Told as a series of e-mail exchanges and instant messages between two women, being shared as part of an ongoing police investigation, ‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ is a disturbing descent into the minds of a master manipulator and someone who is struggling to find their place and is desperate to find somewhere they belong.

Set in the year 2000, when the internet was still burgeoning and social media was a thing of the future, there is still a lot about the online aspect of this startling new novella that will resonate with anyone who spends any amount of time on sites like Facebook or Twitter. It is a story that is about manipulation, and depression told through the lens of a young woman trying to make a connection with somebody from behind a computer screen.

The book opens with a fictional author’s introduction, alluding to an ongoing police investigation. No spoilers, but needless to say that outlining how things play before the book even begins is a bold gambit, but totally pays off once you delve into the documents that make up the book’s narrative drive.

The opening chapter is an advert on an online message-board (remember them?) placed by Agnes, who is looking to sell a treasured antique passed down through her family for generations. When she gets a response from Zoe, who is interested in buying, Agnes opens up to her about her reasons for selling, and we find that she is struggling financially and is parting with this treasured heirloom, somewhat unwillingly, in order to make that month’s rent payment.

THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE BY ERIC LAROCCA BOOK COVER

It is an understated and low-key start, but the brilliance of this novella is how insidiously the stakes build and the escalation slowly creeps up on you. Agnes seems almost desperate to share private details about her life, freely telling very personal stories with very little encouragement. Zoe, on the other hand, remains something of an enigma, even as the story progresses and while we learn a lot about Agnes, her upbringing and her life in general throughout the book, most of what we learn about Zoe is inferred and not explicit, knowing what we do by her actions and by reading between the lines, and not what she tells Agnes.

Things escalate fairly rapidly once Agnes feels more comfortable with Zoe, and things build to a horrifying crescendo, replete with some pretty gnarly and unpleasant body horror. As skilled as Larocca is at subtlety, and conveying his characters feelings and intentions without necessarily stating them explicitly, he proves to be equally adept at making the reader uncomfortable, and the books ending is equal parts memorable, upsetting and horrifyingly surreal.

By the books close, answers are not forthcoming beyond those that we were given right from page one. I was struck by an urge to re-read immediately after putting it down because it is one of those rare stories where every line, and every word, carries weight. Much like social media in 2020, the way people represent themselves online is not always how they may be face to face and intentions are easily hidden behind carefully curated tweets or seemingly innocuous posts with a veiled agenda. There is a lot happening in the correspondence between these two women that is never stated but is there if you read carefully enough, and the ease with which things get out of hand is what disturbs the most.

‘Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke’ is a truly masterful piece of writing.

By opening with a summation of how things ultimately play out, it adds a crushing weight and tension to everything that comes after, turning seemingly innocent messages into something altogether more sinister. It’s a pitch-perfect look into what motivates people, abuse of power and malicious exploitation behind a screen of anonymity that won’t be so easily forgotten after the final page is done.

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Reviewer

Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. 

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