Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

blue-is-a-darkness

Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

Monday

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Somehow, I find this to be one of the most motivational quotes I’ve ever read. I fantasise about being Fairuz.

Fairuz

First posted on my Instagram account – follow me there!

You can read Genevieve Valentine’s surreal SF/F story for free on Tor.com, and it’s worth clicking through for Tran Nguyen’s gorgeous cover art.

Happy Monday everyone 🙂 Have a good week.

 

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Short Fiction Review: January 2013

Last year I started reading short fiction regularly, following magazines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I read and reviewed a few anthologies – Kabu Kabu by Nnedi OkoraforThe Color Master by Aimee Bender, and Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran, to name my favourites. Outside of the anthologies however, I didn’t review or even mention what I’d read on on my blog, so I thought I’d start a feature for it.

I’ll use Short Fiction Review to share my favourite short stories for the month or according to a theme, with a brief review or recommendation. It won’t necessarily be stories published that month, just whatever I happened to read. Most of them will be stories available for free online, since I’ll most likely write reviews for any anthologies I read. I’ll try to read all the award-nominated stuff as well.

Anyway, here are my favourites for January 2013:

Equoid by Charles Stross“Equoid” by Charles Stross (Tor.com)
I read this just because I liked the artwork. I had no idea what it was about except, obviously, that it was some kind of horror story with unicorns. However, these unicorns are not cute or noble. They’re extremely fucking scary carnivorous tentacled monsters that gave HP Lovecraft nightmares he would never escape.

The narrator, Bob Howard works for a secret government agency called The Laundry, and is annoyed to be sent to “Ruralshire” to investigate a unicorn infestation. His brief comes in the form of letters written by HP Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, describing a terrifying encounter he had with a unicorn when he was 14. Bob assumes it’s some kind of joke but he’s horribly, nightmarishly wrong.

It’s not all tentacles and gore though – “Equoid” has mystery, action, and lots of humour (some of which comes from Howard’s annoyance with Lovecraft’s purple prose and inability to just get to the point). Although the story is standalone, it’s part of Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, which I am now very keen to read. The first book is The Atrocity Archives.

If you’d prefer to read Equoid on your Kindle, you can buy the short story on Amazon, or get it for free in Tor.com’s best-of anthology for 2013.

“The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan (Nightmare Magazine)

I don’t know if I can really ‘like’ a story as bleak as this, but it certainly makes a strong impression. I won’t be able to think of Hansel and Gretel without recalling Lanagan’s version. Hers is set several years after the siblings escaped the witch, who is known as the mudwife. Gretel – or rather, Kirtle – is absent and Hansel is a sullen, damaged teenager with a habit of eating dirt (no cottage made of gingerbread and sweets in this horror story). Shortly after escaping the witch, Hansel was taken by a paedophile named Grinnan, who both rapes him and cares for him. They get by through petty thievery, and end up at the mudwife’s cottage. Grinnan – apparently looking for some variety – is hoping to get into her bed.

Hansel is just disgusted, by sex, and by people. It’s not hard to understand why. Fairytales don’t get much darker than this. One of the best stories I’ve read at Nightmare Magazine.

“Ghost Days” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine)

On a lighter and more touching note is “Ghost Days” by Ken Liu. His writing amazes me – it seems like his stories never fail to strike an emotional chord, even when the story itself is not that memorable (although most are). He often tackles the tension between moving into the future while trying to hold on to the past. This story does that by following an object across three periods and places – a post-human colony on another planet in 2313, a highschool Halloween dance in Connecticut 1989, and Hong Kong in 1905.

Each of the characters is a young person frustrated by the clash between past and present. On Nova Pacifica, where the human colonists have genetically modified their children to survive on the alien planet, Ona doesn’t understand why she needs to learn about Earth history when she has much more in common with the alien planet. In 1989, Fred Ho, a Chinese immigrant, is trying to be as American as he possibly can while knowing that he’ll never fit in. In 1905, William has just returned to Hong Kong after getting an expensive education in England, and wishes his father would stop calling him Jyu-zung and acting like a villager. As always, Liu handles his characters difficult relationships with past, present, culture, and change beautifully.

Review of Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Title: Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses
Author: Ron Koertge
Published: 10 July 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: fairy tales, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 9/10

Note: the eBook file was converted from pdf to awz when sent to my Kindle, and it messed up the formatting. As a result, my quotes are almost all incorrectly formatted. My apologies to the author, publisher and readers; I’ll fix it if I get the chance.

Ron Koertge. That’s all I needed to know. In high school I read his prose-poetry novel The Brimstone Journals, about fifteen teenagers in their last year of high school. Using only simple, intertwined narratives (one of which involves a guy planning a Columbine-style shoot-up), Koertge captivated me with brief but intimate portrayals of the many facets of teenage angst – alienation, insecurity, sexuality, anger, hating your body or being obsessed with it, being too smart or not smart enough, wanting to stand out or wanting to fit in. A narrative made up of poems was unusual and exciting, and Koertge proved masterful with this short form, skilfully filling it with more memorable, evocative details than you would ever find in an ordinary novel. I still remember some of the lines and many of the characters, perhaps not perfectly, but at least in essence.

Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is written in a similar style – narratives in the form of poems, although in this case each of them tells its own story. Each is a retelling of a classic fairy tale in contemporary language, often with a modern setting. In writing both elegant and punchy, the stories explore relationships, the body, sex and sexuality, desire, violence, prejudice, and cruelty. It can be funny, tragic, and bold, it’s usually very twisted, and sometimes perfect.

Definitely not for children though. It might be a collection of fairy tales, complete with illustrations (all stark, eerie silhouettes), but I wouldn’t give this to a kid. Teenagers maybe. Koertge tells these tales in ways that expose the violence, sex and cruelty in them, or explores the characters’ psychologies in disturbing ways. These stories aren’t explicit, but there are themes and innuendo that would be better appreciated by adults. Take the ending of “Bluebeard” for example:

She knows her life is on the line but, believe it or not, she’s never been so excited! Her husband’s a serial killer, and her bodice is wet with tears, but there’s a chance her brothers will show up like winning lottery numbers. Which does she want more — her hair wound in the maniac’s hands and her white white throat bared, or the sound of boots on the marble stairs?

That should give you an idea of the dark, sensuous stories that Koertge tells, full of taboo desires. Hansel and Gretal have a semi-incestuous relationship and a taste for revenge. There’s an ogre wants to eat her own children.

Cinderella’s stepsisters tell their own sad story:

Ella is married and happy. Our Ever After is silence, darkness, and bitterness. We have names, by the way. She’s Sarah and I’m Kathy. We were always close. As girls we lay in bed kissing and pretending one of us was the prince. We were practicing for happiness.

One particularly unsettling story is “The Princess and the Pea”, where Koertge considers what life might be like for a woman with such a fragile body:

Have you seen the prince? My God, his hands are big as anvils. Do you know what that would do to me? Do you? I see him ogling my breasts and I think, “If you want one of them black and the other one blue, if those are your favorite colors or something, go ahead and grope. Don’t let the screaming bother you.”

Not surprisingly, few of Koertge’s fairy tales have happy endings. Usually there’s at least the taint of dissatisfaction, if not outright misery and pain. Marriage isn’t as blissful as the princes and princesses imagined, and even if they’re happy, there’s often a longing for the past, with its danger and adventure. The Beast is very happy with Beauty, but he hasn’t forgotten his previous life: “With a sigh, sometimes, I brush my perfect teeth and remember when they were fangs.”

Rapunzel, with more than a touch of vanity, is disappointed with her brutally masculine prince:

RAPUNZEL: Up there in the tower, I was a catapult of questions — one after another to keep the witch at bay. So when I first saw the prince, I was thrilled. I wouldn’t be a prisoner forever after all! But he was so hairy. His kisses were like blows. His cheeks sanded down my mother-of-pearl skin and the Plow Horse Game skinned my knees. I admit he made me feel real. I was vapor, otherwise, only collecting into the form of a girl when the witch called and I tugged and she climbed and she was the oven and I was the bread. Now that it’s all over, I suppose I’m happy. I love my daughter. But the prince is moody and thinks of himself. While the witch thought only of me.

Koertge constantly subverts conventions and expectations. Villains and monsters are portrayed with sympathy, while heroes are often revealed to be selfish, manipulative, or just average imperfect human beings. It’s not all so dark and disturbing though. There’s humour too, as in the reaction of the princess who kisses a toad and gets a prince:

OMG. He’s a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint, a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He’s the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He’s the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
Just look at those tights! An honest-to-God prince at last.

I also loved Red Riding Hood as a contemporary teenager, telling her mom what happened when she met the wolf:

So first he’s all into my pretty this and that, like I haven’t heard it all before. What? Where did I hear that all before? At parties. What planet do you live on?

And what she thought when she found out that the wolf had swallowed her grandmother whole:

And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like. What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn’t want to. It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom. How old are you, anyway?

There are a few stories that I thought were just ok, but this book still went straight into my ranks of best short fiction. Ok yes, I haven’t read that many short fiction collections, but that’s because I seldom enjoy them as much as this little beauty. I’ve read Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses twice now (it’s really short, you can do it in an hour) and I want to buy a print copy because it’s the kind of thing I like to pick up on a whim. I’d open it for some random reason, perhaps looking for a quote, and then inevitably end up curled on the couch reading the whole delightful thing.

Buy Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses at The Book Depository