You can read this story for free at Tor.com!
I want to start by warning people that this story deals primarily with fictional depictions of sexual assault so definitely check in with yourself while you’re reading it.
One of the reasons I love Gothic horror stories was the way emotional turmoil and societal suppression became a physical entity that could be acknowledged and dealt with in a way it couldn’t in its abstract form.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to talk about something that has a physical manifestation than something that doesn’t–a physical illness seems “more believable” than a mental one because you can point at a thing and say that’s what’s wrong.
Which is why I think this story has the power it does.
Because it focuses on manifesting feelings of discomfort and repulsion with something physical that people associate with those feelings–insects crawling out of people’s mouths.
Repulsion as a Disease
While this story does deal with very serious and traumatic things, it doesn’t necessarily centre around them. It’s really about feeling embarrassed about something you can’t control but which society as told you to hide.
More importantly, the gender differentiation as to what can be talked about (but we’ll get into that later).
Repulsion is not one of the things that first comes to mind when you think about what you shouldn’t feel–or at least show that you feel–but it is one of those things, at least in North American culture, that you subconsciously cover up. Like, you don’t show disgust towards someone unless you’re deliberately trying to be rude or confrontational.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it regularly.
Girls Don’t Cry
What Qiouyi Lu does really well is make you think you understand fully what is going on and then turn everything around on you.
I got this when I was like, “yeah, when she’s uncomfortable she coughs up insects,” and then “other people do it too.” And I thought I was so smart…
Until she pointed out that it was only the girls that were struggling with it.
It was one of those subtle things where there was a scene where a man had one of these insects crawl over him but it was short and brushed past. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
You read this whole story focused on a woman trying to cover up the fact that she is uncomfortable around men when they act a certain way and then you notice that none of the men are struggling the same way. They voice their discomfort and that’s that.
I know this isn’t a focal point of the story but i also think is has a deliberate function within the story. And as someone who identifies as ace this is one of the few things in this story I can actually speak from experience about.
The scale of asexuality can get complicated but there are people who are repulsed by sexual acts. While the character in this story is never explicitly stated to identify that way, I do find it interesting to include such a character given the nature of the story’s themes.
There are different examples of how people interact with sexual acts and having a character who has no interest in them in contrast to the main character who feels like she has to participate in them creates a further dynamic that fleshes out the main character without having to devote a lot of words to doing it. Her interactions with her friend are enough.
I went into this story expecting it to be intense–and I’m not saying that it wasn’t–but I wasn’t expecting it to be as elegant about it as it was.
It was able to present this slightly magical-feeling world in a way that better reflected our real one than a story that was 100% realistic could.
There are still some things I wish it had spent more time with but that’s one of the limitations of short fiction–it’s, well, short. And yet I also feel as if spending too much time in this story would have been too much for me.