SICK Part 1 (now Afflicted-Sick Book 1) will be re-released by Raven Tale Publishing soon. After the first edition, one of my readers found it so off-putting, they could not continue with the series. This, she told me, was a compliment. So what made me choose to write dark fiction?
Dark fiction chose me. The story of John and Susan Branch in The Sick Series was literally transcribed from a nightmare. As the series continued, my writing style deepened, and I noticed exploring dark themes impacted me (believe it or not) in a psychologically healthy way.
Dark fiction teaches us the most about ourselves. It’s a dimension where our shadow self feels safe to step out of us so that we can see it as a whole and examine it. It’s a place where we can’t shy away, laugh it off, and pretend it’s not there. Dark fiction is Jungian shadow work while wearing a protective cloak of a story.
I am constantly seeking like-minded authors to appreciate and learn from. Here are some of my latest discoveries if you care to explore our shady human psyche with other female writers who fearlessly tread the dark.
4 Disturbingly Talented Female Authors
This not a new book, but it stands up decades later. Veronica is a swirling journey through Alison’s life as she goes from humble beginnings to high-fashion model, to middle-aged woman with hepatitis and a bad shoulder. In the maelstrom of almost hallucinogenic recollections of her decadent past and vivid observations of her present, is the friendship with a woman named Veronica.
Their relationship is a strange mix of love and something ugly, as Alison’s feelings of superiority wrestle with her loneliness and desire to connect. The end is so heartbreaking, I could barely stand the pain. It ends on a hopeful note, though. Life, just life—messy and beautiful.
The way Gaitskill vivisects human emotion and psychology is freakishly detailed and hyper-realistic. Her writing may be too much for some. At times, I wanted her to let up for a paragraph or two to take a breath, but if you can stick with this book, it is so worth it. It is not horror, but the emotional brutality makes it more horrific than any gore or violence. Thanks to Richard Thomas for recommending her work to me.
The wind is strong now. I’m afraid it will pick me up and throw me off the ridge. I picture falling, breaking on tree branches and cracking my head on the rocks below. I picture a tree branch falling on me and pinning me. How long would I lie there before someone found me? Night would come. The softness and greenness and moving stillness would make an immense fist and it would close around me. Bugs would come. I would die. Animals would come. Bugs and animals would eat me. I would rot and disperse. The dispersed flesh would travel down into the ground in tiny pieces, burrowing in the dirt, deeper and deeper. I would cease to be an I and become an it. It would get eaten by bugs, come out their assholes, and keep going. It would come to the center of the earth. The heat and light would be like hell for a human. But it would not be human. It would go on in.
And this …
I imagine being in a hospital bed, holding my dying, unfaithful lover in my arms. I imagine feeling the beat of his heart, thumping with dumb animal purity. Once, when I was working in Spain, I went to a bullfight, where I saw a gored horse run with its intestines spilling out behind it. It was trying to outrun death by doing what it always did, what always gave it joy, safety, and pride. Not understanding that what had always been good was now futile and worthless, and humiliated by its inability to understand. That’s how I imagine Duncan’s heart. Beating like it always had, working as hard as it could. Not understanding why it was no good. This was why Veronica got into the bed—to comfort this debased heart. To say to it, But you are good. I see. I know. You are good. Even if it doesn’t work.
To Be Devoured
During the 2020 lockdowns, I read so much that most stories from the period become foggy and blend. But To Be Devoured still haunts me. Now that I finally have begun blogging again and can share it with you, I look on Amazon and it’s out of print. I’m hoping that means it’s going to be re-released soon because it’s one of my favorites.
To Be Devoured is about a woman named Andi who becomes obsessed with vultures and begins to crave putrid flesh. If you’ve ever smelled a ripe carcass, then the thought of putting rotten offal in your mouth is enough to traumatize you. But the story goes much deeper than that, into her traumatic past and a ravenous preoccupation with her girlfriend. There is a scene with a feminine hygiene product that you probably shouldn’t read in public because your mouth will gape open. Things get pitch black, graphic, and downright disgusting, but it’s threaded with poetry and meaning and explores many of my favorite themes.
Ugly birds drift in slow, lazy circles, but I shouldn’t judge for what is simply in their nature. Every body is a waiting carcass to them, a future meal to be enjoyed—they don’t care about aesthetics. They take care of it, strip away the decayed flesh from bones like a ravenous, sacred obligation, sharing the duty with pulsating maggots and buzzing flies. A voracious feast of the dead, purging rot and liquified tissue from the skeleton until advanced decay claims everything, giving the remaining nutrients back to the soil, to nature. The way Mother Earth intended. Nothing wrong about it.
What does it taste like—dead flesh? Do the bodies haunt the vultures after they consume the carcass? If I eat a human’s meat, do they live on inside me forever? Humans eat cooked ham, steak, venison, and more all the time. All those dead cows, chickens, pigs, fish—they become meals. Their bodies digesting inside another body. Bones and organs, blood and marrow, absorbing and taking what each part needs to survive. It’s cooked, preserved, safe.
I would never guess that after weathering COVID with the company of her book, Sara Tantlinger would publish my short story, The Oasis, in her Chromophobia Anthology. Recently, I came across a review of To Be Devoured by Steve Stred (also a huge talent) on Kendall Reviews that mentioned similarities in our writing styles before I even discovered her work. It seems I was destined to be a fan.
I had insomnia one night and started browsing Amazon suggestions. The title Waif popped up. My interest was further piqued when I read the description, which made such an odd contrast with the Victorian-looking cover.
Angela is a disenchanted wife who, by bizarre circumstances involving her husband and a stranger who becomes her sexual obsession, ends up working in an underground plastic surgery and porn ring.
I thought I was a in for a slow burn of deviant self-discovery that would help me drift off to sleep. Instead, Waif kept me awake for hours more. I was unable to put it down.
This book is propulsive and outrageous. Intermixed are moments of such recognizable honesty and insight into unsettling parts of oneself, that you flinch. I love books that reveal truths about us, and this one flashes them like a strobe light, especially the darker aspects of being a woman. Combine that with lurid and horrific situations you hope you can banish from memory.
Some characters’ motivations seeemed contradictory, but not enough to trip me up. If you aren’t squeamish, there is so much to appreciate in this book above the hardcore. At its heart, it is a love story, one with beautiful, brash writing and a hopeful end.
Yet now I looked at him, so pitiable and ill-postured over his coffee, which he said now hurt too much to drink warm and instead had to drink it either room temp or slightly cold. He’d taken to hiding his once hairy thighs, too, which now had strange inflamed pockmarks where the hairs used to be. I caught him picking at one once when he thought I wasn’t looking. He picked at it so long it bled. And then he’d brought his finger to his mouth and had smelled his own blood. It made me embarrassed to witness it, like I had caught some private moment of a dying animal.
Final thought: Don’t read it before you go to bed unless you want to stay awake until it’s done.
Chelsea G. Summer
A Certain Hunger
Look out, Patrick Bateman. Here comes America’s new psycho with an even more refined palate. Introducing Dorothy Daniels, food critic and burgeoning serial killer.
I haven’t finished this book yet, but wow. If you want to tag along for a journey with an intellectual psychopath Hannibal Lector a la femme fatale, this is the book for you (a book I would love to have written). The prose is toe-curling, and much like Mary Gaitskill, unrelenting.
Dorothy tells us her story from her prison cell, taking us through her first lovers, her strange cravings, and how she finally crossed the line into full blown murderer. An undercurrent of gender-angst makes it a little less scary than it would otherwise be. If it’s social commentary, we don’t have to take it seriously, right? Good thing, or we’d be disturbed that we’re enjoying it so much.
Here’s a little taste for you:
We women have an emotional wiliness that shellacs us in a glossy patina of caring. We have been raised to take interest in promoting the healthy interior lives of other humans; preparation, I suppose, for taking on the emotional labor of motherhood—or marriage; either way, really. Few women come into maturity unscathed by the suffocating pink press of girlhood, and even psychopaths are touched by the long, frilly arm of feminine expectations. It’s not that women psychopaths don’t exist; it’s that we fake it better than men.
And this powerful statement …
The main thing that youth has going for it is porpoise-tight skin. Raw, wide-eyed newness is meaningless. Nostalgia for knowing nothing is asinine; you can’t recapture it and you don’t want to relive it. Better to sing a song of experience with your burning tiger’s heart.
A Certain Hunger is more fun than America Psycho and not so bleak you need to see a psychiatrist afterward, but it’s dark enough that it will get to you if you don’t take breaks between courses.
Next on my TBR list of disturbingly talented female authors…
Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica
Bones and All, Camille DeAngelis
Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Boy Parts, Eliza Clark
Hysteria, Jessica Gross
The New Me, Halle Butler
Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
What are the most disturbingly talented female authors you have read?
Please share your suggestions below.