REVIEW: Things Have Gotten Worse since We Last Spoke (2021)

I discovered Eric LaRocca’s most recent work, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, on TikTok. The clip was a list of the “most disturbing books” the creator had read. With a title like that (not to mention its unnerving cover art), I immediately looked up the nearest bookstore it was available and bought the sole copy.

It begins calmly enough, but very soon into reading, I understood how it made the list.

Source: Arrested Development

A novella of only 102 pages, it was easy to devour within a few days of purchase. It’s presented through a collection of instant messages and emails, exchanged between two lonely women who meet on a queer message board in 2000. The timeframe feels arbitrary since no current events are mentioned, but I assume LaRocca chose it since this was the heyday of chatrooms and internet forums.

The two women connect instantly after discussing the sale of an apple peeler before their dynamic rapidly evolves into a toxic game of dominance and limit-testing.

While I’m a sucker for the epistolary style, LaRocca’s voice is too literary for this format. I was willing to accept that the intelligent, manipulative character of Zoe has an eloquent writing style, but her submissive counterpart, Agnes, is articulate in a way that mirrors Zoe too perfectly. They each recount their days to one another as though they’re writing their MFA theses. LaRocca’s prose is lovely but it isn’t conducive to something as casual as IMing.

The plot is gripping—I found myself in a strange state between not wanting to stop reading while also having a difficult time wading through scenes that grew increasingly graphic and deranged. The brevity combined with the rapid pace made it feel like one quick nightmare I’d wake up from, soaked in sweat. Part of what makes psychological horror so effective is that it is grounded in reality, reminding us that humans can be monsters, too, and falling victim to them is plausible. After all, these things have to happen to somebody.

But the acceleration of events is too extreme to be believable. Chalking it up to just mental illness and desperation doesn’t do the characters justice. A slower burn that gives the two characters time to develop a more solid relationship would have benefited the story. With how quickly the situation changes, it comes across as LaRocca using the “U-Haul lesbian” trope with a horror twist.

The mental instability presented also comes from past traumas linked to coming out as gay. LaRocca (who uses both he and they pronouns) is a member of the LGBTQ community (as am I) and I think he’s well within his right to depict the experience of being rejected for a queer identity. However, we see a lot of stories across all genres that use this Master Narrative, and it would’ve been refreshing to read a horror story about two lesbian women whose traumas don’t stem almost exclusively from their sexuality.

LaRocca also weaves in a stereotypically negative take on BDSM. As someone who knows little about the inner workings of BDSM, I can only imagine how this is harmful to legitimate practitioners. If I wasn’t aware that the BDSM community strongly advocates for safe, consensual, and positive experiences, I could easily be convinced that BDSM is always an abusive enactment (much like its inaccurate depiction in Fifty Shades of Grey), and not isolated to this story.

Despite these flaws in Things Have Gotten Worse, I do plan to read LaRocca’s next work, The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales. He’s a compelling storywriter and I’d like to experience his visual style in a format that better serves it.

Readers who can stomach body horror and gore will likely enjoy the speeding of train of depravity that is Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. Some descriptions will stain your mind—so if you’re the type who finds Criminal Minds too intense, you should probably leave this novella on the shelf.

Copyright: Weirdpunk Books, 2021. Cover art by Kim Jakobsson; cover design by Ira Rat.


Trigger Warnings

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