Like Joyce Carol Oates’ The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, the first story of Robert P. Ottone’s dark fiction collection is the title’s novella. In it, Shoshanna, a Brooklyn schoolteacher having a difficult time making ends meet, lands a position as a private tutor for Royce, a teenaged social media influencer. The job thrusts Shoshanna into the front and center of Royce’s life, and soon, the twenty-something is frequenting the clubs, going on vacation, and palling around with her famous ward. When Shoshanna witnesses a strange and disturbing encounter on a boat trip, she shrugs it off as a bad dream until the online titan’s lack of boundaries begins to consume her bit by bit. “Her Infernal Name” is an effective allegory of how social media, and FOMO in particular, can devour us, forcing us to the brink of self-destruction. (Bonus points for some creepy imagery akin to the best parts of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby!)
I am familiar with Ottone’s other short fiction: one of his greatest strengths is this ability to pull powerful metaphors out of nightmarish horror yarns. Another is his skill in building ominosity in seemingly safe settings, whether it be a Midtown office building or a mountain cabin. Because of that, his psychological horror is especially powerful. Her Infernal has plenty of that, plus a potluck of every other subgenre of dark fiction, from bizarro to sci-fi terror. One of the first stories in the book, “Elevator of the Dead,” provides a fun spin on the zombie trope when a legal assistant leaves the office for the day only to encounter the claustrophobia of his workplace’s elevator as the newly animated deceased swarm the upper floors. In “The Arborist,” Cleo lives and breathes trees: she even dreams of them. This story reminds me of a serious-toned version of Stephen King’s “Weeds” but with a much smarter (and sympathetic) protagonist and a more sensual enveloping of the foliage (which somehow, makes it all the more disturbing).
My two favorites in the collection, “The Nebulous They” and “Apple Valley,” are classic examples of where Ottone really shines. Each tale bewitches the reader with a well-crafted main character, then straps the reader in for a hellish hayride into terror. In the former, a police officer named Blatty questions a man suspected of being a big city serial killer, but when the man begins prophesizing of a mysterious “They” who are due to arrive, the needle on the creep factor jumps into the red. The latter follows Gart, a life insurance salesman whose house call to a retired therapist’s mountaintop manor turns surreal and spooky after he accidentally falls asleep on the owner’s couch. To provide any more detail would spoil the ending, but I assure you: it’s one that sends chills up the spine.
The book closes with a handful of unusual ditties, including a heartfelt “The Final Goodbye”: Bradley Ellis’s father, Bart, is dead, so when Bradley receives in the mail a traffic ticket with a photograph of his late father behind the wheel, wearing his burial attire, he jumps at the opportunity to see the parent he lost one last time. My only complaint with Her Infernal is that there are a few stories with worlds I wish I could have visited longer. An example of one would be “Panels,” which features Mack, a solar panel installer, and his encounter with a strange customer whose Achilles’ heel is, ironically, the sun. Perhaps Ottone will revisit some of these tales one day and expand one or two into a novel? One can only hope.