A new episode of the New Books in Poetry podcast is up, in which I get to speak with Sara Tantlinger about her poetry collection, The Devil’s Dreamland.
In The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes (StrangeHouse Books, November 2018), Sara Tantlinger intertwines fact and speculation to examine inner workings of H.H. Holmes, a man who committed ghastly crimes in the late 19th century and who is often credited with being America’s first serial killer. Narratively arranged, these poems offer up an evocative and chilling imagining of life and times of Holmes along with his wives, victims, and accomplices. A profound and fascinating collection for anyone interested in the riveting realm of true crime.
“The building shivers
beneath each curve of my footstep,
my home, my castle
fit for Bluebeard himself,
entwining murder and luxury
like salt and sugar
placed gently on the tongue
where each tiny grain dissolves
in a way blood never will.”
— from “Shades of Wild Plum”
You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.
Description:“It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.
As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.
Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.”
My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing about The Rust Maidens for a while now, the book continually recommended by others in my social media feed as a stunning work of horror. Having now read it myself, I can whole heartedly agree with each and every one of these observations.
The story takes on body horror with young women at the center. This seems a natural progression, since, as the book illustrates, young women’s bodies are already not their own. One of the aspects of this book is how the mother’s rule the block, meeting out rules, structures, and punishments for their girls. When one of the girls gets pregnant, it’s the mother’s who decide what to do with her and her baby, regardless of what the girl wants (the boy is also irrelevant in this). So, when the young women’s bodies begin to change, taking on the oily, glass-strewn decay of the city, it goes from seeming to be a strange disease at first to seeming like an act of defiance. All the wrongs quickly become cast onto the shoulders of these girls, who dare to be anything other than the kinds of girls people expect them to be.
Maybe that’s why Phoebe remains untouched by this metamorphosis — she’s already something other than the kind of girl she’s expected to be. We see the story from her point of view — both during the events and long after. All at once, she is both horrified by the changes she sees in her cousin and the other girls, and awed by them, finding a strange beauty in their transformations. She holds so many levels of loss and guilt, feeling she’s made all the wrong choices along the way. I love her as a character, not because she’s perfect — she’s far from that — but because she comes off as so human, housing anger, sorrow, and compassion for the people and community around her.
This story is so touchingly beautiful on so many levels, providing a blend of deep, unsettling horror with human love and hope. I particularly love the way the relationships between these girls changes and evolves over the course of this story. It’s just so, so good. As soon as I read the last page, I clutched the book to my chest and just held it. I’ll be looking for all the things by Kiste in the future.
If you want to get some more insight into Kiste’s process writing The Rust Maidens and her love of horror, the Darkness Dwells podcast has a great interview.
Jen ( played by Matilda Lutz) travels to a remote estate expecting to have some fun with her boyfriend — only to have things go horrifically wrong when his two creepy friends arrive.
Generally, I’m a little wary of rape revenge storylines — which tend to be exploitative about the rape itself. But this movie handles the moment in an interesting way. When Jen is about to be assaulted, the other friend walks through the door — the camera follows him as he draws out of the room and closes the door behind him. Essentially, we become witness to his complicity, doing nothing to stop what’s happening and seeing him turn up the noise on the TV to avoid hearing the sounds of the attack. One of the things the movie does really well, in this way, is show how quickly these men closed ranks to protect each other. Even her boyfriend, takes the side of his friends, offering to pay her off instead of help her.
What follows is Jen’s escape into the desert and fight for survival as the three men attempt to hunt her down and silence her. The movie is not perfect, having some logical flaws her and there — but it it extremely tense as it unfolds with some solid surprises, not so much in the what, but the how. With its cool style, slick music, and copious amounts of bloodshed and violence, Revenge is a wicked flick.
Things Withered is a brilliant collection of short horror stories, in which Susie Maloney plays on the anxieties of everyday life to deliver horrifying chills. Whether it’s the need to hold onto a job, unfortunate deaths in the neighborhood, or competition between friends, the drive of each story is grounded in human beings with their own frustrations so that by the time things get really weird, the reader is already on edge.
Take, for example, “The Audit,” in which a young woman faces a growing mountain of paperwork as she attempts to prepare for being audited by the IRS. Taxes are an ordinary kind of fear, but the story manages to build an increasing tension through the escalating mountain of papers that need to be addressed combined with the indifference of the people around her.
In “Petty Zoo,” a mother and her son are stationed in a line of families waiting to get into a mall petting zoo that is more than an hour late from opening. The growing anger and annoyance of the parents, who are caught between their desperation to keep their children happy and their their own desire to leave is the vivid center point — at least until things go terribly, terribly wrong.
Another kind of anxiety is offered up in “Poor David, or, The Possibility of Coincidence in Situations of Multiple Occurrences.” David has the misfortune of finding the dead body of his girlfriend’s aunt, a traumatic experience that’s quickly compounded by the discovery of another body. There is nothing suspicious about these deaths, all due to natural circumstances — and yet it seems to be David’s misfortune to discover them. The story beautifully portrays his escalating anxiety, which makes it difficult for him to function in the world. And yet, it’s also about his relationship with Myra and how the two of them continue to build a life together through this trauma.
“Reclamation on the Forrest Floor” also deals with relationships, in this case between two girlfriend and the brutal outcome of their ongoing competition with each other. The story opens with murder and evolves into a stunningly written body horror as the consequences of that act reveal themselves.
Some of my favorite stories in the collection, are those that features older women as their protagonists. “The Last Living Summer” is a story of three little old ladies in continue on in a beach town that has emptied out since all their neighbors abandoned the place in the face of a strange, unsettling apocalypse. It’s a story with such melancholy beauty.
In “The Neighborhood, or, To the Devil with You,” a woman who has lived on the same block well into her old age relates the history of her neighborhood, which carries a series of tragedies. With it’s meandering style and “times have changed” tone, the story balances between the events being simply the horrifying misfortunes of an ordinary or all part of some larger, sinister design.
On the whole, Things Withers is a phenomenal collection of stories — highly recommended.
What It’s About: Adam Peiper begins to experience strange changes as he works stuffing envelopes in a strange factory.
Why I Like It: Although set in a single room, the short implies a larger dystopian world in which efficiency is the prime objective no matter the human cost. The purpose of Adam Peiper’s mindless task of licking envelopes and filing them away is irrelevant to the objective. His task becomes even more onerous and desperate as his body begins to horrifically change. These initial changes grow to be increasingly horrifying as they continue, all brilliantly portrayed through well executed physical effects.