Review: “Of Sorrow and Such” by Angela Slatter

slatterTor.com, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over eight months ago in Strange Horizons.

Patience Gideon lives a quiet life with her foster daughter and familiar, until another witch comes to town and trouble follows soon after. Rescuing a local shape-shifter goes pear-shaped when gratitude doesn’t guarantee common sense, and Patience finds herself in the hands of the men whose preferred dealings with witches end in public burning…

There’s an author’s note at the back of the book that says Of Sorrow and Such takes place in a pre-established universe; one that Slatter’s written about before in her collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. Fair warning: I haven’t read either of these, and so my assessment of Sorrow is purely as a standalone novella.

The story takes place in your typical European mediaeval/early modern community, complete with overbearing religious orders and expected hidebound social relations (especially gender relations: more on that later). I wondered briefly if this was a secondary world, but there are enough references sprinkled through (most often religious, along the lines of not suffering witches to live) to set it firmly in this one. “Simply confess how you worship and obey Lucifer, the fallen one” (114) says one of the churchmen, removing all my doubt.

There’s no real indication of a specific time period, though. I was a little surprised to find a reference to skin cells – “I should have no more attachment to her than I do the skin cells that slough off daily” (124) says Patience of her dust-double – which did give the text a more modern feeling. (Robert Hooke coined the phrase “cells” in the latter half of the 17th century after looking at sections of cork under a microscope. Cell theory wasn’t really developed until the 19th though, and I’m wondering how common knowledge of cells was previously, even for closet intellectuals living in small communities such as Patience was and did.)

So, the story’s untethered in time. A fair enough choice, given the strictures of the novella form, and it doesn’t need to be pinned down to rely on expectation – for rely it does. Most readers will have an (already heavily underlined) perception of the times of witch-burning and religious oppression. They’ll have had Galileo and Miller’s The Crucible rammed down their throats in school, reinforcing the basic unfairness of intellectually corrupt power structures and the tendency towards mass paranoia and finger-pointing resorted to by at-risk populations. Take her not me; it’s her that’s the witch, and so on.

Readers only have to be marginally more aware to realise the gender politics at play in accusations of witch-women: the uncontrollable feminine and the moral disasters that follow (so sayeth Authority) when it breaks out of bounds, disobedient at heart and a danger to all around it. Worse when the women themselves believe it, subscribing to an ideology that hurts them when they follow and hurts them when they don’t. (Take her not me.) If Sorrow is untethered in time it may be because there’s just no room for any more tethering, for Slatter takes these common expectations of witch hunts and women and absolutely hammers them.

Let’s be clear: this is not a subtle book. (Subtlety’s not always the goal, of course, but when it’s so clearly eschewed it’s interesting to wonder why.) There’s no mention of Malleus Maleficarum but it hammers and hammers anyway, this story of a witch-hunt from the other side. And part of this hammering is really quite wonderful, but part of it is not.

Sorrow is very clearly a book of female experiences, of the lives and secrets of women. It’s the sort of story I’m predisposed to love. But the more I read, the more I began to wonder if the underlying world-building rests on anything but expectation.

This is complicated somewhat by the simple fact that there is validity in Slatter’s approach. Sexism was a powerful social force during the historical witch-hunts, and glossing that over would have had many readers rolling their eyes, I think. It’s perfectly reasonable, then, for Slatter to weave women’s experience of sexism so thoroughly into her story. It’s a realistic choice.

But. BUT. How far does realism go, I wonder? Sorrow’s genre is not historical fiction. It’s a fantasy story. And while I hesitate to bring up the trope, “Everything changes but the status of women”… if I’m honest, while I was reading there were times when I thought it.

Sexism develops from power structures. This isn’t news to anyone: when one gender holds the balance of power (physical, political, religious etc.) over another then an unhealthy relationship between the two develops. There are numerous examples of this in Sorrow: the murderous collaboration between the pastor and the doctor as they try to poison the pastor’s wife so she can be traded in for a younger model; the domestic violence in the Brautigan family; the burning and hanging of women who stray from prescribed behaviour.

If this were a historical novella, where Patience and the women like her were persecuted for herbal remedies and talking out of turn then the unrelenting focus on the power relationship that is sexism in those times would be absolutely appropriate.

The thing is, power relationships change when the balance of power changes, and that’s what Sorrow doesn’t address. (The other texts in the story’s wider universe may do so, but as I said, I haven’t read them.) Patience and Selke – and by inference all the other witches – don’t make their way through the world by having green thumbs and knowing what feverfew will do for a migraine. They have real, tangible power.

When Flora Brautigan has her hand chopped off, Selke makes her a new one. Admittedly the ingredients are a little creepy – living clay and grave dust, for instance – but once the magic’s over it’s a functional hand and essentially no-one can tell the difference.

In a pre-industrial, primarily agricultural peasant economy, how, how is this not a game-changer for the existing power structure? Imagine that you’re a peasant farmer, a tenant farmer with a family to feed, and you’re out doing your thing in the fields when you trip over your own scythe and lose a limb. There’s no social security, no national health. If you can’t work you don’t eat and your family starves. And yet Patience still has a pre-magic, historical-genre understanding of what this means for society.

Consider her (quite lengthy, given the total word count) musings on how male-dominated medicine will eventually push her own efforts out of local healthcare.

I’m the person Edda’s folk turn to for everyday remedies even when Doctor Herbeau is visiting. Yet I harbour no illusions: I am tolerated. If a physician ever deigns to make his home here, then I shall become something of an embarrassment, an object of superstition …. A medical man will spout fancy terms they do not understand, patronise them, and hand out tablets that give a little relief but no cure …. A doctor with his empty vows will steal their hearts and hollow heads from me, and they’ll dismiss the times I saved their children from fever, or given elderly parents a balm against lingering disease. (7-8)

The full argument, over two pages, is crucial because it comes so close to the beginning of the book (it starts on the third page of the story proper). I don’t believe Slatter has given it so much time and early space for no reason: it’s the gender-theme of the book in a nutshell. Patience is skilled and useful, but she is also perceived as inferior, and when a more socially acceptable (if less capable) Learned Man comes along, she’ll be pushed out. This, she opines, is typical behaviour: “It has happened before and I’ve no doubt it will happen again” (8).

In a magic-absent society – and I’m talking real, demonstrable magic here, not the accusations minus empirical evidence that passed for sorcerous inquiry in historical times / passes for it in historical genre – Patience would probably be right. An existing power structure that privileges men over women would very likely bulldoze her methods for his.

If you’re a peasant with a headache you’d probably go along with it. I mean, there’s the Learned Man come with his diploma from the outside, come with the backing of university and church and he uses a lot of impressive words and gives you pills and instruction. On the other hand there’s Patience, who likely gave you a whack on the arse as a kid and chatted with your old Mum about your toilet training. You see her rummaging in hedgerows sometimes, looking for bits of green.

You’ve got a headache. You take the pill and the headache goes away. I mean they do eventually, don’t they? It’s just a headache.

But if you’re a peasant who’s just had both arms lopped off at the wrist because your neighbour in the fields was careless with swinging his scythe, then I’m sorry but the doctor with his pills can fuck right off compared to a woman who can give you back your hands. Fear of hell is totally overthrown by the fear watching your family starve in a ditch after eviction because you couldn’t work enough to pay rent on the farm.

That’s what magic does. It changes the balance of power. A change in the balance of power changes the power structure.

Always.

But not here.

Magic in Sorrow is deeply, undeniably powerful. It can recreate lost limbs, restore perfect function. It can even recreate a whole person well enough to fool others (as when Patience’s dust-double mimics her practised slipping-under-radar, behaving as expected under the most trying of circumstances). Magic can bring the dead back even if only to half-life; it can change people into animals and back again. Against the scientific and industrial capacity of mediaeval or early modern times it’s the power equivalent of giving grenades and a machine gun to a Neanderthal while the rest of them are hitting each other with clubs, but none of that fucking matters because in fantasy everything changes but the status of women.

And it’s such a shame because there was a point in this highly-feminine text where it looked like Sorrow had a handle on how power could play with gender. Patience has a giant dog who’s actually the forced transfiguration of a man she loved, a man who discovered what she was and spurned her. Patience, however, wanted what she wanted, a loyal and loving companion, and used her magic to enforce her wants. It’s such an inversion of gender expectation – often in fantasy, it’s the woman compelled to stay, her body shape forcibly controlled (see, for example: selkie). But Patience has power, and that alters not only Gideon’s body and fate but his emotions as well. That’s as far as it goes, however, and the clear next step lies untaken by the narrative, which otherwise sticks against all odds to the solidly gender-expected.

I wrote earlier that Of Sorrow and Such was a story of female experience, of the lives and secrets of women. And it is – but I can’t help but think, if only those experiences had come out of choice rather than compulsion. Instead, it’s the outside male threat that causes women to band together – as if they wouldn’t do it out of liking and shared interest and common cause. That threat is everywhere, from the domestic (how many brothers here have sexual designs on their sisters?) to the wider world (the witch-hunting churchmen).

Those churchmen. You know what I’d do, if I were the church trying to neutralise the effect of real magic – demonstrable, useful, potentially highly popular magic – on my preferred power structure? I’d engulf it, like I did with pagan festivals and midwinter feasts. I’d make it mine.

You can replace a severed limb, and you can do it where everyone can see and have no doubt of what you can do? Congratulations, pious lady! You’re a miracle worker, touched by the saints. We’ve a comfortable little anchorage for you, free food, a couple of servants, religious services every day. Your skills can get us prestige and cash. Not that we’d have you turn away the poor, of course not. Donations of any kind can help support Mother Church. Wait. You don’t want to? So sad. Don’t you have a daughter? (A brother, a husband…) Surely you’d never let anything happen to them, would you?

Witch-hunts for burning become witch-hunts for haven. Still creepy, still with issues of consent and suitable, imposed behaviour. Still with lopsided gender relations, the sexism underlined and women pushed into little boxes – but boxes they can shape themselves, because the acknowledgement of tangible power only increases it. The story’s still the same, but also different. Nothing changes perfectly, but it does change.

Because that’s what changing power – real power – does to power structures. It pries them open in new ways. It never, ever, ever leaves them static.

There is a great deal to like about Sorrow, but it is static, and the world-building does seem politically, socially shallow. Something informed primarily by historical settings and historical genre, never-quite-believing that it’s fantasy enough to really push that fantasy as far as it can go.

There were times, reading this novella, that I was charmed. There were times I admired it (nearly all of which were related to the bloody-minded practicality of Patience, who I really do enjoy though she’s not all that nice and has spurts of actual evil). The characterisation is undeniably fantastic. I got a better sense of the characters in this novella than I have the characters in a lot of actual novels. But once you’ve made the link of woman-power-bad in the world of Edda’s Meadow – and it’s impossible to miss doing so – then the plot is fairly obvious and the world-building takes on more than a whiff of paint-by-numbers. Writing about gender is a laudable goal, but genre I think has the capability of illuminating that discussion more than it does here. In speculative fiction, one should be speculative.

Short Stories and Transformation

apexmag11_largeFOOD AND HORROR, PART SIX

This is the sixth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

 

I’m a short fiction writer. I like the discipline of it, the concision. I like that it demands things from both readers and writers – that there’s no room to spoon-feed, that all the connections are implicit. They’re also, I think, more responsive to the world around us. There’s not the same expectation of economic return as there is in a novel, so there’s more room to experiment, to go for different setting and subjects, different cultures, different contexts. In this short stories are a very experimental form – and often a very aware one.

This awareness is present in food and horror shorts, as it is in the rest of sci-fi and fantasy. Writers know the consumption narrative, know it instinctively because food and horror has been around a long time, in any number of ways – natural and supernatural and textual, and with a history like that it’s easy to become referential.

In the first of these columns I talked about Hansel and Gretel, about the gingerbread house in the woods: dangerous temptation, peril spun about with sugar and marzipan, consumption within consumption for what is all this gingerbread for if not to plump up the witch’s next meal? Come stuffer the little children, so that the hungry owner of that house can stuff herself. It’s a well known story, and a well loved one.

What it is not is a static story. Damien Angelica Waters takes it on in her short “A Lie You Give, And Thus I Take”. Hansel doesn’t exist in this story, and the Gretel equivalent is a grown woman, the witch an abusive partner who feeds her up on sugar and marshmallow and tiramisu, measuring her hips and frowning, trying to feed up his girlfriend into the image of the house. Because the Gretel figure here is the house, in her way – tied to the domestic sphere with chores and expectation, “scrubbing meringue from the linoleum”. Taking to the house with a pastry knife, she believes it to be a reflection of her partner (“I’d know your handwriting anywhere”) but it’s not just the house he’s covering up with fondant. It’s the sugar-construction of both woman and home that links them together.

This is a story of linkages.

She thinks she’s in a different story sometimes, does this Gretel figure: Cinderella come into the house of gingerbread, but “All the stories are the same” says her feeder, when what he really means is all outcomes are predetermined, including yours. This is consumption of a different kind, a nibbling into shape, a cookie cutter gingerbread woman there to be consumed when she’s done with the scrubbing, when she’s placated the jealousy of accusations of infidelity. “You were with the dwarves, weren’t you?” he says, wanting to eat her up, and even though she wasn’t the suspicion was enough for punishment, for little bites of flesh (“…that night, you bite a little too hard, a little too many times, leaving me with a set of oddly-shaped, half-moon bruises”).

“I can’t remember ever being this hungry before”, states the Gretel figure, but what she’s really hungry for isn’t taffy or chocolate or raspberry preserves. It isn’t even chicken or soup or cubes of beef stock, the objects of her lonely fantasies. It’s the ability to break out of stories, to end the ongoing narrative of her consumption. The Gretel who shoved a witch into the stove to save her brother isn’t this aware – she’s too juvenile for awareness, for the comparisons of other stories and the undercurrents of gender and power. Her power is all on the surface, all adults and ovens. There’s little temptation there past the obvious, and certainly sex never comes into it. The witch may have bitten her all to pieces after her brother but the biting wouldn’t have been in bed, that’s for sure.

But if consumption narratives can be forcibly terminated, sometimes you’ve just got to see them through to the end. I’ve talked about Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Candy Girl” in this series before – it’s one of my absolute favourite short stories ever, so why not – and it has consumption and transformation winding round each other like a double helix. Waters has her Gretel figure putting a stop to her own consumption (to the endless swallowing of sugar, to the consumption of her sexual self) but Muna, the protagonist of “Candy Girl”, has to give herself up to consumption in order to force transformation.

Turning into chocolate at the behest of an idiot ex, who tried a love potion and got it wrong, his bastardised adoption of another culture failing under the shallowness of his understanding, Muna visits a wise woman to find out how to break the spell, to turn her from Bounty bar back into flesh. “Turns out he has to eat her,” says Ozulu. The sickly slide of flesh into sticky sugar can’t be stopped, but matter and energy both are transformative. As the act of eating recycles food into flesh, so Muna, become food, can change her state through that same consumption.

Paul, the dimwitted ex, is delighted. It’s what he’s always wanted: to eat her up, to have her culture inside him, a way to become the other, to transform himself from Whiteboy into Igbo. It was why Muna dumped him in the first place, the realisation that she’d become a fetish object to him, wanted not for herself but what she represented. “He wanted to belong and it didn’t matter whom he needed to fixate on to get in.” Then a spell goes wrong and suddenly there she is, in perfect consumable form, and he can barely contain his glee. He’s on her straight off, guzzling down every last part of her and he’s got permission to do it, no-one can blame him, it’s all so perfect!

When he reaches for my breasts Ginika wallops him but Ozulu puts a hand out to stop her.

“He must eat all of her to keep all of her. You don’t want some of her faculties gone, do you?”

Paul smiles the smile of a triumphant child that doesn’t realise it is in trouble. He suckles on a breast which stretches high, high, high before breaking off. It wobbles in his mouth, gleaming a dull red.

“Turkish delight!” Paul claps. He attacks the other one with gusto.

Paul, you might have noticed, is a fucking creep. But if modern short stories are good at anything they are good at subversion, and if Waters’ Gretel figure takes herself, with deliberation, out of the story then Muna clings onto it, shaping what she cannot stop. Because you are what you eat, and this is something else that Paul doesn’t understand, and when Muna is inside him, becoming flesh again, starting from a lump in his treacherous testicle, she can push him out of his own body, take it over as he took hers, and the only trace left of him at the end of this second transformation, of this second consumption, is a fragment of foot than can easily be hidden by a sock.

Waters looked at story and gender, but Emelumadu looks at colonialism and gender, the place and power of ownership. These are subversive stories, stories of temptation and threat and how to deal with each, but most of all they are stories of transformation. Of the assumption of personal power, of reclaiming what has been stolen.

But because consumption and transformation are so linked with the idea of power the stories of this power can also provide a mirror to subversion, as well as the potential to pull back from it. Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” initially presents consumption in terms of flipped gender assumptions. The Gretel figure is abused and Muna is exploited but Jen only assumes the role of victim in order to procure her own.

On a date with the obnoxious Harvey, whose thoughts “glisten with ancient grudges and carry an entitled, Ivy League stink”, Jen sifts through his thoughts and finds them full of violence, of murder and degradation – hers. For Harvey is a killer, another of the horrifying multitude that feels entitled to a woman’s body in whatever form he chooses to consume her.

She’s got perfect tits,” he thinks, “lil’ handfuls just waiting to be squeezed.”

I can’t wait to cut her up,” he thinks.

She’ll look so good spread out over the floor,” he thinks.

I’m going to take her home and split her all the way from top to bottom. Like a fucking fruit tart,” he thinks, drunk on dreams of wallowing in screams and blood.

Jen, all too aware of the entitlement behind the impulse, just smiles sweetly and goes along, all the while thinking “They’re never as strong as they think they are”. Gretel leaves the story, Muna goes along gracefully until she can use that going along to stage a take-over, but Jen fights from the get go, prowling in a way that Harvey could never dream of or even appreciate. And why not? This is the golden age of short fiction, after all, with women and minorities and the weight of diversity piling up, and the Harveys of the world (and the Pauls) had better look out.

But he doesn’t look out, does Harvey, so sure in the idea of his own consumption that he misses what’s coming at him for Jen is as hungry as he is.

I launch myself at him, fingers digging sharp into his body, and bite down hard on his mouth. He tries to shout, but I swallow the sound and shove my tongue inside. There, just behind his teeth, is what I’m looking for: ugly thoughts, viscous as boiled tendon. I suck them howling and fighting into my throat as Harvey’s body shudders, little mewling noises escaping from his nose.

The transformation from victim to predator is mirrored in the detail that, after her consumption, Jen briefly takes on the form of her victim. Harvey’s abandoned next to a dumpster, naked, in the kind of pose and setting we usually find female victims in, if every crime show I’ve ever turned into is believed, of course. And this transformation is key to the text.

Wong subverts the typical predator/prey gender dynamic, but by clothing Jen in the appearance and power of her selected victim she also transfers the potential for relevant flaws. It’s “you are what you eat” again, and the consumption of power corrupts, turns power relationships on their edges and makes other people victims. Jen, gorged on a killer of young women, finds herself drooling over sweet friendly Aiko, a girl who’s so appealing that Jen just wants to eat her.

It makes it hard to build a relationship, but that’s what food is, and horror: temptation and the transformation of the flesh, of the connections between flesh. Even if those connections are on a small scale, and domestic.

There’s a difference in the scale of transformation, however. Gretel might transform through sugar, through gingerbread, into an independent woman, a killer of witches, but food can also be used for more obvious transformations – and for more subtle ones. Food can turn a body into a monstrous thing, can make of it a monster, can be used to feed monsters, and to breed them. But how far can this go? Can food change a universe?

Yes, if the universe is a single person. If I’m bitten by a vampire and turn into a creature who needs to drink blood to live, then my universe is certainly different. It may even be upturned entirely, if that universe is one where vampires are creatures of fiction only… until I find out the hard way that they’re not.

But can objectivity be so undermined? Does food have the power to change a universe for everyone as well as for the individual, as well as for the moment? It does in Kelly Jennings’ story “Dream House”. Here the consumption of a cake changes worlds. A demoted corporal who has lost his wife (whether to death or divorce) eats for change, but change is not limited to his body – or even his understanding of the universe. Everything changes for him, the universe reshaping around him to a better life, one with wife and daughters and an admittedly unhappy death that is at least better than it could have been.

What’s notable about this very short story is what it doesn’t say. The horror lies in the cracks, in the unanswered questions. My interpretation of it – an interpretation which could very well be wrong – is that the universal change of the dream cake is universally subjective only. I think that the new decades of his better life are a dream, and one that in real time lasts only very briefly. The Corporal leaves his credit chip behind and Ella, the baker of the dream cake, “knew from experience that for at least an hour, maybe even two, after the change, it would still be functional”. She promptly empties the balance into her own account – after all, the Corporal won’t need it where he’s going.

Is it euthanasia, is it murder? Either way it comes with pastry, with coconut milk and spices, with sweet smells that speak of a life beyond the station. A temptation, yes, and not so very different than the gingerbread house. “We can live here and be happy,” say Hansel and Gretel, not knowing that as soon as they’re start to suck on butterscotch that their lives are running out.

Does the Corporal know? I expect so, but still – one shudders to think. “Now your dream is the world,” says Ella, but the world can be a circumscribed thing and it’s no coincidence that the Captain of the post-dream, the demoted Corporal who was, dies in orbital decay, clutching to a photo of the family he wanted but never had/wanted and got.

(All the stories are the same.)

But it’s not enough in horror for food to be (potentially) deadly. It can be dehumanising as well. Often this occurs when the human element of the equation is the prey animal, but it can also be seen in stories where humans are treated the same way as food as treated, while not being food themselves. Obviously this doesn’t mean planting them in soil, or hanging from the hooks of a slaughterhouse, but comes from the changing definition of “human” to something more closely resembling “resource”. Look at, for example, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo’s story “Blessed are the Hungry”. Here, on a generational interstellar voyage where food is limited to mushroom plots and biodegradable plastics, the treatment of the colonists is creepily similar to that of their crops. Genetic diversity is key, and so reproduction is strictly regulated – and strictly encouraged, with each household expected to have a minimum of eight people.

There isn’t food enough to support this burgeoning population, however. Rations are cut and cut again, and anyone who protests against this or the reproductive strategy is shoved out an airlock. This leave a society crammed in the (frequently literal) dark, absolutely disposable and of no more individual account than the mushrooms. “Why can’t we keep them all hale and healthy?” asks a priest who’s doomed to spacing, “instead of constantly creating, discarding, and replacing?”

Because genetic control is only a part of it. Social control is the real goal, the diminution of human dignity to factory farmed spores remarkable only for their reproductive capacity. Individual elements are to be weeded out in service of the whole. In a sense, the mushrooms are afforded more consideration.

It’s the brutal overthrow of this ideology, the social desire to change human status from resource/mushroom analogue to something with a little bit of self-determination and dignity, that’s the drive of the story. Because even crammed like fungi into tiny rooms, controlled by food and especially by its absence, the people of the spaceship can see themselves becoming more than they are.

It’s a form of knowledge, this power, because transformation comes with comprehension, or at least the experience of different states, of how it feels to move between them. And sometimes that movement, when sparked by consumption, is physical and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what food brings is understanding. Such is the case in “Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan. In times of famine, infants disappear out of cradles, taken by the witch in the woods for her dinner. A little girl wakes sobbing from nightmares, and the local mothers tell their stories quietly, so as not to scare her further. But there are others stories they tell, and these the little girl does hear: The Mother of Giants, and how she takes hungry babies and fosters them, feeds them until they’re fat and happy, saves them from starvation and suffering.

The stories are images of each other (all stories are the same!) and the girl sees one younger brother born, and then another. This youngest child is taken away soon after birth, taken by the witch or rescued by the Mother, and the little girl, believing in the stories, sneaks out into the woods and brings the witch back with her:

When I shut my eyes, she was there. She had filthy matted hair and shining gold eyes and long, sharp fingers like a bird’s talons. She rushed towards me and her mouth opened so wide that it split her head open to show her black bloody teeth.

Food is transformative, and I’ve talked in previous columns about how the lack of food can also usher in transformation (it certainly does in Ocampo’s story). But lack of food can also impede transformation: it can fix a body in place and keep it tethered to childhood, to the time before understanding. But then the famine ends and the girl, growing round and full of roast pork, of milk, transforms from child to fertile woman to mother, and it’s when she has her own children and the famine comes again that she understands the true relationship between killing witch and kind Mother. The infants born into hunger, to women too starved to lactate, can die slowly of hunger… or they can be taken out into the woods and left in the snow, a quick and painless death that’s covered up with stories when stories can give no comfort. “There was a woman who loved her baby. But love is not food…”

Love is, however, knowledge – and so is lack. Hunger transforms, and the resulting horror is tinged with practicality and compassion. It doesn’t come with easy answers, though – good horror rarely does. It does come with connection.

And that’s, I think, one of the things I’m seeing from creepy, contemporary short stories themed around food and consumption. Their treatment of transformation is aware. It’s subversive and diverse. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t focus on the permanence or the strength of the change; it doesn’t draw a hard line between. Instead the primary concern is the similarity between pre- and post-transformative bodies: colonisation before and after chocolate, the mirror-selves of witch and mother, the dual expansion of genetics and ideology, the place of women in stories, and the eating up of dreams.

 

Gender and Consumption II: Sex and the Slow Destabilisation of the Ordinary

castleFOOD AND HORROR, PART FIVE

This is the fifth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a few months back.

 

I’ve always thought that one of the primary characteristics of horror is destabilisation. It’s taking the ordinary and presenting it skewed, so that the normal methods of interaction, of amelioration, don’t work.

It up-ends expectation. This is not to say that horror always up-ends expectation and this is especially apparent with regard to gender. Last month I talked about how often the woman-as-object-of-consumption trope is used, and how it can mirror expected social behaviour. This month I’m looking at it from the other end: what horror has to say about women who are the consumers, who are the monsters that hunt down and devour, or who use food as a weapon to enforce their own desires.

We’ve seen inklings of this before, in such fairy tales as “The Juniper Tree”, where the stepmother serves up her stepson to his father in a stew. There are a number of ways to interpret such an act. It’s using food as a tool of vengeance, yes, but it’s also using it within the context of a power relationship, with the stepmother clearing the board in favour of her own daughter and that daughter’s future inheritance.

But there’s a third interpretation, and it’s destabilisation: the undermining of the family unit, the fracturing of cohesion. As I said above, I find destabilisation to be a frequently occurring facet of horror, and how the female-consumer can cause – or emphasise – destabilisation is the subject of this month’s piece.

This undermining of expectation can occur on a number of levels: social, familial, environmental… even scientific. What is primarily undermines, though, is worldview. As humans, we tend to organise our experiences, to catalogue them and string them together in order to find a way to make sense of the universe. This is something that helps us learn, and is a valuable tool for survival. Up-end that understanding by introducing a threat – and in horror, there’s always a threat – and the chances for survival materially diminish.

In some ways destabilisation of an existing social model can be interpreted as a subversive good. I talked about this last month, but part of the reason that women are so often dish of the day in horror is the perception of them as passive and exploitable as compared to, for instance, the male heroic figure. Perception of consumability crosses over: if your main role in a story is to wear a flimsy nightdress and have a fetching neck for sucking on, you’re well into the food-as-sex-substitute territory.

Constant portrayal of feminine victimhood gets old, however. It’s a power relationship that in today’s world becomes less and less satisfactory, and modern culture consumers (at least half of whom are women) have a vested interested in branching out. If consumption is a power relationship, and if gender is a power relationship, why not flip the two together?

Such flips don’t have to be subtle. Sometimes the appeal of a horror story doesn’t come within screaming distance of subtle. Consider the film Teeth, for instance, which updates the vagina dentata image to repeated and bloody effect. Teenage protagonist Dawn is both virginal and abstinent, but then a date goes bad and she’s raped by her boyfriend. Neither the rape nor the boyfriend last long, however, as Dawn discovers a previously unknown ability and bites down with a different set of teeth than the ones above her neck. Young Tobey subsequently bleeds to death and good riddance to him.

Unfortunately for Dawn, she lives in a world where all men are rapists. Alright, not all men, but the movie is one long repetition of sexual assault, one after the other, where other people try to take away Dawn’s right to control her own body and promptly discover she has more control than anyone ever gave her credit for.

This is an over-the-top, in-your-face revenge horror fantasy, but it means to be over-the-top. There’s no subtlety here, and no mining for hidden messages. Rapists get chewed up –or at least part of them does – and the film has no sympathy for them. This is consumption turned around and made deadly to those who thought that consumption was primarily made for them. Think women are consumable? Think again… while you can. And make sure you do your thinking with the right head, because it’s easy enough to lose the other one.

This is consumption updated, nature red in tooth and cunt but it’s not the nature that Tennyson had in mind. Horror lives on the boundary of the natural and unnatural, and destabilisation is apparent on either side. In truth, though, I’ve always thought it more apparent on the side of the unnatural.

One reason why horror is so successful in destabilisation is the increasing rationalism of daily life. A population familiar with evolution, with the science of biology, needs to rely on the suspension of disbelief when it comes to giant predatory animals that would collapse under their own weight if they actually turned up on the nearest street-corner.

Audiences are often prepared to suspend their disbelief, however, especially if they know going in that they’re entering a book set fast in unreality. It’s one thing to take Shelob seriously and shudder; I know in advance that The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy work. A spider her size turning up in a non-speculative context, however, and my tolerance comes to a screaming halt.

That being said, there are work-arounds, especially if the monstrous female consumer exists in a science fiction setting – low gravity might improve the odds of supporting that weight, for instance, or it could be a robot in the form of a spider. I’m prepared to go along with that, especially when it’s couched in somewhat familiar terms.

Just look at the Alien films. There’s a lot that’s familiar in them: eusocial creatures, the deadly maternal figure, parasitoid larvae eating up the resources of their hosts. What’s unfamiliar is the setting and the size. Even if the crew of the Nostromo were all working biologists familiar with similar traits in other organisms, they’d still be both dumbfounded and horrified at the introduction of the actual Alien. That creature is so far out of their experience that even processing its existence is a challenge, let alone cataloguing its weaknesses and looking for some way to stop the thing. The Alien is in fact so very alien that at the beginning of the first sequel, Aliens, Ripley is having some trouble convincing the Corporation of the veracity of her story – and that’s when that story is of a natural predator, being told to men from a world full of natural predators. How much more destabilising would a ghost have been for their collective worldview?

There’s a lot of cross-over in horror. Fantasy and sci-fi and literary gothic all contribute, and saying that horror exists on another borderline – that of the natural and the unnatural – while marginally adequate as a descriptor, can also I think miss the point. That boundary is a particularly permeable one.

Look at Beowulf, at Grendel’s mother. When Grendel is killed, she clambers out of her pool to avenge him. It’s made clear, though, that her son came by his habits honestly, for Grendel’s mother “had scavenged and gone her gluttonous rounds for a hundred seasons”. She cuts through Hrothgar’s Hall like a knife through butter, making off with the corpse of Aeschere. “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell” laments Hrothgar, but Beowulf tracks her down to the pool anyway and dives on down.

Now clearly Grendel’s mother (and her child, for that matter) are fantasy creatures. Horrifying creatures, to be sure, but they’re not human and they’re not animal either. One could call them unnatural, or supernatural, but they may as well not be for, as Heaney notes in the Introduction to his translation, Beowulf beats them both by sheer physical strength.

The same thing happens in Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, where the vampiric Lady Arabella (who lunches on local children) along with the white worm, is exploded by dynamite. It’s a technological solution, and in fairness the hero has derived an ingenious method of setting off the dynamite, but what it comes down to is physical force.

In both cases the monstrous feminine is a destabilising force, and in both cases she is taken out by what are perceived as traditionally masculine qualities, at which the world returns to normal and the ground is again solid beneath the feet of Our Hero. Granted, physical force is also used against Grendel himself but it’s the maternal capacity of the women in question that elevates their monster-hood. A mother avenging her son is one thing, a noble lady showing interest in the local children another… but when they start eating them, well. We expect ladies to be nicer than that.

But this physical response to supernatural entities isn’t unknown in horror. A shotgun blast to the head can take out a zombie, no matter how much it wants to eat you, but this sort of boundary-blurring does limit classification. Does a realist response to a supernatural threat render supernaturalism moot? It’s one thing to shoot a zombie, quite another to try wrestling with a ghost. If one could kill a ghost by shooting at it, there must be something in that incorporeal, supernatural form that is anchored in the natural, in physics and mass.

Perhaps, then, a different way of looking at a horror threat derives from the response to that horror. Does one fight with strength or with symbols? It’s tempting to shove the strength solution at the natural consumers and the symbolic at the supernatural ones, but as has been shown above this is too clean a dichotomy.

What happens, then, with a type of feeding that is interpreted in both natural and symbolic ways? Does this emphasise destabilisation within a horrific narrative, or do the consumptions balance each other out?

It’s interesting to examine this possibility in a single text – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson – but before I do this I’d like to talk more generally, as a sort of introduction, about the idea of “home” in horror.

Where destabilisation really comes into play, is (unsurprisingly) in the place often perceived as being the most stable of them all: the home. The constructed home, that is – a built home so different from the natural home in its possibilities. It’s not just nature in all its red-toothed glory; there’s storms and hail and mud to think about, the threat of hypothermia, of too-strong suns and dehydration. And a dwelling is a structured thing. It’s built on mathematics and architecture, materials science and engineering. It’s a construct of reason and sanity, the manipulative capacity put to good use for once.

It’s what’s inside the house that causes trouble. People, sure, and in the world of horror that’s often enough, but there’s also ghosts and possessions and manic echoes as the house builds up and births, well… hysteria, frankly. I don’t know what else you’d call all the panic and screaming and the sudden loss of anything remotely resembling common sense from people who should be making for the nearest door but don’t as the house eats up their fear and synthesises it into often bloody disaster.

We know when the house goes bad, it takes everything inside down with it. We know from the first paragraph that Hill House, for example, is a place where bad things happen.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

It’s the reference to insanity that does it, the intimation that in this very rationally-built house, in the firm floors and the neat bricks, is a rottenness that undermines – that turns this place of potential home to horror.

I’m not arguing that haunted houses are part of the food and horror narrative; not in the same way as I argued for the exorcism stories last month at any rate, though there is a point of comparison that I’ll get to later. But haunted houses are a stepping stone, a signpost towards consumption if nothing else. There’s a shared foundation to the horror house and the horror meal, and it comes with the same concept of home.

Home as a place of rest, a place of nurture. As the saying goes, it’s the place where they have to take you in when you go there. It’s this nurturing capacity, the haven within the ruthless (often natural) world, that’s so often undermined and subverted by the haunted house narrative. And the kitchen, so often referred to as the heart of the home, is certainly no place of safety in a story of this type.

I’m thinking here of the first season episode of Supernatural, the one that’s usefully – and providentially! – called “Home”. (It’s a total coincidence; I remembered the scene I’m about to describe before coming back in to add the name of the episode, which I had to look up.) Creepy things are going on in Sam and Dean’s old house. Moving chairs, flying knives, a small child tempted by juice and trapped in the fridge. But however juice-obsessed little Richie is, his toddling towards the cold and open door isn’t the worst of the horror-consumption of that disturbed (and disturbing) kitchen.

No. The worst of it, the most horrifying bit, is the result every single viewer sees coming, hands tucked in close to their chests. Because the sink is blocked, the garbage disposal unit jammed, and some poor unhappy plumber dispatched to get it all going again. Now the plumber’s not a fool. He makes sure the power’s switched off before he sticks his hand down there. But the viewers aren’t fools either, and we all know that in a house where the furniture moves by itself that lack of power isn’t the problem. And so, inevitably, the kitchen appliance designed to chew up discarded food chews on something else, and the plumber gets his hand eaten up and his blood spattered over the walls.

And yeah, we all saw it coming but horror plays on expectation, on hideous anticipation. The haunted house narrative has so successfully undermined the social idea of home as a place of safety, of security, that when presented with such a house, an audience knows that safety and security is the last thing they can reasonably expect.

Homes are important. They’re meant to protect, and expulsion is damage. And because it’s women who so often get tasked with the role of home-maker over men, their relationship with the home is often of visceral importance. (Note that in the “Home” episode, it’s the ghost of Sam and Dean’s mother, Mary, who exorcises the house of the intruding evil – and she does it from the kitchen.)

If I tended towards the psychoanalytic (and I don’t, much) I’d argue that there’s something of womb-imagery about the idea of home – which is why when houses go bad, they go very bad indeed. (A bad mother tends to get more condemnation that a bad father.)

So: onto the horror narrative that combines both natural and symbolic feminine consumption. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is less overtly horrific than The Haunting of Hill House, if more thorough with it, but the castle itself – not actually a castle, but a large and imposing house – is similarly isolated. Living in this home is the remnants of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance and their uncle Julian are the only survivors of a family catastrophe: a mass poisoning that took out all the rest of their relatives at dinner.

Constance is blamed by the wider community. No conviction was successfully achieved, but society tends to frown on family murders so the house and its familial residents are isolated and mocked, though that mockery is at base a fearful thing for no-one wants to get too close. A girl who could poison her parents would have little inclination to desist from doing away with lesser irritations, after all, and the Blackwood sisters are let rather severely alone. Their isolation is fertile ground for superstition and legend: witch sisters kept apart, and dangerous to know.

The house suffers by association. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and when the castle defences fail and that man and his family are poisoned to death within its walls then it can only be because the defences are undermined. That they’re undermined from within, from the decisions of a disturbed daughter, is almost irrelevant. The local community may shun and sneer at the sisters, but it’s the house they come to destroy – and not in the white heat of reaction, either. It takes years for social repulsion to reach its peak, the house looming over the countryside and infecting all those that live around it. There’s nothing quite like a symbol for provoking hatred in its failure. Symbols are supposed to be signs of other strengths, of spiritual or emotional organisation. They pin universes in place; they keep predators at bay. The right symbol can stop a monster in its tracks, can save an innocent party from consumption. Homes are part of that – a cross might stop a vampire, for instance, but so can a threshold.

Not that Merricat and her sister are vampires (or even werewolves, to Merricat’s great disappointment). It’s the symbolism of home that I’m underlining here. Crack that and everything falls down afterwards, and in short order.

There’s three different consumption narratives going on in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, laying and overlaying each other until the final picture is one of fractures and old bones, of mouths all covered up.

The first is both the simplest – and the first, brutal, fatal indication that not all was well in the House of Blackwood. The family is poisoned at the dinner table, as the disaffected distaff slips arsenic into the dessert. Blackberries and poisoned sugar, the sugar disguising the poison and the both of them mixed together in the silver sugar bowl that is the father’s particular prize, a family heirloom. All the imagery here is homely, and all of it is feminine. Constance, cooking dinner and setting the table, feeding her family as so many women have done before. Constance scrubbing out the sugar bowl afterwards, that pretty, artful sugar bowl, because, she says afterwards, spinning her tale like Arachne, there was a spider in it. The delicate sweetness of the dessert. The berries themselves: soft fleshy fruits come from the ovaries of plants. All these domestic, harmless details are subverted, made threatening, and Constance’s special domains, the kitchen and dining rooms, take on unsavoury trappings. Poison is traditionally thought of as a woman’s weapon, but couching it in such determined domesticity destabilises the idea of home, of feminine food-and-nurture.

All this is fairly obvious, but it’s not the only consumption going on. As we read through the book we discover that Constance isn’t the culprit and never has been. It’s her little sister Merricat, the narrator of the novel, who’s really the one responsible and Merricat is, for want of a better word, barking. It’s a subtle form of insanity, camouflaged by quirk and imagination and loyalty but Merricat is bone-deep crazy – within specific limits. Constance is one of those limits, for Merricat loves her deeply. The one reason she chose to poison the sugar at dessert was because she knew Constance wouldn’t eat it while everyone else would. And when, despite all the ostracising odds, a suitor comes for her sister, Merricat is even less impressed – because in the end, what Merricat mostly wants to eat is space. Constance-space: she wants her sister all to herself, wants to be the most important person in her life, to eat up everything around her until Merricat’s the only one left. It’s a selfish kind of love – if Constance had been wrongly convicted, Merricat might well have stayed silent – and it’s displayed in a twisted way, with Merricat using the things her sister loves to isolate her further in the castle. It’s notable that she chooses food to get rid of annoyances, when food is Constance’s calling card. You’d almost think she were trying to bond.

The creepiest thing about this determined consumption of another’s mental space (similar in a way to possession narratives) is that it works. Readers find, at the end of the book, that Constance has always known that her little sister murdered the family. She’s quite aware that Merricat is profoundly unbalanced – she’s just decided not to care. She loves her sister, treats her kindly, refuses to implicate her and – with one exception – prioritises their relationship. Merricat, then, has essentially succeeded: using consumption as a tool for murder has allowed her to practice a secondary, metaphorical form of consumption: essentially eating up every part of Constance’s world that doesn’t have Merricat as the foundation.

This is very much a possession narrative. Not in the spiritual sense, as perhaps happens in films like The Exorcist, but in a mental and emotional one. And as with possession narratives, the potential for exorcism exists. Merricat can indeed be ousted from her position at the centre of the world, and she nearly is. The arrival of an estranged cousin, Charles, and his subsequent courtship of Constance gives Constance the chance to have another centre, to prioritise another relationship.

Naturally Merricat is furious, and her own relationship with the intruding cousin quickly falls into a cold war. In one sense she’s right to treat him badly, for Charles isn’t interested in her sister as much as he’s interested in her money. Constance herself means nothing to him. But Merricat’s hatred can also be explained by her accusations. “You are a ghost and a demon,” she says to him, completely convinced that he is a ghost. And why wouldn’t he be? She thought she’d gotten rid of family, fed them all to death and up one has popped again, as if the arsenic wasn’t good enough. Her consumption is failing on both levels, because she can’t feed him poison this time, and she can’t stop him feeding off Constance and her attention either. With the arrival of this blast from a blasted past, there’s less of her sister to bite on and that’s when Merricat’s attention turns from flesh and into symbol.

Simply put, she burns down the house, ushering in the last of the consumption images. Symbols are frequently more powerful than reality, and by bypassing a second murder-solution Merricat goes straight for destabilising the core of the narrative, the house-of-horrors, the-home-that-was-meant-to-be-safe. All eaten up by flame, and then by the resentment of the local people, who trash what the flames didn’t destroy, so consumed have they been by the prevailing narrative of food and the fruits of a poisoned (family) tree.

Now, had Merricat been Martin, he could have acted in the same way, could also have been a destabilising influence on the family structure. But would it have had the same effect? Part of Merricat’s horror is that she comes across as an engaging young girl. Her madness inhabits a form that society at large tends to see as inoffensive, and as carrying the potential for inoffensiveness. This last part is important. Young girls are often stereotyped, and their future potential as women is stereotyped further: mothers, nurturers, feeders. Home-makers. Such broad bases of expectation are what society as a whole rests upon, and even though women now are astronauts and brain surgeons and prime ministers, they’re still expected to fulfil all roles. You can’t fight biology. It’s as good as destiny for pinning down, so it is.

Except horror, as a genre, isn’t all that fond of destiny either. It smacks too much of stable points and too little of chaos.

This leads to an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, biology pushes women at the horror-consumers, as things to be eaten up. On the other it makes them those consumers – to be worse, or to fight back.

There’s the potential for subversion in each, and in the gap between. And that’s what I’ll be looking at next month: subversive stories of women and food, with an especial focus on recent short stories. Partly because shorts are my preference, and partly because we’re entering the golden age of science fiction for women now, I think, and those women have brought a plate.

 

 

Agency and the Consequences of Creation

reef poemsI’ve a new paper out! “Agency and the Consequences of Creation in Mark O’Connor’s Reef Poems” has recently been published in volume 23, issue 1 of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. It’s free to read at the above link.

Reef Poems can be quite hard to find these days, but if you can track it down it’s well worth it. An absolutely fantastic collection by the Australian poet Mark O’Connor, who very kindly granted me permission to quote from his poems in my paper. I can’t emphasise enough how much I enjoyed this collection – it’s sad and enraging and funny all at once, with touches of the speculative throughout. And given the ever more dreadful state of the Great Barrier Reef in general, any piece of writing that comes down hard on its side is to be supported, so look out for Reef Poems if you can, you won’t regret it! (And if you ever have a chance to support the GBR in a more tangible way, please do. It’s an extraordinary ecosystem that should be protected at all costs.)

Anyway, here’s a taster for my paper:

In 1972, the Australian poet Mark O′Connor (1945–) got a temporary job as a scuba diver at a scientific research station on the Great Barrier Reef. “All I could draw on,” said O′Connor, “was a certain amount of biological knowledge, which I was pulling in hand-over-fist from the scientists. But I had those two essentials for poetry: time and solitude to brood on what I saw” (“The Poetry of the North” 26). Four years later, his first collection, Reef Poems, was published. Since then O′Connor has established himself, alongside writers such as Judith Wright, John Kinsella, and Peter Minter, as one of Australia’s foremost ecopoets. O’Connor shares with Wright not only a history of environmental activism, but also the perception of a “rift that alienates humans from the biosphere” (Platz 259). This alienating rift places humanity as separate from that biosphere instead of part of it, and O′Connor’s desire to close the gap, to drag together and reconcile, is shared by such ecopoets as the Australian Susan Hawthorne, who comments that “Our planet like us is a living system… This is not a romantic idea of mine, it is metaphoric, but no less real for being so” (95). But desire for reconciliation does not make reconciliation, and O′Connor goes on to illustrate, in some of his Reef Poems, a world where the rift between humanity and the biosphere is ever widening….

 

Kelp

takahe87I’ve a new story out! “Kelp” has just been published in issue 87 of takahē. One of New Zealand’s long-running lit markets, takahē is I think the first speculative story I’ve ever placed in a literary journal!

“Kelp” is a quiet little post-apocalyptic story. One scientist in a boat, studying kelp to try and cope with the end of the world. As far as the scientist knows, he’s the only one left alive and the science of his life’s work is something to put his back against, to try and give structure and meaning to his existence.

The kelp was thick and it was strong. It didn’t rip easily away from its substrate, not like him who floated on the ocean, who had nothing but anchors to keep him in one place. Any holdfast he might have had had been eaten away by virus.

Rock gave way sometimes before holdfasts did. He’d seen the kelp, washed up or floating with a chunk of rock attached to the base, and he’d wondered how strong the waves had been to tear it up. More often, he’d seen holdfasts eaten away, weakened by parasites – by worms and by molluscs, even, though shellfish had never been his interest.

He’d come to study parasites of another kind, those that caused galls, eukaryotic. He’d wanted to map the spreading of them around the islands, from one population to another. But the study had been limited – enough for two, over a season of summer months.

He began to study the worms, to bring them up and put them in alcohol. To build a survey. If he didn’t work, he wasn’t a scientist any longer.

Without science, there was nothing left…

“Kelp” is the third story of mine set in this post-apocalyptic world (two post-, one pre-). It’s a project I’m working on where the only people who survive a sudden, deadly plague are a small handful of Antipodean scientists who’ve managed to live through disaster only because their fieldwork has taken them to places so isolated they’re out of contact with the general population.

Science is so often the culprit in apocalyptic narratives – it’s used to build a bomb or a virus or fails to save from a meteorite, for example – that I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic environment where it’s a uniquely positive experience. Something that brings people together and allows them to find satisfaction and purpose in what’s left behind.

I’m not sure yet if this universe is going to be a short story collection or a sort of braided novel where the characters come together in various ways. Still, it’s fun to play with and that’s the main thing.

The Marzipan Dog

the-marzipan-dog2I’ve a new story out! It’s called “The Marzipan Dog“, and it’s up at Visibility Fiction.

Visibility, as its title suggests, likes to focus on stories with under-represented protagonists. In this case, my main character is disabled. Beth is blind, and she’s got a weird, shape-shifting guide dog who absolutely adores her. Which would be great, if he weren’t using his powers for evil (or is that good?) and scaring off everybody else.

Usually the Marzipan Dog sat by her in class, sat silent at her feet and snoozed, and sometimes she had to nudge him with her foot when he began to snore. She didn’t like it when he snored, because there were girls sitting next to her who would make fun of him, make fun of her. They always did, and always just loud enough so that they could be heard by Beth and Beth alone. And one day they started up again, and the Marzipan Dog was not asleep, and his weight on her foot changed, became cooler and harder and had the press of scales against her bare leg and the stench of salt water and mud rose up about her and there was screaming then, and shrieking, and the thump of feet on the floor and then the teacher was beside her, soothing and gentle and fur was soft against her leg again and the Marzipan Dog panted at her knee, panted happily and with satisfaction.

But Beth’s got support on two sides – and even if her best friend Aisha doesn’t like this stupid, brother-scaring mutt she’ll put up with a lot. Until she doesn’t, and then two girls and a dog have to find a way to co-exist regardless…

Sifting Science: Stratification and “The Exorcist”

exorcistI’ve a new paper out! “Sifting Science: Stratification and The Exorcist” has recently been published in the latest issue of Horror Studies.

I’m a big horror fan, and The Exorcist has long been my favourite horror film. (It tends to be one of those films I watch when I get sick, on the grounds of I-might-have-a-cold-but-it-could-be-worse.) And that weird prologue has always struck me. It’s the same with the book. The archaeological dig just seems so removed from the rest of the story.

But it isn’t! I’ve made connections! Lots of them.

Because of my background in science communication, I tend to keep an eye out for sciencey-stuff. One of my particular interests is how science is presented in popular culture. So I started thinking about archaeological methods, and the point of including them in a story about demonic possession and pea soup vomiting and the problem of evil, and suddenly that prologue started to make a whole lot of sense. I guess it did to at least a couple of people in peer review as well, because no-one tossed my explanations back in my face and said Are-you-mad?-What-is-this-bollocks? so here it is, my first academic publication on horror.

And there’s not even any spider-walking in it.

Clarion West Writer’s Workshop

clarionwestThat’s something knocked off the bucket list!

Yesterday I arrived back in New Zealand after six weeks in Seattle, attending the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. It’s focused on speculative fiction writers – science fiction and fantasy and horror – and for six weeks 18 of us from around the world lived together, writing and critiquing and learning from the six professional tutors brought in to help us become better artists.

We were very lucky to have one of the sorority houses associated with the University of Washington to live in. Of course over in the US it’s summer right now, so the house was available to be hired out, and it was perfect for what I’ve been privately calling “writer’s boot camp”. Being at Clarion West was so, so rewarding in a number of ways, but I don’t think any of us (come from as far around the world as India, Wales, and the Antipodes) wouldn’t also call it “exhausting”. But Huw and Neile, the workshop coordinators, were used to having whiny writers to wrangle, and everything was super well organised to keep us happy and (mostly) productive.

I’ve wanted to attend a Clarion workshop ever since I found out they existed. There’s a sister workshop – Clarion in San Diego – that I got accepted to back in 2014, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend. Thankfully I got a second chance, and it was well worth it! If any of you reading are thinking about going, I wholly recommend it. Our tutors – Paul Park, Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Bear, N.K. Jemisin, Sheila Williams and Michael Swanwick – were helpful, informative, and friendly, and the encouragement I got from my fellow students was invaluable. (We now have a standing agreement that the first one of us to sell to Clarkesworld buys beer for the rest.)

If you think you can’t afford to go, apply anyway – there are scholarships available, and I was able to go this year because of one of them.

You won’t regret it!

Sellwood Riverfront to Johnson Creek Loop

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ok, I actually did this about 6 weeks ago, but I’ve only just gotten round to blogging about my latest foray into 1001 Walks You Must Experience Before You Die.

I was in Portland, Oregon for several days before travelling up to Seattle to attend the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop (which was fantastic; more tomorrow). I flew into Portland from NZ for two reasons – firstly, it was considerably cheaper. Secondly, there was a simple, accessible walk from 1001 Walks in Portland. I couldn’t resist…

The Sellwood Riverfront to Johnson Creek Loop is easy to get to by light rail, and only takes a couple of hours to walk. There are really three different sections. Starting at the rail station, I wandered through the Johnson Creek renewal project, which was fantastic and my favourite part of this walk (and a strong contender for favourite part of the trip all round, actually). According to the informative panels sprinkled along this creek walk, there’s been an ongoing ecological restoration project going on here, trying to return the creek to a viable state, and it’s clearly working. This little green corridor is beautiful, and full of wildlife. I even saw a Chinook salmon swimming upstream, not two minutes after reading about them on the information panel! Highly recommended.

Also recommended is the stroll through the neighbourhoods on the way to Sellwood Riverfront. The houses were all so pretty! With amazing gardens and shared community playgrounds on the footpaths. I didn’t take any photos here – it seems rude to me to start snapping at people’s family homes without permission – but I was charmed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Sellwood Riverfront Park, including the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge (a wetland, the only one in the city I believe) was also enjoyable but didn’t quite have the appeal of Johnson Creek if you ask me. Lots of people enjoying it though, both in the park/refuge and at one of the country’s oldest amusement parks, which was overrun with children so I didn’t go in. And despite my love of all things rollercoaster I didn’t really want to – it had been such a quiet, happy walk that I was loathe to wander off the loop for sugar and screaming.

Definitely worth doing – if only for the restored Johnson Creek, which was wonderful in every respect. I don’t recall who/what person or community group has spearheaded that effort, but they deserve a medal, every one.

Current Count: 995 Walks To Experience Before I Die.

Responsibility

at the edgeI have a new story out! “Responsibility”, aka “The Story About The Zombie Chickens (I Can’t Believe Anyone Bought This)” is out in the anthology At The Edge from Paper Road Press.

At The Edge is largely a collection of stories from New Zealand and Australian writers, themed around edges and boundaries and liminality. When I saw the call for submissions last year, I knew it was something I wanted to write for. And luckily my story was accepted!

Though it has to be said, “Responsibility” is not the kind of story I usually write. For one thing, it’s about zombies. They’re not something I generally gravitate to, but I suppose everyone’s got a zombie story in them somewhere and this is mine. For another, it’s very black-humoured – well, a lot of people seem to find it funny anyway, and I’m not a funny writer in general. Sad and morbid, maybe, but not funny. And I’m embarrassed to say that, zombies aside, it’s based on a true story. A few years back I ended up pet-sitting for my sister while she went overseas for a month. At the time she had two dogs and two cats and six chickens, and she was barely out the door before one of the chooks keeled over. I found it dead in the coop, in classic position: on its back, with rigid little feet in the air.

I buried it under her front lawn. I tried to bury it discreetly at the edges under bushes, but everywhere I dug saw me hit a polythene layer under the sod so I gave up and middle of the lawn it was (it serves my sister right for being a decent gardener). That night there was a storm, and after watching a horror film I was tucked in bed, listening to the thunder and wondering if the chicken was really dead. Sample internal conversation: “Self, are you sure you didn’t bury that poor thing alive?” “Self, it had rigor mortis.” “But Self, are you certain it wasn’t just chilled and unconscious?! It was sick, after all.”

Yes, I know, but I freaked myself out sufficiently that I scuttled out into the storm, in my nightie, to roll a giant planter over the top of the grave, just in case this bloody chicken decided to crawl out of its two foot deep hole and come seeking revenge.

Of course it ended up a story.

We were born at the same time, my sister and I, born into bodies of opposites. Yet for all that we love each other, though her touch means death and mine does not. Though her house is full of zombies and mine is full of life. But sisterhood comes with responsibility and with care, so when she asks if I will house-sit for her while she goes from Auckland to New Orleans, to speak at conferences of deaths that are not her own, deaths that are dry-toothed while hers run with red, with soft and sinking flesh, I agree.

Winter’s house is filled with tetrodotoxin and datura. Dried puffer fish hang from the kitchen ceiling and the benches are littered with pestles. There are two dogs that were schnauzers once, two cats who slink in silence, and six chickens in the pen, their feathers dull and drooping but they all eat from her hand with relish and fight over finger bones…

At The Edge (and the rest of the story) can be found at Amazon or Paper Road Press.