I’ll never forget the moment a friend of mine asked a precarious but well-meaning question out loud to a few women in our gang.
“Does it ever feel like a completely morbid existence to be a woman?”
It was such a frank, piercing query that we all went quiet. I froze, afraid his honest question might be interpreted as sexist, that we might have a circular, clawing debate on our hands. Until both girls looked at each other, took thoughtful pause, and replied:
“Yes. Yes, it sure does.”
Which is why the female perspective in horror will never lose its vitality, and perhaps why women seem to be currently owning the horror genre – or at least, giving us a real good bitchslap to the direction it’s headed.
Graveyard Smash: Women of Horror Anthology Vol. 2 is a fine example – an ambitious international 22-author collection brought to us by Kandisha Press, who gave us last year’s Vol. 1 “Under Her Black Wings” and are currently working on a third installment.
After reading the list of authors on the back, I did something I rarely do – I skipped ahead before reading the initial offering, because I saw that V. Castro was in there and I couldn’t help reading her story first. Castro is a stylish, unrelenting Latinx horror scribe of the highest order, whose stories often exhume traditional Mexican myths to updated scenarios. Her rapturous bait/switch “Templo Mayor” here is no exception. Absolutely looking forward to her upcoming novel “Goddess of Filth” in 2021.
Back to the beginning – and “Holes” by R.A. Rusby might be the most haunting one in here. A great example of how horror is evolving, “Holes” tackles the rarely diagnosed trypophobia – the fear of holes. It takes over our first person into obsessive/compulsive depths, ending with a refrain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that may disable you from seeing the world the same ever again.
J.A.W. McCarthy’s “Until There’s Nothing Left” is an exorcise in mourning and reluctant re-birth, where a young girl discovers her hidden power of raising the dead. She brings her grandma back to life, only to have the relationship devolve beyond co-dependency. The woods assume its very own character here – from the sacred anonymity where teenagers drink and fuck to the full-circle final exit of her eldest matriarch.
Humor can be a difficult thing to pull off in horror without over-lightening it to a goofy antithesis of itself. But Catherine McCarthy’s “Two’s Company, Three’s A Shroud” shows us how it’s done in an admirably obnoxious frayed-nerve fashion. A shortage of burial space in Wales has reached crisis point, where it becomes custom to bury coffins on top of one another. See what happens when a Welshman, an Englishman, and an Irishman become something akin to drunken roommates with no way to evict one another.
“Smash and Grab” by Demi-Louise Blackman is my far the most noir of the bunch, starting with a robbery – a narrative doused in streetlights and paranoia extinguished in the grave.
The imaginative and ultra-sinister “Clockmaker” by Sonora Taylor cuts deep. It weaves a tale of a niche craftsman who specializes in a common yet difficult to retrieve material, even though it’s right under our own flesh and blood.
Pulling up a barstool to “Love You To Death” by Yolanda Sftesos, we find ourselves in a suffocating yet nudge-wink night in Purgatory’s dankest watering hole, Hades. The drinkers here are of mythical proportions (Hades himself, Dea, Persephone, Destiny – you get where this is going), engaging in some high meets low-brow dialogue (imagine The Seventh Seal meets Pulp Fiction) like being trapped in a conversation with a college dorm roommate. For the record, I’ve had much worse roommates…
“The Crumbling Grave” by Cassidy Frost successfully tapped into one of my worst fears: returning to homelessness. The story reminds the reader how slippery of a slope the construct of “stability” can be. The plot is a circular morality tale, a role-reversal hinging on a deadly proposition. Depending on your standards, even a cemetery can be a sufficient enough place to hang your hat – and if you can be comfy under a grave, you can be comfy anywhere.
For anyone who ever acclimated to the invasive racket of the cicada drone like I did growing up in the midwest, Michelle Renee Lane’s “Cicada Song” will be a welcomed atonal tale. A stomach-churning sibling rivalry turns Son of Sam. Desperate, delusional, and absolutely deadly – it’s one of the more unsettling stories in here.
Carmen Baca tackles the mixed-blessing of another kid with supernatural powers in her story “The Child.” While a child may not know the complete concept of consequence, Atla assumes the role with dignity and gut-level morality, falling in line with generations of goddesses.
Beverly Lee’s “Roll of the Dice” returns us to Purgatory, but one like we’ve never seen before. Another “gifted” child acts as a synapse between good and evil, proving fate works on amoral fuel.
As fantastic as this collection is, I’d also like to point out the inherent gamble of any publisher who releases an anthology of this length and quantity of authors. A blessing and curse, when most of these stories are so brilliantly fleshed-out that they cast such dark shadows that made the lesser ones disappear. A handful of these stories came across more as glorified outlines of what could have been conceptually amazing pieces. But since they were chosen to be included with more accomplished authors, their inconsistencies proved glaring on the curve. Some may have been better suited to relay orally as a spooky campfire tale, considering campfire stories are tend to be more “tell don’t show” and rarely require the depth of dialogue.
But we are in the business of selling books here, people, so I’ll do my best to find merit in the lesser ones. There was a story so one-dimensional and stiff, especially with the dialogue, that it was humorous – maybe there’s a sub-genre future in B-horror fiction the way there’s a following for B-horror movies? Another couple of stories that fell short actually stung me as an ex-goth drug addict. For someone not easily offended, I was fraught with its gross misrepresentation – which, as a straight white male who is often challenged when writing “the other,” I was thankful for. In other words, these couple stories were backhanded blessings to me, as I got to feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes who might belong to a more legitimately marginalized group.
But the book ramps up again with Tracey Fahey’s “Graveyard of The Lost,” a brilliant half-epistolary tale (I’m a huge fan of this format), a field-study of strange happenings in an Irish cemetery. Fahey’s command of language is absolute ambrosia, adding an adrenalized Lovecraftian drama to this unique diary of the damned.
“Thirty Questions” by Dawn DeBraal is a clever hit and run tale that breathes new life into the usually eye-rolling Ouija board trope, mixing the macabre with a drunken unsolved mystery, slipping in a surprise ending you never saw coming.
Where so many miss the mark on the horror of being a teenager, “The Invitation” by Janine Pipe nails it. An annual elite keg party in a cemetery (they call the shindig Graveyard Smash, natch) cause teen hormones to create a precarious atmosphere where mortal boundaries are pushed. Without giving away the reveal, fans of 80s teenage vampire flick Lost Boys should love this one.
Kandisha clearly saved the best for last with Ally Pierce’s “Atmosphere.” It’s an educated guess she named it after the Joy Division tune considering the story is riddled with specific post-punk references (“… this was like the synth on ‘Atmosphere’”) and Pierce knows her shit in this department – she didn’t just sprinkle them in there haphazardly. A reporter visits a dank old brewery in Leeds to do a story on the brewhouse’s flagship beer called… get this: Graveyard Smash. I don’t think I have to mention there’s going to be one or more special ingredients in these suds. For one of the longest stories in the collection, it’s a wonderful slow burn where you can feel the claustrophobia of uncertainty while the twisted dialogue propels it forward. You hear the churning industry at work behind all the paranoid speculation as they wonder if they’re short of breath due to temperature or if there’s a Co2 leak or…
Overall, this collection is a deeply puncturing thorn in the side of a male monopolized genre – I would further argue there’s some stories in here a man could never dream up. Because there’s something about a woman’s touch in horror – a deceptive softness, the cracking veneer of the matriarch – that reminds us how foolish it is to get too comfortable, that our confidence is only as strong as who we find ourselves next to.