Story Study: The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest

This is the first post in a brand new series where I plan to read a story a week out of a Year’s Best anthology, and discuss what makes that story tick. The first anthology I’m taking on is Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 1. Fellow author, Evelyn Freeling ( is joining me on this adventure. If you would like to follow along, be sure to grab your own copy and let me know!

Quick synopsis

Simply put, this is a story about Jenny and her husband dealing with her postpartum depression, but something isn’t quite right. Starting with the epidural during Max’s birth, we are given hints of something odd. It felt like a reversal of Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in that Greg, the husband, isn’t really gaslighting her, but that Jenny thinks that he may be. But I will go more into this after the spoiler line below.

Initial thoughts

I missed quite a few details on the initial read. Everything about this story felt uneasy, and I was constantly changing my own mind on what may be going on up until the end. On the second read, I started to catch on to more and more details that are meant to lead us one way and then the other. Campbell did a wonderful job constructing this story in a way that draws us through to the end.

Spoiler line

Warning! After this line there will be spoilers. If you have not yet read the story, read on at your own risk.

What makes this story tick?

I love how through the whole story the evidence seems to point to Jenny’s psychosis as the cause of all their problems. After she gets the epidural which places a “film between her and the world,” it’s like she has been split in two. There is her and then there is her shadow self, which seems to be conspiring against her to do something to Max.

What makes this even more interesting is that she seems to have a previous history with depression. Even in the delivery room the doctor tells her, “Do not touch!” and “Don’t you know what you are?” The first instance I just brushed off on first read, but the second really was cause for concern.

I also love that before the birth she researched all the horrible things mothers could do to their own child, and Greg took notice. She even compares herself to animals at many points in the story to make the connection to mothers in the wild who would eat their own children. I can only imagine the amount of terror Greg must’ve felt for not only his child, but for his wife, who he must truly love. He seems to be doing his best in this wild situation.

But the absolute perfection of this story is in the final lines. Before then, we could chock all of this up to her psychosis, and she finally got over it and they had wonderful years with Max as he grew into an older child. I could even believe that the narration told from Jenny’s shadow self still trapped down in the basement was only symbolic or just how Jenny thought of her previous issues. But at the very end we learn that Max can also hear the cicadas in the basement. This is proof that wasn’t all in Jenny’s head. This means that Jenny’s shadow self, which emerged during Max’s birth, is a real and probably malevolent entity, waiting for it’s moment to strike.

Terrifying stuff. Yeah, the story works just fine without the final revelation, but with it, the story is something truly worthy of this best of anthology.

Be sure to go and read Evelyn’s response as well!

Next Time

If you would like to follow along, we will be reading ‘Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart’ by Sam J. Miller, the next story in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume 1. Watch this space for a discussion of that next week.