“It’s hard to tell you exactly when the Guest arrived, which sounds strange I realize. How could you not remember when someone came into your home? I am fairly certain it was winter. I recall that nights had a way of crawling in early and the trees around our house were bare, the bark black and wet. Our house was set far back and high up from the road, the driveway a sloping serpent that wriggled over the hills and around the giant old elms. From the front windows, you could see down into the valley and the village below. It was very hard to sneak up on the old place, and because of that, the house felt a bit like a fortress. Its gray slate roof helped complete the castle/fortress image. The slick stone crawled with moss, bright green against all the gray. At dusk, that green moss positively glowed.” — “The Guest” from Les Femmes Grotesques by Victoria Dalpe, Clash Books 2022
When it comes to reading horror, I always love a good short story collection. I do tend to agree with Poe’s philosophy that horror works best when it can be read in one sitting. I do not believe that to be an absolute truth, but I’ll always reach for a short story collection or a novella before I reach for a giant doorstop of a novel.
Les Femmes Grotesques by Victoria Dalpe is a short story collection that I have fallen in love with. Not only is the writing highly accessible and engaging but the stories are both thought provoking and stab at an emotional center. I can be perfectly content reading stories about werewolves, ghosts, or cannibals, but my true happy place is when a horror writer can walk the line between B material and literary fiction (Kathy Acker, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, William Burroughs).
Dalpe achieves this balance with the agile grace of a ninja. Facing death in horror is about as common a concern as one finds in this genre, but I think it’s rare to find an author who can craft so many different perspectives on the subject without it feeling exploitative. I feel like Les Femmes Grotesques is sharing rarefied air with The Books of Blood and I don’t say that lightly, as I believe Clive Barker remains the pinnacle of our genre and the one voice we are all still striving to either beat or be.
While not every story sucked me in, because art is subjective and I have my own conflicting aesthetics, I was nevertheless happy to be along for the ride. Dalpe has that type of voice that wills you to stick around and, in the end, you’ll be grateful you did. As a whole though, this collection is a great success. I feel like one of the better comparisons I could make would be to Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. It isn’t the style that is similar, but that both authors are striving to redefine and re-mix the old tropes and the old concerns, for a modern audience. And if the comparison holds any water, then Les Femmes Grotesques is certainly the art house version. For instance, in the opening story, “A Creak in the Floor, A Slant of Light,” there’s a moment when the main character has a grim resignation to an impending doom, rather than the expected wailing or fight for survival. That feels so 2022, like when I thought I finally got Covid last year, and all I could do was shrug and wait for whatever was going to happen.
Les Femmes Grotesques is slated for release on November 1st, from Clash Books, a publishing house that has been steadily rising for a few years now, and as a fellow publisher I have watched them grow with both admiration and a bit of jealousy at the fantastic roster of authors and books they have amassed. I believe they are a publisher who puts out work that’s worth buying just by virtue of having the Clash Books name on it. Les Femmes Grotesques is one more jewel in their crown.