For the past six years, Ronnie has worked selling merch for a perpetually touring band. Late nights, sweaty clubs, dingy motel rooms, endless roads—as rough as it’s been, there is no other way of life for this band of hungry succubi leaving bodies in their wake. Until she meets the enigmatic Helene. Helene is just as restless, just as lonely, and just as full of secrets. With Helene in tow, Ronnie and the band make their way across the Pacific Northwest, trying to outrun not only their mistakes but the mysterious disease stalking the band, a disease that devours succubi from the inside out. The hunger is as endless as the road, but maybe Ronnie doesn’t always want to sleep alone.

-from the publisher’s website

cover by Evangeline Gallagher

J.A.W. McCarthy follows her Shirley Jackson Award-nominated collection Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories with this novella from Off Limits Press. Sleep Alone is a compelling look at not only sex, power, and music, but also responsibilities: those we have for ourselves and to others. Explicitly invoking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, McCarthy explores how her protagonist’s loneliness and isolation compel her to, essentially, create new life. Whereas Frankenstein is quick to criticize the eponymous scientist for abandoning his creation, Sleep Alone allows Ronnie’s love interest, Helene, the space to suggest that, perhaps, we are not bound to protect what we propagate. Ronnie is forced to reconsider her position as a ‘mother’ to the men she turned into succubi. She must either continue to protect and guide them or abandon them entirely. This conflict grows ever more complex as the bandmates begin to suffer strange symptoms.

Questions of consent and familial (in particular parental) responsibility are raised throughout the book. Guitarist Jack, drummer Sylvy, bassist Drew and frontman Cillian never asked to be succubi. The description of Ronnie posing as an enthusiastic groupie before climbing into the boys’ beds reads almost as a r*pe scene, though McCarthy does not lean too heavily into that implication so soon. Still, this forced transformation is deliberately invasive, as are the succubi’s actions in general, taking memories and remaining years from their victims. Ronnie feeds to survive, but her survival hinges on exploitation and consumption. Her own mother’s uncaring attitude informs her treatment of the bandmates: her boys. Her children. She works hard to keep them safe and fed, but a part of her desires their deference. Their eventual (and inevitable) rebellion and rejection hits her harder than she could have predicted.

Six years into their lives with Ronnie, the bandmates have essentially reached their adolescence as succubi. Testing boundaries and pushing back against the rules ‘Mother’ has established is to be expected. Like all parents, Ronnie is no expert. The rules she enforces are for their protection – for their own good. She herself follows them to the letter. However, there are things Ronnie was never taught. Becoming a succubus is not the same as being born one, and the bandmates have finally reached a breaking point. Drew is the first to feel the effects, a weeping lesion on his abdomen a gruesome sign of the times. McCarthy details not only the succubi’s rotting bodies but also the state in which they leave their victims. Glassy eyes and rippling flesh give way to desiccated, rattling corpses: a sign the boys in the band have gone too far.

As is frequently the case with novellas, Sleep Alone moves quickly – often too quickly. Much of the book, especially in the beginning, is a summary rather than a scene, offering succinct and fast-paced overviews of events before moving on. When McCarthy pauses, it is to detail a succubus’ assault or one of the band’s performances. The book’s brevity does not always allow enough time or space to flesh out the characters. The bandmates especially suffer here, with only Jack and Cillian feeling consistently distinct, though not exactly unique. The former nurses an affection for Ronnie, while the latter plays the Creature’s role: rebellious and contemptuous of his Creator’s actions but still, at his core, a little boy in need of a parent’s love and protection.

Sleep Alone covers a lot of ground, but only explores a fraction of it. Like its succubus narrator, it gives and takes a little at a time, wary of overstimulating its target. The body horror is a welcome surprise, but certainly not horrific enough for gorehounds. More than anything, Sleep Alone is a story about guilt and family. Its queerness bolsters its exploration of and support for found families. Ronnie and Helene are shut out from ‘normal’ society and thus drawn together. This works even without the supernatural layer; Ronnie knows that certain bars in certain states will not take kindly to girls kissing in shadowy corners. Their mere existence makes them targets. McCarthy manages to dodge the unfortunate implications of Ronnie ‘infecting’ the bandmates and, instead, creates a group of people who are all in search of something and hope to find it in each other.

Sleep Alone releases on March 18th, 2023. You can now order a copy directly from the publisher. Grimoire of Horror thanks Off Limits Press for sending a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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