|Art by agsandrew / Adobe Stock Art|
“Secret Keeper” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (3873 words)
This is a deeply creepy story about secrets and shadows, about the people that go unseen and the way they can turn on each other. The story follows Erica, who is born with a disfigured face, and who comes to be known as Ghost Girl because of it. Who does become something of a ghost in the process, able to hide, able to become the shadows and flit about her school and haunt it. And, eventually, able to haunt one person in particular, a new girl named Chrissie. The story has some serious Phantom of the Opera vibes to it, with the Ghost Girl coming to occupy an area under the school’s theater, where she listens to the students sing and waits for something to move her. The piece as a whole is also very concerned with isolation, with the way that being an outcast because of her disfigured face makes the Ghost Girl into someone magical, into part shadow and part myth, and all using the way that people don’t want to see her anyway. She is able to take that and learn from it, to find secrets in the shadows she slides in and out of and to try and break the isolation that has defined her. How she is drawn to Chrissie because of their shared loneliness is disturbing and captivating all at the same time, and the character work here is great, building slowly as if the story isn’t quite sure how much it wants to tease the possibility of a happy ending. There is also a fairy tale feel here, but a stripping away of the Disney shine and revealing a story that is dark and difficult. There are no easy answers to the story, no magical reverses that see everyone cured and happy. It’s a story about the damage that isolation can do, and about the cycles it can create, and it’s beautifully and horrifyingly rendered. A great read!
“The Narrow Escape of Zipper Girl” by Adam-Troy Castro (3942 words)
This is a deeply unsettling story about the male gaze and how frightening it can be. It’s about a woman being reduced by a man into one thing, one thing that pleases him and that he tries to get to embrace more. A zipper. In many ways this is a story about people who take things like fetishes and kink and make it about abuse, instead of valuing consent or health. The voice of the piece is basically the voice of predatory masculinity, the voice of a man who wants to break the woman he is with to make her into something that fits what he wants. He takes every opportunity to insult her and describe how boring she is, how much he is disgusted and appalled by her and gracing her with his attentions because of this one thing she almost did right. That has awakened a hunger in him. He goes on and on about how clever he is and how good he is at hiding his true self, his amazing self, [SPOILERS] and yet at the same time the story shows the lie of that, shows how she sees through him time and again and despite staying with him for quite some time she is able to get away from him, able to expose him for what he is and seek out a better situation. For all that the voice of the story is rather terrifying, though, what the story really shows with regards to horror is that for all that this man reads like a serial killer and treats her like garbage and moves through the world with this superiority and arrogance and revolting violence constantly playing in his head, he is barely censored for it. Sure, she breaks up with him. Sure, her friends admonish him for killing a cat. But the true horror here is that’s the worst that happens to him. He still lied to her for over a year, coerced her into sex she wasn’t comfortable with, tried to get her to change her body, constantly gaslit and manipulated her and those around her, broke into her home and murdered her pet—for all that he is let go on his way. And he’s still out there, untouched, getting ready to take his abuse to the next level. And that lands with a sick realization, and for all that the story itself is unpleasant as fuck to read, I think it manages to (intentionally or not) reveal the horror that is the way that men are allowed and even encouraged to become monsters. So yeah, an unsettling read!