Eric LaRocca’s masterful epistolary novella tells the reader immediately that Agnes Petrella is dead. What follows is the chronological correspondence between Agnes and her online girlfriend, Zoe, from the time they meet until Agnes’ untimely demise.
First, we see a post by Agnes on an LGBTQ+ message board. It’s an ad for the sale of an antique apple peeler that belonged to her great-grandmother. Zoe Cross responds by email to the solicitation: she wants to buy the peeler for her grandfather due to its unlikely connection to composer Charles Ives, which had been included in Agnes’ original description. From there, chemistry sparks as the two share sentiments about their grandparents and slowly get to know one another.
Agnes soon discloses to Zoe that she is selling the apple peeler to help pay bills so that she can keep her apartment. She shares the story of the antique; it was one of the last things she received from her mother before being cut off for revealing her sexuality. In her mother’s words, “My child isn’t gay.” Zoe sends her deepest sympathies and offers to wire money to cover Agnes’ monthly rent payments. She graciously accepts and reveals to Zoe that she was nearing the end of her rope: “You plucked me right from the edge before I was about to jump … You’ve changed my life, guardian angel.”
Already clear from these early exchanges is the power imbalance forming between the pair. Zoe, right from the start, has money and security to hold over Agnes. Regardless of any ill intent, holding someone as a savior blurs perception and opens one up to manipulation. Creeping unease is apparent even before they exchange screen names and the correspondence moves to instant messaging, which LaRocca employs beautifully to convey the growth of their relationship. His prose, especially in the longer email messages, is vibrant and quite poetic. The instant messages are written in a way that showcase Agnes’ anxiety and awkwardness, while also making clear that Zoe is direct and dominant. These points are magnified by their respective handles: anges_in_wonderland_76 and crushedmarigolds.
As the relationship deepens, cracks in introductory politeness and niceties widen into jealousy and control. Zoe tells Agnes that her father used to ask her, “What have you done today to deserve your eyes?” He meant it as a way of saying not to take eyesight, among other gifts, for granted. What begins as Zoe daring Agnes to wear a too-sexy dress into the office to “deserve her eyes,” soon morphs into a contractual agreement whereupon Zoe assumes complete ownership over Agnes. What ensues is a tale of manipulation, obsession, and self-mutilation leading to destruction.
As a queer youth already on social media myself in the early 2000s, when Things Have Gotten Worse is set, I relate deeply to the idea that, while looking for solace from hate and rejection in your “real life,” it could be easy to fall into the arms of someone online who offers emotional support. It’s not a stretch to imagine being willing to sacrifice whatever you have or going to any lengths in order to hold onto those relationships. LaRocca encapsulates this concept in a very strangely shaped package, complete with some bizarre and imaginative body horror. It’s a study on unchecked mental health and how relationships ultimately change us.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke makes for a quick and compelling read that I would highly recommend to most readers (assuming they have a relatively strong stomach), but especially to fans of horror, epistolary novels, and transgressive lit. LaRocca describes the story as “like a cross between JG Ballard and David Cronenberg and Dennis Cooper,” and I couldn’t think of a better way to say it myself.
The novella is out June 1, 2021 from Weirdpunk Books.
Evan St. Jones does non-profit work by day and book stuff by night. Their short stories and novella are unpublished as of yet, but they have a few pieces of flash fiction around if you know where to look. They’re a co-creator of LGBTQIA+ organization, QUEERPORT and co-owner of Vessel Vintage in Shreveport, Louisiana, where they live with their partner and three-legged dog