‘Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU’ by Carmen Maria Machado

‘Especially Heinous’ is another story which satisfies my desire to be convinced of alternative realities. Or, if not alternative realities, then at least real fictions in our reality. Here, Machado details twelve seasons and 272 episodes of an alternative Law & Order, one which may be closer to the X Files than the source material, in which supernatural occurrences are de rigueur. Stabler and Benson contend with ghosts with bells for eyes, doppelgangers, and exorcist priests, and each of the 272 summaries is a Lydia Davis-esque short story in its own right.

““The Third Guy”: Stabler never told Benson about his little brother. But he also never told her about his older brother, which was more acceptable, because he didn’t know about him, either.”

At 16,000 words long, whether it counts as a short story or a novella is up to the reader to decide. The episodic summary form, however, compels ‘Especially Heinous’ not to miss a word. Perhaps long short stories are more interesting to writer-readers than lay-readers, but I’ve always been struck by the boldness, the audacity, of the long short story. It’s incredibly freeing as an artist; if you can rewrite an entire long running TV series and make it compelling, anything is possible.

Published in Her Body And Other Parties, Serpent’s Tail, 2019. Also available online in The American Reader

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I read this online when it appeared in Granta and immediately was charmed by it, though also so intrigued, because nearly all the stories mentioned within this story, as well as the frame story (a woman with a ribbon around her neck, no spoilers here!) were all literally taken from a book called Scary Stories that any parent of an elementary school or middle school child will know. I am so intrigued by that. None of these stories were original. Yet all are re-imagined in a completely original, literary, compelling way – i.e. like writing a story about Law And Order: SVU which this writer has also done. But it is not out of reach, for anyone, to be inspired by material like this. This is a talent that is besotting as well as making it clear that when we use material at hand, memorable and renowned stories can result. But literally. I know little kids for whom the story about the mother replaced by the stranger with a glass eye and wooden leg were unreasonably frightening. So deeply troubling and frightening. There is a way these Scary Stories and the other scary stories (the violent crimes against women portrayed in Law And Order: SVU) become new and unprecedented myths around which to build stories – no less powerful than myths about Circe, Medusa, Daphne, which several of Carmen Maria Machado’s stories also evoke. 

First published online in Granta in 2014 and available to read here. Collected in Her Body And Other Parties, Graywolf/Serpent’s Tail, 2019)

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

A version of the folk/fairy tale/horror story (depending on who’s telling it), ‘The Green Ribbon’, Machado rewrites it here as a visceral visitation of the horror and ownership inflicted on women’s bodies. Not content with paying her surgeon more for an ‘extra stitch’ after she’s given birth, the narrator’s husband also nags at her, for years and years, until she finally gives in, and unties the thick green ribbon she wears around her neck. 

First published on Granta, 2014, and available to read online here. Collected in Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2017

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I almost didn’t include this. So much has been said about it already, but this is a personal anthology. In October 2014, when this was published, I was heavily pregnant with my first child. I saw the story being passed around and praised but I knew from the title that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. It was a good decision. When I did read it, maybe a year later I cried, I cringed, I drew breath. I remember swearing and thinking – this is what writing can do. None of this should work – the weaving in and out of stories and times, the interruptions directing or addressing the reader, the melding of fairy tale with realism. But it does. And it’s perfect. 

first published in Granta, October 2014, collected in Her Body and Other Stories, Graywolf Press2017, and available to read online here

‘Eight Bites’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m obsessed with writing about eating disorders. The narrative reliance on measurements, the questions about self-image, the illustrations of control and the literary gymnastics required to circumvent all of these characteristics and, of course, tired writing about women’s bodies—all of this fascinates me. The sub-genre of the ED short story though (inasmuch it can be said to be one) involves some degree of tight creative self-awareness about the tropes that plague the disorders themselves. And so when I read ‘Eight Bites’, I went very quiet and happy and immediately re-read it, because Machado’s story is a tender ghost story about having to live in a body and having to live with what we put into them and wreck out of them. I don’t know if it’s a short story about eating disorders or not, but what I can say is that it is a story about desire. I think about it constantly, and in particular this scene in a restaurant involving a bucket of cold, stirring oysters. I have never eaten oysters, but it makes me want to. 

First published in Gulf Coast, Summer/Fall 2017. Collected in Her Body and Other Parties. It’s online—read it here

‘A Horror Story’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is the big deal she is for a reason and I could have chosen almost any story from Her Body and Other Parties to illustrate this. ‘A Horror Story’ isn’t included in the collection, but I picked it because of the amount it manages to do in a tremendously small number of words. A couple move into a house and find themselves haunted, though the possible reasons why seem to be ripped from the plots of a hundred horror movies: It turned out there had been a graveyard for criminals on the property where our home now stood. Also, a woman had been strangled by her lover in our bedroom just after the house was built. Also, a man had hanged himself in the attic during the Great Depression. Also, a teenage girl had been kidnapped and held in the basement for a year in the seventies before the kidnapper, who had never bothered offering a ransom, sent pieces of her body to her family in sets of Russian nesting dolls and then burned what remained of her on the front lawn.Taking the haunted house trope and turning it into an exploration of queer relationships, guilt and trust, the story manages to be deeply affecting and eerie whilst always keeping its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.

Published in Granta, October 2015, and available to read online here

‘Eight Bites’ by Carmen Maria Machado

I don’t know about you but sometimes when I read a really good story it is like a film playing in my head, sometimes I forget if a scene I can see so clearly in my mind is from a film or a book. Reading ‘Eight Bites’ I can so vividly recall its metaphor made real, a body made of flesh once part of a woman, now cut away but not dead, living inside her house, friendly, soft, alone, abandoned: something, “body-shaped. Prepubescent, boneless […] one hundred pounds, dripping wet.” A body that trying to hide itself but which continues, fleshily to haunt.  ‘Eight Bites’ shows the transformation women’s bodies can go through, the weight seen or not that is carried with them, the pain they can endure. That to be a woman is to inhabit a body that will be appraised, that this is inescapable. Machado effortlessly blends reality and something more real than reality to create a story that embeds itself in your own flesh and leaves you gnawing away at its ideas. A story that asks you to be kinder to your body and embrace it as your own.

First published in Gulf Coast magazine 29.2, Summer/Fall 2017 and available to read online here. Collected in Her Body & Other Parties, Graywolf/Serpent’s Tail, 2017

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

The first, and clear standout, story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection Her Body and Other Parties is a marvel, uncomfortably confrontational in its sexual politics and frank sexuality. Machado’s narrator tells a story of meeting the young man she knew she would marry, their marriage, the birth and raising of their son, and an inevitable betrayal by her husband whom she loves. She offers all herself to him all except the mystery of what lies beneath the green ribbon tied in a bow around her throat. Inevitably, the ribbon must be pulled.

It is a story in the strong tradition of Angela Carter, of believing, of storytelling, and who is believed and who is not – specifically, why the stories of women are not believed.

The title refers to the extra stitch – never officially documented – sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth; the aim to make the vagina tighter than it was, to increase the husband’s pleasure during sex.

First published in Granta 129: Fate, 2014 and available there onlinecollected in Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf Press/Serpent’s Tail, 2017

‘The Husband Stitch,’ by Carmen Maria Machado

If you were worried, as U.S. Supreme Court watchers worry about the advanced age of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that Margaret Atwood will retire or otherwise leave us without an heir to carry the mantle of the strange, the malformed, the sophisticatedly allegorical, the fantastic, the formally inventive, etc., be advised: Carmen Maria Machado is on the job.

This story, ‘The Husband Stitch,’ has many layers, many revelations, many revulsions, a lot of love on offer, but it saves its greatest, most shocking revelation for its end, and when you get there, you’ll have to rethink everything you know about women and men and marriage and all the social contracts we’ve undertaken or received, and whether love is always worth the price lovers might want to exact in the name of devotion.

From Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf/ Serpent’s Tail, 2017. Available to read online here

‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado

This is the story on the list that I’ve read most recently. The narrator (unnamed, of course) meets her husband-to-be, has lots of sex, marries, bears a son, raises a child. She’s a storyteller but no one believes her stories (by no one I mean the men in her life, of course). All women in this world have a ribbon attached somewhere on their body. The narrator’s is green and on her neck. Her husband is fascinated by it but she won’t allow him to touch it. You know where this has to end but the journey there is entrancing.

From Her Body & Other Parties. First published in Granta and available to read here