Meagan Kimberly reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado cover

In this collection of short stories, Carmen Maria Machado does what skilled horror writers do best: she examines real-world beliefs through a lens that highlights that real horror isn’t monsters, but our own societies. This collection grapples with the trauma and horror women and women’s bodies are put through by a patriarchal society that wants to see them submit.

In the first story “The Husband Stitch” a woman gives her lover everything he desires but keeps one thing to herself–the secret of her prized green ribbon. He’s so entitled that he constantly demands to know why she’s so attached to it, but she refuses to give him this one thing she wants to be hers. They even have a son together and one day after hearing his father ask about the ribbon, he asks about it too, but she doesn’t tell him, creating a rift between mother and child. It’s a poignant moment that illustrates how toxic masculinity is taught and passed down from one generation to the next. Finally, at the end of the story, tired of the questions and demands, she lets her husband remove the ribbon and her head falls clean off. It’s a not so subtle metaphor displaying how the demands and entitlement of the patriarchy end up killing women.

“Mothers” tells the story of a woman left with a child she doesn’t really want, not without her partner at least, who left them. But Machado’s narrative twists to make it seem like the main character had a mental breakdown and that the child, Mara, never existed. Rather, it appears as if the protagonist has broken into another family’s home and abducted their daughter. What made this story particularly scary was the inability to tell which narrative was real. It’s a tale that plays with reality and the psyche.

Machado dives into pop culture with “Especially Heinous – 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” Each snippet acts as a summary of an episode, but they’re not episodes of the real show. At least, that becomes clear as the story goes on. But at the beginning, it’s truly hard to distinguish if the synopses are real or not as they sound like actual plot lines from the series.

In “Real Women Have Bodies” an employee of a boutique fashion shop witnesses the strange phenomena of women disappearing and becoming invisible beings. They haven’t died, they’re just no longer corporeal. Even more horrific, these women are getting stitched into the very clothing the store sells, showing the still solid women stepping into their places. With this tale of horror, Machado depicts how the patriarchy keeps women controlling each other, doing men’s dirty work for them.

One of the most fascinating stories, “The Resident,” takes classic horror elements to create a sapphic scary story that’s part The Shining and part The Haunting of Hill House. This story highlights Machado’s skill in creating erotic horror out of lush and sensual language, with lines like, “a voluptuous silence that pressed against my ear drums.”

Every story features a queer main character, making the horrors and trauma they experience that much more terrifying. Because even though these are fictional stories, are they? Haven’t queer women–specially queer women of color–been subjected to unspeakable horrors in real life? At what point do stories and reality merge? Machado’s writing truly leaves readers with a sense of unease in trying to untangle those threads.

Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home: Carmen Maria Machado’s Reclamation of CARMILLA

Carmilla: Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home graphic

Carmilla is a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula by decades. It’s a story I’ve come back to over and over, in the same conflicted way that I am drawn to lesbian pulp. In fact, I wrote a post about queer culture’s tendency to reclaim toxic representation, and how Carmilla and lesbian pulp fits into that. On the one hand, it’s validating to read about queer characters in classic literature, when our presence has been erased from much of history. On the other, Carmilla is literally a monster. I vividly remember my university Gender Studies class about Monstrous Women, and how the pinnacle of this is the lesbian vampire who lurks in the shadows, ready to pounce on innocent women and violently convert them.

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Carmilla is a complex character, though. She’s in some ways pitiable and even relatable. She also seems to love Laura in some way, and their relationship is passionate, if veiled and macabre. I’m not the only queer woman drawn to this flawed but compelling character: it’s been adapted into a YouTube series (with canonically queer characters, including a nonbinary side character) that became popular enough to get its own movie and book adaptations.

I’ve always felt conflicted reading Carmilla, though, because while I could reclaim the character, it was with the knowledge that the author and story was painting her as monstrous—and that her sexuality was just an expression of this villainy. I was both repulsed by and attracted to this story—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. When I discovered that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing a new edition, I was eager to get my hands on it. I couldn’t imagine that an introduction and new editor could make a huge difference, but if anyone could reclaim this queer narrative, Machado could: the same person who wrote, “I think a lot about queer villains, the problem and pleasure and audacity of them” (In the Dream House).

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I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. This edition rewrites the entire narrative of Carmilla while keeping the vast majority of the text exactly the same. Originally, Le Fanu published the chapters serially in a magazine, then later bound them together with an introduction which claimed that the story came from Doctor Hesselius’s notes. Machado adds another layer. She claims that Le Fanu pulled this story from stolen letters, disguising and censoring the women’s story. Machado claims that the real letters from Veronika (“Laura”) were explicit about her and Carmilla’s romantic and sexual relationship.

In this version, it isn’t queer women who are trying to alter the author’s intention in order to claim Carmilla. Instead, it’s Le Fanu whose heteronormativity has obscured the real story, which can now be unearthed in its true form. This edition also adds a few footnotes and illustrations, though I desperately wanted there to be more of both. The meta-narrative that Machado creates is one in which vampires do exist—and that’s not all. In one footnote, Laura lingers outside of the woods, and the footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” (Another footnote, after a lengthy description, succinctly states, “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.”) And Robert Kraiza’s illustrations are beautiful and compelling.

It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. It was always interesting to read this classic lesbian text, but it was through the lens of heterosexism. Having a queer author shape this story makes it feel entirely new—not a guilty pleasure, but a triumphant one. Machado brings Carmilla and Laura into the fold. In this version, Laura watches in horror as her male supposed protectors execute her lover in front of her, claiming it is for her safety. Veronika dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine.” Veronika writes, “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.”

Unfortunately, shame, guilt, and fear intermingling with desire is still a common feeling for many queer people, especially when they are first exploring their sexuality. Laura is drawn to Carmilla at the same time that she feels “something of repulsion,” which can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. Laura even wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive of romance. Under Machado’s framing, instead of being horrific, Laura and Carmilla’s relationship seems somewhat familiar. Unhealthy, sure, and conflicted—but not inhuman.

After reading this book, I was filled with pride for how queer readers throughout time have reclaimed and reshaped the narratives meant to destroy us:

I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman in literature throughout time, for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately.

I finished that book knowing that Machado understood why I kept reading Carmilla, and she had created a version more hospitable to readers like me. Instead of feeling like I was fighting through the text, I was guided through it with a sympathetic hand. The lesbian vampire has long been the cruel caricature of queer women, a weapon used to portray all desire between women as pathological and even violent. Machado has taken that character, and in the grand tradition of reclaiming queer villains, she has humanized her. After long being the spectre haunting queer representation, Machado has invited Carmilla in, finally bringing the original lesbian vampire home.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Danika reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria MachadoThe act of interacting with text—that is to say, of reading—is that of inserting one’s self into what is static and unchanging so that it might pump with fresh blood. Having read this introduction, I hope you will enter into Carmilla thusly, using your fingertips and mouth and mind to locate the lacunae where LeFanu excised pieces of Veronika’s account, the hallways haunted by the specters of truth and phantom of passion. See if you cannot perceive what exists below: the erotic relationship of two high-strung and lonely young women. The shared metropolis of their dreaming. An aborted picnic in the ruins.

This isn’t my first encounter with Carmilla. I’ve read it twice before, and, of course, seen the web series and their movie (in theatre). I have a complicated relationship with this text, which I will get into later, but suffice to say I am repulsed and attracted—just as Laura is said to be to Carmilla. So, when I found out that Carmen Maria Machado was editing and introducing an edition, I needed to get my hands on it. Machado wrote Her Body and Other Parties, which is an incredible short story collection. This review will by mostly about Machado’s edition as a distinct work, but if you’d like to read my thoughts about Carmilla in general, here is my original review.

After I received a review copy of this edition, I started to wonder how different a change in editor would really make. I shouldn’t have underestimated Machado. Carmilla was originally published as a serial in a magazine. After that, his short stories were collected, with an added introduction which claimed that the story was gleaned from a Doctor Hesselius’s collection of letters. Machado adds another layer on top of this, claiming that the actual letters were discovered hidden in Le Fanu’s property, and that he had not only stolen this story and claimed it as his own, but had also censored it. She creates a meta narrative around the work, which leads us to imagine that Carmilla was published in a world where vampires do exist.

Through her introduction, she makes the queer subtext (already hard to deny) text. In the discovered letters, the real Laura (Veronika) describes her undisguised desire for the real Carmilla. This casts doubt on Le Fanu as a narrator, showing him as a biased perspective. He is made unimportant, an impediment to understanding the story and the character, instead of a creator. Machado’s introduction claims that she hasn’t restored the edition to the “original letters” because she hopes that more will be discovered, and also because she wanted Le Fanu to be recognized in his inadequacy and shame. What a brilliant reclamation of this story, which centres the women and their relationship. Instead of seeing a queer reading as violating the intent of the author or bringing a modern lens, it imagines the story as being previously misinterpreted through a heteronormative view. It’s brilliant.

Of course, there’s more to this book than just the introduction. There are footnotes, but they are only occasional. There are a handful of factual footnotes, mostly indicating place names that no longer exist. And then there are a precious handful of footnotes that add a whole new dimension to the text. One footnote casually relays the life story of a character who only shows up for a few pages. After Laura glances at the woods, a footnote laments, “Lonely as she was, if only Laura knew the potential friends who resided in those woods! Peddlers, mountebanks, roguish-but-decent thieves and brigands, fairies, wolpertingers…” And the ultimate footnote, of course, which simply reads: “If this isn’t an orgasm, nothing is.” It’s so nice to have a friendly (i.e. queer) guide through this unfriendly narrative. As wonderful as it is to read a lesbian vampire story that predates Dracula, it is openly hostile to queer readers. This edition, instead, centres a queer narrative. In the introduction, she excerpts from Veronika’s discovered letters, where she says she dreams of Carmilla, of her corpse intoning “You are mine,” and follows it with “How I fear that sound: that it might be true, and that it might never be true again.” In this story, the male characters are executing Laura’s lover while claiming to be protecting her. Machado compares her to Elizabeth Báthory: monster, or victim of misogynistic smear campaign?

There are also a few beautiful and detailed illustrations by Robert Kraiza, including a sexy illustration of Carmilla and Laura’s embrace. Like Machado’s footnotes, I savored each one, but I was also greedy for more of them. One of the things that I noticed about the original story this time around was the lore. I like reading early vampire or zombie stories, because the rules and associations around them have changed over time. In Carmilla, vampires must return to their graves to sleep at least a few hours every day. (They also seem to be able to walk through walls and get into and out of their graves without disturbing the soil.) When they unearth Carmilla in her coffin, she is partially submerged in blood, which is such a creepy image that I’m surprised it hasn’t survived. I also noticed this time that Le Fanu’s text describes the vampire, after finding a suitable victim, to engage in a kind of courtship which resembles the passion of love. He says that they yearn for something like consent or sympathy. Carmilla is not treated entirely sympathetically in the original text, but this definitely leaves the door open for more generous interpretations.

Finally, I found myself ruminating about why queer people so often love monsters, villains, vampires. I think that Laura’s mix of fear and shame and attraction is such an uncomfortable reflection of some of our first experiences with queer desire—before, maybe, we even knew enough to name it. That monstrous, beautiful future that could be glimpsed in it. Laura’s feeling of being both drawn to Carmilla and feeling “something of repulsion” can easily be interpreted as compulsory heterosexuality souring desire. In fact, so heteronormative is Laura that she wonders if Carmilla could be a boy disguised—the only way she can conceive a romance. She is so undone by this queer courtship that she says “I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.” Outside of (or alongside) compulsory heterosexuality, I started to think of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as being a representation of toxic relationships—love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. Initially unaccountably pleasurable, fascinating, and then mixed with the horrible, resulting in Laura’s increased lassitude, melancholy, and thoughts of death. This could easily be reimagined as a canon relationship, but an unhealthy and even abusive one.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to this story for the same reason that I keep coming back to lesbian pulp. Because I think that it’s crucial to not only have a queer present and future, but also to reclaim our past. And those narratives have been hidden, and when they’re not hidden, they’re hostile. But I want to seek out every snide reference to a queer woman throughout time, and it’s for the same reason that queer people reclaim monsters and villains. Because we stare our fears in the eye and embrace them. We take the boogeyman stories about us and we invite them in. We make monsters into heroes and the heroes into monsters. We queer the story. Instead of shrinking from the terrible associations that have been put on us, we remake them and show them off. Because we are alchemists who turn shame into pride. And this is a book that knows that so intimately. Carmen Maria Machado seems to know why I read Carmilla, and created a pathway through this story that does most of the work for queer readers. This is a profoundly different experience from reading Le Fanu in isolation. Machado’s edition has made me think more deeply about this story, and has made me feel like a welcome reader to it, which is not an easy thing to do with a text that frames people like me as monsters. I will cut off this sprawling essay here, since I feel like I’m approaching the length of the novella, but I hope that if you have read Carmilla, you re-read it in this edition, and if you’ve never read it, treat yourself to this little-changed but much-improved version.

Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.