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
It’s September. Every now and then, a hint of cooler weather makes itself felt, just enough of a taste to remind us that fall is on the way. The cusp of the turning season seems like the perfect time to look at fours works touching on the theme of transformation. Three short stories, and one comic book series by four fantastic women whose work you should read. Onward!
My recommended starting place for Alice Sola Kim’s work is “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying.” The story appeared in Tin House #61, and the anthology Monstrous Affections edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, and was reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015. In addition to transformation, which is experienced in various forms by the three protagonists – seeing their wishes transformed into reality, then a kind of nightmare; seeing themselves and each other transformed into people they barely recognize; and having their world views change – the story plays with the idea of the feminine as monstrous. The story opens with three young women trying out a magic spell. They are at the awkward age between being child and adult, figuring out who they want to be and where they are fit in the world. All three girls are adopted and trying to strike a balance between their birth culture and their families. They are outsiders, other, and so they turn to the supernatural for help. Despite having happy home lives on the surface, there is something missing in each of their lives. As a result of their collective will, they summon a new mother, a ‘real’ mother to care for all of them. She is the idealized form of a mother, filling a need for them, but what starts as comforting soon becomes terrifying. The girls want an ideal mother, but the mother wants idealized daughters too, which means reshaping the girls to fit her vision for them, and potentially breaking them in the process. The line between self and other is blurred through the voice of the piece itself, which is brilliantly done – told from the perspective of the collective we, and dipping in and out of individual characters heads. The collective we also manifests in the joining between the mother and each of her daughters, as she uses their mouths to speak and essentially uses their bodies as puppets. Overall, the story is fascinating look at family, growing up, and where the line between love and monstrosity lies. It’s an excellent starting place for Alice Sola Kim’s work.
My recommended starting place for Delilah S. Dawson’s work is “Catcall” from the July/August issue of Uncanny. Catcall offers a different angle on the themes of both transformation and the monstrous feminine. The story’s protagonist, Maria, is once again painted as completely other. Because she is female, different rules of engagement apply. As a young girl, and as a young woman, her body is a public body, subject to unwanted stares, attention, commentary, criticism, touching, and of course, the catcalls of the story’s title. Sadly, Dawson describes an everyday reality for many women. If they do nothing, they are asking for it. If they refuse to engage, they’re cold and unfriendly. And if they fight back, as Dawson’s character does, they are monstrous. Here, Dawson takes it to the extreme. Maria discovers she has the power to cause pain, injury, and even death. A boy who gropes her in the parking lot suffers a heart attack. Strangers who catcall her outside a convenience store are shot in an armed robbery. As the story progresses, Maria decides she is no longer content simply protecting herself from direct action. She goes on the offensive, looking for and insincere pick-up artists and hurting them as well. Even as her power develops, Maria begins to grow close to a shy boy in her class, one who seems genuinely nice. By the time she realizes he’s a good guy, it’s too late. She has transformed into something poisonous. Her powers aren’t under her control, if they ever were, and she ends up hurting someone she’s come to care about. This underlines Dawson’s point of women being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s a heartbreaking story on many level, and an excellent starting place for Dawson’s work.
Cat Hellisen’s “Serein” from Shimmer Magazine #26 deals with the theme of transformation in a completely different way. The story focuses on two sisters, Alison, and her younger sister Claire who has disappeared. At first, police assume she’s a runaway, but the details don’t add up – she abandoned her shoes along with their mother’s car. She took her passport and parked near the airport, but never bought a plane ticket. There’s no record of her; she’s simply gone. Later, people begin to whisper that she must have drowned, even though she was miles away from water at the time she vanished. Hellisen alternates between Claire and Alison’s viewpoints, unfolding a tale with echoes of the little mermaid, but focusing more on the family left behind. Unlike the little mermaid longing to be human, Claire never felt human, and longs for the water. More than that, she is water, and eventually the weight of holding human form becomes too much for her. The story can be read as a metaphor for depression, sickness, or any number of things, but it can also be read quite literally. Claire ‘practices drowning’ and one day Alison walks into the bathroom where her sister has been hogging the tub, and finds ‘only water, dark and strange and smoky with hair and blood’. This eerie imagery, along with the imagery of Claire walking bare foot on broken glass are two in particular that evoke the little mermaid whose every step on her human feet feels like walking on knives, and who ends her life as bloody foam upon the waves. Whether you read it as literal, metaphorical, or something in between, it’s a lovely, bittersweet story and a wonderful introduction to Hellisen’s writing.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for G. Willow Wilson’s work is Ms. Marvel Vol.1, collecting issues 1-11. It’s literally a reboot story, which makes it the perfect starting point for the series and for Wilson’s work. It also recently won the Hugo for Best Graphic Story, and is a nominee in several categories for both the Eisner and Harvey Awards. The transformation element is obvious here – it’s a superhero origin story and Kamala Khan is transformed by a mysterious green fog into Ms. Marvel with the power to shrink and grow all or part of her body at will and with super-healing ability. However, there’s is a secondary layer of transformation in the story as well. Like the protagonists in Kim, Dawson, and Hellisen’s works, Wilson’s hero is young. Kamala is a teenager, trying to find her place in a world, trying to honor her family and her religion, trying to fit in, be popular, and save the world. At first, she can only conceive of being heroic in the model of the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers before she took up the role of Captain Marvel. The first time Kamala transforms, she finds herself blonde, and in a skimpy costume. Eventually, she realizes she doesn’t want to be an imitation of another superhero; she can be herself and save the world. There is, of course, a learning curve as she discovers being a hero isn’t as easy as it looks. What takes this story beyond being a typical origin story is Kamala herself. She is adorably geeky. She worships the Avengers and writes fan fic about her favorite heroes. She’s a gamer. She loves animals. And she is fiercely proud of her hometown, Jersey City, which is not a location that gets a lot of love in comic books. The cute little details in the excellent artwork by Adrian Alphona only add to the charm: Kamala’s best friend Bruno sports a shirt reading Gigawatts 1.21; Kamala uses the word ’embiggen’ to describe her powers, and later eats Cromulent Crunch, both nods to the Simpsons; and as Kamala tests out her powers in an alleyway, she does so surrounded by a stack of World Famous Alley Boxes. Amidst these loving details, Kamala’s character is ultimately what makes this reboot shine. She’s caring, and filled with a sense of idealism, justice, and wanting to help others. She also has her moments of self-doubt, as we all do, and at times she can be goofy, using her world’s version of Instagram to document her first big fight, and going all fan girl when she meets Wolverine. I could go on, but I’ll sum up by saying Ms. Marvel is a lot fun, and it makes me want to seek out G. Willow Wilson’s other works, like Alif the Unseen.
So there you have September, the season of transformation. I’ll be back in October with more recommendations of women to read. In the meantime, leave your own recommendations in the comments!