Category: Horror

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 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.

 

Food and Fairy Tales win at the SJV awards!!!

I have had a fantastic weekend. I spent it down in Taupo, at LexiCon – New Zealand’s national SFF convention. I was on two panels: with Seanan McGuire and Meryl Stenhouse on Ecosystems in Science Fiction; and with Meryl again and Cat Langford on Writing Science, Writing Science Fiction. They both seemed to go well, got lots of comments and questions and the people who came up to me afterwards were very complimentary, which was kind of them as I’m not the best public speaker in the world and I’m afraid it showed. But still! I was pleased to make the effort, especially given how well LexiCon went. As a convention it was small but perfectly formed, being exceedingly well organised. Everyone was friendly and excited and happy to be there which is exactly how a convention should be.

But the big news – for me, anyway – happened on the last night, just before the closing ceremony, when the Sir Julius Vogel awards were held. These are our national SFF awards, named after a 19th century Prime Minister who wrote feminist science fiction, and they’re handed out every year. I was nominated in two categories: best novella/novelette for The Convergence of Fairy Tales, and best fan writing for my series of columns on food and horror, both of which were published last year by The Book Smugglers.

I was lucky enough to win both! So I have two lovely new trophies to sit on my bookshelf. (I was also really pleased that A.J. Fitzwater won the best short story category for “Splintr”, which was well deserved.)

I’m super grateful to everyone who voted for me. The competition was very strong, especially in the novella category. I didn’t expect to win, but it seems horror is more popular in the NZ fandom than I thought! So much thanks to my fellow kiwi fans, to the SJV organising team, and to Thea and Ana over at The Book Smugglers for all their support!

The Sharp and Sugar Tooth

I’ve spent the last year thinking a lot about food and horror – how our relationship with food impacts our ideas about consumption, and how that consumption can be made a dark and twisted thing. It’s something I’ve written about in my own stories (for instance “The Mussel Eater”), but it’s also something other people have been writing about. There’s a lot of fantastic stories exploring the dark side of culinary life out there…

I’m pleased to say there will soon be more. I’m editing an anthology for Upper Rubber Boot Books, called The Sharp and Sugar Tooth, to be published late next year. Submissions are open, and you can find the submission call here. Basically what I’m looking for is creepy, beautiful, mouth-watering stories with an element of horror. Stories can be dark fantasy or science fiction or straight horror, but they must be themed around food gathering, food preparation, or the act (and consequences) of consumption. Sex, strong language (and cannibalism!) is fine, but I’m not interested in torture-porn of people or animals even if that’s what gets them onto the plate.

Subversive, diverse stories with a focus on women are appreciated. The Sharp and Sugar Tooth is part of Upper Rubber Boot’s Women Up To No Good series, so authors must identify as female, non-binary, or as a marginalised sex or gender identity.

  • Word count: Up to 5000 words.
  • Payment: six cents per word.
  • Publication history: Original stories only. Reprints may be submitted by invitation only.
  • Multiple submissions: No.
  • Simultaneous submissions: No.
  • Deadline: 31 July 2017. All stories will be replied to by the end of August.
  • To submit: Please send stories in standard manuscript format, attached in .doc or .rtf files, to octaviacade@hotmail.com with the subject line SUGAR TOOTH. Be sure to provide mailing address and a short bio.
  • If the work is a translation, please also provide a statement from the rights holder that you are authorized to translate and submit it (both author and translator will receive full payment).

We encourage and welcome stories from voices underrepresented in speculative fiction, including (but not limited to) writers of colour, LGBTQ writers, writers with disabilities, and writers in translation.

 

The Little Beast

I have a new story out!

“The Little Beast” has just been published in Respectable Horror, the new anthology from Fox Spirit Books. Now I love pretty much all types of horror, but this anthology focuses on stories that try to horrify you without gore or explicitness. Inside you’ll find more Shirley Jackson than Saw.

“The Little Beast” is based around my least favourite fairy tale. I’ve always side-eyed Beauty and the Beast, and it was always Beauty that got my back up. There’s something so untrustworthy about how saccharine she is. I’m not even talking about her willingness to be sold to the Beast as some sort of family sacrifice. In itself that might be understandable – it’s when it follows the whole disgusting rose episode that sacrifice starts to take on more sinister undertones. If I can pinpoint the one moment when I finally realised that I just don’t like Beauty – and why – it’s that bloody bit with the rose; her desperate, needy desire to take up every last bit of her father’s mental space.

A rose is the worst of long-distance presents. It’s a cut flower, it wilts. He’ll have to wrap the stem in wet tissue, to watch it every second so that it doesn’t fall off the cart or get run over, so that it isn’t bumped and bruised by packages or the careless elbows of passers-by. He’ll end up carrying it himself, the whole of the trip home. It’s such a simple request, that made by his youngest daughter. Such a modest desire.

And every night, when he stops at an inn, he’ll have to ask for a vase and fresh water and before he gets it he’ll have to explain why he wants it. He’ll have to tell about his daughter, about her rose. And they’ll coo and congratulate him on having such a loving girl, and none of them will stop to think that she’s asked for a gift that’ll take more time and trouble than her more conventional sisters. No. They’ll be too busy making a fuss for that.

(None of the fuss will be about him.)

But cut flowers die, and no matter what he does, no matter the trouble he’ll go to, by the time he gets back home the thing’s going to be half-dead anyway, all wilted and with the petals falling off.

And the little beast… the little beast will look at her sisters with their expensive, easy requests and her bottom lip will quiver, just minutely, and then she’ll smile anyway and thank him for the present and say that his coming back safe was all she really needed. And all this ridiculous sequence of events will have been set up, by her, for his next line, because there’s only one thing he’ll be able to say at that point, confronted with that brave, martyred little face and that sad little flower.

“You’re such a good girl, Beauty.” (So much better than your sisters.)

Awful girl. Awful. To read the rest, check out the anthology…

The Convergence of Fairy Tales

convergence2I have a new novella out!

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is a horror story published by The Book Smugglers as the first in their new novella series. It’s really a mash-up of sorts, where five different fairy tale princesses – Sleeping Beauty, the Snow Queen, Snow White, the Frog Princess, and Rapunzel – are facets of the same person. That person wakes, as the original Sleeping Beauty does, with a baby sucking the needle from her finger. How the princesses deal with their rape and forced motherhood – and how they wreak bloody vengeance within the confines of their own stories, aided by poison apples and mirror fragments, by long hair and glass coffins and golden balls – is something I really wanted to explore.

The Sleeping Beauty woke with a heartbeat between her legs. That was what dragged her out of the sticky swamp of enchantment, of curses and nightmare dreams – a red beat, one centred in her cunt and pulsing. It anchored her as fishing line, hooked into her flesh and hauling upwards until she broke the surface of her sleep and woke to a world so much different than before.

Her eyes were sticky-shut, the lashes glued together. It took work to open them and then the sun was so bright, shining through her tower window, that the Sleepy Beauty promptly closed them again to let herself adjust to the light glowing pink through her lids. It was in that moment, floating just above unconsciousness, that she began to feel more than flares and fish-lines.

The sheets were wet. Damp, really, with the sour odour of sweat, especially in the space around her hips where she could feel the liquid pooling, feel the heaviness of the sheets against her skin. She tried to move, to shift out of the damp spot – had she wet herself, had her bleeding come early? – but it hurt to move and there was something between her legs, something soft and wet and spongy. Her lower back felt as if she had been beaten, and there was a tugging at one finger.

And really, look at that cover. It’s by the fabulously talented Kristina Tsenova (who also did the cover for my short story “The Mussel Eater”). How can you not want a book with that cover?

The Convergence of Fairy Tales is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Short Stories and Eating Alien Politics

cwFOOD AND HORROR, PART SEVEN

This is the seventh 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.

The thing about food is that it can be a substitution for so much more. Consumption is a metaphor of many parts, with teeth all around – erupting, even, from places we don’t expect. In this month’s column, I’m sticking with contemporary short stories – but stories informed by other narratives of consumption, narratives of fantastic and natural horror that have their own subtext, their own ways of eating through and looking at the world around.

This month, I’m looking at alien predation. Eating aliens, and being eaten by them. This does tend away from the more fantastic or fairy tale narratives that I’ve talked about in some previous columns. “Alien” tends to imply science fiction, the coming of another sentient species – and one that hails from other worlds, other civilisations. This isn’t the witch with a candy cottage, sugar syrup in the cauldron and waiting for kids to eat up. This is space ships and invasion, the influence of foreign biology. But major differences aside – and there are major differences, for I’ve always thought that science fiction has markedly different concerns than fantasy (although that’s a whole other series of columns) – genre comes from the same mindset: a human one, and one that deals with human concerns. Thus similarities remain, even once the differences have been stripped off.

One of those similarities is the desire to use story for metaphor. I’ve talked before in these columns about vampires and how their blood-sucking has often been seen as a substitute for sex, and they’ve not exactly been original comments on my part. That’s an argument that has been around for a long time… something creepy to get past the censors, a sensual violation of a kind that can be lit up on a cinema screen without risking too much in the way of fines and obscenity charges. It’s consumption as a substitute for sex, and a fairly well understood one at that.

Recall also the success of natural horror: bands of tourists floating through the crocodile infested waters of the Northern Territory, or splashing in the seaside waters of Amity. This too uses consumption to tell a story, and if that story isn’t concerned with sex so much as survival, it’s still anchored to biology. The creature horror narratives are nasty reminders of our place in the food chain. They assign the label of prey animal instead of lover, instead of top-of-the-heap, the chosen party, or the most successful species – the most dangerous, the one slaughtering all the others. It’s a reminder that brains aren’t all that, and that they don’t protect against teeth and appetite. Splitting the atom has no effect on a rampaging croc, and no great white shark is going to fall under the spell of any swimming Scheherazade, telling stories in her swimming costume to keep her legs from being taken off at the hips.

These aren’t the only examples, of course, but they do illustrate ways that both fantastic horror and natural horror use consumption to tell stories other than the surface one. And that subversion, as it was last month, is where the modern short story really shines.

So: aliens. Aliens and food. Aliens who want to eat us.

It’s arguable that this kind of story belongs in a subset of creature horror. Is there really that much of a difference between being eaten by a crocodile, and being eaten by a reptilian alien that has substantial crocodilian characteristics? This hypothetical alien has a natural origin, suspending disbelief as we are. That’s why it’s science fiction. It’s not some entity raised from a Hellmouth, or cobbled together out of magic and spare parts, electricity and the remnant imaginings of Frankenstein. It is, supposedly, the product of natural selection, having evolved on a difference world with different population pressures, different ecologies and competing species. A rational construct, in other words: a created, imaginary creature, to be sure, but one created according to scientific principles and subject to natural laws.

On that level, there’s probably not that much difference between a carnivorous croc from Australia and one from outer space. Maybe minor variations in tooth size and structure, but that’s not going to matter if they hold and tear and bite… at least not to the one being held and torn and bitten. Which tends to beg the question: why use alien creatures at all? There are plenty of hungry beasties on Earth which could do the job quite nicely, and actually do so in any number of stories.

The answer is, of course, substitution. It’s using alien creatures to tell a story that can’t be told using animals from this planet. The most obvious difference is sentience. A large enough crocodile could destroy a propeller, but it can’t actually pilot a boat – or a spaceship, for that matter. It lacks technical and social intelligence enough to not only traverse space, but to cooperate with others of its species to do so.

And that’s where the short story comes in. I talked last month about how today’s short SFF story increasingly values diversity, with stories by diverse authors becoming increasingly more common and accessible. Because each of these authors write stories informed by their own experiences, the resulting stories indicate a wider range of these prompting experiences, and one of the ways they illustrate this is in their relationship with, and attitude to, power.

They tend towards the subversive, is what I’m trying to say. Last month I talked about some stories that used consumption to illuminate transformation, particularly in those stories that explored changing gender relationships. This month, I’m looking at how stories can use consumption to explore other power relationships – specifically that of political structures – specifically those that address inclusivity. Using alien societies to examine this sort of structure allows them to act as a metaphor for human debate without getting too bogged down in it (one hopes – there are always those painfully thin efforts that are poor disguises for polemic, but one doesn’t have to go to the trouble of reading them when there’s jam to be made and cupcakes to ice).

Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, takes the phrase “you are what you eat” to a whole new level. It starts, however, with an illustration of exoticism. It defines the alien through autopsy, essentially. Hank is a pathologist whiling away the night shift with drowning victims and hopes of fishing. Then his ex-wife Evelyn brings him a Worm: an eight foot monstrosity stretched out on a slab and ready for the knife. The Worms are engaged in an invasion of Earth, but one of their ships crash-landed and suddenly science has a number of corpses to play with – and play Hank does. He fillets and dissects and holds open with fishing nylon, opening up this horrible creature, preparing it for the table of his morgue.

The Worm, being a Worm, has its own markedly different relationship with food. It appears to be a mud eater:

“Let me take a look at that beak again. . . . Hah. See how the muscles are connected? The beak relaxes open, aaand—let’s take a look at the other end—so does the anus. So this beast crawls through the mud, mouth wide open, and the mud passes through it unhindered.”

There’s also three stomachs, so one assumes that minerals are filtered out therein in order to feed the truly massive brain. But whatever Hank’s comments on the transformative nature of the Worm’s digestive system – “It tastes the mud as it passes, and we can guess that the mud will be in a constant state of transformation, so it experiences the universe more directly than do we” – the horror is not solely in the dissection of this once living, thinking creature.

The horror comes when Hank starts to eat it.

Don’t get the wrong impression here. His autopsy kit doesn’t come with a steak knife or a lobster pick. Hank doesn’t go in for that sort of gluttony. His consumption is automatic; his will undermined by an alien… something. For behind a stinking black gland is a “small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal”.

It’s this that Hank eats, with his corpse-covered, glove-covered hands – and he’s not the only one. It turns out that this is the invasion, the crashed ship a deliberate ploy to use consumption as a transformative agent. To make Hank a Worm, to eat him up and steal his memories.

And the worst of it is he suspected the Worms would do something like that. Evelyn brings him one of the crashed corpses because she has faith in his ability to be imaginative in strange ways, to see around corners and make assumptions in biology and psychology. This is the science of science fiction, fitting form to thought, cause to effect. Differences in physiology impact on how a creature perceives the world, and how they interact with it. Assessing the massive brain and the chemical conversion chambers attached to the digestive system, Hank makes a decent guess at the nature of the enemy:

“I’d say the Worms are straightforward and accepting—look at how they move blindly ahead—but that their means of changing things are devious, as witness the mass of alembics. That’s going to be their approach to us. Straightforward, yet devious in ways we just don’t get. Then, when they’re done with us, they’ll pass on without a backward glance.”

Just as they do when passing through mud, because food is something to be absorbed and excreted and left behind. But the problem with mud-dwellers excreting digested mud back into the ground again is that eventually other mud-dwellers will swim through that excretion. Like humans pissing in a swimming pool, if you’ll forgive the crudeness of the expression. And what do you know, this particular characteristic mimics the political structure of the species.

The Worms are essentially the Borg of the annelid world. A hive culture, and when one individual dies its remains are eaten by the rest. Its flesh is returned to the species, transformed into new Worms, and its memories absorbed. (“Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own.”) And there’s Hank, beating his ex-wife to death and slowly being taken over, being driven insane, as he literally drives himself to an alien ship to be eaten – only to discover that his sense-images and memory of the drive, of the whole hideous experience, are just that: recollections, because Hank is already being digested. He’s the mud in the machine, and conscious the whole time.

This is a story that clearly cannot be told with a saltwater crocodile. As briefly as one might be aware of ambush, of teeth fastening onto a torso, no-one in the stomach of said crocodile has any remaining awareness. (Because they’ve already been torn into bloody chunks, but you get my drift.) This is a story that can only be told with an alien antagonist, one with a social and biological structure so foreign, so anathema to our own that the method of eating is insult compounded. As a species we are individualists. Compared to the hive mind of the Worm, ideological conflicts as massive as, for instance, the Cold War, are as nothing. They’re the disorganisation of a minor species. Hank simply cannot tell, of course, from a single specimen, if there are racial or sexual differences between members of the Worm population. But here’s the thing: if there are, does it even matter? The collective experiences of each hive member are shared by all the members of that hive. One has to ask: what use is Worm racism then? What use sexism? (If they have sexes.) These questions are all implicit. Swanwick doesn’t explore them in the text, but they’re there bubbling up underneath. Still, there’s an uncomfortable tension between the dystopian and the utopian here; the moral state of monsters.

It’s the Borg story again, writ large over the cosmos. Eating as a means of control, of colonisation, yes – but also eating as a mirror. Star Trek, with its (grossly overused, I can’t stop myself from saying) device of the mirror universe is used to looking at society through a glass darkly. And with its foundation principle of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, the Federation is the resulting political structure of this principle. The Borg, however – they’re infinite diversity in a single (hive) form, but the value of diversity remains. They’ll assimilate nearly everything – and so will the Worms. Because knowledge is valuable, and not just that which serves the periodic table, or propulsion systems. Knowledge is individual as well, personal – and personal is political. Worms will get medical knowledge of their dinner by consuming doctors, yes – but they’ll also get knowledge of unequal pay, and female circumcision, and lynching.

If they colonise.

Because this tactic, the one designed for diversity, is fundamentally flawed, as Evelyn points out. Given the human response to the crash, a response couched in the military industrial complex of an individualised, non-hive species, consumption is limited.

“The Worms crashed it in the Pacific on purpose. They killed hundreds of their own so the bodies would be distributed as widely as possible. They used themselves as bait. They wanted to collect a broad cross-section of humanity.

“Which is ironic, really, because all they’re going to get is doctors, morticians, and academics. Some FBI agents, a few Homeland Security bureaucrats. No retirees, cafeteria ladies, jazz musicians, soccer coaches, or construction workers. Not one Guatemalan nun or Korean noodle chef. But how could they have known? They acted out of perfect ignorance of us and they got what they got.”

And I’m reading this, and maybe it’s the beer and maybe I’m just used to talking about subversion in this column but it’s hard not to see this as a commentary on the state of the SFF short story today. Food and horror is so dependent on context, on the sub rosa presentation of power, that it’s now something I expect to see kept behind teeth and tongue and gullet.

Possibly the ongoing conversation at the moment in SFF is diversity. Who gets published more, who gets reviewed more. Who ends up on “Best of” lists. Look at this table of contents. Look at that one. How did that anthology end up so skewed? Our submission guidelines are open to everyone; we’re just taking the best of what we get – says the editor (says the Worm), and you know, I reckon half the time they really do believe in the value of diverse stories but their sampling systems are skewed. Their submission system is set down in one place and it eats up every story fed into it, but the Worms don’t go looking because they seem to trust to cross-sections. The Pacific will offer up Guatemalan nuns and Korean chefs and if it doesn’t, then they don’t exist. Their stories are not the ones to be consumed, and unless the Worms crash land in a number of different places, sent Hank and his ilk out to actively sample more meals, to stuff themselves forcibly down the throats of unsampled populations, then what the Worms get is a small snapshot of a culture only.

Some groups submit stories less than others; some submit earlier than others. This isn’t news. I’m always interested in submission stats… they feed a desire to know and analyse and argue. And while it’s problematic to describe other people as alien or the other, science fiction has a long tradition of trying on different perspectives through alien masks. It’s rooted in the desire to communicate, I think, to talk about issues in what can be a less incendiary way. To slide the conversation in sideways.

It’s this communication that comes through in “Pithing Needle” by E. Catherine Tobler. Communication through consumption again, and it’s no accident that both the stories in this column are from Clarkesworld. They’re very similar in theme, so it’s no surprise that they appeal to the same taste.

“Pithing Needle” is shorter than “Passage of Earth”. Yet the subject is the same: carnivorous aliens, crashed ships, and humans being eaten up by aliens that look like hermit crabs instead of worms. As the narrator says:

“I don’t try to talk to them—they have mouths but use them only to eat. I will not be eaten—slick trigger in slick glove, I fire the way they eat: constant. Sometimes I get there before they do; sometimes I’m firing and a soldier is already inside that shell, digesting. A thousand tongues inside one hungry, angry mouth.”

It’s an understandable fear. Invasion is taking over, and there are enough narratives in the news these days of hostile intruders to make an impression on anyone’s subconscious, not matter one’s truly held political beliefs (of which, it must be said, I know nothing of with regard to the authors featured here). And media today is so concerned with consumption, with catering to particular taste as news is packaged up, that having consumption take literal form in an actual invasion of the really foreign is unsurprising.

Again, though, the alien ship is a hive.

“You never kick a hive because of what may come boiling out, but when the troops place the explosives in an effort to bring the upper levels of the thing down, they only succeed in busting open all the levels that weren’t broken open upon landing. This ship explodes with life; aliens everywhere.”

And again, this is an understandable choice. Not only is the hive an alien construct, at least on a human level, but it has connotations of faceless masses, swarming over borders and bringing changing patterns of consumption. New foods, new languages, new ways of doing things and like locusts they eat up all that is inherently different.

When the nameless narrator of “Pithing Needle” is captured by an alien and taken into the depths of the hive, eaten up and spat back out again, it’s a digestive disgorgement that comes with language, and with the potential ability for communication, for cross-species translation.

“The alien that swallowed me perches on the rim of this room, screaming. Eventually, this alien begins to calm and the scream turns into a chitter turns into a pattern, a pattern that my brain begins to dissect.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar.”

When language exchange is insufficient, the alien tries a more direct approach, forcing its needle into the base of a brain in a sort of telepathic exchange of colour and sensation. Of different stories, of confinement and space, of imprisonment and freedom. And when this suddenly dual-focused individual is ejected from the hive, carrying memories not their own, relationships with other humans begin to change.

“I cannot form the proper words to tell them, about the ship and the cells, and then you are there, cradling my head, asking if I can see you.

I see you, in more colors than ever before. The color that glosses your rain-wet face has no word; the taste of the rain that slides from your nose and into my chittering mouth has no name on this world. What world—this world, but I cannot say where I am. I could reach into the drone that passes over us, could crack open the housing and show you the spill of wires, connective pathways; I could turn these colors and tastepaths into a map, could pull you inside this space and show you, but you would only ever know a fraction–a fragment, a–”

This is consumption as transformation again, the opening up of perception, of empathy, that comes from the understanding of another thinking creature. Even if that creature is a predator, even if its primary desire is to eat, to consume – and even if you’re the dinner – this is a form of knowledge without which one is lesser. I am not, I am not, please note, arguing that diversity precludes disagreement – often fundamental and, in the case of these two stories, violent.

But this is science fiction, and I am a scientist at heart. And no knowledge is wasted. No knowledge is useless.

And no stories are either.