HEAT VISION

How 'Blood Like Garnets' Defies Horror Genre Tropes

Blood Like Garnets Preview
Maria Nguyen/TKO Studios
Author Leigh Harlen talks about their new anthology, described as for "the people who usually only see themselves appear for five minutes at the beginning."

After three waves of comic book releases, independent publisher TKO Studios is moving into prose with this week’s release of Blood like Garnets, an anthology of horror stories from new author Leigh Harlen.

Containing eight stories, alongside illustrations from Maria Nguyen, Blood like Garnets stakes out Harlen’s claim to being a bold new voice in the horror genre — including the story that shares the book’s title, which The Hollywood Reporter has an exclusive excerpt of. To accompany the tease, THR spoke to Harlen about the book, and the appeal of horror more generally.

This is your first collection of short fiction, and TKO’s first prose project; how did the two of you get hooked up?

I was approached by Sebastian Girner, editor-in-chief at TKO, who heard a short story of mine on a horror podcast called Pseudopod. He was interested in having me write a story for them and the project developed from there. We worked really well together and had similar visions for what we liked in horror, so when the folks at TKO suggested turning that one story into a collection, I was thrilled!

So what is it about horror that draws you in? There’s a sense that, by its very nature, it allows creators to deal with subjects that are taboo, or write about subjects in ways that are, at least, outside of the norm. Is that the lure for you as a writer?

I have always loved horror. I was reading Stephen King and Clive Barker well before it was probably age appropriate. Part of that is I am, at my heart, a very anxious person. Exploring fear through fiction can be very cathartic and lets me really dig into what it is about certain things that scares me.

Perhaps the bigger factor though — as a person living in this world in a queer, trans, fat body, I am very often portrayed in entertainment and public discourse, as either a forever victim, the person in the house who dies thirty seconds after noting they have a girlfriend, or something monstrous, predatory, even contagious. There’s power in deciding you’d rather be the monster, owning that monstrousness, and making it your own.

You mentioned that Blood like Garnets grew out of conversations with TKO; how did you choose the stories that appear in this collection? While there’s a continuity between them in terms of tone, they’re also varied when it comes to form, and to authorial voice. What was behind the through line for you in selecting what made it into the book, and what didn’t?

I did want this to be a diverse collection in terms of subjects, characters, stories. Everything from sci-fi horror to classic monsters so each one felt very distinct while reading it. To me though, they are all held together by my fascination with exploring obsession, alienation, and a loss of control.

Talk about the story “Blood Like Garnets,” which we’re running the excerpt from. It’s playing on the expectations of the reader, but refusing to go where the reader thinks — what were the origins of the story?

“Blood Like Garnets” is, at its heart, an angry story born of exhaustion with the tropes that painted me, my friends, my chosen family as constant victims. Especially for the people we were growing up.

Having the message that you must “be good, or someone just might murder you” drilled into you from the time you’re old enough to talk, is exhausting. So, this story is for the people who usually only see themselves appear for five minutes at the beginning of an episode just to die, or worse, are never even shown alive just a body on autopsy table, an object of pity and a mystery for the people who actually matter to solve.

Blood like Garnets is available now. Read on for an excerpt from the title story.

***

Clay prowled through the city, the window of his sleek, grey Audi open to give him an unobstructed view of his prey. He imagined himself a lone wolf, a cold, ruthless predator running on swift legs through a sea of oblivious sheep. He was quick and canny and sought the stragglers, the weak ones the herd wouldn’t surround in a protective circle of panic.

But nothing caught his eye. Tonight, his appetite would go unsated. Most hunts ended in failure after all, even for the most skilled hunters. He would go home and practice, hone his muscles and reflexes, tend to his killing floor. The itch would still be there, scratching away at the back of his mind and deep in his guts. It had been a full month since he’d felt hot, freshly spilled blood pour through his hands, splatter his face. A full month since pitiable screams graced his ears, since he’d had the singular pleasure of watching someone’s eyes drain and empty of life while he gazed into them. And oh god, he needed that feeling. It was getting harder to concentrate on his daily life. Harder to slip on that friendly mask of caring. Even harder to not reach across the table and choke the life from a client, feel their eyeballs burst beneath his thumbs, slice them stem to sternum, and let the blood flow like a tidal wave.

He swallowed hard and shook the image off. He was better than that. Cooler, cannier, more clever. Too good to get caught. Too good to go down in flames of impatience. He would go home. He would hone and prepare and try again next week.

The week went by far too slowly. Clay identified at least three of his clients who would be ideal prey, but he couldn’t go near them. Not with a paper trail leading straight to his door. But he recorded their addresses just the same. With a little luck and a little time, he might be able to transfer one to another case manager, or ideally, another agency entirely. He had to resist the temptation to do that often. One or two was a coincidence, but too many dead former clients would lead to him just as surely.

With an entire weekend spread out before him for hunting, he went home and washed himself with unscented soaps and prepared his car with his preferred tools: ketamine, sterilized needles, duct tape, and a Bowie knife in a leather sheath. He did not eat dinner. He liked the drive. The empty feeling his belly gave him. A strategic splash of mud on the license plate to obscure a few numbers, and he was ready to go.

He got into his Audi and stalked the city. Frustration mounted in his chest as no ideal prey caught his eye. A young man in a polo shirt, obviously drunk, piqued his interest. But only because his frustration and impatience made him sloppy. Everything about the boy screamed “privilege” and “nationwide manhunt” should he go missing. Clay forced himself to drive on.

Some targets were too easy. Homeless, passed out, and babbling incoherently to voices only they could hear. Such people went missing easily and often. But they gave him no satisfaction. He needed that perfect sweet spot of overlooked and uncared for, while still providing a challenge, a proper hunt. He needed the anticipation and the rush.

As the sun warmed the horizon and washed the almost full moon from the sky, he was forced to admit defeat. He drove toward home with sweaty, tense hands on the steering wheel.

That’s when he spotted her. Small, pale, stylish blue hair asymmetrically cut, a myriad of tattoos and piercings, heavy boots. She walked along the side of the road, her backpack so full the zippers looked precarious, and though she wore only jeans and a tank top in the autumn chill, she showed no signs of being cold. The thing inside him clicked. She was the one.

She saw his car and put out a thumb. Oh, this would be easy. Too easy? No, the obvious knife bulging from her pockets, the lean line of muscle in her arms, and the hard edge in her eyes told him she would fight. She would be easy to get in the car, but keeping her there would require skill. His heart didn’t speed up, didn’t race with excitement. In fact, he went perfectly, serenely quiet inside as he pulled up beside her.

“Where you headed?”

“Anywhere with a bus station.”

“I can manage that. Hop on in.”

She climbed into the car, her backpack clutched tight in her lap. Her skin, where it wasn’t covered in tattoos, was smooth and unblemished except for a raised, pink, ragged scar that stretched from the back of her neck to her shoulder and disappeared beneath her black tank top. He wondered how she got it and if it would make her more or less afraid of him when the time came.

“I’m Clay,” he said.

“Echo.”

“Hi Echo,” he gave her his best client smile. It didn’t ease the tension in her shoulders. If anything, her wariness deepened.

He pulled onto the road and began driving. He rolled up the windows, their tinted glass obscuring them from any potential busybodies. Not towards home, but towards his abattoir. That was a bit more of a drive, so he’d have to knock her out soon.

“So, where are you going?”

“Like I said. Anywhere with a bus station.” She wore a disaffected, surly air like armor.

Running away, then. He didn’t have many clients in the under twenty-five demographic, but he’d had enough over the past decade to recognize the signs. Judging by her aesthetic, probably homophobic parents. That was good. Less likely to have a change of heart and go looking for her. Even if they did, she looked about eighteen or nineteen, old enough that the cops wouldn’t do anything about her leaving.

“Okay. Won’t take long. Where are you coming from?”

“Does it matter?”

“Just making conversation.” He fingered the hypodermic loaded with ketamine in his pocket. Not exactly sterile, but she didn’t have to worry about infection anymore.

She turned to stare out the window. “Spokane,” she said at last.

“You’ve made quite a trip of it then.”

“Yeah. Quite a trip.” She sighed and leaned back in her seat as if her own sad bitterness were weighing her down. Such an unhappy girl. Would she give up too fast? He hoped not. He turned off the highway to a narrow one-way road that ran through the trees.

“Where the hell are we going?” She positively sprang to life. Alert once more, a gazelle ready to run as soon as it figured out where the lion lay in wait.

“The bus station, like you wanted.”

“This isn’t the way to the fucking bus station. You think I didn’t look at a map first to make sure you weren’t a goddamn creep? Pull the car over and let me out.”

When he continued driving, she yanked at the door handle futilely. A smile curved his mouth. No, she wouldn’t die easy. Good.

The door lock refused to budge under her fingers, so she threw herself at him, all untrained panicked clawing and rage. The ferocity surprised him, and he nearly drove off the road. He hit the brakes and drew the needle from his pocket. Between her frantic slaps, he grabbed one wrist and held her arm still. He stabbed the needle deep into her bicep. She screamed like a wounded animal as he pushed the plunger, sending the drug into her blood and muscle. Throwing herself back against the passenger door, she slammed her fists against the window and screamed for help.

She kicked at him when he drew closer, but the kicks grew weaker and weaker until she stopped moving entirely. A thrill of victory shot through him, followed by anticipation. Oh yes, this would be a wonderful weekend.

He took the matte grey duct tape from the glove box and wrapped layers of it around her wrists and ankles. He looped it around her hands until her fingers were encased completely to ensure there was no picking at the tape or fiddling with the lock when he was distracted. Not her mouth, though. He liked to have someone to talk to on the drive, and there was a slim chance someone might see the shadow of a girl with tape over her mouth through the tinted windows. Also, ketamine sometimes made people puke, and if she asphyxiated on her own vomit before they arrived, this would have all been for nothing.

For a moment, he took advantage of the quiet to gaze at her. Her pale skin was inclined toward moles and freckles, and she had a whole constellation of them across her arms and shoulders. Surprisingly, where her hair had grown beneath the blue, she was prematurely gray. A lovely silver, flecked with darker shades of gray and black. A few coarse, rogue hairs roamed the underside of her chin and caught the light as her head lolled against the window. Beautiful as any doe, skin soft and hungry to split under his knife. His chest tightened with the thrill of the upcoming kill.

He started the engine again and continued along the rural backroad that turned to gravel. Bright afternoon sunlight, crisp as the fall air, lit the red and gold leaves as he drove on towards his killing floor.

The girl didn’t vomit, thankfully. But she did dream. Soft moans and frightened panting, funny little yipping noises that reminded him of a puppy. She came to faster than most, with groans and slurred, unintelligible words. That was good. No joy in hunting prey that was groggy or feeling no pain. She might have it out of her system by the time they arrived.

“How are you feeling, Echo?”

“Fuck you.” Her words held a fuzzy edge, but she was surprisingly alert already.

“I will take that as you feeling better.”

“What are you going to do to me?”

“I’m going to let you go, Echo. Then you’re going to run.”

“You’re going to let me go?”

“I am.”

“What, you get off on kidnapping girls, drugging them, and dumping them in the middle of nowhere? Or did you already...”

“I find your suggestion repugnant. I did nothing to you while you slept.”

She was quiet for several minutes as she stared out the win- dow. Perhaps recovering from the ketamine, perhaps trying to memorize the route he was driving.

“Let me go. I won’t tell anyone about this. Just pull over, cut the tape, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Finding you was a lot of work.”

“You were looking for me?” she asked.

“Someone like you, yes. Have you ever seen those videos of an octopus fighting back against a shark? As they’re nearly being swallowed, they jam their tentacles into the shark’s gills until the shark has to decide whether it wants to eat the octopus enough to drown, or release it and live to hunt another day.”

“You think of yourself as an octopus?”

“Oh no, I’m hoping you’re the octopus. Most people are rabbits at best. Rabbits possess startling ferocity, all due respect to rabbits, but the wolf does not risk death in eating a rabbit.”

“You’re sick.”

“The scars on your back, where did they come from?” he asked.

She jerked as if she touched a live wire. “A man tried to kill me once.”

“So, I’m not the first. Interesting. Do you think there’s some- thing about you that makes you reek of being prey?”

“I’m not prey. I’m a fucking person.”

“Same thing.”

“What happened to the man who attacked you? Were you his octopus? Did he drown despite his efforts, or did he flee?” His mouth literally watered at the thought of succeeding where another had failed. He might even start by burying his knife right into that scar and ripping from there.

“I maced him, and he ran.”

He wasn’t sure how he knew, but she was lying. There was a hollowness where everything else she said rang with honesty. There was time to push the question later. The sun was getting low in the sky, and blazing the same red and gold as the leaves.

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