Liz Phair Gives New Meaning to Horror in ‘Horror Stories’ (Book Review)

Horror StoriesWe spend so much time hiding what we’re ashamed of, denying what we’re wounded by, and portraying ourselves as competent, successful individuals that we don’t always realize where and when we’ve gone missing. How foolish we feel in those rare instances when the fog dissipates, the path is clear, and we see our hapless footprints wandering around all over the place. Those are the resolute moments, the sober morning-after reflections when we plant our feet facing in the direction we wish to go and vow never to deviate from empathy, honesty, and inspiration.

“In the stories that make up this book, I am trusting you with my deepest self,” writes beloved indie rock star Liz Phair in the prologue to her memoir, Horror Stories, which was published last October. The memoir, she writes, is her effort to “slow everything down and take a look at how we really become who we are. It’s more than just my personal story. It’s about the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures that we make toward one another. Horror isn’t necessarily the big, ghoulish creature waiting to pounce on you in the dark. Horror can be found in brief interactions that are as cumulatively powerful as the splashy heart-stoppers, because that’s where we live most our lives … Horror Stories is music, not data—the haunting melodies I hear over and over again in my head.”

Phair’s memoir is far from conventional—it’s a look at stories from her own life and upbringing, as most memoirs are, but it also functions as an intimate look at the moments in everyone’s lives that we don’t really talk about: the “silent insults to our system” that, at the end of the day, ultimately bind us all. The blunt and effective voice that catapulted her 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville to its status as one of the most important and powerful records ever made by a woman is definitely present here, guiding us through the quieter moments of her life that she might never have shared elsewhere.

Horror Stories offers little in the way of salacious gossip or unheard insights into certain aspects of her career, so I definitely wouldn’t compare it to other more humorous celebrity memoirs that may incorporate a bit of “setting the record straight.” A memoir is considered stories from a life, and Horror Stories is just that. If anything, sometimes the stories are so random, unconventional, and somewhat messed up that it’s hard for the reader to tell what they are supposed to take from them—and I have to believe that was entirely the point. Phair has spent the better part of her career giving the finger to genres and playing by the rules, so I would expect nothing less from her memoir. Some fans, however, were less impressed by the lack of insights into her career: in her review in The New York Times titled “Liz Phair Still Doesn’t Care What We Think” (because she doesn’t), Stacey D’Erasmo wrote, “Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that’s one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear.”

As a result of the unconventionality and oddball nature of most of Phair’s chapters, Horror Stories does tend to drag a bit: it’s difficult to both articulate the “small indignities we all suffer daily” as well as keep her stories consistently interesting and compelling. Again, I don’t really believe that was the point. I believe the point of her memoir was for Phair to voice the horrors that hide within her, and maybe of the horrors that hide within us, too. If anything, she’s continuing to argue for her right to be seen as a messy, incomplete, and sometimes irresponsible human being, and in sharing her own experiences, she makes it okay for the rest of us to be seen that way as well. 4/5 stars.