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Hey there horror fans, I’m Jessica Avery and I’ll be delivering your weekly brief of all that’s ghastly and grim in the world of Horror. Whether you’re looking for a backlist book that will give you the willies, a terrifying new release, or the latest in horror community news, you’ll find it here in The Fright Stuff.
Few horror readers would argue that we are absolutely awash in amazing horror books these days, but every once in a while I read ond of those books that really stops me in my tracks. Makes me think. Makes me criiiiiiiiiiiinge in the best and worst ways. I had the pleasure of reading Polly Ho-Yen’s Dark Lullaby earlier this year and it certainly falls into that category.
Set in a bleak future in which the world’s population has shrunk dramatically due to widespread infertility, the remains of society are clustered together in highly regulated, closely managed pods of urban existence. Resources are at a minimum, and the larger portion are allotted to those who choose to have children, leaving the willingly childless scraping around the edges. And it’s not just resources like food and square footage – promotions, financial incentives, cars, every possible privilege is withheld for those who choose to go through Induction, a dangerous and difficult process of conception that kills women nearly as frequently as it succeeds in impregnating them.
If you are picking of strains of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re not far from your mark. But what fascinated me as I read Dark Lullaby wasn’t the chilling similarities between these two books, but rather the differences that separate them. They share a fundamental core of themes and anxieties, and a critical examination of how our society treats things like fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood. But whereas Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a stark depiction of a deeply dystopian society that bears little resemblance to life as we know it, Ho-Yen has buried her horror a little deeper in Dark Lullaby. Comparatively, the world in Dark Lullaby is only softly dystopian. People are still free to lead what seem to be, on the surface, ordinary lives. The only thing that appears to be out of place are matters relating to children. The world that Kit inhabits is a modern, evolved, tolerant world! No one is hanging people who don’t conform from walls in the center of the city. People aren’t being exiled to death colonies. And the only people disappearing are the children – and that’s only because the Office of Standards in Parenting (OSIP) just want to be sure they’re reared in safe, supportive, nurturing homes that meet their exacting standards. For their own good.
If the very name of that very insidious organization did not make your stomach twist a bit, just give it time. Because the further you read into Dark Lullaby, the more you begin to realize what the “freedom” people in Kit’s world possess is little more than an illusion. Especially those unlucky enough to have uteruses. Pressured to undergo dangerous Induction procedures, knowing that if you survive that and your pregnancy, you will then face the almost inevitable pain of losing your child, because OSIP’s standards of perfection are nearly impossible to meet. Lose your child to OSIP? That’s okay! You can try again! The data shows that second time parents are much less likely to lose their children! Choose not to play the baby lottery a second time and say goodbye to the nice house they gave you when you got pregnant – houses with space and lawns are only for families.
Chose not to get pregnant? “Outs” as they’re known in the media, certainly have that right. Though they do risk being labelled as “selfish, egotisitc maniacs, who are sabotaging the survival of our species”. (35)
Atwood’s classic was inspired by the rise in power of conservative religious and political forces at the time she was writing, and the world she presented was the extreme (but not entirely impossible) end result of increasingly restrictive repression of women’s rights and reproductive freedoms. But while both Atwood and Ho-Yen created world where a half of society is reduced only to the value of their uteruses, Dark Lullaby’s world is, to me, the more frightening one because the oppression is so much more subtle. It’s resemblance to our own world is at times uncanny, and as far as futures go it feels terrifyingly possible. Its heart isn’t religious conservatism, but rather a critical look at what might happen if society’s anxieties about diminishing birth rates and people with the ability to have children deliberately choosing not to, collided at full speed with a toxic “mommy culture” that idealizes a certain type of mother and passes judgement on mothers who don’t meet their standards (even though these standards often disregard important factors like class or cultural differences). It’s hypercritical mommy blogs turned public policy. It’s Motherhood/childbearing wielded like a cudgel in a society that pretends to be enlightened and modern.
When all is said and done, all that really separates The Handmaid’s Tale and Dark Lullaby is time. The Handmaid’s Tale was very much an accurate, terrifying product of its time, and Dark Lullaby is a product of all that has happened since. In the differences between the two we can see a roadmap of how far we’ve come, and in some ways, how little we’ve gained.
Fresh from the Skeleton’s Mouth
Have a new horror reader in your life? Addison Rizer has a guide to Horror Books for Beginners over at Book Riot.
Need more stabby slasher books? (Trick question, you always need more stabby slasher books.) Sadie Hartmann put together a TikTok of recommendations just for you!
As always, you can catch me on twitter at @JtheBookworm, where I try to keep up on all that’s new and frightening.