Friday, May 27, 2016

Microreview [short story collection]: Suicide Stitch by Sarah L. Johnson

Dark, sensual, and just the right amount of devastating. 

Horror comes in a lot of flavors. It's one of those genres that exist between genres, because any other genre can be, essentially, horror-ified. Just drop the word horror at the end of a genre name and, presto-chango, it becomes a new subgenre. Which is the power of horror, in many ways, to find the horrifying in any story, to make it a focus, and to never relent. Suicide Stitch is a horror collection, and fully embraces the transformative power of horror across genres. From urban fantasy to suspense to weird to historical fantasy to good ol' literary fiction, the collection seems to understand the beating heart of what makes a story a horror story, with a creeping darkness, a confronting of the repressed, and a wonderful imagination.

The organization of the collection seems designed to bring people in gradually. The opening story, "Thank You For Playing," teases with some speculative ideas before settling down into much more familiar territory, creepy and tense but definitely the lightest and happiest piece present. Its placement in the front of the queue brought me in as a reader, sat me down, and got me comfortable. Meanwhile the second story, "I Am Lost," quietly slipped the restraints over my wrists with a gripping tale of a woman confronting the physical and psychic implications of being lost, disconnected, and alone. By the time the third story, "First Wife," showed itself, it was too late to run away.

If I can characterize the first two stories by the way they drew me in slow, then I think the middle stories of Suicide Stitch are purposefully shocking, erotic, and full of abuse and religious imagery. "First Wife," "Heart Beating Still," and "Three Minutes" all take on very strong religious trappings while being rather intensely graphic. They take religious motifs and twist them, reveal the power of spirituality but also the dangers of organized religion. These are some of my favorite pieces not just because they are some of the most erotic and challenging but also because they examine desire and repression and denial through the lens of canonical and heretical religion. Angels and demons and sex and forgiveness all take center stage, as does the linked desires for compassion and violence. They also examine how religion can hide darker forces, how a belief in a neutered supernatural can allow evil to spread and pervade.

Mixed in with these are stories that examine abuse and trauma and the almost contagious nature of harm. "Five-Day Forecast" and "A Ballad for Wheezy Barnes" both drop their speculative elements in order to show the way abuse carries, the way it seems to pass from person to person, shows people struggling with cycles of harm and hurt, desire and self-destruction. And then, of course, there's "Why(Y)," which…well, if you need some trigger warnings for the collection as a whole this one probably takes them all, condenses them, and throws in necrophilia for good measure. The subject matter of all the stories is…dark. Dark as pitch but with a nearly seductive voice that feels like bathing in oil-contaminated water at times.

My favorite stories of the collection is probably "Little Sister, Little Brother," and not just because it has a bisexual male character (though there is that, too). I love the way that it looks at feeding, at desire and reality and where the two meet. It's a story that's one part portal fantasy and one part vampire story and one part romance and I love how those elements mix together to show a character dealing with trying to find a direction in his life, trying to embrace who he is and what that means.

The collection closes on a pair of stories that once more rely on speculative elements but in subtle ways. That look at grief and life and death and choice. Like the first two stories, these ones seem a little softer, a little more restrained…until the twists come. Until the full implication of the stories come crashing down with a tremendous weight. And then…well, the collection finishes strong. And in the end it's a collection that should appeal to any fan of horror, speculative or otherwise. The stories are sharp and dangerous and dark, so dark… Which is also probably my main complaint, that I'm not the least squeamish of people and this collection is not for the faint of heart.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for a nice mix of horror across genres


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "a fine read, but maybe not for everyone" see our full rating system here.

POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: Johnson, Sarah L. Suicide Stitch [EMP Publishing, 2016]