Book Review: The Strange Thing We Become by Eric LaRocca

The Strange Thing We Become and other Dark Tales by Eric LaRocca Review

By Justin Montgomery

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Eric LaRocca sent shockwaves through the horror community earlier this year with the publication of their phenomenal novella, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. A masterclass in tension and storytelling, I was blown away. When I was approached to give a review of their debut collection, The Strange Thing We Become and other Dark Tales, I jumped on the opportunity, and was once again whisked away into LaRocca’s velvet prose, thrust mercilessly into their macabre imagination rendered so beautifully onto the page. 

The stories collected here are quite dark. This collection challenged me, pushed me into uncomfortable and repulsive territory, but I’m glad that it did—save for one story. I appreciated how the stories collected here grew in length and complexity as the collection went on, starting with the brilliant and quick “You Follow Wherever They Go” and growing. One thing that I simply love about LaRocca’s work is the way they title their stories. Creative and complex, yet effectively capturing the themes and emotion within the stories. A welcome change from the formulaic titles of “The (insert noun here)” that most authors (myself included) fallback onto. It’s here that, from the very outset of the stories, that LaRocca distinguishes themselves from the pack. 

LaRocca has a way with being brutally honest in their work, taking no care to shroud the evil of humanity in niceties. Cancer ravages, blood is spilled, bargains are made. Characters waste away before our eyes in miraculously short form. LaRocca pulls no punches, has grisly talent in describing bodily harm. Yet a tenderness lurks beneath.

Digging deeper, the stories collected here in The Strange Thing We Become are as varied as they are vicious, with characters from all walks of life, sexuality, mobility, and depravity. Standouts are “You Follow Wherever They Go”, a quick tale of death and misunderstanding; “The Strange Thing We Become”, a harrowing, heartbreaking tale which grapples with terminal cancer and the impact it has on both the patient and the spouse/caregiver; “The Trees Grew Because I Bled There”, a twisted, disgusting tale of what it means to give oneself completely to a partner; and “I’ll Be Gone By Then’, a glimpse into the struggle of those burdened with the sudden and unexpected care of a medically inept parent.

All of the stories here, even those not listed, are fantastic and well written, but the best and most terrifying story to me was “You’re Not Supposed to Be Here”. Fans of the Saw franchise will love this one, and as a parent it is literally worst-case-scenario played out. It was here that I felt LaRocca’s storytelling prowess on full display, and the rendering of how far humans will go when pushed to their breaking point. 

Following that thought, I want to touch on something that is present here that also shadowed Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. In these stories, sometimes, it seems that the characters give themselves into insanity rather quickly, without much hesitation. At first, I was struck by this, but the more I ruminated on the characters and how readily they give in, I believe it is intentional, as we all harbor thoughts that we’d be mortified for any others to see rattling around our skulls. LaRocca understands that, when it comes to people, things just happen, and escalate without a provocation or reason. Given the nature of the short story itself, as a beast, I suppose it doesn’t necessarily matter how long it takes for a character to reach their breaking point, if it’s the inevitable end point, right? Would an extra ten pages of deliberation be necessary, given that the darkness readily within all of us is the focus of the stories here? I think not. This note is for any readers who feel the need to fault LaRocca for the swift descents into insanity, as they have for Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. LaRocca takes careful consideration to what aspects to show in their stories, and the rapidity in which characters descend into depravity–and often with a disgusting glee–is one of the driving forces of their writing. It’s the hand which twists the knife, so to speak.

Lastly, I want to give a stern warning here to any prospective readers. The story, “Bodies Are for Burning”, features the extremely graphic torture of an infant. Normally, I can stomach pretty much anything, but this story—while doing a phenomenal job of illustrating the struggle of intrusive thoughts and obsessive-compulsive disorder—was unpleasant to experience. The story did not elicit horror in me as a reader, but pure annoyance at the unnecessarily vivid description of torture, particularly of an infant. The story is well written, as is the rest of the collection, but I would have preferred to not have read the story at all, as the imagery within is now stuck in my skull, festering and ever-present. If you’re a parent, or squeamish in any way, I would suggest passing this story up. By now, anyone who had read LaRocca’s work consistently knows to hold their breath anytime an infant is present, but I want to warn those whose first foray into their writing is this collection.

Aside from that misfire and a few others throughout the stories collected here, The Strange Thing We Become is a fantastic collection, full of strong characters, delightfully twisted plot lines, philosophical insight to the darker parts of the human condition, and powerful, literary writing which never ventures into purple prose yet retains a high caliber of craft. LaRocca has proven that they are a powerful storyteller and have a bright career ahead of them, with a mastery of craft and character in their tool kit which, from where I’m sitting, will be honed even further over the years to come into something quite special. I look forward to reading LaRocca’s work for decades to come.

out of 5 Ravens.

Available on Amazon and Bookshop.

 

Reviewer: Justin Montgomery
Bio: My name is Justin Montgomery, and I’m an author. I’ve loved literature since I was a child, and my life has revolved around stories, whether they be books, film, comics, or otherwise. I’ve always gravitated toward them, found comfort in the language, the characters, the impossible worlds conjured by authors and brought forth onto the page. It was no surprise when I discovered that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

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