I’ve been reading twisted fairy tales, a novel about witches and vampires with historical and contemporary timelines, and a subtle work of Gothic horror set on a remote stretch of the English coast.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (2013)
Aimee Bender is best known for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. This is the second collection of her stories that I’ve read. Most have a touch of the bizarre to them – a tiny tweak to normal life – but some are set in completely alternate worlds. One character experiences extreme face blindness; another deludes himself that he was a famously vicious Nazi during the Second World War. Seamstresses take on odd tasks like repairing endangered animals or, in the title story, creating a dress that resembles the moon and embodies female anger. In “Appleless,” vigilantes punish a girl who won’t eat apples, while “The Devourings” is a dark riff on Shrek in which a woman comes to terms with her ogre husband’s innate violence.
A few favorites were “A State of Variance,” in which a character can’t seem to avoid perfect facial symmetry no matter how he tries to mar his natural beauty, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” a philosophical conversation between an ill rabbi and her atheist-leaning parishioner, and “The Red Ribbon” (which draws on the same source material as Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”), about a bored housewife who starts acting out sexual fantasies to try to save her marriage.
Bender deploys a good mixture of voices and protagonists, though at least four of the 15 stories felt unnecessary to me. Her approach is similar to Kelly Link’s and Karen Russell’s, but I’ve failed to get on with their surreal stories before – Bender’s writing is that bit more accessible. I’d recommend her to fans of stories by Amy Bloom and Sarah Hall.
Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness (2018)
This is a companion volume to Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which is like the thinking gal’s Twilight, as written by a historian of science. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, in 2011 and surprised myself by completely loving the story of the witch Diana Bishop, who researches alchemy at the Bodleian Library and falls hard for a centuries-old vampire, Matthew de Clermont. Although Time’s Convert is likely intended to stand alone, I felt it could do with a dramatis personae at the start as I’d forgotten who many of the minor characters were.
Diana and Matthew are still major characters, though not at the heart of the book. One strand has Diana and her family staying in the French countryside. She and Matthew now have toddler twins, Philip and Becca, who are just starting to show magical powers: Philip summons a griffon named Apollo as his familiar. Another is set in Paris, where Phoebe Taylor is willingly being transformed into a vampire so she can marry Matthew’s son, Marcus. A final strand recreates Marcus’s experiences during the American and French Revolutions and onward: he was born in Massachusetts in 1757 and was a surgeon during the Revolutionary War before he met Matthew and received the offer of immortality.
I almost always feel that sequels fail to live up to the original. Time’s Convert is most like Shadow of Night, the second book of the series and my least favorite because it spends so much time in 1590s England. Here the three different story lines split my focus and I resented being taken away from Diana’s first-person narration, which is much more engaging than the third-person material. I would only recommend this volume to diehard fans of the series.
With thanks to Headline for the free copy for review.
Note: A television adaptation of A Discovery of Witches recently aired on Sky One in the UK and is coming to North America in January.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (2014)
The Loney is not a monster, as I suppose I expected, but a place: an isolated coastline in the northwest of England that the narrator and his family visited on pilgrimage with their Roman Catholic congregation every Easter in the 1970s. The narrator, only identified by the nickname Tonto, explores their strange rental house – full of taxidermied animals and hidden rooms, it also has a rifle under the floorboards – and goes to the beach with his mute brother Andrew (“Hanny”). Mummer and Farther hold out hope that their son Hanny will be healed on a visit to the local shrine, and Mummer especially is frustrated that Father Bernard isn’t as strict and devout as their previous priest, Father Wilfred, who died under a cloud of suspicion not long before this trip.
Last year at around this time I read Hurley’s follow-up, Devil’s Day, which has a similarly bleak and eerie atmosphere. Both look at rural superstitions as experienced by outsiders. The Loney was more profound for me, though, in how it subverts religious rituals and posits a subtle evil influence without ever disappearing down doctrinal rabbitholes. It asks how far people will go to get what they want, what meaning there is to human life if there is no supernatural being looking out for us, and – through a framing story set 30 or more years later – how guilt and memory persist. I especially loved the Tenebrae service in a gloomy church featuring Bosch-like horrors in its artwork. This reminded me of a less abstract After Me Comes the Flood and a more contemporary The Short Day Dying; I highly recommend it.
“The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place – dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.”
“The wind continued to rise and fall. Whining and shrilling. It was as insistent as the priest, louder sometimes, preaching an older sermon, about the sand and the sea.”
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
The 11 stories in Jennifer Caloyeras’ new collection, Unruly Creatures (released on October 3rd by West Virginia University Press), feature characters who find themselves in extreme situations and/or are let down by their bodies. Often, their tentative steps outside their own problematic situations involve making unexpected connections with the animal world: a neglected boy learns from a taxidermist, a trainer at the Institute for Privileged Primates is surprised by the depth of her feelings for one of the gorillas in her care, a woman who has just had a double mastectomy empathizes with a cow stuck in the crater left by a crashed meteor, and two teens realize they can only bond with their father when in animal costumes.
I appreciated the variety of forms and voices here. One story set in a dystopian future has an epistolary element, including letters and memos; two others use second-person or first-person plural narration, respectively. There’s also a lot to think about in terms of gender. For instance, one protagonist frets about out-of-control pubic hair, while another finds it difficult to maintain her trans identity on a male prison ward. “A Real Live Baby” was a stand-out for me. Its title is a tease, though, because Chloe is doing the Egg Baby project in school and ‘babysits’ for her delusional neighbor, who keeps a doll in a stroller. The conflation of dolls and babies is also an element in recent stories by Camilla Grudova and Lesley Nneka Arimah – proof, if we needed it, that modern motherhood is both an enigma and a work in progress.
I’d recommend this story collection to readers of Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler – and to book clubs. You certainly won’t run out of things to discuss!
Jennifer kindly offered to take part in a Q&A over e-mail. We talked about eco-lit, fairy tales gone wild, and how writing and marketing short stories is different from novels.
Animals take on a variety of roles in these stories: research subjects, art projects, friends. Are you an animal lover? Or was that linking theme incidental? And what did you hope to convey about the ways the human and animal worlds intersect?
I am an animal lover. I always have been. When I was younger I really wanted to be a marine biologist. I couldn’t quite get around the math. Then for a while, I thought, animal psychologist. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and animal behavior and the ways in which humans are constantly distancing themselves from animals and their behavior. We have a bit of an unfair superiority complex when it comes to the animal world. I ended up going down an entirely different path (musician and singer) before applying to graduate school for a MA in English and then a MFA in creative writing.
But to get back to your question, I didn’t set out to write a collection of linked animal stories; that ended up happening organically. I like to use animals as a mirror or lens through which we see ourselves: sometimes at our worst, most instinctive behavior – sometimes at our best. I think an apt metaphor is that of child staring at an animal at a cage in the zoo, internalizing the thought, “I am nothing like that animal. I am everything like that animal.”
Sometimes the humans are the truly unruly creatures – thinking especially of the obnoxious plane passenger in “Airborne” and Ernest, the persnickety postman in “Big Brother.” How does placing them alongside animal characters point up their flaws?
I am a huge fan of unlikable and unreliable narrators. And I think the short story genre lends itself to utilizing these types of narrators, because you don’t have to sustain this for the duration of an entire novel. In “Big Brother”, the reader aligns with everyone else in the story, not the protagonist. Ernest can’t get over the fact that Les, his co-worker, could have such a bond with a parrot, when Ernest has such a difficult time connecting with anyone, yet in the same story, Ernest’s earnest love for his dog is apparent. He has the key to connecting with people, he just doesn’t have the means to put this knowledge to use.
“H2O” imagines a future extreme drought situation in which only the elite can afford fresh water. Does this feel like a plausible scenario, especially where you live in California?
Oh, the water situation is really scary. I don’t think we’re far off from the scenario presented in this story. It’s always absurd to me when we hear about drought conditions and yet, here I am, driving by a huge verdant golf course. And the access for the wealthy in this particular story resonates in terms of access in general in a capitalistic society. In the story, which is a sort of eco-lit satire (I think I just made up that genre), water is the most coveted commodity, yet it’s marketed differently depending on economic status. Living in Los Angeles, there seems to be a production value to everything here, so I wanted to add that twist in the story – the commercialism of a commodity – how it would be talked about on a production set. How to do the perfect “hard sell” when it comes to water.
I especially love the fairy tale-gone-wild mood of “Unruly”: Caroline loathes the Rapunzel-like abundance of her pubic hair, and instead of a glass slipper we get glass shards in Tom’s arm. How does twisting a fairy tale play with readers’ expectations for a story?
I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. My second young adult novel, Strays, has a whole component where a high school English teacher introduces 16-year-old Iris, the protagonist, to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (if you’re a fairy tale fan, you have to read this one!), which is a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales. I love how familiar all the fairy tale tropes are. I love the use of magical realism in fairy tales and I love the idea of playing with a familiar and predictable story and undercutting the reader’s expectations. To that end, I recently read (and loved) A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass – which was a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of waking up as a cockroach, in this version – a black man in Lagos wakes up as a white man, afforded all of the benefits of white privilege. As a reader you’re thinking, “I know the story, but I don’t know this story.”
The story “Stuffed” was also inspired loosely by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The witch in the woods is replaced by a taxidermist (who is not evil) and instead, things with the child go dark pretty quickly.
Occasionally ersatz creatures are on display: doll babies, taxidermied animals, or animal costumes. What are we to make of that gulf between the real thing and the false one on display?
Surrogates are some of my favorite things to explore! I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy while doing research for “Stuffed”. I really couldn’t get enough. I remember as a child getting lost for hours in the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. I think, for me, it’s the idea of creating something to replace something, but the replacement is complete artifice. In terms of taxidermy, essentially, you are replacing death or recreating death to imitate life. A real dead animal is ugly, sunken, decayed. But we have these artists who take death, stuff it with synthetic material, replace eyeballs with beads and you have a recreation of an animal that sometimes looks better off than a live version of that animal. A lot of what is explored in these stories is a stripping down to raw human behavior. People hide behind the masks and costumes and artifice, but placed in certain situations, their animal instincts will always emerge.
[See also my review of the taxidermy-themed English Animals by Laura Kaye.]
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Titles always come last for me. Always. I can’t name a thing until I know what that thing is. Writing is such a process and oftentimes I won’t end up where I think I’m going when I’m writing a story. They always surprise me. “Unruly” (the story of the pubic-haired Rapunzel) came directly out of this vivid dream I had when I was pregnant with my first child. I dreamed that I was naked with long flowing hair everywhere and a squirrel came out of a tree, nipped off a chunk of my hair and ran back to her nest and wove the hair into the nest. I remember waking up hysterically laughing. In hindsight it was such an obvious fertility dream; for the sake of the story, I made it a representation of coming-of-age/adolescence – a time where one’s body feels out of control, but I took it to the next level.
“The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” came directly from Koko the signing gorilla. It’s amazing that a gorilla can use sign language and communicate, but there was also something odd about people putting these very human ideas on a gorilla (remember they got her a pet kitten? And now I see they have her signing PSAs to save the environment?), so I started ruminating on what if we took this idea further – the gorilla communicates so well with her trainer that they begin to develop intimate feelings for one another.
Stories will often come out of an article I read (how leeches are being used in modern medicine led to “Bloodletting”) or from a friend, “Hey, did you know that people go to furry parties where they dress up in costumes and hug one another?” which led to “Plush” and I start playing around with what that might look like. It’s a lot of imaginative play involved. That’s my favorite part of writing – that dreamy time before I actually sit down to type – when it’s all just floating around my head and I’m trying to make a movie of it in my mind.
You’ve previously written YA novels. How different was the experience of writing these short stories? Do you see this work finding a dissimilar audience?
Writing a short fiction collection is not for the faint of heart. I was actually shocked at how slim the collection looked when it arrived in the mail. I kept thinking, “but I did all that work!” Each story, in a way, is treated like a novel. And I’m not talking just about the structure from beginning to end. Every word in a short story is precious; you have to economize. And, in order to get momentum for the collection, you want to publish stories from the collection in literary journals, which takes the same amount of energy and query letters that sending out your novel to an agent or publisher takes!
The audience for this book is completely different than the 13–17 demographic of the two other books. I have had a few people say, “Oh I bought your latest book for my child” and I’m quick to say, “it’s not for kids!” But read at your own risk.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired your prose style or your story strategies?
I have so many favorite writers! And I read across all genres. It’s hard to say exactly who has influenced my work, but I will share my favorites! I love Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I think she is the best at synthesizing humor and pathos in the same space. I strive to do this in my stories. Pastoralia by George Saunders is another favorite collection. He is a master storyteller, satirist, humorist and his stories bring me to my knees from emotion in unexpected ways. I love Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World and loved it! There are so many amazing and varied voices when it comes to contemporary short fiction! The faculty member I worked closely with at the University of British Columbia when I was working on my MFA in creative writing was the Giller-nominated writer, Zsuzsi Gartner. In addition to being an incredible writer herself, she opened up the world of endless possibilities in short fiction, which was incredibly liberating.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I was selected as the writer-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and I began working on a contemporary novel about expectations and parenthood. I’m still working on it and hope to be finished by the beginning of the new year. (Now that it’s in writing, maybe I will be further motivated!) I was pretty sure that I was done with short fiction for a while, but then ideas started coming to me again, so it’s my job to listen.
I also teach writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I will be teaching a new course, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”, in the winter and my usual “Intro to Short Fiction” in the spring. The classes are online, so if any of your readers are interested, sign up!
I spend a good amount of my time editing and helping to develop manuscripts and stories for clients. So it’s a nice balance between writing, editing and teaching.
My father, screenwriter Ron Clark, and I are toying with starting a podcast. Stay tuned!
“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.
Originally issued in 2005, Her Father’s Daughter was French author Marie Sizun’s first of seven novels, published when she was 65. It’s an autobiographical reflection on a painful experience from her childhood: in 1945, when she was four and a half, the father she had never met returned from the war and reentered the family, only to leave again two years later. That is the essential storyline of this spare novella, told from the perspective of a four-year-old girl whose name is France but who is usually just referred to as “the child.”
“Of the outside world, the child still knows pretty much nothing.” Her universe is limited to her Paris neighborhood and apartment; her mother, Liliane (Li), is the star around which she orbits. Li gives her daughter free rein, even leaving her alone in the apartment while she goes shopping. When the child learns that her father, a prisoner of war, is soon to return from Germany, she is anxious and resentful. The “secret, intimate world” she has with her mother looks fragile, and she is jealous of anyone who tries to encroach. Meanwhile her father and grandmother both think France has been spoiled and seek to instill a new sense of discipline.
There’s a secret at the heart of the book, something big that the mother and grandmother are covering up. It involves a trip to Normandy, yet whenever the girl tries to speak of the event later on, they deny it and tell her she’s only dreaming. My favorite passages of the book recount her helpless anger as she tries to expose their lies: “Fury from the child, who ploughs on, incredulous. Protests. Persists. In vain.” All she can do in retaliation for this deception and the increasing tension between her parents is pour her mother’s perfumes down the sink.
Sizun’s style is characterized by short, simple phrases. The child is not the narrator, yet the prose imitates the straightforward language that a child might use: “A very strange thing for the child, having a father. A father who’s there. At home. All the time. Morning, noon and night.” The compact chapters chronicle the family’s descent into silence, ignoring each other and walking away – which eventually the father does for good.
Peirene issues books in trios. This one is part of the “Fairy Tale: End of Innocence” series, along with The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst. It’s interesting to think about the book in that context, with the Eden of the mother and daughter being shattered by the entry of the father. “Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind,” the child thinks. Unfortunately, I found this novella to be slightly monotonous, with a particularly flat ending. I’ll leave you with a few words from the author about what she was trying to do with the book:
I needed to tell this story. To speak about that wound. … As my writing progressed and the book took shape, I felt this therapy wasn’t only for my personal use but spoke to everyone who, like me, may have been immersed in misunderstandings, in emotional distortions with loved ones, for example being forced to choose between a father and a mother.
It’s not exactly a cheery Father’s Day read, but an intriguing little book all the same.
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.
Note: I’m traveling until the 24th so won’t be responding to comments right away, but will be sure to catch up soon after I’m back. I always welcome your thoughts!