I’m delighted and honoured to have been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, for my novella The Good Shabti, published by Jurassic London. However, there are four good reasons why I probably won’t win.
The first reason is the Ceremony of Flies by Kate Jonez (DarkFuse). Our protagonist, who calls herself Emily, is an unreliable cocktail waitress, an unreliable road-trip buddy and definitely an unreliable narrator. We meet her serving drinks in a Las Vegas casino, but before long she is on the run in a 1971 Pontiac Convertible, driven by an equally dubious gambler named Rex. Their journey takes them from the bright lights of Sin City, via suburban Barstow, to ever more remote and decaying locales, until she arrives at what might just be the end of the world.
Jonez’s parched descriptions of this doomed trajectory are fantastic. There are Joshua Trees and Stucco churches, and flies everywhere. The soaring temperature is evoked so well I thought my Kindle might overheat. And there is no let up—Every apparent relief, every opportunity for a cool breeze or a quenching of thirst, is just a further heightening of the characters desperate plight. Is this Emily’s personal hell for the many crimes she has committed? Or some wider vengeance?
The landscape of Voorhisville is far more fertile than the barren wastes of the western deserts, but is it really any more welcoming? Initially, the town inhabited by The Mothers of Voorhisville (Tor.com) seems quite agreeable. Mary Rickert’s prose is sensual: she doesn’t just describe what her characters do and think, but the smells and the textures of a sleepy rural community. The late afternoon sun, beating down upon the brows of sweating, pregnant women, is intoxicating. With these aromas, it is no surprise that so many have been seduced and impregnated by Jeffrey, a supernatural and unexpectedly fertile Casanova.
The task of relaying the story does not sit firmly with one person, but wafts between yet more unreliable narrators like a dandelion seed on the wind. First its the diplomatic, corporate voice of The Mothers; then its Tamara, who has axes to grind; and then its teenagers like Elli or Maddy, tellin’ it like it is. Their stories coalesce and overlap and the story emerges from the aggregate.
There is a powerful, jarring moment in The Mothers of Voorhisville, when summer turns to autumn and the women begin to deliver their little cherubs. Having never given birth myself, I dare not comment on whether the searing, visceral descriptions accurately convey the pain of the act. But it is nevertheless a jolt to the reader and is the perfect way to begin the second, darker Act of the story. Moreover, the idea of the babies as an infestation, a visitation, or even a curse, is something with which readers who are parents will identify. Particularly those who have more than one child—twins, say, or triplets. However, beyond the shock of the births, Rickerts does discover the humour and ridiculousness of the parental experience. “Matthew! Timmy! You come down here this instant!” says a mother to the hovering, bewinged babies as they buzz over the cornfield. That spice of hilarity is just what is required to perfectly round off the building madness. Is it a literal hysteria, or a justified response to an oppressive society that is squeezing the life out of these women?
The premise of We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory (Tachyon) could have, in the hands of lesser driver, become a car crash of clichés and inside jokes. We’ve all seen single panel cartoons where monsters, Star Trek red-shirts or superheroes find themselves in group therapy or on the shrink’s couch. Contrasting their extraordinary adventures with real-life anxieties is always a funny, one-note gag. But Gregory does something far, far better with this idea. Instead of recycling existing pop-culture properties, he presents a group of new characters, each with a different and equally harrowing trauma to overcome. A man who has had his limbs cut off and eaten by cannibals. A woman whose torturer carved art right onto her bones. And Harrison Harrison, a reluctant right-place-at-the-right-time Everyman who is trying to come to terms with life after having managed to outwit a supernatural psychopath. Some of the members of the group therapy are reluctant to tell their stories, and their dæmons (both metaphorical and literal) are revealed at just the right pace.
The ‘therapy’ premise must, necessarily I think, also be a comment on genre stories, and my favourite part of We Are All Completely Fine is its riposte to Joseph Campbell‘s Hero’s Journey. Unlike the popular monomyths, Daryl Gregory’s story does not end with all the monsters vanquished and the heroes destinies neatly fulfilled. Their terrifying predicament remains, they don’t get closure, and one has the sense that for these people, the narrative continues after we leave them. As a result, the world of this novella seems particularly real, despite the fire angels and mutant spider women.
Whether it is human society at large, or horror stories in particular, grotesque violence often seems to favour the bodies of women over that of men. Rickert’s Mothers certainly bear the brunt of the pain and while Daryl Gregory is an equal opportunities mutilator, the violation of the women in We Are All Completely Fine is far more ritualised and deliberate than that visited upon the men. Aliya Whitely’s The Beauty (Unsung Stories) takes a different approach, by doing away with all the women in the world before the story even begins. There are hints at the unpleasant disease that takes them away, but most of the violence we read about is done to the men. Towering, mushroom creatures rise from the burial sites of the dead women. They perform physical labour and offer other pleasures too. But are they well-meaning, or do they seek to enslave humanity?
Part of the point of stories in this genre is that the writer attempts to make us feel uncomfortable. They may do this by churning our guts with descriptions of gore, or otherwise chill our spines with something more subtle yet equally disturbing. The panic, the distaste, the sheer wrongness of the moment is what the reader expects when they pick up a ‘dark’ fiction story. Despite this expectation, I found Whitely’s mushroom creatures, the titular Beauty, to be uniquely disturbing. I think this is because they are a fungus, that most duplicitous and uncertain of the Eukaryota. One knows where one stands with a rogue triffid or a giant insect—not so with the cold yellow sponges that are presented here. And what they do to the men makes me squirm.
Indeed, what the men of this story choose to have done to them makes me uncomfortable too. I’ll admit to feeling indignant on behalf of Nate (the narrator) and his friend Thomas as they submit to bodily degradations at the fungal hands of The Beauty. Its only towards the end of the story that the changes in the men, and the acts of congress between human and Beauty, become a more obvious parallel for human sexual intercourse. At this point, the reader (and the male reader in particular) is forced to confront the fact that the physical humiliations suffered by these characters are not unlike those that men force upon women every day, out in the real world. It is no surprise that this story was nominated for the James Tiptree Award. Whitely explores and challenges gender roles brilliantly. All men should submit to The Beauty.
If there’s a common theme that emerges between these four stories it concerns motherhood. Of course, this is made explicit in The Mothers of Voorhisville and The Beauty where people actually give birth, but strong maternal instincts also emerge in Ceremony of Flies, where Emily adopts a starving boy she meets at a deserted crossroads, and in We Are All Completely Fine, where the group band together to help their youngest and ostensibly most vulnerable member.
Taking responsibility for a younger generation strengthens each of the characters. Each story presents a world of deep foreboding. Our protagonists are well aware of the evil that buzzes just over the horizon, and they are resigned to the knowledge that it will soon fly into the valley and maul them.
And yet! They approach this inevitability with more contentment than they should. Their children, surrogate or otherwise, allow them to retain a delusional optimism to which they have no right. Maybe they can avoid the Flies Of Death Four Horsemen Fungal Infection Fire Daemon Flesh Eating Spider Disemboweller for just one more day?