Rachel Harrison’s feminist horror novels are some of the most original and entertaining out there, and her collection of stories, BAD DOLLS (Berkley, ebook, $2.99), is right up there with her longer works. Filled with women on the cusp of change — a bad breakup, sexual discovery, an extreme diet — they explore the dark side of being female in the 21st century.
“Bad Dolls,” the eponymous story, is a particularly haunting examination of loss. After her younger sister, Audrey, dies by suicide, the narrator discovers a haunted porcelain doll “in a silk-lined damask hatbox.” She asks: “If I lived in a world where dolls could come alive, couldn’t I live in a world where I could … bring Audrey back from the dead?”
“Is it tech or magic?” the narrator of “Goblin” asks. She’s referring to a dieting app that regulates eating in extreme ways, namely by sending a goblin to rip through your cabinets and eviscerate your fridge. The narrator has long struggled with her weight, but with Goblin it’s an inhuman fight. At a low point, she sees herself in a mirror: “My skin was sallow, my hair damp with sweat. My carefully applied eyeliner was smudged and uneven … I recoiled in horror.” It’s a jump-scare that reveals the depth of trauma.
These characters aren’t spunky, overly sexualized final girls escaping a madman with a chain saw, but complex women facing the pain of being alive. Harrison slides a scalpel beneath the seemingly smooth surface of their lives to expose their messy interiors.
What if hell were just a behemoth bureaucracy, and the processing of souls the ultimate exercise in the banality of evil? Claudia Lux’s darkly comic debut novel, SIGN HERE (Berkley, 416 pp., $27), poses this question while following the dealmaker Peyote Trip as he hustles for the Devil, signing souls to eternal perdition. Peyote (not his real name; identities are scrubbed in hell) has set his sights on the Harrison family. He’s signed four generations so far, granting them the privileges of affluence — money, beauty, health, a summer pile by a lake — and if he can lock in the fifth, he’ll get “a one-way ticket back to Earth, to do it all over again.”
Peyote, a wry, deadpan character — reminiscent of Jim Halpert in “The Office” — works on the fifth floor of hell, where “paperwork is 75 percent of the gig,” the coffee maker is always broken and the bar only sells shots of Jägermeister. Peyote’s existence is shaken with the arrival of Cal, an intriguing new colleague promoted from Downstairs, a more hellish hell where vegetable peelers flay “the far-back surface of your tongue.”
The premise is witty, but it often feels like high-concept theater, the characters little more than vehicles for Lux’s riffs on fire and brimstone. When the conceit gets old, it’s up to the Harrisons to carry the drama. But even though they’ve sold their souls — and ostensibly have a free pass to go wild — the stolid, boring Harrisons remain immersed in family dinners, vanilla extramarital affairs and New Hampshire summer escapes.
The most thrillingly evil character in the novel, Cal, is already in Hell. Compared with her, the Harrisons are angels.
In Luke Dumas’s engrossing debut, A HISTORY OF FEAR (Atria, 354 pp., $27.99), an American graduate student in Edinburgh, Grayson Hale, signs a contract to write a history of the Devil in Scotland. Though the money is good, Hale wonders if the Devil, “sensing one of his kind,” has singled him out for the job. Despite his reservations, he writes the book, but — pushed beyond the edge of sanity — murders another student before being found dead in his prison cell, his clothes torn and his body “marred with wounds like ‘claw marks from a small, three-fingered animal.’”
At the heart of the tragedy is Hale’s satanophobia, which probably has something to do with his father, an evangelical minister with sociopathic tendencies. But Dumas doesn’t delve too deeply into their relationship, and as a result, Hale can seem like little more than the Devil’s puppet.
Still, Dumas’s layered and atmospheric writing shines when he describes Scotland, the cultural collisions of Americans abroad and the terrors of uncovering a twisted family legacy.
“The first time she killed her rapist, she used a hay bale hook” — the first line of Emma Alice Johnsons’s “Five Ways to Kill Your Rapist on a Farm” — is just one of many spectacular openings in DARK MATTERS PRESENTS HUMAN MONSTERS: A Horror Anthology (Dark Matters Ink, 376 pp., paperback, $19.99), a collection of 35 stories edited by the horror tastemakers Sadie Hartmann and Ashley Saywers.
There are no hay bale hooks in Caroline Kepnes’s chilling “I Did a Thing,” about a hairstylist with homicidal fantasies. Only razors.
“The client has an idea. She wants bangs. Is that crazy? The stylist says what you have to say when people want bangs. Yes, it is crazy. The client laughs. It’s the good kind of crazy. Let’s do it. Oblige. Pull the hair forward. The client is blinded by her own mane. Neck covered but easily manipulated. Grab the head by the face, yank, pull the razor, that’s it.”
The range of authors in this collection is impressive. As Christopher Golden writes in the introduction, there is everything from “superstars to rising stars to the very first sparks of hoped-for careers,” making this an ideal horror sampler. “Human Monsters” highlights the horrors found in regular people, the ones “we’re supposed to trust,” those hidden monsters “that walk among us.”
From what I can tell, they’re everywhere.