Ian Mond criticizes Hard Places by Kirstyn McDermott – Locus Online

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hard placesKirstyn McDermott (Trepidatio 978-1-68510-057-5, $22.95, 312pp, tp) July 2022.

It was 1994 and I was attending the Melbourne Horror Society’s monthly meeting at the Māori Chief Hotel in South Melbourne. Number 3 of bloody songs – Australia’s first professional horror fiction magazine – had just come out, and the members, including the periodical’s two editors, were poring over the copies and discussing the content. Seated across from me at one of the tables was a new member, a young woman about my age dressed mostly in black. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, she asked me what I thought of “And the Moon Yelps”, one of the stories featured in the issue. I told him that I loved it, that I thought it was one of the best, if not the strongest, of the magazine. “I’m glad you think so,” she said, “because I wrote it.” That’s how I met Kirstyn McDermott. Twenty-eight years later and we remain close friends; we even host a podcast together (it’s called The writer and the critic; I may have mentioned it several hundred times in this column). I never really thought about what might have happened if I had told Kirstyn that I didn’t like “And the Moon Yelps”. But then, I can’t imagine a possible universe where I didn’t love that story or the horror and dark fantasy it’s written since. Now, with the release of hard placesa curated collection of his short fiction, I have the pleasure of revisiting his work.

hard places collects 14 stories: 13 of which have been published within the past two decades, and the titular final story, which is original to the collection. The opening track, “She Said”, is the story of a sickly young woman, Mallory (with “skinny ribs that hang high” and a “harsh, choppy” cough), who gave it her all. herself (she spat “something dark and clotted into the jar”) to inspire paintings by her artist boyfriend Josh (“You’ll need it,” she says. “For the clouds”) Mallory is unaware, as she fades into bed, that Josh is having an affair with and paints the portrait of Fiona, who has “ashen golden curls and a coaxed smile straight from a fairy tale. “She Said” brilliantly presents McDermott’s prose, rich in seductive and visceral imagery. “Painless” has a similar effect. The story is told from the perspective of Faith, recently arrived in Melbourne, who discovers – from disturbingly – that Mara, the woman in the next apartment, lets men torture and abuse her for money because she doesn’t feel pain. As in “She Sa id,” the rawness of the central premise is not so much muted as enhanced by the force of McDermott’s prose, lyrical and evocative and, when needed, razor-sharp.

McDermott readily acknowledges in the notes that close the collection that the tone, structure, and subject of his fiction, especially his earlier stories, owe much to authors like Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite. You can see, for example, the fingerprints of Caitlín R. Kiernan in “Monsters Among Us”, a tale that combines gothic culture, homosexuality and body horror. Yet the gruesome revelation of where one of the characters draws his absinthe lends the piece a level of ingenuity and inventiveness that transcends the work that informed it. Similarly, Stephen King’s influence is felt in “Caution: Contains Small Parts”, “Accidents Happen” and “Hard Places”. But with these three pieces, it’s McDermott’s bold and unwavering attitude to mental health, toxic masculinity and domestic violence that gives each its distinctive identity. Even when McDermott works with a well-established text, like her “Snow White” sequel “Triquetra,” she brings a refreshing new perspective while playing within the confines of the original fairy tale. (It should be noted that alongside the release of hard places, Brain Jar Press publishes a series of six books by McDermott inspired by fairy tales. I’ve read several, and they are, unsurprisingly, terrific).

Although I have read most of the stories in hard places, it was while re-evaluating them that I began to appreciate the eclecticism of McDermott’s work. There’s gothic grunge, unconventional ghost stories, reimagined fairy tales and surrealism (“Self, Contained” is a hilarious and absurd piece about a cat-like creature that fills every space it inhabits. ). McDermott also dabbles in historical fiction with the excellent, if tragic, “Mary, Mary,” which details the extraordinary life of Mary Wollstonecraft, overseen by her companion, the ghostly Gray Lady. But my favorite story in hard places defies categorization. “The Home for Broken Dolls” follows Jane, disfigured by her psychotic father, who now lives alone, spending his days making masks for customers and fixing badly damaged sex dolls thrown away by their owners. When her dolls suddenly “wake up”, furious at the way they’ve been treated, Jane finds herself in the middle of a revolution. While the short story is laugh-out-loud funny – McDermott’s fiction may be dark, but it has a biting sense of humor and a huge appreciation for the ridiculous – the depiction of the history of the covert misogynistic community that exists around these sex toys provides a blunt and angry criticism of how society continues to treat women as the property of men (a point that is all the more resonant in 2022, with the recent reversal of Roe v .Wade).

Kirstyn McDermott is one of my best friends. She also happens to be one of the best practitioners of horror and dark fantasy writing in the field today. With the publication of hard placesI expect many more readers to come to the same conclusion.


Ian Mond likes to talk about books. For eight years, he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently, he relaunched his blog, The hysterical hamster, and again publishes mostly vulgar reviews of an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at [email protected]


This review and others like it in the August 2022 issue of Venue.

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