I’m still deep in the editing mines (over half way there now), but I knocked my canary guard out and escaped for a little fairy tale microfiction, Red Sky. On Medium (members locked, but you can see three a month for free).
I’ve just published a short story, ‘Secrets for the Crows’ on Medium. It’s a dark fairy tale. The opposite of a coming out story. Check it out.
Mr Keirney has an unfortunate accident with his soul in my latest horror short story on Medium, The Epicureans. Click if you’d like to read.
Every Day is YA speculative fiction. Every morning, A wakes up to find themself in a different life, in a different body. They spend only a day in each person’s body and then move on. A has always moved from life to life, unable to make long-term relationships, careful not to leave a lasting mark on the lives they touch. But then they meet Rhiannon and fall in love and everything changes.
Every Day was a random second-hand bookshop find for me, although I read and enjoyed another Levithan book earlier in the year (you can find the review in the index), so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Each life that A touches was well realised, a brief glimpse into someone else’s reality. Levithan jumps from life to life with incredible skill.
A is effectively gender fluid, taking on the gender of the person whose life they’re borrowing. They’re also pansexual/bisexual. I’m not sure why there is a male pronoun used in the blurb as A is explicit about not identifying with one gender more than another in the story. Probably marketing department shenanigans. Gender is handled quite subtly for most of the story—for A it’s not that big a deal, but it’s clear in the way the A interacts with others that their varied experience has given them a lot of empathy for others. This particularly comes across in A’s concern for the way that Rhiannon is treated and devalued by her shitty boyfriend and there’s a nice feminist undercurrent to that. There’s a little more explicit gender reflection towards the end and in some ways I preferred the more subtle gender and identity stuff because the whole model for the story gives ample opportunity for that sort of reflection. The trans person that A hops into towards the end becomes a bit of a vehicle for this. I liked the diverse representation (and overall there is plenty), but found it a bit odd that this was the only character that got an enormous coming out back story.
The only thing that is missing for me in the story is a little more existential reflection from A. There is a little, but as the whole set-up is such a huge opportunity for that, I think more big questions could have been asked. There are some slightly bland generalisations about people being 98% similar and religions all being similar which I was fairly ambivalent about. I guess that the big questions of existence are just something Levithan didn’t want to go near, maybe so as not to alienate people, so the story keeps a tight focus on personal experience and identity. Having said that, I’m happy that no explanation is provided for A’s hopping, though I’m sure it would drive some readers nuts.
This is worth reading for the deft way Levithan realises the different lives that A glimpses. Each chapter is a day and there are so many different experiences brought to life in the story. For me that’s really the main attraction of the book.
Especially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.
Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.
The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.
My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.
I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.
Today for Gothic/Horror Month, I have an interview with writer Nina Shepardson. Nina took some time out to talk to me about her latest story, a literary horror short, “And Elm Do Hate,” which appears in the anthology, Nightscript vol.2.
You recently had a short story, “And Elm Do Hate,” published in Nightscript Vol. 2. Tell me about the story.
“And Elm Do Hate” falls into the classification of literary horror. While there are certainly scenes where characters are trying to rescue themselves or others from immediate peril, the piece’s real focus is on atmosphere and a sense of brooding menace.
What were your inspirations?
The big one is a line of graffiti that started appearing in Worcestershire, England in the 1940s. It asked, “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?” after a group of children found the skeleton of a woman named Bella hidden in the hollow trunk of a tree.
I also drew some inspiration from an old folk saying: “Oak do brood, and elm do hate, but the willow walks if you travel late.”
Do you have any recommendations for short stories, or short story writers that tend towards the dark side of things?
Barbara Roden’s story collection “Northwest Passages” doesn’t get nearly enough love. Pretty much every story in that book is excellent, and they evoke a wonderful sense of pure creepiness. I also highly recommend Emily Carroll’s illustrated collection “Through the Woods” (as well as her online comics, which can be found at emcarroll.com).
Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in the north-eastern US with her husband. She’s a staff reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her writing appears or is forthcoming in numerous venues. Her ghost story “Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to his Wife” can be read at Electric Spec: http://www.electricspec.com/Volume11/Issue1/shepardson.feb16.html She also writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com
I’ve seen The Loney described as both gothic and folk horror, and also literary fiction, and all those labels fit. It’s the story of the Catholic Smith family and friends who take a pilgrimage from their church in London to a desolate patch of coast in Northern England. They stay at the Moorings, a rental house once home to a taxidermist. But it is the stretch of coast itself, The Loney, with its deadly tides, and the mysterious Thessaly, an abandoned cottage on the tidal island of Coldbarrow, which are really at the heart of the mystery. For years, the group visited the nearby shrine with their old priest, Father Wilfred. But on their previous visit, Father Wilfred mysteriously changed, and soon after died. This time a new priest accompanies them.
The story is narrated by one of the boys from the Smith family, now grown-up. His older brother, Hanny, was mute and had learning disabilities when they were young, and the narrator often acts as his protector. Every pilgrimage, the family hoped that Hanny would be cured, though the narrator knew what a strain that expectation placed on his brother. The story begins by looking back at that time, at the final pilgrimage, but from an adult point of view. In the present, we know that adult Hanny has somehow recovered from his condition, but not how, and we’re told of a baby discovered in a landslide at Coldbarrow. Though it takes the book to explain why, this event prompts the narrator to tell the story of the final pilgrimage to The Loney. The retrospective style builds the sense of mystery.
The Loney is fantastically atmospheric. The bleak and deadly landscape is a character in itself, and there’s a brooding sense of doom that overlays the whole story. From the start, there are hints of folk magic, of the dark history of the place, and of something not quite right about the locals. As the story grows, this becomes increasingly apparent, but it takes a long time to discover the truth. I can’t stress this enough, this book is a slow burn, so if you like a fast pace, this isn’t for you. However, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and the rich characterisation and atmosphere were enough food to keep me going.
Catholicism plays a big part alongside the folk magic, and there’s brutality there as well, mostly in the form of the older fire and brimstone priest and the legacy he left. There’s a lurking question that seems to hang over the story about the fate of those who are cast out by The Church. But it’s not a complete trashing of religion. The new priest is much more open minded, and genuinely caring, and the story also stresses the comfort and hope that faith provides, as well as some of the darker excesses of religion. There’s no one single message about belief, but a lot of ambiguity.
The biggest ambiguity comes at the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s an ending that stays with me, that haunts with its lingering questions. The narrator, who I don’t think is ever given a first name, plays his role of protector to the end.
Eileen is the story of a young woman set in the early 60s, in a small New England Town. It’s told retrospectively by Eileen when she’s much older, and there’s a wry humour to the retrospective viewpoint. Younger Eileen is trapped, living with her alcoholic father in their run down house, and working as a secretary in a juvenile prison. Nothing is rewarding about Eileen’s life, and she dreams of escape. She fantasises about Randy, one of the prison guards, and stalks him from afar, but really she’s quite alienated from her own desires, and her own body. Increasingly, we learn in snapshots from her childhood, that the whole of her life has been loveless and without affection. When a beautiful woman gets a job at the prison, Eileen’s desperate need for companionship transforms into a powerful crush.
This book caught my eye on the Man Booker shortlist. I’m slightly iffy as to whether it belongs in Queer Book Club (the main character isn’t explicitly queer), but the action hangs around Eileen’s crush on the beautiful new prison educator, Rebecca, so that’ll do I reckon.
I’ve seen the book labelled thriller, but it doesn’t really have the pacing of a thriller. Most of the book is more of an intricate character study of Eileen, following her around for a week, leading up to an unknown event which will cause her to leave her hometown forever. I loved the characterisation. Some of it is pretty grim—Eileen lives in filth and squalor, and hates her body to the point where she near starves herself, and then purges with laxatives, whilst drinking pretty heavily. Her relationship with her father is strained—he’s been a drunk for years, and has delusions and paranoia. But as the story takes shape, it becomes apparent that there never really was a golden time for Eileen. The retrospective style of narration, with the promise of escape and a better time, lifts the book from utter bleakness, so there’s humour and hope.
Whilst Eileen’s situation is not typical, there are some interesting reflections on women and sexuality at that time, and the limited roles available. Eileen’s not simply a victim of circumstance. She’s often quite an unpleasant, frustrating character, although I actually found her sympathetic as well.
The thriller element only really makes up the later part of the story, when Rebecca embroils Eileen in a surprising plot that finally snaps her out of the trap her life’s become. I won’t spoil the twist, but it was unexpected for me, even though the narrative is shaped towards that moment.
Eileen’s well worth a look, if you go in expecting a deep character study, and not a pacey thriller.
This is a YA contemporary novel. Etta doesn’t seem to fit anywhere—her bisexuality gets her into trouble with the “Disco Dykes” group at school, she’s not skinny or white enough for the ballet she loves, she’s not ill enough for people to take her eating disorder seriously, she’s not a good enough singer to go to theatre school. Etta’s struggling with social isolation, and being the only person who is providing the support she needs. Then she finds unexpected friends at her group counselling, in a younger white anorexic girl and her gay brother. Bianca and James are from a very religious family, and are having problems all of their own.
When I first picked up this book, I was a bit stunned (in the sense of being hit round the head). The style is pretty intense—Moskowitz gets right in Etta’s head, and she has a pretty full on pile of anxieties which she cycles through constantly. The style is both a positive and a negative—on the one hand, it feels realistic, and I could really feel Etta’s struggle to cope with all the problems around her, and try to stay positive and on top of them. She keeps telling herself she’s really up-beat and happy, even when she’s falling apart, and eventually it comes true. On the other hand, the style makes for a somewhat unhinging read at times, especially if you’ve had mental health problems yourself.
Moskowitz does a really good job of showing some of the difficulties faced by bisexuals in finding acceptance, and in facing bi-phobia and bi-erasure. I’ve not read a lot of books with bisexual characters, and so that made a nice change. The bullying Etta faces at the hands of the girls at school actually gets pretty nasty at times, and that’s never completely resolved, which was a bit unsatisfying. Etta does stop looking for their acceptance, at least.
This is a bit of a novel of extremes. The characterisation is excellent, but that makes it a tricky read at times, and not all of the emotional loose ends feel completely tied up.