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 the August edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’m focusing exclusively on short fiction this time around – stories that pack a punch in just a few thousand words, but linger with you long after you’ve put them down. Two of the stories are older ones, relatively speaking, which have stuck with me ever since first reading them, and two are so new you can practically smell the wet ink.
I’ve long been a fan of Samantha Henderson’s work, and could recommend a good number of starting places for her work – “The Black Hole in Auntie Sutra’s Handbag“, “How I Got Fired from the Best Damn Job in the Entire World”, or “Honey Mouth”, to name a few. But I’m going to go with “Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died,” originally published in Fortean Bureau in 2005, and podcast at PodCastle in 2011, because I’m a sucker for list stories, and this is a particularly pleasing twist on the form. The story offers a series of vignettes reimaging Jane Austen’s death at a young age as the result of time travel assassination, an encounter with an eldritch artifact, and a vampiric encounter, among other scenarios. As the introduction to the podcast points out, Henderson was ahead of the mash-up trend that brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. While “Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died” offers scenarios that sound on the surface like the result of a drunken ‘what-if’ conversation at a convention bar, it never devolves into silly or gimmicky mash-up. Henderson injects a darkness into each scenario and relates each in lovely prose. The story embraces each genre it straddles and showcases Henderson’s talent for adopting multiple voices in her work. Speaking of voices, as an extra bonus, the podcast version is wonderfully narrated by Amal El-Mohtar.
I’m cheating a little bit with my recommended starting place for Shveta Thakrar’s work. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of “Krishna Blue”, which will appear in Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA coming out from Twelfth Planet Press later this month. The excerpt Thakrar read at Readercon was enough to convince me this was a story I wanted to read. I got extra lucky however, as the author just happened to be a passenger in my car on the drive home from the convention, so I got to hear the whole thing. Krishna Blue is a rare creature – a story that manages to put a new twist on the vampire genre, to the point where calling it a vampire story may not even be fair. Rather than blood, the main character thrives on color, and each color she devours is described in rich, sensual detail evoking all the senses. Vampirism – typical or not – isn’t the story’s point, however. It’s a story about family and searching for your place in the world amidst pressure and expectations and bullying. It captures the uncertainty of the teenage experience, the struggle to be true to yourself and fit in, and wraps it all in gorgeous, poetic language that is almost tangible in its richness. After you’ve started here with Thakrar’s work, keep an eye out for her other pieces. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them all over the place soon.
Jennifer Pelland’s Captive Girl has stuck with me since it first appeared in Helix SF in 2006. It seems I’m not the only one, as it was a Nebula Nominee and on the short list for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards in 2007. Like Kij Johnson’s “Spar”, which I covered in an earlier installment of this series, it is not a remotely comfortable read. Rather than looking at humanity through the lens of alien contact, it looks at the darkest impulses in human to human relationships, questioning the nature of love, dependence, abuse, vulnerability, and the balance of power between two people. The main character, Alice has been stripped of her humanity, having her sense organs removed, and spending her entire life bound, captive, and utterly dependant on her caregiver, Marika. She claims to do this of her own free will, in the name of protecting humanity, but Pelland raises the question of whether free will is even possible for someone who has essentially never known any other way of life. Given the choice of regaining a ‘normal’ life, Alice ultimately refuses. Her ulterior motive is her supposed relationship with Marika, who can only love her as a broken thing. Alice chooses to remain in an abusive relationship, a fetish object for a lover who wants nothing to do with her unless she remains a powerless, captive girl. The story is beyond bleak, but as good art should, it pushes the reader beyond all comfortable boundaries, and leaves mark that will remain long after the reading is done.
Jamey Hatley’s “Collected Likenesses” was recently published in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I’m always impressed by short stories that manage to feel epic, making you feel like you’ve journeyed with a character for a lifetime rather than a few pages. Over the course of the story, the narrator grows from a young girl caring for her grandmother, to a young woman who has assumed her grandmother’s life’s work – to take vengeance on those who hurt her in her days as a slave. The story stretches beyond a single character though, which is part of what gives it an epic feel. Everything is connected – grandmother and granddaughter, the present and the past. Rather than presenting a simplistic revenge story, the idea of interconnected lives carries throughout the tale as the pain experienced by the grandmother as a slave is visited on her masters and their descendants, but at a cost to herself and her granddaughter. “Collected Likenesses” goes beyond the idea of the symbol for something – in this case a collection of silhouette portraits – becoming the thing itself to the person acting upon the silhouette becoming an analog for the person they wish to cause pain. It’s sympathetic magic at its darkest. Similar to Thakrar’s story, amidst these overlapping and intertwined lives, “Collected Likenesses” is about a young woman trying to find her place in the world and carve out an identity for herself that honors her family and her history, but is true to the person she wants to be.
That wraps up another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I hope you’ll check in next month for more reading suggestions, and as always, leave your own in the comments. On a side note, the rest of Long Hidden is well-worth your time, as I’m sure Kaleidoscope will be as well.