Eric LaRocca’s latest collection of eight stories spans the gamut from deeply tender, meditative tales, visceral and provocative body horror, through to frenzied thrill raisers; each one delivering its own particular meditation on the human psyche. It’s a compelling read overall, offering fascinating ruminations on love, infatuation, failed connections with our nearest and dearest, parenting, grief and mortality, all primarily narrated from vital, intimate and affecting perspectives of individuals who feel misunderstood and alienated.
All of the stories here have their own distinctive way of creeping under the reader’s skin, but only two here are what I would call pure horror stories, in the sense that they evoke harrowing body horror images that are impossible to shake. The first of these is “Bodies are for Burning”, which paints a truly terrifying and terrifyingly relatable picture of a woman’s constant battle with repulsive automatic thoughts, only made worse by the fact that she has to look after her one-year-old niece for a day all the while wrestling with her evasive thoughts. This short yarn is the most chilling of the collection, reminding us just how influential our imaginations are on our identities and choices, despite the fact that, as the protagonists’ psychiatrist says, there is a big difference between mere thoughts and actual actions.
The other body-horror-centric story is the titular ‘The Trees Grew Because I Bled There’. By far the most Cronenbergian of the bunch, this delivers a chilling but vital meditation on the toxic nature of gaslighting, reminding readers just how much people are willing to give (and take) to make their relationships work.
Fans of LaRocca’s previous viral sensation, “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke”, will enjoy returning to familiar territory with ‘The Strange Thing We Become’. Written as a series of epistolary online posts, the story chronicles one woman’s efforts to come to terms with her girlfriend’s cancer diagnosis. The way she responds to the news is particularly startling, as her thought process and revelations are anything but predictable.
At this point, ‘You’re not Supposed to be Here’ and ‘Where Flames Burned Emerald Grass’ takes things to much faster-paced thriller tropes, whilst presenting some fascinating meditations on parenthood and nuclear assumptions about family. The former is more of a high-concept thriller, following a same-sex couple forced to confront and reveal their self-doubts and secrets if they want to save their abducted son. Similarly, the latter story follows a widower who questions his ability to parent his daughter when he receives a mysterious offer to have her taken off his hands. Both of these two tales play out akin to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Twilight Zone” episodes and would make for fascinating small (or big) screen adaptations.
Finally, as we near the end of the book, the final two stories, ‘I’ll be Gone by Then’ and ‘Please Leave or I’m Going to Hurt You’, explore themes related to mortality, and how it dawns on us when our parents reach a certain age. Both stories revolve around two protagonists who realise how much distance has always remained between them and their parents, having spent their lives failing to express their true feelings for them. The relationships shared in both stories couldn’t be more different, but the sense of regret both share after having not made use of the precious time they could have had together and the impending loss of their family members permeates throughout, leaving the reader feeling distraught, but at the same time feeling compelled to pick up the phone and speak to a loved as soon as they put the book down.
As a whole, LaRocca’s latest is one of the most cohesive and complete short story collections this reviewer has read in a long time; covering all aspects of the human condition, from childhood right through to death. No matter which genre each story inhabits, your heartstrings are in for a right royal tug. LaRocca has an amazing knack for weaving haunting narratives that take readers through the intense motions the protagonists endure, whilst leaving us with a strong sense of optimism at the end. Perhaps the best way to describe reading this collection of short stories is to quote a line from the titular tale which says: “Anything worth doing always hurts,” and I assure you that it is so worth experiencing the pain endured within these pages so as to come out stiffly shaken but also transformed and invigorated as a result.
Publisher: Titan Books // Publishes: March 07, 2023