This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my friend Christa Carmen, whose debut story collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is already getting a lot of buzz. Here is the publisher’s description:
A young woman’s fears regarding the gruesome photos appearing on her cell phone prove justified in a ghastly and unexpected way. A chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead fan defends herself against a trio of undead intruders. A bride-to-be comes to wish that the door between the physical and spiritual worlds had stayed shut on All Hallows’ Eve. A lone passenger on a midnight train finds that the engineer has rerouted them toward a past she’d prefer to forget. A mother abandons a life she no longer recognizes as her own to walk up a mysterious staircase in the woods.
In her debut collection, Christa Carmen combines horror, charm, humor, and social critique to shape thirteen haunting, harrowing narratives of women struggling with both otherworldly and real-world problems. From grief, substance abuse, and mental health disorders, to a post-apocalyptic exodus, a seemingly sinister babysitter with unusual motivations, and a group of pesky ex-boyfriends who won’t stay dead, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a compelling exploration of horrors both supernatural and psychological, and an undeniable affirmation of Carmen’s flair for short fiction.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Christa Carmen:
Much of what we observe in horror films never results in the creation of fears or phobias in the everyday world that we inhabit. Sure, we may check the basement, or peer out the window into the shadowy backyard upon watching The Conjuring or You’re Next, but for the most part, we navigate the mundanities of life confident that our cars won’t turn evil, our dogs won’t turn rabid, and a day at the beach won’t turn into an installment of everyone’s favorite week-long television block of shark-based programming.
There is one horror film-founded fear, however, that’s not only warranted, but backed by statistics, perpetuated by home security system companies and gun manufacturers, and illustrated with dismal regularity on the local evening news, where reports of random break-ins and armed robberies roll in.
The home invasion narrative is one that can incite vivid fantasies; certainly you wouldn’t hide, trembling and helpless, beneath your bed. You would face your foe with courage, brandishing butcher knives from once-benevolent kitchen blocks, collecting other household objects with which to make your siege: bedposts, hairpins, car keys, golf clubs.
Needless to say, I felt that getting the final scene of my short story, “Red Room,” right, was imperative to highlighting a rather universal fear (what human throughout history has not placed the soundness of their shelter above most else?), to capitalize on that dread initiated with Marci’s discovery of the first inexplicable, gore-saturated photo on her phone.
The inspiration behind this story, appearing in my debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, and first published in the January 2018 issue of Unnerving Magazine, is a bit more true-to-life than that of many of my other works of short fiction. The story is about a woman who, despite her fiancé’s belief to the contrary, is convinced she should be concerned by the gruesome photos appearing on her phone, and whose fear proves justified in a rather ghastly, albeit unexpected way.
On April 13, 2017, Tor.com published an article by Emily Asher-Perrin entitled, “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror and the Intuition of Women.” The piece examines one of the most overdone tropes in horror: that of the woman who feels that something is off, but is disbelieved and brushed off by everyone, right up until the moment the chainsaw begins to rev, or zombies break down the door. The article discusses how every woman knows what this feels like, and how “women know that it’s their responsibility to prevent harm from coming to them.”
Not long after reading this article, something odd happened. I awoke the morning after a wedding to a series of photographs on my phone that I did not take. The photos were of two men in a bar, and they had an eerie, old-fashioned feel that lent them a patina of wrongness as palpable as any Instagram filter. The next day, at a post-wedding brunch, the topic of the mysterious photos came up. The reaction from several men in the group was that, one way or another, I had to have been the cause of these photos appearing on my phone. “You probably just screenshotted them from a website,” or “you must have accidentally downloaded them.” I don’t drink, so the activities of the night before were clear in my mind. This complete unwillingness to believe that the photos had appeared through no action of mine collided in my head with the echoes of Asher-Perrin’s article, and “Red Room” was the result.
With the story’s general idea established, I discovered very quickly that both the culmination of Marci and Caleb’s disagreements and the showdown between them and the deranged, dangerous men that had left visual evidence of an untold number of murders on Marci’s phone, would take place in the master bedroom, a location of regular discontent for the on-the-rocks couple.
To set the scene for those who have not yet read the story, Marci awakes alone in their room after yet another argument with Caleb. A floorboard creaks. The ceiling fan is still, the face of the alarm clock, dark. An exhalation of breath comes from the black pit of the closet. Gathering her courage, Marci sprints for the living room. She rouses Caleb, tells him there is someone in the house, and watches as he assembles those items — a flashlight and a butcher knife — they’ll require to make their stand. Together, they creep toward the bedroom.
The subsequent chain of events was heavily influenced by one particular scene in the 2008 Bryan Bertino-directed film, The Strangers, in which Liv Tyler’s character has already been terrorized by a series of slowly escalating assaults on her home, when out of nowhere, shattering the silence and causing the audience to feel as if their equilibrium has suddenly been thrown off-kilter, the needle drops on the record player and a song begins to skip, over and over and over again, the grating quality of the sound clearly adding to Kristen McKay’s inability to quell her panic.
Back in Caleb and Marci’s bedroom, the power flashes on. Music blares from the reanimated clock radio, and they shout to be heard over the deceptively upbeat chords of a techno song. It’s their final, bitter fight. The noise, chaos, bright lights, whirring ceiling fan, and high emotion provide the ultimate distraction for what happens next.
I won’t give it away, but I hope that those who read “Red Room” will be reminded of why they should lock their doors, bolt their windows, and most importantly, never, ever disregard a significant other’s warning when she says she feels like something’s wrong.
Maybe the unfortunate events of my story will do for you what all the young women begging not to visit secluded cabins in the woods could not. Maybe it will teach you to listen, and to believe. Then again, maybe it won’t. Who am I to convince you of the nefariousness of a few photographs?
I’m sure it’s nothing, after all. I’m sure everything will be just fine…