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‘The Horror Is Us’ Holds a Mirror Up to Our Sick Real World

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I am so extremely not a scary stories person that it’s kinda funny. There’s a stretch of road in my hometown that I’m still unnerved by because one night when I was a teenager I dropped off a friend at her house after we saw the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and I had to drive home alone. Nothing happened on the drive—I probably drove past a creepy cemetery—but a small, irrational fear haunted me the whole way. Another time, a few years ago, coming home from a party, my roommates suggested we watch the French horror movie Martyrs. “You’ll be fine,” they said. After about 30 minutes of that I had to run upstairs to my room and cry. 

One of the only movies I’ve had the patience to sit through since the start of the pandemic, though, was Parasite. I know it’s not technically a horror movie, but it is violent and gross (and sad and funny) in its depiction of class anxiety, wealth disparity, and desperation wrought by late capitalism. It resonates with all the real-life horror we are drowning in now.

So, with a moderately strengthened stomach, I eagerly awaited The Horror Is Us, an anthology of short stories edited by Baltimore-based writer Justin Sanders and published this month by Mason Jar Press. Sanders originally wanted to compile a book of “social horror” stories, which he saw as “stories that went on the attack and delivered social commentary bathed in blood and black magic or something,” as he describes the concept in an editor’s note. He quickly realized that although he still likes that idea, “a book composed entirely of in-your-face commentary and analysis would have ended up feeling too heady for me, treating fear as something to be observed and critiqued rather than felt. I focused instead on horror that invited me to feel fear with the characters.”

That move toward the immersive and affective rather than the distant and intellectual works well for this slim collection of nine stories by authors around the US and Canada. Abstracting and analyzing fear can be useful in a therapy session, but it’s not always what we want from art. 

And maybe there is value in facing our own fear of fear. So over the course of a week, I ate up a story or two from The Horror Is Us each night, settling into these sick, fictional worlds that occasionally mirrored our sick, real world. Even if Sanders is uncertain what “social horror” means exactly, the term feels appropriate for a suite of stories that reference sexual assault, police violence, economic precariousness, familial dysfunction, and much more. The book also contains a range of tactics: while some stories use elements of body horror and gore and the supernatural, others create more psychologically disturbing moods.

Writer and editor Justin Sanders
A book composed entirely of in-your-face commentary and analysis would have ended up feeling too heady for me, treating fear as something to be observed and critiqued rather than felt. I focused instead on horror that invited me to feel fear with the characters.
Justin Sanders

The very first story, by Laura Walker, is all tension, no release. On the road from California to Texas, our narrator pulls off near an exit and only briefly gets to muse upon what awaits her out there in her new life before a tow truck pulls up and blocks her in. What follows is pure, uneasy anticipation and mood-setting—something about the sunset light which disappears the driver’s shadow proves worrisome as he climbs out of his vehicle and walks toward hers.

“This isn’t a safe place for a young lady to stop,” the man tells the narrator, who hears the words as a tacit threat. “Don’t you know people throw dead bodies into the desert here?” The story closes abruptly after a lengthy, breathless description of this short moment of high alarm, the narrator “feeling the primal, liquid-boned fear of desert prey” in front of this man with “decay on his breath.” It leaves the reader imagining what could’ve followed this iteration of just girly things like living your life one moment and feeling panic suck all the saliva out of your mouth the next.

The next story, Abigail Teed’s slow-moving “Rise,” takes on the psychological toll of childhood trauma and gender-based violence with a subtlety and complexity that take a minute to suss out. Teed builds up a vivid environment in this small town of Maine in the spring, where over the course of a week our narrator is mildly stressing about her missed period, dreaming about a childhood friend, digging up the past, and desiring red meat with greater intensity over each passing day. 

The protagonist hikes through the Burnt Witch Woods in search of fiddlehead ferns to accompany her venison steaks for dinner; the woods let bloom old, scattered memories of exploring that place with her friend Amy’s family. “I had a vague memory of getting hurt and Red tending to the blood that spilled forth,” the narrator recalls. Red, Amy’s father and a father-figure to the narrator, is still around, though sort of a shell of himself after his wife died and his daughter got into drugs. Throughout the week, the narrator’s ambient memories and musings about taboos such as sexual violence and drug addiction are brought into sharper view, guiding the narrator to confront a previously unrealized aggressor. The horror and trauma here are more implicit and embedded into the place, more chronic than acute, and all too familiar.

Alexis Brooks de Vita’s supernatural tale, “Her Faithful Black Cat,” takes place in a realistic historical context. We’re in the volatile home of Mr. Wight, a slaveowner’s son who kidnapped Proserpina from his mother’s plantation, taking her as his wife. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed spirit who follows Proserpina with fierce love and protection—one of the few elements that lift this story out of otherwise pure devastation. Another saving grace is Proserpina’s loyal cat, Pluto. There is an interminable power struggle between Proserpina and Mr. Wight, who is slowly whittling away at her spirit, flippantly claiming devotion to his captive one moment and brutalizing her—or Pluto—the next. At a crucial point, the narrator-spirit has the chance to inhabit Pluto’s body and defend Proserpina from Mr. Wight, but ultimately with limited effect. Although Proserpina doesn’t seem to have a conscious connection with the spirit, she tries to protect her cat from the violent man with the same intensity the spirit holds for her. The story doesn’t go down easily at any point. But in the end, the notion that the spirit has such great love for Proserpina’s soul that it vows to “search throughout eternity” for her again is a bittersweet balm.

And Sanders’ true-crime-like “Baphomet and Blue” is only unrealistic if you still don’t see—or don’t want to see—how the police is an inherently racist institution that is not infrequently infiltrated by white supremacist militants. What begins as a love story for two Black teens in Baltimore—Shaevon Green, who’s captivated by his longtime crush and high school classmate Keyona Marsh—quickly turns into a murder frame-up with no witnesses other than the white skinheads committing the crime and implicating one of the surviving teens.

Meanwhile, the ostensibly fictional Hammerfest, a “three-day concert for national socialist punk and metal bands” occurs just outside the city with hundreds of attendees and multiple “violent white power gangs.” Sanders demolishes the foolish assertion that such violence as what happens to Shae and Keyona could ever be random or isolated or of the past, but rather represents a methodically organized present danger, describing one band that the FBI had previously investigated “for promoting the idea of recruiting from and infiltrating law enforcement agencies.” Using narrative to show how this ideology comes to root, Sanders actually shows us our own world, terrifying at every level, where obvious white violence is made slippery and sanctioned.

Sometimes we look to art and books and movies as an escape from the painful or monotonous struggle of the everyday and into more imaginative realms that elicit visions of alternative places, momentary utopias. Art can also be a place where we process what makes us sick or scared. And although finding solace in art sounds appealing these days, it also sounds a bit cute. Lately, I find it hard to appreciate goodness for too long, distracted most of the time by the drone of reality’s unbelievable terror. The Horror Is Us gives us no utopias, but does offer slight, solemn reprieve through a series of safe explorations within the thrills of agony. 

***

Purchase The Horror Is Us at Mason Jar Press’s website. There are several upcoming online events and readings for the book’s release:

  • On October 28 at 6:30 p.m., the Ivy Bookshop hosts The Horror is Us Anthology Release Celebration.
  • On October 29 at 9 p.m., Argo Bookshop hosts a reading featuring two authors from the collection.
  • On October 31 at 7 p.m., White Whale Bookstore hosts Sanders, Taylor Sykes, and Laura Walker along with Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman for a virtual reading (RSVP here). 
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