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 installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. Last month, I recommended a Halloween tale. Now that it’s actually October, I’m being contrary and recommending works focused on love. If you’re the sort who is afraid of ‘mushy stuff’ and ‘kissing books’, never fear! These are mostly melancholy stories about love. It is October, after all.
My recommended starting place for Isabel Yap’s work is “A Cup of Salt Tea,” recently published at Tor.com. It’s a gorgeously written story, full of heart-breaking poetry, combining mythology and real world pain. Grief permeates the tale, which subverts the often romanticized idea of being loved by an otherworldly creature. The story’s protagonist has been watched over almost her whole life by a kappa who saved her from drowning as a child. The kappa finally makes himself known to her as she worries over her husband who is dying of cancer, drawn out of hiding by the sweetness of her pain. The kappa professes love, but makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s loved other women before her, or that each met a tragic ends. While the main character is intrigued by the kappa, she is also a practical woman. Love is offered as a bargain, but one laced with guilt. She finds release in being with the kappa, but it’s the kind of release brought on by drowning. It’s an absence of responsibility – an escape for just one moment from the reality of her husband dying – but it comes at the cost of a piece of her humanity. All the hurt and the painful choices in the story are wrapped in gorgeous prose and accompanied by a beautiful illustration, but make no mistake – this isn’t the kind of love story that plays gently with the heart.
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is a modern classic, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, making it the perfect starting place for her work. The geek of the title refers to the carnival variety, a performer who bites the head off a chicken live on stage. Al and Crystal Lil, the owners of a failing carnival, decide to breed their own freakshow to revive their dying business. As a result of their experimentation with drugs and radioactive material, Lil gives birth to Arty, a boy with flippers, Siamese Twins, Elly and Iphy, Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf, and Chick, who initially appears unaffected by his parents’ experiments. The love in Geek Love is contained almost entirely within Oly, who wants so much to be seen, cherished, or even simply acknowledged by her increasingly distant and cold family. As is fitting for a family born as a business venture, the characters become worlds unto themselves as the novel progresses, passing each other in their orbits, but unable to connect. The speculative element is light in Geek Love, revealing itself when Chick manifests telekinesis just as his parents are ready to give him up as a failed experiment. The fact that Chick is valuable to his family only as a freak who will draw paying crowds, and that his parents are perfectly willing to abandon him otherwise, tells you everything you need to know about the idea of love in Dunn’s novel.
“The Heart-Beat Escapement” by Rachael Acks, published at Crossed Genres and collected in Crossed Genres 2.0 Book Three, is another story of family and estrangement, but one counter-balanced by deep love. Owen is a boy with a clockwork heart and filigree hands, abandoned as a baby and taken in by loving couple – a doctor and an engineer who keeps Owen’s heart running with a beautifully-made key. Despite his mothers’ love, Owen has always wondered about his father, who turns out to be an Earl who swoops in to claim his son when he finds himself in need of an heir. While Owen is initially excited to explore his heritage and learn what he and his father might have in common, it quickly becomes evident that the Earl has no interest in his son as a person. Even as Owen searches for a way to connect with his father, the Earl betrays him, taking away the key that winds Owen’s heart, ensuring the boy can never stray too far from the Earl’s estate. Upon discovering what his father has done, Owen chooses to risk his own life rather than being a kept possession, and sets out to make his way back to the mothers who have always loved him and recognized him as his own person, trusting him to be the keeper of his own key. The story is a lovely reflection on chosen family, and the notion of being your own person and making a space for yourself in the world. Acks tempers the love in the story with the heartbreaking powerlessness Owen is subjected to at the hands of his father, raising issues of class and societal systems that leave vast segments of the population vulnerable. It isn’t all doom and gloom, however; Owen takes back his place in the world and proves that he is his own person, despite his father’s attempts to control him.
Last but not least, my recommended starting point for Nicole M. Taylor’s work is “A Spoonful of Salt,” originally published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and reprinted in Handsome Devil edited by Steve Berman. The story starts with some similarities to Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tea,” subverting the romanticized notion of a supernatural lover, in this case a husband returned from beyond the grave. Even though Naomi only suspects Marco is dead when he appears in the kitchen even she knows he’s away at sea, rather than immediately falling into his arms, her first thought is of protecting herself – how quickly can she get to a weapon if she needs to fight for her life? As with Yap’s story, this is a practical woman. The bulk of the story however focuses on Mala, the child now confirmed-as-drowned-Marco leaves Naomi pregnant with after their encounter. Due to the unusual circumstances of her birth, Mala grows up as an outcast on the island where she lives with her mother. In addition to marking her as ‘other’ among the island’s residents, her ghostly father also left Mala with the uncanny ability to see stories in people, things they would never willingly tell another soul. Using her ability, Mala forms a friendship of sorts, or at least a respectful working relationship, with Dr. Benjamin who comes to island to collect its stories. She gives him the truth of her neighbors, rather than the cleaned-up versions of themselves they offer him. Taylor doesn’t depict this as an act of malice on Mala’s part; instead, like Acks’ “Heart-Beat Escapement,” “A Spoonful of Salt” becomes a coming-of-age story as Mala finds her place in the world and ultimately decides she’s outgrown the island. As the story ends, Mala is ready to make her own way in the larger world, hungry for the stories it has to offer.
Thank you for joining me for another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’ll be back with more fantastic women in November. In the meantime, leave your own recommendations in the comments!