Carmen Maria Machado Turns Terror Into High Art


The first time someone recommended Stephen King’s Misery to me, they said I’d like it because it’s “about the writing process.” Misery tells the story of Paul Sheldon, a serial romance novelist trying his hand at crime fiction, and a crazed homebody fan named Annie Wilkes, who abducts and tortures him into writing another of his Victorian melodramas for her. King has said of Wilkes that she represents his ’80s cocaine addiction (“Annie Wilkes is cocaine,” King once told Rolling Stone). Well, King had his personal allegory, and I had my own visceral reaction: This is one of the first books I remember reading specifically to figure out what it’s really like to be a writer, and the fears it promotes are of deadlines, a readership, and women’s bodies.

It’s the early, undoing “lessons” like these that make me extra thankful for the stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties. Though sketched with the lineaments of horror, these stories strive not to reheat cold psychopathies, but to gently reflect back the kinds of fears, passions, and persuasions that aren’t often coaxed to the surface, because they almost go without saying. Or could—especially if you happen to be a woman with a body (as are all of Machado’s first-person narrators).

As such, Machado’s eight creepily poignant stories, many of which are stained with supernatural elements, are much more given to portraying ghosts than monsters. In “Eight Bites,” a female narrator with a buoyant sense of self gets extreme weight reduction surgery, a procedure so common in her family it seems to her congenital. The story’s title refers to some garbage the woman’s mother fed her growing up about how eight bites of food is all one needs to “get a sense of what you’re eating,” the gustatory equivalent of a crime scene outline in chalk.

After the surgery is performed, the woman is visited in her home by a spectral creature who never again leaves. It’s described variously as “one hundred pounds, dripping wet,” as sounding like the scurrying of mice, and “a body with nothing it needs.” The brilliance of the story is that the apparition is never better defined, or always exactly as well delineated, as the woman’s awareness of what violence she’s wreaked upon her body or why; a light-headedness pervades the tale, a ghostly hunger.

Another story, “Real Women Have Bodies,” occupies a stitch in time where the world seems much as it does today, only women have begun disappearing in an unfamiliar manner: the slow fade. “The first victims—the first women—had not been seen in public for weeks,” writes Machado, milking the line between lost souls and shut-ins. Both are stories of women phased out of their own lives; they misplace their selves, but not all at once.

Three weeks before Her Body hit the shelves it was long-listed for the National Book Award (it’s since made it to the shortlist, too) and it’s easy to see why. With her first book Machado has already emerged a master of several beloved genres (horror, fantasy, magical realism), combined with a varied, empathetic exploration of female embodiment, in particular physical and emotional threats (mostly from men), sexual pleasure (mostly from women), disordered eating and other illnesses, and child-bearing.

Though this is Machado’s first book, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop graduate has been publishing short fiction for several years (some of the pieces in the collection were previously published in Granta and The American Reader). Her essays and criticism (an extravagantly moving personal essay in Guernica, for instance, on unapologetically fat women called “The Trash Heap Has Spoken”) also often reevaluate genres of embodiment through storytelling. Of course, Machado’s is not the first book to grapple with and reframe some of these experiences. Her work could be placed in conversation with a host of fiction writers who inscribe the walls of such stories with fairy-tale magic—Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Alexandra Kleeman, Aimee Bender, and Lesley Nneka Arimah come to mind. But there are stories here too that possess a courageous and indelible originality. At the center of the collection lies “Especially Heinous,” an extremely pleasurable trapdoor in the form of a hilarious, cockeyed genre drag that blends Law and Order: SVU recaps and gothic horror lit. The story is composed of 272 knife-twist “episodes” of a few lines (if that) each, and spins out into a surrealist satire that manages to both revel in the show’s addictive pace and rage against the entertainment value of violated women. Stabler still leans upon his insufficient theories, Benson goes on her bad dates; aside from that, this parody of the iconic procedural adopts a funhouse mirror effect, taking up more and different space so as to become uncannily recognizable.

In one vignette, we get this floating image: “The unlocked front door, though which any neighbor could wander, would have been an afterthought, but there was no thought, after”; in another, a description of a girl who “knelt herself to death off a Brooklyn rooftop.” These details exemplify one of Machado’s sharpest talents: her ability to crank a horror story out of a few sentences or phrases. The one-liner episodes (they’re each preceded by clever titles) may do it the very best, for instance: “‘Mercy’: The gunman lets all of the hostages go, including himself.” And this one, which is actually more of a fairy tale: “‘Penetration’: ‘No.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ ‘No?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh.’”

“The Resident,” Machado’s writer’s-cabin-in-the-woods parable, also flaunts the narrative tropes it deftly undermines. In it, the partially named narrator, Ms. M—, approaches and attends an artists’ residency, ominously named Devil’s Throat, where she aspires to make serious headway on her first novel. There the protagonist is haunted by homesickness for her wife, her lack of connection with the artists residing in the other cabins, and her own ambitions. But something else frightens her, too, and she comes down with a series of psychosomatic maladies, aggravating theories, as if to fight it back. “I considered that I had died in that room with its drapes and pulls,” she says, “and that the me who bent over my keyboard day after day was a ghost who was tethered to her work regardless of the fiddling details of her mortal coil.”

Then later, her condition not having improved, she asks, “What is worse: being locked outside of your mind, or being locked inside of it?” And, as if anticipating the reader’s mind, the next line goes: “What is worse: writing a trope or being one? What about being more than one?” What’s worse is that one who asks these questions in the first place has experienced each of these states, and this is writing generous enough to sift through all of them, and those that hover between definitions, and those that have vanished by morning.

Her Body and Other Parties
By Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press
248 pp.