As I worked my way through Eric LaRocca’s second novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, I kept amusing myself with the idea that someone was going to cancel LaRocca for committing an act of cultural appropriation against people with picrew avatars. Well… it turns out that I was pretty much bang on the money.
Things is an interesting example of how the market for horror rebuilding itself by seeking out new audiences and creating new systems of cultural reproduction. Published in June 2021 by Weirdpunk Books, LaRocca’s novella found its way onto subscription services that seem to be more interested in Instagram and Tiktok than Twitter or Facebook. By avoiding traditional avenues of bookish publicity, the book wound up getting pushed into the faces of people who were perhaps not all that familiar with the more extreme forms of literary horror and so people unaccustomed to that kind of literary affect got angry and tried to argue that LaRocca was smearing and stereotyping lesbians by writing a book about an insanely abusive and co-dependent online relationship. It is now a year later and the calls for cancellation have been buried under a flood of gleeful disgust but it is worth acknowledging that Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not only an enjoyably gross and fucked-up horror novella, it is also an incisive piece of social satire inspired by spaces where the language of acceptance often masks the reality of social bonds with hidden costs.
The book opens with a woman posting to an LGBT message board, seeking a buyer for an antique apple-peeler. I have no idea how much apple-peelers go for in the real world, but the seller seems to be asking quite a bit and the inflated price is achieved through the added value of family history. You see… this isn’t just any old antique apple-peeler, this is an apple-peeler that is the subject of a number of cutesy family anecdotes and celebrity endorsements meaning that you’re not just buying an apple-peeler, you’re buying a piece of social history.
The post gets a response that engages in similarly emotive terms: The buyer explains that while they may not be a collector who will appreciate an antique apple peeler on multiple levels, they are buying it as a gift for an aging relative who will care for it the way he cares for an antique musket and so on and so forth.
Reading these opening messages, I was struck by two red flags; one vivid, the other more subtle and muted:
The more muted red flag comes from the way that both buyer and seller seem intent upon positioning the other in their own social narratives. The seller is not just looking to pick up some cash in order to make rent, they’re trying to determine who will have the privilege of giving them the cash and why. In response, the buyer admits that while they may not fit into the emotional tableau that the seller has painted around a stupid kitchen gadget, they fit into a different but no less rewarding narrative. At this point, the buyer and seller are not negotiating over price; they are negotiating over the social narrative that will govern both the transaction and the on-going existence of a kitchen gadget. In fact, while the transaction may have originated in a commercial exchange, neither the object, money, or people matter as much as the integrity of the social narrative that contains them. This failure to engage with people as they are and desire to subsume others into a narrative in which we are the protagonist really smacks of narcissism ergo the subtle red flag.
The more vivid red flag comes out when the seller tells the ‘delightful’ story about her grandmother convinced her grandfather to buy the doo-hickey in the first place. When neither party seems to recognise the object’s horrible origin myth, I knew I was in for as bumpy ride.
Reading between the lines, what seems to have gotten LaRocca into hot water is the decision to situate his story in a particular corner of the lesbian community. He also taps into a language of victimhood, emancipation, and personal flourishing through authenticity that is very common in certain online (and offline) spaces. These are socio-linguistic tics that have been developed to help people overcome abusive and/or oppressive upbringings by positioning them in a range of life-scripts that are pretty common in the LGBT community. It’s not just that LaRocca is really good at reproducing how certain members of the LGBT community talk about themselves; it’s that he takes the language of emancipation and self-actualisation and uses it as a pre-amble to something profoundly ugly.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not only about the perversion of emancipatory language, it is also about the slippery nature of consent and the way that personal boundaries can be distorted and dissolved when subjected to the right kinds of emotional pressure. The slide from mutual consent to mutual abuse begins after the characters have shared their traumatic pasts and moved beyond mutual admiration to something more akin to overt flirting. Having both expressed their appreciation of the other’s morally-upstanding character, one character volunteers to pay the other’s rent. This is the point at which the process of fitting-each-other-into-pre-existing-narratives starts to bite as the money is given on the understanding that it will ensure that the other person is able to continue living their life in an authentic manner. However, with ‘authenticity’ left undefined, the power imbalance created by the money allows one character to begin shaping the other’s thoughts and actions. At first, this process is both consensual and consistent with a D/s relationship as the Domme has the sub move beyond her comfort zone in a way that frames the distorted personal boundaries as both the sub expressing her true self and expressing her love and devotion for the Domme.
In the blink of an eye, our protagonists have moved from negotiating the shipping cost on an antique to negotiating how prominently to display their publically discarded underwear. Within a few pages, the couple move from subtle changes in clothing choices to public displays of kinkiness that results in someone losing their job. The fascinating thing about the back and forth is that it is all text-based and neither party ever exchanges so much as a selfie. The couple do, on occasion, meet up in a chat room for real-time instant messaging but these encounters are invariably short and there’s a very real sense in which emotional availability becomes part of a broader process of emotional domination. The Domme is forever busy and always needs to get up in the morning and so the sub is forever wanting more of her attention. This dynamic is particularly obvious in the scene where the Domme dumps a load of sexual fantasies on the sub, prompting her to start masturbating, only to be called away leaving the sub horny, yearning, and desperate.
The way that LaRocca runs all of these scenes together is designed to show the continuity of the psychological forces at work: One scene takes us from a character accepting the other’s sexuality to expecting that she live authentically. Another scene takes us from the characters expressing sexual desire to one of the characters getting fired because she was told to take off her undies at work. In both scenes, a character is offered acceptance but the acceptance comes with strings… I accept you just as you are, as long as you think, act, and behave in the way I want. Failure to comply results in acceptance being withdrawn and so the desperate need for acceptance is metabolised as a desire for submission and obedience. Mommy loves her good girl and Mommy won’t leave as long as her girl continues to be good.
These opening sections are powerfully drawn and LaRocca’s vision of the ways in which emotional and material need can dissolve personal boundaries is so clear and powerful that its resonance stretches way beyond the LGBT community. The language and dynamics may be explicitly queer but the same problems crop up in any human relationship. By means of an aside, this is why men should read women, white people should read non-white people, and straight people should read queers: Having our shared humanity reflected back to us through a different set of experiences and identities is often a great way of gaining insight into our own experiences and identities. It is not an act of charity, a social obligation, or some kind of low-energy political activism.
The second half of the novella is, to my mind, somewhat weaker than the first. Having laid out his characters, described the psychological forces at work in their relationship, and shown the way that ugliness and toxicity can creep into even the most well-intentioned of relationships, LaRocca floors the accelerator and moves us very quickly from people discarding their undies in public restrooms to people beating animals to death with rocks as a sign of both devotion and submission. When the first threshold is passed, the sub summarily dumps the Domme only to come crawling back with yet another story of acceptance and emancipation. With the violence threshold passed and the sub desperate for the Domme’s attention, the notion of consent goes straight out the window as the Domme starts demanding horrible things of her sub but, in a move reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s film The Duke of Burgundy, the needs and narratives of the sub start to filter into every element of the relationship to the point where the sub gains control of the relationship-narrative and effectively locks the Domme into a fantasy so disturbing that the Domme winds up looking for the exit.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is one of those stories that, despite being about the weirder and more dysfunctional fringes of a marginalised group, highlights issues and tensions that are universal to the human experience. While most of us will not start killing small animals in order to maintain our partners’ interest, to be in a relationship invariably means compromising not only on the sovereignty of your own attention, but also on your principles. By and large, these compromises are over matters both small and benign meaning that they tend not to raise alarms but if (like the characters in this novella) we view authenticity and personal-flourishing as the purpose of living, then it follows that every compromise is a both an abandonment of individuality and a weakening of consent. This becomes particularly clear in the novella’s final act when the sub becomes obsessed with the idea of carrying the Domme’s child. Transparently not that interested, the Domme responds to this request by ‘testing’ the sub’s suitability for motherhood through the medium of a horrendous act of submission only for the sub to pick up the ball and run with it resulting in the sub cooing and fretting over something that looks precious to her but seems monstrous and disgusting to the Domme. Though disgusting and harrowing, this scene has an obvious real-world parallel in the case of people who do not want kids but wind up having kids in order to preserve their relationship. We present change, compromise, and acceptance as uncomplicated emotional goods but when does emotional pressure to change become a violation of consent? How far is one required to bend in order to fit into another person’s narrative? How far is too far? How ugly is too ugly? How deranged is too deranged.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is one of those stories that leaves a whiff of sulphur in the air long after you have finished reading. To dwell on the themes of this novella is to dwell on the shape of our emotional lives. The questions it asks are not comfortable and yet we all compelled to answer for ourselves.