Author: OJ

Sharp and Sugar Tooth Kickstarter

So, the anthology that I’m editing for Upper Rubber Boot Books, The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, is getting closer! There’s a kickstarter on for it right now, so if you like short stories and horror and food, and feminism in your fiction, please take a look. There are all sorts of levels and rewards, including copies of Sugar Tooth and the other speculative anthologies in URB’s Women Up To No Good series, so it’s totally worth your while!

The anthology had its early genesis in the food and horror essays I did for The Book Smugglers a couple of years back. Once I’d finished that non-fiction collection, I was still interested in the food horror theme, and when I saw that URB was looking for new anthology pitches I thought I’d give it a go. The pitch was accepted, and last year I read through a heap of tasty slush, looking for the creepiest and most empowering horror stories I could find. There was a wide, wide range and it was really difficult to pick the best, as so many wonderful stories were submitted. But pick I did, and there are 22 fantastic stories from 22 wonderful, food-loving authors!

From Chikodili Emelumadu to Alyssa Wong and Catherynne M. Valente, as well as newer authors like Jasmyne J. Harris, H. Pueyo, and D.A. Xiaolin Spires, come stories of the sweet and the savoury and the scary, of apples and confectionary and strong meat, of little Wonderland cakes and post-apocalyptic nature preserves, of honey bees and hungry daughters and organ-eating. Please come back us, you won’t regret it!

 

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Review: “Wake” and “Drink” by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Wake published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015.

Drink published by BlazeVOX [books], 2015.

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There’s some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend you go for Drink. I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death – specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman’s death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I’ve come across often – barring F.G. Haghenbeck’s portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo­, or Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series,  for instanceand it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that’s underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.

“Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You” (49) has the poem’s narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn’t touch her – which is what you’d expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it’s one-sided.

“I like monsters” says the poet (in “Preference”, 56). Yet “My sister is a monster” (so claims the poem “Barren Monsters”, 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because “Monsters and humans can’t mate”. One would presume, in this case, that it’s the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out – the bleeding, the “extra wombs” – for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It’s a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem “Book of Monsters” (61) states that “As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom’s ceiling and walls black”. Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.

No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.

Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister’s house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping – or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. “We don’t go there anymore” says the poet (in “Death’s House”, 38) and it’s a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death’s House. Other people live there; they “tread the family carpet, watch the doors”. Yet later, in “Sister Death” (46), “We know it’s time to visit again” and it’s all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn’t kind. It’s of a bitter thank-goodness-I’m-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they’re overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In “The Entrance to Death” (64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: “I’m going in. I’ve been there. I can come back.” In “Death’s Cameras (51-52) it’s “Together we’ll go back to the living”.

But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in “Anthology of the Dead” (40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell – how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because “Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives” (in “Considering Lore”, 39).

It’s a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.

I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of – and poems on – mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay – in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.

But the wordplay is underpinned by deeper connections – the varying myths and realities of modern life. The poem “On Vanishing” (19) makes this particularly clear. After the disappearance of a plane, possible reasons for that disappearance get stranger and stranger, delving into science fiction and controversy. Then “Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids.” The myths of the past, of half-human, half-fish sea creatures are being replaced by the myths of the present: the welfare mother as the reason for social (and aeronautical) collapse, the ever-present expectation of terrorism as the new lurking monster under the bed (in the hold). These myths expand into our social consciousness. Given that this is a book about mothers and daughters, the myth of the welfare mother holds special weight. Unemployed and slovenly, bearing multiple children to different fathers and spending her money unwisely. A scourge to her daughters, violent and abusive. That it appears to be true in this case – the sequence of poems in Drink where the mother ignores a daughter’s suicide attempt, telling her boyfriend du jour, on being confronted with that daughter’s failing body, to “Step over her, Joe. Step over her” (“Complicit IV”, 63) is particularly horrifying – doesn’t mean that the exception is the rule. Unless, of course, we’re mythmaking. Then, the single incompetent individual is blown up, magnified as the representation of an entire class, because demonising that class is an easy thing, a simple explanation. Terrible mothers don’t bring down ships in “On Vanishing”. They bring down planes.

The subject of the myth changes, but the object – the desire to explain, to place blame – remains the same. It’s not mermaids pulling men underwater any more, it’s irresponsible women drowning themselves in drink, and the children are suffering for it.

But if the terrible mother shares the threatening nature of mermaids, so do her daughters. It’s here that the two parts of Drink really come together: it’s an exploration of what living with drink, what being surrounded by it, can make of you.

In Drink, the daughters of an alcoholic become mermaids. Not literally, of course. They don’t learn to breathe underwater. Their legs don’t fuse; they don’t live on fish and the folk they lure into drowning. What they share is more subtle than that. It’s certainty that ties the two pieces of myth and reality together… the certainty of self, of what it means to be a mermaid, to be the daughter of a drunk.

This certainty both strengthens and handicaps. Mermaids “fear nothing. The only thing to fear is mermaids” (“Shadows”, 24). The only thing to fear is the self, in other words. The self that refuses to die, even after swallowing a bottle of pills and being stepped over by boyfriends, still and silent on the carpet, surrounded by vomit. The self that is afraid of backsliding, of transforming into the mother, because alcoholism in a family member increases the chances of alcoholism in the self. “I don’t drink anymore so there’s no beer, no wine, no liquor to take a drink” (“Hit the Bottle”, 87). Reminders of temptation, of generational repetition, are always about. A partner who collects bottles (and how much is the daughter of an alcoholic going to be drawn to others? has it happened without her understanding it?). Bottles that appear out of nowhere: “I didn’t understand why there was a bottle by the sink. I didn’t put it there” (“The First Bottle”, 72). Bottles thrown into the ocean, and always the possibility of return: “You say, It will come back. I shake my head, thinking, No, some choose never to come back” (“A Bottled Message”, 71) – the implication being, of course, that some do.

Mermaids are trouble because their only danger is themselves. They’re unaffected by anyone else. “Not like elves or fairies. If you stop believing in them, they don’t care or die” (“Against I: Myth”, 29). If you stop believing in a parent, do they care? If a mother’s daughter is overdosing at her feet, does she remain unaffected?

The rock solid certainty of personality, this absolute cleaving to myth, is reflected in the certainty of daughter towards the mother. “Welfare Queen” (43) is acid in the description of the parent: negligent, abusive, entirely absent of boundary. The daughters, in reflection, are called “Pariahs. Homeless. Whores” because certainty is catching when myths are about. They’ve a mythic role to play, those daughters: the next stage in the intergenerational cycle of dependency, the image of their mother.

In response to sexual abuse, the girls “grew scales, bone hard and jagged, an armour”. Their humanity is taken away by the indifference and determined looking-away of neighbours, when there was no-one “who would talk to us like we were human / we swam mostly alone” (“Pariahs”, 51).

Mermaid traits are thus a defence mechanism – but a double-edged one. Becoming a mermaid may protect from some threats, but it comes with certainty and risk, the possibility of turning into mother, of being so solidly set upon a rock made of bottles that the final destination really is drowning in drink. “I write, SOS. I write, My sister refused to die. I write, We are all mermaids” (“O Captain! My Captain!”, 88). The daughters swim alone, but another poem, “The Mermaid’s Sister” (89) says “I don’t swim, not even close”, while being gifted with bottles by a lover.

The drink is always a temptation, for mermaids, for the daughters of alcoholics.

It’s what’s expected of them, anyway.

The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish

I’ve a new story out! “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish” can be read for free in the new issue of Kaleidotrope.

It’s the follow-up to another Kaleidotrope story of mine, “The Ouroboros Bakery”, although it doesn’t use the same characters. I’m writing an interlocking series of stories, set on the same magical street, because I enjoyed writing “Bakery” so much that I wanted to go back to the same world and play some more in it. I’d had this idea floating around in the back of my head for a while, about a girl reincarnated as a goldfish (don’t ask me where it came from) and the sheer outrageous ridiculousness of it seemed like it would be a good fit for a street that specialised in dodgy transformations.

I’ve sold four of these street stories so far, and another one’s out on sub. I’m hoping to have a collection’s worth by the end of the year, but for now the weird goldfish story will have to entice you. And here’s a teaser for it:

Everyone deserves a last meal. Mine was fish, Syllabub laughing her arse off as she served it up. Not goldfish, because that would have been bad luck—the kind of bad luck that comes from gossip about a last meal getting back to her Ladyship and being taken as insult. Instead a poor skinny muddy thing in a thin soup, flounder I think, or catfish.

“They’re not at all the same,” says Syllabub, critical, but they’re fish, aren’t they?

“I didn’t think there was going to be a test,” I said, and if I’d any room left in me for panic I would have panicked then, because the Lady and her tanks are the only thing between me and a bloody end instead of a scaly one. And if I’m to be examined on fish before I’m allowed to become one, then I might as well offer myself up for gutting now and be done with it…

Award Eligible Stories, 2017

It’s that time of year… when all writers start shilling their stuff for the upcoming awards season! And why not, I reckon.

I had nine eligible stories and one non-fiction book come out last year, but I think that’s genuinely too much to list, so I’m going to stick with a handful of the shorts and the non-fiction book.

The most important story I wrote last year, no question, was “The Stone Weta“, which appeared in Clarkesworld. If you’re considering nominating something of mine, please make it this. The idea for it was essentially ripped from the headlines – climate denialism sponsored by the state, and scientists working to preserve data across borders. Both of these things are happening, and cli-fi is an important tool in bringing climate change into the spotlight.

The best-written story, on the other hand, was “The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science“, which appeared in Shimmer. This is the most literary of the things I had published last year, and continues my effort to write about science with a tinge of speculative fiction about it. If your nomination wants some snob-value to it, this is the story to go for.

On the other hand, if you’re a horror fan, I had two stories out near the end of last year which have both got a bit of positive attention. “The Ouroboros Bakery” from Kaleidotrope (my creepy magic food story) and “The Better Part of Drowning” in The Dark, which does its best to make sure you never eat crabs again.

If you’re looking for something non-fiction to nominate, my collected Food and Horror essays came out from The Book Smugglers at the beginning of December. The columns were actually published individually throughout 2016, mostly, but the collected edition has been substantially expanded, going from 40,000 to 60,000 words. Also, take a look at that gorgeous cover please, by Kristina Tsenova, who could be nominated for art if you’re so inclined.

That’s it! Thanks for your consideration, *cough* stone weta *cough*.

Dinornis

I’ve a new story out!

“Dinornis” appears in the anthology Pacific Monsters from Fox Spirit Press. It’s the fourth volume in their series of monster stories from around the world, and all of them are well worth checking out.

“Dinornis” is also my first graphic story! I wrote the script, and the story’s illustrated by Dave Johnson, who has done a fantastic job of making the moa seem creepy and sad. “Dinornis”, of course, is a reference to that giant extinct bird of New Zealand, the moa. The moa’s not really a monster, not in the typical understanding of the word, anyway. It’s sort of what I think of as a wishful monster.

Monsters are strange things.

We’re fascinated by them. There’s whole industries devoted to bringing them to life, to packaging them up in consumable form so that we can be briefly entertained by fright. And it’s fun because it is brief. I can enjoy spending two hours watching a zombie horror film precisely because zombies don’t actually exist. If my life revolved around fending them off, I’d not be turning towards them for my leisure hours. I’d be refilling the flame-thrower and any moments I could snatch for escapism would tend to the absolutely harmless.

We generally don’t want the monsters to be real. But sometimes it’s just so disappointing when they’re not.

Especially when we hold the burden of having removed them ourselves. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend turns an individual amongst monsters into the monster those monsters fear, and on a species level Matheson isn’t far wrong. Extinction took a lot of monsters from this world long before humans came alone, but we’ve certainly done our best to slaughter the rest.

This can best be seen in the lands where humans are not. And, for longer than anywhere else, New Zealand was that land. The last major land mass to be colonised, absent of any native mammal but small bats, it was for millennia a land belonging to birds. Flightless, many of them, and some not. The most dangerous was the largest eagle to ever exist – Haast’s eagle. It died out when humans killed its food to line their own stomachs.

That food was my Pacific monster. The tallest bird ever known, the giant moa. Females were as much as 3.7 metres in height, and all of them were flightless.

All we have left of it are bones. Bones, and stories…

Every so often the rumours start back up. That down in the remote, unexplored back blocks of Fiordland the moa survives. Perhaps not the giant moa, which would be genuinely hard to miss, but one of the smaller species of the genus. There’s sightings, a blurry photo or two. Tracks in the earth.

When my Pacific Monsters story was being edited, Margrét commented on the character who’d just found a moa footprint. Wouldn’t she wonder what it was?

There isn’t a person in this country who would see a three toed footprint that size and not think – not hope – that it was a moa. We’re a young country. We take our monsters where we can get them.

Do I think they’re still out there? Honestly, no. Do I want them to be? Oh, so much.

It’s wishful thinking, I know. Imagination layering itself over science, and with just enough hook to cling to, because, Jurassic Park-like, there is an astronomical outside chance that discovery of ancient DNA might be enough to bring them back.

But what would we do with them if we did? If we found them, alive still, in the dark and distant corners of the bush?

I’d like to think we’d be happy. That, as a nation, we’d pull of the mother of all conservation efforts, exceeding even that of the black robin – a native bird pulled back from the brink when once there were only seven individuals remaining.

But then I remember the context of monsters, and how the moa met a monster new-come to their shores… and it was us.

They didn’t survive the human race.

If they’re still out there, I hope they stay far, far away. That they’re rumours forever, because some monsters survive best in wishful thinking.

 

Food and Horror

I have a new book out! It’s my first non-fiction book, my first full length book, and my first available in paperback (before this I’ve just done short stories and a few novellas).

Food and Horror: Essays on Ravenous Souls, Toothsome Monsters, and Vicious Cravings began as a guest post on The Book Smugglers back in 2015. It very quickly became a monthly series, as Ana and Thea were kind enough to let me ramble on about all aspects of food in horror, from Jaws to the gingerbread house. After a year, I was done. It had been a particularly rewarding experience – people were always very kind and interested, and earlier this year I won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for best fan writing for the food and horror series.

Because of the positive response, The Book Smugglers and I thought we’d turn the series into a book. I spent a few busy months writing new material – there’s an extra 20,000 words in there now, looking at zombies and medical horror, Octavia Butler and the tooth fairy, amongst other things. And now there is a book! It’s longer than anything I’ve ever written that isn’t a thesis; I am prodigiously proud of it.

You can find details of where to pick up your own creepy copy here. And who wouldn’t want a book with that gorgeous cover? The artist is the very talented Kristina Tsenova (who did covers for my stories “The Mussel Eater” and The Convergence of Fairy Tales, also from the Smugglers) and she is extraordinarily talented so please keep her in mind in the future when award season rolls around.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science

I’ve a new story out! And it’s a Shimmer story! AT LAST AT LAST I HAVE A SHIMMER STORY.

Right. You see, Shimmer has long been on my list of “bucket markets” – by which I mean markets I want to get a story into before I get hit by a bus and die. I have tried for years to get a story into Shimmer. It is a very hard thing to do. Why? Because Shimmer is a consistently excellent speculative fiction market, and so it gets a lot of submissions. I think they were commenting on Twitter that they got 5000 stories a year sent to them? Of which they publish maybe 24. So you can see the odds are stacked against.

This story of mine, “The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science” (free to read at the link there), is the 28th story I have sent them. 28!!! It took that much work before they bought a story from me. I’ve been pretty open about this on Twitter – and now here – because I know from experience how discouraging constant rejection can be if you’re a writer. And it is discouraging – but it’s also part of the business, so you need to learn to not take it personally and keep trying. Editors want you to succeed, they want to buy an awesome story from you. The Shimmer editing staff, in particular, are lovely, and they were just as excited as I was to break that rejection streak I think.

I mean, if I can do it so can you. So don’t give up! And here’s a little snippet from the story to inspire you:

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight…

 

The Better Part of Drowning

I’ve a new story out!

The Better Part of Drowning” is free to read in this month’s issue of The Dark Magazine. It’s been a while since I’ve had a story in The Dark (back in 2014, with “Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley”) so it’s great to be back in there again.

“The Better Part of Drowning” is all giant, creepy, child-eating crabs, and what it’s like to have to live with them – to prey on them, and to be preyed on by them. Believe it or not, it’s set in the same world (on the same street!) as my recent story “The Ouroboros Bakery”, for all that they’re very different stories. It’s a world I plan to spend a lot more time in, with a series of interlinking shorts. Two more of these stories are in the pipeline – the crabs make a reappearance in my upcoming story “Sugar Ricochets to Other Forms” (in the Mother of Invention anthology), and the Lady of Scales is the subject of “The Temporary Suicides of Goldfish”, soon to appear in Kaleidotrope.

But, to the crabs…

Alix was never sure what kept the groaning rickety-spider of a dock up, unless it was the mussels that swarmed over the piles, turning them to hazards that could slice a swimmer open. The divers were all over scars from waves and mussels, always being pushed into shell sharp as knives and leaving their blood to scent the water.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!” If she heard that once a day she heard it fifty times, and each time she had to smile over the slicing pain and wave up, because coins weren’t thrown to kids who wailed. Wailing made her choke if she tried to dive anyway, and there were always kids enough to squabble over coins so tears did nothing but anchor her to surface and starvation and blind her to the sudden scuttle of predation.

Don’t draw the crabs, they always said, and smiled as they said it, because it was entertaining to see kids dive in crab beds, and entertaining to see the bloodshed when they were slow enough for catching. Alix didn’t blame them for that. She’d never been able to look away either, no matter how much bile rose in her throat, the metal taste of panic.

Crabmeat, crabmeat. It was their own little circle of carnivorism, the smallest crabs providing one and the smaller kids the other. Not that the biggest of the scuttlers couldn’t take a man full-grown, but usually the bigger you got the more sense you had, and the more the habit of watching claws kept them away from bone…

The Ouroboros Bakery

I’ve a new story out!

The Ouroboros Bakery” can be read for free in this month’s issues of Kaleidotrope.

Whenever I’m not writing about science I seem to be writing about food – particularly about food and horror, and “The Ouroboros Bakery” is a dark fantasy story about pie and immortality. There’s a fair bit of cake in there as well, and while writing this story I came across a cake that was entirely new to me. Baumkuchen, which is basically cake on a spit. Layers and layers are brushed on as the spit turns, and when the whole thing is finished and you cut into it there’s the effect of tree rings. Naturally this is something I have to try!

It’s certainly more likely to be tasty than the blood pie of the magic bakery here, which – if you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to get it – grants eternal life. But it seems that no matter how willing the customers are to guzzle down longevity, the reality of it never quite lives up to expectations…

“Please take it back,” he says. “Please.”

It’s not the most urgent plea Oksana has ever heard. This one is still mostly sane. He can still look her in the eye, and if his hands are tight-clasped together so that the knuckles show white, his voice has very little waver in it.

A strong man, then, but even strong men cannot fight on two fronts.

He does not touch his tea. Oksana serves it steaming hot, dark and tannic in the pot and her tea cups are the finest porcelain, translucent in afternoon sun. She has always been able to tell a lot from how her visitors drink her tea. Some sip as she does, their mouths unscalded and their cup dainty in their hands. Others are clumsier, aware of the cost of breakage, and these hold their cup in both hands. The polite do it before the tea cools, preferring to be burnt upon their palms than to risk cracks and recompense. And some refuse to drink altogether, whether out of preference or distraction, for Oksana serves her tea with sweet shortbread, with sponges and cream and tuile biscuits still warm from the oven.

Her visitor does not drink. It is not out of rudeness, and he would not eat again from her bakery unless it cost him his life, and there is nothing about Oksana’s afternoon tea that could do that. She finishes her slice of sponge, scrapes the last of the strawberry jam from her plate, the sweet tartness of it vivid against a background of tannin. His knuckles are paler than cream – they are as pale as icing sugar, and were he to try and take her cup in his hands, then all the tea would spill out…

You can read the rest over at Kaleidotrope!

RITUAL MEALS 1: FOOD AS ANCHOR, FOOD AS HARBOUR

FOOD AND HORROR, PART EIGHT

This is the eighth in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I wrote for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site last year.

It’s pretty undeniable that food has ritualistic elements. Of course some days you’re lucky to be able to more than eat and run, or eat on the run, and there are some who don’t get to eat at all. But most of us have our traditions, come from family or people or nation, from religion or history.

One of the reasons that short stories are so good at exploring horror through ritualistic food elements is that shorts are, by necessity, condensed information. Novels that focus heavily on the practise of rituals can seem leaden and repetitive, whilst a short can focus on a single element without beating that element into the ground. Furthermore, when that ritualism focuses on something as common as food, as laden with association as food, it does not need to spend too long underlining the effect. Readers recognise, from their own experiences, the meaning and importance of food rituals in general, and they can translate that into the story environment. Food can then be used as a sort of ritual pivot around which the story rotates.

This gives an author extraordinary freedom to use ritual in a number of ways. Used as many of us are to traditional, often historic food rituals, there is still place for those that are more modern than others. Naomi Kritzer’s “So Much Cooking” isn’t a horror story on the face of it (the ending’s a little too happy for horror) but it’s certainly the story of a woman in a horrific situation and trying to carry on as best as normal. Natalie is quarantined with her husband and an increasing number of children as a bird flu epidemic sweeps the country. With a 32% mortality rate the disease is a real threat, and Natalie’s nurse sister-in-law is one of the dead, infected as she tries to provide medical care for others.

Despite the growing death toll, however, Natalie’s food blog continues unabated. She continues to share the recipes from her increasingly bizarre meals – supplies become ever more limited, and substitutions have to be made. (As someone who bakes a lot myself, I’ve never considered using mayonnaise as a substitute for eggs before, and frankly I never want to again. I clearly don’t have what it takes to survive pandemic via experimental gastronomy.) But no matter how restricted the meals, their preparation and sharing (both in person and online) is a point of continuity.

“I don’t know about you, but I deal with anxiety by cooking,” says Natalie. I’ve talked before in these columns about how horror is primarily a genre of destabilisation, of taking the things that we’re sure of and inverting them for hideous effect. One way of doing this is by turning food itself into an expression of horror – for example chopping up a stepchild for stew, as in The Juniper Tree fairy tale. But if food can be weaponised in service of instability, it can also be used as a weapon against instability. Natalie, trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic environment in the middle of pandemic, uses food as a normalising influence. The world might be falling apart around her, but if she can put food on the table and conjure up a child’s birthday cake from pancake mix and butterscotch pudding then all is not lost. “This is no longer a food blog,” she says, reaching out for the connections of a life before. “This is a boredom and isolation blog. Also a stress management blog.” Hobby has become ritual, a way of holding steady in a stressful environment. The desire to cook – and to then describe that cooking – is a desire that, when expressed, anchors Natalie to her new and unpleasant reality. Grieving children, their mother lost to plague, abandoned children, a husband sinking into illness himself… these can all be contained with (and within) a food blog, the unstable world being reshaped into manageable, recognisable frames of reference.

But to whom do those frames of reference belong?

Natalie’s trying to keep things normal for the kids, or at least as normal as they can be. But the blog posts, the recording and reaching out and experimentation, the interaction with her readers… these little ritual processes are for her benefit alone. As she comments, her food blog is there for stress relief, to help keep herself collected and sane in the midst of infection. It is, primarily, a way to stabilise her world.

Yet what happens when the world that needs stabilising belongs to someone else? The birthday cake manoeuvre, as it were. Cooking a special treat for someone else, something that grounds them instead of yourself, is generally easy enough. Almost too easy for horror, even if there are challenges of substitution and sourcing.

Horror is a balancing act of stabilisation. Most characters try to deal with the undermining of their world view by trying to find a place of sense in madness, somewhere to stand where meaning can start to be rebuilt. But meaning changes from person to person. For instance, my own worldview is based very heavily in science. If I were confronted with a frightening instance of the paranormal, say a malevolent ghost, my reaction would be very different to that of a person who accepted the existence of ghosts as a normal part of existence. We might both be terrified, but our strategies for dealing with the subsequent upheaval would be different.

Such is the case with food. Natalie comes from an environment where birthday cakes are normal, expected items. It might give her some trouble to come up with one in a world of limited resources, but she doesn’t further destabilise her own worldview by trying to do so. What happens when one can only combat another’s destabilisation by undermining one’s own sane perspectives? How much of another’s horror can reasonably be taken on?

Caroline M. Yoachim explores this idea in her story “The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown”. The carnival in this story is a candy creation for children’s parties, and all the little figurines – the gingerbread daredevil, the juggler – are sentient. At the centre of the carnival is the clown, a perfect three inch sugar structure who, like Cinderella, is kept back from the party but for reasons more sinister than housework. The clown is the seed of the carnival, and after all her companions are sent off to be eaten by (comparatively) giant kiddies, the clown is melted down in a cauldron and, from her diluted remains, the carnival is reformed by the magician in charge of all this near-cannibalism. The daredevil and juggler and monkey, all the little sheep of the carnival, never remember from one incarnation to the other. They’re reborn as total innocents, and only the clown remembers all of her lives, all of her meltings down.

And the clown is perfectly happy, because she is perfectly ignorant. More used to sentience than her reborn companions, she helps to orient them, telling them of the wonderful future ahead of them.

As each of the sugar creations woke, the clown was there to welcome them to the world and tell them of their destiny.  “You will be adored by children,” she told the cotton candy sheep, stroking the wisps of their baby blue wool.  “You will delight them with your tumbling,” she told the flexible bubblegum acrobats.   And, “You will amaze them with your daring stunts,” she told the gingerbread daredevil.  She smiled at everyone, but she smiled her prettiest smile for the daredevil, because she was a little bit in love with him.

As she woke the carnival, and told them tales of children with bright smiling faces, she always added, “in the end you will be eaten, for that is your destiny.”

The clown doesn’t know what being eaten means, but thinks it full of positive connotations. Until the day she decides to sneak along to the party herself, and witnesses everyone she loves being consumed in great, greedy bites.

Newly awakened to a reality of more than sugar, the clown objects – understandably and strenuously – to being used as seed again, but sentient or not, she is three bare inches of sugar and is forcibly melted down in order to provide the next generation of candy victims. The whole horrible charade keeps going, over and over, the spells and the sugar spinning, the indoctrination, and nothing the clown says – to the magician, to his creations – makes any difference. Their destination is to be eaten, and they are. Repeatedly.

The whole magician’s process of saccharine castings is not only ritualized creation and consumption, the sacrifice of sentience in the rebirth of (doomed) innocence, but it is all the clown knows. It’s normal for her, accepted, until she finds out the horrifying truth and that normality destabilizes around her, reforms in different and threatening ways. And the clown is faced with a choice: she can continue as seed, stabilizing the world that everyone else is used to instead of causing trouble and conflict, or she can run away and refuse to be party to it. What she can’t do is simultaneously support both worlds. Ritual isn’t sufficient to bridge the gap between them, and the break between the magician’s carnival and the clown has to be absolute. It’s significant that the clown doesn’t reject ritual altogether, though. She goes on to create her own carnival, using the same magical process of regeneration. Instead of clinging to ritual, as Natalie does, the clown first rejects and then subverts it, mirroring the original stabilising force in order to stabilize a new world of her own creation.

If ritual is meant to preserve some semblance of the normal order of things, there are necessarily times that these rituals fail, or succeed in unexpected ways. The subversion of, and often-ambiguity of, ritual is illustrated in “Soup of Soul Bones” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert. The story begins with ritual, with the finding of bones and the resurrection of the related sprit. Adrienne, sacrificing a goose to tether the ghostly soul of Jacoben Stoyan to her kitchen, is in search of information only the dead can provide. Jacoben, however, is decidedly not cooperative, so the story begins with failed ritual and continues in the same vein.

Jacoben’s only interest appears to be cooking. He takes over the kitchen: baking, roasting, making sausage, and very nearly entirely ignoring Adrienne. She tries to catch his attention with bits and pieces that usually work well with summoned spirits – mirrors, bronze, lamb’s wool – but nothing works… at least not until she starts with another goose, and goes on sacrificing. The interaction between necromancer and ghost starts small, and it’s all culinary-based. The rituals Adrienne tries have magic in them, spells and enchantments and history, but it’s the food element that brings them together, that gives her the opportunity to try tease out what’s gone wrong with this very unusual resurrection.

Adrienne sacrificed a pig. Jacoben braised ribs.

She mixed honey-wine and milk—an offering of melikraton the old Greek ghosts preferred. Jacoben browned sugar in a copper pot.

She offered him fresh sturgeon, glossy-eyed, still dreaming of oceans. She offered him rabbits, snared in a new moon. She draped her table in grape-leaves, in radishes, in carrots. She left him wine and beer, champagne and mead.

Adrienne offered him entire markets. Jacoben baked peaches.

The house smelt of caramel and onion, garlic and spent-spells.

And Adrienne watched. She studied every pan, every plate. She filled notebooks counting spoon-strokes and knife-falls, but nothing made sense. She gained five pounds trying to discern what he meant by this parade of roasts and sweets, but in the end, what could be learned from fennel pie, from truffles soaked in wine?

Opportunity doesn’t always equal victory, though. Adrienne’s continued failure, her inability to learn from previously successful rituals, only stops when the ghost starts cooking himself. Adrienne raised him from his bones so there they are, “butcher-bare”, and he’s hacking up his own femurs for the cooking pot.

That’s how she gets her information, in the end. Through food and ritual and a type of bare resurrection as Jacoben subverts her spells by inserting himself into the ingredient list. Adrienne eats him up in any number of ways – she was on the right track, after all, using goose and incantation and sacrifice to draw him back to her. The ritual only needed tweaking – tweaking by its subject/object – in order to restore order to the world that was so disarranged when the necromancer’s original ritual spell didn’t work correctly.

But if ritual provides a way to cling to perceived normality through practical action in a world suddenly become abnormal, it can also provide touchstones by evoking memory. And that’s what I’ll be looking at next month: memory-meals, and how rituals use them to underline and subvert horror.