Rebecca Rowland is the transgressive dark fiction author of the short story collection The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, co-author of the novel Pieces, and curator of the horror anthologies Ghosts, Goblins, Murder, and Madness; Shadowy Natures, and the upcoming The Half That You See and Unburied. Her writing has appeared in venues such as Coffin Bell, Waxing & Waning, and the
WiHM online collections The Ones You Don’t Bring Home to Mama and Final Girls with 20/20 Vision and has been anthologized in collections by Red Room Press, Transmundane Press, Forty-Two Books, Emerald Bay Books, Twisted Wing Productions, Thurston Howl Publications, J. Ellington Ashton Press, and Dark Ink. To surreptitiously stalk her, visit RowlandBooks.com.
Three adolescent bullies discover that the vicious crime for which they were never charged will haunt them in unimaginably horrific ways; a dominatrix and a bondage fetishist befriend one another as one’s preoccupation grows to consume his life. A man persuades his wife to start a family, but her reluctant pregnancy comes with a dreadful side effect. A substitute teacher’s curiosity about a veteran teacher’s methodology provides her with a lesson she won’t soon forget. An affluent, xenophobic lawyer callously kills two immigrants with her car with seeming impunity; a childless couple plays a sadistic game with a neglected juvenile each Halloween. An abusive father, a dating site predator, a neglected concierge, and an obsessed co-worker: they are all among the residents of Rebecca Rowland’s universe, and they dwell in the everyday realm of crime and punishment tempered with fixation and madness. There are no vampires, zombies, or magical beings here; no, what lurk in this world are even more terrifying. Once you meet them, you will think twice before turning your back on that seemingly innocuous neighbor or coming to the aid of the helpless damsel in the dark parking lot. These monsters don’t lurk under your bed or in the shadows: they are the people you see every day at work, in the supermarket, and in broad daylight. They are the horrors that hide in plain sight, and they will unsettle you more than any supernatural being ever could.
Contains graphic violence (though not continually) including accidental death, murder, and suicide; sexual content, and occasional graphic language. Sexual assault is implied but not described in a graphic nature. No animals are harmed.
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Guest blog: The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste: Insanity as a Horror Trope
by Rebecca Rowland
Everyone is scared of something. Occasionally, as I am a fan of scary movies, this topic will come up in everyday conversation with friends. Kelly is freaked out by nuns. Kevin is squeamish about sharp objects being placed in the throat. And Lily once confessed that she is terrified of squirrels (a valid concern, I recently learned, after reading another friend’s social media post describing a bushy-tailed rodent’s attack of her while she was on a walk. No, I didn’t share the anecdote with Lily.) Biting, or anything involving sharp teeth, used to do it for me, but a few rides on The Walking Dead bandwagon seemed to eradicate the trigger, even as the children of NOS4A2 push for a likely return.
Perhaps it’s a by-product of age, but my fears have shifted. Now, the only thing that scares me on a visceral level is the possibility of losing my sanity, my mind being out of my own control. It follows, then, that most of what I write, read, and watch falls under the category of psychological fiction, a sub-genre that relies mostly on the mental state (and sometimes, instability) of its characters.
In her 2018 article in The Guardian, Sarah Gonnet discusses the clichés of mental illness often employed by horror. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/31/halloween-horror-film-mental-illness-scary-cliches Agreed, the loss of sanity is a trope that has existed in horror long before Henry Jekyll and Bertha Mason. Sometimes, the mentally ill person is, inarguably, the threat, as in the case of psychopaths. Peter and Paul of Funny Games (1997 and 2007) never waver in their total lack of empathy, and it’s their willingness to do just about anything to anyone that makes the film so unsettling. Other times, it is the nebulous nature of the threat that delivers the most chills. The title character in Martha Marcy May Malone (2011) is a survivor of a cult who appears to be experiencing paranoid delusions, but no matter how many times I watch the movie, I cannot decide if she is a sympathetic sufferer of PTSD or a sleeper agent. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016) by Iain Reid (soon to be a Netflix feature by Charlie Kaufman) is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in some time, simply because the reader’s understanding is reliant on the narrator’s skewed point-of-view, even as the story slips into confused ominosity like a stealthily-placed hallucinogen.
Temple University’s Meaghan Burke criticizes the genre for stereotyping those who suffer from mental illness as monsters, and her points are not without merit. https://temple-news.com/horror-movies-perpetuate-mental-illness-stigma/ As of 2019, NIHM estimates that one in five Americans live with a mental illness, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml and I can only assume that the Co-Vid pandemic has exacerbated that statistic. However, more often than not, it is the illness itself, not its sufferer, who is the villain in most stories. In Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), the hotel uses Jack as its vehicle for destruction just as it did its former caretaker, Grady. We’re supposed to identify with Danny, his young son, or even Wendy, his wife, but I think there’s a case to be made to sympathize with Jack as well. The most frightening part of the story is how easily the madness envelopes Jack like a warm bath. The hotel amplifies his weaknesses, addiction and feelings of failure, until Jack can do nothing but succumb to its directive. He is a victim as much as his family is.
The scariest part of Rosemary’s Baby (1967) isn’t the likelihood that the sweet elderly couple next door is part of a satanic cult on a mission to impregnate a naive young wife but rather, that when she discovers the plot, everyone, even her trusted obstetrician, dismisses her claims as raving lunacy. Similarly, the film Swallow (2020) follows a newly pregnant woman who develops pica, a disorder where the sufferer ingests inedible objects, and the terror comes not from watching her consume larger and more disturbing items, but from empathizing with the terrible isolation the protagonist feels having no one in which to confide. Burke calls out M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) as perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness by casting an individual with dissociative identity disorder as the villain. Yes, the kidnapper may be someone with DID, but as the more sympathetic personalities present, it’s clear that it’s the illness itself, and not the individual, who is the real sadist.
I certainly don’t wish for those who suffer from such ailments to feel even more stigmatized than they already do. Perhaps by experiencing the horrors faced by those affected by mental illness through the detached filter of literature and film, readers and viewers will replace their misunderstanding with empathy.