Death, Plague, War, and Feminism: The Fourth Whore by E.V. Knight

The Fourth Whore cover

When Kenzi Brooks was seven years old, her brother Robbie died in a car accident. As well as the guilt of having failed to save him Kenzi is left with a distorted set of memories from the incident – memories that fully emerge only when she dreams of Robbie’s death being overseen by a man with a hood and hourglass, who was accompanied by a black bird and whose skin bore scribbled writing. According to her hazy memories, this “Scribble Man” gave Kenzi a lucky rabbit’s foot, an item that she still owns.

Now, Kenzi shall need all the luck she can find. She lives in a squalid apartment (“A rotting bouquet of piss, puke and cheap beer formed a nauseating stew of odors as if an entire fraternity joined the Heaven’s Gate cult and committed mass suicide months before being discovered”), pays her obnoxious landlord in sexual favours and scrapes a living together by dealing for a local heroin cartel. She owes a debt to the gang, but before she can make the payment her funds are stolen and burnt through by her drug-addicted mother.

When the cartel comes to collect, Kenzi’s world is destroyed. She survives the attack, barely, and ends up in hospital; this brush with death puts her back in contact with the Scribble Man. No imaginary friend, after all, it turns out that this figure is actually Sariel, the angel of Death – and with him comes the revelation that Kenzi is to play a part in an impending apocalypse.

The Fourth Whore

E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press
March 2020

The Fourth Whore cover

The Fourth Whore is the debut novel of E.V. Knight and winner of the 2021 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. According to its author, its point of inspiration was the Women’s March that that took place the day following Donald Trump’s inauguration. In her acknowledgments at the start of the book, she lists “those who marched beside me in Washington D.C. on that chilly January 21, 2017”:

I have never felt such strength or experienced the rush of so many standing together peacefully telling the world, that we would not back down or accept anything less than equality for all human beings. Thank you to every single man, woman, nonbinary, and child who marched either physically beside us or in spirit. You inspired this work, you inspired its message and while Lilith was born in November, Kenzi rose from the ashes in January.

In this feminist reworking of Christian eschatology, we meet the Four Whores of the Apocalypse: Conquest, Plague, War and Death. Conquest is Lilith herself, the fabled first wife of Adam, whose backstory allows EV Knight to riff on Genesis as well as Revelation. The novel retells the story of Lilith’s rebellion against God and Adam – framed, as per modern tradition, as a feminist revolt against patriarchy; Sariel, meanwhile, is cast (to Kenzi’s frustration) as an ambiguous figure in this saga. He aids Lilith at some points, even though this results in being given the role of Death as punishment; yet he also traps her in an amulet, where she becomes twisted by the world that she is forced to watch from captivity:

Trapped in the talisman, she could do nothing but evolve into the creature man and myth had made her. An example, a warning to women. Now she was a baby killer, a seductress, a demoness. And Sariel, the one she’d trusted, the one she’d come to love, allowed it. He did nothing to stop her vilification. […] She was mostly angry. Angry at The Creator, at Sariel, at every demon who tried to destroy her, and at man himself, Men who believed as Adam, who told her tale to their daughters and women—as well as women like Eve who would lie down and submit.

The whore of Plague is Daisy Fields, a dominatrix sex worker whose clients range from the lonely to the predatory – the former earning her pity, the latter something rather different (“Those men deserved to die, and Daisy found enjoyment in putting a stiletto through their skulls”). After being raped by Lilith, Daisy obtains a tattoo of vines stretching from her pelvic region; this is passed onto her clients in the form of a deadly STD, the vines becoming necrotic cracks that spread over the victims’ bodies.

War is represented by Cynthia Parris, whose visit from Lilith causes her to regain the memories and abilities of her ancestor Tituba, the slave who was accused of witchcraft at Salem. Adopting the new name of Melanie Pryor, she joins the pro-life movement and stages a false-flag attack by poisoning her fellow activists’ children (“their little minds had already been poisoned by their parents and were no longer salvageable”) and planting a bomb – atrocities that are blamed on pro-choicers (“The shrapnel spread would never reach the clinic across the street but should take care of the judgmental, God-worshipping hypocrites on this side”). She presents herself as the sole survivor of the atrocity and becomes a pro-life icon with connections to the Republican Party, but her interest in babies is not quite what the religious right has in mind.

Finally, we have Death. While Sariel is the incumbent Grim Reaper, Lilith desires to groom a protégé to replace him, and she has none other than Kenzi in mind for the part. Lilith, with her connotations of mother goddess, becomes a surrogate mother to the novel’s protagonist – although given the rebellious tendencies picked up by Kenzi during her hard life, it is rarely certain as to whether or not she will remain faithful to this parental deity

Once she ends up in Lilith’s plans, Kenzi is plunged into a world where the landscape of modern urban America blurs into a twisted version of Revelation. The general atmosphere is summed up by the scene where Cynthia becomes whore of War:

The patient spoke, but the sound came from all around and within her. “And I heard a mass of living cells say ‘come and see.’ A rod, fiery red, was plunged inside. And it was granted to the one who sat before it to take peace from the earth, and that people should first judge and then kill one another; and there was given to her a voice to speak death to the masses.”

Spreading like warm tea through her body, Lilith’s hate-filled essence thinned into microscopic threads that slid easily between first cells and then molecules forming the cell walls. The sensation—as if an embroidery needle was working itself inside her—was not unpleasant, but foreign nonetheless. Filaments wove themselves around Cynthia’s DNA like a caduceus, inserting bits of Lily’s memories and awakening ancient occult knowledge within the doctor. The experience was profoundly erotic but not in a pornographic way. Instead, the mixing of two bodies was more instinctual and ritualistic.

The story establishes that as well as four whores, there are seven demons embodying the deadly sins – although not all of them are given roles within the narrative. Belphegor, demon of sloth, is incarnated as a Mountain Dew-chugging gamer. Asmodeus, demon of lust, presides over a neon-lit sex club that Lilith dubs “an adults’ version of Disney World”. Beelzebub, demon of gluttony, has gone through rather less of a modernisation process and is depicted as per Collin de Plancy as a grotesque fly-monster. Most significant of the group is, of course, Lucifer – demon of pride – who acts as Lilith’s male counterpart throughout the novel.

The various plot twists that entwine into The Fourth Whore exist at different levels of complexity. Some are comparatively static, with much of Kenzi’s character arc taking place when she is bedridden in hospital and acting as a passive receptacle for Lilith and Sariel’s backstory. Elsewhere, chapter after chapter stumbles over one another to push the plot forward, as when we when teenage thrill-seekers Annika, Jessica, Beth, and Lauryn are introduced towards the end only to become sacrifices for Lilith’s whores. The novel sometimes falls back on a literal-minded variety of urban fantasy as characters spell out the minutiae of magical workings (“It must be your own blood, sacrificed by you, followed by blood taken from an enemy”) but more often than not, it puts the rich symbolism of its subject matter to interesting use.

A feminist version of world history is embedded into The Fourth Whore, often articulated bluntly via Lilith. “That is the problem with women like you,” she says in one scene. “You think you have no authority; you think it’s a show, a game to be played. This world has not evolved in favour of women’s minds and influence and that is why I must decide it.” The novel’s overview of history begins with Eden and progresses on to Salem and other witch-trials, when women were killed – according to Lilith – “[b]ecause they were forward thinkers, because they believed they were just as smart as men and had just as much to offer”.

Finally, we arrive in the era of President Trump, who is included as a character in the novel. After Cynthia stages her false-flag attack on the anti-abortion protesters, Trump appears on a television broadcast blaming left-wing agitators for the atrocity: “we have some very, very bad people on the left. I don’t have to tell you how many ugly protests, and trust me, they were not the peaceful protests the fake news reports, OK? I’ve seen the footage, OK? I’m talking some evil, satanic stuff here. Baby killers, child molesters, rapists – that kind of people.” His response to the atrocity is to call for national registries and martial law.

The novel’s portrayal of a history-spanning battle of the sexes is not especially subtle, but bear in mind that we are seeing the subject through the eyes of Lilith. As the author’s introduction makes plain, Lilith embodies destructive anger arising at the tail-end of 2016, while the character of Kenzi represents a more constructive (if, perhaps, less assured) spirit born in the new year.

In contrast to Lilith’s misandry, Kenzi starts a relationship with Henry Patel, a doctor who takes care of her during her time in hospital; this romance comes to encapsulate a potential change for the better. She first becomes aware of Henry while in a state of confusion (“He wasn’t grabbing at her tits or pussy, so that ruled out most of the men she knew”) but over time he comes to replace Sariel as the chief figure of masculine reassurance in her life. Of course, as The Fourth Whore is first and foremost a horror novel, even its tender moments have their twisted aspect, and the romance between Kenzi and Henry borders on the necrophilic:

Heat creeped through Kenzi’s pelvis as Henry slipped the IV cannula easily into the girl’s vein and the fluid poured into her. She held the flashlight and her breath when he probed the stomach wound in his carefully placed surgeon’s gloves. She watched in awe as his fingers gently assessed the damage done. She was a total freak for getting aroused watching him work like that. She knew it, but it couldn’t be helped, her body had a mind of its own.

The Fourth Whore is a novel that never stops to rest. Knight introduces a love story, only to pervert it; sets up a gritty crime saga, only to insert high-flying fantasy; and settles into forthright Trump-era political commentary, only to switch back to a story about a cursed woman spreading an apocalyptic STD across the globe.

The constant quick-changes can become overwhelming, and an insufficiently attentive reader could easily lose track of the twisted narrative. But for a reader who prefers their dark fantasy to be in touch with reality, who like their nightmarish dreamscapes to have an underpinning of emotional rawness, The Fourth Whore is a novel with the potential to truly stick in the mind.

Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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