“I like being creeped out, and I like creeping other people out,” said Carmen Maria Machado, speaking over the phone from University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches horror writing as an artist-in-residence. “A lot of aspects of our lives are real-life horror stories, and I wanted to evoke that,” the National Book Award-nominee explained.
Her Body And Other Parties, released October 3 on Graywolf Press, is Carmen’s debut story collection. It's almost hard to believe, as it’s one of the coolest pieces of literature I’ve read in a while. There are eight stories, all incredibly eerie and riveting. They're filled with ghosts, apocalyptic sex, and a looming dread that inches closer with every word.
I was hooked from the jump, not least because the opening story is a retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” a formative folktale from my youth (I first read it in Alvin Schwartz’s In A Dark, Dark Room, but it dates back to the French Revolution). Carmen’s reboot is titled “The Husband Stitch” — an archaic term for a post-pregnancy tying of the torn or cut perineum, making the vagina “tighter” for her husband’s supposed pleasure. Here, the “girl with the green ribbon” becomes an 18th century housewife whose husband is sexually obsessed with the mysterious ribbon that — spoiler alert — keeps her decapitated head attached to her neck.
Each one of Carmen's stories is structured differently, a disorienting approach that makes the book even creepier. While “The Husband Stitch” is a fourth-wall-breaking flip on an urban legend, “Inventory” is about a world-ruining virus, told through a list of the narrator’s intimate encounters. And “Especially Heinous,” sure to be a fan-favorite, is comprised entirely of made-up Law And Order: SVU episode plot summaries.
Like the best horror stories, Carmen’s unconventionally structured terrors offer a break from reality, while simultaneously pinpointing scary things about the real world. As the mythic H.P. Lovecraft writes in his essay “Notes On Writing Weird Fiction,” “There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel...a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities.” This one’s for us.
Her Body And Other Parties reminds me of everything that I love about writing. Why did you decide to play with so many different story structures?
CARMEN MARIA MACHADO: I've always been really interested in form. I grew up reading a lot of very metafictional work. I loved Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Wayside School is Falling Down, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. All these books that played with metafiction in fun ways really spoke to me.
As an adult, I’ve become a form vampire. I'll look at a non-literary shape, and be like, How can I make that into something? I have a [new] story that's in the form of a Kickstarter. When I first discovered Kickstarter, I was like, I could make something with that. Then it just so happened that an editor I know was making an anthology of crowdfunding stories. I’m always thinking about where stories show up naturally, and how I can use those shapes.
Your stories are dreamlike, too. Do you have a lot of nightmares?
I do. I get less intense nightmares as an adult than I did as a child. As a child, I had a lot of sleep disturbance. I had sleep paralysis, where I would wake up and be unable to move my body for a minute. I also had "exploding head syndrome," which is where you're falling asleep and you hear this sound in your head; I used to think of it as a train barrelling.
As a kid, I thought a lot about monsters and demons. I had this recurring dream that something was pursuing me. I didn't know what it was, but I could hear it coming. I would try to hide in a closet, but I'd open the door and there'd be something inside the closet, like a skeleton, so I couldn't. I would just be running and running and running and running and this thing would be following me. I had that dream constantly. That ominous sense of doom really informs the way I think about things — I respond to that very much in art.
I was just looking at lists of scary children's stories and I realized that I used to devour them. I'm not sure why I did that, because I had terrible nightmares, too.
There's a very dark dimension to so much children's literature. I read a lot of Lois Duncan; she was really formative for me as a young person. I read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stein. I was definitely jonesing for that horror high. I also read a lot of books that weren't horror but included horrifying images and ideas.
I have this clear memory of some kid on the bus giving me R.L. Stein’s Night of the Living Dummy book when I was little. It scared the shit out of me. I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for like, weeks. My mother was so upset she banned R.L. Stein. You could not bring a Goosebumps book into our house. But I still continued to read other scary work, and I would read other R.L. Stein books at school. I just really liked how it made me feel afraid — that a book can reach out and do that was a really marvelous thing to learn. It's still marvelous to me now.
“I really liked how Goosebumps made me feel afraid — that a book can reach out and do that was a really marvelous thing to learn. It’s still marvelous to me now.”
There are a lot of girl groups in your stories. There's the group of teen girls laughing in the woods in “The Resident,” the disappearing girls in “Real Women Have Bodies,” and the sad ghost girls in “Especially Heinous.” Was that a conscious pattern?
I don't think it was super conscious, but the experiences that were the most formative for me involved groupings of girls. I was a Girl Scout, and in "The Resident," that was very much on my mind — the pleasures and pitfalls of that dynamic. I'm interested in women's bodies and women's experiences, and that begins in girlhood: pleasure, fear, exploitation, and self-criticism. Girls together is this very empowering and exciting thing, but you can also see how those pressures are wearing away at them.
Another eerie motif you use is the doppelgänger, like in “Especially Heinous.” Some of my favorite books include doubles. Like, Nabokov’s Despair, Robert Louis Stevenson’s scary stories, Roald Dahl ...
Oh, I love Roald Dahl. He's an example of a writer who I wouldn't call a horror writer, but his dark sensibility was very formative for me as a young person. The Witches is so good.
Have you ever been able to figure out what it is that you like about weird, unnerving stories, besides the fact that it gives you a thrill?
Lois Duncan had this book called Gallows Hill that was a contemporary story about a girl whose mother gets divorced and remarried and they end up going to this little town, and the town begins to reenact the Salem Witch Trials. It was terrifying. I remember physically trembling as I was reading it because I was so scared of what was happening. It made its own point about provincialism and small towns and outsiders. I was fascinated by that feeling. I wasn't scared for no reason, I was scared because there's something in the world that's really terrifying and she managed to make me scared of that thing, you know?
Some stories are more straightforward allegories than others. I don't think that something being an allegory cheapens it in any way. Some stories are more direct. Sometimes when people try to write horror they don't get that, and they're just like, "Let's just freak everybody out." They’re just into the aesthetics of it.
There's this line at the end of "The Husband Stitch" that I love. It’s an apology: "For these questions and others and their lack of resolution, I am sorry." When I reread it after finishing the collection I was like, Are you apologizing for this entire book? None of these stories really have a solution.
With that story, in that moment that her life is ending, she still feels the need to reach out and coddle and apologize. That's significant to the story, and I like that idea that you can think about that as, like, apologizing for the whole book. That is an example of a thing that was absolutely not intentional, but you could sort of make that argument.
Feeling like she has to care for people even as she's dying — that really resonates with me as a Cancer Moon. Can we talk about our shared favorite, A Wrinkle In Time, for a minute?
It was one of those books that I returned to over and over — I can’t even tell you how many times. I really loved how it opens with Meg in the attic by herself during the storm. There’s beauty in this scene of this young woman sitting in solitude, in her own place. It really reflected what I wanted as a young person. I begged my parents to send me to boarding school and they were like, “Why? And also, no.” I wanted to just like, be by myself. It was a fantasy that I had. I really related to Meg.
That book is so terrifying and so beautiful. When they went to the place where all the children were bouncing the balls identically, and the big pulsing brain — it was just so eerie. Those books did not talk down to you at all. They were just so smart. They challenged me in this way that really felt amazing. It’s very genre-bending; L’Engle was doing a lot of stuff I wanted to be doing later, in my writing.
A lot of Her Body… is challenging. For instance, the concluding story, “Difficult At Parties,” asks a lot of the reader — to suss out what happened before the story began, to make assumptions about the narrator and why or how she’s hearing voices in the pornography she watches. How did that story come about?
Pornography is really interesting to me as a form. I’m not a huge consumer of porn, but as an aesthetic thing it’s very interesting. I was thinking a lot about perspective, and how the labeling of pornographic films implies a point of view. I may have even straight-up stolen a porn title for the story. It was called like, “Fucking My Wife,” or something.
It was a heterosexual scene, and the “my” implies that whoever the guy is, it’s from his perspective — even though, ostensibly, it’s the camera’s perspective, this more omniscient sort of eye. I was really fascinated by that. Like so many things, I think of porn as morally neutral. It can be exploitative and terrible, and it can be empowering and interesting. I wanted to play with that line.
The story has an almost like, unstable narrator, instead of an unreliable narrator.
The idea of the unreliable narrator is one that’s very interesting to me — like The Haunting of Hill House, which could be a narrative of a woman who’s slowly unraveling, or it could be a supernatural story. A lot of really interesting horror fits into that general space. You have to figure out what it is that you think is actually going on.