Kristi DeMeester’s first collection of short fiction is aptly named, as if there is one thing “Everything That’s Underneath” does well, it’s get under your skin. This is a deeply unsettling collection, executed with skill – it concerns, disgusts, repels and fascinates the reader across a range of eighteen tales which maintain a solid standard throughout.
Much of the horror is drawn from relationships that are damaged, sometimes broken beyond repair, sometimes fragile and liable to fracture at any moment (as in the tragic ending of December Skin, which is built on strong familial love and, ultimately, bestial betrayal). Monstrosities can often be read as evocative metaphors for abusive relationships, lost love, and grief – yet these metaphors themselves take on a life of their own and often take an autonomous, sentient role in the storytelling. And these unsettling beings often demand a price to be paid of the characters. Often this heightens the pathos that comes with often-inescapable fates, but sometimes one gets the feeling that the prices are deserved (a good example of this is “Fleshtival”, in which a drug-dealer follows up rumours of an orgy that sounds too good to be true. His fate is expected, but not as expected, and knowing that the temptations he chases are too good to be true only intensifies the tension as the end approaches).
DeMeester is also a master of ambiguity. She is able to walk the tightrope of showing just enough to arrest the reader, but not so much that we can necessarily identify the source of our fear, but not so little that it results in frustration and a vague sense of “weirdness”. Her entities and fears become more real in their intangibility. There is beauty evoked in darkness, and darkness evoked in beauty, and her control of pace and style are truly excellent.
The whole collection is well worth reading, but a few highlights are:
All That Is Refracted, Broken
A touching, if unsettling, tale of child brought back from the brink of death who refuses to look at sister without a mirror. The folklore of mirrors, and what lurks in their images, is given fresh vitality in a story of love, fear, and sacrifice.
To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth
A haunting metaphor for the ceaseless searching that can be born of grief. Two girls befriend a mysterious child who can find anything that is lost, whether it should be found or not. The ultimate question asked by this story is – are the dead truly lost? And would we want to find them?
Here siblings fight over the right to visions of their dead mother in a story of possessive and destructive grief deadening two girls to life at a time when they should be coming of age. The tale is made all the stronger by the apparently ambivalent intentions of the entity visiting them.
To Sleep Long, To Sleep Deep
In one of the tales that gets most under the skin, a woman’s abusive, violence-porn-obsessed partner is found dead. Her continuing obsession with a Necronomical book that kept her in the relationship in the first place is disturbing and explores the notion of dehumanisation within abusive relationships.
The Long Road
A moving Lovecraftian love-story, in which love battles against unstoppable, inevitable decay pursuing the protagonist from his past.
Americal Evangelism takes a dark turn in an arresting and disturbing story of teenage lust and coming of age. The strength of the tale for me was its foundation of irony – a man whose adultery tears his family apart turns to God (or what he thinks is God) and in so doing leaves his daughter under threat from succubic entities.
If you like your horror eerie, Lovecraftian, Kafkaesque and disturbing, then this collection is a must.