As a child, I had a profound fear of sharks, which mostly manifested when I was taking a shower. When I closed my eyes to put my face under the water, a part of my brain I’ve come to think of as the asshole corner would serve me a vivid, intrusive daydream of being in the water and turning to find a great white behind me, eyes rolled back, jaws open, poised to bite. These visions were so real that my body would freeze up and flood with adrenaline, so frightening that I stopped washing my face in the shower and started washing it in the bathroom sink instead.
These days that overactive imagination manifests in new, more adult ways. In an empty apartment, the asshole corner whispers, there’s someone waiting in the closet, a gnarled hand under the bed about to wrap itself around my ankle, a face behind me in the mirror when I close the bathroom cabinet.
These fears aren’t debilitating - I can ignore them or cope with them as needed. This past weekend I spent the night alone at our new apartment for the first time, and after 6 hours in the car was so exhausted that when my asshole brain suggested a murderer might be hiding in the closet, the rest of my brain told said imaginary murderer to have at it, but just let me get some sleep first. But they don’t go away with time, either.
To be afraid, as a woman socialized in American society, is to constantly push your fears to the back of your mind, to tell yourself you’re overreacting, that if you voice your fears, the people around you will think of you as weak, silly, feminine. In college I told my ex I wasn’t comfortable walking to his apartment alone after midnight, and would he maybe come meet me at the subway station? He told me I was being ridiculous and waved off the request. That’s a message it’s hard to unlearn – frankly I’m a little trepidatious even writing about my fears here, lest you all think I’m an idiot. But I think the context is necessary for the book I’m writing about today.
The Return is Rachel Harrison’s debut horror novel. I read it in 24 hours - it would’ve been more like 10 if I hadn’t had to do things like “eat” and “go to work.” But in devouring it, I found myself feeling uncomfortably seen.
The plot is thus: Julie disappeared on a solo hiking trip two years ago. Her husband and friends have come to accept that she’s never coming home - they’ve had a funeral and done their mourning, both together and separately. But Elise has never accepted that Julie was really gone. She knew in her heart she’d see Julie again someday, and that day comes when Julie shows up on her husband’s doorstep with no memory of the last two years.
Now Elise, Molly, and Mae are on their way to see their friend at an isolated hotel in upstate New York. It’s a strange place, and Elise isn’t comfortable there. She keeps hearing scratching in the walls, noises on the balcony, seeing something moving in the shadows under the bed. Is it real, or is it Elise’s own asshole corner acting up? But she pushes her fears aside - the weekend’s not about her, and she doesn’t want to make a fuss, doesn’t want Mae, who chose the hotel, to feel responsible for her discomfort.
When Julie arrives, the three friends are overjoyed to see her - it’s a miracle that she’s home safe. But something’s not right. One minute she’s normal, the same old Julie, but the next she’s acting like somebody else, saying things Julie would never say. At dinner, she looks gaunt and ill, but by the next morning she’s bright-eyed and healthy.
And though she was a lifelong vegetarian before her disappearance, now she’s eating a lot of meat, cooked very, very rare.
It’s not really an exaggeration to say I’ve never read such an incisive depiction of the irrational fears I’ve lived with my whole life, the fears borne of a vivid imagination and an anxiety disorder. And in this novel, those fears we tell ourselves are silly are made rational and very real: what happens when you convince yourself there’s nothing in the shadows under the bed – and then there is? What happens when your friend comes back from the dead – but it’s not really her?
Harrison also hammers home the discomforts and dynamics of groups of female friends in excruciatingly relatable detail - the absolute certainty that your friends are all just barely tolerating you, that you’re the one they don’t really like, that they judge you for being the broke one, that they’re talking about you when you’re not there, that the things you secretly hate about yourself are the things they hate about you.
I love a horror novel that also helps me work through some personal stuff – that’s what the best horror should do, frankly, since it’s a genre fundamentally about undergoing change (traumatic change, but change nonetheless). I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
The fine folks at Berkley have kindly offered three very early advance copies of The Return to Nightmare Fuel readers – you can enter the sweeps here until August 18th - and they’ve given me the opportunity to unveil the cover, which is so eerie and beautiful, and perfectly, violently, queasily pink. Take a look:
The Return is on sale March 24, 2020