Short Story Review – Hundreds of Little Absences by Aimee Ogden

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I love cheesey horror movies. My wife and I went to see Insidious 2 on our first date. Neither of us had seen Insidious 1. Sometimes I get so into the fun of watching and reading silly horror that I forget just how powerful horror can be when it’s done seriously and done well. Hundreds of Little Absences by Aimee Ogden was a great reminder that the horror genre can rise above the level of schlock.

The story begins with our main character, a teen girl, getting ready to go to church. Her mother enters the room and asks if she won’t reconsider wearing a dress that looks so nice on her. The girl doesn’t want to wear the dress. The mother then remarks that the girl “looks like a linebacker” in that blouse. She asks the girl to remove the shirt so that they can make an adjustment. The mother takes out a scalpel and cuts into the girls shoulders. She sets about removing muscle tissue. From the girl’s thoughts we learn that this is not the first time, and that this has become quite common place.

I’m going to give some spoilers for the rest of the story. I think this is the kind of story that can be enjoyed even if you already know the plot, and I don’t think it’s possible to really talk about my feelings on the story without going into some more detail. With that said, if you would like to go into the story blind. You can check it out here. I think it’s well worth your time. My final rating is going to be 9 out of 10, if that helps.

Now that that’s out of the way

As the story goes on, the mother will continue to reshape the girl to be more conventionally attractive. Never in the story is this remarked upon as a strange occurrence. It’s unclear to me, even having read the entire story, if this ability to commit self mutilation, heal, and survive is something that is unique to the girl and her family, or if this is something that all women in this world go through. We learn that the mother was mutilated, and mutilates her child because it is simply the done thing. The father doesn’t find this strange, and just accepts it.

The mother is strict, church-going, and needless to say, a bit cruel. Perhaps the most horrific thing is that the mother truly believes that what she does is for her daughter’s own good. Eventually the daughter begins committing mutilations of her own in the pursuit of becoming more conventionally attractive. She does this in the hopes of easing her bullying at school. The mother actually supports this, with one notable exception. When the girl is suffering from painful menstrual cramps and suggests removing her uterus the mother is horrified. Even more she’s horrified about the word “uterus,” preferring “womb.” This modification is taboo and the mother will hear no more of it.

The girl does eventually go on to have children of her own. After her mother dies, the girl finds all the cut off pieces of herself while going through the things that her mother left behind. The girl attempts to reinsert the pieces into her own body, but they won’t take.

The girl who is now a mother herself confronts her teenage daughter and shows her the scalpel. She asks permission to use it on the girl, the girl seems to know what this is all about. She agrees to be modified, and the mother places the removed pieces of herself into her teenage daughter and remarks that she will only ever add to her. She wouldn’t dream of taking anything away.

At this point, I have to mention the obvious. I am a cis male, and this story seems to center around the female experience. In addition to that, there are a lot of deep themes interwoven into this story, and I’m not sure that I’ve quite parsed all of them. The most obvious theme is the the pressure placed on women to conform to a societal standard of beauty. The horror of the story comes from the forced and then later self mutilation, and the psychological trauma that comes with it.

No one needs me to tell them that this is only a slight exaggeration of our reality, though.

I find it interesting that the only alteration that the mother takes issue with is the potential removal of the uterus. It was unclear to me if the uterus would grow back, though the mother’s reaction makes it seem like a permanent choice. I don’t know the extent of the girl’s healing abilities, and that’s not really the point. I can’t tell if the author is trying to say something in that the only alteration the girl wants to make for herself, and not for her bullies or for boys, is the only one she is ever prohibited from doing.

The girl eventually has children, and she seems to be grateful that she did. So it’s unclear to me if the mother was correct to stop the girl, or if this was just another example of the mother’s emotional abuse. Another possibility is that this was to illustrate that the mother did not listen to her daughter who was having an actual medical problem. When the girl is at college she has particularly painful cramps and has to go to the hospital. I can’t say for sure what procedure the girl has done at the hospital, but some “pulp” is removed from her organs. The mother is upset that she wasn’t told and couldn’t be there. If the mother had been there she might have just advised the girl to “toughen up” again.

The highest praise I can give this story is that it did indeed make me think, and continues to make me think. I don’t understand the ending fully. I don’t understand why the girl inserts the removed pieces of herself into the daughter. She says it’s to strengthen her, but the symbolism became a bit muddy for me. I will probably reread it just to see if I missed something obvious. I’d be genuinely interested in hearing other’s interpretations in the comments.

Final Verdict

I don’t think much more needs to be said. This is my favorite story so far this month. I feel like if I could understand the ending a little better it might be a 10/10, but for now I think I will leave it at 9 arbitrary stars out of 10, and my strongest recommendation that you read this one.

I found this in the October 2021 Issue of Dark Magazine.

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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