A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Welcome to another issue of Women to Read: Where to Start. This time, the accidental theme of unease ties my recommendations together. Not unease in the sense of horror, but more stories designed to sit uncomfortably, twist against expectations, offer truths that won’t stay put, narratives that can’t be trusted, and characters who refuse to hold their shapes.
First off is my recommended starting place for Siobhan Carroll’s work – “Wendigo Nights,” which appeared in Fearful Symmetries edited by Ellen Datlow. I’ve been meaning to recommend this story for a while; its recent Shirley Jackson nomination makes this the perfect time. “Wendigo Nights” is one of those stories that could be used to teach a class on short form fiction. It has a full arc, carries emotional weight, features developed characters, and a delivers a hell of a punch, all in a few pages. No words are wasted. The opening line is killer, and Carroll avoids the cardinal sin of a hooky opening with nothing to back it up. Instead, she drops the reader into the midst of a tension-filled story-in-progress, soaked in atmosphere and sensory detail. To quote: “[…]I think about her hair in my mouth. Paper-dry, tasting of smoke and strawberry shampoo. The strands would break between my teeth. The sound they’d make[…]that sound would fill me. I would not be so hungry after that.” “Wendigo Nights” gives us characters, trapped in an Arctic research station, starving. The setting and mood taps into a paranoia reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s classic Who Goes There? There is a sense of unease throughout, details that deliberately don’t sit right. Children where there shouldn’t be children. A mysterious canister. Hunger and hollowness that goes deeper than flesh. A cultural tale that transmits itself as an infection. The story is profoundly Canadian, with its themes of isolation and wilderness, but also universal, and either way, an ideal starting place for Carroll’s work.
For a different kind of unease, we go to my recommended starting place for Vandana Singh’s work – “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” recently published at Tor.com. The story is broken into three parts, presented as case studies within an examination being taken by someone wishing to study Conceptual Machine-Space. In the opening to the first section, Singh writes: “All machines grant wishes, but some more than we bargain for.” This idea lies at the heart of the story, but in much subtler ways than the traditional wish-gone-wrong story. Each machine presented (or maybe it’s only one machine, it’s ambiguous, see) links to the idea of desire – a yearning for something remembered, a restlessness, a desire to pursue knowledge lying just out of reach. Singh plays with expectation versus reality, and the notion that reality simply can’t contain some people – or some machines – they will always want more. Singh builds an intriguing pattern of repeated images woven through the story – stones and tiles and individuals out of synch with the world around them. These repetitions make the story itself a machine, a delicate network of circuitry made up of interweaving lives. There’s a hint of the mythic as well. What is literal and what is metaphor can’t be trusted. The machines here are the memory and face of loved one left behind, a courtyard that separates lovers through a walked pattern, a device that slips an entire group of people out of phase with the world. Themes of impermanence and loss run through the tales, but there’s beauty as well. A message that could be taken from the story is that our desires may never be fulfilled, but that it isn’t a tragedy, unless we make it one. It’s part of what makes life worth living, not resting easy, but following the drive to turn one more corner and find out what happens next.
Next up, I recommend “A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L. Hannett from The Dark nagazine. There are several things that make it compelling, and a good starting point. First, the rhythm of the language. With repeated references to music and the way the character’s movements are described, the whole story feels like an elaborate reel where everyone knows the steps except the protagonist. Billy Rideout, or Billy-Rid, is perpetually out of step with his friends and neighbors, refusing to accept what sits right with them, but doesn’t sit right with his heart. The second intriguing element is the gender flip of traditional roles. The story opens with a feast being prepared to honor the mermaids returning from sea. The mermaids in this case are fisherwomen who sail for months at a time, leaving only the ‘b’ys’ – their husbands, brothers, fathers, lovers, and those too old or young to fish, at home. The third element is the mermaids themselves. Hannett leaves it open whether they’re human women, changed by their relationship with the sea, or descendants of actual mermaids. The story leans to the second, as most women in the village get babies not from human men, but by fishing them out of the sea. This inverts another trope, that of the human child stolen from faerie. Here, the village women steal changeling creatures from the sea and raise them as their own, teaching them to live on land and on top of the sea, carrying on their fishing traditions. This last point brings us to the heart of the story. Billy-Rid’s wife returns from the sea with a child. Before she left for her ten-month stint on the waves, they’d been trying for what Billy refers to as a ‘real’ child, not a stolen one. Billy does his best to respect Beetie’s wishes, and go with the flow, but in the end, he’s unable to maintain the steps of a dance and hold with tradition. It’s a lovely, bitter-sweet tale, examining motherhood and fatherhood, among other things. Beyond the gender role inversions, the language, and everything else that draws the reader into the story – it’s a full of longing, as so many stories about the sea are, and a worthy place to start with Hannett’s work.
Last, but not least, I recommend Nimona, which started life as a web comic and was published as a paperback in May 2015, as a starting place for Noelle Stevenson’s work. The art is simple, yet evocative, while the story plays with superhero/mad scientist/high fantasy tropes. The story opens with Nimona, a young shapeshifter, showing up at local villain Ballister Blackheart’s door, and badgering him into hiring her as a sidekick. Grudgingly at first, but more honestly as time goes on, he finds himself growing fond of her and forming a true friendship. As the story unfolds, Stevenson adds layers that take it from merely charming, to charming with dark, sharp edges. Relationships lie at the heart of the story – the relationship between hero and villain, villain and sidekick, government and people. The relationships grow organically, revealing new depths to characters that are deliberately painted with broad strokes at first, playing on their archetypes. Since it is a visual medium, the art is worth discussing. Nimona is depicted with a mostly-shaved head, piercings, and a normal human figure. Given that she’s a shape changer, and could have unrealistic fantasy proportions if she wanted, this is important. It’s also worth noting that Nimona is allowed her imperfections. She acts like a human teenager. She’s impulsive, reckless, and often puts herself and others in danger as a result. She’s also angry at the world, and frequently lashes out violently as a result. The story has its tongue in cheek moments which help keep it from feeling like a retread. It nods to its source material without sinking into expected patterns. Nimona as a character is a force of nature, in more ways than one. It’s impossible to resist her, as Ballister discovers, and it’s impossible not to care for her and get wrapped up in her story. The print edition opens with a dedication ‘To all the girl monsters’, which sums up everything you need to know and why you need to grab a copy. Just a few pages in, Nimona already had me hungering to run out and buy Lumberjanes, another of Stevenson’s projects (with Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters). What better recommended starting point than a literal gateway drug into the author’s other work?
That’s it for June’s Women to read. Stay tuned for more fantastic women in July, and in the meantime, leave your own recommendations in the comments!