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A.C. Wise Recommends Women to Read: Riley Vainionpaa, Halli Villegas and Beth Cato

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.

SF Signal welcomes back A.C. Wise and her continuing series of essays on Women To Read!

Women to Read – Extra Special Bonus February in March Make-Up Edition

by A.C. Wise

Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. Wait a minute, you may be saying, wasn’t there already a March Women to Read post? Very perceptive! There was indeed a March Women to Read, but as you might have noticed, there was no February post. Due to a scheduling snafu, February fell through the cracks. So, to make up for it, I offer you this bonus installment with three recommendations of fabulous women to read, and I’ll be back on track with another post in April. On to the recommendations!

My recommended starting place for Halli Villegas’ work is “Fishfly Season“, which originally appeared in Chilling Tales 2, and has since been reprinted at Nightmare Magazine, and in Imaginarium 3: The Year’s Best Canadian Speculative Writing. Marisol moves with her husband back to the town where he grew up. A creepy Stepford Wives vibe suffuses the town and its people, and while no one is overtly hostile to her, it’s clear Marisol doesn’t belong. She is Other, not just because she wasn’t born there, but because her father is Mexican. Villegas uses the recurring imagery of eyes, blue eyes specifically, to underscore the racial element of Marisol’s outsider status. On top of these problems, Marisol and her husband arrive just at the time of year when the heat is miserable and the town is swarmed by insects that cover everything. On one of her first nights in the new house, Marisol sees a ghost at the end of her bed. The woman has eyes like blue glass beads, and a sense of hatred emanates from her. Between the heat, the insects, and already feeling out of place, Marisol’s sense of reality quickly begins to degrade. She sees a man in a hardware store about to attack her with a hammer. Unable to sleep because of the heat, she wanders the town’s darkened streets and comes across on a party where the guests are strangely animal-like, their jaws unhinging as they eat. Her husband appears to be among them, even though Marisol knows she left him sleeping in their bed. At the bottom of the driveway where the party is being held, Marisol discovers the corpse of the woman she saw standing at the end of her bed, and picks up one of her blue glass bead eyes. The story ends on the haunting image of Marisol pressing the bead to her own eye, ‘just to see’. If she makes herself more like the others in the town, will accept her? And what will it cost her if she does? “Fishfly Season” is a haunting story on multiple levels, playing with themes of assimilation, self, and the things people give up in order to be the ‘right’ kind of person, just like everyone else. The imagery is striking, and overall it is an excellent starting place for Villegas’ work.

Next up, my recommended starting place for Riley Vainionpaa’s work is “The Corn Grows Back Every Year” from Issue 24 of Luna Station Quarterly, a quiet science fiction story with undertones of horror. Twelve year old Mellie loses her hand in a thresher accident, only to have it grow back almost instantly. She and her best friend Peggy set out to determine the cause. They perform a series of experiments, starting with pricking Mellie’s finger to see how fast she heals, and escalate to cutting off parts of her body, something Mellie is understandably less than enthusiastic about. Peggy’s determination to unravel the mystery of Mellie’s new-found powers borders on the obsessive, introducing the horror element as readers wonder how far she will go. This could easily have been a story about jealously, or a super villain/super hero origin story, but at its core it’s a story about friendship. There’s no bitterness on Peggy’s part that Mellie is special, only scientific curiosity. The focus on science is a nice touch in itself. The girls search for genetic mutations, and compare Mellie’s regenerative powers to those of a newt, but neither assumes the powers have supernatural origins. That said, the story does touch on psychological and spiritual questions as Mellie grapples with her sense of self, and wonders what is truly essentially to her as bits are cut off and re-grown. Vainionpaa’s imagery is effective; she describes Mellie’s finger as a bad photocopy, degrading each time it re-appears. It’s a contemplative story, both eerie and touching, and a worthy starting place for the author’s work.

Finally, my recommended starting place for Beth Cato’s work is “The Souls of Horses” from Clockwork Phoenix 5. Ilsa has the power to transfer the souls from dying horses into wooden carvings. Most become part of her wondrous flying carousel, however one horse in particular is special to her, Bucephalus, and his soul resides in a carved figure on her mantel piece. The story is set during the Civil War, and when the army hears of Ilsa’s powers, they come calling. They want Ilsa to transfer the souls of horses who have died on the battlefield into durable metal bodies with wooden hearts so they can ride into battle again. Ilsa is reluctant, but the army captain refuses to take no for an answer. He threatens Bucephalus to ensure her cooperation. Ilsa agrees, but on her terms. She will only transfer the souls of willing horses, those who want a second chance at life. Ultimately, “The Souls of Horses” is about freedom and choice – the horses choosing to live again, characters choosing their families and their place in the world, the freedom of riding on horseback, and Ilsa’s desire to help Culver, the slave who builds the metal horses escape north to freedom. Cato’s language is gorgeous, and the relationships in the story – from Ilsa’s relationship to Bucephalus, to the young army Lieutenant’s relationship with Culver, and even the relationship the army Captain comes to have with Bucephalus – are genuinely touching. In her story notes, Cato says this story is one she’s wanted to write since fifth grade when she declared her intention to write books about the Civil War and horses. It’s clear this story is close to the author’s heart, and that, along with all its other wonderful qualities, makes it an excellent starting place for her work.

That wraps up this bonus installment of Women to Read. I’ll be back in April, but in the meantime, please share your own recommendations in the comments!

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