The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women edited by Cin Ferguson and Broos Campbell
The Monstrous Feminine is the perfect example of why I love horror. And why I am compelled to write horror, myself.
In reading this book, I suddenly felt that I was handed not just the one sister I have always wished for, but fourteen of them. Like Anne Shirley when she finally found the “kindred spirit” she’d been longing for (who else was a little sad when she “grew up”?). Of course, I’m an introvert, so I’ll just quietly sign up for these authors’ newsletters and read their words at a distance. (I’m fast becoming a fan of Michelle Renee Lane, as you may have guessed from my earlier review here on Madness Heart Press of her book Invisible Chains.)
The language Jay Wilburn uses in his short stories snakes around you in a quiet way and you don’t even realize you are discomfited until you recognize there’s a chill crawling across your skin and up the back of your neck.
And your stomach feels a little queasy like you just ate a whole bag of potato chips in one sitting. With a whole container of dip. (Which I fully intend to also do at some point during this lockdown!)
But, back to the stories, it’s like someone reading you the story instead of you reading the words on the page. I can hear the voice and the inflection and holy crap I can still hear the phrase “…and he will not have it…” and even in typing this my skin prickles in that way I know some of you may experience, too, when you read the full sentence in context.
Be prepared; these atmospheric stories bring laughs as well as that sensation where your nose turns red with the oh no don’t you dare cry feeling.
So, yes, I liked most of these stories: “Wow” to the “End of the Season” story and “Ah ha, ya ol’ bastard” to the “Back In” story and that twist that hits you almost right away in the story “Still” and boy did “The Last Surgery of Doctor Frost” freak me out in a way that few stories ever have, with the exception of a certain scene from a Poul Anderson…well, I can’t even remember whether it was a story or part of a novel…that I read when I was a kid. Those who know me well would be impressed that I even finished Wilburn’s story. Wilburn’s story totally gave me the creeps! (I haven’t been able to read Anderson’s work since, not even as an adult, after that one scene. And, no, I’m not going to repeat the scene here, but, trust me, if you’re an ailurophile, you don’t wanna know. Even if it was purely fiction.)
And I loved…LOVED…the “Curse of Light and Smoke” even though stories of a certain cryptozoology character have not yet put their mythic spell hooks in me. Probably because I’m a huge fan of the original, unadulterated creature that spawned the “myth” and it somehow feels sacrilegious.
The only story that left me in the dust was “Seersucker Motherfucker”. I’ll have to read it again when I’m able to get a print copy (if there is one available) but this tale just didn’t seem to have that same darkly evocative yet authentic and polished feel as the rest of the collection. It left me a little confused and definitely not hooked in the same way the other stories did. It felt more Wild West shoot-‘em-up rather than in the Southern U.S. bygone-ish culture I think it was supposed to be set in, and it didn’t really work for this born-and-raised/tenth- and eleventh- generation Southern gal. (For the record, I’m a bleeding-heart liberal leftist Democrat/Green Party/Independent voter and a feminist, environmentalist, and animal rights activist; whose ancestors on the paternal side are probably turning over in their graves.)
I love, and miss, the ocean terribly out here in the desert. So a book set by the ocean held great appeal, despite the pangs it brought by way of a geographic homesickness. And then to discover that the book revolved around the theme of cryptozoology? With a kraken at the deep heart of the story? (I love octopi. Octopuses, I’m told it’s spelled now.) Naturally, I was keen to begin reading The Kraken of Cape Madre as soon as possible.
Gettin’ Burned: A Review of Rope Burns: An Anthology of Erotic Horror (review by Willow Croft)
(Please take note that there may be spoilers ahead)
I have a confession.
I think this may be my first erotic horror anthology I’ve ever read. Well, unless you count reading V.C. Andrews when I was eleven or so. (Gotta love the trips to Grandma’s house, where I could raid her library!)
And, in reading this, I realized I wrote a erotic horror short story back when I was an undergrad–one that my teacher had a hard time reading.
As a result, I was very keen to read Rope Burns.
It opened with the novelette Chinara, which had all things deliciously dark–multi-spiritual modern day coven, sacrifice, sex, and one very pissed-off momma.
I also liked having one of the main characters be in gender transition–I think this heightened the erotic part of the story for myself.
For me, though, the highlight of the story was the last few pages with the mother-turned-demon, especially the ending. That’s when I felt the authors’ writing really had a chance to shine. For the first three-fourths of the story, I think the writing could have been tightened up and the story condensed to make both the horror and the erotica have a more powerful effect on the reader’s mind and body.
“Ministrations” was a delightfully humorous story: who doesn’t love reading about the tables being bloodily turned on a creepy stalker? Over and over again, mind you, like multiple organisms tucked in among all the chuckle-inducing twists.
In “Breathless,” a young girl’s peanut allergy introduces her to the darker side of sexual pleasure with a lovely chilling climax to end the story. I thought it was innovative to build a story around that feature of modern-day life–a world where everyone (including me) seems to be allergic to almost everything civilization has given us.
I think the thing that I love about erotica the most (and, now, erotic horror) is the imagination that goes into it. It’s like Y.A.–Harry Potter–for adults. More than the kink, more than the horror and shock value, it’s how creative the stories are, including the ones in this anthology.
They were such fun reads that it was hard to pick favorites, even. But some of the ones I’d like to reread were “My Doll Likes to Eat” and “Corbet and DeSade Compare Notes in Hell,” but “NSFW” was great, too—goodness, I give up. They’re all worth reading. And it’s nice to have a laugh, in addition to the more obvious draws of the erotic horror genre.
I should have hated “Ghost Music,” the first story in the Engines of Ruin collection by Lucas Mangum. I wanted to.
It brought back so many conflicting memories from my childhood/teenage years.
I grew up surrounded by people that were very similar to the main character and his friends. It was the 80s—and it seemed that those “super-cool” social misfits had it all—music, friends, adventures, passion. I was just a regular, boring, nerdy misfit—nothing cool about me. And, as much as I loved the subculture scenes that surrounded goth and punk, of which I became part of myself in the early 90s, my first experiences with it were also ugly and frightening. I was both drawn to it and in love with the scene, and I hated it at the same time.
But once I got past that faintly nauseating, skin-crawling, too-many-memories-coming-at-you-at-once feeling I had when I started reading this story, I experienced something else.
I felt a new sort of darkness take over, replacing this muddled mess of blackness I’m existing in right now.
I felt clean. Centered. In control, even though I could still feel that skin-crawling, nauseous sensation nibbling at the edges of my mind.
I realized (remembered, actually) that’s what’s so valuable about horror.
There’s tons written about how horror can bring you face to face with the things that most terrify you, but it’s what becomes written psychologically through real-life horrors that’s most terrifying. The things that aren’t even that scary on the surface stay with you, for years.
Even into middle age, sometimes without you even knowing they are there.
And, when I read this story, it reminded me of the way that horror can became healing. It quieted those complicated memories from my love/hate relationship with the subculture scenes of the 80s and 90s. I felt closure. Ironically, even Mangum incorporates closure into one of his stories, later on.
And the story “Ghost Music,” perhaps also oddly enough, provided a sort of redemption. A release from my past, just like the main character was released from his, in a manner of speaking.
I’m glad that “Ghost Music” came first—then I could read the rest of the stories with delight and even laughter, as I usually do with horror.
I laughed my way through “Hell and Back”—such a darkly comic romp.
And “Our Lady of the Sea?” It might as well be subtitled “The life of every writer”—especially when our worlds on paper become so immersive and emotionally demanding, and it’s hard to face the real world. Unfortunately, I was thrown out of the story a little by the type of animal used for the purported sacrifice. It didn’t seem to fit who they were sacrificing it to, or why, given that the animal chosen seems to be symbol of Christianity, and this church is something else entirely. Also, the whole story talks about how it’s winter, and blizzarding, and, although I’m not a farmer or rancher, it doesn’t make sense from that perspective, either. Generally, baby animals are born in the spring. Or so I thought.
But then there was the story “Worlds Colliding” to draw me back into the book. I’m not even going to give away any spoilers on this one…it’s just awesome. Even more delightful was the twist at the end of “Worm Magic.” That one I read more than once, just for the ending.
A couple of times, his female characters crossed over into something too stereotypical and cliché for my tastes, like in “The World Asunder” and “A Killing Back Home,” but I thought it was interesting to have the character of Percy appear in the story “A Killing Back Home,” as a child who is mentioned as being somewhere on the autism spectrum.
But I had Fern to make up for some of the too-typical women characters—Fern, in “Waters of Ruin”; whom I’ll liken to a modern, all-grown-up version of that other notable Fern I also loved in the classic Charlotte’s Web. Fern who breaks down doors to save the one she loves.
It was a lingering, and perfect, finish to the Engines of Ruin collection.
I’m looking forward to reading more from Lucas Mangum, and his demons he’s shared with his readers (the ones he refers to in his closing essay, “The Last Easy Rider.”)
This book is for the kids who wished for that one special friend.
Some friend who wasn’t imaginary, but different enough as to seem to be from another world.
A magic world.
A world deep under the sea.
Or even from a world way out in space.
It didn’t matter where.
Only in finding that one true friend who taught them they weren’t alone in this world. And this little void inside that whispered to them they would never fit in; never find a place in this world, would be filled. Filled with love.
And that friend would show them that even this boring too-real world could still hold mysteries and miracles, and a safe place where kindness would win out over cruelty and hate.
In that light, the Old One and the Sea reminded me of what it was to be that kid. It took me right back to a time when the world was confusing and scary and so, so lonely; a place where only my imagination made this world bearable and filled with impossible possibilities.
But, unlike me, and so many other once-children out there, this kid—Howie is his name—discovers the impossible is real when the stars have changed.
And through those fantastical moments spent with what the majority of the world sees as a monster, he is given a gift. The gift of who Howie is meant to be. And while Howie is protecting the monster with his words, his mother Sarah is protecting and nourishing Howie’s newfound gift with her own version of love and kindness.
And that’s enough to break the reader’s heart with the memory of that little hope for something more in this world.
And it’s my hope, now, the children that read this tale will hold onto their own dream of magic made real, with all their love and heart and soul.
Before it’s too late for them, and this world.
Until then, I’m going to recommend Jones’ The Old One and the Sea to everyone I know at/from the day job: fellow teachers, students’ parents, school librarians.