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I had a lot of time so I read the newspaper. I read all of the latest news about the killer. He was supposed to be a young white man, blond, blue-eyed, hazel-eyed. He was supposed to drive a silver car, a beige car, a white car. He had been hunting here for months, years. He was likely to have no criminal record.

He caught another girl. Her school picture was on the front page. She had the same long hair as the others, bangs hairsprayed into a neat puff, braces on her teeth, a uniform sweater-vest. She'd been on her way to a music lesson, and they found her violin case, empty, tossed into the ravine. No fingerprints.

Dad said, "You'd better be thankful you aren't out there, walking the streets."

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The town in Claire Humphrey's "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" is plagued by a serial killer who targets young women, so Beck's dad buys a safekeeper; a protective device that clamps into a vein on the wearer's arm. The safekeeper shoots electricity at attackers and reports any physical violence against its wearer to pre-programmed numbers. Getting Becks fitted with the device looks like a protective act of parental love and concern on the part of her father, but the reader can see immediately that this 'protection' is at best misguided as Becks is worried and feels pain as the safekeeper attaches itself:

"Oh. I thought it was going to be one of those tennis bracelets," I said, trying not to freak. But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.
The safekeeper bit like a viper, the teeth on the skin side finding my vein and latching there. The seal was good enough that no blood ran out, but it hurt like a bitch.


Initially, I thought the point of "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" was to draw a parallel between the well-meaning but sexist approach of an anxious father and the violent misogynistic control of an abusive boyfriend. Beck's friend Lindsay is hurt by the physical abuse and emotional control of her boyfriend Shawn, and Beck's father hurts his daughter by limiting her freedom and pushing her to wear the safekeeper. I expected "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" to shows that even men who care about women can be controlling, using the language of 'protection' to harm, limit and shame women into modifying their lives.

Turns out Humphrey's story heads in a different direction. Early on, the story shows the reader signs that Beck's father casually disrespects her mother. He doesn't give her the combination to Beck's safekeeper, claiming she is 'scatterbrained', and he doesn't program the safekeeper to call his wife if Becks is attacked. Becks describes one of his facial expressions as a look 'he usually saved for when Mom had loaded the dishwasher wrong'. While these might be dismissed as low level sexist jibes, the kind women receive from loving men who are still mired in a sexist culture, there's an air of menace around the way he approaches giving Becks the safekeeper, and this changes the way the reader views these comments.

As you can seen in the quote above, Becks tries 'not to freak' when she opens the safekeeper's box, which tells the reader that she doesn't want the safekeeper fitted. The fact that she doesn't voice her concerns to her father indicates that she doesn't expect much discussion about whether she wants to wear it and that she expects a negative response to any freak out she might have. And she's right; her father snaps the safekeeper on her and locks it without asking. This first section of the story signals that there's something particularly off about her father, but the true level of his controlling nature only becomes clear as the story develops and releases more details. By the end of the story, the reader can see that Beck's dad is a violent emotional and physical abuser just like Lindsay's boyfriend Shawn.

I can't decide if making Beck's dad a conscious abuser, rather than a loving but sexist man, is a failing, or if the story still works. In real life, the message that women need to surrender control and obey in order to remain safe often comes from well-meaning people who genuinely care. Not every man who believes it's important to ask whether female victims of violence were safe and smart is a consciously manipulative villain. At the same time, they are sexist and unintentionally manipulative. And we could do with stories which explain that point because it's easy for society to overlook this negative behaviour which does such everyday damage to women. The closest approximation of a controlling but caring man "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" gives the reader is Tiff's dad who 'stopped home between business trips long enough to tell her he would appreciate it if she didn't go around by herself either. He didn't stick around to make sure she obeyed or anything, but still.'.

As I said, I think Humphrey's story provides clues to Beck's father's nature early on, but I'm not sure the reader is supposed to notice that these are clues until they've go back to re-evaluate the opening after reading the whole story. Maybe, like the girls, readers are supposed to look past their instincts. Maybe the feminist reader is even set up to expect a story that contrasts violent abuse with a sexist culture of subtle control, so they focus on the more obvious abuse of Shawn, as Becks does, and miss that Beck's dad is just as malevolent. Maybe the reader is supposed to notice how the girls distract themselves from calling out Shawn's abuse, but never consider that Becks may be similarly distracting herself from noticing how far her father's control extends? If I looked past my instincts, and assumed Beck's dad was sexist but benign does that mean the story achieved what it sets out to do?

Maybe someone else who's read this story wants to chime in on this?

"Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" is a tense story, and not just because of the angry, controlling behaviour of Shawn and Beck's father. Although the reader never meets the killer of the story he lurks in the background constantly - 'a young white man, blond, blue-eyed, hazel-eyed. He was supposed to drive a silver car, a beige car, a white car.'. Without ever meeting them, this killer comes to control the lives and thoughts of the women in this story. And that's a powerful fictional recreation of the way violent, misogynistic killers are given a wider range of influence by the way society responds to them.

There's been a lot of commentary about how the media presents violence against women, and how impractical it is to ask women to take responsibility for their own safety. In real life, vague descriptions of killers fuel a frightening urban legend legacy which keeps women afraid even when there's no immediate threat. Women are encouraged to "remain vigilant" or, in harsher terms, to be constantly fearful because the world is violent. The women in Humphrey's story are on high alert, as is the reader; sensitive to a mere mention of a car that vaguely matches the description on the news. Even when the man is caught, Beck's mother remains fearful. Beck's parting words 'Mom flinched a little when she saw it; I could tell she was still thinking of the killer. But he was put away now, and the driver of that car could have been anyone.' shows the reader how women are conditioned to remain fearful by the constant presence of male violence in their lives. Even when immediate danger has passed this instinct skews their view of life. However, Beck's practicality also offers the reader hope that a new generation can break this cycle.

Before I finish, I've got to mention the girls and their friendship as this has slowly become one of my favourite things about "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye". The first time I read this story I thought it was cool that Becks had a group of tight female friends, but that the other girls - Jen, Lindsay and Tiff - were shadowy background characters who were a bit undifferentiated. I had a hard time remembering which name went with which girl. When read it a second and third time I had a better handle on who each girl was, as well as what their backgrounds were. And I started to see how each of them contributes a unique strand to the feminist commentary of the story. Probably the saddest moment of the story for me was the section where Jen attends a dance and lets a boy kiss her because 'she might as well'. Jen's mother picks them up and Becks says:

it struck me how much Jen looked like her: round face, full-lidded brown eyes, and that expression that looked like a smile but wasn't. It was something else, doing the job of a smile. A good job, too, mostly, but you could tell it was just business, and at the end of the day it would turn the lights out and lock up.


This links back to Beck's earlier observation of Lindsay, 'The next time I looked at Shawn and Lindsay, he was kissing her hair, and if she had her card-player face on, well, she usually did.'. This is a story well aware of the masks women wear and the compromises they make to feel like they fit into a normal world.

On my second and third read through I also saw how the four girls form a support group that ranges from being benignly toxic to incredibly valuable. The girls spend a lot of time hanging out with Lindsay andShawn, something the reader might find a little odd considering that none of the other girls have boyfriends. However, as Shawn's more abusive tendencies emerge, it becomes clear that the other girls often act as a buffer. When Lindsay and Shawn's conversations lead their friend down an intense path the other three girls offer up a distraction so Lindsay isn't hurt more than she might be. However, they never call Shawn on his behaviour or significantly push Lindsay to look at how he acts. And when Becks comes across Shawn stroking Lindsay's face while she sleeps, she deflects any potential anger at discovering him touching her friend so possessively and leaves. There's an element of fear at play here - Shawn is physically powerful and this is a story about women living in the shadow of societal male violence after all - but I think their behaviour also reflects how women learn to give weird male behaviour a pass and to deflect it rather than confront it. And it's clear how much they adore each other and rely on their friends. My favourite supportive moment has to be when Becks leaves home and Tiff and her dad just let her stay without asking any questions.

Maybe rereading is something we should talk about more in relation to short fiction and reviewing. Generally, I read novels once before I review them. When I write long form reviews I'll consult the book again before finalising my post, but I don't reread the whole story or even a significant chunk of it. In contrast, when I want to review a short story I'll generally reread the whole thing before starting the review (albeit sometimes skimming a little bit). And because the stories are so short I have the chance to revisit large parts of the text as I forge on with the review. This changes the relationship I have with the text and means that I have the chance to form a different kind of bond with short stories story than I do with novels. I think this must influence how I review them. I'd certainly have written a different review of "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" if I'd read it once and written the review as soon as I'd finished. I'd be interested to know how other people approach reading and reviewing short stories - drop any thoughts in the comments section.

Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye" is available to read for free at Strange Horizons.

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