Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Piper, Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy (2021)

Hailey Piper, Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy. The Seventh Terrace, 2021. Pp. 253. ISBN 978-1-9900-8201-6. $14.99 pb/$4.99 e.

Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz

Am I the only one who’s gotten really into horror during the pandemic? Maybe going through our own gnarly experience has made me empathize with fictional gnarly experiences more; maybe watching someone get chainsawed apart just puts my life into perspective. Whatever the reason, I’m absolutely inhaling horror right now. But more than any other genre, horror absolutely must have resonant themes for me to enjoy it. A fantasy story that’s kinda parochial and regressive? I can deal. (I, too, read Lord of the Rings.) But if it’s a horror story? I’m out.

Enter Hailey Piper and her new collection Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy. Smart, feminist, and chock-full of queer themes (especially trans themes), it’s just the thing if the past year has pushed you into “screw it” territory.

The stories range from interesting riffs on common conceits (an exorcism goes wrong; a cute pet turns out to be sinister) to imaginative new ideas (a witch hunt on a generation ship, a city attacked by a giant worm made of human bodies), but despite the variety of settings, they share a harmonious tone—somber and reflective, dangerously beyond caring about consequences. As a result, unusually for a single-author collection, this is a book you can read in one sitting without feeling either jarring or monotonous.

In keeping with a collection that’s genuinely thematically queer and not simply featuring queer characters, the focus is inward. Witches show up time and again, feared by a society that cannot accept what they are, as do villain protagonists, embracing the sinister image that others imposed on them. Where monsters show up, they are most often some kind of reflection of the protagonist.

Let’s take two outstanding stories as representing the lot. One is “Recitation of the First Feeding,” the longest story and the centerpiece of the collection. In deep denial about her identity, a trans girl believes there’s a ghost leaving dolls and dresses in her room. She summons a sinister fae court that devours whatever humans offer—only to find that they’ve devoured a part of her, leaving her male-presenting but a husk of her former self. This story revels in the creepiness of the court, lingering on every gruesome detail of their meals. After all, shouldn’t the process of losing part of yourself be a grisly one? Though fantastical, this story highlights the very real—and often deadly—consequences of the self-loathing and denial that our culture creates in queer lives.

If “Recitation of the First Feeding” encompasses the collection’s queer themes, my favorite story, “Candyland,” encompasses its feminist themes. Human-looking immortal aliens court teenage girls, lavishing them with wealth for the purpose of transforming them into candy and consuming them. While in “Recitation,” the cannibalistic themes are lurid and disgusting, “Candyland” renders them gentle and euphemistic. The layers of commentary on our culture’s (and especially the book world’s) toxic gender dynamics keep unspooling the more you unpack it. How relationships between very young girls and vastly older, more powerful male characters are romanticized as long as the male characters look like hot guys. How toxic gender expectations are willingly and zealously enforced by the women themselves. How total submission to horrific demands and giving up everything, including life itself, are considered desirable and swoon-worthy of a female character in a romantic relationship. How adult women are considered worthless and their lives not worth living once they cease to be young enough to exploit.

Bold, thoughtful, and beautifully written, this collection couldn’t have come out at a more opportune time. It could have been tailor-made to scratch that horror itch—and to raise a lot of thought-provoking questions at the same time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a hot alien with a goatee is offering to turn me into licorice.

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