It’s almost Valentine’s Day, which has us thinking about affairs of the heart — but not in the Hallmark card way, of course. Yesterday saw the release of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories (an even better title than her last translated collection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales), and needless to say, the book is full of off-kilter, lurid, even violent attempts at connection. To celebrate the book’s release (and stock you up on reading in advance of Valentine’s Day), we’ve put together a list of ten of our favorite thoroughly messed up short stories about love. But of course, the literary world abounds with these, so read through and add your own twisted favorites in the comments.
“Tamara’s Baby,” Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
In this odd little short story, a horrible man (“At the dinner table he yelled and pontificated, spat our his doof and bared his only tooth, wishing both to stuff himself and to have his say”) meets a meek septuagenarian at a health resort, and they take up together — an odd but sweet love story. It’s not until later that you discover that she is only interested him because she thinks he is her dead baby resurrected, and she thrills to take care of him and his bald head and single tooth.
“Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe
From the very new to the very old — in Poe’s creepy 1838 story, an unnamed narrator tells of his love for Lady Ligeia, a shadowy, intelligent beauty with long black hair and a certain “strangeness” in her features. Eventually, she falls mysteriously ill and dies. Heartbroken, our narrator moves to England, where he marries a Lady Rowena. She too falls ill and dies — but wakes up as Ligeia (perhaps).
“The Infamous Bengal Ming,” Rajesh Parameswaran
Well it does live in a book called I Am an Executioner: Love Stories after all. In this story, the collection’s best, a tiger, hopelessly in love with his handler, shows him how he feels in the only way he can: by killing and consuming him, body and soul. The he escapes, setting off a rampage of sorts as he stalks through the suburbs, considering his own brutality, and falling in love with others.
“Fish,” Amelia Gray
Much of Gray’s work falls into this category (particularly her novel Threats, though its form obviously excludes it here), but we have a soft spot for this bizarre little story, which begins, “Dale was married to a paring knife and Howard was married to a bag of frozen tilapia. Each had fallen into their respective arrangements having decided independently that there was no greater match for them in life.” We’ll let her take it from there.
“The Mouse and the Snake,” David Sedaris
This little fable, which we read in Sedaris’ recent collection Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is an adaptation of an older story (we first read it as told by the Brothers Grimm), but we find Sedaris’ treatment even more chilling. In it, a mouse raises a snake from infancy, her heart bursting with unconditional love, willing to forgive (and feed) her baby anything. We bet you can already tell how this ends.
“Out to Sea,” Karen Russell
Old Sawtooth has a growing obsession with Augie, the felonious teenager assigned to him through the No Elder Person Is An Island Volunteer Program, ignoring her reticence, her stealing, her apparent distaste for him, even as she licks the tender place where the rest of his leg used to be. It’s a strange yet unbelievably tender story of love and connection in the (physical and emotional!) wilderness.
“The Bloody Chamber,” Angela Carter
This entire collection is full of beautifully terrible fairy tale inspired love stories, but our favorite is the eponymous tale, in which a teenage girl marries a Bluebeard-esque Marquis, who soon reveals his sadistic, and then his murderous tendencies. Our heroine falls in love with a blind piano tutor, but to no avail — she is soon to be beheaded like all the other wives when her mother shoots the bloody baron dead. True love, family, and sick obsession — this story has it all.
“A Temporary Matter,” Jhumpa Lahiri
Unlike many of the other stories on this list, this twisted love tale contains no animals, no physical deformities, no gross delusions, no madman in a castle. Instead, Shoba and Shukumar’s spiral into darkness is one of the most quietly disturbing modern love stories we’ve ever read. Because what else is a love story than what we tell each other in the dark?
“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor
In this grotesque classic, one of our all time favorites, Flannery O’Connor shows us what happens to you when you’re too smart for your own good — but not smart enough to parse a man who calls himself “Manly Pointer” as a possible sexual deviant. Hold on to your wooden legs, girls, there are pornography-toting false Bible salesmen afoot.
“Beverly Home,” Denis Johnson
In the final story of Johnson’s sublime collection, we find our offensively-nicknamed protagonist working as a writer in a nursing home, obsessed with a Mennonite woman, whom he spies on daily. But this is really an internal love story for the narrator, as he inches towards self-acceptance in his newfound sobriety. The story (and the book) ends with this: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”