…however, the best story in the fifth annual edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror is Elizabeth Massie’s “Stephen.”
(I first read Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out ofMind” before “hoarding” behavior was widely known, so the setting, a hoarder’s house, fascinated. That the hoarder’s obsession was triggered by Fibber McGee’s closet (the fact that no one seemed to remember Fibber’s closet) also interested me—I grew up listening to recordings of old radio broadcasts, including Fibber McGee & Molly, and had a sense of how bizarre it is for a culture to leave behind something that was once a great common ground. “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” isn’t just about the fear of losing one’s own past; it’s also about preservation, and the point at which preservation becomes obsessive and destructive.
Rereading it now, I’m less bowled over, and the discovery at the end—what makes “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” horror—seems simply inevitable.)
Would someone send me a list of stories about (or that feature) decapitated heads kept alive (magic or science. Also, skulls)? Off the top of my capitated head is The Arabian Nights (Sage Duban’s head kept alive on a platter coated with a magic powder), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, F.Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull,” Ramsey Campbell’s “Heading Home,” and (maybe) “The Skull of Charlotte Corday.” No films, T.V., or radio broadcasts, please. Donovan’s Brain? Sure, I’m willing to open the door to brains kept alive in jars.
“Stephen” is the only story by Elizabeth Massie I remember, though I’m sure I’ve read others—I had a story in Exotic Gothic 2 and so did she, with “Los Penitentes,” so I read that, “Pinkie” was reprinted in Best New Horror 17 so I probably read that, and maybe “What Happened When Mosby Paulson Had Her Painting Reproduced on the Cover of the Phone Book,” too. Anyway.
I don’t want to say much about “Stephen.” It is a decapitated head story, but it treats that trope seriously, and uses it as an illustration of the other horror that truly runs the story. Though at sixteen I didn’t understand the sexual issues in Massie’s story—I understood enough to be troubled by them.
Coincidentally, I wrote a decapitated head story called “Stephen Plec.” Plec is a Polish word for sex; I associate the name Stephen with repression and guilt. Plec is a garbage collector who, out on his route, finds a head in a box, becomes intimate with it, gets rid of it in a frenzy of self-loathing, but ends up desperately searching for it in the municipal dump where he works. I wondered if my Stephen was in any way inspired by Massie’s, but I dug up the original drafts of “Stephen Plec,” and all were carefully dated “1989.”