Anatomy of a story: The Santas by Jen Rowe

This month, we’re looking at The Santas by Jen Rowe, a hilarious and grotesque short story that packs a novel’s worth of critique of rampant consumerism into a 1000-word-ish flash.

You can read the whole thing on Retreat West here, but make sure you come back for the anatomy lesson. Also, definitely go read it first because everything from here on in is one big spoiler.

The Santas shows us a world in which young children are bereft of awe in exchange for the quick dopamine hit of screen-based games, and older parents lament the loss of wonder and tradition. So far, so normcore. Except in this version, gifts are delivered by birthing Santas who expire after expelling their biggest gift, and their ultimate sacrifice is gleefully celebrated in the name of tradition.

On the surface, this is straight-up body horror with a twist of Very Funny, but dig deeper, and something real is happening here: a story about the way we uphold certain behaviours even when they are obviously damaging, the way we ignore reality and eschew connection in ever deeper and complex ways, and how it might take time and introspection and courage, but genuine change is always possible.

The Santas by Jen Rowe

A tiny Santa writhed on the floor, rustling its tinsel nest as it squealed its Christmas Eve agonies.

We are launched straight into the story with a combination of familiar and unfamiliar. We all know Santa, tinsel, and Christmas Eve, but we know it as a time of supposed comfort, celebration and joy. We are immediately confronted with all those lovely things turned on their head—why is Santa in agony, and why does this seem normal in this world? In addition, the image of a tinsel nest is both funny and intriguing.

“Josh,” Maureen whispered, “see what the Santa’s bringing you!”

The Santa? Why is it The Santa? Again, something familiar has been skewed just enough to make it confusing and compelling.

Her son gripped the controller tightly, eyes set on his PS35. “Mum! Shhh!”

His screen beamed, Congratulations! Level 3! As he thumbed the middle button in just the same way he’d done a thousand times before.

Behind him, the foot-long pudgy-pink Santa, partially clothed in its red woollen coat, grunted and strained.

We know this scene well—kid refuses to tear eyes away from screen and misses something amazing. And yet it’s not cliche or boring because what the actual hoozits is going on with The Santa?! Also, PS35—lol. 

“Come on love, it’s tradition.” Maureen squeezed Josh’s shoulder and stepped back, as though he were a particularly venomous snake. She wore a reindeer jumper whose nose no longer lit up since her son had purloined the battery for his headset weeks before.

There is so much characterisation in these two sentences, so much story told—tradition vs something new, family connection vs staring into the void of a screen. We can hear Maureen’s voice and see her actions as she tries to connect with her son under the guise of tradition, her fear of the rejection that she already knows is coming, the son not only dismissive but somehow ravenous, taking whatever he needs in locust-like desperation to fill his needs, regardless of what he ruins in the process. (Also, it’s just funny). 

Josh flinched at her touch, but deigned to glance over just as the Santa went rigid and something grew with unnatural speed in its belly. It hoo-ed and haa-ed, it’s little face scrunching with effort.

Ok, so what is actually going on with Santa?!

Josh rolled his eyes and returned to ‘Insect Wars II’.

The Santa made a noise like a rutting deer and Maureen sighed. “It’ll be dead in a few hours, love. You can play your game later.”

No, really, what is happening? 

A high-pitched ‘whooooo!?’ shot from the Santa’s nest.

Josh eviscerated a giant cockroach with his Deathsabre and his avatar ascended to level 4. “I’m busy!”

So much imagery in so few words—the whoooo of the Santa mirroring the evisceration of the pixel cockroach.

On the carpet, the smooth corners of something cube-like stretched the limits of the Santa’s stomach. Its tiny hands pushed desperately at the expanding object, forcing it down from under its ribs and towards its Present Sphincter. The scream rattled the ill-fitting windows of their small terraced house.

Impeccable timing—we now find out more about the Santa, but not too much, moments before we get too annoyed or confused at not knowing and now we’re left with another question, and that question is: wtf?! 

“Aaah!” Maureen cooed. “The Magic of Christmas. Look, Joshy, it’s a big one!”

This is hilarious. Shitting presents from a sphincter and blood-curdling screams presented as the magic of Christmas. Now, far be it from us to get all Marxist critique on yo witerly beehives, but you do see what’s happening here, yes? It’s not even subtext; it’s literally the text.  Christmas in its modern incarnation is an absolutely bizarre ritual that involves celebrating peace, joy and love via pushing our emotional and financial limits to breaking point and the wild exploitation of others. Rowe has simply removed the middlemen of fancy shops or shiny marketing spiel and shown us how it is. It’s utterly horrifying, and we’ve not even got into the meat of the story yet. 

Josh cursed as his avatar was eaten by a Dreg-muncher, but he turned to look all the same. The square package, recently ejected from the Santa’s lower orifice, lay drying in a puddle of gelatinous pink goo. It glistened next to the panting Santa who, even now, was staring with a mixture of horror and fascination as a new gift started to form in it’s miniscule gut.

Mother read the label:

“Have a great Christmas, Josh! Love Santa.”

Afterbirth as Christmas cheer. What can we even say about that?!

“Gross.” Josh waited for the present to dry then, picking it up between finger and thumb, tossed it under the tree with the others. Twelve presents glimmered against the fairy-lights.

He returned to the screen, as the Santa started squealing once more.

Here, we get a glimpse that Josh’s lack of interest might not be purely because he’s obsessed with his game. He’s disgusted by what he sees. He doesn’t want to participate in it and is seeking solace or distraction in something else. 

Maureen returned to the solace of her room. She didn’t bother turning on the light, but sat in the darkness and thought of her own – happier – childhood christmases.

‘Santa gives its life for us and every year the same,

If Santa doesn’t visit, then there’s only you to blame,’

This is so ghoulish. It can be read as a blistering takedown of austerity and neoliberal economics, where the overriding philosophy is that poor people deserve to be poor, that if you don’t have what you need, then you simply aren’t working hard enough and that you do indeed only have yourself to blame. Maureen was happier in her childhood Christmas, not because traditions were adhered to but presumably because she was unaware of the true nature of this blame. But there’s also something else going on here—Santa gives his life every year. What does this represent? It has a Jesus vibe, but given the nature of the rest of the story, it feels like something else—a warning, perhaps, of the destruction and death wrought by mindless resource use.

She remembered her mother teaching her that rhyme when she was barely four. You had to want a Santa to come, or it wouldn’t climb out of its burrow. You had to keep traditions alive, her mother said.

But what had become of tradition? The turkey worship, the December fir tree hunts, the shaming of the virgins?

Bwahahahhaa. Regardless of what we read into this story, this is just funny. 

These days, you could barely tell it was the festive season – children got presents whether they had a Santa or not, and she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been divorced under the mistletoe.

A blood-curdling scream rattled through the house.

She smiled. At least you could rely on the Santas. They still crept out of the mud on Christmas eve, they still blinked wide-eyed into their one day lifecycle.

Again, that wonderful juxtaposition of taking joy at the pain and suffering of others. It’s not just that it’s effective in a story; it’s holding up a very clear mirror to our world. We might not actively do this, but we are all very aware of the inequalities of our world and participate anyway. We sacrifice our humanity every time we opt for 24-hour delivery from an online shop where we know the workers have to piss in bottles rather than take a break.

“Mu-um!”

She sighed, stood up and went back to the living room.

“It’s gone wrong.” Josh didn’t look up, simply shrugged one shoulder towards the Santa. “It spoke.”

Maureen laughed. “Don’t be silly, love, they don’t -”

“Make stop!” A rasping voice whispered up at her.

“See.”

“But they can’t -”

“Please, make stop.”

“Yeah,” Josh mimicked, “make stop, make the stupid Santa stop talking.”

Maureen stared in disbelief. “But Santas don’t…, they just… Santas don’t…” She peered into the tinsel nest now sweaty with blood and goo. The Santa lay panting, beaded in sweat, yet another present forming under its skin. It’s eyes were red; were those tears? As she leaned over, it peered up and reached out a tiny hand.

Okay, bear with me here… Josh is your classic Gen Zer, very aware of the horrors of the world, of the oncoming apocalypse and their inability to affect any meaningful change, and opts to handle these facts via the absurdity, mockery and obsessive screentime. His mother, the Boomer/Gen Xer, is finally getting a glimpse of what their generation has allowed to happen and is starting to get a hint of a connection about what that actually means. 

“Help Santa?”

Those eyes, they were so soft, so appealing.

“Help?” She reached in and wiped its brow with her finger.

“Oh for…” Josh ripped the cord out of the wall and snatched up his games system. “If you’re going to keep talking I’m going!” And he flounced out, kicking a present at the wall.

“Food.” The Santa’s little hand grasped at the air.

“Santa’s don’t… eat. You, you’re full of presents.”

“Give food, we stop. Bread. Pleeeeaaase. Aaagh!” The next present was still growing. “Noooo!!!”

Mother ran into the kitchen and flung open cupboards, the larder, the fridge. Santas could feel?? It was too horrible to contemplate. She threw things onto a plate – tomatoes, bread, cheese – and started out of the door. In the distance she could hear ‘bread, bread, hurry…’. She faltered.

But that glimpse wasn’t enough. She is unwilling to give up the thing she loves despite the obvious pain and suffering it perpetuates. She doesn’t give the Santa the food, and he is allowed to die in agony. Well. Ahem. Awkward. 

Christmas morning, was just the same as always. Mother woke early, freed the fairies from the fairy-lights,

Lol. What an amazing image. 

gutted the pudding

Also lol. Christmas pudding definitely feels like it needs gutting.

and, at ten o’clock, she buried the remains of the Santa in the garden. As usual, it’s little body had exploded with the pressure of bigger and bigger presents.

It’s tradition, she had told herself as she collected the bits of body that had flown farther afield. It’s tradition.

Oof. Bleak af. A brilliant bait and switch. We were expecting Maureen to save the Santa, but she didn’t. 

She said it once more when Easter approached – as she stuffed eggs into the bunny and prepared the guest room for any dead relatives who rose again;

Lol. A funny line full of funny ideas. 

on Mayday she mumbled it into her chest as they prepared to hang the pleading Morris Dancers;

Don’t hang the Morris men! 

by Hallowe’en she could barely whisper it, as she rampaged through the graveyards with the screaming townsfolk.

As Christmas eve came round again, the house remained undecorated. She left Josh to his video games, filled a plate with food, and waited in the garden for the Santa to emerge.

Oh, wait, not all that bleak. Maureen redeems herself at the end. What could have been a truly harrowing story about the irredeemability of the human spirit twists on its head at the last second and shows us that we can actually learn and enact on compassion. 

3 Lessons For Your Own Writing

  1. Turn reality on its headRowe’s world is not our world, but it is very adjacent to ours. We recognise everything in it, and it takes a moment or two to consider what’s not the same and what’s gone wrong. Mixing familiar and unfamiliar allows us to make powerful statements and write strong, often shocking scenes. What in your writing is of our world, and what is adjacent to it? How can you amplify those differences and create a strong but compelling discordance?
  2. Critique the sacredEverything is up for grabs. Ask why, ask who benefits, ask where it all came from in the first place, then take it apart and put it back together again. What assumptions have you made in your story? Do they need to be there? Can you invert any of them to make something new and interesting?
  3. Let your characters breatheRowe lets Maureen follow her own path where her determined idolatry of tradition causes her to willingly let another sentient being die, and it’s only when she’s hit that horrific low that she begins to consider that maybe this is all wrong, actually. It would have been easy for Rowe to force the authorial hand on Maureen, perhaps saving her from the horrors of being a murderer but also pushing her in a direction that may have felt more unnatural. How can you let your characters breathe and grow on their own terms? What lows can you let them sink to without your support?

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