“Some Breakable Things” by Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw’s “Some Breakable Things” appeared in the September 2016 issue of The Dark. You can read it here.

WHAT SCARED ME: It’s hard to say what’s more horrifying in this story—the beautifully visceral, almost audibly squelching descriptions of the narrator’s father’s ghost, or the awful emotional manipulation perpetrated by both the living and the dead.

The plot is simple but devastating: after his death, the narrator’s father haunts them, first following them and then screaming at them. The ghost starts with a blur in place of facial features and gradually becomes a shambling, gory mess of innards. Requests for help from friends and family are met with dismissive diagnoses or upsettingly casual (even smug) reactions. Breathless snippets of backstory tell of emotional and physical abuse from a deeply disturbed man.

I cannot get over how Khaw renders this haunting. I mean:

Intestine drool from the base of his breastbone, a spiral of nesting pinks.

I am incredibly here for this kind of gut stuff. The ghost in this story is a dripping mess, depicted with prose that makes his ribs jut right out of the text.

But just as frightening as the dead father is the narrator’s isolation. They can’t find understanding anywhere, and their family—including the ghost—expects them to shoulder the spectral burden, or at least to admit that it’s the natural way of things. Many ghost stories center on the haunted party’s guilt, justifying the trauma of being tailed by a vengeful spirit. But this is no Telltale Heart; this is gaslighting by ghost, a much more abhorrent prospect.

There’s no relief in this piece, no escape from an awful network of cruelty and blame. Help seems unreachable and, tragically, by the end, undeserved. The sheer bleakness of this ghost story makes it a heartbreaking, terrifying read—one that you should definitely attempt.

“Cuckoo Girls” by Douglas F. Warrick

Douglas F. Warrick’s short story “Cuckoo Girls” appeared in Apex Magazine in June 2016. You can read it here.

WHAT SCARED ME: Truly creepy monsters (yup, one’s 9 feet tall and has a baby-doll mask for a face) that hunt their “assigned” women through amazingly vivid scenes.

I first read this short story on my phone while I rode the train home at night. The atmosphere was perfect; lights flickered around me in tandem with the fireflies in the piece, and it was hard not to wonder if they, like the bugs, spelled the presence of something sinister.

This story follows Nikki and Samantha, two women on the run from monsters that have killed their loved ones and saved the girls for last. Each monster is grotesque in its own unique way (though they both seem to wear masks), and each doggedly pursues its designated woman. Oh, and Nikki and Samantha aren’t the only ones who have attracted otherworldly attention—there are internet forums where other women post descriptions of their monsters, plus theories as to why they’ve been singled out for inevitable death.

“Cuckoo Girls” is a phenomenal horror story that does what so few can: take inhuman beings that seem to be stitched together from familiar tropes, and make them entirely believable and threatening. Nikki’s long-necked monster has a baby-doll mask for a face, and Samantha’s wears a burlap sack. (Perhaps they’ve seen The Strangers?) But the inclusion of these accouterments doesn’t render the monsters cliché; Warrick’s way better than that.

Nikki never stops smelling it. Manure, wet asphalt, baby powder, bonfire smoke, the ripe sweetness of garbage long past needing to be taken out. That scent has haunted her since the moment it loomed over her in the unfinished basement of her parents’ house, its smiling baby-doll mask so close to her face that she could see that it wasn’t a mask at all, could see the way it pulsed and rippled as alien musculature clenched and unclenched beneath it.

It’s not just the masks that evoke horror movies. “Cuckoo Girls” plays out like a masterfully self-conscious film, from its initial scene wherein the girls load their guns and hit the road to a slow-mo strobe-lit (well, lightning-bug-lit) showdown in a motel hallway. Samantha even recounts one forum-goer’s hypothesis that the hunted women are film characters, and that their monsters refuse to die because someone up there keeps writing sequels.

“Cuckoo Girls” really stuck with me, enough that it partly inspired the creation of this blog. It’s deliciously scary with as satisfying of an ending as you can get when you’re dealing with unexplainable, unstoppable monsters. I feel elated when someone can pull this kind of story off, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Warrick’s later works!