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An Unwilling Vessel

In Erica Waters’ All That Consumes Us, something is rotten in elite academia

Just in time for Halloween, Erica Waters has penned All That Consumes Us, an engrossing, unique ghost story set in the hallowed, shadowy halls of fictional Corbin College. Fans of Harry Potter, the Simon Snow series, or The Secret History will relish this new twist on dark academia, which brims with specters and cicadas’ screams.

Photo: Amelia J. Moore

As with Waters’ previous books such as The River Has Teeth, the foundation of All That Consumes Us lies in nuanced social commentary. Here she uses the supernatural to critique prestigious colleges’ very real, often elitist obsession with the past.

Attending an elite school makes you feel as if you must strive to be worthy of your place, imposter syndrome always looming in the periphery. “We’re all terrified of being average,” Waters writes. “Terrified that we’re not as brilliant as we’ve been led to believe or as talented as we think we are.” These fears are particularly salient for low-income students, for whom there is both the expectation that you will live up to the legacies of the alumni who came before you, and the understanding that their donations fund your tuition, a rare opportunity you can’t afford to squander.

At the private high school I attended with a full scholarship, each year I had to write thank-you notes to my benefactors detailing all I had accomplished. At times, this obligation felt like some kind of Faustian bargain, leaving no room for error or anything less than greatness. Such thoughts were always accompanied by a voice in my head telling me I was being ungrateful. This same inner turmoil plagues Tara, the protagonist of All That Consumes Us, along with every other student in Corbin College’s insular academic society, Magni Viri.

Magni Viri members are granted free tuition, lodging in an exclusive dorm, and incredible post-graduate career prospects. In return, they must complete intensive studies and are not allowed to work on-campus jobs. Tara was raised by a low-income, emotionally abusive single mother. She hopes to join Magni Viri’s ranks to avoid accruing student loans or needing to complete work-study. When she’s rejected, Tara has to forgo her dream major — creative writing — to pursue the more practical track of English education. And without any friends of her own, Tara admires the Magni Viri students from afar.

That is, until the night Tara discovers the lifeless body of one of the Magni Viri freshmen in the library. Soon she’s being inducted into the organization via a moonlit ceremony, complete with Latin chants and a blood oath: “I promise to be a vessel for genius, for the profundity of the human mind, for the sacred act of creation.” It’s all a little unnerving, but Tara is not frightened for long. “For the first time since arriving at Corbin, or maybe for the first time ever, I don’t feel alone,” she thinks. “I feel tethered to these people, these strangers, as if they were my own kin.”

Tara soon learns that the opportunities Magni Viri provides are part of their own Faustian bargain. Up until this point, All That Consumes Us takes place in a world no different than our own. After Tara’s initiation, however, Waters slowly introduces sinister, mystical elements.

At first, it seems to Tara that those in Magni Viri are haunted only by sleep deprivation and poor self-care, forgoing meals to spend hours at the piano or in the robotics lab. But as time goes on, Tara’s own sense of self withers, and her writing undergoes an inexplicable metamorphosis; each day she wakes to new pages she cannot remember writing, and the face she sees in the mirror is beginning to look nothing like her own. Only then do the whispers and furtive glances of her new friends begin to make sense.

Still, Tara feels obligated to make the most of the chance she was given. “Magni Viri is a dream waiting to wrap you in cobwebs if you let it,” she says. “Perhaps, I realize, I should let it. Maybe that’s the way to succeed here. You have to give all, everything.” And, like many students who come from marginalized backgrounds, Tara also does not feel she has the right to complain. This is the feeling of defenselessness Magni Viri engenders and feeds on. And in this society, not only do alumni’s finances keep you in a gilded cage, but so do their dreams, talents, and obsessions. So do their minds.

As Tara and a team of allies garner the courage to fight these invisible, malicious phantom forces, All That Consumes Us becomes a gothic coming-of-age story about the power of self-advocacy and friendship to erode the archaic barriers and entrenched abuses. “The heart of Magni Viri is death and rot, like so many institutions,” Tara realizes. And resurrection always comes at a price.

An Unwilling Vessel

Bianca Sass, a Nashville native, is a writer, director, and scholar whose work probes the intersection of the personal and the political. She’s a recent graduate of Amherst College, where she majored in English and law, jurisprudence, and social thought, as well as wrote and directed many theatrical productions. In 2023, Bianca workshopped her new play, Babydoll, at the Looby Theater in Nashville. She’s currently a teaching assistant at the Mary Lyon Upper School in Boston.

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