A few years ago, I read Nick Antosca’s novel, Midnight Picnic, a ghost story unlike any I’d read before (though, admittedly, that might not mean much, as my horror-swath is not so widespread). I enjoyed it immensely, so when I was able to get my mitts on his new collection of short stories, The Girlfriend Game, I had high expectations for satisfyingly surreal, dark situations.
When the stories “Predator Bait” and “Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten” distracted me from my current Netflix obsessions, I knew I was once again in good literary hands. Yes, yes, the old guard intellectual hope is that a love of books trumps television, but television has writers too. Nick Antosca is one of them (Teen Wolf, Last Resort). Perhaps it is that innate sense of urgency, the need to fit all the necessary information into a smaller 22 or 48 minute package, that makes The Girlfriend Game so enjoyable. These aren’t happy tales, but the confusion, loneliness, and yearning for change feels so authentic to each individual world.
“Predator Bait” deals with a fictionalized version of the Dateline segment, “To Catch a Predator,” and the “bait” has conflicting feelings about both the program and her boyfriend. “Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten” is something else entirely:
Some of the ships were landing now. They landed vertically, like gleaming monuments, their tops pointed at the night sky from when they’d arrived. You looked at them staked there and sensed unimaginable power. Not human power for conquest, as if they’d come to kill our leaders and take our children, but overwhelming poignancy, as though they were something just barely remembered from childhood, from before you could really remember things, that meant everything to you. As if they were mothers. The closest one had landed now in the woods behind the house, less than a mile off.
I think I read the title story when it was originally published in Metazen, as it seemed very familiar. In it, a couple like to go to bars and pretend not to know each other. When a guy begins to chat up the girlfriend, the boyfriend arrives as though he’s a stranger. The two appear to hit it off immediately, and they leave the mark feeling unsettled and rejected. One night, the girlfriend changes the rules of the game. There’s nothing incredibly revelatory about the plot, but Antosca sucks you in anyway because of the tone of the other stories. He goads you into thinking the worst is about to happen, that some fucked up fate will befall someone here, and yet … Well, you’ll have to read it, lest I spoil even more.
With a folktale about a murderer, another about a mother that turns amphibious, and one with a “Rat Beast,” the book keeps us questioning each new reality while also pointing out that certain things do not change. We hunger for companionship, sex, to be heard, to have security — even if that coincides with a “clot of teeth and hair” coming out of twin brothers’ bodies, as evidence that they once numbered three.
I didn’t love every story, but that was mostly down to my squeamishness. The aforementioned folktale, “The Early Years, Before His Great Adventures,” made me wince during the more horrible plot points. “Sofianne” felt unfinished, even though the superficial considerations of the title character seem part of the larger theme: We only get part of the story, just like we only get the surface of some people’s lives. Still, the completist within me said, “That’s it?”
Most every story inspires voracious reading that had me finishing The Girlfriend Game in two nights. For those interested in understated-yet-strong horror, Nick Antosca is certainly worth your attention.
Full Disclosure: I write the Notes From Elsewhere literary link roundup for The Girlfriend Game‘s publisher, Word Riot. Julia Drake PR provided me with the book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.