Book Review: Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy by Hailey Piper

“Hailey Piper is an incredible storyteller with an unflinching and captivating style, and her star continues to shine brighter with every publication.”

Unfortunate Unfortunate Elements of my Anatomy by Hailey Piper - cover Hailey Piper has already made a lasting impression on the horror genre, a feat made all the more impressive given the relatively short time she has been publishing and her short list of published work. But every single book seems to have been met with almost universal acclaim, from her unique possession story The Possession of Natalie Glasgow (independently published in 2019) to the fantastically slasherific Benny Rose, The Cannibal King (Unnerving, 2020) to the heart-breaking Cosmic horror The Worm and His Kings (Off Limits Press, 2020). If the praise these books have received from the likes of Stephen Graham Jones, Gwendolyn Kiste and Laurel Hightower among many others isn’t enough to interest you, perhaps a collection of eighteen uniquely different, uniquely brilliant short stories will help.

‘Feast for Small Pieces’ turns the tables on those ridiculous old pulp stories told from the man’s point of view, whereby all he needs to do is approach an attractive woman and she becomes nothing more than putty in his hands. In Piper’s story, after being aggressively approached by an “alpha” male, her unnamed protagonist exercises her full power over the weaker sex and puts him to good use. No longer a waste of flesh and muscle, he ultimately serves a purpose for this mysterious creature that is more than she seems. The horror in this story is glorious to behold, with the serious underlying issue and a narrative voice that is sharply sardonic.

‘The Law of Conservation of Death’ also has a serious issue at its core, with the added speculative element. On the surface, we have a woman who recalls each of her past lives, and how she met her end in each, at the hands of a man who, in her first incarnation, was a partner. But it is soon made clear that he saw her as little more than a possession for him to toy with, and not even death should stand in his way. The multiple reincarnations make for chilling reading as the hunter inevitably finds his prey, whether it is while she is young, or if it takes a lifetime. Time has no meaning when you can recall everything that has gone before. While it makes for difficult reading, Piper does a wonderful job of letting the story play out to a fulfilling conclusion.

A summoning gone wrong sets the stage for ‘Demons of Particular Taste’, when Lin relies on her girlfriend Kristie to cast the invading demon out with an exorcism. But relationships meant for two rarely work out when there is a third wheel, and the subjects in this story are no exception when the truth of the ritual becomes clear. One of the shorter pieces in the collection, it still packs a punch thanks to Piper’s seemingly effortless storytelling style, while also showcasing some of her humour.

‘I’m Not a Chainsaw Kind of Girl, But …’ is one hell of a title, and the story more than lives up to it. Another story tinged with humour, thanks to the narration by Zoe, this one takes place one night when she is together with her two best friends and their idiotic and misogynistic boyfriends. Determined to make her friends see the error of their ways, Zoe employs a magical melody that she can play on her grand piano, something she discovered in a book of the occult, something she doesn’t truly understand. Blending elements of hardcore horror, cosmic horror and a wonderful narrator, Piper delivers a fantastic and fast-paced story.

A disturbing mix of fairy-tale and possessiveness, ‘Candyland’ makes for an intriguing read. Set in an alternate reality where teenagers compete for the attention of beautiful alien visitors, this story examines the idea of popularity, and what some may give to achieve it. While these aliens are treated like royalty (they essentially pay the family of their “chosen” consort a dowry), the small group of friends to which Catherine belongs will do anything to win their favour. She tries to downplay it but, secretly, she longs to be the chosen one, before she reaches maturity and is no longer deemed worthy of the aliens. Piper explores the dynamics of friendship and worship and the horrors both hold within. It seems that no subject is beyond her reach when it comes to unearthing the horror beneath.

With elements of fantasy and horror, ‘Elf-Bride’ tells the story of a young Scottish girl, soon to be a woman, obsessed with the notion of marrying an elf. She researches the rituals needed to open a door to the land of Faerie, where the elves are said to reside, and enlists the help of her ‘girls’, be they sisters or friends is not clear. What becomes clear, through the telling of the story, is just how far Aileen will go to get what she wants. The voice of the narrator dons an appropriately—and convincingly—Scottish lilt (and this reviewer ought to know) which lulls the reader along in this tale of what could be conceived as a young girl’s fanciful game. That is, until the chilling finale. Everything, from the setting to the narrator to the ritual, comes together to deliver a quick and entertaining tale.

A love triangle takes centre stage in ‘Aggressive Mimicry’, where Miguel watches the object of his affection, Omar, pursue women in their social group, but also feels Omar is giving him mixed signals about his own intentions toward Miguel. When Omar claims to know where a beautiful woman skinny-dips, he proposes their group of male friends try to find her. This tale feels very much like a modern version of the siren story, a mysterious and beautiful creature luring men to their deaths, men who follow their urges instead of using their brains. If only Omar had been honest with Miguel about how he felt, things could have ended differently.

In ‘Seven Signs He Doesn’t Love You’, the unnamed protagonist comes home from a hard shift at the hospital to find that her boyfriend, Donnie, has booked them a two-week holiday to the tropical island of Keso. Out of season and subject to stormy weather, there is little for the couple to do. But Donnie seems right at home, getting cosy with a local girl. There is something supernatural and creepy going on on the island, with its so-called guardian statues, but the main crux of the story, as hinted at by the title, is the growing strain on their relationship. For every sign, there is another sinister and stressful crack in their romance, leading the protagonist to take refuge in the embrace of another, but not in the way you may think.

In an alternate version of present day where witchcraft is real and feared by those in power, ‘Crones in Their Larval State’ sees Carol visiting her daughter in a detention centre meant for those accused of practicing witchcraft. It details a very difficult relationship between mother and daughter, taking to extreme the relatable story about trouble faced by women who feel their daughters don’t listen, and girls who feel their mothers don’t understand. It is a fantastic allegory, and an exciting premise that, much like most of the stories in this collection, would make for a great novella or novel, in the hands of a gifted storyteller like Piper.

Continuing the witchcraft theme, but moving the setting far into the future and far from Earth, ‘Hairy Jack’ examines the politics of a patriarchy that uses accusations of witchcraft to keep the female members of the ship’s population in line. But when they choose the wrong woman to target, the eponymous Hairy Jack, a large black dog (employed here as a familiar), is set loose on the ship and those men, and those who would stand idly by, pay the price. A fine example of a futuristic witchcraft story (not sure that sentence has been used a lot before) and further evidence of Piper’s ability to blend all manner of stories together to create something exciting and unique.

‘Daisy’ is the name of the main character in this particular tale, a young Labrador when she first meets a young boy, one of those children who can’t help but grab at dogs despite whatever harm he may do. Daisy doesn’t forget the boy, and the cruelty she senses in him, meeting him again when he is a young man. She leads him away from the town and toward her true owner. One of the shorter stories, to say any more would give too much away. But Piper does an excellent job of conveying so much in such a small space, and tying together threads from the past of the story’s beginning, to its end. A delightfully creepy finale.

When Beatrice discovers her mother’s old Walkman in ‘The Umbilical Chord’, the infernal music has an unusual and horrific effect on the girl. Something her mother has seen in the past. As the mother narrates the story, addressing her sister throughout, the full extent of the horror wrought by the tape in the Walkman gradually becomes clearer, until the bloody and emotional ending. A story dripping with equal quantities blood and regret, it is paced wonderfully well and told with the author’s unique style.

‘We All Scream’ features Shareen, a transgender girl faced with the daunting task of using a public restroom. Most of us won’t know the terror that can come with this situation, especially once we know something of the intolerant history that Shareen has faced at the hands of her own family. Neither will we know of the terror of a creepy ice cream vendor sliding in through the open restroom window and forcefully insisting we eat ice cream while he watches. It may sound strange, and possibly could have taken the story in a more bizarro, light hearted direction. But, given the sinister comments made by the vendor, and him knowing details about Shareen she hasn’t shared with him, the story turns out quite chilling (Pun not intended; who knew ice cream could be so terrifying?).

‘The Burning of the Blueberries’ sees Gabriel celebrating his twenty-first birthday alone in a dive bar, before he is approached by the affable Marty and given the opportunity to visit the exclusive Horned Brotherhood, on the face of it a gentleman’s club, but more likely a secret society. Women only ever enter the club to fulfil the desires of a member. But, when Gabriel witnesses a woman being escorted from the basement, he can’t help but investigate, even as he is trying so hard to fit in, to be one of the lads. He discovers an inner circle, a terrible ritual, and a crime against mother nature. A story that shows that, most of the time, there is nothing more evil than men who crave power and will do whatever it takes to grab it.

‘Jormungandr’s Dance’ sees the aftermath of a young couple’s argument play out against the backdrop of an attack on the city by giant, worm-like creatures. The two incidents seem unconnected although, as we see toward the end of the story, there may be a specific reason why these worms, and the individual ‘particles’ that form them, come into being. Grief is a powerful emotion and perhaps the overall emotional wellbeing of the universe is finely balanced so that, too much sadness could push it over the edge, and cause the cataclysmic events of the story.

An unusual love story, ‘Forgive the Adoring Beast’ is told from the point of view of a mythical beast that finds itself drawn to a witch in the woods, even as she kills it over and over again. But it only wishes to serve the witch, leading her to embrace the creature, but in a most unusual way, to make something even better. A meditation on love and what some will do to please those they adore.

‘Among the Creatures of the Night’ finds Melanie running from a too-insistent admirer who had taken to bothering her at the café in which she worked, never taking ‘no’ for an answer. The story is all too familiar to many women, having to deal with the unwanted advances of entitled men too used to getting their own way. It doesn’t help Melanie’s situation that many of her co-workers encouraged his behaviour. Piper uses her artistic licence to paint the pursuing admirer as something supernatural, so too the co-workers who accompany him, that she describes as ‘she-clowns’ so heavy-handed they have been with the make-up. But it makes for a creepy visual, and a captivating story.

‘Recitation of the First Feeding’ is a tremendous story to end the collection on, as we are introduced to Alex, a young boy ‘haunted’ by a ghost girl who he believes steals his younger sister’s dolls and hides them in his room, steals his mother’s cosmetics and does the same, leaving him to take the blame. The truth is much more complicated than that and, without understanding parents to offer love, like they are supposed to, Alex doesn’t realise the truth until he is much older. Until he has made the acquaintance of the frightening Culinary Court, a group of demons who, once summoned, can devour anything offered, even memories. A tale about identity and coming to terms with one’s own skin, with added demons and ghastly descriptions, Piper delivers a wonderful and, at times, heart-breaking story as only she can.

Eighteen stories, each one comprised of different characters, settings, time periods. But they all have one thing in common; they are all written by an author who, whether born with it or through hard work, has an exceptional command of her craft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, serves the story. Most of the stories hold a kernel of truth, born in the intolerance and hatred of self-serving and controlling men, that hints at a past of bigoted and despicable behaviour experienced by the author. That she has navigated those troubled waters to find a home in horror, and deliver such consistently fantastic fiction, is something for which readers ought to be grateful. Hailey Piper is an incredible storyteller with an unflinching and captivating style, and her star continues to shine brighter with every publication. Reading her work is as rewarding as it is entertaining.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: The Seventh Terrace
eBook: 182 (pps.)
Release Date: 7 May 2021

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1 comment

  1. I love Piper’s style of writing. Her prose is lyrical and full of emotion.

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