Last Friday, Carmen Maria Machado’s astonishing short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award. As recognition goes, it’s entirely deserved and just a little eerie, since the collection isn’t actually published until October 3. That’s a fitting liminality for a collection preoccupied with things and forces that powerfully exist, but in another sense, don’t—a set of stories that masterfully refit domestic horror and its predecessor, the Gothic, for an age fraught with unreality.
Machado is a graduate of both the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, two premier institutions in the realist and speculative writing traditions. Her debut collection reflects this best-of-both-worlds synthesis, combining the daring, high-wire prose of a stylist with the satisfying pulpiness of a horror writer. These stories live in that dark zone increasingly shared by realist fiction and horror: of sexuality, queerness, and alienation, of identity and its discontents. Like Shirley Jackson or Angela Carter before her, Machado pulls from the deep well of Gothic feminism, but in an age where those anxieties can be laid out more bluntly.
Gothic literature is most often associated with its haunted spaces: the rotting castles, strange nocturnal noises in the next room, the draft of cold air that seems to come from nowhere. But in its purest form—in its first masterpieces like Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), or later revisions like Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre (1847)—the Gothic is dominated by the women within those spaces experiencing and resisting real peril, while never being entirely believed, not even by the male hero. It’s the nightmare of patriarchy, before that concept was developed or mapped: an intuition that something is terribly wrong and dangerous, without the confidence to scream for help. It’s an atmosphere that Machado’s stories draw upon and reassert in a contemporary world, against a contemporary dread. Because despite social changes since the eighteenth century, women still find themselves threatened and gaslighted—caught in a crazy-making duality of progress and regress, power and powerlessness, liberation and violence.
In “The Husband Stitch,” a young woman falls in love with a nice boy; they marry and have a son; their shared sexuality is shameless, healthy, and compelling. But surrounding their story is another, menacing group of stories, a landscape of urban legends in which willful and sexual girls are gruesomely punished. And running through their story is a green ribbon around the narrator’s neck, which her husband must never, ever touch. These other, darker stories invade and oppress the ‘good’ relationships at the center, but only the narrator sees this. As a girl, she throws a fit in the grocery store when she sees severed toes in the produce aisle, and her father talks her down:
They had been there. I had seen them with my own eyes. But beneath the sunbeams of my father’s logic, I felt my doubt unfurling.
– Most importantly, my father said, arriving triumphantly at his final piece of evidence, why did no one notice the toes except for you?
As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world only observed by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story, and laughed when he scooped me from the chair to kiss me and send me on my way.
“The Husband Stitch” is told in first-person, and studded with fourth-wall breaks and stage directions to remind us, in a formal, Brechtian way, to analyze the narrator’s account as a narrative—almost as if to invite us to disbelieve her, as her loving father and good husband disbelieve her. For like every fairy-tale hero, even the nice boy can’t resist the green ribbon, the one taboo that’s denied him. The bitter and strangely beautiful ending captures that tragedy of not being believed by the people you love, and who love you—discovering even the good ones limited by the narratives they’re supposed to have risen above.
In “Mothers,” another first-person female narrator shares an account that we cannot, and could never believe: her abusive ex-girlfriend shows up at the door with the baby they’ve inadvertently conceived, seemingly out of their shared imagination. That’s only the first in a series of jarring turns that twists the story into new, more unhinged impossibilities, even as the history of the narrator’s longing and violent relationship anchors us emotionally. Here again, we find ourselves—as many abuse survivors find themselves—caught between a zone of consensus reality and one of lived experience. “Mothers” makes us experience, even if we never accept, the narrator’s impossible testimony. That’s what happens in this story, in her story, even if it doesn’t ‘happen’ in anyone else’s.
“Especially Heinous” is a phantasmagoric riff off of Law & Order: SVU—probably our culture’s Urtext of sexual violence and testimony—in which Machado takes the episode titles from twelve seasons of the show and writes new synopses for them, creating a totally bonkers nightscape of Doppelgangers, dread, urban paranoia, and ghost girls with bells for eyes. In doing so, she reaches behind the surface reality of SVU and into the mythology or dream reality that undergirds the show: one which positions Benson and Stabler as heroes in a sucker’s fight against the world’s raw impulse to brutality.
“Sacrifice”: Benson leaves her handsome date at the table, in the restaurant, waiting for the drinks. She walks down an empty side street. She takes off her shoes and walks down the center of the road. It is too hot for April. She can feel her feet darkening from the blacktop. She should be afraid of broken glass but she is not. In front of a vacant lot, she stops. She reaches down and touches the pavement. It is breathing. Its two-toned heartbeat makes her clavicle vibrate. She can feel it. She is suddenly, irrevocably certain that the earth is breathing. She knows that New York is riding the back of a giant monster. She knows this more clearly than she has ever known anything before.
Reality queers in Machado’s fiction; even in the realist-adjacent story “The Resident,” a sense of menace and mistrust pervades bodies, social transactions, weather. One of the traumas of queer self-repression is, once you come out, you can never entirely trust your own account of yourself or others. This, at least, was my experience: how could I be sure of anything, if I was so wrong before, about something so close? Everything is potentially something I misinterpreted, or willfully misread. Even personal reality—even testimony—becomes flimsy as the incorporeal girls in “Real Women Have Bodies.” The self reduces to trappings, costume, always receding.
Machado’s fiction is probably best classified as domestic horror, but it forces on that term a profundity beyond its classic usage. Her Body and Other Parties isn’t particularly worried about Freudian threats to the nuclear family or the seamy underside of suburban America. Instead, with its gaslighted and abused narrators, its sex and queerness and paranoia, Machado’s domestic horror is about how relationships—with lovers, with family, or just with other human beings—make the most intimate realities radically fragile and permeable.
This could be a book that changes how you look at the world, but that’s not necessarily Machado’s goal. Really, it’s for the ones who already look at the world with mistrust. For them, these stories say: I believe you.