The Straitjacket in the Woods
Kitty R. Kane
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
I hadn’t even finished the first paragraph of Kitty R. Kane’s The Straitjacket in the Woods before I realised that this was going to be an unusual title in the Short! Sharp! Shocks! series. After all, it’s not just any horror story that opens with the narrator casually discussing the legend of something called Pendulous Sedge, a monstrous, naked woman with gigantic swinging breasts who chases after people while wielding a cleaver and a broom. It’s certainly a highly unusual version of your standard horror trope of ‘local legendary murderous maniac’ and it most definitely drew my attention, so full marks to Kane for managing something that relatively few horror titles can do these days.
The concept of Pendulous Sedge has a certain childishness to it, rather reminiscent of the sort of unconsciously sexist myth that a group of young teenage lads might invent around a campfire, and that naivety and youthfulness bleeds into the first-person narrative of the story, framed as a sort of running story. Having lost an unspecified bet, the protagonist and her boyfriend Jay are honour-bound – in the way that only teenagers could be – to spend a week camping in the woods by the institute that Pendulous Sedge allegedly escaped from. They can’t just camp there – they must also find evidence that the infamous killer actually existed, perhaps even the torn straitjacket that she escaped from in order to wreak bloody havoc in the surrounding woods. This being a short horror tale, it isn’t long before creepy and horrifying things start to occur to the young couple. Their tent is slashed, a slab of raw meat is thrown at them, and the protagonist has her face bitten by spiders, leading to a face so swollen she has to be guided around by her boyfriend as she is temporarily blinded. Completely and utterly lost, they stumble upon the titular straitjacket, and from then on things only become more and more desperate and horrifying. It turns out that Pendulous Sedge isn’t just a fireside tale after all.
Kane’s writing style for The Straitjacket in the Woods is an unusual one that I haven’t really encountered before – it has a breathless, frantic air, as if the protagonist is narrating the events literally as they happen. It takes some getting used to, but it actually rather suits the nature of the story and the escalating nature of the horrors that Kane gradually unleashes upon her unsuspecting protagonist. Those horrors are definitely unsettling and memorable – we bear witness to freakishly mutated and twisted monstrosities living deep underground, written with such vividness by the author that I couldn’t help but find myself visualising each one. However, just as I thought that I had a handle on the story as a whole – especially given the short length of the Short! Sharp! Shock! imprint, Kane pulled the rug from out under my feet and genuinely shocked me in the process.
The narrative takes a completely different direction to the one I thought it was heading in, veering away from the straight-up horror tale I thought I was in the middle of reading and becoming something else entirely. Instead we get a surprisingly melancholic tale of horrific abuse and degradation in a medical institution that demonstrates the flaws of believing in a legend – in mythology in general – without interrogating it. Kane weaves a grim, horrifying and often outright nauseating tale, but one that has a certain haunting beauty to it – a story of triumph over adversity and the bond of family that can form despite none of a group being blood relations to each other. Because there is horror here – make no bones about it, Kane is a hell of writer and even had a jaded reviewer like me shuddering from some of the acts she deftly described – but there is also hope, and even a form of love. Both of those elements are so often missing from horror titles; they certainly don’t have to be there, but their existence here allows the horror elements to become even more pronounced and unnerving as a result.
In The Straitjacket in the Woods, Kitty R. Kane has produced a first-rate piece of horror writing: one that is disturbing, nauseating and at times even downright sickening, and yet also engaging, memorable and even fulfilling in a very strange way. It shocked and surprised me in equal measures as I read it, and has remained with me even weeks after I finished reading it.