Halloween is just around the corner and I have an unexpected novel to suggest as a Halloween read. As a fairytale retelling, it is not a horror novel per se. It doesn’t have ghosts, or ghouls, or serial killers, or zombies.
No, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold has a different kind of horror. Something more insidious, more unsettling. Something that will stay longer, haunting your dreams. (Trigger warning: sexual assault.)
Once upon a time there was the hero, the handsome prince Emory, who went on a quest. In order to be the King, he, like all others who came before him, must venture out into the unknown, slay a terrible dragon, and rescue the damsel who will be his bride. It has always been like this. On his mission, he will have the help of his brains, his sword, and a third undisclosed weapon.
And when Emory thinks about his sexual encounters with the girls and servants of his court, or when he talks about his sword, or his prick, or his merits, surely, they are just the thoughts of a boy being a boy. He is after all, the hero. He heroically suffers in his quest, he heroically nearly dies. He heroically slays the dragon and…
The narrative shifts.
The damsel opens her eyes.
She is naked, being carried by someone she doesn’t know, completely memoryless. Her first word is “don’t” and it goes unheeded. She is told everything she needs to know: she is the latest damsel in a line of damsels, the queen-to-be. The fact that she doesn’t know who she is, who her people are, or where she comes from is utterly unimportant. She has a future with Emory and that is all she needs.
And so, Emory gives her a name: Ama. He gracefully grants her a room in his palace and the clothes she will wear and the servant girl who will keep an eye on her. He allows her to roam certain parts of the castle. He lets her keep the wild cat she found as a pet (but as he warns her, and it’s better if we remember: no wild thing is a good pet). But heed this: if she breaks his rules he will take her beloved pet away and kill her.
He reminds her at all times: she is to be grateful, and graceful, and compliant. If he wants to touch her, she is to comply.
I told you this was a horror novel.
And it is through the growing terror of Ama’s new life that Elana K. Arnold looks at the horrors of patriarchy, sexual assault, gaslighting, and the cycle of the abuse that has allowed for countless generations of Damsels to exist as “a legacy of nothing.”
Damsel is one of the most unsettling books I have ever read. It questions not only the traditional narratives we are so fond of but also the very real world we live in, with the expectations we have for girls and women and the way we accept certain types of abusive behaviour from men as facts of life. This is a brutally honest novel but it is also one that has hope in it.
Because Ama questions. Thinks. Wonders about the whys and therefore. She talks to other women–including the previous damsel, the now-queen–to find out what she can about who they are and where they come from. She creates a circle of comfort for herself (just like all the other damsels who came before) until a time comes when she is able to look at the truth and know that:
“Ama was, she saw, both terrifically important and terribly insignificant, in equal measures, at exactly the same time.”
And thankfully (and I know this is a spoiler but after all of this, I feel we need to celebrate our victories where we can) Ama also finds an awesome way to break free, to break the age-long cycle of damsel-abuse in the most satisfyingly gory way possible.
I won’t be surprised if this book swipes all the awards this year.
In Booksmugglerish: 9 out of 10.