Whenever I sit down to read a book by Aaron Dries, I do my best to mentally prepare for what horrors I think the author might have in store for me. It’s never worked. Not once. Not even a little. Dries is an author who zigs when I expect him to zag. He skims the surface of the obvious evil/horror, rarely using it as more than a tease, only to plunge the reader headfirst into an unexpected circumstance that’s so much worse. He is a master storyteller, and Cut to Care: A Collection of Little Hurts, his new collection of short stories is no exception.
In a way, it’s the perfect title. Each story is carefully crafted; each story cuts deep. Dries rarely writes supernatural stories. His horrors come from and live in the real world. His novella Dirty Heads is a notable exception, and here he dips his toe occasionally, often pairing supernatural thrills with body horror chills that are simultaneously compelling and disturbing.
Though I rarely do so with collections, I feel the need to break down/review each of the author’s stories here. It feels like the only way to do the work justice and to give you an idea of what you’ll find inside its covers.
Cut to Care begins with “Damage, Inc.” a story that centers on a young woman who works as a sort of living grief doll. Kaylee spends her days donning costumes and wigs to spend time with clients who have experienced profound loss. She becomes the object of their grief, eases opens their badly-healed emotional wounds, and allows them to say what they never said to find closure. The job tears at her. Every client opens her own scars, but she’s unable to give herself what she so readily and exhaustingly gives to others.
Still, she manages to stick to the treatment plan, so to speak, until she meets a wealthy family who might need her just a bit too much. Dries reaches into the very heart of grief, mining the essential horror of loss in a way that is both gripping and terrifying, leaving an ending just ambiguous enough to fully embody his subject. Some wounds never fully heal; some aren’t meant to. Some ache years after the initial hurt as a reminder and a lesson that we’ve survived.
“Cut to Care” is what could only be considered a sort of horror parable, a simple story with a nugget of truth at its center. A young man is out for a morning run when he encounters an old man asking for change. He gives it, and smiles as he jogs away. At the next corner, he encounters a woman wrapped in a blanket without a shirt. Despite the chill of winter, he gives up his own. He has a home to go to after all. He’ll eventually be warm and there’s a certain glow he feels in giving of himself. Dries seems to be asking “Is it okay to feel good about yourself by helping others? When do we cross the line from altruism to something less honorable?” The answer, of course, is chilling in the hands of the author who crafts a somehow brutally sunny ending.
It’s hard to know what to make of “Tallow Maker, Tallow Made.” Upon first reading it, it rather jumps off the page as a skin-crawling body horror story. A second read, however, takes you much deeper. Again, we are confronted with grief as a young woman desperately tries to come to terms with her father’s hanging after it was discovered he murdered three men. Here, though, she fully succumbs to that grief, allows herself to be changed by it. It was, for me, the second most stomach-turning story in the collection. The author’s knack for description is on full display here. If you have a weak constitution, I can only suggest preparing for the best worst ride of your life.
“Nona Doesn’t Dance”… In a future where the world is covered in toxic smog, and no one has seen the stars in more years than they could count, a family packs up to visit their matriarch at the rest home where she “lives.” That’s all I can tell you plot-wise about this story. Best you find out what happens on your own. Dries spent years working in nursing homes, and this seems to draw upon those very real, sadly mundane horrors of aging and the aged.
As a child, my own grandfather existed in a nursing home for, I believe, eight years. After the first year, he didn’t remember much of anything. Looking back, I realize how performative our weekly visits to the nursing home were. We’d sit by his bed, often talking about him rather than to him as if having happy conversations in his presence somehow negated the state he was in. But the worst was that there was some expectation for him to perform, as well. A remembered name, an acknowledgement of our presence was the price we selfishly expected him to pay. I was a child dealing with undiagnosed anxiety and depression. I could hardly be expected to really know better, but looking back, the memories are bitter. This story brought all of that to the surface, lacing the fear with guilt.
“Little Balloons” explores the potential of childhood, the formation of the self, and how easily it can be lost, a complex story told simply with horror at its core. That’s all I want to say about that right now.
I want to talk about “The Acknowledged.” I want to explore its layers in a way that gives it the weight it deserves. I’m just not sure how to go about it without spoiling the whole thing. Just trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
In “Too Old for Ice Cream,” the author deftly explores the dynamics of a family falling apart and what that kind of trauma does to the children in the home. Growing up too fast, taking on responsibilities far beyond their maturation, and worst of all, missing the freedom to just be children, to enjoy the simple pleasures life has to offer before the crushing weight of adulthood falls on their shoulders. It’s heartbreaking, sad, and yes, scary as hell.
“Love Amongst the Red Back Spiders.” Well, here we are. The story that broke me so much so that I messaged Dries after I read it to let him know that he had broken me. Acceptance of the queer community, as a whole, has gotten much better than it used to be, though we still have a very long way to go. This story takes place in a time when it was much worse. In fact, after a man’s life falls apart after being outed, he takes drastic measures in an attempt to “save himself” from his queerness only to have his life truly go to hell afterward.
This story has extra weight as lawmakers across the U.S. are desperately trying to pass laws making the identity of members of the LBGTQ+ community “illegal” in some unhinged way. Stripping away our humanity and our rights does nothing more than make us a danger to ourselves and others. The horror here sits firmly in our reality as history that could easily repeat itself. I walked away from this story broken by its underlying meanings and more determined than ever to honor those who came before us, fighting and dying to earn us what rights we have. I can only hope I can fill their shoes in my own time in some way that would make them proud.
And finally, there is “Shadow Debt.” The story seems to be an amalgamation of everything that came before it in the collection. All those fears and doubts coalesce into a singular moment, where the ripples of one decision can utterly and completely alter the course of a life. Nanette is uncomfortably living out her twilight years. Her husband has succumbed to dementia and lives in a nursing home. Her daughter’s family is growing. She’s eagerly anticipating her first great-grandchild. Then, one day, she convinces a young woman not to take her own life. It is the ultimate act of life-giving kindness. Or is it?
Dries seems to be pointing at his readership, asking us what we would have done and if we had the chance, would we do it again? Some things, ultimately, can’t be taken back. Some things, even the most charitable, only take from us. And take and take and take. The author presents us a beautifully written, genuinely scary story, that lives in the gray areas of our lives.
As a whole, like any good collection, Cut to Care is a journey in and out of the author’s imagination. Dries proves with the work that his mastery of storytelling is not limited to the longer form. He can, and will, make your skin crawl in even the briefest of stories. If well-written horror is what you crave, you owe it to yourself to read this fantastic collection.
Look for Cut to Care: A Collection of Little Hurts this month wherever you buy books!