Transmutation by Alex DiFrancesco
Seven Stories Press (June 8, 2021)
140 pages; $16.95 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre phenom who is taking the literary world by storm. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was the first finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards by a transgender author. DiFrancesco is the human companion of a rescue Westie named Roxy Music, Dog of Doom. Their newest book is a collection of short stories titled Transmutation, and it is a necessity for any fan of horror literature.
These ten stories ooze with tension and nuance. They are not the gruesome body horror of many recent horror writers, nor do they pander to various tropes or stereotypes. What they do do, artfully and aesthetically, is delve deeply into the life of transgender people, then take those stories and use horror as a vehicle to drive those searing, complex narratives.
One prime example of this is “The Ledger of the Deep.” In this story, DiFrancesco deals with the concept of dead naming the protagonist and the legends about naming boats, and weaves them into a very tense, eerie ghost story that cannot help but haunt the reader. DiFrancesco gives their readers just enough detail to leave them aching for more, then cuts the story off right before the actual horror begins, forcing the reader to imagine the fate awaiting the protagonist and his father.
However, not all the tales in this collection are as explicit. The reader is forced to deal with the awkward, the uncomfortable, the unknown, and sometimes realize that the speaker or protagonist is not the character they are meant to be championing. For example, in the story “Perseus Denied,” the speaker is a doctor whose wife has a dry skin disorder. They separate, ultimately divorce, but have a very evocative and disturbing reunion at the end of the tale. However, it is the wife character that we are meant to empathize with. The images of her pacing and clawing at her own skin are the visceral details that stick with the reader, and DiFrancesco uses this metaphor to explore what it is like for a transgender person to be living in a body that is not comfortable for them. The social commentary here is not heavy handed, which is what makes this story and others like it in the collection so elegant. The subtlety of the art, but the richness of the metaphor, is what makes Alex DiFrancesco a standout writer in their field
If there is a complaint to be had with this collection, it’s that it’s simply not enough. DiFrancesco is such a profoundly talented writer, able to cram so much into their stories, that the reader is able to breeze through this collection in a few hours and be left aching for more. Anyone interested in the potentials of horror both as entertaining fiction, but also as literary art, should read this collection as soon as they are able. While Alex DiFrancesco is certainly not a new writer, this collection shows them exploring very rich and profound territory that hopefully will both challenge and shape the future of horror writing. Readers should count themselves lucky to be able to witness this change firsthand.