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Short Story Collection Review: She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin

Summary: A dictator craves love–and horrifying sacrifice–from his subjects; a mother raised in a decaying warren fights to reclaim her stolen daughter; a ghost haunts a luxury hotel in a bloodstained land; a new babysitter uncovers a family curse; a final girl confronts a broken-winged monster…

Word Horde presents the debut collection from critically-acclaimed Weird Fiction author Nadia Bulkin. Dreamlike, poignant, and unabashedly socio-political, She Said Destroy includes three stories nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, four included in Year’s Best anthologies, and one original tale.

Review: Let’s get any fears out of the way: She Said Destroy is easily a contender for the best horror I’ve read this year. It’s only January. That should tell you everything you need to know.

But that wouldn’t be fun for a blog like this, would it?

Nadia Bulkin’s collection contains no clunkers (just one middling offering). Ninety percent of the stories in this collection pulls you into a dark hyper-reality that reflects so clearly upon our own that I do feel terrified remembering the events of each of these stories. Why does this collection hit every single point so masterfully for a debut?

For starters, Bulkin’s language delights. It delights in the beauty of its painful subjects and ruminates on so many of the things we wish we could forget. Here’s a little taste of that language from the short story “Pugelbone”:

I was born in the Warren, and the Warren was all I knew. Both my mother and father were Meers. We go back to the founders. My father was very proud of our ancestry, but he was also very ill. He talked about forging tunnels and building walls and digging rooms for more families, more, when of course the Warren was already finished, and there was no more concrete to dig a new space out of. The rooms had been split as small as they could go without forcing adults to stoop, without making stretching out to sleep completely impossible. Babies were being suffocated, usually under older children, sometimes under their parents. The tunnels had become so narrow that we could only pass through one by one, and even then we had to dodge laundry from the overhead apartments, and falling garbage bags, and other things that people decided they just didn’t have room for…

Just look at that craft. The idea, the well-executed descriptions, the intense feelings of claustrophobia the writing evokes, the bizarre premise underlying some real problems people can experience even now. This is the power of Bulkin’s stories. Every story reads like this with care and a dedication that is rare even in the most promising authors.

And every story, of course, deals with some incredible realities. “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” revisits Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space” but reflects on domestic abuse, utilizing the “madwoman in the attic” to terrifying effect. “When She Was Bad” looks at the relationship between monster and final girl in a way I wish so many other horror stories, whether in literature or film, had done. “Red Goat, Black Goat” and “No Gods and No Masters” looks at the grand old tradition of generational curses, the former dealing with the fallout from a privileged family underestimating a guardian entity and the latter looking at the depths a family must sink into thanks to the pressures society exudes on the most vulnerable.

I could go on and on. If I had to pick favorites, I’d select “No Gods and No Masters,” “Pugelbone,” “Truth is Order and Order is Truth,” and “The Three Stages of Grief.” All these stories deal with relationships between women, the hardships they suffer through sexism or a family that will not let its own burdens go, and happen to feature some great monsters.

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But the worst monsters in Bulkin’s story are too often human or created by humanity. Suicide, bullying, child abuse, death, genocide, and more are explored. Nothing is safe from Bulkin’s eye, but each subject gets handled with care. There are no rape scenes for shock value, no exploitation of another person’s real pain to deliver entertainment. When these dark subjects are broached, Bulkin handles them with the respect they deserve. For that alone, this collection rises above so many other short stories I’ve read in the past few months alone.

If I had one qualm, I wish that Bulkin dealt more with LGBT relationships or disability. A lot of the stories feature a critical eye toward what we’d call the traditional family. It’s a staple of the horror tradition, but, for a collection that prides itself on the socio-political undercurrents thriving under each plot, I’d love to see Nadia Bulkin tackle more marginalized groups and unconventional modes of human relationships.

But for what it is, a brilliant debut collection that features several award-winners? It’s just what I needed to start off the New Year in Horror. I highly recommend purchasing this book and reading a story or two every day.

Your appetite for the macabre will be satisfied.

Rating: ★★★★★ of 5 stars!

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