play it whenever I was getting ready to do a deep-dive into her character.


3. Falling by HAIM


The scenes of Violet meeting Justin and Isaac at The Diner and her subsequent encounter with them both in homeroom have been in THE DEVOURING GRAY since its very earliest drafts, and as a result I have a lot of affection for them. In my mind, this song is playing softly in the background during both--a moody, catchy reminder that Violet’s not ready for what’s about to happen, but neither is the rest of Four Paths. They’re watching her, but she’s watching them right back.

And if it gets rough/it’s time to get rough, HAIM sings, and I can just picture Violet turning that song on and cranking the volume up until she gets lost in it.


4. Dream by Tessa Violet


There are a lot of stories that happen during the events of THE DEVOURING GRAY beyond the point-of-view characters, but to me none of them are quite as fraught as the reunion of Juniper Saunders and Augusta Hawthorne. Their relationship is complicated and messy, but this book isn’t focused on them--it’s about their children and their childrens’ friends (and sometimes-enemies). But that doesn’t mean I don’t know a lot of what they were thinking and feeling while Violet, Justin, May, and everyone else were busy causing trouble. And a lot of what they were thinking and feeling was Extreme Bisexual Panic.

DREAM is a song about yearning--a romantic relationship that is just as meaningful now that it’s over as it was when it was happening. There is so much regret and history in the lyrics, and if there’s something Juniper and Augusta have in’s regret and history. It was important to me to write about two women who are both deeply imperfect but who also so clearly care for one another, and I was also very aware that both of them were undoubtedly having an internal meltdown during the party scene in the Saunders Manor.


I don't know if you still think of me (come on, come on over)

How you used to love me lovingly (come on, come on over)

I know when we left, we left a mess (come on, come on over)

But if you ask, I promise I'll say... (come on, come on)


Juniper Saunders may not remember everything about her past for most of THE DEVOURING GRAY, but she certainly remembers her relationship with Augusta. And Augusta...she has so many layers of secrets, you’d have to cut her open and count them all like the rings in a tree if you wanted to find them all.


5. The End is Always Near by Myuu


Writing scenes in the Gray always, always stressed me out. Because the Gray is meant to feel stressful, at least for humans. Everything about it is utterly inhospitable to the main characters, but they’re pulled inexorably toward it anyway, and the balance of their ties to it and their fear of it are what drive the major plot of the book. Needless to say, it was important to me that I have a suitably spooky backing track in mind for the scene where Violet first wakes up inside the Gray. And this one absolutely fits the bill. Piano lost in a creepy maze of other sounds, an ominous melodic entry of a new threat halfway through, the dawning realization of panic--it’s all here.


6. Team by Lorde


The intimidation factor of dealing with Justin, May, and Isaac all at once is something that even Violet--who’s a lot braver than I am--certainly feels. Especially when they’ve just saved her life from the Gray, and she’s just brought her Aunt’s cat back from the dead. There’s something uniquely frightening about encountering a group of people who’ve known one another for a long time--the strength of their connection and their bonds can feel like this unbreakable thing, this circle that they’re never going to let you into. Now imagine that all those people had magical powers, that you also had magical powers, and that none of them seemed to like you very much. TEAM sums that feeling up for me. 


We live in cities you'll never see onscreen

Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things

Livin' in ruins of a palace within my dreams

And you know we're on each other's team


In my mind, May Hawthorne knows exactly who’s on her team--and she isn’t looking for new members.


7. Bridges by Broods 


Oh, believe me, I know we haven’t had a Harper or an Isaac song yet. That’s about to change. Harper Carlisle’s misery and rage that’s covering up a deep internal strength is difficult to put into song, but I love the way BRIDGES manages to get at so many of her insecurities while hinting at the biggest puzzle piece she’s missing: her memories. 


And we're burning all the bridges now

‘Cause it was sink or swim and I went

Down, down, down

Harper’s scenes with Justin were always difficult to write because of the inherent power imbalance in everything he knows that she doesn’t. But she doesn’t need to know every way he messed up her life to be angry with him. The scene where he confronts her by the lake to discuss Violet is a battle of ulterior motives--her own secret mission with her father clashing with Justin’s obvious idealism and beliefs that he can mask his own weaknesses by adding Violet to Team Hawthorne. It’s also an uncomfortable reckoning about the bridge that once stood between the two of them, a bridge that’s long since burned to ash. Or has it? Neither of them are really sure.


8. Blinding by Florence + the Machine


This song is not for one particular character, but rather for several of them who are really Going Through It during part 2 of the book. There’s Violet, tormented by her brand-new powers--no more dreaming of the dead as if death itself was undone. There’s Harper, unsure exactly whom she’s double-crossing anymore or where her loyalties lie, because Violet’s made her think differently about everything and Justin has just made her want to lie down on the floor--No more dreaming like a girl/so in love with the wrong world. And then there’s Isaac, who is generally having a bad time, and who is very close to reaching his breaking point--Felt it in my fist, in my feet, in the hollows of my eyelids/Shaking through my skull, through my spine and down through my ribs.


Things are untenable in their current state, in Four Paths and also in everyone’s interpersonal relationships, and it’s all about to blow up.


9. Satellite by Guster


This song has been an Isaac Sullivan song since 2015, and it remains The Isaac Sullivan Song. Please know that I had it on before and after almost every single draft of the barn party scene, because the extreme mournfulness of the lyric maybe you will always be/just a little out of reach is...kind of the crux of the whole situation. Isaac’s relationship with Justin is agonizing for him, and that’s explored in THE DECK OF OMENS. But in THE DEVOURING GRAY, we’re seeing things through Justin’s eyes: a boy trying to live up to the role his town expects of him and a different boy doing the same in a really self-destructive way. Justin wants to help, but he’s part of the problem, too, and he doesn’t yet understand why. 


10. We Won’t by Jaymes Young & Phoebe Ryan


All five of the main characters in this duology are snarled together in a big weird knot, to the point where it’s difficult to parse the details of how exactly they’re tangled. But Justin and Harper are a knot all on their own. There’s so much between them that neither of them knows how to talk about, and it comes out the way any pent-up emotion comes out: clumsily and strangely. Both of them just want control over the situation. Neither of them has any control whatsoever over the situation. Harper doesn’t know how to be honest with Justin; Justin literally can’t be honest with Harper lest he expose his own mother’s deception. 


My heart is furious

'Cause I'm so confused when we're together

Feels like I'm choking, these emotions

I know I'm gonna let you down

So don't hold your breath now, yeah


By now, since we’re going chronologically, we’re right at the “did you take me to your weird forest sex den?” scene. Sorry, both of you. It’s not going to get any easier.


11. Even if it Hurts by Sam Tinnesz


Writing about death is something I do a lot, but that doesn’t lessen its impact for me. Each increased body count hurts me as the author; I feel the guilt and pain the characters feel as they lose somebody they care for, and I feel echoes of my own lived experiences through them as I write about it. It’s a complicated balance of trying to put my all into a project, but also to remove myself from it when it goes out into the world--to know when to be personal, and when to be distant. But it’s hard for me to be distant during Violet’s grieving scenes after Daria Saunders’ death. They’re too close to my own life, but thankfully so is the aftermath of that loss: the comfort.

The love extended to Violet by her new friends is thematically--to me--a core part of the book. Although I write about trauma, I’m far from a grimdark author. I want not just to show that terrible things can happen to people, but that they are capable of healing from them. That when we support one another, we can carry each other to better places. Recovery is a journey that is rarely embarked upon alone, and to me this song exemplifies that fierce determination of the core five here: even if it hurts, they’re going to help her. They’re going to show her she never has to suffer alone again.


12. Blame by Bastille

The scene where Isaac loses control in the Diner and Justin has to come help him was challenging for a variety of reasons--there’s so much happening there, said and unsaid, and balancing it all required a lot of careful thought and painstaking revision. In order to carry both these characters through the conflict, I needed to pull their relationship back to the root cause of their dynamic: guilt and blame. 


Fall upon your knees, sing:

"This is my body and soul here"

Crawl and beg and plead, sing:

"You've got the power and control"

Don't pin it all on me


Both Isaac and Justin feel responsible for one another’s pain. Their friendship is inherently imbalanced by different kinds of power dynamics. No friendship, whether it’s one forged between children, adolescents, or adults, can be completely balanced. Which is why trust and open communication are so important to maintaining healthy boundaries and relationships. But those skills are hard to build, and these two are still working on them. 


13. Pistols at Dawn by Seinabo Sey

PISTOLS AT DAWN was one of the earliest additions to the very first TDG playlist. It came before the swordfight scene between Harper and Justin did, and when I realized it needed to be in the book, I was like, oh I’ve absolutely had the theme song for this the whole time. My subconscious is a beautiful thing (that likes swords). 


This is me reaching and you wanting to run

Stand down or show down baby let's get this done


There’s this moment, where Harper’s got that sword to Justin’s neck, where I think he’s about 80% sure she’s actually going to try and stab him with it even though it’s just a wooden play sword. 

I’m not sure he would have tried to stop her.


14. Window by Bonefield


Oooh, let’s talk about consequences. Specifically, consequences for the Hawthornes, who have not done the Best job of running the town and are slowly starting to pay for it. 


We were happy in our castle of lies

Protected by soldiers and walls

Safe from the masses and the trash we ruled

But I can hear the whistle in the wind


Things are changing in Four Paths, and Justin Hawthorne knows it. He’s seen it at the barn party, at the Diner. He’s not ready for when it happens again, even though he knows it’s coming. 


15. Scars by Boy Epic


Isaac usually has a lot of trouble going on at any given time, but so does Violet. I’ve always had a soft spot for their scene on the night of the equinox where he shows up at her window and she’s like “well I GUESS I can let you in or whatever but this doesn’t mean I CARE ABOUT YOU” (very convincing, Violet). Please know that in my head SCARS is softly playing in the background while they pretend they are not in fact bonding, and Isaac pretends that he only came over to check on her because Justin asked her to. 


16. The Mother We Share by CHVRCHES


Things aren’t looking great for anybody at the beginning of part 3, and Justin is no exception. His confrontation with May and Augusta is a hard moment for his character, but it’s also been a long time coming. That fragmented familial stuff is all laid out in THE MOTHER WE SHARE, to a kind of eerie degree. We even get a little Deck of Omens shoutout. 


I'm in misery where you can seem as old as your omens

And the mother we share will never keep your proud head from falling

The way is long but you can make it easy on me

And the mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from calling


Ultimately, I have a lot of compassion for both the Hawthorne children and their mother. They’ve all made mistakes, and they’ve all handled that poorly. But as an adult in a position of power, Augusta is the person here with the greatest responsibility for normalizing this kind of family dynamic, where even though they’re all technically on the same side, there is always a winner and a loser. That’s never more clear than in this scene, where the ugliness of that kind of bond is laid out and illuminated. 


17. Six Feet Under by Billie Eilish


Help, I lost myself again

But I remember you

Don't come back, it won't end well

But I wish you'd tell me to


Harper and Justin’s scene in the music practice room has always been...loaded. Both of them know that their parental figures have let them down but aren’t sure what to do about it. And they’re also both trying to handle feelings that are, uh, currently inconvenient. There’s a mournfulness to their alliance--it’s born of desperation and necessity instead of genuine partnership, and Harper is concerned about her own ulterior motives in voluntarily teaming up with Justin Hawthorne. SIX FEET UNDER gets at the heart of this--they both think this is a bad idea, but they’re doing it anyway.

As a teenager, I was prone to very volatile relationships, both romantic and platonic, and that push and pull is something I still remember vividly. It’s hard to extract yourself from a situation that part of you actually wants to be in, even if you know in the long term it’ll end poorly. I gave Justin and Harper a reason to come back into one anothers’ lives, but I think it would have happened anyway, even without Violet. Unfinished business has a way of coming back again and again until you learn how to look it in the eye.


18. Heart of the Darkness by Sam Tinnesz

Violet’s climactic scene is important to me for a lot of reasons, most of which you can probably infer if you’ve read this much of the extended playlist ramblings! But I will say that HEART OF THE DARKNESS speaks to not just the way that particular scene feels, but the way that trauma and grief have felt to me. Like you’re floating in the middle of something so much bigger than yourself. Like you’re not sure if you’re ever going to be able to find your way out of the darkness, but somehow, some way, you have to find the strength to try. Hold fast we must be brave/in the heart of the darkness is something I cling to not just in fiction, but in my real life, and writing about Violet being brave and making her own light to lead herself out of the darkness felt like something I needed to do. Not just for this book, but for myself. 


19. 20 Years by The Civil Wars


Fun Fact: I have a Juniper & Augusta playlist that’s a bunch of Civil Wars songs. It charts the course of their entire relationship, from childhood through to the end of THE DECK OF OMENS. I chose 20 YEARS here because it speaks to the truth about what happened with Stephen Saunders and the two of them that’s revealed at the end of THE DEVOURING GRAY, and the history that they’ve both been carrying for a long time. 


In the meantime I'll be waiting/

Twenty years and twenty more

I'll be praying for redemption

And your note, underneath my door


Augusta Hawthorne’s character has always fascinated me because she has become the person she needed to be to survive, no matter what the consequences. Her way of running from trouble is by erasing it. Juniper’s way of running was having Augusta erase that trouble for her. And their mutual decisions--Juniper asking, and Augusta complying--changed the courses of their lives forever. Now, they need to learn to handle the consequences: what it’s done to them, what it’s done to their town, and what it’s done to their children. 


20. In My Veins by Andrew Belle ft. Erin McCarley 


It’s really, really hard to have a crush on someone who cannot have a crush on you. It’s something I as a queer person experienced repeatedly during my adolescence, and it’s something I wanted to talk about on the page in TDG. But even though I knew what I wanted to do, I still wasn’t prepared for how deeply Justin and Isaac’s final TDG scene would affect me. Sometimes, relationships aren’t toxic because either of the people in them are bad. They’re just not healthy because of what the people bring out in one another, what they can and can’t give one another, and who they’re becoming when they’re together. Isaac’s decision to walk away from Justin is painful, but it’s also his way of protecting them both. Sometimes the only way to salvage a relationship is to take some space for re-evaluation. 


I’ve always loved IN MY VEINS (it’s been on various playlists since I was the same age these characters are) because it’s a song about the kind of affection that feels like part of you--like an essential ingredient of who you are. But no other person makes you whole. You make YOURSELF whole. Isaac is finally ready to figure out who he is on his own, and Justin’s ready, too, even if he doesn’t quite know that yet. 


21. In the Woods Somewhere by Hozier


The last scene of THE DEVOURING GRAY is a portent for things to come: characters, arcs, POVs, plot elements. It’s a glimpse at things being even more complicated than they already were.


I found something/In the woods somewhere, Hozier sings, and in my head there’s this montage: Violet and Juniper, trying to heal; Justin taking a deep breath and telling Four Paths the truth about his lack of powers, Harper emerging from that lake, her memories finally back. 


There’s a reason so many of us write about the woods. The things we lose there and the things we find there. I don’t think it’s because the trees are hiding something. I think it’s because all of us are the ones with the secrets, and we need the woods to draw them out. There’s something about the trees that makes us get in touch with the pieces of ourselves that we’re afraid of, or embarrassed by, or have never even known were there. Or at least, that’s the case in Four Paths. 


Are you ready for THE DECK OF OMENS? It’s been a long journey getting this book to its final form, but I’m ready for you all to read it. I can’t wait to show you how this story ends.

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