In the last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends about this book. I think: What’s it about? is most writer’s nightmare question. How do you distill the frantic miasma of words and concepts and chattering people who won’t shut up that have been living in your brain for the last year (or five) into a nice easy conversation piece? This goes double, I think, for a short story collection, which by its nature is about, well, a lot of things. Seven different things, to be precise, all loosely connected by one vague thread. It’s about transformation, I usually say.
Transformation of what, though?
Some of it is metaphorical, and some of it is literal, but all of the book is about change. It’s that literal part that sticks, though. Because what does that mean? Well, sometimes it means body horror.
I’ve struggled to really discuss this book without the word horror. I don’t think it’s horrifying in a traditional sense, and it’s definitely not the gothic romance I think a lot of people associate with darker female-focused narratives, though I do swirl quotes from Wuthering Heights and Rebecca around in my mind pretty regularly. But there IS horror threaded throughout this book, unease and change, some blood and feathers and teeth. The thing is, I love horror, but I also want to wrestle with it. I love stories about hungry women, tragic monsters and gleeful ones, too. But horror does still have a tendency to punish the guilty, or the tragic, particularly when it comes to women. We can revel in her momentary, righteous depravity, but Nancy still ends up in a straight jacket in The Craft, and Jennifer gets a knife to the heart in Jennifer’s Body; Carrie lies dead, still dripping pig’s blood, and Ginger doesn’t survive her snapping. I love these movies, and the women they cradle, bloody and furious and strange, but I do ache for a softer resolution. Maybe that’s a naive thing to ask of horror, but I didn’t say it had to be good for anyone but them. Let her be hungry. Let her be bad. Let her live past the end of her story.
This summer, as I was editing the stories in this collection, I was also going regularly to the iconic, irreverent and beloved Prince Charles cinema in London, watching old horror movies with one of my best friends. Suspiria (1977), The Shining, and the VVitch all watched in quick succession, as I tried to polish these stories to a gleaming, steely shine. All of them have a simmering female presence, Suzie’s childish curiosity, Wendy’s frenetic survivalism (relationship litmus test: don’t trust anyone who thinks Shelley Duvall is doing anything but absolutely slaughtering this role, she is the movie’s bloody heart and I will hear no bad word said about her), and finally Thomasin’s exhaultation, submitting to the madness and taking some of it back for herself. They aren’t perfect movies, and parts certainly frustrate me, but I can’t say the delirium of fear and brutality and, yes, horror, didn’t consume me. I could feel their influence breathing hotly down my throat as I sharpened lines in the book. I pushed a little harder, indulged some more in the dark.
Horror is an underrated genre. It allows for the exploration of our basest desires, it feeds the fear that evolution drummed into us and provides an outlet. Some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking and meaningful stories come from those gorey depths. I hope, even though it’s not me at my bloodiest and harsh, the spirit of my adulation bleeds through. Maybe horror is a love letter to humanity, and maybe hidden in these stories is a love letter, too.
LISTEN: I am a spooky playlist making connoisseur, and of these, my favourite is my werewolf playlist (the beast you made of me) full of sharp teeth and hunger pangs, but for general artist recommendations, Chelsea Wolfe, Cocorosie, Suzie and the Banshees, Militia Vox are always unsettling in the best way. And for a specific, The Shining themed rec, Get Out Of My House by Kate Bush haunts me beautifully.
READ: The House of Psychotic Women is filled with essays on some rare, female-focused horror gems. My cinema buddy let me leaf through her copy (ticking off every one I’d seen, of course) and it’s such a beautiful book it’s worth it just to look at, but I can’t wait to fully devour it. Julia Armfield’s essay On Horror and the Female Body is great, too. (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/81363-on-body-horror-the-female-body.html). Not to mention Hairy On The Inside by Amanda Lehr (https://audacity.substack.com/p/hairy-on-the-inside-by-amanda-lehr), who talks about body horror as it relates to chronic illness, and which runs around in my head like an excitable puppy.
WATCH: In addition to the films already mentioned throughout this letter, if you’re inclined towards the macabre, I recommend RAW (2017), and I’d be betraying myself if I didn’t give a nod to Hannibal (2013)
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