Many of the greatest supernatural horror stories revolve around mourning and loss. Often, the ghost plays not only the object of fear, but also acts as the remnants of unresolved pain or relationships cut painfully short. Betty Rocksteady’s new novella, Like Jagged Teeth, taps into this commonality, using the pain of grief as a driving force for both character psychology and narrative movement. It couches its ideas within the logic of nightmares while also attributing its plot with qualities not often associated with strictly supernatural horror. Specifically, it deals heavily and unapologetically with disgust and grotesquerie.
The plot begins with protagonist Jacalyn leaving an awkward party, feeling a little sad and hollow. When a group of men start following her down the dark street and harassing her, Jacalyn’s recently deceased grandfather (“Poppa”) suddenly drives up and interferes. He invites his granddaughter into his vehicle, and although she is surprised, her excitement at seeing him alive overrides her hesitation. Jacalyn accepts his offer to take her back to his place — an apartment which, much like Poppa himself, is both vaguely familiar and absolutely alien.
So begins a sustained study in the genre-centric study of “the uncanny,” a notion made famous by Sigmund Freud and constantly reinterpreted by horror literature and cinema. Broadly speaking, the psychological phenomenon of “the uncanny” aligns with Rocksteady’s descriptions of Poppa and his apartment as mentioned above: an encounter with that which is simultaneously familiar and utterly strange. Rocksteady plays coyly on this idea, using it to underline both horror and confusion. Throughout the majority of the novella, Jacalyn resists her better judgement and believes in the familiar side of the equation, dismissing the pervading vibe of wrongness namely because Poppa’s death left certain traumas unresolved.
By constantly re-emphasizing Jacalyn’s inability to confront the undeniable horror of the unfolding scenario, Rocksteady achieves a powerfully oneiric tone throughout. Above all else, this is what stuck with me. Reading Like Jagged Teeth feels much like exploring a transcription of one of those awful nightmares whose subtly terrifying undercurrents keep pulling you deeper and further, even as your panicked under-thoughts tell you again and again, No, no, this is not right! Wake up already! Of course, this being a horror novel, Jacalyn does not wake up until the nasty stuff has taken its time to squirm around and hiss and bite. Surely, this is one of the novella’s most unique and interesting traits: using Jacalyn’s trauma and grief-stricken pathology as justification, the narrative sees her voluntarily locked in a hellish space, denying its dreadful reality even after she has seen her creepy not-Poppa sitting on a bed covered in blood-splattered sheets with a knife at his side.
This heavy nightmarish sensibility informs not only the novella’s dealings with Jacalyn’s interiority, but also its descriptions of space. Poppa’s apartment bends and folds, as dream-spaces so often do, constantly dismantling and reforming its own logic in ways both creepy and surreal. This serves to further substantiate the sense that one is reading a deep and persistent dream — the space mimics the inward-turning, self-cannibalizing patterns that dictate Jacalyn’s motives throughout: the mental rendered tangible. If Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be read as an acid trip gone wrong, Rocksteady’s Like Jagged Teeth is a bad acid trip going consistently worse and worse and then even worse still, until the viciously scary vibes take on a life of their own and nearly swallow the LSD-afflicted mind whole.
Yes, this novella most definitely demonstrates Rocksteady’s knack for writing the scary stuff. On top of the dreamlike psychological fear detailed above, this is one of the most relentlessly icky horror books I’ve read in a long time. It’s so impressive, then, that it contains almost no graphic violence, but instead mines discomfort from the scents and appearances of things that are rotting. Weird and verminous intrusions pop up, but some of the most revolting sequences center around the banal routine of eating. Rocksteady adeptly describes the first breakfast scene in a way that is initially stomach-turning, in the relatively unthreatening way that any breakfast scene might be in the throes of a bad hangover. However, as Rocksteady brings details about the unclean plate and the totally wrong ingredients to the surface, the scene takes on a quality of unusually powerful disgust. This effectively stages the novella’s modus operandi: although it adheres to many of the traits of supernatural fiction, it’s not afraid to delve into the kind of visceral, textural details normally associated with body horror.
All this is to say that Betty Rocksteady’s short, quick novella incorporates a number of different approaches into a single narrative, and that it does so with intelligence and skill. If you want to explore the literary equivalent of a nightmare that slips unassumingly into the brain, that sticks and leaves its nasty residue in the morning, then Betty Rocksteady’s Like Jagged Teeth is the book for you.
Mike Thorn’s criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.