I did an interview with author, M.D. Neu, about my vampire novellas and LGBT+ representation in genre fiction. Take a look at the interview over on his site.
Clive Barker’s Imajica is an enormous multi-dimensional fantasy horror novel which mostly focuses on the story of three characters : Gentle, Judith and Pie ‘oh’ Pah. I’m hungry for horror fiction at the moment and particularly for queer horror fiction, which is why I picked up a copy. Rather than attempt a review, which would likely be dissatisfying for such a huge and complex book, I thought I’d focus on gender, because, after leaving it to mull for a while, that’s what’s scratching at the back of my mind. Imajica both delighted me and annoyed me about gender, so here goes.
Imajica has a few queer characters, but I want to focus on Pie, because Pie is androgyne and I get very excited about the few rare non-binary characters I come across. Pie’s pronoun is “it” in the book, so that’s what I’m going to use. I know people vary on how annoying they find “it” as a pronoun, and likely, if it really flips you out, this is not the book for you. Pie is a rare type of alien species who is androgynous and usually appears as whoever the beholder desires. Only as he falls in love with Pie does Gentle begin to see Pie’s true form.
Pie is portrayed as exotic, and I guess that’s a little problematic (I’m writing about gender and I’ve already used the ‘p’ word *waves pompoms*), but I did overall enjoy how it was written. And, y’know, it may be problematic, and on the other hand, Pie is a gender divergent character who’s an object of desire in a cool and non-creepy way, so that’s quite nice. (With the proviso that this is Barker, and you don’t read Barker if you don’t want a bit of freaky sex and psycho-sexual mess.)
Although Pie first appears as an assassin, it is a very gentle character—insightful, patient and wise, and devoted to Gentle for better or worse. There’s a theme in the book that we love the people we love, not the people we ought to love, and that’s definitely true of Pie. Overall, I like Pie and I cared what happened to it a lot, and for me, that’s what’s important. Although its story is intrinsically tied to Gentle’s, Pie has its own history, its own tragedies and victories, and I think the character is well drawn.
So, what niggled me about gender? Here’s Barker with this cool non-binary character and I’m mostly very excited and happy. But there’s an idea about gender creeping around in the background. I can see it lurking there, as I’m reading, and my old gender radar is blipping a little. I’m getting twitchy. There’s a god in this multi-dimensional world, and he represents maleness, and he has a big old phallic pillar and whatnot. He’s tried to destroy all the goddesses and destroy a bunch of other stuff. A few characters opine that men are really intrinsically destructive—that’s what they do. And when the goddesses roll up, they’re all creative and fecund. It feels a lot like an essentialist gender narrative, and a tired one. But this is the very early 90s, so, more like the 80s. One of the reasons this stuff winds me up so much is I grew up with those narratives at that time, in all their sucky and limiting glory. For a while back then, that’s what feminism looked like. (Let’s face it—for some people, it still does.) But, having said all that, Judith and Gentle both overcome the gendered suck-fest that is their unhealthy hetero relationship pattern by the end of the novel, so things aren’t all awful.
Overall? I flat out hate essentialist gender narratives. I think they’re unhealthy and hurt people. There is that lurking at the back of the novel, and it comes to the fore much more towards the end. But then there’s Pie, offering a third way, and to an extent, that does redeem things for me, but it doesn’t completely expel my creeping discomfort. I was left with two separate feelings about the way Imajica deals with gender—one involving joy, and the other, eye rolling. They exist side by side, largely unreconciled.
If you’ve read the first one, this one is a little bit different: it’s all from one point of view, Asher’s, with a more traditional narrative structure, and more than twice as long. Asher is the youngest vampire from the first book. This new book follows his ill-fated attempts to find his place in the vampire world. There’s more horror, freaky blood trips, gay and bi characters, a trans vampire (yay). At its heart, the story is a tragedy, and a fall (in the biblical sense).
Here’s the first chapter of Gods and Insects to whet your appetite. You can buy the ebook on Amazon (and download the first one for free until next Tuesday). There will also be a paperback edition to follow soon. I hope you enjoy the read.
I should have fed before my shift. Now my skin is on fire with the need, my nostrils full of the scent of my co-worker’s blood, as I try to keep my distance in the enclosed space of the coffee shop counter. The tick of the clock on the wall echoes round my head, mocking me. Still forty minutes to go. And then I have to feed somehow. I botched the last one four nights ago; lost control of the guy I was feeding from. I’m no good at mind tricks. He tried to run and I had no choice but to—
The door opens to the night and the swish of tyres through the spring shower. My eyes are drawn to the man who enters. I can tell he’s one of my kind straight away. He has that presence the older ones have, somehow bigger than his physical body, straining against the limits of geometry. And the absence of the animal scent that mortals have, which most people don’t even notice. He joins the queue behind two drunk students and a weary looking woman in surgical scrubs and a coat. My eyes flick to him constantly, as if magnetised.
When it comes to his turn, I’m on my guard. He walks up to the counter and flashes me an amused smile, dark eyes twinkling. His skin is light brown, his black hair short, and he looks a little older than me. He has killer cheekbones. Even in this confined space, he moves like a dancer. He pulls a note from his pocket and that simple gesture is elegant, the rise and fall.
“So it’s true,” he says softly enough that only we can hear.
I’m not sure what to say, but I don’t want to look like a fool. Images of Sebastian and Kerrick flash through my mind, spattering blood across my thoughts. My creator and his other child. I try to push this fear aside, these violent memories. They can’t all be monsters. We can’t all be monsters.
“What?” I ask, trying not to show my nerves.
“One of our kind working in a coffee shop.” He chuckles and I bristle.
“Can I get you something?” The irritation sounds in my voice, but at least it hides my fear.
“Why don’t you choose for me? It doesn’t matter what, after all.” He gives me a conspiratorial grin.
I turn and prepare the machine to pour a double ristretto, the most expensive drink I can make. My tiny piece of revenge. His eyes bore into the back of my neck, as the dark liquid trickles into a cup at an agonising rate.
When it’s finally done, I place the cup in front of him and risk eye contact. His eyes are a rich dark brown. Permanently amused.
“When do you get off?” He slides the note towards me.
I try to read his face for some clue to what he wants from me, but he seems so relaxed. “Half an hour.”
“I’ll wait for you.” He lifts the cup to smell the coffee, eyes full of humour. His amusement doesn’t seem malicious, but I’m pretty sure I’m the joke.
I go through the motions for my last half hour, my eyes constantly flicking to the back of his head, as if I’ll find answers there. Contrasted against the dark of the night outside, the harsh electric lighting seems to spotlight me, picking me out for scrutiny. I wonder if he can see my hunger written across my face, as my co-worker nudges past me to clear the tables. If I could just taste her— I force the image back, though it seems more real to me than my surroundings. I can control this.
He’s sitting in one of the far booths, facing away from me, staring out into the night. That presence he has, I wonder whether I have it too. I’m sure it’s just the older ones. I’ve no intention of returning to Sebastian or Kerrick to ask them for advice. Kerrick offered me this escape from him, this chance to make my own way. At the time, I’d been afraid to be alone, but now I’m determined to make it work. I got this job far away from Spitalfields and Kerrick’s other haunts. Far away from Kensington, and Sebastian’s sphere. Somewhere central and neutral, where I thought no one would ask questions or even notice me. But clearly there’s nowhere to hide.
When I’m done for the night, I untie the apron from my waist, fold it into my satchel, and grab my coat from the back of the shop. The visitor is still waiting for me in the same place, his cup of coffee untouched. He turns as I approach.
“Sit yourself down,” he says, with that same sparkling smile. He gestures to the bench opposite.
It’s getting close to 2am. I work the night shift, of course. The graveyard shift.
“I’m Xavier.” He offers his hand. He has the trace of an accent, though I can’t place it.
His handshake is brisk and business-like and I try to ignore the pang of loneliness that hits me with his touch.
“Asher,” I say, though it’s right there on my badge. I slide into the booth.
He tilts his head to one side, examining me. “You don’t look like an Asher.”
“I changed my name when I left home. It used to be Alex.”
He nods. “You look more like an Alex.”
I stifle a sigh. This again. “You mean, I look Greek.” Kerrick and Sebastian both held fantasies of gods and heroes from ancient times, and somehow I was in them. It seems to be an obsession with these older vampires.
He shrugs. “There are worse things to look. Don’t be sorry for your roots. I’m from that part of the world myself. From Venice, originally.” Venice. That was the accent. “Long time since I was there,” he continues. “But you’re quite new. Who made you?”
I tense at the question. Was this information I should share freely? There were so many rules, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to Kerrick’s lessons. Or, rather, some of them had overshadowed the others.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he says in answer to my silence. “I’m just curious. I heard a rumour one of our kind was working in a coffee shop off Tottenham Court Road. I wondered, how does such a thing happen?”
I’m a rumour. Perhaps other vampires have seen me too; perhaps they were here and I didn’t notice. I feel on display in this glass box with the night pressing in all around. But I force myself to answer. “I needed a job.”
“Alex, this isn’t a job for one of our kind.”
“Asher.” I shouldn’t have told him my old name.
He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “As you like. Asher, where’s your creator? They should be taking care of you. You should still be by their side.”
“Kerrick,” I say. There’s a flicker of recognition on his face. He has enough mastery of his emotions to hide whatever else he’s thinking, but I can guess. “George Kerrick made me. But I left him.”
“Ah,” he says, and revolves his cup around. “Well, that’s a hefty legacy.”
“You know him, then?”
“Everyone does. I don’t know him well. Just by sight. He keeps his own society.”
Beyond Kerrick, and Sebastian’s little closed, incestuous world, I’ve never met any others of our kind. But the way he talks makes me think there’s a whole lot more of us. I suppose it was just a matter of time that they’d crawl out of the woodwork.
“Maybe I could find you work,” Xavier says.
I shift in my seat, my skin prickling. Why does he want to help me; why the interest? I take a breath to steady myself. “What kind?”
“Something better suited to your nature.”
I’m not sure what that means. All I’ve seen of our nature is violence. Xavier doesn’t seem like the violent type. Then again, neither did Sebastian.
“These are dangerous times, Asher. Ancient powers are on the move. You need the company of your own kind. Do you even have a safe haven?”
I live in a shared flat in Stratford, above a seedy club. It’s a dive. Barely habitable. I don’t even have my own room. My dad said he would send me money, but it hasn’t arrived. I keep checking the cash machines, hoping the balance finds its way a little further into the black. I don’t want to beg. I want him to think I’m doing okay.
“You need to learn to guard your thoughts, as well,” Xavier says. “Those of us who’ve been around a while, we tend to pick things up if you think so loud. Listen, I’m going to a club. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you in.”
I look at my watch, trying to focus on that and not my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know how to refuse him, or even if I want to. I don’t even want to think in case he hears me. I stare at the second hand ticking away, paralysed with indecision.
“Plenty of time, yet,” Xavier says smoothly, as if I haven’t just frozen. “Besides, they have rooms if we get stuck at dawn. It’s a special club.”
In the bright light of his smile my worries appear foolish. Those eyes of his warm me through, relaxing me. I want to trust him. I’m sick of being alone, sick of the frail existence I’ve built for myself, so insubstantial I could knock it over with a breath.
“All right,” I say. His smile grows into a satisfied grin.
The club is walking distance from work, in Soho, but it’s easily missed. There’s a little gateway in one of the buildings. No signs. It’s been recently painted in black and gold. We walk through the entrance into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by high buildings. Neat little topiary bushes sit about in pots. A gold plaque by the door says ‘Varney’s’ in a modern italic script.
“Just a little joke.” Xavier gestures to the sign. I must look blank, because he says, “have you never heard of Varney the Vampire? I guess you’re pretty young.”
“Twenty-one,” I say.
“Jesus. You weren’t one for gothic literature in your mortal life, then?”
“I don’t really read much.” I shift awkwardly, my hands in my back pockets. I always end up feeling like a dumb kid around others of my kind.
“Don’t worry,” Xavier says. “I was an ignorant fuck in my mortal days, as well. I just happened to be living in Renaissance Venice, so I couldn’t help but fall into some culture now and then. Cheating, really.”
Ignorant fuck. His words sting. He smirks and this time the joke’s at my expense.
“The owner of this club is one of us. Nathaniel Hook, he’s called. Did your creator explain the rules about young vampires?”
I shake my head.
Xavier brings his thumb and forefinger up to the bridge of his nose and massages it. “All right. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t really be out without your creator, not among other vampires. I’ll vouch for you tonight, say you’re under my protection. You don’t have any quirks I should know about?”
My mind races for an answer, but in the end I shrug. “I don’t think so.”
“Funny feeding habits? Propensity to fly into violent rages?”
I shake my head. I’m not sure if he’s joking now.
“What are you good at?”
I shrug again. “I’m fast. Strong.” My list falls short.
“You don’t have a bloody clue, do you? Never mind. Perhaps it’s too soon for you to know. Follow my lead. You can trust Hook. Be careful of the others.”
I follow him through the anonymous black door. A bulky bouncer nods to Xavier as we enter. On the other side is a modern looking bar buzzing with people. They all seem to be mortal, including the bouncer. The smell of their blood overwhelms me.
Xavier puts an arm on my shoulder, and pulls me closer. So close I can smell the sharp tang of his cologne, feel his body press against mine. Bolstering me against the pull of that scent. I realise how alone I’ve been.
“This is just the public section. The club is out back,” he whispers hot into my neck.
We pass the bar which stretches the length of the room. It’s carved from golden wood, cut into waves and polished to a shine. A small man leans at the end, watching us approach. He has a long face, with a long nose, and, as I draw near, I realise he’s one of us. That strange trick of space and presence again.
“Hook!” Xavier exclaims. “Good to see you. This is my friend, Asher. I’m showing him the sights.”
Hook smiles at us with his thin lips and looks me up and down. “He seems a little fresh, my friend.”
“I’ll vouch for him.”
“See that you do. Welcome to Varney’s, Asher.”
“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a brief nod.
We go through a door behind Hook, marked ‘Private’, into a cloakroom dimly lit by a red bulb.
“What does he think I’ll do?” I ask.
“Lose control,” Xavier says. “Act inappropriately with the guests. But I think you’ll be all right, as long as you stick with me. Okay?”
“When you meet someone new, just bow your head and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t address them as you did with Hook. Most of our kind are very concerned with seniority and good manners. Do you understand?”
I nod, a lump rising in my throat. I’m no longer sure I want to meet anyone. I’m not in the mood for bowing and scraping. It sounds like the sort of game Sebastian would enjoy.
We go through a set of double doors. My feet sink into thick carpet. The light is golden, glistening from chandeliers and wall sconces, all electric, but with a muted tone. It shines off the gilt-edged decoration and furniture. I can’t help but think of Sebastian’s beautiful antiques.
The place is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman reclines on a couch in one corner. She wears a colourful patterned robe and a turban, and fingers a long string of beads around her neck. With the other hand she smokes a cigarette in a long holder. Two men lean against a small bar in the corner, regarding us. They’re both smartly dressed in suits, their ages difficult to guess, perhaps somewhere in their forties. They nod at Xavier and I look down as he’s told me. His hand presses against my back, guiding me to a couch on the far wall.
“Good,” he says, his breath against my ear. I crave that closeness. “You’re doing fine. It’s very quiet tonight.”
We sit on the couch. The woman in the corner is watching us with interest. Xavier smiles and nods at her, a respectful gesture of acknowledgement, but he doesn’t seem to want to engage. His focus is all on me.
“Have you fed?” he asks.
I shake my head, ashamed, picturing my last victim running across the park, me driving him down to the ground, before he could escape. He’s not the first I’ve messed up. I’ve tried so hard not to kill like Kerrick. Each victim is etched in my mind, a tally marked across my soul.
He strokes my cheek with his hand. “What did they do to you?”
I meet his eyes. I don’t have the words to tell him my fear and I’m not sure I want to, but I feel the brush of his consciousness against mine. It’s the softest touch, not like Sebastian’s force. I soften and melt towards him. His arm wraps around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.
“Evening, Xavier.” It’s a woman’s voice. I raise my head to see, but it feels heavy; my whole body is like lead. It’s easier not to fight this strange, sleepy feeling, but to release myself to it. My eyelids flutter, allowing me a glimpse of the slender young woman in front of me. She wears a long deep blue satin dress, which drapes over her hips and flows down to the floor like water, pooling at her feet. Blonde hair falls to her waist. I don’t look up to her face.
“Do you have any guests tonight?” he asks.
“Of course,” she says. “Would you like a room?”
“I think that would be better,” he says. He turns to me. “Come on, little sleepy head. We’re going to get you something to eat.”
Somehow I rise. It’s as though I’m floating, pulled by an invisible string. I bob along beside him in the gentle stream he’s made for me. We leave the room, following the woman. The satin of her dress whispers to me, as we move along the corridor. She opens a door for us and ushers us in. The room is modern, a wash of pale cream with touches of red. It has a Japanese feel. There are no windows. A large bed dominates the room.
“We’ll take the room until tomorrow night, if that’s all right?” he says.
“That’s fine. Shall I put it on Mr Sforza’s account?”
I sink onto the bed, the covers softer than anything I’ve felt. What’s he done to me? I can’t control my body, but my senses are amplified a thousand times. The cream blankness of the ceiling is comforting, as I stare up at it and imagine myself floating up to meld with the nothingness. The woman leaves us. The door hisses across the deep carpet and clunks neatly into place.
“Are you a messy eater?” Xavier asks me. He towers above me. I see Sebastian ripping chunks of flesh away with his teeth, blood pouring down his shirt.
“No,” Xavier says. “You need to stop thinking about that.” His consciousness holds mine a little tighter. “You’re afraid to feed. You must understand you need the vitality to function. Do you want to die?”
Once I did. Now, I’m not sure. Can he see that uncertainty in my mind? I can’t speak. He must know I can’t speak. My throat tightens as my panic rises.
“Shh,” he says. “Stop fighting me.”
I didn’t realise I was. I’m not sure how to control it. I sense him probing my thoughts. I imagine my mind like a flat blank plain, like the ceiling. A vast expanse with no walls. Everything fades bright white around me, until I’m floating in that nothingness.
I remain there for a long time, enjoying the peace of that empty space. The uncomplicated blank. Then there is red, a dribble at first, across the whiteness. It’s hot in my throat, as it blossoms into a bloody flower. I reach out with my mind and touch a petal. It’s soft-fuzzed and delicate. I stroke it, savouring the velvet surface.
Xavier’s voice comes from very far away, calling me back, and I float up into the room. There’s a man kneeling beside the bed, a mortal man. He doesn’t look much older than me. He smiles as I open my eyes. He’s holding his wrist out to me, two clean puncture marks where I’ve fed from him. I pull myself up onto my elbow and lick the wound. It heals.
“Thank you,” Xavier says, from behind me.
The man nods, and stands. He pads out of the room, barefoot. I roll over to find Xavier sitting beside me, leaning back against the bedstead.
“That was very nicely done,” he says. “The flower, and everything. They love that sort of thing.”
“I didn’t—” I begin.
“I controlled your panic, the traumatic responses you’ve learned. But you created the vision and he shared that as you fed from him. These are the things your creator should have taught you.”
“Who was the man?”
“One of the mortals, who visit here. They call them guests. Some people enjoy being fed from. They find it pleasurable. Hook provides a specialist service, in two different senses. A complementary arrangement.”
“They actually enjoy it?”
“Sure. Why not? It can be a rush for some of them. And, of course, there’s the thrill of danger.” His lips draw into a slow smile and I catch the glimpse of his fangs.
“Can we feed here all the time?”
Xavier shakes his head. “Sadly, not. Hook just can’t supply enough. He must be very careful who he invites here, for our security. And it’s not a good idea to depend completely on another for your sustenance. You make yourself a slave to them. Understand?”
I nod. “Just like we can’t feed from each other.”
“Not quite. It’s simply unwise to trust everything to others. That’s all I mean. What you said isn’t quite true. We can feed from one another and it isn’t always bad. There are different bonds we can create with our blood. But you have to be careful. My lover and I, we’re bound to one another. It’s a mutual bond, but created over a long time.”
I feel a pang at the mention of a lover. Stupid. We’ve only just met but I don’t want to share him.
“What did you do to me, before, when I lost control?”
“It’s a mind-trick, baby boy. Did you like it?”
“I’m not sure.” My confusion is real. I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I should fear this, but I can’t find my fear. I want to trust him so badly.
“Would you like to spend the day here with me? I’ll keep you safe.”
“Yes,” I blurt out, far too eager.
“Would you like me to teach you?”
I nod, too afraid to speak in case I spoil something. It’s too perfect. He’s too perfect.
“I need to make a phone call, Asher. Perhaps tomorrow night you can come home with me. I need to check. I share my safe haven.”
He slides off the bed and disappears through the door.
(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016
Here’s a rare blog about writing on my writing blog. I’m reading a foolishly long book at the moment with teeny tiny font (Imajica by Clive Barker) so you’ll notice my reviews have slowed right down. I’ve also been up to my eyeballs in editing my new gothic novella, Gods and Insects. Now it’s off to be proofread and I’m starting to think about next year’s projects and writing some smut for fun. Here’s a peak of the cover for my new novella. It’s shaped up to be much longer than the first, all from one point of view, has a trans secondary character I love, and is basically a gothic tragedy with a liberal sprinkling of psychedelic blood trips, horror and homoerotica. I’ll let you know when it’s available.
This will probably be a winter of horror reading for me, because I need to get my brain into that mindset for editing my 1920s mythos novel. I spent a lot of time this year getting my head into 20s mode to write the first draft, but now I need to up the horror content. I’m not sure how many other writers do this, but I tend to aim for mild brain reprogramming when I’m going to focus on one project. I try to immerse myself in a particular genre or theme or aesthetic to get me in the mood.
I’m not completely sure what to focus on next year (other than editing the 20s novel). I have a hankering for some sci-fi, which is really my first love. After a discussion on my friend’s facebook page, I’m thinking I need to pick up the sci-fi I was writing with a trans male protagonist as there is not enough of that sort of thing out there. (If the book you want doesn’t exist, write it.) I’ve also got yearnings to queer up some Shakespeare, another grubby sci-fi project about AIs and memory which has been rattling around in my head, aaaand a YA paranormal romance. Plus I will complete my gothic vampire trilogy because it would be mean not to.
I need some new writing resolutions for the new year. Last year’s resolution was to read more, and I’m pleased with how that’s gone. Expect some more waffle about that as the year draws to an end.
Guapa follows the life of Rasa, a young translator living in an anonymous Arab city, the day after his grandma finds him and his male lover in bed together. Rasa has never been open about his sexuality outside Guapa, an underground club, and a small group of friends. His lover, Taymour, is due to get married that night, seeking to conform to society’s ideals. As the optimism of the Arab spring turns to violence and oppression, Rasa’s friend, Maj, a drag queen and activist, is arrested.
Although the story is a day in the life of Rasa, there are a lot of flash backs throughout the story, which piece together and make sense of the present. (So, if you don’t like flashbacks, this isn’t for you.) I like the way that these different stages of Rasa’s life contribute to the person he’s become and how he relates to both his sexuality and his culture. The different stages of Rasa’s development really come through. Haddad weaves a complex picture of the conflicting forces of Rasa’s family and culture, Western liberalism, Western racism and Islamophobia, and Rasa’s internalised homophobia and conceptions of masculinity. At times, the whole book feels like one big closet.
Haddad’s nuanced portrayal of the sometimes irreconcilable pressures on Rasa is the strength of this novel for me. Nothing is perfect, everything is a compromise, whether in the personal or the political sphere—Rasa has to decide which compromises he can stomach.
The Terracotta Bride is a novelette set in the Chinese afterlife, in the tenth circle of hell. It has some steampunk aspects but the afterlife setting gives the story a mythic feel.
Siew Tsin is the second wife in the household of a middle-aged business man whose family still burn many offerings to keep him wealthy in the afterlife. The tenth circle of hell is reserved for those who have paid for their sins and are getting ready to move on to the next life, but many residents don’t want to sever their link to their old self and memories, so they bribe hell officials to let them stay. Siew Tsin died young and was then sold to her husband by a well meaning uncle. She’s never really had a chance to discover who she is or what she wants from the world, and that discovery is really at the heart of the story.
When her husband acquires a third wife, a terracotta bride who is an almost perfect replica of a real woman, Siew Tsin’s emotions awaken and she feels herself drawn to the bride. But her husband’s first wife has other ideas.
The story is quite a short one (around 11,000) and only available as an ebook (which isn’t my first preference) but I loved the premise of the story . It makes a nice change to see these ideas explored in a non-western cultural setting. I found some of the dialogue a bit sparse at the start of the story, but it gets going once Siew Tsin’s relationship with the new bride begins to develop and the other characters becoming more solid and fleshed out. The ending is unexpected but gave me space to reflect on the choices Siew Tsin makes, so I think it sets the themes off well.
I’d definitely give Zen Cho’s longer work a look after this, though I think some parts of this story could have been developed a little more. The story explores ideas about selfhood, fulfilment and the role of women, so it does manage to pack in a lot in a small space. And I could look at that cover all day.
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.
I’ve just released a small collection of seven of my short stories and flash fiction. Some have been published before in other places, some are completely new. There’s a mixture of magic realism, literary, sci-fi and modern fairy stories. You can get a copy on Amazon or click here for a free copy if you sign up to my newsletter in November. (I promise not to spam you, but I will tell you about my upcoming vampire sequel.) Blurb below.
Seven stories of magic and meaning, love and loss.
A daughter discovers a wonderful product of her mother’s artistry after her death. An employee realises how far his company’s sinister connections reach when he has an unfortunate accident with his soul. A depressed entrepreneur discovers authentic emotion on tap through a faulty piece of tech. A museum artefact comes to life to serve the cause of true love. A broken-hearted young man gets a winter treat from Jack Frost. A boy gets more than he wants when he captures an illegal alien with psychotropic powers. A young woman tries to make a connection with the unborn child she will lose.
Ambrose Hall is a speculative and literary fiction writer from the UK. This is a collection of some of his short stories and flash fiction.
The Gap of Time is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series modern Shakespeare rewrites. This story is a retelling of The Winter’s Tale.
As with the original, the story jumps about in time and geography, from schoolboy Leo and Xeno falling in love, to their adult lives where Xeno woos MiMi on Leo’s behalf. Leo and MiMi have a child, but Leo’s jealousy results in the baby Perdita being cast out. Perdita grows up with Shep and Clo in the US, happy and loved but oblivious to her true roots.
I love the way that Winterson uses Leo’s character to obliterate the ideal alpha male trope: he’s dominating, controlling, emotionally childish, violent, selfish, needy and thoroughly unpleasant. The only person who may have seen a better side of Leo is Xeno when they were schoolboys. Even MiMi comes to marry him because she sees him through Xeno’s eyes. But their messy triangle results in tragedy, and Winterson pulls no punches in how this plays out. Leo is never really forgiven for his violence and cruelty. Although the next generation find resolution, Leo as an individual carries the guilt of what he does to the end.
I also enjoy how Winterson is so brave and adventurous in the way she tells the story. She jumps about in style and voice to really get the emotion and drama across. There’s no timidity in the style or technique, which made it fun to read from a writing point of view.
There were a couple of bits that fell flat for me (for example, towards the end there’s a bit where a trans woman appears to be the punch line of a joke, though it was such a throwaway line, I’m not completely sure what Winterson intended). But those were few and far between.
Even though I knew the basic story, I still found myself interested to see how it played out.
For Halloween, here’s a little ponder on the dark side.
What media taught me about bad guys is that they often rely on their brains instead of their physical prowess; they trust the wrong people and get burnt by it; they have spiky trauma and other mental health issues which they fail to deal with gracefully; they feel huge emotions not easily contained—their love will claw its way from the grave, their rage will topple nations; if you hurt the people they care about they will have their revenge; they’re sharp dressers; they’re camp or arch, and in other ways their gender and sexuality is unstable, non-standard; physically, they’re sometimes trapped between two states; they rail against social and moral hypocrisy; they’re kinky as hell; they’re often British, or at least European; some of them can’t breathe without a respirator. In short, these are my people.
I don’t know at what age I started rooting for the bad guys. Maybe it was Star Wars, bastion of kink and asthmatic villains, that tipped me over to the dark side. Maybe I gave into my anger because someone blew up my home planet and dropped a house on my sister. Maybe it was the villagers with pitchforks. I just know that increasingly, as I got older, the monsters and villains appealed to me.
Maybe all those subtle little hints that anyone who wasn’t Mr Macho Apple Pie White Guy was not the right kind of people wormed their way into my sense of self. And I stopped rooting for the right kind of people, because I wanted to fight for my side.
I’m not sorry that happened. It’s who I am, woven into my identity as much as any other aspect of my experience. When I see diversity of representation growing in mainstream media, it makes me happy. It’s fantastic that more kids can now see themselves being the heroes (though there’s plenty of room for growth there, clearly). But, while it makes me glad on a logical level, I don’t feel the connection I did with those twisted fuck ups I grew up watching and reading about. The world still feels like a dark and messed up place, and I’m not always sure it’s worth fighting for. With those new heroes, I feel no transgressive thrill as when a villain tips over the pillars of society with gay abandon, while chewing on some scenery and looking darkly fabulous. There’s no edge to it, no danger, no challenge to the status quo. Because, perversely, there’s power in knowing you’re someone’s worst nightmare. Maybe, at heart, I don’t want my people to be the good guys, I just want the bad guys to win.