Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy is a wonderfully diverse collection of dark fiction that brings together some of the very best elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Varying in topic, tone, and length, the stories in this collection come together to announce something fans of indie horror have known for a long time: Piper is a voice to be reckoned with.
There aren’t many elements of cohesion in Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy besides darkness, LGBTQ+ characters, and a delicious aversion to happy endings. In fact, the stories in this collection vary quite a bit in terms of crucial elements like tone and atmosphere. Nevertheless, they work well together and offer something for everyone. For example, “I’m Not a Chainsaw Kind of Girl, But…,” a story about a particular kind of justice, serves as a perfect introduction that establishes Piper isn’t a fan of happy tales:
“Daphne’s boyfriend was Chad. A fun pastime for hulking, breath-of-death Chad was hitting on the waitresses at Daphne’s favorite diner, Ribbed for Her Pleasure, while she sulked beside him. Have you ever seen the light leave a happy person’s eyes? One minute, she’s a bubbly explosion of sunshine, the next he steps into the room and fills her up with shadow. All it takes is his presence. Her voice shrinks; her eyes dim. The sunshine’s gone.”
The variety in the stories in Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy was a risk, and it mostly paid off. Sure, not every reader will connect with every single narrative here because readers are rarely fans of many genres at once, but the way Piper flexes all her writing muscles at once is commendable, offering stories that go from space witches to demons and from gigantic worms made of human body parts destroying entire cities to ghost hauntings. Some short story collections contain weak stories; Unfortunate Elements contains stories that are only weak in comparison to other stories in the book. The end result is an impressive collection of eighteen stories where difference is the only constant.
There are several stories that deserve individual attention here. “We All Scream,” a tale about a creepy ice cream man, is unsettling in the best way possible and contains a remarkable depth despite its short length, which invites various readings and demonstrates Piper often works on several levels at the same time: “Are you going to blab about me? Don’t do that, not now, not years from now, not ever. If you tell anyone, ice cream will melt out of your mouth.”
In “Daisy,” which might be shortest story in the collection, the narrator is a very special dog, and the ending is the kind that sticks with you long after you’ve finished the entire book. “The Burning of the Blueberries” follows a trans man as he joins the Horned Brotherhood, a cult that wants to “recapture the essence of the primordial masculine, to rejoin the chase of beasts lost on us in a softer world.” He wants to join because he thinks it will help him “be even more of a man” and he feels he needs to “be as much a man as possible.” To achieve maximum masculinity, the brotherhood plans on summoning the Masculine Aspect, but things don’t turn out the way the expected and chaos ensues. “Crones in Their Larval State” and “Hairy Jack” both offer fresh takes on witchcraft, with the latter quickly turning in a brilliant attack on patriarchy and the way it turns any kind of Otherness into a tool to oppress women.
Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy is a rare, eclectic collection in which elves, witches, and sacred texts intermingle, but also where the core of some narratives is Otherness, justice, womanhood, or the meaning of certain rites of passage. It’s also a book that entertains and is never preachy, but where important topics are tackled in fresh ways. In “Aggressive Mimicry,” for example, a boy named Miguel suffers as his friend Omar, who he’s in love with, pursues women like all the straight kids but also sends Miguel mixed signals. Miguel is young, but he understands why some members of the LGBTQ+ community opt to lead lives that go against what they really want:
“There were days he felt so touch-starved that he could understand why people like him broke down, married a girl, let their parents sigh in relief, and embraced the misery of peace. No one suspected, far as he knew. He was always out with Omar, and Omar was straight as they come; all the girls orbited him. Surely Miguel would pick up his scraps. So people let him be. He and Omar remained friends.”
Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy is a timely, enjoyable collection that beautifully showcasess one of the up-and-coming voices in dark speculative fiction as she explores different literary territories and genres while delivering entertaining, smart stories. This is simultaneously an impressive addition to Piper’s growing oeuvre and a perfect place to start reading her work for those who haven’t done so yet.