Book cover: The Murders of Molly Southbourne - Tade Thompson (blood trickling down the bottom half of a woman's face)When Molly Southbourne bleeds, a new Molly is born. The Mollies look just like she looks; know what she knows; and sooner or later each of them tries to kill her. How can she protect herself and her loved ones from herself? And how she to keep from bleeding?

I might never have read The Murders of Molly Southbourne if it weren’t for the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards, because horror – as a rule – isn’t really my thing, and body horror least of all. But I’m ever so glad I did.

This novella resonates far beyond its slight page count. It’s impossible not to read it as metaphor, for a start. There’s an obvious parallel to haemophilia, but it’s the opening quote that is the most instructive (it’s worth noting that Thompson is a psychiatrist by day):

With each failure, each insult, each wound to the psyche, we are created anew. This new self is who we must battle each day or face extinction of the spirit.

Molly creates herself anew whenever she is literally wounded. It’s a remarkable concept, narrated by a cool, sharp voice that keeps you at a distance, as emotionless as Molly herself has had to become in order to survive herself. As you may need to be to read it without thinking about it too hard. Because, well – perhaps it’s better not to, right?

As a child, Molly has no idea of her condition. I still shy away from the psychological horror of parents who must repeatedly murder girls who look like their beloved daughter in order to protect her. But Molly is a happy child. She believes her memory of her father killing her on the bedroom floor is a bad dream, brought on by the pain of losing a tooth.

Little things will kill her as easily as big ones. A cold so bad she gets a nose bleed (and when she gets older…). Slipping with a knife (her parents don’t let her use knives). An angry dog (she never sees the dog again). Falling over (no shag rugs; no hard edges). Her life is bounded by unbreakable rules: don’t bleed. Destroy your blood with fire and bleach. If you see yourself, run, scream and fight. She is home-schooled. Her mother knows a lot about violence and fire. Her father knows how to dismember a body. She learns her lessons.

There’s an element of high tragedy about it: the one person we cannot ever escape is ourselves. Molly can grow up, make a life for herself, have relationships – but she can never drop her guard. And when you are your own worst enemy, assaulted by the best version of yourself when you are sick, or tired, or already hurt, how can you possibly survive?

In between there are incidental ruminations on what the differences are between her and her clones. Are they her children? Are they herself? Is she real? (After all, the mollies always try to kill her; and she kills every Molly she sees). Thompson keeps probing the depths of his idea, exploring its implications and unpacking the layers of horror that underpin it (and honestly, this won’t be a story for everyone: it sometimes seemed I felt more psychological strain thinking through the consequences than Molly did in living through them, armoured by her experiences).

There’s also a mystery underpinning it: what made Molly this way? What are the mollies? The novella is unashamed in asking more questions than it answers (although we do at least find out where the mollies came from, after a fashion). In the end, the story has a narrow trajectory of Molly trying to survive herself and – ultimately – to free herself from a curse which she never asked for, and which infects every part of her life.

Don’t expect an easy read. This is tightly told, entirely non-judgmental and utterly horrifying. I was captivated by the unfolding plot, and unexpectedly satisfied by the rather ambiguous ending (in spite of all the questions it leaves unanswered). Highly recommended for those with strong stomachs and unflinching minds.

****1/2