Yaya Betancourt Dreams of Teeth (or, How to Kill a Toothy Darling) - Tor Nightfire

Yaya Betancourt Dreams of Teeth (or, How to Kill a Toothy Darling)

They gave a Bram Stoker Award to a vagina monster book.

I’m home from StokerCon 2022, where members of the Horror Writers Association got super weird and gave my queer sci-fi horror romance Queen of Teeth the honor of Superior Achievement in a First Novel. I must’ve told twenty different people over the past few months that they don’t give awards to vagina monster books, historically speaking. Since that night I’ve heard more instances of “I told you so” than ever before, and had I been placing bets, I would have lost big time.

There was one bet I did make, and that was with my wife. She let me read to her a brief dream sequence from Queen of Teeth, got attached to it, and was crestfallen when I told her my publisher (Strangehouse Books, an imprint of Rooster Republic Press) and I had agreed to cut the scene from Queen of Teeth’s final draft for a couple reasons. She very much wanted people to read the scene though, and after Queen of Teeth hit the Bram Stoker Award preliminary ballot in January, I made a bet/peace offering that in the event it won the award, I would make the dream sequence public in some capacity.

I did not think this would happen.

A month later, Queen of Teeth hit the final ballot among five other outstanding novels. And then a few months later, here we are, with the award sitting on the short bookshelf beside my desk.

That means the dream sequence must live. I’m deeply grateful to Emily Hughes and Tor Nightfire for providing a place to publish it.

A little background on Queen of Teeth and the scene’s placement in the book:

Yolanda “Yaya” Betancourt is having a pretty bad couple of days after she discovers teeth between her legs due to a genetic condition caused by AlphaBeta Pharmaceutical when she was in her mother’s womb.

The dream sequence takes place in Chapter 8, shortly after Yaya has escaped agents of AlphaBeta Pharmaceutical and even harmed one of them thanks to the ever-intensifying power and reach of her mysterious vaginal tentacles. Her sleeping mind takes the trouble to unique extremes while she lies across an ex-lover’s couch, hiding from her pursuers and the monster within.

Yaya’s body looked strange in the dark. A slender crease slid from her underwear’s black waistline, like a thin finger creeping past dark curling hairs.

A shadow cast from behind her? No, she recognized the crease as her eyes cleared. Her vulva and outer labia were spreading up her body, the vaginal slit overtaking pelvis, belly button, and sternum, forming a zipper of interlocking metal teeth. It could open her torso if she clutched an unseen pull tab. Maybe the pull tab dangled inside her chest.

And then those teeth unzipped on their own.

Red fleshy ropes bloomed in every direction and wrapped around Yaya’s limbs and neck. A twisted pillar of magenta-colored muscle climbed from the center. Its teeth were nothing like the anatomical flower she’d watched slide blindly and thrash between her legs in her apartment, but instead it flashed pearly white chompers, stretched into a big cartoon grin.

“Yooolandaaa!” the cartoon mouth crooned.

Its voice was nothing like the tentacle creature’s subtle hum climbing Yaya’s spine. This thing sounded slick and deep, slithering the vocal spectrum between Michigan J. Frog and the killer singing plant from that Broadway show she couldn’t remember.

“Ya Devil Yaya, in the flesh!”

Yaya’s jaw worked up and down, trying to speak. No sound came out. A monstrous grin loomed over her chest and snaked toward her chin, close enough to smell a familiar flavor of peanuts on its breath, like a freshly opened Jif jar coughing toward her face.

“What’s the strug, bub?” the stretchy mouth asked. “Peanut butter got your tongue?”

Yaya kept opening and shutting her mouth. Why couldn’t she speak?

“Yeah, why can’t you speak? Don’t you got anything to say? Know anything to tell?” The grin filled her gaze. “I bet you know one thing, one tiny thing. Come on, Yaya, address the elephantine devil in the room, the one sitting on your shoulder, the one with a skull for a face. What’s the future, Yolanda? It’s coming quick.” White jaws snapped open and rushed at her head. A song of peanut butter and death rang up the bottomless cleft-born throat and threatened to swallow her whole, an ouroboros of vaginal teeth and curling spine.

She jerked her head, faced the floor. If she saw what lurked down that throat, she’d never be herself again. She writhed against the limbs, twisted against cushions, until—

Her eyes shot wide open. It was still dark, still night. She hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep.

I still love this scene, partly because it’s another Looney Tunes reference seated firmly in Yaya’s cartoon-loving point of view, and partly because it’s so surreal and different from the actual vagina monster Yaya encounters immediately after.

But that difference was part of the problem during editing and revisions. I loved the scene, and so did the publisher and editor, but it clashes with the next scene in which Yaya meets sweet-voiced Magenta, the true vagina monster, and then her ex-lover also meets Magenta, and our three core characters share a harrowing and then sensual remainder of the chapter together. We could not make it work here.

I tried to rescue the scene by placing it in Yaya on another couch a few chapters later, but by then the realities of Yaya’s condition have eclipsed the dream’s strangeness. She and Magenta have a different relationship by the book’s middle, and planting the dream at that point would have felt both redundant and counterintuitive to their twining character arcs. 

Cutting the dream sequence was the right call. The infamous writing advice of “kill your darlings” is often misinterpreted as the wholesale slaughter of a writer’s beloved characters, but really it’s for instances like this, when a manuscript must cross a river and has gold coins like this one in its pockets. They are pretty, and maybe valuable on their own, but that manuscript’s going to struggle toward the far shore unless it drops the weight. I thought I would never see it again from that river bottom.

But hello again, my toothy darling. You’ve been missed. Now everyone gets to meet you.

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