Shame on me, whose first thought upon hearing that this menopause-themed horror anthology was, “I wonder why they didn’t release this during Women in Horror Month?” First, September is National Menopause Awareness Month, but second, Bodies quickly proves that one need not possess a uterus or be in the throes of an urgently declining hormone level to appreciate the varying degrees of body horror its tales offer. Editor Nicole M. Wolverton notes in her Foreword, “Everything to do with ovaries and uteruses (and their by-products) is fraught in some way, whether you own them or used to own them or are supposed to own them or perhaps were never really meant to own them,” and she’s spot on, but even if your experience with female reproductive organs has been limited to cheerleading from the sidelines, you’re certain to find a gem or two in Bodies to appreciate. Not all of the stories worked for me, but the highlights beamed so brightly, the collection is well worth a closer look.
Fans of gruesome history will immediately feel at home in Marsheila Rockwell’s “It Will Have Blood, They Say” and its sympathetic portrayal of Erzebet—Elizabeth Bathory, the noblewoman turned Hungarian serial killer. The story vacillates between the present-day narrative of a “middle-aged archeologist and historian who has…been excavating the grounds of Castle Csejte in Slovakia” and entries from the discovered diary written by the infamous woman with a kill count of nearly 650. As it turns out, ol’ Erze’s disturbing ritual of bathing in the blood of her victims was motivated by a quandary many married women of a certain age might recognize. Spouses with wandering eyes might want to read carefully…and take heed.
“Becoming” by Ali Seay is rooted more firmly in a contemporary setting, and anyone who has experienced the terror of seeing their body act in a way that is out of their control will appreciate it. When Ruby first learns that her hormones have waded waist-deep into perimenopause, she experiences a range of emotions, none of them positive. “‘I’m becoming something new,’ she breathed as anxiety crawled through her. ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I’m worthy,’” she insists to herself. Trapped under the oppressive weight of hot flashes, she decides to fight fire with fire. Anyone who has issues with excoriation, regardless of gender, will identify with Ruby on a whole other level. The tale scared the bejesus out of me.
I enjoyed the anthology’s closing tale by Max Turner so much, I read it multiple times. When a friend of mine had the final surgery to complete his multi-year process of matching his outside body with his correct gender, he tried to convey to me the immense importance of the act. Being cis-gender, I thought I understood him, but truth be told, I knew I couldn’t truly comprehend the level of terror one must feel being trapped in the wrong body. Turner’s story, and the visceral horror it conveys, clarifies it. In “This is Yours,” Sam, a transman, endures surgery to remove internal reproductive organs only to have a sinister organization later force them back inside him. If you already harbor a slight distrust of the government or an inkling of white coat syndrome, this will push you over the edge.
The brightest star in Bodies for me is “Here There Are Dragons” by Megan M. Davies-Ostrom, a quickly moving narrative that’s part fantasy folklore, part woman warrior manifesto about a society where women, once they’ve completed menopause, are exiled to the forest “to feed the dragons.” I can’t shower enough praise on what Davies-Ostrom conjures here; it is worth buying the anthology for this tale alone. “Here” is a smart social commentary on men’s ability to procreate, and therefore, have worth, long into their twilight years while women are discarded as soon as they exhibit signs of the aging process. The author turns this discrepancy on its head, theorizing instead that with the cessation of menstruation comes a building of power, that women become stronger and therefore, more dangerous, and that is why they are put out to pasture. “Fifty-one years. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye!” rallies the narrator. “[and] I don’t intend to let them have me without a fight.” The ending of the tale is so gorgeous, so empowering in its lovely irony, that I dare anyone to read it without chills running through their skin. If “women’s magic is in our blood,” Bodies Full of Burning encapsulates that power and puts it on display, in all of its many forms, for the world to see.
Trigger warnings provided by the editor: abuse (physical, mental, and domestic), anxiety, cancer, loss of a child, loss of a parent, transphobia
BODIES FULL OF BURNING: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MENOPAUSE-THEMED HORROR