(Trigger warning for rape. Also, some of the individual story descriptions may contain vague spoilers. Read at your own risk!)
“In FIST OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, fifteen daring authors frankly ask themselves, “What am *I* afraid of?” The aim is not to quell our fears, but to embrace them. In doing so, their work takes on an entirely different form than the familiar thrills of contemporary Hollywood horror films.”
Between the blurbs on the back cover and the wonderfully creepy artwork (by Julie Morstad) gracing its front, FIST OF THE SPIDER WOMAN is not at all what I expected. For starters, most of the stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few notable exceptions, you won’t find many supernatural baddies or serial slashers here. The fears explored within these pages tend towards the mundane as opposed to the otherworldly: Carrying on after the death of a loved one. Embracing vulnerability by learning to trust others. Accepting help. Being caught by karma. Our culture of fear. All of which is sprinkled with a liberal helping of sex. In fact, many of the stories in Fist read like erotica over horror (e.g., “Every Dark Desire” – vampire dominatrix porn; “Slug” – worm porn; “In Your Arms Forever” – ghost porn).
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not what I thought I was getting when I picked this anthology up. (Though I must admit that many of the rape scenes turned my stomach; not for the mere presence of rape, which is disturbing enough on its own, but because the victims often come to enjoy their non-consensual abuse.)
Instead of singling out those pieces I didn’t enjoy (looking back on my notes, I assigned a 2-star or lower rating to 5/14 of the stories and poems), I’d rather rave about the ones I loved.
Editor Amber Dawn’s contribution, “Here Lies the Last Lesbian Rental in East Vancouver,” might be my favorite of the bunch. It’s a surprisingly poignant tale about the last of the “legendary queer houses” in Vancouver. Set to be purchased by (presumably) a pair of yuppies, the current tenants are enjoying one last night of bondage in the historic home when the spirit of one of the previous owners – possibly the home’s very first lesbian occupant – is conjured to come out and play by her long-suffering lover. It’s a commentary on gentrification wrapped up in leather and lace. And, yes, a spectral rape scene.
Aurelia T. Evans’s “In Circles” = SUPERNATURAL (specifically, the Season 1 episode “Wendigo”) meets MIDDLESEX (I think. It’s in my TBR pile.) A ridiculously patient Bloody Mary returns decades after she’s been summoned to claim girls who are “different” – in Kate’s case, intersex. This is one of the few stories that pulled off the sexy-meets-scary vibe quite well.
“Crabby,” by Michelle Tea. If cleanliness is Godliness, then what is pubic lice?
In “Shark,” Kestral Barnes teases out the different faces that “monsters” can assume. The narrator’s mother, a marine biologist, studied white tipped sharks in her “backyard ocean”; and, when the dock collapsed one fateful night, she lost her life to one of her subjects. Years later, her “dad” Baba was also – almost – taken my a shark woman named Brooke. This story plays into the “gold digger” stereotype, but I kind of enjoyed it anyway.
Meanwhile, Mette Bach’s “All You Can Be” stars a sadistic psychiatrist who will stop at nothing to have (read: possess, control, own) the woman of her dreams. The psychological creep factor is strong in this one.
I’m not really big on poetry, so I was surprised to find myself savoring Elizabeth Bachinsky’s “Postulation on the Violent Works of the Marquis de Sade.” To wit: “it’s a strange appropriation to finance a woman’s hatred” and “my terror is terror’s ubiquity.”
Last but by no means least is “Homeland” (Kristyn Dunnion), in which a jaded punk picks the wrong “Lesbian Zombie” to con.
FIST is a pretty mixed bag: I quite loved some of the stories, while a large number fell flat for me. Despite the 3.5 star rating (rounded down to 3 where necessary), I think it’s well worth a read for some of the shinier pieces.
The collection is also quite diverse: nearly all of the stories feature lesbian protagonists, and there are also intersex, transgender, genderqueer, and disabled women (and a few men) characters.