Books: Petrified Women by Jeremy Ray

Jeremy Ray is an author I hadn’t encountered before; according to his bio, he’s found success as a playwright and with a few of his screenplays, but his first love is short prose. He’s not exclusively a horror writer, as he likes to hop genres, but his 2021 novella Petrified Women is undoubtedly a horror story, and one that packs a hell of a wallop into its 92 pages.

In it, we’re following a young woman named Harley, who has had some really unfortunate luck with men throughout her life. All of her prior boyfriends have sucked in one way or another, and one of them, Christopher, even sexually assaulted her, an event which still severely traumatizes her, largely because she blames herself for freezing up and not doing anything to stop it. This heartbreaking self-doubt that Harley constantly feels, and her fervent wish to rewrite the past, is excellently conveyed, and gives a real depth to Harley’s character, making the reader feel an immediate empathy with her.

She’s convinced that her current boyfriend Aiden is different, though. He’s so sweet and supportive; nothing like those other losers she’s dated. Harley’s best friend, a psychotherapist named Shelly, doesn’t like Aiden and sees nothing but red flags, but Harley is evidently so desperate to pick a keeper—if only to prove to herself that she’s not irreparably broken—that she downplays or sugarcoats all of his odd behavior.

Some of said odd behavior revolves around his artwork. Nothing odd about being an artist, of course, but Aiden’s sculptures are a bit strange. He carves very realistic, life-size sculptures of women out of wood, and the women are inevitably portrayed in poses of sadness, supplication, or distress. Harley thought they were creepy at first, but soon developed an affinity with them, calling them by name and talking to them as if they were alive.

On its own, the weird art wouldn’t amount to much, but the much more alarming aspect of Aiden’s character is his love of pulling elaborate—and sometimes downright cruel—pranks on Harley. These aren’t the run-of-the-mill, jumping-out-and-saying-boo pranks either, but are more along the lines of tampering with a test to make Harley think she’s pregnant; paying a friend to dress up as Bigfoot and haul Harley out of the tent on a camping trip; and faking an altercation with a waiter and pretending to get stabbed to death. These pranks cause Harley a great deal of anxiety and sometimes trigger PTSD flashbacks to her rape, but because Aiden is so “perfect” otherwise, she assures herself that this is just the way he expresses affection. She even tries to get into the act herself, attempting a few pranks of her own, and tells Shelly that pulling these vicious “jokes” on one another is simply their “love language.”

The entirety of the story, in fact, centers on Harley trying to stage the mother of all pranks on Aiden, to celebrate his birthday. Unbeknownst to him, she previously swiped his apartment key and made a copy of it before returning it to him. While he’s out, she lets herself into his place, planning to dress up like a scary prowler—complete with fake muscles and pantyhose over her face—and pop out of his bedroom closet with a terrifying roar. She’s even brought balloons and an ice cream cake to enjoy after the successful scare.

The first part of the plan goes swimmingly, and Harley is installed in the closet, waiting impatiently for Aiden’s arrival. But as you might imagine, when Aiden does get home, he isn’t alone, and Harley sees a completely different side of him than the one she’s used to. The rest of the story plays out as a sort of cat-and-mouse game, and Aiden’s previous history of pranking comes into play, as neither Harley nor the reader is entirely sure what’s real and what’s not.

Just a heads-up: if you’re bothered by stories about sexual assault, there is a warning at the beginning of the novella, but as the author is also a sexual assault survivor, the descriptions in the book are tasteful, insightful, and sensitively portrayed, and not all that graphic.

This was a great, impactful story, structured like a really good episode of a suspenseful, thriller-type TV show. Its limited scope and handful of characters gave it a real intimacy, and the persistent doubt about the reality of events really increased the anxiety factor. It starts out more as a thriller, as I mentioned, as Harley waits in the closet and remembers the escalating pranks that Aiden has pulled on her in the past, but then when Aiden comes back home, it hits the gas and goes speeding into full-on horror territory. It’s very well-paced, and because it’s so short, it can be read in one breathless sitting, which is the way I’d advise you read it. I’ll definitely be reading more of Jeremy Ray’s stuff in the future (I’ve heard a lot of good things about his contemporary fiction short story “The House Plant,” for example), but for now, this one is a definite recommend, especially for the spooky fall season.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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