Book Review: Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked by Christa Carmen

“As far as debut collections go, this offers so much and delivers it all … Carmen handles it with the assured touch of a seasoned storyteller.”

 

Christa Carmen’s short fiction has appeared in many magazines and venues, including the podcast Tales to Terrify, Comet Press’ Years Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2, and Unnerving Magazine, among many, many others. As well as including ‘Red Room’ in issue #5 of his magazine, Unnerving chief Eddie Generous enjoyed hearing short story ‘Liquid Handcuffs’ on the Tales to Terrify podcast so much that he enquired about a short story collection. Carmen has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and is pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard Extension School, but this is her first book. Debut collections can be a tricky proposition unless the author has already made a name for themselves, but sometimes a publisher discovers a precious gem.

In ‘Thirsty Creatures’ we see the world through the eyes of a young girl. And it is a thirsty world, as something has suddenly contaminated the water supply and anyone who drinks it suffers a horrible death. Soon the girl must venture out into a dangerous and unpredictable world with only a horse and stuffed toy for company. Carmen does an excellent job of conveying the experiences of her young protagonist, the horror of the situation palpable through her wonderful prose. The way she describes the world and the emotions of the girl is brilliant. A strong opening to the collection.

While Marci and Caleb flick through photos on Marci’s phone of their friends’ wedding celebrations the night before, they come across one of the eponymous ‘Red Room’. It shows a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an extreme horror movie; the floors and walls covered in blood, a bathtub full of gore, and two men in masks examining a dismembered corpse. While they eventually explain away the photo with an excuse, the horror returns a week later when another photo appears, seemingly showing a scene from just prior to the first. The tension is really ramped up in this story. It is longer than the first, but you’ll be breathless by the time you reach the end. The scenes of gore are handled just as well as the pacing of the story, making for a well-rounded tale.

The title story, ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked’, is about newlyweds Bella and Luke just married and attending a Halloween ball at the famous Stanley Hotel. But there is more to this happy couple than meets the eye, especially where Aunt Louise, Bella’s only living relative, is concerned. She never approved of Luke, and perhaps there was good reason for it. It’s a beautifully written piece of flash fiction with strong characters and so much conveyed in so few words.

‘Souls, Dark and Deep’ sees last minute babysitter, Belinda, called upon to care for sisters Annie and Abigail while their parents go out for a meal. At least, that’s their story. But Belinda has a different version of events to share with the girls once they are alone, one that puts their parents in a very different light. How does Belinda know these things? And why should the girls believe her? Although the story is very dark and the imagery employed by the author quite disturbing, the young characters are very well developed and given great emotional depth.

‘All Souls of Eve’ takes place on Halloween, the night before Eve and Jack’s wedding. But all is not well in their relationship. The tension between Eve’s sister, Cara, and Jack is clear to see, as is the tension between the couple when the question of Eve giving up her job to become a full-time graphic designer rears it’s head again. During the fallout, after Jack leaves to spend the night with his groomsmen, Eve is visited by three spirits, all ex-boyfriends, all giving her insight into herself based on reflecting on their past relationships. The character development is especially good in this story as Eve discovers so much about herself, and it is an interesting and original take on the traditional ghost story.

In ‘Liquid Handcuffs’, Olive Holton is a counsellor in a facility for addiction and we meet her in a typical session with patient Nicole, where they discuss many things, including Nicole’s violent ex, fellow patient Eddie. It becomes clear that Olive has had a run-in with Eddie in the recent past and this proves to be the catalyst for the horror that befalls the counsellor. What follows is what would be a terrifying and tortuous drawn-out experience for anyone. And, indeed, it proves for Olive. But she has a secret so horrifying even Eddie can’t top it. This tale of true-life horror is as disturbing as any in the collection, and it has a great ending that flips everything on its head.

Often, when a young woman keeps to herself, rumours begin to circulate. This is the case in ‘Lady of the Flies’ where Priscila Teasdale has to put up with constant teasing about her home and what really happened to her poor dogs. But she thinks all of this is about to change when she receives an invite to a Halloween party from one of the other seasonal workers at the farm where she is in charge of the maze. Then she overhears some of the other workers talking about her behind her back and everything changes, but not for the better. The character development is what makes this story stand out, as well as Carmen’s descriptions. But it is bloody, too, and a great all-around story.

With a title like ‘The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell’, you may suspect that the most famous chin in B-movies plays an integral part. And you’d be correct. Kartya and Kit are a young couple in love with each other, and gory horror, specifically anything starring Bruce Campbell. When Kit leaves for nightshift, terror comes knocking in the form of three drug addicts who injected more than just heroin. As Kartya is forced to defend herself from her attackers, her actions are very reminiscent of her movie hero, dispatching her enemies with similar bloody means and possibly throwing in the occasional Ash Williams one-liner. It is a love-letter to Campbell, but it’s also great fun and entertaining as hell.

‘A Fairy Plant in Grief’ is a very short and very touching story, very much different in tone from the previous story, but equally well written. Mikhail recounts memories of her sister from their childhood while she walks through a cemetery, clutching flowers. But the story isn’t as clear-cut as we are led to believe, and the finale is both touching and unnerving. Again, Carmen proves her skill as an adept storyteller in the short form.

‘Wolves at the Door and Bears in the Forest’ is another story that revolves around the real-life horror of drug addiction. Single mother Molly is struggling to take care of herself and her daughter Audrey, trying to make the most of what they have in the face of insurmountable odds, and a ruthless landlord. After a disastrous visit to her methadone clinic and a visit from the Division of Children, Youth, and Families, Molly hits rock bottom. She decides to take a walk in the forest, searching for a mysterious staircase. This is a gut-wrenching tale, all too imaginable in a world where so often those in trouble slip through the cracks of an uncaring bureaucracy. The characters feel very real, as does the horror facing Molly. Heart-breaking, and beautifully delivered.

‘This Our Angry Train’ returns the reader to more supernatural territory in the form of a train carriage-based ghost story. Despite her desire for a quiet trip reading her book, lone passenger Lauren is intrigued by the conductor’s strange tale about the history of the locomotive, not to mention his strange demeanour. Even after he eventually leaves her alone, she cannot stop thinking about the story, and about her own traumatic incident on a train several years before. The tension builds and builds, like a train out of control, hurtling towards oblivion. But is it all in Lauren’s head? And how much does it have to do with what happened seven years ago? This story drips with dread and Carmen does a brilliant job of relaying Lauren’s thoughts and increasingly unstable mental state to the reader. Gripping.

The penultimate story, ‘The One Who Answers the Door’, is another short tale set on Halloween, this one featuring the age-old ritual of trick or treat. A group of girls, featuring sisters ‘Zombie-Elsa’ and ‘Harley Quinn’ meet up to knock on some doors. But they have one particular address in mind, thanks to a dare from a group of boys. But who will be the one to answer the door? At first glance it feels like a run-of-the-mill trick or treat story, but by the end the reader will be surprised by the direction. Carmen’s misdirection works well and provides a good ending to a good story.

‘Flowers from Amaryllis’ is told from a second-person point of view, the ‘you’ of the story finding herself in a hospital with bandages covering her wrists. A story of heartbreak and grief unfolds throughout her meetings with a counsellor and her inner dialogue. Also, she is stalked by a presence she refers to as the ‘shadow wolf’, that may be a real supernatural entity that longs to see her miserable, or it may be an allegory for depression. Whatever it is, she still cannot escape it in the hospital, and there is very little hope for survival. But sometimes all we need is hope, and love. This is another touching story, with both real and supernatural horror elements, but mostly just very strong characters and great storytelling.

As far as debut collections go, this offers so much and delivers it all. Each story is told in its own style, whether the horror is supernatural or emotional or psychological or hardcore or based in real life or any combination of these, Carmen handles it with the assured touch of a seasoned storyteller. Exceptional, considering the stories featured were all published within the past couple of years. If she can continue to write short stories like these, as well as translate this skill to the longer form for her future work (the exciting word on the ’net is she is currently working on a novel, Coming Down Fast), Christa Carmen deserves every success that is surely coming her way. Certainly one to watch in the future.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Unnerving
Paperback: 244 pp
Release Date: 21 August 2018

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