I first came across Jarl Nicholl’s stories when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat sent me a link to Unsung Stories, an online magazine that publishes fantasy, science fiction and horror. His story, Eternal Sleep caught my eye and soon enough I was deep into the world of an unreliable narrator living alone in a ‘rustic little house’. Here, in a windowless room he finds a statue, and the mystery of its provenance begins to burden his already tormented mind. You can read the story here. This sentence stayed with me – perhaps because I knew exactly how the character felt.
His skeleton felt as though it wanted out from under his flesh and he suffered from alternate bouts of hot and cold sweating.
Not long after that Jarl sent me The Birth of Venus for review. He can be found here, where he occasionally posts short stories like this disturbing little piece which can be read in one sitting Microfiction – On the Generation of Animals.
Some horror stories are bizarre, like an image seen through a thick glass behind which fantastic shapes move in slow motion; others, like The Ruins by Scott Smith, are quite straightforward – you get a few surprises along the way but soon enough it is clear which way the story is going. The Birth of Venus belongs to the former category.
Maya, Breanna and Paul, are three teenage friends. Paul is older – he’s seventeen and he likes Maya, his sister’s friend. Breanna, Paul’s sister, doesn’t play a major role in the story; it is here and there that we get a glimpse of her as a thin thread that has brought Paul and Maya together. From childhood games like hide-and-seek, to playful teasing, the relationship between the two of them is innocent and in time could lead to something more. But Paul is shy and awkward and he can’t quite bring himself to do anything besides acting like a big brother.
It’s not until Paul sees Maya with a strange older boy that something really seems to start going wrong. Maya’s mother is suddenly afraid for her daughter’s life. Her ex-husband, Maya’s father whom she managed to run away from years ago, seems to have found them, despite the woman’s efforts to disappear. As his presence looms closer, Sandy, Maya’s mother, begins to remember terrible things from her childhood, things she had managed to somehow forget. And Paul suddenly plucks up the courage and feels it is his duty to protect Maya from anything bad that might happen to her.
It is not exactly clear what Sandy’s memories are, besides the fact that they hint at something that would leave deep psychological scars – images, actions, even incest is hinted at, but the image stays foggy, the glass opaque, hiding the horrors. Sandy’s story and Paul’s sudden courage bring about a rush of events that precipitate the end, a part I confess left me a little baffled. The author plays with time, manipulating the story and even though I liked the story overall, the end left me shocked, in awe, watching those fantastical shapes moving around with no clear idea of what they are. But then, maybe not all stories are meant to be understood. For some, it is enough to be read.
I’m including this in the R.I.P. challenge, an event that ends on Halloween.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Read in October 2015