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REVIEW: “Through the Looking Glass and Straight into Hell” by Christa Carmen




Short-Story Review by Lee Murray

“Through the Looking Glass and Straight into Hell” (a short story by Christa Carmen, published in In Orphans of Bliss: Tales of Addiction Horror, edited by Mark Matthews

Plot Summary:

In Christa Carmen’s weird science through-the-looking-glass tale, a braided story juxtaposing two timelines, Allie/Alice is back at the detox centre for the 13th time and bunking with the irrepressible Judy, when she is offered a virtual reality simulation recovery, a programme which offers addicts a glimpse at their future without drugs.

There is no doubt that the author knows this horror. In fact, Carmen has been refreshingly open about her personal battles with drugs, recently announcing ten years of sobriety on social media, and her lived experience resounds in this narrative, the harsh truth and poignant vulnerability evident in the language and the images she conjures. There are some clear parallels with the author’s personal backstory too: a child that smells of “lilac lotion and milky skin”, the supportive partner who is “the reliable witness to her journey” and the protagonist’s “thrill” at reaching a milestone in her writing career, all likely plucked from the author’s own life. Even the novel mentioned in the story, Sequela Manor, with its gothic underpinnings, hints at Carmen’s debut, The Daughters of Block Island. That is not to say the character is Carmen, but the parallels, revealed in the detail, and in depth of her character’s internal thought, lend the work its authenticity.

Carmen employs the symbolism of Alice venturing through the looking glass into a dark fantasy world, contrasting distortion and truth, stoned and sober. Glass recurs throughout the story, as a source of comfort and potential cruelty, and the backwards woman, seen in the mirror, interpreted as both prophecy and past, is as terrifying as Dickens’ ghost of Marley.

The italicised line, ‘You’re not really cured” made my teeth ache. This phrase “took a lap around my brain” because as a sufferer of depression, for some of us mental illness isn’t something that is cured, just held at bay with cobwebs and curses until the next time. Being cured of my depression is not something I feel I can ever say with confidence. And therein lies the horror. The nightmare is always just on the other side of the door. Or the mirror, to use Carmen’s metaphor.

Carmen destigmatises addiction, making it personal with the completeness of her characterisation and her eye for detail. As for the importance of writing for raising awareness of sufferers, horror and addiction go hand in hand, as Carmen’s protagonist, also a writer, explains:

“Addiction is inextricably linked with every sub-genre of horror. Addiction is horror, and the history of horror is incomplete without addiction. It both sneaks and explodes through so many of our stories.

“Captain Crozier was plagued by drink before he was ever plagued by the Tuunbaq, or ship beset by ice, and Wilkie Collins’ account of Dickens’ obsession with Drood was distorted by laudanum. Vampires have long been stand-ins for insatiable addicts, and addicts—with their mindless obsessions—are often referred to as zombies. Addiction horror is horror histories, but it is the future of horror as well.”

Thoroughly deserving of its Bram Stoker Award nomination, Carmen’s story stood out for me, and yet it is just one is a stellar line-up of heavyweights writing on this theme in Orphans of Bliss, the third anthology in editor Mark Matthews’ insightful series on addiction horror.

Lee Murray is an author, editor, poet, essayist and screenwriter from Aotearoa New Zealand, a USA Today bestselling author, a five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, Shirley Jackson Award winner, and recipient of her country’s Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. Find her at https://www.leemurray.info/

Sheri White’s stories have been published in many anthologies and magazines, including Tales from the Crust (Editors Max Booth III and David James Keaton), Halldark Holidays (Editor Gabino Iglesias), and HWA’s Don’t Turn Out the Lights (Editor Jonathan Maberry). Her collection, Sacrificial Lambs and Others, was published in 2018.

Read the HWA Mental Health Initiative Charter here: https://horror.org/mental-health-initiative-charter/

One comment on “REVIEW: “Through the Looking Glass and Straight into Hell” by Christa Carmen

  1. Lee,

    I love this review of “Through the Looking Glass and Straight into Hell.” Christa Carmen’s story is one I hope everyone will read.


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