“Still Life” by E.E. Horlak

“Still Life” by E.E. HorlakStill Life by E.E. Horlak, Sheri S. Tepper
Published: 1985 by Corgi
Genres: Horror/Gothic
Pages: 247
Format: Paperback
Source: Borrowed
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Still Life by E.E. Horlak is about a young woman named Sarah Chenowith. Sarah is trying to figure out her life. She lives with her mother, but is going to school. She knows she needs to move out and forge her own destiny, but she also is afraid of change. And so she clings to her childhood crush even though he’s since married and had a child, and she is still way more involved in his life (she’s the babysitter) than she should be. She narrates as someone who is trying to move on, but in practice, she very clearly can’t.

One day a mysterious woman shows up next door and begins to paint. And when she makes her paintings, people begin to die. People in her childhood crush’s family, in fact, which makes Sarah very uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Sarah is in school, and is developing a much closer relationship with one of her professors. She’s having disturbing dreams and premonitions, and they seem to be tied to the murders. As an anthropologist, she hopes he’ll take her seriously, and perhaps have some insight. And Bob is a good listener, so as her own life becomes more and more chaotic, he becomes a rock for her. Today this would throw up a world of ethical red flags because of the power dynamic, but it was the 80s. What can I say?

The plot ebbs and flows as Sarah discovers the connections between the cursed paintings, Hopi magic, and her own heritage. And though the ending was predictable, it was also satisfying.

It was only after I started reading the book that I realized that E.E. Horlak was a pen name for Sherri S. Tepper, whose books I always enjoy, despite the fact that they are often so agressively feminist that the story feels forced and moralizing. Usually, my complaint with Tepper’s writing is that every man in the story doesn’t have to be a villain. So it was interesting to see Still Life, where the men in the story don’t seem to have much importance at all. I mean, sure, they exist, and Sarah struggles with her relationships to them, but in the grand scheme of things they don’t seem to matter much at all. They could almost be completely interchangeable. Sarah’s crush is boring and generic. Bob is boring and generic. The story instead chooses to focus on Sarah and her ability to move on, to grow up, and to step outside of her comfort zone so she can form a new relationship and be her own independent person outside of her mother’s shadow. And by the end of the book, she grows up. I guess it’s a horror story coming of age.

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