Yes, the new novel by Samantha Allen Patricia Wants To Cuddle is a lesbian sasquatch horror-comedy Bachelor parody. Plus final girl slasher vibes. Plus a whole gorgeous epistolary lesbian romance suplot. Plus descriptions of the Pacific Northwest night sky and landscape so simultaneously lovely and haunting you will be torn by wanting to look closer and wanting to look away, which is fitting, because that’s exactly how I feel when watching the best episodes of reality television. It is, simply put, a delightfully strange and wondrous book, one that takes multiple high concepts and smashes them together, ultimately spinning a story about desire, the things we want, and what we’re willing to do and sacrifice to get them.
It all starts with a bloodbath:
Margaret Davies scrubs and scrubs but she knows she’ll just have to refinish the deck.
At least the spot where she found the dead sheep this morning. Not that she could recognize the animal at first. The poor dear had been bludgeoned and torn to shreds, hopefully in that order.
The gruesome prologue hints at what’s to come in this tale: ripped limbs, bodies bludgeoned, jaws blown off, heads ceremoniously removed. Otters Island, the fictional Pacific Northwest island where the novel is set, is a place of horrors — horrors that begin as a whisper, steadily crescendoing into a scream.
But for the first couple parts of the novel — broken into three parts, alternating between five perspectives, and doing some formal play along the way — Allen almost lets you forget you might be reading a gory monster book and shifts gears to a different form of horror: reality television and the making of it.
Four of the five perspectives are contestants on The Catch, a spin on The Bachelor, an American media sensation so over-the-top and deranged already that Allen plays it pretty close to the bone and still achieves a heightened effect. They’re all fighting for the attention of slimeball Jeremy, who made his fortune by making and then selling Glamstapix, the novel’s stand-in for Instagram. There’s Amanda, the straight daughter of dyke moms appalled by her decision to become, to borrow the words of real-life reality icon Sonja Morgan, an international fashion lifestyle brand (she hawks overpriced garbage on Glamstapix). There’s Vanessa, feisty and confident and hot Vanessa, who likes to torment third contestant Lilah-Mae, resident Christian Good Girl who sees The Catch as an opportunity to, quite literally, prosthelytize.
And then there’s Renee. Renee doesn’t really want to be here. A confluence of circumstances — or non-circumstances, really — brought her here. Her life has become monotonous, and she feels adrift, and The Catch becomes the dysfunctional liferaft she reaches for. She’s a blatant token, and she knows it. No Black woman has ever made it to the final four of The Catch let alone past the first couple weeks, and the producers and Jeremy all treat her like a pawn. She becomes increasingly less willing to play their game, her ambivalence about life like a pressure-cooker. For much of the book, Renee stands just on the precipice of finally figuring out who she is and what she wants, her disdain for her competitors complicated by the fact that she also would very much like to make out with Amanda. When Renee finally launches herself off the edge of the cliff of her self-actualization, it’s to join a community of similarly adrift and misfit women brought together by an ancient beast.
But you’ll have to read the book to really understand what I mean by that.
In addition to the four contestants, there’s also Casey, a producer on The Catch whose life revolves around her work. She spends her days wrangling the contestants and the aging Botox-laden show’s host Dex Derickson. Sometimes she hooks up with hunky cameraman Mike, who Casey tells us is merely stupid and hot but who probably has more going on beneath the surface if Casey were to actually get to know him. For Casey, there’s only The Catch. She loves her job, genuinely. As she rides in the production van with the contestants around Otters Island, a cacophony of giggles and vocal fry fills the car, but to Casey: “The sound is calming, almost, like the chirping of crickets outside a screened-in porch on a late-summer night.”
Casey is the type of person to immediately start producing in her head when she finds a dead body in the road, just like one of the contestants is the type of person to immediately start imagining what an episode about her death might look like after she’s abducted and dragged to a cave. There’s a literal monster in Patricia Wants To Cuddle, but the real monster is The Catch and the hunger for fame it courts. Casey has an outsized idea of her power and influence, and the end puts her supposedly pristine talent for manipulating to the test — and she fails.
As the suspense builds, Allen never lets us wander too far from that violent opening, working little bursts of the grotesque and the macabre into these early sections of the book. Take, for example, the brilliant setup and pay off of this moment from an Amanda chapter. Amanda wakes in the middle of the night to sneak into Vanessa’s room:
“No,” comes the response through the door. Amanda pushes it open, to find her friend sitting at the antique vanity ripping off her own face, her fingers scraping all the way down her cheek in one long, continuous motion, a thin translucent membrane caught in her fingernails.
But once V finishes peeling off her detox mask, her flawless olive skin comes into view.
To render a face mask so chilling!!! The language and imagery in Patricia Wants To Cuddle surprises and unsettles throughout — in the best way.
Each point of view is told in such a close third-person that you really get into the heads of each character. If there’s one who leaves a little left to be desired, it’s Vanessa (whose full name, by the way, is Vanessa Voorhees, which I absolutely read as a Jason reference, especially since Part Three of the novel really does have a Friday The 13th vibe). But overall, the character development in Patricia Wants To Cuddle works to suture real stakes to the thriller twists and cultural commentary on media consumption, social media fame, and flattening one’s life into a reality television arc.
Interstitials between the alternating points of view also run through each of the novel’s three parts. In part one, those interstitials are excerpts from a The Catch fan forum that provide a glimpse into the culture of spectatorship and lore surrounding the show, threaded with humor (usernames like CatchTheseHands and CatcherInTheSky abound, but my favorite has to be the very straightforward DexIsMyZaddy). In part two, those interstitials veer into true crime parody. They’re blog posts from a woman whose sister went missing in the woods of Otters Island many years before with a few other women. Otters Island was once a haven for the gay community, but the cold case of the disappeared hikers became its undoing, tourism in steady decline ever since (hence The Catch scoring a good deal to film here). The novel’s mystery deepens.
The best interstitials come in part three. They’re love letters between two young queer girls living in Little Rock, passing secret notes back and forth and dreaming of a life beyond their homophobic community. We only ever get one side of these exchanges, and yet, we learn so much about both girls and their relationship in such a tight space. Part three is when the book goes full horror mode (once you get to this part, you won’t want to stop btw), and the fact that all the bloody action is interrupted by these truly gorgeous and intimate portraits of young queer love works shockingly well. In general, Allen is a maestro of smashing together seemingly incongruous things to make something singular, strange, spectacular.
The ways Allen describes the actual physical movements behind making reality television, for example, often draws from the night sky. There’s a playfulness between literal reality and “reality” as constructed by the show.
The cameras press in close, drawn in by the drama like planets drifting toward a collapsing star.
And, in a later passage:
The stars are shining over them by the thousands, an otherworldly reminder of the television viewers that all of this was ostensibly for, except unlike Nielsen sets, the lights in the sky are silent and permanent, completely unmoved by the proceedings below.
For as weird and surprising as it is, Patricia Wants To Cuddle isn’t some oddball on an island of its own. The book easily fits into conversation with two other books I’ve recently reviewed here. It maps reality television and its making onto horror, much like How To Be Eaten, which maps a Bachelor-style television show onto a twisted fairytale and similarly puts forth a scathing critique of the medium while also acknowledging exactly why people do love it. And as with Our Wives Under The Sea, there’s a subversion of the queer monster narrative here — not to mention a wonderfully constructed queer romance with an ache at its core. Actually, the Gay Ocean Horror Book and the Lesbian Sasquatch Horror book make a very good one-two punch if you want to spend a weekend with Julia Armfield’s and Samantha Allen’s work. They’re tonally and structurally much different, but they share enough threads in common to be a cohesive double creature feature.
Even as the novel throws many genres and forms into a blender, it’s all pureed to a smooth finish. There are meaningful connections between all of the characters and their motivations — even the most vapid among them. The young queer girls of Little Rock run away toward Otters Island in search of something new. Renee hurls herself into The Catch out of, essentially, existential boredom but then ends up finding herself. Lilah-Mae, Amanda, and Vanessa, well, they all want platforms, what they perceive as power and control. And everyone goes full feral with these wants and desires.
That knack of Allen’s for taking incongruous elements and fashioning them into a gorgeous monster yields delightful humor and horror throughout. The book had me at lesbian Sasquatch, and then it took me for an even wilder ride than I ever could have predicted. All the best monsters live on reality television, and this novel knows that well.