We Are Wolves
review by Ally Wilkes
Fans of beautifully literary indie British horror may need no introduction to Gemma Amor, one of the editors of this charity anthology: the Bristol-based author is a Stoker Award Nominee, and her short story collections and novels offer horror with heart. There’s plenty by Amor in this anthology, but what really stands out – as a statement of intent – is her Foreword, in which she writes about her assault, and its echoes in what sometimes get dismissed as lesser evils: verbal harassment, abuse of power, and the silences that can grow up around “the way things are”. It really sets the tone for this collection, which showcases female and non-binary-authored horror (largely from the US and UK) and in which each piece either explicitly or implicitly addresses feminist themes.
When I first read through We Are Wolves, my impression was one of rage: I felt that there were many stories with (righteous) fury as the dominant tone. This isn’t a criticism but an observation; the blurbs at the front of the book – which include horror heavyweights such as Josh Malerman and Brian Keene – highlight words like “vicious”, “fight” and “savage”. However, on second reading, the stories which really shone for me were those which dealt with transformation or a dark subsuming of pain within a greater whole – as Hailey Piper puts it in her story, “absolution”.
The first story, Cynthia Pelayo’s ‘The Black Wallpaper’, was in my view the standout piece, taking its cues from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. In the original story – highly recommended as a disturbing blast of female rage and frustration – the protagonist, suffering from depression, is ordered to undertake a dangerously restrictive ‘rest cure’ in which she spends months confined to a room with eerie yellow wallpaper. She becomes convinced there’s another woman behind the wallpaper, “creeping about”, and in the climax tries to change places with her: “I’ve got out at last… in spite of you.” Pelayo’s stunning reimagining addresses the overwhelming burdens and expectations society places on women – the “have it all” mentality – and the frequent inequities of male-female domestic partnerships. While it may initially seem quiet, dealing with a woman attending a hotel for an overnight break, the story spirals to a vicious climax. Pelayo’s protagonist, like Gilman’s, seeks her own escape from powerlessness and overwhelming pressure, with the wallpaper she’s putting up in her townhouse a portal to madness: “There were things in that wallpaper nobody but me knew, or would ever know.”
Similar escape-by-immersion is at work in Gemma Amor’s ‘Angel’, a properly grimdark story dealing with a female police officer called to attend an upper-middle-class house on a tip-off from a terrified nine-year-old girl: “my baby sister’s dyin’.” The monster she finds there is a callous and indifferent mother, who has singled out one of her children to die of unimaginable neglect: reading it, I thought of the uncomfortable and sinister Monster Love by Carol Topolski. It’s a deeply upsetting tale, but the protagonist undergoes her own transformation, and what could be a downbeat ending is presented as belonging; uplifting; the dark realisation of Angel’s dreams. And another ending in which the protagonist – made heartbreakingly relatable by her hopes and fears as she waits to meet her lover – meets annihilation is deftly rendered ambiguous in Amor’s ‘Room Seven’.
One of the things I enjoyed about this anthology was the range of point-of-view techniques chosen by the various contributors, which enlivens the collection and prevents the stories from reading too similar: for every more straightforward ‘wronged woman’ story, there’s one told from an unexpected viewpoint. So we have Hailey Piper’s ‘The Curse of She, Part 6: the Final Girlfriend’ which casts you as the personification of the scream queens of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and takes in all the tropes and filmic gender-role discussion of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws. Or the sharp and memorable narrative voice of V. Castro’s ‘Lobster Trap’ (“Greed is bold. Arrogance is fearless.”) which deals with the predation by greedy fishermen of a colony of intelligent giant lobsters. Even a human voice is rendered unexpected as a choice in ‘The Parrot’ by Sonora Taylor, which shows us the world through the eyes of the horrid, obsessive, abusive husband of the woman we first meet on the coroner’s slab. And ‘Playing with Gods and Dolls’ by Erin Al-Mehairi features a bait-and-switch which wouldn’t be out of place in a classic episode of Creepshow or The Twilight Zone – praise indeed.
There’s plenty of that righteous anger on display, too – the “savage wolves” promised in the cover copy. I thought ‘Though Your Heart Is Breaking’ by Laurel Hightower was a particularly wonderful and cosmic-horror twist on the theme of revenge, in which the police try to investigate what’s happening to men who are found with their jaws wrenched open in each direction by unbearable and inhuman forces. Hightower takes the time to illustrate the precise and excruciating experience of being told to “smile”; how women’s faces are treated as public property or for public consumption. And ‘A Key For Any Lock’ by S.H. Cooper was an immersive and readable take on the rape-revenge tale – one which goes to lengths to engage with the way society colludes with rape culture, not only by overt slut-shaming but the pushing of a “smart girl” narrative: deliciously subverted.
Other notable stories deal with body horror and bodily trauma. ‘Doll House’ by Red Lagoe was a deeply uncomfortable and dark narrative of maternal abuse, in which Allison’s Mamma confines her to a basement, “fixing” lifeless women who are reimagined as “dolls” to be cut up, modified with wax and displayed in creepy lifesize Barbie boxes. The surgery scenes are as uncomfortable as the depiction of ruthless fat-shaming and eating disorders: Lagoe chooses to address the ways in which women police and oppress other women through the medium of the body. There’s another dark imagining of maternal love – this one made joyous, protective and fierce – in ‘Woman. Mother. Goddess. Death.’ by Lilyn George, similarly squicky in its degrees of body trauma, as a decaying corpse-mother drags herself from the grave and struggles to use her degraded body to punish her daughter’s attacker.
Ultimately, as with any well-curated anthology, the other stories were highly readable and interesting contributions – including from emerging authors – but too many to mention here. I should also note that the book includes some short pieces of poetry, and ‘Where A Witch Goes To Burn’ by Eve Harms was a very fun exploration of the commodification of witchcraft and its history.
By the end of December, We Are Wolves had raised over £800 for charities working with survivors of abuse or assault, and you might need no other reason to pick up a copy – but perhaps an even better reason would be the quality and diversity of writing inside; and that gorgeous, glowing, golden cover.