by Emilee Prado.
Perhaps most remarkable for their history of disreputability, erotic thrillers usually amass what is referred to as a cult following, but only a few of these films can tout overwhelming critical and commercial success. So what did Park Chan-wook’s 2016 dark and gripping lesbian love story, The Handmaiden do for English-speaking audiences to win a BAFTA, earn an honorable place in our film canon, and gross over $38 million worldwide? In part, the film is expertly crafted, cinematically stunning, and directed by a South Korean auteur who has been building international acclaim for the last three decades, or at least since the release of his Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy or Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Lady Vengeance, 2005). But something more is at work here.
The Handmaiden is set in the 1930s in Japanese-occupied Korea and—despite graphic scenes of torture and abuse—it is a predominantly uplifting story about liberation. Because The Handmaiden and thrillers in general rely so heavily on building suspense by withholding and revealing pieces of plot, it is nearly impossible to discuss this film without revealing what happens. Fair warning about impending spoilers here and throughout.
The premise: A con man called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) employs Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as a handmaid for a wealthy Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-hee is supposed to convince Hideko to marry Count Fujiwara rather than Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) who is also after Hideko’s money. Count Fujiwara’s plan is to marry Hideko, take control of her wealth and then dispose of her by committing her to an asylum. As the film unravels, Hideko turns out to be in on the con with the fake count to get out of marrying her uncle. She is also in cahoots with and in love with Sook-hee who helps her escape both of these predatory men. Before we dive into a more detailed look at The Handmaiden, let’s see where this film is situated within the spectrum of its subgenre, the erotic thriller.
Thrillers come in a wide variety (e.g. crime thrillers, psychological thrillers, action thrillers, political thrillers, etc.). But what makes The Handmaiden proudly wear the badge of erotic thriller rather than attempt to cling to something like historical thriller? Who or what decides how much sexual imagery is needed to label a film as erotic? Extended discussions could ensue. Genres can be tricky and annoying, and classifying a film as this or that frequently evokes disputes. For brevity here, I’ll posit that The Handmaiden is an erotic thriller mainly because of the features it shares with other films that utilize sex and suspense as the driving emotional force. The main purpose of cramming films into Matryoshka-style genre and subgenre boxes might be to help a film find its audience. So let’s peek inside at what traditions The Handmaiden either jettisons or carries to discover what audience it was created to find and how it accrued success.
Themes that The Handmaiden shares with other erotic thrillers include but are not limited to: suggestions or acts of incest (Cat People, 1982; Oldboy, 2003; Queen of Hearts, 2019), sexual gratification in response to bodily mutilation (Matador, 1986; Crash, 1996; 8mm, 1999), acts of voyeurism (Peeping Tom, 1960; Sliver, 1993; Tesis, 1996), plotting to kill to inherit money (Body Heat, 1981, Black Widow, 1987; Mortal Passions, 1989), love triangles (Dot and the I, 2003; The Housemaid, 2010; The Taste of Money, 2012), and queer or queer-coded villains (Dressed to Kill, 1980; Cruising, 1980; Basic Instinct, 1992). This final one is not perpetuated but inverted by The Handmaiden. It might also be fitting to add an underlying reliance on scheming, lies, and deception to everything within the reach of the thriller genre.
The main villains in The Handmaiden are the male characters themselves and the ideas they represent: greed for money and the uncontrollable lust of heterosexual men. Hungry eyes for Hideko’s wealth, which Uncle Kouzuki plans to transmute into the acquisition of rare erotic books, perpetuate his pursuit of a sexual relationship with his niece. Although it is mentioned that the two never consummate, Kouzuki has subjugated Hideko into nothing more than an object of sexual desire since she was a child. Through flashbacks, we see that he treated his former wife (Moon So-ri) in the same way, turning both women into a spectacle for men as they were forced to perform erotic readings in Kouzuki’s secret library. Intercourse with a male is largely equated with violence in the film and also—perhaps as a jab at the traditionally male gaze/male ego of the camera—a source of comedy. The climax of one of Hideko’s readings ends with her acting out an illustration that is missing from the book. She becomes suspended in the air and hangs limply backward, impaled on the male equipment of a mannequin. This is the first of several times Hideko is compared to a corpse. The men who are watching her performance become flustered and this moment invites laughter. As they gasp, nervously dab at sweat, and attempt to conceal their erections, the film’s audience is not supposed to identify with their arousal; we are supposed to be both amused and disgusted by it.
Similarly, Count Fujiwara—at first, a possibly likable character because of his cleverness and charm—is eventually also portrayed as a violent subjugator. When Hideko offers a kiss as part of her ploy to escape, Fujiwara says, “I never learned to stop half-way” and “women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force.” He climbs on Hideko and attempts to force himself on her until he passes out from the opium she snuck into his drink and then into his mouth. She leaves him half-naked on the floor and flees back to Sook-hee. When he comes to, face down, and discovered by Kouzuki’s men, it is another moment where the audience is invited to chuckle—to mock his thwarted lust rather than long for gratification with him. Count Fujiwara then asks to be handed his trousers because goodness-forbid Kouzuki’s men see what he was previously so eager to display for a woman.
Violence is further tied to male heterosexuality with acts of bodily mutilation. At the reading where Hideko first sees Count Fujiwara, she reads a “Sade-esque” story that contains a male narrator who wants to trade places with the female and be whipped by her. Here, Count Fujiwara imagines himself in that scene and becomes particularly sweaty. Later, after Kouzuki’s men capture Count Fujiwara and bring him back to the house, Kouzuki tortures him for his role in the trickery which led to Hideko and Sook-hee destroying the prized library. Count Fujiwara is tied to the seat-less chair shown earlier. Kouzuki lists one of favorite erotic stories each time he chops a finger from Count Fujiwara’s left hand (using a long phallic knife). Count Fujiwara does not scream in agony; he gasps, grunts, and moans. More of the same when Kouzuki runs a (phallic) drill through Count Fujiwara’s right hand. This scene ends with both men dying by Fujiwara’s poisoned cigarette. With male violence and subjugation playing a key role, setting of the story against the backdrop of imperialism thus becomes a fitting and essential parallel. The taking of land and people is equated with destructive masculine forces.
Those who are familiar with cinematic devices know that sexual symbols—particularly phallic symbols—have a long history of being equated with power, but this film presents the feminine as powerful too. When a young Hideko is learning to read, we are shown images of both penile and clitoral erections. And during their escape, Sook-hee and Hideko wield both male and female symbols when they destroy Kouzuki’s library. This is most notable when Sook-hee uses a sword to chop off the head of the snake statue that is set to guard the door. They also open the cover of an indoor pond and throw the books into the gap. Hideko splashes the books with blood-red ink and they stomp through the water.
While male heterosexuality is pervasive throughout the film, the only scenes of intercourse shown are between Hideko and Sook-hee. Their sexuality is not a destructive force, but an exploratory and creationary one. “Tender” is a word often used to describe what they want. Perhaps the most beautiful and heartwarming moment is early in their relationship but revealed late in the film. Their legs are symmetrically entwined and they are exchanging pleasure. Each reaches a hand toward the other and they grasp palms hand in a gesture used for striking deals, embarking into camaraderie, and/or a game of arm wrestling. They love not as a dominant and a submissive, but as equals. Despite the men behind the camera (Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), we’re told that the gaze of this camera is female (or mostly female) which is magnified by the fact that the story was written and adapted by female writers. Twice, the camera and therefore the audience experience a literally feminine point of view. We become Hideko’s vulva about to be kissed by Sook-hee.
The love and lust between the two women is not completely innocent, however. At first, both are greedy like the men and take part in schemes that will earn them wealth, which they see as the only way out of their circumstances. This makes them trick and deceive each other. In bed, Sook-hee thinks she is teaching a virginal Hideko because she does not know about the erotic readings. Hideko also keeps the secret that she and Count Fujiwara are planning to trick Sook-hee and have her committed in Hideko’s place. Hideko’s secrecy continues in acts of voyeurism. She seems to have peep holes all over the house from which she often watches and overhears conversations. One in particular looks out into the handmaid’s bed chamber and was already in place before Sook-hee arrived. (It is hard to fault Hideko for peeping though because she essentially leads the life of a maiden trapped in a castle that is forever surrounded by dragons).
Their charming love also continues the theme of incest in what could be called mommy-longing. In their first moment of mutual sexual discovery, Hideko sucks on Sook-hee’s nipple while Sook-hee says, “I wish that I had breast milk so I could feed you.” This is the same thing she says about the abandoned babies she cared for before working as a handmaiden. She also calls Hideko her baby when giving her a bath. Since both Sook-hee and Hideko’s mothers are deceased, they frequently comfort each other when discussing this loss. These are not only intimate, but sexual moments. Simultaneously, they desire to become their mothers; Sook-hee wishes for her mother’s skills as a thief and Hideko longs for her mother’s beauty.
In the doubling of these two women as each other and as each other’s mother, their love is likewise narcissistic. At their first meeting Hideko notes, “We look alike.” Later when Hideko dresses Sook-hee in lady’s clothes, their hair is done identically. As they remove the corsets they were wearing, there is a camera shot of their backs in which they are interchangeable. Sook-hee and Hideko also objectify each other as dolls. Hideko is often seen carrying and sleeping with a doll she has had since childhood. When preparing Hideko to see Count Fujiwara one night, we hear Sook-hee think, “of all the things I’ve washed and dressed, has anything been this pretty?” and “Ladies truly are the dolls of maids. All these buttons are for my amusement.” Within their love are certain fetishes but each is mutual and mirrored back in the other.
Part of the reason why The Handmaiden was so successful with English-speaking audiences can be attributed to what progressive culture longs for today. The above mentioned erotic equality invites a welcome turn from previous dominant/submissive sexual politics. The film criticizes the subjugative nature of patriarchy and lauds homosexuality and female stories. Furthermore, the film criticizes imperialism and the act of becoming naturalized by the oppressor in a time when the Western world is more actively regretting its oppressive past. The Handmaiden also trumpets the equality of languages and cultures as the actors transition flawlessly between speaking Korean and Japanese. The film is overall a product of and a celebration of globalization. The Handmaiden was adapted from a 2002 novel called Fingersmith by the Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. Park and screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong transplanted Waters’ story from Victorian-era Britain to Japanese-controlled Korea. It took decades and extensive cultural exchanges and interactions to bring this story to 2016 where it found the audience that was perfectly suited for it.
Because film is a reflection as well as a suggestion for human experience it is easy to love the overall message of The Handmaiden. And those who do love it might be part of an audience free from the repression of past decades and comfortable with a spectrum of sexuality and sexual practices. This same audience has been beyond several waves of feminism and through postcolonial theory. Perhaps these viewers long for a less-patriarchal and more inclusive culture too. Film history can reveal further clues about what has created our modern predilections. There have undoubtedly been sexually suggestible acts put on screens since the invention of the screen, each image at least slightly transgressive (and thus alluring) in its time. What we want and what repels us continues to evolve and has always been defined by current social mores, values, and what we consider to be taboo. The Handmaiden is a film of the now.
Arguably, a final reason for the film’s popularity is that it is easy to find comfort in Hideko and Sook-hee’s mutual tenderness and this becomes something that gives viewers the longing to partake in and pass on. The plethora of dark and disturbing moments are balanced with joy, elation, and laughter; even the clumsy, slap-stick-like moments of the flustered Sook-hee are remarkably endearing. The relationship between the two women is heartwarming. Like all erotic thrillers with depth and breadth, The Handmaiden is not something to be watched shamefully or secretly.
With everything the film does wonderfully—technically and in story—its message is not flawless. It’s true that someone has to play the villain and that person’s characteristics will therefore be vilified. Within The Handmaiden, greed seems like an acceptable villain because money will continue to corrupt. Subjugation of women by men is likewise worthy of being vilified because collectively we shun this practice. But, as discussed earlier, these negative traits are inseparable from Kouzuki and Count Fujiwara. What becomes glaringly missing from the film then are likeable male characters, male-female camaraderie, and/or positive portrayals of male homosexuality. Beside Kouzuki and Count Fujiwara, the males in the film are silent hired guards, silent listeners at the erotic readings, the man who poses as a firefighter to rescue Sook-hee from the asylum, and Goo-gai (Dong-hwi Lee) who is seen for less than five minutes. Goo-gai works with Count Fujiwara and Sook-hee as a coin-forger and purveyor of stolen goods. As Sook-hee leaves to become the handmaiden in the opening scene, he is seen holding two babies and standing in a line with two women, which equates him with femininity. Later, we see him speaking with a stutter, becoming outraged when hearing that an uncle wants to marry his own niece, and demonstrating compassion for Hideko’s plight. However, Goo-gai is insulted, spoken over, and ignored. His traits are portrayed as weak and function to render him emasculated and powerless in order to further vilify Count Fujiwara. With the compassionate Goo-gai dismissed, this film exists in a universe absent of good men. What does this tell us? In our proliferating shift toward equality of all people, our art should be careful to criticize the acts, behaviors, and thought patterns that have previously enabled men to subjugate women. But it should not vilify men or masculinity. Perhaps an interesting question to ponder would be: How would the film be different if Sook-hee were played by a man? We would lose the beautiful mirroring of Sook-hee and Hideko and their feminine mommy-longing, but what else would change? What if Sook-hee and Hideko were both men or both non-binary, etc.? How would our impression of their sexual acts change if one or both of their genders were shifted? Is it problematic for the film that the director and cinematographer are male and that sex acts between lesbians have a history of being a part of the hetero-male fantasy?
More questions could be asked about the film’s positive (albeit incomplete) message of equality. The real-world push for equality among all people is a just, rightful, and necessary leveling of the playing field, but within a story it can impact the rising action, climax, and resolution. Stories rely on conflict. Opposing forces that repel and attract create tension, tension invites release, and this is how films work to conduct a symphony of emotions and emotional engagement in viewers in order to keep us watching. Characters need desires and obstacles to move the plot if everyone is equal in all ways this dissolves the obstacles (which is ideal only in real life). For example, the relationship between Sook-hee and Count Fujiwara versus Hideko and her uncle would be flat and uninteresting if the pairs were not from opposing socioeconomic classes. There would be no reason to embark on the con, which is the basis of the plot. The celebration of the underdog story would be lost without the background of imperial tension between Japan and Korea. It would also be unengaging to watch two people fall in love without the contrast of the predatory suitors. So how can future screenwriters and filmmakers create villains and oppositional forces in a heterogeneous group without using hierarchy based on identity (i.e. gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, etc)? One way thriller subgenres have consistently built tension outside of characterization is through temporal manipulation. The Handmaiden leaps forward and flashes back in time, which helps the film keep us on the edge of our seats. Perhaps then as we continue to embrace equality of diverse identities in our own lives, we’ll see more films portray an upswing in other types of conflict such as character versus themself, characters versus environment, and/or characters versus forces beyond human control.
Emilee Prado is an essayist and fiction writer. She holds a BA in Film Studies and an MSc in Creative Writing. Her work appears or is forthcoming in CRAFT, Hobart, Orca, Vautrin, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. You can find her online at emileepradoauthor.com.
Kenley Alligood reads an excerpt from "Supercut of False Memory with Fresh Fruit", now available in Wrongdoing's second issue
by Charlotte Goodger.
Frankenstein’s monster is a vegetarian. Carol J. Adams’s fascinating reading of Mary Shelley’s 1819 novel exists as part of a large body of evidence for the continued relevance of gothic fiction.
The Gothic emerged as a way of processing fears and trauma caused by domestic spheres, but it is now firmly considered the reserve of a by-gone era. It is the genre of melodrama, remote castles and the petty problems of the aristocracy. Of irresponsible scientists unruled by modern ethical procedures. Of vampires and ghosts too nonsensical for a 21st century world.
Firstly, I argue that enjoying gothic fiction is simply fun. Its very ridiculousness is entertaining beyond words. The Gothic transports us out of a world of mundane, but equally terrifying, problems and into a world so inauthentic that we don’t fear experiencing these problems ourselves. Consider Dracula (1897). How hilarious is the idea of an intelligent man, a solicitor, never considering that this mysterious, pale strange—feared by locals and owner of a quintessentially spooky castle—might be dangerous. It isn’t said often enough, but the Gothic is funny. So oblivious is Johnathan Harker that readers are hardly aware of the real-world anxieties beneath the words. And here, we arrive at the second, and more meaningful, reason as to why the Gothic still has a claim to relevance.
Where the Gothic seems too ridiculous to be included in the canon of so-called serious literature is exactly where its persistent relevance exists. As gripping as the supernatural can be, and entertaining is the melodrama and familial angst, the Gothic’s importance is in the symbolism behind these elements. Gothic is a symbolism-rich genre, and these symbols can be readapted by today’s writers to reflect their own fears.
After all, this is what lies at the heart of the Gothic and why it is loved by its fans. It’s a safe place where we can experience our fears at a distance and work out our emotions in a simulated environment. Take Frankenstein as an example. Although Adams studied the work’s emerging fears about meat consumption and its environmental impact, Shelley also wrote on her fears over motherhood and biological creation. One text, over two hundred years old now, reflects two very different terrors with equal skill.
Society is scared. That is an unavoidable fact, and it is, I argue, why we are seeing a resurgence in gothic film, TV and novels. Now, perhaps more than ever, gothic art forms are a form of catharsis. Their very ridiculousness helps us to purge ourselves of our fears.
I am going to use Daisy Johnson’s Sisters (2020) as an example. Johnson is a master of making the eerie out of the mundane, and the dilapidated, watchful Settle House is no different. I use this as an example because of how successfully she translates the old, aristocratic haunted house trope to the modern day dwelling.
Johnson’s protagonists, September and July, are sisters joined at the hip. They share clothes, thoughts and a cramped living space and may as well be twins. They have arrived at the Settle House after fleeing a school incident that scarred their family. Unknown until the very end, this incident reveals relatable fears centering unstable family relationships. This is only a more complex version of the fears of Shelley in Frankenstein, combining not only the role of motherly creation but the act of raising a family and living together as a unit.
The horror of the home is a bedrock of gothic novels. What we are seeing in modern gothic works is a gothic invasion of the average home, and the penetration of boundaries by unwelcome intruders. Gothic writing is still the rawest exploration ofmost raw way that we have of exploring domestic horror through art, as it is both adaptable and consistent. The basic themes don’t change, but its motifs invite translation into any number of settings.
The Settle House is characterised by half-seen things, entities disappearing around corners. The ‘hide and seek’ scene involves July and September engaging in a psychological game of separation that characterises anxiety over familial failure and separation. This theme is nothing new, but it can be read from a very safe distance when set in a castle. One can argue that a house, in the present day, in Yorkshire is closer to home for any person and cannot be as easily dismissed as ridiculous. Still, existing as fiction, I suggest that gothic horror will always have an inherent distance from our psyche and that elements of ridiculousness are likewise inherent to the genre.
In the age of pandemic, the applications of gothic are there for all to see. Worldwide trauma resulted from two years of fear, grief and confinement to the home. Thusly, the home is now —for most—jointly the sole place of safety and the site of horror that gothic fiction has always held it to be. It is important, now, that we have some way of processing and expressing our horror at our homes while keeping it at some distance.
It being far from being an outdated genre in the modern age, the next decade or so could produce some of the most fascinating gothic work we have seen for a generation. The gothic has always been a genre of entrapment, but a castle or Victorian mansion no longer seems nearly as claustrophobic as does a townhouse or a flat. Society-wide confinement on this scale has not occured for a long time, and new family conflicts have arisen around subjects such as vaccinations, rule-following and whether or not to go on holiday.
I do not mean to sound like I am trivialising all of this suffering. Far from it. Gothic writing is a way of purging and processing genuine terror. Using it to write about the pandemic follows in the footsteps of writing on infant and maternal mortality, domestic violence and familial loss. Shelley, as I have said, wrote on maternal fears, having lost her own mother to childbirth at just days old. Susan Hill, too, a paragon of modern British gothic, used her writing to process the death of her child. Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House against the backdrop of her famously poor relationship with her mother.
It is an analyst’s downfall to lean too heavily on an author’s life, but in the case of gothic writers, that life can’t be ignored. Gothic relies on the expulsion of fear. It is, I argue, impossible to write truly gothic work if you have never experienced the fears about which you are writing.
As with Shelley, and Hill, and Jackson, and every other writer who writes about the horror of the home, future writers of the Gothic will undoubtedly draw on fears around the family and anxiety over childhood. This is the other key element of the Gothic that makes it as relevant as ever today; the fears it reflects are not just personal. An author may draw on their own unique experience—what will make their novel different from any other— but every reader understands these fears. These fears are human, and are therefore annoyingly persistent. In this respect, the Gothic may be the most enduring of genres. And now that we have figured out a formula for expressing these fears safely, we may never stop.
In short, the Gothic is not only relevant, but more relevant now than it was twenty years ago. As a genre that deals in playing out our worst fears on a distant stage, the Gothic is being reinvigorated in a world of unstable politics, rampant disease and climate disasters. Not only are genre classics being reinterpreted to reflect new fears, but we are seeing an upsurge in new gothic offerings that more directly tackle the things that cause us the most anxiety. The Gothic is very much here to stay.
Charlotte Goodger a keen reader and fiction writer alongside writing professionally. She is always experimenting with new recipes, fashion looks and hobbies that feed into her writing. Find her at charlottegoodgerfreelance.com.
Lorelei Bacht reads an excerpt from "A Little Night Music", now available in Wrongdoing's second issue
CWs for the poem: ethnic oppression, ghettoisation, racist cliches, witchcraft, sexual violence
Simone Person reads an excerpt from "To All the Boys I Fucked (or, Thanks for Nothing)", forthcoming in Wrongdoing's second issue
CWs for the poem: binge drinking, depictions of sex, self-harm, sexual assault, victim blaming, complex PTSD
"I make a Sprite can disappear in my mouth" â Lilâ Kim
Every night during a bland July, I went to the bar ready
to put as many bodies after him as the summer could hold.
Home-grown panacea, I choked on the cloud of sweat
from all the real people clotted outside the doors. Pretended
to be just like them. I would drink to gut rot. Until every noise ran from my head. Burned my bestiary and dizzied into a different kind
TW: miscarriage, spiritual abuse
âMy mother was baptized and raised in the Catholic church. Her miscarriage had struck when the nursery was already painted, a mural sheâd done by hand, redbuds and dogwoods, the trees that sequined the Ozarks in spring, and made April my motherâs favorite month. In her grief, sheâd sought solace from her priest. Sheâd asked him, âIs my baby girl in heaven?â And received the unwelcome revelation that April Annâs small, unbaptized soul was stuck in Limbo. My mother said that's when the nightmares began. Her baby girl trying to slither under a smoldering steel bar held aloft by grinning demons, set lower and lower still. Her baby girl weeping and wailing, inconsolable, trying to get under that bar without touching it, the bar bursting into flames, the demons laughing, and Mom couldnât reach her, couldnât rescue her, and there was no God.â
âmy father is perched on our staircase, arm leaning against the walls. he is lazy, drowsy in his movements and eye-crust dotted on the bridge of his nose. i linger by the fridge, intrigued as he tells me of his time spent in saudi arabia, when the old sun was burning his body and a cig was permanently plastered in his index and middle fingers for hours on end. my father drawls out that he spent his pay on packs each day, smoking till something in his heart gave, whether it was a beat, a sputter, an ache, the ashes piled together to fill the spaces in his empty home.â
Somewhere in America, a butterfly is flying. You would love it
staggered with daylight, a white-rimmed forewing held in provocation
to the wind. See, you would know those greying blue cells
mean vulnerability. You take a few home anyway. On paper sheets
you spread the paralyzed body and sketch every vestigial vein and thrust
the thinnest pin through the crackling thorax. Dedicate it to VÃ©ra.
Mim Murrells reads an excerpt from "The Equation, or for External Use Only", forthcoming in Wrongdoing's second issue
"The question is in the pleasure,
and why stomata become stigmata.
The problem is in where there ought to be girl-meat,
where there is instead a past-life seed,
where I am hung drawn and quartered
suspended pregnant with the world,
never to come to term.
It does not go away."
by Ami Sanghvi.
When the full moon followed him home for the first time since the lycanthropy diagnosis, his mother watched the unholy aching of the shift he foolishly thought he could ignore. She screamed as his back broke and formed again. She tried to hit the beast with a broom. And God, he bared his teeth. And God, he returned to himself, naked as a sapling, as hollow as a hollow boned crow.
In most mainstream media, werewolves are depicted first and foremost as monsters, unfairly labeled by society as tragic “brutes” who are too far removed from their humanity to fathom the context(s) of their own existence. They are so rarely extended the kindness, empathy, and understanding by fiction lovers that all living creatures deserve. We almost never get to see werewolves’ lives outside of their transformations from enigmatic, harrowed, multidimensional people to wild, bloodthirsty, mythologically “accursed” canines. Most of what we know about werewolves is that they supposedly shred the innocent with their beastly claws, leap and run with blood wet upon their snouts, and howl loudly at the moon. Any creature in fiction and media that doesn’t at least slightly resemble the human form (ex: vampires, centaurs, sirens) or exude sex appeal to readers is often pushed to the wayside, condemned instead to the title of savage, unfeeling “beast.”
It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again. This depiction of the werewolf isn’t just devastating in the fictional sense. These damaging, agonizing, and utterly alienating depictions of the werewolf also serve to shed an extremely harmful light on the disabled community. The parallels between how werewolves and disabled people are [very wrongfully] perceived by the media and in society are equal parts uncanny and horrendous. Fortunately, Jared Povanda’s story, “Hot Blood, Cold Snow,” provides the righteous counternarrative this topic strongly merits.
“Hot Blood, Cold Snow” upholds and uplifts the humanity of the werewolf rather than continuing to degrade it. Povanda simply refuses to build upon these old, irredeemable tropes, directly contradicting them instead. Basically, “Hot Blood, Cold Snow” has quickly become my favorite werewolf narrative of the moment. It not only showcases Povanda’s brilliant handle of language, but it also refuses to feed into typical, misrepresentative stereotypes. The speaker does something different by stepping away from the usual external, dehumanizing, monolithic judgment of the werewolf, and instead opts to illuminate the mind, heart, and soul of the exiled werewolf child. In this, Povanda’s werewolf is extended the voice and compassion long overdue to his kind.
Additionally, Povanda takes things a step further by invoking the grief that follows the story’s werewolf child from his previous, pre-lycanthropy life, and then proceeding to pair it with the subject’s complex longing to depart from the land and become a “werecloud” instead.
Hot blood on cold snow bounces: the opposite of rain. He wishes he were a werecloud… If he were a werecloud, he could drown the whole world in his grief; instead, he has to hunt. Instead, he has to run. There’s a compulsion there, a compunction, dragging on him like a hook in the pelt.
Is there an animality to Povanda’s werewolf?
Does Povanda depict this animality as crude, or else inferior to human personhood?
These passages belong not to the cruelly stereotypical, supposed “menace” of the werewolf, but rather to a certain tenderness, innocence, and tragedy of the grappling self that is hardly unique to the presumed human existence.
by Will Medeiros.
(photography pictured is by Bobby Miller)
“Carol’s soul can withstand transplanting into the soil of my brain because, even thought I didn’t grow up in her family and in their various houses, I know, to some degree, all the key elements of her earliest years. In me robustly live and survive her early inner roots, out of which her soul grew…And so I can ‘be’ Carol, albeit with a slight Doug accent…”
- Douglas Hofstadtder, on his memories of his deceased wife Carol
Hofstadter’s I Am A Strange Loop spends many of its pages on a beautiful, thoughtful argument that the dead literally live on inside the people who knew and loved them. The broad strokes of the reasoning are that to live is to be a rich tapestry of patterns woven into a human brain, and if you know someone else well enough, then your brain will be capable of replicating their patterns with not insubstantial accuracy beyond their brain’s death. This argument is woven rather deeply into my own psychological tapestry, and “Front Porch Kathy” provides it with magnificent embroidery.
Author Erin Schallmoser skillfully and empathetically explores every bittersweet facet of the fact that the only true link we have in this world to our loved ones who have passed away is our achingly detailed and tragically incomplete mental models of them. We as readers are invited to perform a “not-a-séance-but-close” along with Hannah and Kathy, and by the time Hannah has in fact summoned a soul from beyond, our version of the ritual in the real world is already complete. Instead of cedar and crystals that we bring along ourselves, our talismans are expertly selected by the author: the fragrant herbs of the details of the Floridian summer setting and the polished sea-glass shards of Hannah’s memories and fantasies.
Using these reagents and a touch of inborn magic, we give Mick a version of life inside our own skulls from beyond the grave and through the page, and like the story’s living characters, we feel a multilayered grief. We live as Mick (with an accent) inside ourselves and so we are able to understand the details of what it means that he is gone, and at the same time, we recognize that this version of Mick is a transient simulacrum and has irreparable holes that will only expand over time. This is all compellingly paralleled in the literal layer of a ghost story with a wonderful eye for heartwrenching character beats and disquieting moments of horror alike. Summoning the ghost provides Kathy and Hannah with a chance to say goodbye; it is also a painful, traumatizing near-miss with utter supernatural catastrophe that Schallmoser is wise to only hint at.
We leave the story certain that Mick was brash and bold and liked a good Danish, but both because he is dead and because it is not on the page, we will never know for certain if or how he thought of his mother as he breathed his last on Kilimanjaro. All we can do is share the pain with Kathy and Hannah and attempt to probe the miniature version of Mick’s soul that, for a time, cohabits with our own.
by Ami Sanghvi.
Behold the greatest central thesis for an assessment of The Picture of Dorian Gray you’ll ever read in your life:
Dorian is a femboy.
Yes, you read that correctly. Oscar Wilde fans, people who dye their hair a different color every week, and my fellow darling queer folks—rejoice! 婕 Venus Cohen’s “Dorian Dyes His Hair” is a poem that not only officially exists in a world that quite desperately needs it, but also serves to dismantle the heteronormativity forced upon the troubled yet famously glamorous queer-coded protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Here, Cohen examines the Victorian literary classic under a far more queer-focused lens and draws the story’s corresponding implications directly to the surface.
Dumb and witless, between his ears? Air!
Shelf-stable trophy boy,
Dorian poses, blonde,
“Floodlit, the glossy kiss-pit”
Those of you who have read the novel know that Dorian Gray is aesthetically lovely. He is a man so conventionally beautiful that societal stereotypes demand he be entirely devoid of original thought and any indication of intellectual prowess—in other words, a “bimbo.” Consequently, other men in The Picture of Dorian Gray recognize how pretty Dorian is and, in true patriarchal fashion, proceed to objectify him.
In the book, the painter of the famous portrait of Dorian, Basil Hallward, and his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, are both essentially obsessed with Dorian’s beauty in a way that can honestly only be described as deeply homoerotic. Of course, as readers existing in a suffocatingly heteronormative society, we’re supposed to deny this and assume that there is no blatant queerness to this otherwise curious dynamic Wilde has created. Cohen, however, simply isn’t having it.
Pretty Dorian was wanted, once.
Odalisque, posing, crafted by the hand of Basil
Consumed by the arms of Lord Henry.
Dorian the pretty.
Shortly after locking in this brilliant foundation of the poem, Cohen blatantly slaps the soul of it out onto the page in a way that is so effective it smacks, shocks, and stings you all in the same instant.
How heterosexual can we warp Dorian?
Read that line. Now, read it again. The key word here isn’t heterosexual—it’s warp. That, right there, is the essence of the primary violence inflicted not only upon Dorian Gray, but also queer and trans folk everywhere, every day. This is the atrocity of warping.
Just in case this line didn’t pack enough of a punch (even though it totally did), Cohen then proceeds to follow it up with other, equally agonizing, warp-adjacent phrases. Still, they’re nowhere near finished. By the bottom of the first page, Cohen has already established their momentum. By the top of the second, they are fearlessly wielding it.
Several back-and-forth lines greet us here, shining light on the traditionally feminine nature of Dorian’s beauty. This is a moment of sheer loveliness in the poem, made terribly melancholy only by the shadow heteronormativity insists on casting upon it and, in turn, the subjugated character of Dorian Gray. This description of him, highlighted strategically by Cohen, quickly becomes overwhelmingly but necessarily tragic in the context of this poem. It not only speaks to the devastating reality we all live in, but proceeds to instil fury in its readers for all the suffering this patriarchally heteronormative society causes those who fail to adhere to its unrelentingly cruel constraints.
In this poem, Cohen sandwiches their description of Dorian’s beauty between poetic illustrations of his treatment by those in the novel and bold statements encompassing his treatment by real life readers of the same book. This device swiftly releases Dorian’s tormented character from its purely fictional confines and spits him out into our equally twisted world. Immediately, we recognize that the queer, gender nonconforming Dorian is one of us in a way we potentially never did before. And, as if predicting the reader’s likely sudden realization of how Dorian’s dilemma fits into the reality of our modern-day existence, and the sickening rage we feel upon its impact, Cohen skillfully verbalizes that which, in this moment of raw, unbridled emotion for the reader, suddenly feels impossible to articulate.
How meta, that society has created the Dorian
That Dorian spent all 80,000 words escaping from
Older, wittier, chiseled, tall, dark, handsome--
Enforcers of heterosexual complacency!
If you ever want to experience a writer and a reader melding into a single blob of sheer, antiestablishment fury, look no further than this absolute masterpiece of a poem—signed off on by no other than what appears to be Wilde’s formidable ghost himself.
by Robert Hamilton.
It’s summer, and the news is once again full of talk of historic wildfires—on the west coast of North America, in southern Europe, in North Africa—and it hardly feels like we got a break from last year’s apocalyptic conflagrations. Given that this is all happening on top of a pestilence that we can’t seem to elude, there’s no doubt that news broadcasts, and even our daily lives, feel historic, perhaps even biblical. It’s difficult to think of a better summary of this feeling than the opening lines of Lindsay Hargrave’s fine poem “paragloria (Judgment)”: “Every day is judgment day so I’m / not sure what you’re waiting for.”
Of course, the 2020s are not the first time we’ve collectively worried that the world was about to end soon, and Hargrave knows it. “Your hills,” she writes, “have been burning for / centuries.” Medieval apocalypticism was largely religious in nature, and Hargrave’s poem is steeped in religious iconography: “judgment day” itself, “Hades,” “angel brass.” But this is not the whole story: other images arise as if from everywhere and nowhere; I am certain no one has written lines quite like these before, and yet, in their beauty, specificity, and terror, they make perfect sense:
[...] Rise! open your
eyes and feast your bare guts on
a white sun molting to
black dwarf beginning at
If you think you’re in for an ultra-saturated, Baroque poem after reading these furious lines, well, you are—but that’s far from all Hargrave has to offer. She is just as adept at managing bathos in a way that grounds the poem in our own shared spaces of banality, even gives it air to laugh a little. Watch as a high-flown vision of the after-life (not religious, but simply “life after this”) morphs into something far more quotidian, easier to relate to:
Rise rise rise and
draw up a tub for next life’s
bloodletting. You could live in a moon
colony. Find out which friends were
imposters all along and invent
new ones. Finish scrapbooking.
Reducing the old religious judgment day, in which all things are revealed, to petty concerns about friends and unfinished tasks does not in any way dampen the poem’s effectiveness. Rather, it enhances it, and paves the way for a brilliant conclusion in which the quotidian and the apocalyptic perfectly merge: the flames and suffering are quite real, not spiritual; the voice seems to be that of a first responder at a fire, but of course we all know something more is going on: intentional, maybe inevitable destruction; a world steadily growing unrecognizable; all of the lurid trappings of a Dantean inferno, but right here, right now. This is a poem that storms to its conclusion in breathless, heavily-enjambed free verse, that endlessly varies its flexible tone without losing momentum, that by its final lines makes the mythic terrifyingly real.
Still, this is not a poem of pure despair: “Rise!,” it commands, over and over again. There is something for the audience to do; whether we are to rise and flee, or rise like the dry bones of Ezekiel, is left open. Open, too, is that beguiling title, “Paragloria.” In Spanish, “para gloria” is “for glory.” Para- is a common Greek prefix denoting something that is alongside, accompanying, parallel to. And Perixera paragloria is a rarely attested binomial denotation of a rather nondescript moth—something that maybe, just maybe, has the power to flap its drab wings, rise, and get the hell out of all this."
by Will Medeiros.
I have read more than my fair share of poems about hope. I do not remember nearly so many that are about how utterly terrifying hope is, and this is where Tucker Lieberman’s “Melt” distinguishes itself so finely: in being about “a fractured faith in yourself” (emphasis mine) as an artist and as a worthy human being.
Lieberman effectively weaves together the abstract and the physical, the imposingly cosmic and the grittily biological to convey the quivering, explosive potential of a deeply held yet simultaneously self-aware faith in what your own future may hold. There can be a blackened, deadly self-assurance in self-hatred and despair, and in reminding you that “it would not be fair to your art to trash it”, Lieberman shows how this feeling fading away is as bright and burning as lava. A reemerging wonder at your own being and capabilities is necessarily coupled with fear: you are a contingent creature, physically fragile, and by daring to “return to the start of the circuit” of your passions, you become emotionally vulnerable as well. Through a rapid-fire yet focused and crisp series of images and ideas, Lieberman keeps all these ideas at play in remarkable depth.
“Melt” captures what is to realize that you once again wish to not only survive but thrive, that you will weather the eruption of the volcano so that you can witness the island that coalesces from the molten rock. It wields every bit of the power it invokes with the name “Krakatau”.
by David Wasserman.
Picture Dorian Gray sulking aboard the ghost ship in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", then performing magic with Edgar Allan Poe in "The Prestige" and you have some idea of the feeling of Duckworth’s "Black Rose Immortal: A Horror in Verse". The unsettling, otherworldly premise is grounded by verse and a gritty setting—the combination works to pull the reader into the story and keep them there until the glass-shattering end.
Duckworth takes a risk creating such a long verse poem. With modern poetry painting most pages of newer lit mags, "Black Rose Immortal: A Horror in Verse" could feel out-of-place, stuffy and old. Thankfully, the poem is accessible and more along the lines of recent horror like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina than it is to Coleridge. For example, in this section Duckworth creates suspense and a clear plot without sacrificing his poetic language:
Trembling, he lifts a pewter cup of wine
To his lips. By yet another doorway
He stands. “What you shall see inside,” says he,
“No thing living should ever bear witness.”
He drains the cup & turns the key, the door
Creaks open & light into stale dark spills.
In the same way good, modern serial television shows develop characters and build upon narratives episode by episode, each line Duckworth writes invests the reader more, eventually leaving no choice but to binge the entire poem to find out what will happen next. The writing style has an antique feel, but not enough to distract or distance readers from the substance of the poem. The action always wins out over the form, as in this stanza:
By crude power, with iron bar the door
I bash, til oaken timbers bends & gives,
& through the breach light floods the secret store
A chamber obscure where Uncle’s sin lives -
This is perhaps Duckworth’s best achievement with the piece—that not far along into "Black Rose Immortal: A Horror in Verse" the reader stops noticing the rhythm and rhyme and keeps reading solely for the narrative. This is no small feat. Fans of gothic horror, poetic structure obsessives and those appreciative of good, solid stories will all be satisfied with "Black Rose Immortal: A Horror in Verse."
by Jake McAuliffe.
You’ve probably noticed my gloves. They catch my falling fingers.
In this piece, Wasserman creates intimacy, fear, and horror with ease, sweeping the reader into direct dialogue with the character—this poor, poor person who is losing their fingers. I love weird stories and this is absolutely weird, but beautiful too. We feel the depths of empathy through these moments of desperation and pleas directed at the reader.
I’m worried there will soon be too much of me and I can’t stop the
Wasserman tells so much about character in passages with flashing, changing imagery. It reads like montage or a quick-edit reel. In them, we are shown vulnerabilities and desires, but the effect is larger—spinning this story of few words into a lifetime of finger-losing tragedy. The reader is given a taste of the bigger picture and this, in my opinion, is why the emotion of the piece is so strong.
the need to gently run my fingers down the side of someone’s face / to hold a naked hand just once / to fingertip lick the wind
We are left without knowing what becomes of this person. But in short work, Wasserman makes us wonder. It’s a heartfelt, wonderful piece that will leave me suspicious of glove-wearers for a long time.
by Vera Hadzic.
(photography pictured is by Adritanaya Tiwari)
Sunny Vuong writes, “The forest is only wary of newcomers. It takes care of its own.”
These sentences capture the inescapable yet unspeakable eeriness of Vuong’s “Silent Blooms: A Cottagecore Horror Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”—where everything seems perfect, yet feels deeply wrong. The deer stare just a little too long—the cottage is a little too comfortable—and a not-so-subtle otherness is rooted far beneath the surface. Vuong’s prose unfolds delightfully as the reader picks their way through an intricate interlace of narrative, making choices and mistakes along with Hoa Tran, the protagonist.
This is a piece written with extraordinary care and attention to detail—from the colour of Hoa’s dress to the smooth melding of story paths to the symbolism of names and places, the shifts and tensions of “Silent Blooms” come together seamlessly. And along with her delicately crafted horror, Vuong’s mastery of image and description creates a world as vividly beautiful as it is unsettling. Just as dark callings reach for Hoa, this immersive story entangles readers and keeps them in its clutches long after they’ve reached the end.
by Anita Cantillo.
Calia Jane Mayfield’s poem, “my hands sit on my throat when I try and remember my name,” offers the reader a series of images that at first feel startling and disjointed. But a closer look shows an astute orientation to natural landscapes and the ecology of the body and the inherent connection between the two. Present within the lines of this beautiful prose is a close observation of the natural world, an intimacy the voice of the poem shares with ants and German Shepherds alike. And yet, there’s also a desire to know more, it would seem, in lines such as this one, where the yearning is palpable: “…the lake is named after my/ hometown and could hold so many of me and i can’t hold any/ version of it.” We find a speaker at once tapped into the very fiber of the universe—a voice that understands her body is part of the natural world, too— and also grappling with the ever elusive essence of creation. How is it that “somedays i don’t know the weather but i’ve relearned the contours of my shoulders a million times over?” How can we remember being eight and the bite of an ant, but forget the sting of getting a body piercing? These ponderings bid the reader to stare at their own reflection in the mirror, to connect the gossamer lines that transcend time and space and link us to the surrounding world. Mayfield’s poem is an invitation to be still, to memorize the lines of our bodies or a blade of grass, to imagine our next life.
by Meredith Phipps.
CW: implied sexual assault, sexual allegories, allusions to fantasy violence
In “passive protagonist,” Isaura Ren creates a sprawling dialogue, both interweaving and contrasting excerpts from “How to Write a Fantasy Story” by N.A. Turner with the speaker’s understanding and embodiment of their own life and their place within it. As each line falls into place, succinctly and spaciously within each tercet, the complexity of the conversation between the speaker and the text grows, creating a tension that never falls. This tension is what gives the final tercet of the poem so much resonance as the speaker declares the story of their body on their own terms, doing away with convention as they arrive at the point of authorship.
The juxtaposition of convention and experience that Isaura Ren accomplishes in such a brief piece is stunningly resonant, leaving the reader to grapple with the implications of understanding and negotiating one's own life within an inherited canon and that canon’s set of rules. Characteristic of their body of work, Isaura Ren manages all of this complexity with a beauty of language and use of space that feels like breathing, deeply, in.
by Alis Hamilton.
CW: implied sexual violence, self-harm/suicide
Tahlia McKinnon’s "origins" feels, to perhaps put it too obviously, wrong. There’s something in the deep stomach flipping violence of human connection that pulls at the brokenness inside us all. This creative nonfiction lends itself to poetry; all rich imagery; a separation of reality to an emotional state. The metaphor breathes life into the narrative like the narrator tries to breathe life into her dangerous lover. The way she pulls in the Garden of Eden and speaks of Eve’s fall as her sacrifice—love as the opening of wounds, the acceptance of hurt to heal another’s hurting.
I loved the softness of sympathy in fingers trailing along cigarette burns, the disturbance in my chest at the scrabbling need to force another to be the voice that screams for the speaker's own hurts. The shared violence of sex brings tougher lovers, and it separates them when outside Eden. The space for hurt, destruction, and love—they are unrecognizable as dressed up beings no longer violent and vulnerable.
Rachael Crosbie reads an excerpt from "What Kind of Vampire Are You?", now available in Wrongdoing's first issue
by 婕 Venus Cohen.
Rowena Joy Newman (she/they) has created a beautiful, self-contained universe within short poem and visual art piece, "The Dancer". Immediately, the reader is treated to a fantastical sensory experience, resulting from the array of colors and textures settled behind the simple black and white wording. The use of a warm color gradient background provides serenity for the eye to settle on, while the cooler and more bold colors in the center of the piece show both chaos and individuality. Within the swirling vortex of colors are representational objects—stars, constellations, falling petals, and perhaps flowing dark hair to the right side of the painting.
The writing is equally captivating; it's the story of a dancer… or is the story of a dream? Could it both, or neither? With only 10 lines, Newman manages to craft poetry that is both full to bursting with descriptive language for readers interested in a purely aesthetic experience, while also providing a platform for analysis and critical thinking that benefits those who like being challenged by their poetry. I am personally of both camps, and have read this short piece over and over, each time discovering new things to see, and new connections to make.
The poem evokes the image of a twisting spine, a fluid body, and the visual element follows suit, with the blue-green ribbon through the center exemplifying a spine for the poem itself. After spending quite a bit of time with this work, I cannot wait to see what else Rowena Joy Newman has in store for the art and literary world.
by Lorelei Bacht.
(photography pictured is by Bobby Miller)
“Coveting My Neighbor’s Flowers” is a short and surreal promenade in which the reader is invited to walk the fine line between beauty and fault. Mostly un-delineated and inventive in its punctuation, it is as if the lines had been subtly shifted around between the first draft and the version presented here, thus creating an openness, an ambiguity in which the reader can reside for a while—an opportunity for contemplation.
As a failed gardener herself, and coveter of other people’s flowers (which may or may not be flowers), this reader can only sympathize with the all-too-human feelings of envy, despair, and attempts at communion expressed in the poem. “How I craved them immediately”. Do we ever outgrow the so-called oral phase? Is Eucharistic communion not a variation on wanting to devour our mothers’ gardens? There are psychoanalytical resonances here, shades of do-not-put-this-in-your-mouth, evocations, perhaps, of other faults.
What is beauty? How do we partake in it? Is the wish to partake in it not doomed from the very beginning? The petal, the butterfly, the wafer, the body of Christ. All desired, yet unattainable: “beauty to swallow / that I feel like I stole.” The complexity of the human condition contained in this short, deceptively simple, deceptively mundane tale of a gardening “fail”.
This reader would argue that it was worth spending seven dollars on those seeds (as per the poet’s own detailed account) to produce this little marvel of condensed frustration and ultimately, beauty.
David Wasserman reads an excerpt from "In My Closet I Have a Collection of Fingers", now available in Wrongdoing's first issue
In my closet I have a collection of fingers
but itâs not what you think âdonât go! Iâm finally ready to tell someone and Iâplease, thank you.