Horror at a Head

Two monstrous anthologies reviewed
By Rebecca Peng

Share Article

Queer Little Nightmares
An Anthology of Monstrous Fiction and Poetry
Edited by David Ly and Daniel Zomparelli
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022

Death in the Mouth
An Anthology of Original Horror
by People of Color
Edited by Sloane Leong and Cassie Hart
Firestorm/Self Published, 2022

In the 1930s, concerned with mounting fascism and disillusioned with the political left’s ineffectual efforts to resist its rise, influential French philosopher and freaky little guy (complimentary) Georges Bataille did the expected (founded a literary journal) and also the slightly less expected (formed a corresponding secret society). Both journal and club were named Acéphale, after the Greek akephalos (“headless”). Friends were invited to write for the publication and closer friends were invited to participate in what Bataille referred to only as THE ENCOUNTER.

THE ENCOUNTER was to take place silently. A select few were given instructions to convene in the heart of an old forest, where, before a lightning-struck oak tree that resembled “a powerful god…torn apart by his own anger,” they would conduct a secret, sacrificial ritual. Together they would summon a figure poised at the convergence of contradictions, a creature who could inspire simultaneous laughter and anguish. They would make a monster. “I [become lost] along with [the monster],” Bataille wrote rapturously, eagerly anticipating the appointed time, “and there I rediscover myself as him.”

Artist Makoto Chi for They Will Take Up Serpents in Death in the Mouth
Artist Makoto Chi for They Will Take Up Serpents in Death in the Mouth.

For Bataille, the monstrous was one avenue through which he hoped not to subvert but to confound social hierarchies. Subversion did not go far enough. Discussing its limitations, Bataille isolates subversion as a cultural tactic that may succeed in changing who wields power in an existing socio-cultural hierarchy or dynamic, but always falls short of meaningfully altering or, ideally, destroying said dynamics. He was suspicious of those who sought to reinscribe themselves at the top, valorizing, instead, Marx’s “old mole,” the creature who, in Bataille’s imagination, excavates the filthy and the base, who discovers radical potential in “the bowels of the earth” – proletariat causes, social taboos, so-called deviant sexualities, and so on – materials with the capacity to upend systems of oppression.

I feel undercurrents of Bataille, his moles and his monsters, in discussions of contemporary horror, where there is an increased appetite for monstrosities. This is partially fueled by market conditions1The film and television industry, in particular, is enjoying a so-called golden age of horror. Drawing from data researcher and film consultant Stephen Follows’ The Horror Report, Virgin Media reports an increase upwards of 400% in the number of horror films from 2000 to 2016. Famously inexpensive to make, compared to other genres, their profitability has played a key role in their proliferation – and the symbiotic growth of horror across other mediums., but interest in the monstrous may also be the result of broader cultural shifts. Artists and audiences alike seek archetypes that can capture our contemporary moment's extremities and anxieties: the rising threat of fascism, the frustrating neoliberalism of electoral politics, and the fractured state of revolutionary organizing. For some, these desires result in a pivot away from media that comforts; upbeat cartoons and inclusive workplace comedies feel insufficient and out-of-date. One notes an ambient uptick in rhetoric that, as a genre, horror has the greatest aesthetic ability to articulate these crises and their consequences.

Queer Little Nightmares and Death in the Mouth, two recent anthologies each positioned as writing from the margins, offer different engagements with the genre and the directions in which it might expand. A consideration of how they conjure, remake, or subvert their generic conventions may clarify both what horror can offer the marginalized and what horrors we might yet hope to unleash.


Cover Image: Queer Little Nightmares
Cover of Queer Little Nightmares.

Queer Little Nightmares seeks monsters – or new ways to view them. David Ly, editor and contributor, frames the poetry as work that “subverts the horror gaze” and “push[es] back on the idea of monsters as fearsome.” His co-editor Daniel Zomparelli agrees, citing an almost instantaneous love for A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger and his allegedly inherent queerness. Like Ly, he commends the collection’s stories for how they “complicate the definition of ‘monster’” itself.

The majority of the collection’s poems and prose fall into line with these editorial impulses. Desire becomes the site of tension. Monstrosity may be inhabited (Amber Dawn’s “Wooly Bully,” among many, where lycanthropic and lesbian revelations become intertwined) or observed (as in Ly’s “Poem Made from Pennywise,” where the recent It movies soothe), but it is, above all, a matter of perspective. Repeatedly conflated with queerness, embracing one’s monstrous identity is inseparable from embracing one’s sexuality.

embracing one's monstrous identity is inseparable from embracing one's sexuality

Within these shared trajectories, there are stand-outs. Hiromi Goto’s “Moon Spun Round,” in which a middle-aged woman’s unexpected menstruations become sentient and bloodthirsty, matches an innovative idea with strong characterization. However, it’s Eddy Boudel Tan’s “Strange Case,” a sly retelling of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde mediated through gay cruising apps, that lingers longest. In exploring its protagonist as simultaneously victim and monster, “Strange Case” approaches an emotional range that feels uglier but also more nuanced, more true. It’s a tantalizing example of how the queer, the monstrous, and the queer monstrous can scramble rather than subvert expectations.

There are other shared impulses that emerge across the anthology: notably, a fixation with mass media. The supernatural steps out of television screens or becomes the subject of cinema. One narrator admires how “mirror strobes like cut frames from a film reel.” A character’s partner draws upon the logic of film when making decisions with a glib, “No, thank you. I know how that movie ends.” In jaye simpson’s “#WWMD,” protagonist Daphne saturates readers in pop culture references. When confronted with a chauvinistic Greek deity (who radiates such perfect beauty she tellingly “can’t help but call [him] Mr. Instagram”), Daphne confides that “most of [my generation] watched that hodgepodge of a film, Clash of the Titans from 2010. I’m of the generation who grew up reading Rick Riordan’s young adult books, watching Disney’s Hercules, shielding my queer youth with books and films.” It’s a logic Kayla Czaga’s “Dad Movie” rejoins, exploring a family relationship codified through movie tropes and styles.

Some of the anthology’s strongest pieces are its most irreverent, such as beni xiao’s “Naga Mark Ruffalo Dream,” where deviant desires are muddled by the mainstream. At other times, though, Queer Little Nightmares finds itself constrained by its own dedication to subversion, returning to the monstrous as a pop culture oddity, an issue of representation. These monsters, we realize, were declawed from the start.

There is a difference, perhaps, between embracing the monster and embracing monstrous

Deep in the woods, before his angry oak god, Bataille wished to make his monster, the Acéphale’s namesake headless man, not for the purposes of redemption but revelation. Breath was held. A blade was prepared. Every member offered their neck for the beheading – but none wished to be the executioner. It’s said that their sacrificial ritual floundered; the moment for THE ENCOUNTER came and went. When the members returned to society, there was not a head out of place.

There is a difference, perhaps, between embracing the monster and embracing monstrous. Like fates, certain horrors are more bearable than others.

Death in the Mouth Cover Image
Cover of Death in the Mouth.

For those with slightly stronger stomachs, Death in the Mouth offers flashes of monsters and monstrosities. Edited by Cassie Hart and Sloane Leong, this crowdfunded anthology of BIPOC horror asks, “What is horror to those living in the margins?” Where Queer Little Nightmares seeks to subvert, Death in the Mouth submerges. Its twenty-six short stories, and their corresponding (gorgeously unnerving) illustrations, offer a more straightforward delight in its monstrous menagerie.

There are uncanny doppelgängers and gruesome tableaus of body horror, madness, and murder. Through their earnest engagement with the genre, the authors of Death in the Mouth demonstrate a compelling interest in horror not as a set of references but as a longstanding literary tradition rife for experimentation. Like any anthology, Death in the Mouth is uneven; the collection is at its best when its authors play with archetypes, language, and form. There are several sophisticated offerings, including C. Pam Zhang’s brief, bewitching fairy tale “Alice or Rose or Aurora or Allerleirauh or on the Occasion of the Burial of the Beast”; the insatiable seduction of Rivers Solomons’ “Some of Us Are Grapefruit”; and J.L. Akagi’s “What Hurts Henry Watanabe,” in which a cellist is tormented by his own hand. (Many of the collection’s strongest pieces, including Solomons’ and Akagi’s, are also, incidentally, explicitly queer.)

These stories deploy the mythic in order to unsettle it

Drawing from disparate cultural histories, Death in the Mouth is fluent in the register of fable, folklore, and legend. These stories deploy the mythic in order to unsettle it. The family, nuclear and otherwise, recurs as a site of horror; bad matriarchs are particularly abundant. Horror from the margins, this collection asserts more often than not, is not wildly unlike horror elsewhere. The underlying anxieties are not new, though, at times, its appearances may be. Death posits that, as marginalized persons, “horror is our inheritance and birthright” with which we share a “unique intimacy.” Insofar as Death in the Mouth is additive to the genre, it succeeds; its stories do not shake horror’s foundations, but contribute new nuances, crawling towards a vocabulary that encompasses greater complexity.


Artist Julie Benbassat for Eggshells in Death in the Mouth
Artist Julie Benbassat for Eggshells in Death in the Mouth.

Tropes and genres are forms of legibility, just as surely as they are market categories. No text is under any obligation to reimagine, let alone engage with, the conditions of their genre category and the societal forces that shape them. One never imagines the reader joyless. Playfulness is always preferable to pontificating; a good story is always the goal. But consciously or otherwise, a compelling text offers insights, affects, and innovations.

Decoupling the monster from its horrific roots, Queer Little Nightmare turns towards the comedic. Though effective, its bolts of self-consciousness point towards the collection’s scope and its preoccupations. In its inescapable deluge of mass media, these gentle (genteel) monsters are not free from fear. Far from it. What frightens them most is their own reflections. Settling into the fringes and reveling in rather than rehabilitating one’s perversions, as Death in the Mouth does, strikes this reviewer as the most compelling impulse.

It is not so hard to identify monsters, but writing monstrosities, effective and affectively, remains the challenge. As our contemporary terrors grow and change, one longs for a bestiary that is not only expansive but also deeply potent. Accordingly, one hopes all of these anthologized authors and artists will have the opportunity to reconvene again, if in other woods. The monstrous persists – around us, in us – and deserves its due. After all, as poet Jane Shi writes, “even the most hideous creatures deserve / a chance to wail, fail, and then try again” – only next time, with more teeth.


  1. Bataille, Georges, and Allan Stoekl. “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist .” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  2. Bataille, Georges. The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lecturers to the College of Sociology. Edited by Marina Galletti and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, 2018.
  3. Hart, Cassie and Sloane Leong, editors. Death in the Mouth: An Anthology of Original Horror from People of Color. 2022.
  4. Ly, David, and Daniel Zomparelli, editors. Queer Little Nightmares: An Anthology of Monstrous Fiction and Poetry. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022.
  5. Rutkowski, Laura. “Why We Are Living in the ‘Golden Age’ of Horror.” Virgin Media, 21 Sept. 2022, https://www.virginmedia.com/virgin-tv-edit/tv/why-we-are-living-in-the-golden-age-of-horror-expert-interviews.
Rebecca Peng
Rebecca Peng is a writer, currently living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre