Short stories

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…

Crown of Thorns

I have a new story out!

Crown of Thorns“, about fighting invasive species in the wake of apocalypse, is out in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld. It’s set on the Great Barrier Reef, which is being overrun by a particularly hungry, particularly spiny starfish known as Acanthaster planci, or the Crown of Thorns…

Acanthaster planci.

Home was the poison infestation of starfish, the bleaching acres of coral. Home was vast stretches of warm ocean currents with schools beneath, and colonies.

Home was a laboratory where all the concerns were popular. The Crown of Thorns invasion, their numbers out of control and crowding out the reef systems, the unending march of predation turning an ecology to wasteland, and that ecology already vulnerable.

“We can’t do it anymore.” Apocalypse had left a dozen scientists stranded on a reef laboratory—stranded by choice more than compulsion, because there were boats available, research vessels that could have taken them to the mainland if there had been anything left to go back to. The lab was at least familiar, with the advantage of solar power and fishing equipment. No one would go hungry, but for people defined by their intelligence, by the career choice of science and of conservation, there was more than physical hunger to satisfy.

“We’re outnumbered,” said Mel. “And anyway, there’s no one left to report to.” There’d been nothing but silence from the university for months, and silence in the new world, the world defined by plague and absence, could only mean one thing. “It was only a pilot program anyway.” The desperate attempt to clear and monitor a small patch of ocean, to see if intervention could lead to recovery. Diving again and again, in clear warm water with spikes beneath, with stars, and so focused on seabeds and the possibility of resurrection that the other destruction taking place had seemed a distant thing, unnoticed at first, or at least not taken seriously until the silence began to spread, to became too monstrous to be ignored….

This is my first Clarkesworld story! It’s been on my bucket list of markets to crack for a long time now, and I can honestly say I’ve done my damnedest to crack it. “Crown of Thorns” is the 29th story I’ve sent them. 29th!!! If that isn’t persistence I don’t know what is. Still, if you want to be a writer persistence is necessary – and it does pay off in the end.

Unlike post-apocalypse starfish slaughter.

The Meiosis of Cells and Exile

asimovsI have a new story out!

“The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” is a novelette about the Soviet scientist Lina Stern. It’s just been published in the latest issue of Asimov’s.

I enjoy mixing science history and speculative fiction, and “Meiosis” is an example of this. Lina Stern (1878-1968) was a biochemist and director of the Physiology Unit in the Academy of Sciences. She was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Stalin was not impressed. Free speech was not something he found to be a priority, and the scientists and writers making up the Committee disagreed – to their very great cost. 15 members of the Committee were arrested and imprisoned for several years before being sentenced to death in a political show trial. Most were executed in 1952 in what came to be known as The Night of the Murdered Poets.

Lina was the only survivor, saved by her scientific talent and sent into exile in Kazakhstan instead. She was in her seventies at the time, and my story tells of her travel into that exile, fuming with what has been done to her and the rest of the Committee.

There’s (kind of) a happy ending to all that horror. Lina, despite her age, survived both Stalin and the miserable torturing bastard who imprisoned her and the rest of the League. She came back out of exile and spent the next 14 years of her very long life working for science, heading up the Physiology Department again at the Biophysics Institute.

It’s an apt story to be out at the moment, I reckon. Have been on Twitter the last few days, watching accounts from the Badlands National Park and NASA go rogue on climate change, tweeting science facts even though they’re under significant pressure not to. Scientists have the responsibility to speak truth to power, and I reckon Lina would have agreed.

(If you’re interested in reading more, Lina Stern also turns up as a supporting character in my short (free!) novel The August Birds.)

Eating Science with Ghosts

asimov-s-science-fiction-30I have a new story out! Actually, it’s a novelette. My first novelette, and my first story in Asimov’s Magazine.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” is the story of one very long dinner party, where the main character meets a number of dead scientists linked to weird stories of food and drink. Did you know, for instance, that Marie Curie’s cookbook is so radioactive it has to be kept in a lead box in the National Library in Paris? Or that Thomas Edison used to interview prospective employees by feeding them soup? If they tasted the soup before adding salt they were experimentalists at heart, and if they added the salt automatically (like I would, sorry to say) they assumed too much and were useless to him.

It’s science history as much as science fiction – actually, I’ve been planning to write a pop-sci book around this idea, so this wee novelette is like a proof of concept.

“Eating Science with Ghosts” isn’t available online, but if you can track down the Slightly Spooky October/November issue of Asimov’s it’s in there. Here’s a little taster, to see if it’s your kind of thing:

I’m a little bit drunk before the meal even starts. My guests are late, so that’s some excuse – and a bad joke to boot – but it’s always been easier to see the ghosts when I’m not entirely sober.

I used to try and block them out. But they never went, so eventually I learned to live with it. To live with them. In some ways now they feel like old friends, so when I got my doctorate I planned a celebratory meal. Not the one with family and friends, co-workers from the lab. This is the real celebration, the one that matters… and if those astronauts doesn’t turn up soon I’ll be face down on the table, passed out on one of those lovely little sidewalk cafés that Paris does so well, before I’ve even finished the first course.

I think my tongue is going numb. It’s the vermouth, come in a range of combinations and pretty glasses, nearly all of which are empty. This is a place for vermouth. It was advertised here, back in the early twentieth century: the first neon advertising sign in the world, and naturally it was for alcohol. Cinzano, the word lit up atop a building opposite, lit up in shining white against a brilliant red and blue background. Capital letters, a simple font… it all says Look at me! Buy me!

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.

 

 

Short Stories and Transformation

apexmag11_largeFOOD AND HORROR, PART SIX

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

 

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

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

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

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

This is a story of linkages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(All the stories are the same.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kelp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without science, there was nothing left…

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

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

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

The Marzipan Dog

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

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

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

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

Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

Of course it ended up a story.

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

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

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