Book Review: Everything That’s Underneath by Kristi DeMeester

“DeMeester has crafted stories that may well begin in a familiar setting, but soon take a wrong turn and head down an alley of weird horror until the reader can almost feel her words squirming beneath their skin. And fans of Weird Horror will welcome the under-skin invasion.”

 

With short stories published in numerous horror magazines (including The Dark, Apex Magazine and Shimmer), Kristi DeMeester’s first collection of short fiction has long been anticipated by fans of the Weird Horror for which she has become renowned. Included in this collection are stories that have been selected for The Years Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3(ChiZine Publications, 2014 and Undertow Publications, 2016, respectively) and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 9 (Night Shade Books, 2017) as well as many that have been included in some of the most highly anticipated horror anthologies of recent years, and three original stories.

The book opens with the title story, ‘Everything That’s Underneath’. A husband undertakes a the seemingly innocuous job of constructing a door from scratch, much to his wife’s confusion. She doesn’t see the need for the door, but he seems set in his ways and uses the new hobby as a way of dealing with some recent bad news. But, using multiple senses, DeMeester creates an atmosphere of unease, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. We know something isn’t right almost from the start, but DeMeester does an excellent job of enticing us along with a sense of trepidation and dread until the awful truth is revealed.

In ‘The Wicked Shall Come Upon Him’, we find a world where the moon has shifted into an unnatural orbit and the perpetually dark sky seems to be screaming. But this is only mentioned in passing as Twain meets a strange woman on the street outside the apartment he shares with Nathan. The real horror is in how Nathan has changed from a loving husband to a lust-driven party animal who just wants to experience as much pleasure as possible before the seemingly impending apocalypse. But he gets more than he bargained for. DeMeester has developed a reputation for examining the horror that lies in human relationships and she delivers with this story, while also giving it a weird and cosmic twist.

To ‘Sleep Long, to Sleep Deep’ also examines the horror of a relationship, beginning with one man’s obsession with an untitled book full of dark and macabre illustrations. When his lover begins to feel the draw of the text, friction develops in this sultry and brooding tale. The ending is very unsettling and definitely has a lasting impression on the reader.

In ‘The Fleshtival’, low-level dealer Paul and his flatmate Jake hear of a private party in the woods where women shall fulfil any sexual desire of their guests, as long as the price is right. Scrounging all of the money they can, the two Casanovas drive to the woods to experience their wildest desires. But they get more than they bargained for. A very creepy and weird take on the old saying: be careful what you wish for.

Although one of the shorter stories in the collection, ‘The Beautiful Nature of Venom’ certainly packs a punch. Told in first person, we witness a brief sexual encounter between two strangers. But the narrator describes the feeling of spiders beneath her skin, and her every response to her partner’s touch is described using the movements and reactions of the spiders. At times sexy and disturbing, the imagery is extremely effective and will get under the skin of the reader. Indeed, this seems to be a common trait of the stories within the collection; through DeMeester’s language and vivid imagery, they all get under the skin. The title of the book could relate to how deeply affecting the stories are, as well as referring to the horror that can lie beneath the everyday relationships that the author is so clearly adept at exploring.

In ‘Like Feather, Like Bone’, the narrator discovers a young girl beneath her porch, eating a bird. This is another commonality with the all of the stories in the book; DeMeester is especially skilled at writing a strong opening sentence or paragraph. In this instance, the event is immediately weird, but also immediately gripping. The reader can’t help but be compelled to read on. In this case, through talking with the little girl and discovering the reason for eating the birds, the narrator recalls the horror of past tragedy and comes to a horrifying conclusion.

‘Worship Only What She Bleeds’ is a very strange story concerning a young girl who claims she can hear blood coursing through the walls of her house, pouring into the ground every night. Her mother ridicules the idea, but the girl refuses to be convinced. She can hear the sound of the blood, can smell the awful smell. DeMeester has crafted a very weird story here, with a sinister undercurrent that leaves the reader on edge until the horrifying finale.

‘The Tying of Tongues’ explores one young girl’s curiosity when a stranger wanders into her village, “…her bloodied skirts trailing behind her…”. Anya’s mother tells her that to bleed into the Earth is this woman’s curse for selling her soul, for she is a witch. This only intrigues Anya further, and she is drawn to the woman, by the power she possesses over others, but also by her beauty. Anya is different from the other girls of the village, as she does not seek a man to marry. Perhaps in the witch she sees a different way of life. This is a great study of the character, a young girl yearning for change and freedom. DeMeester does an excellent job of telling her story.

In ‘The Marking’, Violet suffers from bruising, has done ever since she was a child. It used to happen only once or twice a year, but recently they have been occurring once a month. The reason for the bruises is vague at first; all we know is that it has to do with her mother and it is often exacerbated when she eats. So, she has been starving herself. But this does not stop her mother from visiting in the dead of night, crawling on all fours and “feeding” on her daughter. This is a delightfully creepy tale about mothers and daughters and how complicated the relationship between the two can often be. Using the supernatural element makes it an entertaining and chilling read, but there is something deeper here.

In ‘The Long Road’, we meet Danny and his dad, living near a marsh that is home to something more than regular pond wildlife. Danny’s dad drinks water taken from the marsh and hints at what may live there, as well as what may live inside of him, a monster or monsters that whisper dark secrets to him. It seems he wants to share it with Danny, but Danny is more interested in getting as far away as possible. Finally, he meets someone, Sarah, and they settle down. But Sarah has demons of her own and when the story reaches its tragic conclusion, Danny will find himself on the long road, back to his dad and the horrors that await. Yet another great example of DeMeester’s skill at examining human relationships and the way we handle grief.

Taking inspiration from the mythology of the Southern regions of Africa, ‘The Lightning Bird’ tells the story of Gable, who begins to turn into a bird after her mother dies. The old women of the village expect her to take over her mother’s responsibilities as a healer but, instead, Gable begins to transform into the lightning bird, an entity from African witchcraft that feeds on blood and is often associated with a witch and will attack a witch’s enemies, calling into question Gable’s mother’s true colours.

‘The Dream Eater’ concerns a woman and her daughter living in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world by the field that surrounds their cabin. We never really figure out what is happening beyond the field, the story confined to the cabin. And the encroaching grass. Every morning they awake to find that the field has moved closer to their home, and so too the things moving within the field, filling them with dread. The mother insists that, as long as they take their daily pill, they will be okay. But the girl has been lying about taking the pill, saving them for her mother. She is too consumed by the grass and the vague dreams she has about what lies within.

‘Daughters of Hecate’ begins with main character, Birdie, awoken by a terrible recurring nightmare about something crawling from her mother’s mouth at her funeral. She believes there is blood on her fingers, but she never has a cut or any source of blood. She thinks back to her college roommate, Livia, and her fascination with witchcraft. Livia owned a book, Daughters of Hecate: Reclaiming the Crone, and when she showed it to Birdie one night, she had drawn crude depictions of witches in haunting poses. When they awoke the next morning, the drawings were gone and Livia claimed to have no knowledge of them. In the present, she visits a psychiatrist to discuss her dreams, and goes into detail about her troubled childhood, her difficult relationship with her mother, and the strange and terrifying things she witnessed her mother do in the middle of the night. Again, like so many of her stories, DeMeester has crafted a well-written tale of supernatural horror, while exploring the oftentimes difficult relationship between mother and daughter. She manages to keep the story moving while delving into the deeper horror of humanity.

A feat she manages again in ‘Birthright’, this time examining the relationship between two sisters and their absent mother. Told from Hayley’s point of view, we are immediately given a glimpse of the sibling rivalry she has with her younger sister, Mina. Mina mentions seeing a woman during the night, one with “…skin the color of the night.”. Hayley deflects her questions about this, but we see that she knows more than she is letting on. Then the story takes a dramatic turn as Hayley has to come to terms with the idea that maybe Mina is the chosen one. But chosen by whom? And for what purpose? And what effect will it have on the sisters’ relationship? An intriguing and creepy story.

‘All That Is Refracted, Broken’ tells the story of a boy, Paul, who should never have been born. Or so the doctors told his mother when she was pregnant, causing his father to leave, unwilling to stay with a “broken” woman, leaving her with an infant daughter and a possible miscarriage. But Paul is born and proves to be healthy in every way, except that he cannot look directly at his sister, the story’s narrator. The doctors have no answer, but then he discovers he can look at her through a mirror. Then he disappears, leaving his sister to ponder the strange theories he shared before. DeMeester explores the relationship between brother and sister while using the element of the weird as a backdrop to great effect. The ending is equally unsettling and moving.

‘December Skin’ follows sister and brother, Rory and Aaron, on the run from some dark secret and seeking refuge in a motel room. There are hints at the darkness that lurks within Rory, and Aaron seems to be the only person that can hold it at bay. But for how long? The love between the two characters is evident in the interaction DeMeester has written. And the ambiguous ending is very well done.

‘Split Tongues’ is told from the point of view of Brianne, a child of a broken home who spends most of her time with her mother, but who visits her religious father every other weekend. Her parents separated when her mother caught her father being a little too friendly with one of Brianne’s classmates, but then he found refuge in the church, and eventually spoke in tongues. Brianne doesn’t mind too much, only because Alec Mitchell attends the church and she has unholy thoughts about him. But then she begins experiencing strange dreams about the church and choking on a piece of tongue.

In ‘To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth’, we find narrator Willa and Lea hanging out in a spooky, abandoned lot that most of the kids claim is haunted. Here they meet Beth, another young girl with an extraordinary ability to find things that have been lost, beginning with a ring that belonged to Lea’s mother, but also any number of things. Eventually, Willa and Lea put this ability to the test by intentionally hiding things, only for Beth to miraculously appear with it. The story falls them as they mature, leading to a frightening encounter between Beth and a horny teenage boy, as she tries to return something he has lost. Finally, Willa loses something that can never be returned. Or can it?

The collection is eighteen stories strong and, while many share similar themes and similar situations, each perfectly exemplifies DeMeester’s masterful storytelling. She has quickly established herself as a leading light in the Weird fiction genre and this collection will only add weight to this argument. DeMeester has crafted stories that may well begin in a familiar setting, but soon take a wrong turn and head down an alley of weird horror until the reader can almost feel her words squirming beneath their skin. And fans of Weird Horror will welcome the under-skin invasion. But they may well take issue with the nightmares that follow.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Apex Book Company
Paperback: (222pp)
Release Date: 29 August 2017

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