Books: Dear Laura by Gemma Amor

British author Gemma Amor first came to the horror community’s attention back in 2018, with her collection of short stories, Cruel Works of Nature. She also frequently writes for the NoSleep and Calling Darkness podcasts, and has published a couple more books in the last few years: a novel called White Pines and an illustrated short story collection titled Till the Score is Paid, which appears to be out of print. I actually read her 2021 novel Six Rooms not too long ago, and it was pretty good. But today we’ll be discussing her 2019 novella, Dear Laura, which is only the second thing I’ve ever read of hers.

The story is brief and straightforward, but covers almost an entire lifetime of the titular protagonist. And despite the relative simplicity of the story, the raw emotions and the lifelong trauma run deep.

When we first meet Laura, she is a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Her best friend is Bobby, who is two years older than her and who she’s known almost all her life. The pair are inseparable, and now that they’ve both reached their teenage years, new and awkward feelings are beginning to come to the fore. They decide to “go steady,” though neither of them really know what that means. Though this part of the story is very short, a great deal of their fumbling relationship is conveyed through very little text.

The first day that Laura and Bobby are an official couple also happens to be Laura’s birthday. She and Bobby are standing at the bus stop, hand in hand, not really speaking to one another, not really knowing how to behave.

And then, quite suddenly, a blue van pulls up not too far away. Laura can’t see who is driving it, though she gets the impression that it’s a very large man. Oddly, Bobby goes over to talk to the man in the van. He doesn’t seem to know the man, necessarily, but neither does he seem afraid of him.

Then, as Laura watches, Bobby walks around to the passenger side of the vehicle and climbs inside. Laura, shocked, tries to ask Bobby the unspoken question of what exactly he thinks he’s doing, but Bobby simply lowers his head and refuses to meet her eyes. The van drives away, and fifteen-year-old Bobby is never seen again.

Laura falls into a profound depression after this event, spurred largely by guilt, as she felt she could have prevented Bobby from going with the man if she had really wanted to. Bobby’s family, for their part, also low-key blame her for the disappearance, and Laura is too young to realize that she is absolutely not at fault.

And as if all of that isn’t bad enough, on Laura’s next birthday, a strange yellow envelope addressed to her slips through the letterbox. The letter writer, known only as X, claims to know where Bobby is, and that he will give her clues where to find him if she does some increasingly creepy “favors” for him.

The rest of the story proceeds in this way, with new letters arriving every birthday, and Laura becoming more and more beaten down and traumatized by the skin-crawling requests made of her by the letter writer, and the lack of any concrete evidence of where Bobby might be. I don’t want to spoil any more than that, but the story ends up spanning a very long time period and delving into the sick, symbiotic dependency that develops between Laura and X.

The tale, as I mentioned, is fairly direct, and clocks in at about 120 pages. The structure of it mostly alternates between the present day, as Laura is following one of X’s “clues,” and each birthday in the past, described in flashback. The final few pages then jump forward in time to wrap everything up, though a lot of questions are left unanswered.

All in all, this was a powerful, compelling read, and the spiraling despair of the main character was conveyed in a way that made the entire story feel really affecting, and as painful as the stab of an icepick to the heart. There were some minor grammatical mistakes that could have been corrected with another pass through an editor; for instance, there was a point where the word “hangar” was used instead of “hanger,” and “sceptic” instead of “septic.” There was also one place where Amor wrote that Laura had switched to day shifts on her job, but then a few paragraphs later, wrote that she was still on the night shift. But these were just small errors, and didn’t take me out of the story too much.

If you’re looking for a quick, psychologically fucked up read that’s also strangely poignant, then Dear Laura should do the trick. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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