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Queer Feminist Essay Collection Explores Horrors of Motherhood

I count myself much more of a fiction than a nonfiction reader, so when I tell you that Allyson McOuat’s debut essay collection The Call Is Coming From Inside The House is one of the best books I’ve read in years, it means a lot. With feminist insights reminiscent of Melissa Febo’s Girlhood and horror film analysis on par with Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant essay on Jennifer’s Body, McOuat’s writing effortlessly weaves together personal narrative and (pop) cultural criticism. Touching on themes of motherhood and pregnancy to true crime and horror movies, this collection is a dream for any reader looking for queer feminist essays that will intellectually thrill you, scare you, and make you laugh.

The title of the book, The Call Is Coming From Inside The House, sets the tone and expectations for the collection. Remember that urban legend (and plot to When a Stranger Calls)? A teen girl (usually a babysitter) starts receiving increasingly threatening phone calls to “check the children” and the spine-chilling ending reveals the scary calls were coming, not from the unknown outside, but from her very own domestic space! (It’s strange to think that with today’s ubiquitous cell phones, the shock of the unexpected reveal falls totally flat). Entitled male violence, the intrusion of a horrible threat into a supposedly safe feminized space, the nostalgic thrill of a campfire scary story, the burden of women’s conventional roles as caretakers: all of these themes evoked by the title, plus more, are explored in depth in the book’s essays.

Each essay revolves around a theme or event wherein McOuat addresses it through various avenues: her own lived experiences, true crime narratives, horror or thriller movies (usually from the 80s and 90s), feminist theory, well-known tall tales, and more. McOuat expertly connects seemingly disparate elements in each essay, revealing the everyday elements of horror present in her life as a queer woman. In “The Haunted House (A Spirited Journey Through Queer Home Ownership)”, for example, McOuat uses her and her ex-wife’s struggles to find an affordable home in Toronto as a jumping off point. Throughout the essay, she discusses Shirley Jackson’s iconic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, the irony of queer and trans people finding refuge in cities that become too expensive to live in, the pull of a heteronormative life, ghosts, how grief can permeate a place, and trauma.

As a new-ish mom to a toddler and baby, I found McOuat’s discussions of pregnancy and motherhood some of the collection’s most affecting writing. McOuat knows, like I do, that pregnancy can be horrific. In contrast to the mainstream depictions of glowing, energetic expectant mothers enjoying every minute of their pregnancies, McOuat endures multiple miscarriages and subchorionic hemorrhaging. Feeling like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s iconic postpartum feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” McOuat sits in bed on doctor-ordered bed rest, listening to noises inside the walls of her room. They turn out to be a pregnant raccoon who’s moved into their heritage house, with whom McOuat has a distressingly strong sense of solidarity. She responds to her then-wife’s suggestion that they find a “permanent” solution to the raccoon: “YOU ARE NOT KILLING HER…WE ARE PREGNANT. SHE IS A SINGLE MOTHER. SHE IS MY FRIEND.”

Motherhood too, especially as McOuat finds herself a single parent after she and her ex-wife divorce, can be incredibly frightening. McOuat shares how her anxiety — personified as her “own personal Harbinger of Doom” — rears its ugly head at random moments, reminding her of her baby’s accidental fall off the bed years before. It’s like the horror movie stock character a la “Crazy Ralph” in Friday the 13th has set up residence in her head. Despite being cozied up on the couch watching Frozen with her kids and wanting to contemplate the queer-coding of Elsa, McOuat is having flashbacks to the sound of her kid’s head hitting the floor. At night, the Harbinger whispers “Don’t fall asleep, one of them might stop breathing while you are just lying there.” As sad as it is to know other parents are suffering from these kinds of intrusive thoughts fueled by anxiety, I am also comforted to know I’m not alone in them.

Terrifying in a totally different way are McOuat’s details of violent encounters with men. One story particularly haunted me. With suspense equal to any of the horror movies she analyzes, McOuat tells the story of driving a car full of women friends at 18 when they were targeted, chased by, and forced to stop on a remote highway at night by two cars of men. The cars worked together to effectively trap the women, twice, with one car pulling ahead and one behind, both abruptly coming to a stop sideways across the single lane road. McOuat and her friends were terrified. They screamed. McOuat writes: “Girls need plenty of healthy opportunities to scream together in fun so that when we need to scream in outrage or fear, our voices are prepared.” What makes the event even more terrifying was that at the time, in the area where they lived, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka — a Canadian husband and wife team of serial rapists and killers — were at large, targeting young women like McOuat and her friends.

McOuat often references true crime such as Bernardo and Homolka throughout the essays, using it to elucidate and expand on her own experiences of violence and horror and vice versa. I am actually very much not a true crime fan and usually get a feeling I can only describe as icky when I occasionally encounter it. But I really appreciated how McOuat integrated these narratives into her essays. She takes care to humanize the victims in each case, making sure their whole personhood is foregrounded rather than leaving them as faceless victims ripe for exploitation and morbid fascination. In the essay “The Babysitter (Changing Diapers and Narratives),” for example, McOuat discusses the highly publicized case of Janett Christman, who was murdered while babysitting in Missouri in 1950. She describes where Janett lived, her family, her hobbies, and her personal qualities. It’s clear that despite some of these real life atrocities having been retold and adapted so many times that they feel fictional, McOuat feels the losses of the (young) women victims as real people.

Speaking of women victims: there sure are a lot of them in typical horror movies, many of which McOuat discusses in this book: Alien, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, Scream, The Blair Witch Project, When a Stranger Calls, and more. Conversely, of course, there are the final girls such as Scream‘s Sidney Prescott and Halloween‘s Laurie Strode, who are idolized as beacons of strength and resilience and as icons for women to look up to. Or so I thought, until McOuat’s take on the final girl trope challenged me to think a little deeper.

She writes that “these women are the victims we love and cheer for — the perfect frontier-style, capable, white women who evolved from being a victim into being heroines of their franchises.” They’re forced to fight: “[Ripley in Alien] knows it is her job to keep fighting because, just like moms cleaning out the fridge, she knows if she doesn’t do it, nobody else is going to and it’s just going to be a bigger nightmare the next time the door gets opened.” But the final girls represent a narrow definition of a “good victim,” who are only “socially acceptable victims for a short period of time before we want them to follow the way of the hero and emerge from their trauma with new strength and wisdom…Paradoxically, we want people who are at their weakest to be the strongest they have ever been.” What if, in real life, you aren’t a good victim? McOuat hasn’t been, and she tells us about it.

Also: What if you aren’t a good queer? In conventional queer discourse, you come out as one thing and stay that way. McOuat discusses what she terms “bi-scrutiny” in the context of Amber Heard, her high-profile court case with Johnny Depp, and her first starring role in an indie slasher flick called All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, where she plays a “bisexual spree-killer-on-a-mission.” On fluid desire and the limits of labels, particularly for bi+ women, McOuat writes:

“Who I am, and what words I use to identify myself to others, often has me twisted in knots because it seems determined by what others think I am or what I want others to think about the people I have loved instead of something intrinsic to me. The labels have changed from something self-empowering to now a title that is earned, bestowed, and must be maintained at all stages of your life. I have been many people in my lifetime, at different times different labels would apply to me. That is not a sign that I have an unstable identity, it’s proof I am growing and learning.”

The Call Is Coming From Inside The House is an ideal read for anyone interested in any one of its disparate themes: horror movies, queer parenthood, mental health, bisexuality, true crime, and more. But its true power and beauty lie in the ability to turn the simultaneous discussion of those themes into more than the sum of their parts, creating a queer feminist tapestry of wise words that transcends any one topic. I truly cannot recommend this essay collection enough!

The Call Is Coming from Inside the House: Essays by Allyson McOuat comes out April 30 and is available for preorder.

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Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 125 articles for us.


  1. I very much appreciate this review! Tbh, I was skeptical of the book after reading the headline but you dispelled pretty much all of my misgivings in the review. Looks like an interesting read

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