Book Review: To Be Devoured by Sara Tantlinger

“A compelling and harrowing debut that adds to the not insubstantial evidence that Sara Tantlinger is a promising and exciting new voice in horror.”

 

Sara Tantlinger began writing poetry while in Middle School, and has since branched out into longer prose. With an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction, it would be safe to assume that she has ambitions to take her writing career even further. Love for Slaughter (StrangeHouse Books, 2017), her first collection of poetry, was welcomed with open arms by many critics and fans alike. And her second poetry collection, The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes (StrangeHouse Books, 2018), received even more acclaim, culminating in the Bram Stoker Award for Poetry Collection. To Be Devoured is her first novella to see print.

Told from the point of view of protagonist Andi, the story opens with her observing the behaviour of some nearby vultures before she presents her girlfriend, Luna, with a handcrafted gift, made from the shed skins of Luna moths. What Andi felt would have been the perfect token of love from her to her own Luna isn’t received so favourably. Given Andi’s already fragile state of mind—the reasons for which are explored throughout the story—this rejection does very little to help. Tantlinger taps into the psyche of her troubled protagonist with great care and wonderful skill. Probably a skill derived from her years of writing poetry, but not a word is wasted as we are ensnared within Andi’s mind.

She makes frequent references to her recently deceased therapist while she travels to the office of her new therapist, Doctor Fawning, and it soon becomes clear that her troubles stem from a past trauma involving her family. She reveals early on in the story that she is the last remaining member of her family, having lost both parents and her younger brother. It creates a great deal of compassion for the broken young woman, something Tantlinger uses to immediately get the audience on her side. But, naturally, all is not as it seems as small details of Andi’s past are eked out, like a fisherman letting out just enough line to entice the fish. It isn’t long before we are hooked by her beautiful language and captivating storytelling.

Aside from Luna and Doctor Fawning, the most social interaction Andi seems to have is with next door neighbour Mr Landon. Living on an isolated road, the two have a friendly rapport, though Andi secretly resents the old widower’s nosy habits. As with all of Andi’s relationships, even this one deteriorates as the story unravels and Andi succumbs to the anger that she has fought to control all of her life. The individual incidents that lead up to the climax of her fury may seem trite to some. But, when they begin to pile on top of each other, they soon expose Andi’s mental fragility.

The vultures serve more than a subject for Andi to observe; she often remarks on just how she identifies with the carrion birds, leading her to become somewhat obsessed, and to take her admiration to stomach-churning levels. This leads us down two paths; Tantlinger’s wonderful ability to draw such vivid images with her descriptions of the vultures and how Andi relates, and also Tantlinger’s audacity when faced with the question of how much gore to show the reader. The first point is not exclusive to her descriptions of the vultures; her love for poetry and the economy of words shines throughout the story. Oftentimes, “less is more” is an effective method when telling a story which is light on the details, and utilises this to enhance the reading experience. But the author also clearly understands when best to show the reader the full force of the horror, exposing the blood and guts of the story, often literally. It is a potent mix that further exemplifies Tantlinger’s strength as an author.

At sixty-five pages, To Be Devoured is a short novella and could easily be read in one sitting. Once we are drawn into Andi’s fractured mind, we become swiftly invested in her past, present and future, even through all of her more questionable and horrific acts. The way Tantlinger paces the story, only revealing what she has to in order to make us whisper “just one more chapter … ” as we are gripped throughout, is wonderful, proof that she has given a great deal of thought to not only the content of the story, but the way it will be received. A compelling and harrowing debut that adds to the not insubstantial evidence that Sara Tantlinger is a promising and exciting new voice in horror.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Unnerving
eBook: 65 pp
Release Date: 29 July 2019

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