(Editor’s note: SHORT SHOTS is a column where I review horror short stories.)
“The Hay Bale” is the new novelette by Virginia author Priscilla Bettis. I became an instant Bettis fan after reading her debut short story in 2021, the darkly intimate vampire tale “The Sun Sets Nonetheless.”
You can read my review of “The Sun Sets Nonetheless” HERE.
Bettis’ writing style reminds me of classic American literature from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. In fact, while reading “The Hay Bale,” the 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman immediately sprang to mind. Both stories feature unreliable female narrators dealing with mental health issues related to pregnancy.
In “The Hay Bale,” we meet microbiology professor Claire Davenport as she moves into a rented antebellum mansion for the summer. The house is known by the subtly sinister name Smallclaw. Claire is there trying to recuperate from the trauma of at least four miscarriages, a failed adoption attempt, and a husband who’s left her.
Like in “The Sun Sets Nonetheless,” Bettis demonstrates a mastery of descriptive details. In the case of “The Hay Bale,” the descriptions create a contemporary Southern Gothic vibe.
A few of my favorite lines:
- The magnolia tree that dominated the front yard was in full June bloom and oozed scent like honey drizzled over fresh lemon slices.
- The house was so barren her breathing echoed.
- There was nothing but the dry-bone rattle of the night’s first katydids.
- The air was already hot at six o’clock in the morning, and the clear sky with its ombré coral-to-blue tints appeared more cruel than beautiful.
Claire arrives at the manor house with tears in her eyes and immediately exhibits signs of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She hears strange noises. She responds to voices in her head. Claire’s symptoms and actions led me to believe “The Hay Bale” is a symbol of the post-traumatic stress following a miscarriage.
While Claire resides in the manor alone, she is surrounded by a small but creepy cast of characters like the old-school Reverend Graves and the neighbors too afraid to enter the house. When Claire discovers a solitary hay bale in the nearby field, the story starts spiraling into supernatural territory as the manor’s horrific past is revealed and the community gathers for a bizarre ceremony. The climax is pure folk horror, but the scene prior to the climax is pure heartbreak.
With “The Hay Bale,” Bettis delivers a bold yet haunting tale of a woman whose yearning and loss are overwhelming but not enough to destroy her capacity for love.
Click HERE to order “The Hay Bale” from Amazon.