They Were Here Before Us Doesn’t Deliver on Its Intriguing Premise

Eric LaRocca, one of the buzziest contemporary horror writers, releases their new short story collection today. They Were Here Before Us centers around the horrors of the animal kingdom, a premise that intrigued me when I first heard about it. I’ve read some of LaRocca’s previous work and found it to be bold and promising, so I was excited to have the opportunity to read their newest book before it hit the shelves.

Unfortunately, this collection never quite came together for me. I know this will not be a particularly popular opinion, and in some ways, I’m grateful for that. I love seeing queer horror writers succeed, and I’m happy that so many readers have found things to love about LaRocca’s work. The more authors writing strange, queer, and challenging stories, the better. As a reviewer and a reader myself, however, I just couldn’t get on board. While many of the stories contained the spark of an interesting idea, they were undone by issues with LaRocca’s prose and a surprisingly limited take on animal minds. 

The first four stories are all relayed through animal narrators. In “All That Remains is Yours to Keep,” a beetle falls in love with the corpse he inhabits. “Delicacies From a First Communion” follows a chimp whose owner has died and left him in the hands of his jealous partner. “A God Made of Straw” involves a mother bird protecting her nest from a child’s destructive impulses, and “To Hurt the Weakest One” follows a meerkat family with differing ideas on how to care for a vulnerable pup. 

Rose Chafer Beetle
“Rose Chafer Beetle” by MattX27 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

While I have no aversion to purple prose, the writing in these stories felt baggy in a way that worked against the narrative rather than with it. LaRocca often uses five words when one would suffice, and includes far too many sentences that serve only to reinforce what has already been said. In many cases, they attempt to emphasize moments by simply throwing out synonyms one after another, such as in this sentence from the first story: “It was then I realized the truth—she hated me. Despised me. She loathed me for what I had allowed to happen to her child.” Though I think lushness and intensity were intended here, the overall effect felt more diffuse and unedited.

Each story in this section opens with a sort of rambling introduction which accomplishes very little other than to establish the faux-erudite voice LaRocca uses for all of his animal narrators. This was one of the most puzzling choices made in this collection. I can’t understand what purpose was served by making a lovelorn beetle, a grieving ape, a frightened bird, and a steely mother meerkat all sound like stilted imitations of 19th-century narrators. No one voice is distinct from another, creating an oddly flat portrait of this diverse group of creatures.

Perhaps even more head-scratching is the fact that two of these stories begin with remarkably similar paragraphs.

From “All That Remains is Yours to Keep”:

“I can still so distinctly recall the moment when it first happened to me: the crucial, soul-defining moment when I realized that I loved her and loved her in such a way that I understood I could never fully possess her as I had always intended.”

From “A God Made of Straw”:

“I wish I could tell you I can recall the exact moment when he made his presence known to me. I wish I could entertain you with a detailed account of the moment when we first saw one another and, even worse, the moment when he decided I would be a loyal subject to his each and every cruelty.”

Cover of “They Were Here Before Us”

Beyond my issues with the writing, I also felt that these narratives belied an odd lack of curiosity about their subjects. Perhaps this is not entirely fair; perhaps I am asking the book to be something it’s not. But it seemed like a missed opportunity that the voices and inner worlds of these animal narrators felt entirely indistinct, not just from each other, but from LaRocca’s human narrators as well. These characters seemed more often than not to feel human emotions, make human choices, concern themselves with human codes of morality, and have deeply human relationships. These conventions are often only subverted in moments intended to shock, which didn’t land for me. Why should an audience be shocked by animals behaving like animals? When I first picked up this collection, I was excited by the horrific possibilities inherent in excavating alien minds, ways of living in and seeing the world that might feel entirely foreign to me. Instead, the characters were so highly anthropomorphised that, with slightly different contexts, they could have easily read as human.

The two stories with human protagonists, “Bird and Bug are Happy” and “When It’s Dark Out” fare slightly better. While some of the writing issues remain, the voices here are much more natural and the stories unfurl more confidently. 

“Bird and Bug are Happy” follows a couple struggling with one partner’s mounting dementia symptoms while the other partner experiences an unsettling transformation of her own. The lengths the two women go to in order to hold onto their crumbling relationship are often genuinely touching, and the climax is effectively bloody and fitting.

I had a more difficult time with “When It’s Dark Out.” In some ways, I think it’s the most successful story of the collection. The writing is much more restrained and kinetic, the central relationship is more complex, and there’s a fantastic monster. But I was frustrated by the choice to write a cartoonishly awful and homophobic teenager into the story as a shortcut for creating conflict and providing a morally permissible sacrifice. It felt cheap and a little silly, providing readers with a “f*ck yeah!” moment without doing much to earn it. I love to see a homophobic idiot get literally ripped to shreds as much as the next queer, but this instance left me cold.

This isn’t far from what I felt about They Were Here Before Us as a whole. The collection promised a lot, but when it came time to deliver, it just didn’t hit the way I hoped it would. That being said, I’m still excited to see what Eric LaRocca works on next.

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Written by Saskia Nislow

Saskia is a writer, ceramicist, horror freak, and queer creature. Find more of their stuff at or at @cronebro on Twitter and Instagram.

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