The horror story, in its classic form, works because it offers the pleasure of being scared to death from a safe distance, giving the reader a subliminal sense of comfort. But in Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of stories that straddle horror and fairy tale, that comfort is challenged — and sometimes withheld entirely.
Machado’s particular genius is to remove the safety net readers expect. In the eight stories that make up this brilliant and unsettling debut, the world of women and their bodies — both the delights they provide and the dangers they encounter — is presented coolly, with no promise that the writer’s protagonists will live happily ever after.
In “Mothers”, a woman’s sense of reality becomes fractured as her drug-addled partner grows ever more abusive. Is the baby who appears in the story — “genderless, red, not making a noise” — really there? And if so, who made her? Machado, like a literary magician, reveals and conceals in equal measure. “If I blink, her form could dissolve beneath my fingers,” the narrator says of the baby, “and once again, I will be just me: undeserving, alone.”
In “Inventory”, meanwhile, the survivor of a plague transmitted by sexual contact compiles a list of the men and women she has slept with. “If people would just stay apart — ” says one of her lovers in the aftermath of sex. But they can’t and don’t, no matter how deadly the virus blooming on the horizon.
Women disappear in many ways in these stories. In “Real Women Have Bodies”, they simply fade away, “incorporeal”, not dying but growing insubstantial, becoming “afterthoughts”. The sisters in “Eight Bites” are the victims of an unforgiving world, where women may not take up too much space. “They angled their forks and cut impossibly tiny portions of food — doll-sized cubes of watermelon, a slender stalk of peashoot, a corner of a sandwich as if they needed to feed a crowd loaves-and-fishes style with that single serving of chicken salad — and swallowed them like a great decadence.”
“Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” is the longest piece in Machado’s collection, a novella that satisfyingly reworks the long-running police procedural with grimmer, more brooding storylines.
But perhaps the most resonant is “The Husband Stitch”, which follows a woman as she both indulges and curbs her appetites. The woman at the centre of the story wears a ribbon around her neck. Her only condition to her husband is that her ribbon must never be touched, through marriage, sex, pregnancy, birth and after the husband stitch — look it up, if you dare — is put in.
What the ribbon conceals, what it holds up, and what unravels when a man cannot let a woman have even this one small privacy is truly chilling. At one point in the tale, Machado’s narrator retells well-worn horror stories, with cautionary notes: “Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make . . . Pride is the second . . . As it turns out, being right was the third, and worst, mistake.”
As a writer, Machado ranks alongside Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood, and she brings all her (there should be a woman’s word to replace “mastery”) formidable skills to bear in this tale of the rent fabric of women’s lives.
Along with the perils and plagues, Machado is also an assured sensualist, one of the few writers who can tackle sex and passion as a subject without tilting into overwrought prose or improbable metaphors. She writes erotica under the name of Olivia Glass, whose Twitter bio proudly proclaims that she is a “smut writer”.
“She slid her hands high up my thighs in public places and told me her darkest story and asked about mine,” the narrator says of her lover, Bad, in “Mothers”, telling you everything you need to know about the pull and the power balance in that relationship. In “Inventory”, two survivors of different tragedies meet after a funeral. “I was grieving, he was grieving. We had sex in the empty house that used to belong to his brother and his brother’s wife and their children, all dead.”
Machado’s narrators are articulate and thoughtful, with vivid internal lives. But she’s sharp enough at capturing the messiness of ordinary human behaviour to distinguish one character from the next, keeping the stories distinct and marking each with flares of stark beauty. Machado has rare gifts, disciplined by years of writing short stories for magazines, and her literary fearlessness has already been recognised in the US, where this collection was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Awards. The stories in Her Body and Other Parties, on the vulnerability and the appetites of women, their transgressions and their disappearances, have the depth of fairy tales and the grim acid rasp of the best horror fiction. You cannot wait for her to tell more of them.