A boy haunted by his suicidal younger brother. A woman whose husband slowly alienates her from her children. A childless old woman with spectral twins in her basement. These, and ten more, populate the pages of Rachael Llewellyn’s Human Beings a collection of short stories showing just that: human beings, behaving in ways that are all too inhuman.
Each of the thirteen pieces provides its own chill, whether it’s the horror of how monstrously people can behave to one another or the unsettling creep of the unknown. Some of the stories are exaggerations of what could be, perhaps even of fantasies the reader themself might have. (Who hasn’t occasionally considered casual violence? Who hasn’t found themselves wondering what might happen if…?) Others are wilder, taking fears the modern world creates all too well and expanding them into something freakish. Those particular stories are the best. Llewellyn spins out the potential horrors of being a woman into something that could only be at home in an urban legend or a blockbuster thriller, all while keeping the seed of powerless dread which exists every day for so many people.
My particular favorites, I should add, were “Nightshift”, “Sleeplessly Sleep Walking,” and “Monochrome Dancers”. The first kept me keyed to a fever pitch throughout and had a twist that had me jumping out of my skin. The second is more experimental, playing with the form of words on the page. The third was more understated, with the horror appearing gradually as it played out. There were others I enjoyed, but those three were what I felt showed Llewellyn at her best.
Not all of the stories work quite as well. After a while, the thirteen horrors all began to blur together, and the titles didn’t stand out enough for me to remember which belonged to which particular tale. More than that, with a few exceptions, each story had a very similar tone. It’s an effective one but again makes the stories more difficult to distinguish. All the stories give a sense of creeping horror, one that lingers even in the midst of bloodshed and gore. It made what would have been an ordinary slasher story even more unsettling, one which will stick with the reader longer. What I would have liked to see would have been some editing and rearranging. A few of the stories stretched on too far and would have been more effective had they been a bit shorter.
At the end of her book, Llewellyn writes she wants her stories to haunt the reader long after the book is returned to the shelf. For all my quibbles, they will certainly do that.
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