Christa Carmen shares her Ten Short Stories by Women in Horror You Need To Read.

Christa Carmen is a writer of dark fiction, and her short stories have appeared in places like Fireside Fiction Company, Unnerving Magazine, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, DarkFuse Magazine, and Tales to Terrify, to name a few. She has additional work forthcoming from Lycan Valley Press Publications’ all-female horror anthology, Dark Voices, and her debut fiction collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, will be released in August 2018 by Unnerving.

Christa lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and their ten-year-old bluetick beagle, Maya. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology, and she’s currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard Extension School. Christa works at a pharmaceutical company as a Research & Development Packaging Coordinator, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician. When she’s not writing, she is volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.

Join me as I present ten stories by #WIH I have come across in the recent past and that you need to read, having scored them using the following ‘Macabre Meter’:

  • Compelling protagonist
  • Palpable horror
  • Gut-wrenching storyline
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque
  • Gorgeous prose

Be warned…like ghosts, madness, Death with a capital ‘D,’ and despair, spoilers abound, and all the views expressed within this post, including subjective analyses of the stories, and the explorations of the themes within, are my own.

10) “Heirloom,” Brooke Warra

I met Ms. Warra at Readercon 29 this past July, and discovered that she’d contributed to Justin Steele and Sam Cowan’s Shirley Jackson award-nominated anthology, Looming Low, when I had the privilege of sitting with her at that very awards ceremony. While Looming Low did not take home the Edited Anthology prize, I was intrigued enough by the buzz surrounding the book, and by Brooke’s explanation of the genesis of her piece, to scoop up the Kindle edition of Looming Low upon returning home from Quincy. After reading “Heirloom” (as well as Damien Angelica Walters’ contribution, “This Unquiet Space,” which is unsurprisingly fabulous), Looming Low officially usurped the top spot of my TBR pile.

Heirloom” succeeds in forcing the reader to feel the love and connection between the twin sisters at its center, to experience aspects of their relationship that are as lush and wild as a rose garden, but also to wallow in those parts that are more difficult to examine, the ones that have taken root in a pit of heady soil rife with squirming, sightless worms. Warra’s story works so well on the basis of the beautiful grotesque precisely because the author refuses to shy away from the blunt and biting reality of who both sisters really are, and recognizes that, while the reader may recoil from the words upon the page, the beauty is in those details that are sometimes uglier than we’d care to contemplate.

Those details include things like the “warped, craggy body,” of Louise at birth, the “red welts bubbling up and bursting” from the protagonist’s palms, the drug dens where scores of addicts—where Louise—are nodding off with track marks oozing up their arms. Even Louise’s self-portraits are a study in horror: “gaping mouths full of jagged teeth,” “drooping eyes watching,” an image of “Louise with two heads, thorny branches crawling from her open mouths, rose-buds blooming from her eyes.”

Grotesquery is on full display in “Heirloom,” but so too is beauty, truth, and love. The prose is so visceral, the storyline so heartbreaking, that you should not be surprised to find yourself tearing up at the plight of these ill-fated twins. Do what is necessary to keep those tears from spilling over, however, as any water, no matter the salt content, puts you at risk of nurturing the petals that Warra’s work will cause to bloom and burst from your mouth.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 7
  • Palpable horror: 6
  • Gut-wrenching storyline:7
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 7

Total: 34

9) “Ritual of the Gorgon,” Larissa Glasser

I had been looking forward to reading Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath, since its release, but was in the midst of a (marginally successful) attempt to curb my book buying in a year that would see me attend Borderlands Boot Camp, StokerCon, Readercon, and NECON. I held out right up until meeting Larissa Glasser at NECON 38, where she told me a bit about her contribution to the uniquely-themed and well-regarded anthology.

Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Edge”—the last piece Plath penned before her death in 1963—the lines, “The illusion of a Greek necessity / Flows in the scrolls of her toga,” gave Glasser the idea to tie Gorgons into her story of two trans girls hopelessly in love. Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” brought to mind a love that could endure beyond so-called death, and so Glasser wrote her star-crossed lovers to persevere in their own distinctive way: although they are frozen in time, they are frozen in time together, and can therefore be with each other for an eternity.

With its skillfully conceptualized structure, fierce language, and scenes of tragedy and transformation, “Ritual of the Gorgon” oftentimes elicits such emotion that it can feel like reading something meant for the screen. Of our injured protagonist, I could picture “the blood pooled beneath her” vividly, the “verdigris scaled consistency of the skin along her abdomen.” The medics step back just before “her eyes brighten and transform,” and I thought, if Tragedy Queens became a Netflix original series, wouldn’t “Ritual of the Gorgon” make for a great first episode?

There were many instances in which I found myself rereading a paragraph in appreciation of Glasser’s prose, but this sentence in particular stuck out as a real hot-fudge-and-cherry-topped-sundae in an ice cream parlor full of treats: “The scales along her own belly illuminate in kind as ancient energy of the monstrous, of truth, and of thirst for belonging in a shite world that hunts monsters rise between them in a mist of glitter.” Read this story… become one with Glasser’s rituals.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 8
  • Palpable horror: 6
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 7
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 7

Total: 35

8) “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Jessica McHugh

Jessica McHugh’s work is always a blast, always original, and never ends up where you expect it to. “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday” is—according to an interview with the author conducted by the Wicked Library, which aired the story on Episode 813 of their podcast—McHugh’s response to wanting to write a story based on music by The Monkees. If that’s not a fun backstory to a piece of short fiction, and an account worthy of the wild and wacky #McHughniverse, then I don’t know what is.

Not only does “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday” successfully capture the mad, cheerful banality of the eponymous Monkees’ tune, but traversing down McHugh’s version of Pleasant Valley Way is a crazy, Children-of-the-Corn-meets-the-Stepford-Wives-on-acid road trip, with everything from customized robotic sex slaves to an evil child à la Damien Thorn, who will infiltrate your brain to personalize your Hell. And that’s before you’ve met Richie’s creepy-ass father.

The tale encompasses tried-and-true horror tropes (evil kids, broken down cars, etc.), but there are more than enough twists to keep these tropes feeling fresh and exciting, and the fact that the story ends much as it begins, with a lost traveler pulling over to converse with Richie, and being sent, innocently enough, down the road to relax while her truck is fixed, and to indulge in one of Mr. Squire’s burgers, instills the reader with the sensation that they’re listening to an old record over which the needle is skipping. No one seems to care that it’s another Pleasant Valley Sunday, charcoal burning everywhere, rows of houses that are all the same…

I listened to “Pleasant Valley” upon finishing The Maiden Voyage and Other Departures, McHugh’s collection of beepunk alternate history recently published by Unnerving, and the juxtaposition perfectly highlighted McHugh’s ability to shift gears within the same form, and to deliver interesting, creepy, bizarro stories in a wide variety of subgenres.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 7
  • Palpable horror: 8
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 7
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 7

Total: 36

7) “Because of Their Different Deaths,” Stephanie M. Wytovich

While deciding on the short stories to write about for this post, a creepy or compelling tale would extricate itself from the stores of my memory—either something I’d read recently or in the not-too-distant past, and that I wished to share with the rest of the horror community—and I’d add it to the list. But in the case of Stephanie M. Wytovich, when considering the vast and impressive scope of her literary canon, I vacillated over which singular piece of the Bram Stoker award-winning author’s I should feature.

Poetry collections Brothel, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, and Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare all presented themselves as valid points from which to start. Then there’s Wytovich’s short fiction series, Inside the Skin Boutique, which DarkFuse Magazine had been publishing prior to their subsequent closing. Finally, since I was already perusing Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey & Sylvia Plath, thanks to Larissa Glasser, I skipped to the end to check out, “Because of Their Different Deaths.” With this one story, my journey through Wytovich’s world, through bordellos and asylums, grief and ghosts, heaven and hell, was complete.

There are many reasons why I enjoy this story as much as I do, not least of all that I love ‘deal with the devil’ yarns, especially when an author plays with the trope by making said deal shifty, twisty, and ultimately unrecognizable from the original bargain the reader believes to have been wrought. I love witchy stories in general, and ones that seem to recognize their own morbidness and raise the stakes, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, until the reader finds themselves on unhallowed ground, where children are devoured and long-taloned hags fulfill nefarious new duties, are particularly satisfying. Finally, I love Stephanie Wytovich’s brutal, beatific prose:

‘ “Woodwork, Woodwork, Satan’s little witch.

Fetch me a girl, now, fetch me a bitch.

Momma says you’re evil, Daddy said your dead.

Woodwork, Woodwork, soon we’ll have your head.”

No, no, no, no, no. Inside, Helena woke, her screams the rival of every blood song and murder ballad. She tore of out the house in a rage, her hooked claws scraping against the woods of the front door and porch. Astrid was waiting for her, a silent sentinel in the shadows.’

If I’m sticking with the idea of Tragedy Queens being adapted for the screen, “Because of Their Different Deaths” would be Robert Eggers’ The VVitch meets Andrés Muschietti’s Mama. With that being said, don’t go in expecting something you’ve seen before, for Wytovich delivers a wholly original spin on those cauldron-stirring, spell-casting women we lovers of the macabre never tire of.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 6
  • Palpable horror: 8
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 7
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 8
  • Gorgeous prose: 9

Total: 38

6) “Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion),” Damien Angelica Walters

Every piece of short fiction from Damien Angelica Walters’ debut collection, Sing Me Your Scars, is a must-read, but upon completion of “Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion),” originally published in Interzone in 2013, I knew I had just read one of those stories that would stick with me for a long, long time, one that I would reread at various intervals, such as Joe Hill’s “Pop Art,” Roxane Gay’s “I Will Follow You,” Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

I reread “The Last Illusion” in order to complete the write-up for this post, for it had been several years since I first experienced Walters’ tale about a father who strives to make his fatally ill daughter’s last days free from worry over the war-ravaged Lithuania outside their walls. Maya Angelou’s maxim that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel applies here, because while the specific plot points of “Paskutinis Iliuzija” had escaped me, I knew that I was heading toward an emotional gut-punch of an ending, and that knowledge heightened the beauty of Andrius and Laurita Kavalauskas’ relationship, infusing every ‘I love you,’ every offer of an enchanted bedtime story, with new and painful poignancy.

It is possible to mistake this story for one that would best be labeled fantasy; there is magic, one can argue, and mythology and mayhem and mermaids. The horror of “The Last Illusion,” is quiet horror—the enemy is removed, at least for a time, from the sanctuary of Andrius and Laurita’s apartment, and we are not made privy to the fate of Laurita’s mother, Saulė. But Walters will not let you slip from the pages of her story quietly, and before you depart from beside Laurita’s sickbed, she will raise the volume of this heretofore quiet story dramatically.

You will hear the blood rush behind your temples, perceive the surge of the water that has carried Laurita away, until finally, your ears will fill with the wordless scream that drowns everything else away, a cry of remorse, as the gun is pressed to Andrius’ head, for the way things had to be.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 8
  • Palpable horror: 7
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 9
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 41

5) “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends,” Gwendolyn Kiste

Published in Issue #58 (May-June 2017), of Black Static, Gwendolyn Kiste’s “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends,” isn’t just the most interestingly titled story ever, but a striking exploration of the nature of grief, and the options we are left with when that grief won’t allow us to move on.

In an interview with The Witch Haunt’s Gaby Triana, Kiste named “Songs to Help You Cope…” as the piece she’s most proud of, but admitted that the story’s time period presented its own set of challenges.

While the years I spent partying with friends, endeavoring to remain quiet enough not to wake my family despite the stereo pumping and friends trekking back and forth to the bathroom, the fridge, the back deck for cigarettes, would have been the early 2000s, Kiste’s 1970s setting feels utterly authentic. In fact, similar to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the story feels dream-like and untethered to one particular time or place, the songs—while representative of the years in which they were released—timeless enough to allow the story to exist wherever it makes the most sense in a reader’s head.

And those songs serve the story well in their timelessness, as they are the soundtrack to tragedy, a blueprint to overcoming despair. Leigh won’t wake her mother up no matter how loud she plays her music, no matter the noise she makes vomiting all over the couch or shattering bottles on the rec room floor. Leigh’s mother is dead, and Gwendolyn Kiste has created the ultimate playlist for every stage of grief.

Still reeling from the blow of burying your mother during a January ice storm? Try a little Bowie on for size. Unsure how to navigate the landscape that is your new family of three? There’s a Zeppelin song for that. Angry to the point where you’re unable to see reason? Blast Pink Floyd until you blow out your speakers. Springsteen and the Carpenters and Iggy Pop will round out the rest of your emotional roller coaster ride. When your mother’s ghost finally moves on, you, too, will be ready to embark on the next stage of your life. Gwendolyn Kiste probably has a story for that too.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 9
  • Palpable horror: 7
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 9
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 42

4) “The Five Stages of Grief,” Nadia Bulkin

Similar in subject matter to Kiste’s “How to Cope…,” “The Five Stages of Grief” is a story about death and moving on, but in this case, it is the family who refuses to let their ghost go, not the ghost who chooses to stick around, ensuring the well-being of her family.

Bulkin’s story is both gut-wrenching and terrifying, the characters beautifully rendered with just a few expert strokes. The main character is torn between countless conflicting feelings, love for her sister, fear and disgust for the creature she has become, loyalty to family tradition, grief and embarrassment at what those traditions force them to endure, and hurt that her parents are willing to sacrifice the well-being of their two living children for their long-suffering dead one.

The apex of this emotional hurricane occurs on the eve of a Bleeder Storm. The protagonist, realizing that she and her younger brother, Micah, merely exist in a house dominated by their sister, Matilda’s malignant presence, decide to go to the playground Molly and Matilda used to frequent. As she pushes Micah on the swings, the storm moves in and threatens to break, and Molly and Micah must rush home before they can be overcome.

Back inside, Matilda’s fate becomes clear, and her fulfillment of that fate drives the last of the looming horror home. The end of her sister’s protracted purgatory brings Molly a measure of relief, since after seven years, she, Micah, and their mother and father will get to move onto the second stage of grief (and yes, I believe their refusal to let Matilda move on kept the family stagnant, stuck at the first stage, unable to break free).

Matilda, too, will get to grieve for the little girl she once had been. That she’d been tethered to earth for the same amount of years as she had been alive upon it was a travesty, and Molly had always known this, felt it in her bones. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance depict the ways that grief can alter our reality. In the end, it’s good to be granted a glimpse of the moment things shift, and a new, perhaps equally difficult, but new all the same, stage can finally commence.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 9
  • Palpable horror: 8
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 9
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 43

3) “You Can Stay All Day,” Mira Grant

It is business as usual for Mira Grant—who also publishes the dark and whimsical ‘Wayward Children’ series under the name Seanan McGuire—to have a story in a Best Horror of the Year anthology (in this case, Volume 10). That the story in question is hard-hitting and dread-inspiring—that it plays with a familiar trope in new and exciting ways— is likewise unsurprising.

You Can Stay All Day” is a story, partly, about zombies, and there are certainly elements of the zombie subgenre that Grant adheres to. But where she strays, she strays fast and far, placing the animalistic nature of man alongside the captivity of wild animals, and exploring what happens when this division disintegrates.

In 2017, the M. Night Shyamalan film, Split, attempted to portray a man whose fractured psyche resulted in a vicious and beastlike persona, a persona that came to fruition in the bowels of the Philadelphia Zoo. Shyamalan, in my opinion, failed to highlight the abomination of dwindling humanity, the breakdown of basic social connection, and the paradox of the moment when an apex predator comes face to face with an animal weaker than it, but that it has reason to relate to.

In the case of Split, the Beast relates to the captive Casey in that he sees his own scars and history of abuse mirrored back at him, but I find that this scene pales in comparison to the conclusion of “You Can Stay All Day, and the instant in which the captive tigers come face to face with their handler, watch her open their cages and grant them their freedom, and smelling death on her, turn and walk away.

Grant’s prose jumps off the page; the promising morning, the smell of concession stand popcorn, and the tinkly calliope of the carousel music only heightening the horror of the living dead who now roam the earth. She paints Cassandra and her co-workers in convincing and relatable shades, rather than setting out to achieve her objectives by relying on hackneyed stereotypes and the misrepresentation of mental illness. Skip Split, and stay all day with Grant’s zombie apocalypse.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 9
  • Palpable horror: 9
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 9
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 7
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 44

2) “The Lazarus Bride,” Gwendolyn Kiste

Am I cheating by including a second story by the same author? Maybe. Is “The Lazarus Bride” so good that I’m going to highlight it anyway? You betcha.

Why horror?’ is a question dark fiction writers and lovers of the macabre in general get asked on a regular basis. The answer I most often give is the simplest, most straightforward one I can formulate: because life is horror. And the horror of a relationship going up in flames right before your eyes, with no way to get help or put out the blaze, is one many have experienced before.

Everything about “The Lazarus Bride” is perfection. From the story’s structure—blips of the past alternating with a present that becomes more and more convoluted (have Terence and Gillian been married for years, or is this still their wedding night?)—to the hauntingly hypnotic language Kiste employs to tell the tragic tale—“It’s midnight when you slip from the satin sheets of our honeymoon bed, the train of your wedding gown stalking behind you. In your wake, the room smells of yesterday’s church ceremony, like stale buttercream icing and Bible verses we didn’t believe”—this is a story that begs to be read over and over again, either to appreciate its catastrophic beauty, or to massage salve into the soul when going through a similarly disastrous ordeal yourself.

The pain of watching the person whom you love most, and who might no longer love you, burst into flames a thousand times a night, is punctuated by Kiste’s portrayal of her protagonist in how he relates to his Lazarus Bride only—not for who he is as an individual—and then in his agony at watching her burn. Love hurts. Love can make our hearts feel like they’re a dripping candle of waxen horror. But a love like Terence and Gillian’s was always destined to burn itself out, for nothing can sustain temperatures of that extent forever.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 8
  • Palpable horror: 9
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 10
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 10
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 47

1) “Descent,” Carmen Maria Machado

I mentioned Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” earlier in this post, and the folklore-inspired retelling of “The Green Satin Ribbon” is indeed my favorite story of hers, one of my most favorite stories I’ve ever read. But Machado is as good at scaring the pants off her readers as she is at presenting them with timely social commentary, and “Descent” is absolute proof of this.

I read “Descent” in Best Horror of the Year Volume 8, and while I would like to tell you that my first thought upon finishing was, Damn, the High Priestess of the current Coven of Literary Witches went and combined topical social issues with a good old-fashioned campfire tale yet again, that would be a lie. That was my second thought. My first thought was, Holy f***ing shit!, followed by the need to check the floor beside me to make sure there was nothing there.

There are plenty of authors who write great short fiction. There are innumerable authors who write terrifying horror fiction. But it is a rare author indeed, an author of singular talent, who can pen a story that causes the reader to feel as if they’re strapped into a car about to crest the loftiest and swiftest roller coaster they’ve ever conceived of without having even realized they’d gotten on the ride. There are only a select few truly incomparable writers whose work causes the reader to have to remember to take a breath while they’re practically tearing the pages from the binding in order to turn them more rapidly.

I actually don’t want to spoil too much of Machado’s version of an Alvin Schwartz ghost story, of a strange and scary tale that simulates the narrator engaging with the reader (the equivalent of: “at this point, pause… then, clap your hands as you jump at the person next to you and shout, BOO, or, YOU HAVE IT!”), but I will say this: I reread “Descent” before finalizing this write-up on a day spent sitting by the poor sharing ice tea with my mother on a suffocatingly hot, and not at all scary, July afternoon. Breathless, knowing that she’d enjoyed what little of Machado’s writing I’d placed before her in the past, I walked over and handed her the book. I told her to read the story. Then, I held my breath all over again as I watched her step up to the ride.

Macabre Meter

  • Compelling protagonist: 9
  • Palpable horror: 11
  • Gut-wrenching storyline: 10
  • Elements of the beautiful grotesque: 10
  • Gorgeous prose: 10

Total: 50

Thank you for coming along on this journey with me, through some kickass work by killer #WIH, and seek me out on social media if you’d like to discuss any of the Macabre Meter ratings, or the short stories featured here in general:

Author Website: www.christacarmen.com

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15179583.Christa_Carmen

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/christacarmen

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christaqua

Twitter: https://twitter.com/christaqua

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/christaqua/

A young woman’s fears regarding the gruesome photos appearing on her cell phone prove justified in a ghastly and unexpected way. A chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead fan defends herself against a trio of undead intruders. A bride-to-be comes to wish that the door between the physical and spiritual worlds had stayed shut on All Hallows’ Eve. A lone passenger on a midnight train finds that the engineer has rerouted them toward a past she’d prefer to forget. A mother abandons a life she no longer recognizes as her own to walk up a mysterious staircase in the woods.

In her debut collection, Christa Carmen combines horror, charm, humor, and social critique to shape thirteen haunting, harrowing narratives of women struggling with both otherworldly and real-world problems. From grief, substance abuse, and mental health disorders, to a post-apocalyptic exodus, a seemingly sinister babysitter with unusual motivations, and a group of pesky ex-boyfriends who won’t stay dead, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a compelling exploration of horrors both supernatural and psychological, and an undeniable affirmation of Carmen’s flair for short fiction.

You can buy Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked from Amazon UK & Amazon US

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