(Editor’s note: SHORT SHOTS is a column where I review horror short stories.)
From the disturbing image in the first sentence to the unsettling realization in the final two lines, Lisa Quigley’s “Birth” takes the “sometimes dead is better” theme of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary to the next grim level.
Released in 2018, “Birth” is the lead short story in Issue #8 of Unnerving Magazine called the “Inspired by Stephen King Extended Issue.” The author Quigley is a New Jersey writer whose latest release is the 2021 Bram Stoker Award-nominated folk horror novel titled The Forest.
In “Birth,” we’re immediately thrust into the mind of a woman who’s in the midst of her third miscarriage at eleven weeks of pregnancy. It’s happening in real time, and yes, it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds.
“I place my hand on my lower abdomen. The damage is done. The cramps have already started.”
While she suffers, the woman’s thoughts drift to a wild patch of ground in her grandmother’s garden where no one was allowed to go. She recalls her first encounter with death at age six when her goldfish died. She remembers her grandmother burying the goldfish in the soil of the wild patch. The next day the goldfish had returned to its fishbowl, but it had changed.
“Whatever looked out at me from those cloudy beaded eyes should never have been awakened.”
The woman now lives in her long-dead grandmother’s house with the forbidden patch of ground. You can probably guess where the story is heading. Whether you guess it or not, the journey back to the patch is a riveting read. Quigley’s prose is so compelling and vivid that I could almost feel the woman’s mental anguish and physical pain as she’s determined to deal with this miscarriage on her own terms, which means no calls to the husband or the hospital.
“I can’t stand to let them put me under and scrape another dead baby out of me. … I want to be here. I need to feel this. This agony is proof that I was almost a mother. This blood is proof that something inside me was alive.”
“Birth” maintains its visceral momentum throughout the story as Quigley delivers a barrage of aching, blood-drenched lines of narration with a boxer’s fury … just one after another. The scene where the woman introduces herself to the offspring is one of the most chilling moments of horror fiction I’ve ever read. By the time she steps into the yard cradling it in her hands, the dread is palpable.
“Birth” boldly mines the central theme of Pet Sematary and uses it to dig deep into the raw emotions of a woman whose loss is more than she can bear. Yes, “Birth” is writing inspired by Stephen King, but Quigley’s no-holds-barred approach to the subject matter elevates it to inspired writing, period.