As many of you know, I began this column (almost five years ago, which is a little mind-blowing) with the intention of chronicling the writers who impacted me during a very transitional period in my writing career. Writers who exposed me to new things, new kinds of horrors and writing styles. However, a year or so ago I realized this column should evolve and start featuring newly discovered contemporary writers right alongside the masters of years gone by. The first of these newly discovered writers was Peter Laws. Today’s featured writer is Kristi DeMeester, author of the amazing, beautifully bleak novel Beneath, and the powerful short story collection Everything That’s Underneath.
I first encountered Kristi DeMeester when, on a whim about three years ago, I bought her novel Beneath. I’d seen it bounced about social media as a novel folks had really enjoyed. Its striking cover, as well as the premise — snake-handling religion and cosmic horror — drew me right in. I bought it for Christmas that year as a present for myself, and several months later, the time rolled around for me to pull it off the shelf and give it a shot.
I devoured it in several days. Quite frankly, it’s one of my favorite works of modern cosmic horror. First of all, DeMeester’s prose is lyrical, elegant, engaging, and obsessively readable. Second, Beneath may be one of the most beautiful, bleakest novels I’ve ever read, which I simply could not stop reading. When I read novels as bleak and despairing as Beneath, I often have to put it down for a day or so just to catch my breath, in order to shore up my reserves to soldier on.
Not so with Beneath. I simply couldn’t tear my eyes away, and I kept reading, saying to myself, “Okay, this can’t be ending so badly, it just can’t, it can’t….” And of course, when I say “ending this badly” I don’t mean the quality of the prose, the characterization, or the story itself. All is top-notch. What it means is, I kept looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, a light which DeMeester coyly dangles before the reader, and never quite delivers. And that’s the best thing, because delivering that light would’ve completely undercut the novel’s powerful horror, and the story would’ve been lesser for it.
First of all, there’s a raw intensity to this novel which makes it not for the faint of heart. It’s a story about how a snake-handling sect of “Christians” are really doorways for something reptilian and Other hiding deep beneath the surface of the earth, and how they help usher in an apocalypse which will sweep away the modern world and replace it with something old and ancient, something which has been sleeping Beneath and is now, finally, awakening. It also features scenes of intense sexuality, and while DeMeester’s portrayal of the mixing of horror, death, sex, faith, communion and consummation is unflinching, it’s not gratuitous, and is deftly woven in with novel’s larger themes, making it a very powerful, and — I believe necessarily — disturbing work.
Spoiler Alert (though this isn’t a review, more of an armchair analysis), there is no stopping this apocalypse. Though our main characters desperately seek some way of staving off the end, as we read, we know in our hearts they’re fighting a losing battle. Not only that, we get the idea they’re fighting a losing battle they will ultimately concede willingly.
Cora Mayburn — a reporter — is forever tainted by her childhood memories of being raised in a fundamentalist snake-handling cult. Though she’s long since put her past in the rearview mirror, this new assignment brings all of the old fears, anxieties, terrors, and scars back to the surface. Worse, as the novel continues on, there’s the idea that Cora has been marked for this forever. She’s destined to join with something Ancient and Other, something horrifying, which she’s been running from her entire life. Something she no longer has the strength to fight, maybe even no longer wants to fight.
DeMeester also, consciously or perhaps unconsciously, powerfully subverts a classic horror trope, one which Stephen King has made a virtual cornerstone of his work: The “redemption arc of the previously-thought-to-be-irredeemable character.” I’ll admit; I love this trope, and I love how King does it. However, Michael, the snake-handling priest whom Cora is thrown together with in pursuit of her story, cleverly and powerfully subverts this popular trope. Michael is nothing but a bundle of flaws and cracked faith, a weird mix of humility and arrogance, and he’s struggling against — and slowly failing to — his sexual attraction to a minor in his congregation.
On the one hand, you want to feel bad for Michael, and root him on to better things. You really do, especially because it becomes very clear that this Ancient Cosmic Other is manipulating Michael’s predilections toward a perverse consummation to bring its ascent about.
But. But. At his core he really is perverse, he knows it, he is what he is, and even though as a reader you want his redemption — or maybe just expect it — and even though he’s striving for it, in a way, you sense, as the story wears on, Michael will never get the redemption we’ve come to expect for horror characters like him. Even more powerfully: we understand that he doesn’t deserve redemption. At all. It turns the “redemption arc” trope on its head, and leaves you really grappling with the nature of redemption long after the novel ends.
The short story is a powerful form, and I’ve been delighted to see many female horror writers storming the ranks of the short horror market over recent years, offering stirring horror and speculative fiction tales about wonderful, horrible, terrifying things. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered many women fantasists whose short fiction I adore. Gwendolyn Kiste, Emily Cateneo, Damien Angelica Walters, just to name a few. I recently finished DeMeester’s short story collection Everything That’s Underneath and am delighted to add her to that list.
The stories in this collection are diverse, but are all powerfully affecting. Through stories ranging in genre from horror, speculative fiction, (think dark, twisted Twilight Zone stories) dark mythic tales, and weird tales, DeMeester invokes a creeping unease in her depiction of cosmic horrors which wait in the dark, ready to feast on our pain and misery.
However, she writes tales not only brimming with strange cosmic Otherness, but also tales of regret, guilt, longing, secret pain, and loneliness. Through the trappings of speculative fiction, these stories deal with parental loss, motherhood, sibling bonds, untimely death, abuse, betrayal, and family heritage.
All of these things speak to the human condition, to those deep places which ache inside us. This is what elevates DeMeester’s work above standard genre fare. Also, like Beneath, several stories grapple with the nature of faith, pondering just what people are actually worshiping. Is it something bigger than us, which is benevolent and caring, and only has our best in mind? Or is it something beneath, something impossibly alien and forever outside the reach of our feeble understanding, only seeking to use us for its alien ends?
These stories offer the best of both worlds. Not only do they speak to the human condition and of real things, they’re entertaining and brim with Cosmic Horror. These meaningful stories about human loss and pain are also skillful renderings of the Weird Tale, made relevant and modern, and all the more powerful because of it. This makes Kristi DeMeester one of the premier of a new generation of female scribes of the horror and the weird, and you’d do well to get in on the ground floor, now.
Kevin Lucia’s short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently with Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014, Through A Mirror, Darkly, June 2015, and and his second short story collection, Things You Need, September 2018. His novella Mystery Road was published by Cemetery Dance Publications May, 2020. For three free ebooks, sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com.