The World Wide Web has given a valuable new toolbox to anyone writing epistolary fiction. Yes, these tools can be used poorly: look no further than the criticism heaped upon J. K. Rowling’s use of social media posts in The Ink Black Heart. But when put to good use, the online epistolary has the potential to capture a genuine directness and rawness – chatroom conversations tend to be more to-the-point than the Victorian letter-writers portrayed by Collins and Stoker, after all. And, in a novella like this, the form is also an ideal way to explore the seedy underbelly of Internet culture.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke comprises a series of email exchanges and instant messenger conversations between two women, Agnes Petrella and Zoe Cross. The pair meet on innocuous enough terms, with Agnes posting on an LGBT forum to sell an antique apple peeler and Zoe being sufficiently intrigued by the item’s colourful history that she agrees to buy.
Agnes is pleased to hear from Zoe – “Most of the responses I’ve been receiving on the post have unfortunately been solicitations for activities I can’t even imagine having the determination to write down let alone engage in” – and begins opening up to her new contact. In particular, she reveals that the apple peeler is tied to some conflicted memories:
I waited until I could hear my father milling about in the background, close enough to hear what I had to say.
Finally, I said it: “Mom. Dad. I’m gay.”
There was a long, painful pause, and I recall I could feel my heartbeat hammering in the space between my ears – the blood rushing to my face and pooling there as violently as whitewater rapids. Finally, my mother spoke. “My child isn’t gay.” And she hung up.
That was the very last thing she said to me. I haven’t talked to her in two years. The apple peeler was one of the last things she had given me before we stopped talking – something I thought I would keep as a memory of my family until I had a family of my own one day. But that doesn’t seem that likely anymore.
The two continue bonding, with Zoe giving Agnes both financial and emotional support (“When you’re gay, you have the privilege of choosing your family”). Their relationship soon takes on a sexual element, and this in turn develops a significant sub-dom aspect. Around halfway through the novella, Zoe draws up a contract enshrining the “total dominance and control” that she shall hold over Agnes. This document lists the various elaborate ways in which Agnes shall devote her life to the pleasure of her new “owner” – and Agnes signs it.
To go into much more detail about the plot of Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke would be to risk either giving away too much or else giving a false impression of what actually happens between Agnes and Zoe. This is not a story densely packed with events and twist revelations; nor, given the format, can it be held up as an example of flowery prose – although some of the emails exchanged between the characters segue into brief essays. What gives the novella life is the emotional arc between the two twisted heroines.
As bizarre as the relationship may be – and it really does go to some strange places, particularly once the two decide to have a baby together – it still rings true in psychological terms. Agnes is given a backstory in which an aunt subjected her to abusive treatment that involved being forced to eat raw eggs, shell-and-all, which has clearly impacted her adult outlook. Her side of the correspondence often muses about the philosophy of relationships and her thoughts, no matter how thorough, are inescapably shaped by her childhood mistreatment, as are the sort of relationships that she has internalised as normal and healthy.
One of Agnes’ most telling digressions – really a story-within-a-story – involves the case of a teenager who crucified his younger brother. To Agnes, this is justification for her clearly destructive romance with the sadistic and domineering Zoe: “there are worse people in the world”, says Agnes. “We don’t belong in their company. We belong together.”
By the nature of their genre, the finalists for the Splatterpunk Awards tend to be focused on graphic bodily violation. But while this element is present to some degree in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, Eric LaRocca has given us a story that cuts straight to the mentality behind the violence.