Horror movies never frightened me much, not even as a child. I’d look at Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, and I’d pretty much shrug. That’s because real life is always more horrifying than any slasher or monster movie could ever strive to be.
This is never truer than for the women in Laura Van Den Berg’s stellar and spine-tingling new short-story collection, “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.” Also known as, the scariest lineup of stories that I’ve read in a long time. However, if you are expecting monsters, ghosts or demons, then you need to broaden your concept of horror.
These 11 stories center on women—most of whom are nameless—on the brink of a knife’s edge. Horror for them comes in the form of confronting their own realities. In “Your Second Wife,” a woman finds herself trapped in the vicious gig-economy despite her once lofty dreams of being an architect. She’s a dog-walker/landscaper/delivery woman, and, in her strangest gig, an impersonator of dead wives. She calls it “grief freelancing” dressing up and acting out the normal habits and tics of these deceased women for their grieving widowers. Our narrator says of her situation, “…what an unbelievably exhausting moment to be alive, in this era of gig economy.” In constantly fulfilling the desires of random men, our narrator is at risk of losing track of who she really is.
In “Lizards”, the plot feels ripped from the headlines as it centers on a high-profile judge charged with multiple allegations of sexual assault. However, the judge’s case plays as a backdrop to the drama between a woman and her husband. The narrator feels “so angry she’s surprised surfaces don’t ignite when she touches them.” While her husband, who sees himself as “a good man”, tries to artfully navigate his wife’s rage as she tries to pin him down on whether or not he has ever committed or been a witness to sexual assault or situations that have gone too far.
Rage and sadness make for two of the most common themes for the women of “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.” In “Karolina,” one of Van Den Berg’s standout stories, two ex-sisters-in-law have a tense reunion in Mexico after a devastating earthquake. The titular Karolina is homeless on the streets and confronts the narrator about events in the past concerning her ex-husband (the narrator’s brother). In facing Karolina, the narrator must reckon with the reality that her beloved brother, a man who she thought was so kind and wouldn’t harm a fly, could actually be responsible for driving Karolina to these dire circumstances.
While there is nothing of the supernatural in “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” there is a whole lot of preternatural. In “Last Night,” the collection’s opening story, a woman narrates the story as if she’s already in her grave, except, she is very much still living; this element gives the story a campfire tale-like quality.
In “Slumberland”, we follow a woman as she stalks the dark streets of Orlando as she takes voyeuristic photographs of peoples’ most private moments. These forays into the night are her escape from her neighbors’ unending weeping and wailing that drifts through the walls and into her apartment.
Furiously intense, surprisingly funny at times and wickedly tender, regardless of your gender, Laura Van Den Berg’s “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” is a must-read for fall.
By: Gregory Bertrand