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The Feminist Horror of Lisa Tuttle
Tight and terrifying tales on an intimate scale.
I BELIEVE THE FIRST TIME I became aware of Lisa Tuttle was around 1990, after Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s indispensable collection of short essays Horror: 100 Best Books was republished in the United States (its sequel, Horror: Another 100 Best Books is equally worth your time). In that book, the essays are written by one hundred different horror writers, each choosing their favorite horror, or horror-adjacent, book. The late Robert Holdstock chose Tuttle’s story collection A Nest of Nightmares, which at that time would have been a fairly new book (it was published in 1986).
In his essay, Holdstock wrote:
This is horror at its best because it addresses more than the supernatural. It is good horror, too, because it acknowledges that nightmares are real only in a simple, subjective dimension. There are no ghosts, no living corpses . . . not for you or me . . . but there are for the fevered, oppressed minds that might create them.
And it’s true that many of Tuttle’s horror stories have a kind of insular (in a good way) quality to them, in that the only people experiencing the horror are the two or three characters we are reading about at any given moment. With one exception I can think of, there are no witnesses.
The problem, from my point of view, was that as intriguing as A Nest of Nightmare may have seemed to me in 1990, it was irrelevant because I couldn’t get it. A Nest of Nightmares wasn’t published in the United States—born in Houston, Tuttle has lived in the U.K. since 1981—and, once the internet came along and allowed people like me to look up things like this, it became clear that used copies of the book were way outside of my price range. Well, things change, as they say, and mere decades later, A Nest of Nightmares is back in print and readily available to us Yanks, as are other horror titles by Lisa Tuttle. It was worth the wait, as her work more than lives up to its reputation.
LET ME BEGIN BY SAYING that A Nest of Nightmares is one of the most punishing horror collections I’ve ever read. Tuttle’s stories aren’t overly explicit or graphic in their depictions of violence, nor do they shy away from describing too much. But the ending of, for example, “Bug House,” the first story in A Nest of Nightmares, was so blunt and merciless that my reaction to it was just a silent “Holy crap.” Ellen, the protagonist, goes to visit her dying aunt, May. May kindly rejects Ellen’s attempts to care for her, or to tempt the dying woman to go to the hospital (“There’s no cure for dying except death, Ellen,” she says). So Ellen is left to do little more than simply observe. One day, a strange man named Peter delivers groceries to May, and behaves in May’s home as if he owned the place. Moreover, Ellen overhears May admonishing Peter for not coming to see her the night before. All of this strangeness eventually unfolds into something utterly horrifying, with a truly disturbing ending.
There is sometimes a certain blitheness in Tuttle’s horror. This is not a criticism. For instance, in her story “Community Property,” a divorcing couple comes to the same conclusion about what to do with their beloved dog, as all the dog has known is a happy family with two human masters, and now that’s over. Their decision is awful, but almost comic in its bone-deep selfishness. And there is every reason to believe that this selfishness won’t end there.
A similar effect is achieved in “Born Dead,” which is collected in The Dead Hours of Night. In it, our narrator has landed her dream job, working for a big-time fashion designer named Florida McAfee. The story covers a lot of time, while being only about ten pages long, and the narrator eventually informs us that her success working under McAfee has inspired her to consider striking out on her own and starting her own business. Before officially making a move, she has lunch with McAfee who, quite randomly, tells her a bizarre story about how she, McAfee, once got pregnant, but the child, a boy, was stillborn. Then she tells the narrator that despite this horrible outcome, the child—who is unquestionably dead—continues to grow, to appear as a living child (and eventually adult) whom McAfee cares for. Her son can’t move, doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t even breathe. But he grows, and she dresses him, and cleans him, and decorates his room, changing it every couple of years depending on what’s appropriate for a growing boy. The narrator is shocked to find herself believing McAfee, and agrees to come to McAfee’s house and meet her son. All of this ends on a last line that is both creepily jarring, and actually pretty funny. A neat trick.
“The Book That Finds You,” also in Dead Hours, is not one of Tuttle’s best, yet was still catnip for me, as it’s an homage to Robert Aickman. Tuttle invents an Aickman stand-in, and includes all sorts of biographical information that Aickman-obsessed readers such as myself will find familiar. So it’s a good time, but a little detached from what I, at least, was used to from Tuttle’s horror fiction.
In fact, a large number of the stories I read for this essay deal directly with the, I won’t say horrors, but physical and psychological issues of child-bearing and childbirth, as well as the specifics of female biology. One story, “A Birthday,” deals (inevitably, I suppose) with both. Peter Squyers goes, reluctantly, to visit his mother. He doesn’t despise her or anything, but he’s simply not that comfortable with her. But they agree to meet at her apartment for drinks. Shortly after he arrives, and she begins serving drinks, he notices that she seems to have a bleeding wound on her hand. However, soon blood seems to be seeping out of her everywhere: her legs, her scalp, her entire body. It’s coming out of her pores, she casually explains. She also says that this is simply part of her “change of life.” She is telling him, in essence, that menopause brings with it so many features and bugs that most men know nothing about. Peter comes to, tentatively and only to an extent, believe his mother, but is especially calmed when she tells him she’ll have a nurse check in on her until the whole thing passes. But when he returns to his mother’s apartment, joined by his concerned girlfriend, he learns so much I would suppose it probably drove him mad.
NOT ALL OF TUTTLE’S STORIES address these subjects; two stories, for example, from her collection Riding the Nightmare go in different directions. “The Last Dare” is sort of a take on urban legends, and “The Wound” deals with male friendship. Or, and I don’t say this glibly, does it?
But as far as Tuttle’s stories about childbirth and women’s bodies go, the big one has to be “My Pathology.” This story is somewhat famous for moving Thomas Tessier, himself a very good horror writer, to declare that the ending of “My Pathology” (found in The Dead Hours of Night) is one of the best ever written in the history of the genre. He was particularly taken with the last line. Since I admire Tessier, for me this was some big-time hype, and I worried going in that “My Pathology” wouldn’t hit the promised mark.
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In the story, a woman named Bess meets a man named Daniel. They fall in love, and when the relationship threatens to become very serious indeed, Daniel tells Bess a secret. He says that he has to tell her now, as his last relationship ended because he told the woman too deep into it, and it was a shock she couldn’t get used to. So he tells Bess now that his primary interest, even obsession, in life is alchemy. This is the medieval belief that, among other things but for the sake of simplicity, lead can be turned into gold. It’s also the practice of doing so. As the story progresses, Bess takes an active role in his experiments and, much to Daniel’s delight, becomes pregnant. However, this has not been confirmed by a doctor, as Bess never goes to the doctor, out of a long-time fear of them and what their presence in one’s life might mean. Instead, she’s looked after by Daniel’s mother, whose beliefs and ways of working are as ancient and mystical as those of her son. Yet when something seems to be going terribly wrong with her pregnancy, she does at last go to the hospital. She doesn’t tell Daniel about this. Her doctor determines that Bess isn’t pregnant at all, but rather has a tumor growing inside her. When she tells Daniel, he becomes furious, and tells her that she should have never gone to the doctor, and that what is growing inside her is the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical object that will allow them to not only turn base metals into gold, but give Daniel full knowledge of the universe and existence.
I should probably end the synopsis there. There’s much more to come, including another woman, and then that ending. The section that I would call “the ending” is about half a page long, and once a certain realization struck me, I sort of psychologically flinched before Tuttle even spells it out. The last line is really remarkable and awful, as is the whole story, and it’s a tribute to one writer’s imaginative gifts, as well as her handle on the art of prose.
Lisa Tuttle is genuinely unique. When I was unable to own A Nest of Nightmares, I wanted it mainly because of its reputation, and because I couldn’t have it. Now it, and the other recent Tuttle reprints, are for me important, vastly compelling works in my favorite, if often disappointing, genre. It’s great when artists are as good as you’ve been told.