Husk by Rachel Autumn Deering
I was first introduced to Rachel Autumn Deering in the anthology Welcome to the Show, in which her short story bounced around in my head for some weeks, primarily because, unique among a big-names horror anthology, her story contained nothing supernatural, yet was definitely horrifying. Sickening, even. Not because of pools of vomit and gore, but because it felt extremely realistic (the anthology is uniformly good, by the way, so grab that).
At any rate, I then went backwards in publishing time and found Husk, a slim novel that was unlike her short story in specifics, but matched that same tone of… modern, gothic dread? I suck at categorizing things, but hey, if I didn’t get hate mail, the postal service would forget my address.
Now, I’m not going to rail about how “gothic” can be a euphemism for “boring” even though it often is—oops, I said it. Hate away, but we can agree on this: literary merit drives the best gothic work, and if it’s not very action-packed, that’s okay.
Deering proves all of these things can coexist. Or feel like they do. There is a wonder of artistry in her dive into: modern issues, conflicts, drugs, morals, and Appalachia in an era of identity conflict and discomfort known to anyone paying attention for the past few decades. To do this with high tension (if not wall-to-wall body counts and chest-bursting terror), and to bring the tone of Poe or Shelley to phrase-perfect, blue collar Kentucky?
The protagonist is either a victim or an unreliable narrator and/or an addict, and it doesn’t matter which, because he also knows he is these things, or worries he may be. His human (and inhuman) interactions are a constant reminder of what could be, or could have been, and are either taunting or achievable depending on the caprice of the author’s pen: sometimes cruel, sometimes encouraging.
It is extremely weird (for me) to recommend a book based on an “intimate” scene, but for everyone who wonders how to “do it right”—look no more. A powerful, uncomfortable sequence of male fantasy and projection is hit with an axe to the ankles by the much, much shorter reality of the fantasized “object” character’s real thoughts and actions. The contrast is amazing, and, with zero editorial, the reader learns a great deal about the two primary characters in a short scene that contrasts them beautifully as people.
Not what I expected, having read Husk, it’s clear why Deering received critical and other-author praise as well as commercial applause for this slow-burn (but novella-short) story of a modern House of Usher—a narrative that knows the lines and tears a pencil through the paper when it knows it can hurt you. And does with obvious glee.
The very, very ending? Hmm. You might love it. You might not. I fell somewhere in the middle, but I should also admit I was forced by scheduling not to read this as I would have liked, which is in a single screaming marathon.
It’s possible (as I dragged myself out of bed before dawn and got around to the final chapter-sized bit) that I missed something more clear and clever at the end. Some elements and exchanges seemed to “just end” abruptly, but I’ve had a “day of separation” reading fumble the experience before in works this tightly-wound.
Then again, Husk enjoys taking expectations and dismembering them (almost entirely without gore, by the way). Psychological, nuanced, and superb, toss the next junk B-movie you were going to watch and read this instead.