Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked
Reviewed by Gordon B. White
Christa Carmen’s debut collection Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked showcases an exciting new voice in horror. The stories are colored with (un)healthy buckets of gore, but the real highlights are Carmen’s examinations of the human heart in its myriad complexities. Because this is her first foray, Carmen’s ongoing development as an author is on display across the text, but the range of subjects and the deep, compassionate understanding of people on society’s margins is undeniable.
Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked collects thirteen stories, ten of which have been previously published and three original to this collection. These stories are unequivocally horror and while there is a smattering of the supernatural, fair warning to the squeamish: The title isn’t kidding; there will be blood. A lot of blood. But the “something borrowed” portion of the title is quite apt, as well, as across these stories Carmen explores her influences by trying out a variety of tones and topics. There are many experiments in voices, from the lyrical and almost-fantastical “Thirsty Creatures” and “Fairy Plant in Grief,” to the more realistic terror of “Red Room” and “Lady of the Flies” (which story gives the collection’s cover its unsettling pig-woman image), to the dreamlike visions of the harrowing “Our Angry Train” or the tender “Flowers from Amaryllis.” While readers may find certain of these more to their personal taste than others, there’s an exciting spread of possibilities.
Although frequently grim, Carmen’s work also often retains a spark of wicked humor embedded in either the narrative voice or the bones of the story. A few of these tales have twist endings or well-executed tonal shifts that feel in line with EC Comics or Tales from the Crypt, but because part of the joy of this collection is being caught off guard by these moments of sinister glee, this review won’t spoil them. When discussing the humor and horror balance, however, it is particularly worth highlighting Carmen’s “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell,” which has been reprinted in venues such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Volume 2. The title creates a set of expectations that Carmen fulfills (and even exceeds) in a jaw-dropping Tex Avery cum Grand Guignol fashion that would make Ash Williams proud. Not every story has these lighter touches, and not every one that does is as intentionally over-the-top as this, but the variation makes reading the collection as a whole a delight.
Where Carmen’s work particularly shines is in exploring characters that have been marginalized by society. A number of these stories feature characters that are struggling with the very real issues of drug addiction or poverty, and Carmen’s astute insight into these characters brings them to life. Resisting the urge to unduly lionize or villainize these characters, the author humanizes them, making their adversity and their eventual outcomes more resonant. These stories are at their best when they dig into these characters, and the insight that readers will get into a single mother struggling with methadone recovery (“Wolves at the Door and Bears in the Woods”) or an addiction counselor and her clients (“Liquid Handcuffs”) are lessons that few other authors in this genre can provide. It is difficult to overstate just how affecting these portraits are and how the deep well of compassion is that Carmen draws from to enrich her stories. If there is one aspect of her work that makes this collection indispensable, this is it.
As a debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Stained does have a few rough spots inherent in the work of any developing writer. The prose in some stories isn’t as polished as others and there are a few spots where the plotting isn’t quite seamless or authorial techniques aren’t necessarily employed to their fullest. These bumps, however, are easily overlooked in light of how engaging the stories are and Carmen’s compelling imagination and understanding of people. More than anything, this collection whets the reader’s appetite for her future work. (It’s also worth applauding that evident care was taken with this book’s technical aspects, as the review copy was admirably free of distracting typos or misformatting that too frequently mar smaller press offerings.)
Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a fascinating debut collection. Watching Carmen work through her influences and try out different modes of expression is always entertaining and frequently enlightening. The range of her authorial voice and the depth of her concerns come into clearer focus as the collection progresses, but each new story unfolds more tantalizing possibilities. It is sounds cliche (but absolutely true) to end by saying that it will be exciting to see how Christa Carmen continues to develop, so let us instead say that right here, right now, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked showcases the emergence of a passionate, entertaining, and absolutely necessary voice in the horror genre.