Using Horror in Literary Fiction

Jenny StalterThe following is a guest post by Jenny Stalter, whose short story “Date With Crocodile Girl” appeared in Issue 18 of Typehouse.

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My cousins and I gathered around my stretched-out brother. We would laboriously lift him and feign stupefaction as he “floated” in the very air, unaided. “Light as a feather, stiff as a board, RISE! Light as a feather stiff as a board, RISE!” we would chant, over and over until we dropped him, which was—clearly the fault of whoever hadn’t been concentrating enough.

I recall sleepovers with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, read by flashlight. We would put pennies in our mouths and say, “This is the taste of blood.” We arranged our dolls on the windowsill, backlit by blue moonlight, and whispered that they were alive, they were coming for us, until we actually saw them move. We crushed leaves together with vinegar and Kool-Aid and the bodies of insects, concocting potions and we cast spells. We held hands and stared into mirrors and dared Bloody Mary to appear. We double-dog-dared each other into cellars and attics, returning with unspeakable tales about Raw-Head-and-Bloody-Bones or the Cucuy. We poked sticks at the bodies of decaying cats. We loved the thrill of the supernatural, of viscera and of fear. Mostly we were curious and alive.

Children’s games eventually gave way to reading the horror greats and when I was in the fourth grade, I wrote a novella called “Murder Island,” featuring hapless teenagers, a coven of witches, torture, a dungeon with a cage made from human bones, and forced cannibalism. Reading, writing and horror were in my blood. For me, horror elicits some of the most potent emotions: shock, disgust, hopelessness, fear. But mostly, it titillates my curiosity.

As a teenager I began reading literary fiction, becoming overwhelmed by its capacity to move me. Literary fiction stretched me across the entirety of the emotional spectrum. I felt connected to other people; humanity multiplied, the universe all packed into matter and consciousness. I began to use elements of horror when writing literary fiction to magnify this affirmation that we are alive. Humanoid creatures, body horror, gore, even tragedy—I implement each of these into my fiction to fully open the experience. To tease at our deepest existential fears and questions.

In my story “Date With Crocodile Girl,” I use a non-human, deadly creature to discuss human nature. There is a natural inclination to see a juxtaposition between a carnivorous reptile and a human woman but as the story unfolds, Crocodile Girl and her date discuss ethics and morality, and they find common ground. The woman discovers her most authentic self through her interaction and infatuation with the crocodile. But ultimately Crocodile Girl is still a monster. And by the end of the story, we grow anxious for the woman’s safety. We are left grappling, not only with the woman’s fate, but with the parallels between human and beast.

I want to cast spells. I want to leave you with the taste of blood in your mouth.

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Jenny Stalter is a writer and former private chef. Her work appears in New Flash Fiction Review, Eunoia Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Tiny Molecules and is forthcoming in Cease, Cows. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. 

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