woman with a distorted face
Posted on November 10, 2022

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (2022) by Eric LaRocca

Guest Post

First published last year in the US by Weirdpunk Books, Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (2022) has made its way to the UK and found a home with Titan Books. Somewhere along its journey across the pond, it picked up a new cover and two more short stories – ‘The Enchantment’ and ‘You’ll Find it’s Like That All Over’ – transforming the book from a novella into a short story collection.

The collection still retains an echo of its original form as most of its pages are taken up by the titular story ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’- a post-internet take on the epistolary form which comprises emails and instant messenger transcripts between Agnes Petrella and Zoe Cross.

black and white book cover of a woman with a distorted faceWe read the couple’s meet-cute on Queerlist.org where Agnes is selling an antique apple peeler. From there, we read as the couple fall in love, we read their fetishistic contract wherein Agnes agrees to relinquish all control over her finances and decision-making faculties to Zoe, and, slowly but surely, we read as Zoe manipulates, gaslights, and abuses Agnes until the story climaxes into one of the best conceived works of body horror fiction of recent years.

The story opens with a plea for its realism, classifying the story as ‘evidence’ to which we have been granted access: ‘… Because the litigation surrounding Zoe Cross’s case remains open at the time of this publication, certain elements of their communication have been redacted or censored at the behest of the Henley’s Edge Police Department’ (p.ii). The ‘redacted’ content acts as a negative space in the centre of the story; an insistence on journalistic integrity that undermines the assumed omnipotence of a fictional voice. Calling to mind the openings of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, M. R. James’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, or the always-unsettling ‘The following is edited from real footage…’ at the start of every found footage horror film, ‘Things Have Gotten Worse…’ is a love-letter to established horror forms from the very first word.

But the story isn’t just parroting genre conventions. The form is familiar, but its narrative is ground-breaking in its exploration of the darker side of online queer ‘safe’ spaces. It is a skillful interplay between the intense psychological trauma of its characters, the sexual simulacrum of online dating, and the unfeeling bureaucracy of legal paperwork – a juxtaposition similarly explored by Nat Ogle’s 2021 novel In the Seeing Hands of Others.

Throughout this story, it becomes increasingly clear that the greatest strength of LaRocca’s writing is his tenderness and creative generosity. Though the email form could have tempted LaRocca towards prosaic writing in the name of verisimilitude, Agnes and Zoe speak to one another like poets, even when describing things like the murder and crucifixion of an infant: “He shrieks… like the final pathetic cry of a dying species – a breed on the verge of being swallowed by oblivion” (p.99). It’s a truly grotesque juxtaposition – beautiful on the one hand, stomach-churning on the other, like something weird and unknowable has wormed its way beneath the tongues of these two women.

There are moments of this brilliance in the other two stories, but Things Have Gotten Worse… doesn’t again reach the consistent quality of its titular tale.

blue book cover of a woman with a distorted faceThe Enchantment’ follows James and Olive who decide to act as live-in caretakers of a hotel during its off season (another example of LaRocca wearing their horror influences on their sleeve) after the suicide of their teenage son. While ‘The Enchantment’ doesn’t shine in the way that the previous story does, the way that LaRocca explores Judeo-Christian faith is inspired. The story takes place in a world where the concept of an afterlife has very recently been scientifically disproved. In the wake of this new atheistic realism, the characters discuss worldwide mass suicides as just another news story, and Olive’s obsessive faith becomes irrational and pitiful. It’s a wonderful setting, and most of the story is a well-written character study detailing the comfort of irrational beliefs. Ultimately, however, ‘The Enchantment’ loses its grip on the humanism that makes the first chunk of this book so special.

The third and final story, ‘You’ll Find it’s Like That All Over’, recentres itself within the everyday. The protagonist, known only as Mr Fowler, is the picture of suburban middle-class politeness and because of his inability to offend, he is embroiled in an increasingly violent series of bets with his Bosnian neighbour Mr Perlzig. It’s the shortest story in the collection, and the most parabolic. The story could be a comment on white America’s suspicion of other cultures, but ultimately proves this suspicion correct as Mr Perlzig is revealed to be a Jigsaw-esque sadistic manipulator, right down to keeping a functional guillotine in his home.

The final pages of the book are an afterword from the author wherein they detail their religious upbringing and the existential despair they encountered when they lost faith. LaRocca then goes on to explain each story in turn, shaping something between plot summary and autobiographical context for the collection you’ve just read. It’s an unwelcome addition, a disjointed presence that imposes authorial intent on the reader’s interpretation of the texts. Horror and weird fiction both experiment with ambiguity; at their best they exist in a space between the text and reader, playing with the unknown to generate meaning. LaRocca’s afterword could, if the reader chooses to let the author determine their own reading of the stories, kill off this ambiguity and with it, the thing that makes this collection so special.

Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is a strange and brilliant collection of queer horror that effortlessly looks back to its myriad influences (body horror, weird fiction, absurdist fiction) while somehow creating something that feels cutting edge. It is one of the most exciting horror texts I’ve encountered lately.

Kern Robinson is a PhD student with Falmouth University. He is currently writing about the presentation of the rural working-class in Folk Horror film. He has previously written on the horned god in The Blood on Satan’s Claw for Horror Homeroom’s special issue on the film. He can be found at @kern_robinson on Twitter.

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