BOOK REVIEW: FEMINA By Caitlin Marceau
DarkLit Press; 235 Pages; Available Now on Amazon
The eternal existential question ‘Who Am I?’ has various answers depending on whose audience we entertain. In our daily lives there’s often a struggle with which facet of our personality to hide or reveal; to our parents, for instance, we show a different side of ourselves than we do to our co-workers, our lovers, our friends. For writers this friction between one’s innermost self and that which we expose to the world at large can provide an unending wellspring of dark inspiration.
Exploding onto the literary horror scene in 2022 with her terrifying examination of a disturbed mother-daughter relationship in the novella This Is Where We Talk Things Out, Canadian author Caitlin Marceau explores those same issues of identity in a way that will satiate anyone ravenous for more of her intense strain of terror fiction in the DarkLit Press release Femina, a captivating collection of fifteen short stories.
‘Tabula Rasa’, the book’s haunting and heart-wrenching future-set opener, follows Cassie, sole surviving crew member of an interstellar flight, as she battles the alien doppelgänger that’s stolen her memories. The pains taken to achieve the perfect smile are turned into a poetic ode in ‘Teeth’. When faltering couple Daniel and Rebecca take a long hike to isolated ‘Llanwey Point’ so that Daniel can discover a long-sought connection to his ancestors, the results are far from what he expected. An alleged transcript of video left behind by a trio of guerrilla YouTubers exploring the interior of an abandoned shopping plaza, ‘Raw Footage From The Cushing’s Mall’ is a chilling entry in the subgenre popularized by The Blair Witch Project. ‘Splinter’ plants a potent dose of body horror, when a woman stuck with a sliver of wood undergoes a most unusual growth spurt.
The collection’s second half kicks off with the similarly-themed short poem, ‘Sticky Sweet’, that shows readers how trees feed. That’s followed by a seat-squirming sewing sequence in the flash fiction piece ‘In Utero’, where a new mother experiences second thoughts after giving birth. In the next story, college gal Ari thinks her new Wiccan girlfriend Mason is ‘Everything She’s Looking For’, but when Mason mystically unlocks Ari’s own spiritual potential, some harsh truths are revealed. Though written long before the Titan deep-sea submersibledisaster, ‘The Amphitrite’ gains eerie atmosphere with marine biologist Emilia’s ghostly experiences aboard an underwater research station. And things go bump in the night when married couple Everly and Brooke move into the house at ‘23 McCormick Road’ and must solve the mystery haunting their new abode.
There are several recurring themes woven throughout Femina. The juxtaposition between how women see themselves as opposed to how society views them lies at the beating emotional heart of Marceau’s work, and the multifaceted roles women assume in the modern world are explored in all their intricate, intimate, sometimes messy aspects. The lack of understanding some men have towards women, too, is unflinchingly portrayed; boyfriends, husbands and bosses are by turns selfish, overly-critical, uncaring shapes, content with their position in the patriarchal hierarchy and intent on constraining and controlling feminine will, often with gleefully gory results.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume the protagonists in Femina are cookie cutter ‘final girls’; these are raw, realistic, three-dimensional individuals, imperfect and believably defined more by their humanness than gender, and therein lies the secret strength of Marceau’s prose: male or female, gay or straight, young or old, every reader can relate to the thoughts, feelings, desires and actions present in these stories, and as such, five pieces stand above the rest in their vivid descriptions of loss, life and death.
With the feel of an old-world fairy tale, the tragic ‘Broken’ plumbs the bittersweet consequences of true love, when the rulers of two warring kingdoms unite their nations via the arranged marriage of their eldest children. The brilliant flash fiction entry ‘Loop’ is as fascinating for its experimental visual style as for the mournful story it tells. Aggravated with her immature boyfriend and a boorish, bullying boss, officer-worker Laura finds cathartic release through murder in the darkly comic ‘Blood And Coffee’. And when overweight Billie is goaded into stomach bypass surgery by her fatphobic husband, the dreadful result as her body wastes away culminates with a literal gut-wrenching climax in ‘Gastric’.
Yet the blue ribbon of Marceau’s collection is undoubtedly the high-concept ‘The Only Thing To Fear’. Set in an alternate world where shape-shifting loup-garous are a common, if not accepted, segment of the population, sweet teenager Gwen’s anxiety that she may be afflicted with the monstrous morphing trait compounds the ill-treatment she’s received from her boyfriend. But will she choose to use her newfound animal side for revenge?
If there’s a fault in Femina it’s that the pages pass too quickly. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but with an author of such keen ability an audience wants as much material as it can get. That said, Marceau is at the forefront of a new wave of female indie horror writers, and anyone seeking a quick Tales From The Crypt thrill will find much to love here. Blood gushes, spurts and sprays in a variety of clever, crafty and creative ways, but beneath any mayhem lurks the fascinating, tragic, beautiful and sometimes sad workings of the human soul.
Femina hereby earns a well-earned 4 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. I can’t wait to see what worlds Marceau creates next.
Femina by Caitlin Marceau
FEMINA: A Collection Of Dark Fiction explores the horror of womanhood. Or, more accurately, the horror of gender norms and societal expectations placed on women. This collection features work that delves into themes of identity, motherhood, sexuality, and isolation. A mix of Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person And Other Stories” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body And Other Parties: Stories”, this collection is a blend of psychological, supernatural, and body horror. FEMINA looks at the horror of being a woman in a man’s world.