Published in 2014 by Sinister Grin Press, The Myth of Falling is both Charlee Jacob’s final collection of short stories and the single most personal work in her bibliography. In most of her collections, save for Up, Out of Cities that Blow Hot and Cold with its brief introductions for each story, Jacob allowed her fiction to speak for itself; in The Myth of Falling, however, the stories are joined by essays in which the author discusses her personal experiences and her philosophy on writing.
For anyone who missed Jacob during her absence – aside from a contribution to the 2012 poetry anthology Four Elements, her last significant publication had been in 2007 – The Myth of Falling must have served as a welcome return visit to her imagination. Her recurring themes are present and correct, including her fascination with the monstrous. We can see this in the graphic rendition of vampire sexuality in “Raising the Undead”, or the invocation of Halloween’s death-carnival in “Red Crackle Lovers”, not to mention the sundry ghosts that flit through the book’s pages: “The Barren” depicts a pregnant woman haunted by the ghost of her unborn child, while “Jasmine” illustrates the mental breakdown of a man who murders his wife and is visited by her spirit, to cite just two examples.
Some of the stories are unusual for Jacob. “Driftwood”, about a man arranging to have his wife recreated through technology, is one of her sparse forays into science fiction, for one. Then again, other stories are striking in how they share very specific motifs with Jacob’s past work: “Infinite Cain”, about a pervert who tattoos images of atrocities into children’s skin and is subsequently sentenced to walk the country with his body bearing the names of his victims, has a central image closely recalling the tattooed protagonists of “The Woman in Red” and Still.
On the whole, the stories in The Myth of Falling are shorter than those of Jacob’s earlier collections, and consequently their themes are stronger, denser in concentration. Concepts and emotions that had previously been background noise in her work are now amplified to screaming pitch, the most notable being the depictions of paralysis and captivity that permeate the collection. One of the first cases is “Necromania Sexualis”, a story written from the perspective of a protagonist who was viewed as a “diminutive freak” since childhood and kept caged in the street: “I became the subject of much sermonizing during the day. At night the preacher and deacons had different lessons to teach. No decent woman claimed me as hers.”
This is followed by more stories along similar lines. “Going Home” is about a soldier who loses all four limbs in combat and, in hospital, has nightmares of being tortured by interrogators. “R.E.M.” is written from the perspective of a woman who was raped and decapitated, yet remains conscious despite losing her body. In “Firefly” a murderer traps insects in jars while reminiscing about a woman he once treated in a similar fashion. “The Loneliness of the Underground Traveller” is the story of a woman whose abuser keeps her chained to the bathroom door; she escapes through death and enters a carnivalesque world of jubilant skeletons.
The theme of confinement and immobility extends beyond the collection’s stories and into Jacob’s non-fiction pieces, where the author discusses her physical disabilities.
She explains that her hiatus in writing that preceded the book was the result of her condition: “Every poem and story I manage to complete now is a miracle of concentration and muscle control”, she says. But while her health problems had reached an extreme, they were not new. “I have suffered occasional difficulty with speech and memory for decades. This surfaced several times at conventions – during panels when my ability to talk sensibly suddenly fell apart, making me feel pretty stupid. I would be unable to recognize people I’d met only five minutes before. I couldn’t explain my work to prospective publishers.” This continued to derail her career as an author until she received a new diagnosis:
I retreated into myself. As this is a progressively debilitating problem, I seldom appear in public now. I can’t travel even short distances without the pain increasing all too often beyond endurance. I can no longer sit at a desk and the shaking fingers on the computer’s keyboard is a mess not to be easily deciphered. It wasn’t until a new diagnosis in 2004 (or 2003?) that I finally knew there were organic causes for my misery, not just (just?!) the abuse.
The abuse referred to here is another recurring topic in the book’s essays. “I’ve had a doctor and a homicide detective tell me that my dysfunctional family was the worst they had ever heard of”, says Jacob, who avoids dwelling on the subject in detail:
I learned early that I would never be prom queen. With an accused pederast for a father, the reincarnation of a burned witch for a mother, and an older brother… I am insufficiently healed to venture revealing more… my life choices were likely to be few and barbaric.
Instead, Jacob processes her traumatic memories through creativity. Often they form into surreal dream-images:
In hypnagogic, half asleep/half awake, God enters my room and sits on the edge of my bed. Satan crawls from the closet and squats on my chest until I begin to suffocate. My mother’s spirit stands mutely by the doorway, left hand clenched, keeping prisoner the thunder that lightning died giving birth to. In her eyes are dolls of my father and brother.
This material sometimes takes the form of stream-of-consciousness wordplay:
Cradle statistics: should have been too tender of years to remember but chalk it up to the phantom limbs of Post Traumatic Stress. Visions in indigo of the woolly AND the Bully and the bombs in the belly of the bully… the vampire under the bed AND the skinny/pimpled/yet sharply-fanged brother wolf who waited in my closet with a sweaty naked body awaiting his opportunity for bloody cuddles. Floggings at home and stonings in the schoolyard.
Above all, Jacob confronts child abuse through fiction, depicting the topic with dismaying variety. “Man of Letters” is about a woman with a BDSM kink subjecting her son to fetishized punishments in response to some perceived transgression. “Yellow” charts the strained relationship between a mixed-race girl and her bigoted, unloving mother. “Slumber” is about a man who abducts and drugs children to give them nightmares: come the trial, the nightmares bleed into reality. “The Hunter” involves the aftermath of a deformed boy being shot dead by a deer-hunter.’
The theme of the abused child often blurs into the motif of the ghost – as in “Sunset”, a story narrated by a dead boy. At first, we learn, he merely played dead as a way of disassociating himself from the abuse carried out by his kidnapper. But now he truly is dead, and buried near a river, yet somehow still able to describe the wildlife that exists above his resting place (“Ducks have built nests over me three years running”). Towards the end of the story he wishes that ghosts were real, as he would then be able to finally reveal the location of his forgotten grave.
Another theme that has clearly fascinated Jacob throughout her career is that of reflections; this, too, plays a part in her explorations of traumatic childhoods. In “Away From the Radiant, Down Among the Blind” FBI agents searching for a missing child are hampered by the fact that the boy’s mother has no photographs of her son: “A picture is a mirror, reflecting an image which may erupt in self-destructive narcissism”, she explains, adding that this is “unhealthy for a developing psyche”.
In some cases the book’s depictions of abuse and its psychological effects are chilling in their believability, as in the opening paragraph to “360”:
Ester sat on the floor, slowly banging the back of her head against the wall. Every Sunday she sat a few inches down from where she’d been the previous Sunday. The dents in the drywall showed around the room, creating a sort of growth chart—for the inhibited type—marking a history of her abuse.
In other cases the topic is handled in more symbolic terms. “Seizure” is about an elderly and implicitly senile woman who comes across a little girl described as being buried up to her waist in the earth – although, given the references to blood around her body, she could be interpreted as having been bisected, the story’s dream-logic conflating the two states. Adding to the disturbing nature of the scene is the girl’s unperturbed attitude towards her situation, as though abuse is something she has come to accept: “Lots of grownups, ‘specially old folks like you, come here a’peekin’”. In another example of dream logic, the story portrays the girl’s half-formed state as somehow indecent, the lack of anything below her waist being equated with a lack of clothing below the waist.
While Jacob’s dreamlike symbolism is comparatively easy to parse in “Seizure”, it becomes more distorted in other stories, giving the impression that we are reading a screen memory arising from some childhood ordeal. This is the case with “Half-Life”, which depicts a postwar period where recollections of the Holocaust and fear of nuclear winter flow beneath the clean, shiny exterior of Baby Boomer America. Similar in tone is “The Pitch”, a genuinely bizarre story even by Jacob’s standards: it shows a class of schoolchildren watching as a man outside performs a macabre ritual involving severed fingers; this causes ghosts to float down from the clouds, pleading for mercy.
Adults as well as children are abused in the pages of The Myth of Falling. As she returns time and time again to the theme, Jacob shows herself to be interested less in the act of abuse than in the psychology of both victim and perpetrator. “Swallows” charts the warping of a man’s mind as he devours imagery of sex and death over the Internet – something of an oddity in Jacob’s work, which typically harks back to a pre-Web era when transgressive material was not quite so easy to access. It is also comparatively straightforward for a Charlee Jacob story; the same can be said of “One Night, Reaching for Bottom”, a short piece written from the perspective of a rapist as he falls into a trap set by the authorities.
The abused adults in The Myth of Falling tend to be female. The same observation, of course, can be made of a large amount of horror fiction, a topic Jacob touches upon in one of her essays. “The device of woman as victim may be a perpetuation of society’s misogyny, purely deviant, often written by and for men”, she says. ”It might also be personally totemic, especially if the writer is female, the signature of cries for help that were never answered, delivered in a form even more radical than that composed by the male.”
Jacob’s examinations of society’s underbelly sometimes segue from the symbolic to the mythic, as seen in the opening lines of “Dance Macabre”: “A muse of music is found murdered and raped, pathologist says ‘in that order’, beside a lonely road not far from Nashville. Her murder is discovered on a cassette. The morbid underground purveyors of porn eventually find a way to steal it.” Indeed, Jacob finds enough poetic inspiration in abuse and degradation to describe seemingly every aspect of humanity and nature. A memorable line in “Red Crackle Lovers” sums up this peculiar gift of hers: “Dawn shattered like a glass hymen, light horrible in vivid roentgen rape.”
Healthy, fulfilling relationships are alien to The Myth of Falling. Even when the collection portrays a romance without abuse, the tone is cynical and the results grotesque. This is summed up by “A Chimera of Connection”, in which a loving couple physically merges into a single conjoined entity:
People laughed at first. Until they saw some of our entwined veins of gelid icy leaking blood. They immediately perceived a clear and present danger. This situation of ours would soon vent upon sudden love a very sinister reputation. The industries of chocolate, florists, condoms, and New Age greeting card troubadours would belly-flop.
As atrocity after atrocity piles up throughout The Myth of Falling, Jacob is prepared to answer the question that shall inevitably be asked of her, as it is asked of almost every horror author: why write about such subjects? The appeal of horror, to readers and writers alike, is something that Jacob spends much time pondering in her essays.
“It’s just to me, horror is horrible”, explains Jacob. “It’s unsanitized and unsuitable for the sensitively insular. At it most reflective, it is entirely too off the wall. Psychic exhibitionism and clinical perversion… my sanity in the crosshairs.” In another essay, she makes a similar statement in still more succinct terms: “To read anyone’s sincerely written horror is to view secret manifestos.”
Media horror, Jacob argues, is ubiquitous, extending well beyond the confines of any genre label. “[I]nnocence—or the violent loss of it—has never been more openly marketable,” she observes, “judging by how many forensics and true crime programs are successful on television, and how the media picks out every ounce of marrow and no-tomorrow from the latest of the current and nanosecond outrages.” She speaks with insight about the broad appeal of the macabre and the transgressive:
We think our strongest emotion is love… or hate. I counter that it’s an obsession with suspense—from the fear of the daily grind’s sudden and violent termination of an innocent bystander to night’s fully lustful promise of the great cosmic blowout. This may be the source of its greatest attraction: vicarious annihilation, subversively experienced, then discarded (insofar as its concerns for the consciousness). We expel and exorcise some of our own demons by sampling those of other eclipsed hardcases.
Yet at the same time, she also discusses just how deeply personal a horror writer’s relationship with their subject matter can be:
When it comes to writing, nothing brings out stronger emotions than extreme horror. To write on subjects of rape and child abuse is, at least in my case, to dredge up the worst things of which I am too personally familiar. I don’t intend to exploit broken bodies or shattered souls. This work depresses me, forcing me to re-experience that which I’ve fought so hard to put behind me. But memories have a way of not letting you hide then, for they possess an unsuitable autonomy. You can face them, as it is generally better to face your fears in order to conquer them. To create a cathartic path through to bridge the nightmares with… or you can live in denial, and through a rigidly puritanical delusion, cause other victims to undergo more suffering.
This “puritanical delusion” is a concept that turns up repeatedly in the book, with Jacob presenting repression – often religious repression – as the chief opponent of horror and the liberation that can come with it. “Some of us are dawn to the red-eyed traumatic because, simply put, we can’t help it. As the throwaways we one were and are, it’s always been with us”, she says. “But the rest? If they claim they never had it, it’s due to having been repressed like all good Puritans, hiding their terror of secret ancient gods who hold the keys to damnation.” Sometimes the figure of the puritan is used by Jacob as a general stand-in for the censor (“Censorship is meant to slow you down so they can catch up”). Other times, it is used specifically to comment on organised religion:
Fuck early Christians who molested the Messiah’s memory and His offer of salvation.
Fuck the snarling of contentious disciples.
Fuck those who built stinking dungeons, filled them mostly with terrified females, then erected their personal stairways to heaven on heaps of burned bones.
Fuck the intrigue of religions caught between outlining constitutions of ever-changing displays of piety and their own debaucheries. If the priests at the top had faith in anything, it was that life was finite and redemption a sham.
Fuck the Puritanical and Tyrannical for refusing every human heart to be its own church.
Fuck every organized religion that hides the crimes of its associated racists and pederasts.
Fuck the mediocre who conceal their weaknesses ‘caput mortuum’ while submitting our names to the current inquisition.
Religion is also one of the main recurring themes across the stories in The Myth of Falling. An early passage from “Damnation in Aspic” captures Jacob’s general attitude towards ecclesiastical authority: “I dipped pearls up the Bishop’s ambergris ass as he stood on his balcony, jerking himself off to the spectacle of an unfortunate woman (whose baby had arrived with teeth and a tail) being burned at the stake… along with the unfortunate infant.
This is another scene which, by Jacob’s standards, is positively conventional. The atrocities of witch-hunters and inquisitors, along with the personal vices that inspired them, have long been favourite topics for horror fiction. More typical of Jacob’s mode is “The Eighth Day”, a raw portrayal of an abused woman’s religion-tinged self-loathing:
The stench of him, of Tess’s new stains needed a purse, already having sucked off the scourge as the dirge hissed its susurrus kisses. A face in shadow melted the memory scares she never saw coming. That nameless lover’s tongue a tribunal of Judgment more than adoration by one ignition in the Cult of Male. Concise ambiguity dissected his affection… when did God cease to love the world?
The Myth of Falling associates religion with predation: sometimes abuse occurs in the absence of spirituality, while other times the two concepts blur together entirely. “When I was very young I wanted to grow up to be a preacher”, says the female protagonist of “Nurture”. “Then all I wanted was to destroy – as I had been destroyed.” In “The Exhibitionist” an audience of men gather to watch a woman masturbate at a disused church (“the building had long ago been abandoned – as had she”). “The White Hounds”, a graphic description of a woman being gang-raped, invokes religious imagery as the attackers pass around their victim’s shredded underwear “like a communion wafer to be defiled”; the story ends with the mutilated woman rising as a goddess-figure, driving away the predatory men.
Jacob often conflates the religious motifs of priests, angels and saviours with abusive parents and lovers. “The Seeker’s Spells: Two Parts” pours scorn upon “Messiahs with sunken eyes and dripping yellow ochre skin, urging you to wilt in their reeking arms, after that bumping hump of last resort-penance across the jellied K-Y sky.” It then goes on to offer some distinctly unorthodox religious advice: “To see if you will find salvation, sit in a triangle of surgical dumpster waste, your asshole corked with the plucked eye of a defrocked priest.”
“360” is set in an abusive household that includes a woman named Ester, her suicidal daughter and her self-harming granddaughter, and again uses religious symbolism. Ester’s parental figures are cast as supernatural beings, Mother Time and Father Archangel, while her son-in-law is similarly described as an angel. Jacob lends disturbingly phallic connotations to the imagery of angel wings, again suggesting a trauma-induced screen memory (“No wings, no desire – or so she hoped – for tiny gifts of dutiful daughters’ flesh.”)
In Jacob’s fiction, false messiahs sometimes run afoul of the genuine article. “Pursuits in Iconic Jasper” is the saga of “a priest hung like a donkey with the appetite of an incubus” who abuses multiple victims, one of whom becomes pregnant; the priest arranges for a partial birth abortion but this is botched, leaving the child to grow up disfigured. He eventually receives his just desserts when he is chased into a dead-end alleyway and turns around to see just who is pursuing him: ”Father George knew from the burning expression that Jesus was pissed.”
The overall impression is that Jacob is more at home with devils than with angels. Her prose poetry dwells on such topics as the bodily deterioration of a goddess (“Cognoscente”) or the graphic sex acts performed in the names of Satan, Set and Cthulhu (“Diabola”), while “Lilies, West of Babylon” imagines sex between weird deities prior to the construction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But as unorthodox and impious as it may be, Jacob’s philosophy is not necessarily anti-spiritual. For one, she acknowledges the role of the horrific within religion: “If you can’t believe in the bizarre, adore it – the way of every death cult obsessed with a bleeding martyr.” She also discusses a spiritual dimension to her writing:
Well, a mystic is never a conformist but some are definitely exhibitionists. Much of horror is about the soul, dealing with what’s hidden, the definition of the word ‘occult’. It is obsessive on the subject of death… the soul in all its grace and conniption fits. Concealed things, strange and unknown, that people pretend they don’t want to see yet can’t keep their eyes from.
Indeed, as with many occult-minded authors of fiction, Jacob makes a case for the writing of a story as a form of magic in itself:
The working of the story’s opposition represents the final eschatological chapters of mankind—no matter how mundane or general the narrative. It is an occult insurrection, perdition unlimited. In the first appearance of the villains or non-human source of conflict, we introduce the Apocalypse, finally attempting to tame its derangement until the plot’s anti-christ is leashed before the anti-climax… an exultation after the event.
Working her own dark-magic, Jacob freely experiments with form and format throughout the book. Often she does so through extreme brevity: she probes her recurring themes in spaces as confined as the ones inhabited by so many of her characters. The one-page “Making Demands” is another of the book’s ghost-lover narratives; “Song of the Black Orchid” plays with personification (“I am as deaths collected in the mouth of a cat”); and “The Eye” is made up of scattered fragments alluding to lycanthropy, sexual abuse and religion. Spiritual matters are prominent in the book’s flash pieces, as with the meditation upon depictions of Christ’s crucifixion in “Exalt”. “In Abruptus Moribundus” is a single paragraph comprising a stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence about sudden death, anal violation and the Biblical images of Cain and Gomorrah.
“The Nether Network” is shorter still, being a single-line evocation of bodily functions and blasphemy: “Vomit junkie goth hunger ass-crack sweat-scab pimple picking squeezing red wet-dream God says ‘Who cares?’ bleeding gums zipper fly vein dealer soul stealer Satan says ‘Live Forever’ dirt sleep dark crawl heart-geek redemption’s price got receipt?” Another run-on sentence story is “Existence”, which lasts for just over one page and contains such images as “a witch self-righteous damned by their own bible for their narcissistic blessings” and “breast-ripper holes burn scars doing intricate dances in the garden after what used to be called vespers”. The four-page “Another Attempt at Recognition Fails” is longer but written along similar lines, the topic this time being television violence:
Drifter carve-ups, hoes and plaid treadmarks, domestic disturbances, anatomy’s late supper, under-aged necrophilia distorted dollhouses. Commercial beak question: what if there’s no such thing as DNA? What if Hollywood made it all up? Our team investigates. Starts next Thursday on Inquisition T.V.! Watch it or we’ll kill you. We know where you live. Return now to ‘Bloodiest gross-outs on Cop Cam!’
Another of the experimental traits in Jacob’s writing is her willingness to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction: the latter is not confined to the six numbered essays. “Portraits” is a set of quotations from or about the Marquis de Sade. “The Mysteries” opens by describing the censorship of Charles Baudelaire, before going on to analyse the motif of the monstrous feminine (“she is the mother pf psycho Ed Gein, the ghost of a murdered and vengeful Marilyn Monroe, the dream’s shocking revelation of Marilyn Manson”) and finally segueing into a second-person narrative. The three-paragraph “Ripped from the Diary” comes across as an account of the author’s physical disabilities as filtered through dream-imagery: “I came to the dance, my bandaged feet unable to move through the ballroom.”
As well as the title of the book itself, The Myth of Falling is the name of both the first story and the first essay in the collection. The former neatly encapsulates the main themes of the collection, depicting a serial killer who offers a pious prayer for salvation before going to bed and becoming trapped in a guilt-induced nightmare. The latter, meanwhile, is one of Jacob’s meditations upon horror, concluding in symbolic terms:
The myth of falling is this: if you dream of falling, and you go all the way to the bottom, you will die. For the bottom is where no more lies will hold you up. Realization is a certainty. Or is this a bigger conceit. At any rate, so we struggle to wake up before calamity, finding ourselves in bed. A primitive candle is our only talisman against the darkness, our anchor against the plunge. Each of us is a candle, flickering a grotesque shadow that stumbles, leaps, drops like the stone of sin.
Charlee Jacob passed away five years after The Myth of Falling was published. It was not her final book – the novels Season of the Witch (2016) and Containment: The Death of Earth (2017) were to follow – but it nonetheless has an air of closure about it, serving as epitaph as much as a comeback. It seems only appropriate, then, to finish by quoting from Jacob’s own afterword:
When I first began writing the pieces in this collection—a few yeas ago—I was getting very sick. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, couldn’t remain still. As if some Leviathan-sticky, liver-skinned, peeled-penis demon held me in a vise grip, breath of spoiled peaches and cackling centipede larvae in my face, shaking me and shaking me. I couldn’t sit up to use a computer—my fingers only stuttered across the keys anyway. My handwriting turned into melted Sanskrit. I began to see ‘things’.
By the time I was finally diagnosed with the Dementia form of Parkinson’s Disease, I was pretty far along.
There’s so much more to wait for.