If you're looking for a light read to while away a cold day with a warm book, then take my advice and stay as far away from Christina Escamilla's 64 Deaths as you can. The debut anthology from the local Houston writer is a brutal exercise in facing the horror of death and ending, and each of the short stories contained within is a solid punch straight to the heart. It's the most brutal thing I've read since Carmilla Voiez's Black Sun.
"We cannot believe that life is beautiful and in the same breath believe that death is this magical, far-off thing that only happens to the elderly," said Escamilla via email. "I think by looking at mortality, by looking at the pain, the loss and everything that comes with that empty darkness of death, we can fully appreciate what it means to be living."
Each story within 64 Deaths is, in essence, a brief look at a life as it is about to be snuffed out. Easily the stand-out of the collection is "12 Foot Deep," which is absolutely heartbreaking in a way that leaves you raw for days. In that story, a young girl of privilege feels abandoned and unloved by her busy parents. In defense, she's taken to holding her breath at the bottom of their pool, pretending to die and fantasizing endlessly about the beauty of her funeral.
Her game turns unexpectedly deadly in a surprising and emotionally devastating way, and it's a perfect example of the genius of Escamilla's technique. By the time you've reached "12 Foot Deep" in the collection, you'll have picked up her patterns of killing off her protagonists. That's the theme, after all, but just as each one of us knows that everyone we love including ourselves will die, it doesn't lessen the damage that dying does one iota. Escamilla is as inevitable and real as death itself in her prose.
"Although writing it, and I'm sure reading it, was very heartbreaking, I felt that it had to happen that way," said Escamilla. "At its core, '12 Foot Deep' was a story of loneliness and isolation."
Even when she allows her subjects to live or move on from pain, Escamilla's horrifically sharp purpose is to force a reader to face the dark. In the title story, life itself becomes a cruel joke as bit by bit over hundreds of years, a woman has her body replaced with synthetics. Each accident and eventually suicide simply brings her closer and closer to immortality even as she begins to see life as meaningless without the possibility of death. It's a cruel way to get the themes of the anthology across, almost as if Escamilla is laughing at us for daring to hope for survival.
"Cruel" is a good word for the book. It is often cruel, especially in several stories that deal with sexual assault and the scars that rape and other crimes leave behind. A rape survivor herself, Escamilla doesn't flinch even when showing off the scars of her own painful past re-purposed in story form. A young girl feels hands at her throat as her body is invaded on a merry-go-round, and a teenage boy's attempt to prank-sext a wrong number becomes a sadistic hunt for sexual torture. This is the cruelty that 64 Deaths is full of, bright mirrors into possible pain.
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"Sex is something that should be given freely and when that choice is taken, it is not only dehumanizing, but it can create this mantra of worthlessness," said Escamilla. "For many, this never goes away. You are no longer this autonomous, whole being, but nothing more than a collection of usable parts. Someone in that position suddenly becomes less than and there is this overwhelming sense of shame. As a society, both men and women are told that if something like this happens to them, it's their fault. That maybe if they dressed a little better or took stock of the location or hour of night or whatever, that it wouldn't have happened. So I think that the knowledge that this unspeakable act will forever mark you, emotionally, socially and physically, that's what scares us the most."
All in all, 64 Deaths may be one of the best books I have ever read by a Houston author, and definitely an amazing work considering it's Escamilla's first. By her own admission, the work serves as a purge of many personal poisons, and that makes it a hard book to like sometimes. If you're brave enough, though, it's a wonder.
64 Deaths is available now.