The shortest month of the year is Women in Horror Month, and I’d rather not waste time inking out a list of scary ladies that’s mostly all the scary ladies you already know and are maybe dead (to all the horror bros proud of having read Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Gilman, I see you, here’s your cookie). Instead I’ll turn my tentacles to the ones doing amazing work not many people are talking about. Octoclot asks so little of you, so consider this humble request. Read Tania Donald. Do it now.
The protagonist of this historical gothic novella is the young and vulnerable Fraulein Klein. A seamstress desperate to turn her life around and climb out of the pit of poverty. Desperate enough to take job as a governess at a remote estate in the Black Forest. One year. For a suspiciously outsized sum. One year and she can afford to start her life over and take back the baby daughter she was forced to give up. In Fraulein Klein, Donald shows us a heroine battered by life but with enough steel in her to keep trying, for good or ill.
On arrival Klein is greeted by a haggard housekeeper who remarks on Klein’s scrawny appearance and immediately insists on feeding her, though not in a particularly kindly way. As Klein eats her first hot meal in an age, the housekeeper sets out the rules. She must remain in the child’s room at all times. She must eschew color, especially red. She must never ever allow the child to handle anything sharp, like a pin or a needle as she’s a hemophiliac, and the slightest prick will have her bleeding to death, the fate that befell her twin sister.
This novella is the epitome of a slow burn, punctuated with increasingly hot flare ups. What I particularly appreciated was the skill with which Donald developed the deep inner life of her protagonist. Complex characterization is so often lacking in the horror genre, especially in short stories and novellas, but Donald nails it. She also takes the time to develop those elements that make a story resonate past the final page. Things like theme, subtext, and symbolism, all through carefully chosen language and structure. The writing is sophisticated which elevates The Haemophiliac, in my unapologetically snobby opinion, to the level of literary horror.
Nothing is what it seems in this web of white lace nestled in the Black Forest. This is not the story of a sick child, but a story of what we carry in our blood, a legacy of betrayal and deception, the twin curse of lust and hunger. Traps of our own weaving. You are what you are, and no matter where you go you cannot escape yourself.