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Book: “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked” by Tamika Thompson
Publishing Info: Unnerving, January 2023
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC.
Book Description: A beauty pageant veteran appeases her mother by competing for one final crown, only to find herself trapped in a hand-sewn gown that cuts into her flesh. A journalist falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman but discovers his beloved can vanish and reappear hours later in the same spot, as if no time has passed at all. A cash-strapped college student agrees to work in a shop window as a mannequin but quickly learns she’s not free to break her pose. And what happens when the family pet decides it no longer wants to have “owners?”
In the grim and often horrific thirteen tales collected here, beauty is violent, and love and hate are the same feeling, laid bare by unbridled obsession. Entering worlds both strange and quotidian, and spanning horror landscapes both speculative and real, Unshod, Cackling, and Naked asks who among us is worthy of love and who deserves to die?
Review: Thank you to Beverly Bambury for sending me an eARC of this short story collection!
Even though I am typing this whilst looking at a VERY out of control book pile on my nightstand, I’m not lying when I say that I’m always on the lookout for something new in my reading rotations. Especially if that something new is something horror related. So when I was approached with “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked”, a collection of short horror stories by Tamika Thompson, I was quite interested in giving it a go! I like finding new to me horror authors to check out, and the title alone had a lot of promise. And while it’s true that short stories aren’t always reliable for me, I’ve had luck with them recently, so I was down to try more. And happily, that once again worked out pretty well!
As I always do with short stories collections I will talk about the three that I liked the best, and then talk about the collection as a whole.
“Under the Crown”: This is actually, to me, the least ‘horror’ horror story of the collection, though there are still aspects that make it tread that way. But at the end of the day I found it to be a really satisfying tale of self liberation. A woman has been competing in beauty pageants for most of her life at the behest of her mother, and she is starting to get tired of it. During a really important pageant that she never wanted to do in the first place, the various tricks of the trade to make her look pretty start to take their toll, as the dress itself feels like its biting into her skin. This story is more about the very real pain that some people go through for beauty, be it physical or emotional, and our protagonist has a lot of body horror moments that are rooted in truth (teeth whiteners that burn, a dress that is so uncomfortable it draws blood, and something involving jelly beans that made me cringe). Beauty pageants, beauty standards, and misogyny are all themes in this story and I thought it had some nice moments of dark humor too.
“Mannequin Model”: Way back when during an early season of Top Model one of the challenges was for the contestants to stand in store windows as living mannequins, and my mind immediately went to that when I started this story, but it would be if the contestants then had to endure a psychological torture session (moreso). A woman who is strapped for cash and needs money to support her family in crisis takes a job as a living mannequin at a store, told to stand perfectly still in the store window between two actual mannequins. But as the shift lingers on and on and she has to endure physical pain, the leers of onlookers, and a cruel boss, she starts to hear the mannequins talking to her. This one is very unnerving, a look at objectification, of bad labor practices, of misogyny and racism, and how it can all come together to take a serious toll.
“Abduction Near Knife Lake”: I think that this was my favorite story in the whole collection, and it was the last one so it made the book end with a bang. Remnants of a bridal party and driving in the backroads of Michigan after the wedding when an Amber Alert comes through on their phones, describing the abduction of a young Black girl. When bridesmaid Samiah thinks she sees the car she convinces groomsman and ex-boyfriend Will to try and help her save the girl, as help is far away and missing Black children aren’t prioritized. Their good samaritan choice, however, lands them in unexpected danger. There are so many tension points in this story, between the suspense of whether or not Samiah and Will are going to get caught by the possible abductor, to the tension of being in an isolated wilderness, so things perhaps not being as they seem. It’s a really fun scary story, one that stood out for all the right reasons.
As a collection it’s cohesive and pretty solid! I don’t think there were any stories that didn’t work for me, though some I enjoyed more than others. But overall I found Thompson’s voice and storytelling to be unique and engaging, and given that I tend to be hit or miss with short stories collections I’m always happy when there is a pretty clear ‘hit’.
I think that there is something for everyone in “Unshod, Cackling, and Naked”, so definitely give it a go if you are looking for some enjoyable horror short stories! Tamika Thompson is a fun horror voice, and I will be going back to read “Salamander Justice” this Spring for sure!
Rating 8: A solid horror collection of various sub genres that explore supernatural terrors, as well as the terrors of being a Black woman in racist and misogynistic societies.