I was introduced to Caitlin Marceau’s writing through her short story, Gastric, from Blood & Bone – a body horror anthology, where she addressed fatphobia. In limited words, Caitlin created an impact with her take on body shaming and the horrors of superficiality. When I heard the same publisher, Ghost Orchid Press had signed Caitlin on for a collection of contemporary horror, Palimpsest was immediately put on to my to-read list.
With a mixture of prose and poetry, Caitlin takes the reader across the Canadian wilderness, local canals and bridges, frozen landscapes, and frosty tales that chill to the bone. The stories range from diseases of the mind and body, encounters with demons and ghosts, bullying and domestic violence, werewolves and shapeshifters, ice hockey and distance running. Caitlin’s prowess as a writer illuminates every page of Palimpsest, with every story different and outstanding in its own way. You know her settings are local, but her stories have universal appeal.
My most favorite from the lot was Stuck – the perspective and narrative were just brilliant. There’s absolutely nothing happening and everything happening. It reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s covert style of horror, where the real terrors are what happen between the lines. Jackson’s wry sense of humor also finds its way into some of the stories. A few of my other favorites were Infected (about ill people in denial of their illness, only to go around spreading diseases in their stubbornness), Conqueror (an ode to video games and online players, and the threats of the person behind the avatar), The Midas (the supernatural world is no match for the real world, as a deep sea diver faces off nature’s watery inhabitants), Hunger (very real horrors of cabin fever, frostbite and hypothermia).
The stories and poetry have all been featured in other anthologies, magazines, and performed live over the years.Besides Gastric, I hadn’t read any other works from Caitlin, so I was thrilled that she put together this collection of some of her finest writing. I usually space out anthologies and collections – reading a story or two between other novels. Palimpsest is one of those books that keeps the reader hooked throughout. You want to spend more time in Caitlin’s world, with its horrors and everything she offers the reader. Every single story warrants its own review. They’re all so good! And the cover is stunning, too.
~He braces himself for his vision to slowly turn to black, sound to be suddenly muffled, and his light extinguished from the world.
~His words are rushed away by the wind before they can be heard.
~His bones hurt from the ice he’s convinced has begun to grown on them.
~”I really am sorry”, he says, voice anything but sincere.
~The human in me is unable to look away and the monster I’m becoming not wanting to.
~I’m going to be buried in a dress I hate, with caked-on foundation. If I was alive, I’d probably die of embarrassment.
~It looks me in the eye, and even though cats can’t smile, I’m sure it’s smiling. It looks too happy to be doing anything else.
Beyond the Veil is the second volume in an annual, non-themed horror series of entirely original stories, showcasing the very best short fiction that the genre has to offer, and edited by Mark Morris. This new anthology contains 20 original horror stories, 16 of which have been commissioned from some of the top names in the genre, and 4 of which have been selected from the100s of stories sent to Flame Tree during a 2-week open submissions window.
Flame Tree Press is the imprint of long-standing Independent Flame Tree Publishing, dedicated to full-length original fiction in the horror and suspense, science fiction & fantasy, and crime / mystery / thriller categories. The list brings together fantastic new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices. Learn more about Flame Tree Press at http://www.flametreepress.com and connect on social media @FlameTreePress.
I love horror anthologies for the range of writers and dark tales they offer, and what better time than the Halloween season to indulge in a spook-fest. Beyond The Veil was conceptualized as a non-themed collection, where writers were included through invitation, and there was also an open submission call for new writers. The stories therefore arise from well known names like Josh Malerman and Nathan Ballingurd, (so the reader knows what to expect and is not at all disappointed), as well as first-time writers (many of whom hold up the quality of the anthology as a whole).
Christopher Golden kicks off the collection with an unsetting tale of parent-child-grandchild relationships in The GodBag. This is followed by Matthew Holness’ creepy neighbour in Caker’s Man. The stories that follow range across out-and-out gore and body horror, to subtle eeriness and atmospheric fear. Clockwork by Dan Coxon and The Dark Bit by Toby Litt were among my favorite stories, for the subject matter and style of writing.
The collection offers a mixed bag of horror and its sub genres. While some stories are superlative in darkness and stand out among the rest, some of the others did nothing for me at all (leaving me to wonder why they were in a horror anthology). I love the genre and read across collections, novellas and novels. I just didn’t feel the stories came together as a book.
My rating is based on the few outstanding stories that are so good, it makes it worth buying the book. A majority of the stories were disappointing, but the few good ones deserve to be read.
Rating – 4/5
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Mark Morris has written and edited almost forty novels, novellas, short story collections and anthologies. His script work includes audio dramas for Doctor Who, Jago & Litefoot and the Hammer Chillers series. His recent work includes the official movie tie-in novelizations of The Great Wall and (co-written with Christopher Golden) The Predator, the Obsidian Heart trilogy (The Wolves of London, The Society of Blood and The Wraiths of War), the anthologies New Fears (winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology) and New Fears 2 as editor, a new audio adaptation of the classic 1971 horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, for which he won the New York Festival Radio Award for Best Drama Special, and a new audio adaptation of the M.R. James ghost story A View From a Hill, for which he won his second New York Festival Radio Award, for Best Digital Drama Program, and which has also been nominated for an ARIA (Audio & Radio Industry Award).
“If we were to create a new body out of disparate human parts, what would inhabit it?”
This book intrigued me by its riveting cover – the artwork is stunning, and I was curious to read about body horror from a diverse group of writers. Having read other books from Ghost Orchid Press, I knew the publishing house strays from the conventional and surprises in new ways. And Blood & Bone didn’t disappoint at all!
Since the contributors are women and non-binary writers, the stories explore femininity and the female experience. The body horror is visceral and the authors dig deep into controversial ground and sensitive topics. Topics addressed include breast feeding, bulimia, slavery, witchcraft, liposuction, varicose veins, abduction and rape, plastic surgery, food cravings, emetophobia, pregnancy, rescue operations and social media across myriad genres from science fiction to historical fiction, poetic verse and out-and-out gore.
Body horror, as the genre suggests, includes horrific acts done to the body, as well as the horrors we put our bodies through. The anthology kicks off with a bang by Saoirse Ni Chiaragain and her feminist take on Frankenstein’s story in Siphonophore; Sally Hughes draws attention to the struggles of breastfeeding in Milk; Kristin Cleaveland presents a unique spin on menstruation and superstitions through Thicker Than Water; Caitlin Marceau explores fatphobia in Gastric; It Won’t Be So Bad by Varian Ross traverses the fears of pregnancy and surrogacy; What Goes Up, Must Come Down by Evelyn Freeling is an epistolary marvel of a bulimic’s ode to the toilet bowl; Faye Snowden takes us back in time while simultaneously calling out current issues of racism in Too Heavy To Carry; Vashelle Nino introspects on the social media era and creatively winds it around the Mother of Christ in Blessed Art Thou ; The Globe by Cecilia Kennedy explores the obsession with flat stomachs; Hysterical by Lindsay King-Miller battles the reflection in the mirror; Victoria Nations’ Julie has pizza for a protagonist; Emma Kathryn brings together heaven and earth while addressing domestic abuse in Clipped Wings; Vivian Kasley addresses child abuse in Faces of Seth; Dodo Ti Pitit Manman by Michelle Mellon questions whether motherhood is instinctual or learned; A Rotten Thing by Nicola Kapron explores domestic abuse through the eyes of vegetation; A.J. Van Belle ends the collection with a brilliant piece on gender itself and the giving and taking of lives in Harrow.
It’s hard to choose a favorite because every single story is outstanding in its own way. A few that I really loved – for the creative narratives in confronting commonplace issues, and superlative writing quality – are First Harvest by April Yates for her spectacularly gory take on plant life versus human life, Bloom by Alice Austin for her haunting piece on abortions, Knit, Purl by Nicole M. Wolverton for its fun but creepy vibe addressing varicose veins, Skin Deep by Petina Strohmer for tackling the dark reality of the cosmetic industry, and Written On Her Skin by Nico Bell for its gruesome exploration of name-calling and the effects of verbal abuse.
From the contributor bios, it’s hard to believe that several of them are novice writers. Very few have published books before or have upcoming releases, and a handful have had short stories featured in other anthologies. A majority of the writers are professionals in non-writing fields and I was stunned by the superior quality of writing – unseen even in many novels by popular authors. Kudos to editor A.R. Ward for meticulously selecting these pieces that made it to the final collection. Blood & Bone is not only a wonderful book in itself, it serves to make readers aware of writers to look out for. They’re just all so brilliant!
There are content warnings at the start of the book, so readers can discern their level of comfort while reading each of the stories. The beauty of the writing is that every story is left to the reader’s interpretation – the writers address themes without telling us what to expect or assume; they don’t break things down but let the reader become part of the story and find resonance in our own way. Blood & Bone is a collection that can be read more than once, and present something new and different each time. One of my best books of the year!
The book is peppered with stunning quotes. I might have noted down several beautiful lines from each story, but I’m listing only a few here.
-The unknown inside us is equal in terrors to any unknown in the universe.
-One body that feels like a crowded room.
-We forge our own anatomy, finding a body through trial and error that will best serve our needs.
-The baby has no history. It is brand new. But its hunger feels ancient and angry.
-My favorite thing to purge is ice cream. It tastes exactly the same coming up as it does going down. It’s almost like enjoying two servings.
-It was no longer about not talking. It was about not thinking.
-The more you holler ‘Self-love!’ the more you’re using filters and contouring yourselves like pinche pendejas.
-She’d filet your deepest insecurities, salt your most painful wound, and serve it to you like sizzling fajitas on an iron skillet.
-Troubled men were my speciality and his anguish screamed through the realms.
-Perfection can always be improved upon.
-There were much worse things in life than death.
-What I label myself – man or woman, human or beast – is immaterial. I am what I do.
-It doesn’t matter if the fruit is broken or not. It already fell from the tree.
“We called out our joys and sorrows to the stars, fingers clasped like knitted wool.”
Rue Sparks weaves a fantastical world in their stories, while keeping them rooted in reality. The Stars Will Guide Us Back spans themes ranging from gender issues, depression, homophobia, to domestic violence, unsupportive parenting, terminal illness and cosmic events across its thirteen stories. Encapsulating elements of speculative fiction and magical realism, these tales of mortality, loss and hope immerse the reader into liminal spaces of the human experience, where darkness and light collide. The book starts off in a peculiar setting of an obsession with colors, from where we move into a suicide mission, followed by a wannabe author, and a cosplay situation. Every story varies in theme, tone and length, leaving the reader with something new and surprising at each turn of the page.
Follow the Sun was one of my favorites from the lot, for its themes of parental oppression lingering into adulthood, where grown up children only do as they are told. I liked the setting of witchcraft being employed to write a book, while subtly touching on patriarchy to drive home the point. I absolutely loved Reset too, with its manmade, miniscule black holes as analogies to the ruin we bring to our planet. The Wild was another over-the-top scenario that cleverly brings attention to childhood dreams. Watch As I Fly was haunting in its addressal of suicide through fantasy fiction. Transdifferentiate was a class apart in interweaving scientific data with speculation; the jellyfish story lingers long after reading it. Firestarter was a dazzling take on dancing flames and witchcraft. Weather the Storm was both creative and haunting in its depiction of depression. The soul healer of Firefly Soul, the lovely canine Daisy of Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lie, the life lessons in As For The Bees, the short and impactful Ghost in the Machine. The stories are varied in the emotions each one evokes: humorous, heartwarming, morose, but soaked in truth all the way. Some of the stories intersperse poetry within the prose. I love Rue’s range in the subjects they write on, the sensitivity in addressing them, and the beautiful prose in crafting stories.
The author describes their writing as traversing the harsh and cathartic landscape where trauma and healing align. The Stars Will Guide Us Back has something for every reader, in the subjects Rue covers, the range of genres used to narrate these topics, lessons learned along the way by delicately inserting a moral-of-the-story without being preachy. And how gorgeous is that cover!
-If you only ever follow the sun, you’re going to get burned.
-It’s not the gods I fear. It’s men.
-No echo to sound my betrayal.
-Sometimes it’s not the dream itself, it’s what it makes you.
-Maybe it’s time to start with my own approval.
-The beekeeper can taste the despair in the honey.
-The sugary syrup tastes like a bitter despondence.
-The flames feel frigid on her skin.
-A question grows like a seedling on her tongue, sprouting and flowering before it bursts from her mouth unbidden.
-Some people hate those that love.
-Emotion hangs by its fingers on the cliff of their tongues.
-Maybe the answer to rainy days is knowing that someone will stand with you in one.
-The only thing more terrifying than the end of the world is facing it alone.
-I’m caught in a strange sort of empathy where I care so much that I feel apathetic.
“The world of Christine Hamm’s Gorilla is both fanciful and treacherous. In these sharp, vivid prose poems, women and girls’ bodies are under threat, as men break into houses, animals trespass into bedrooms and fathers betray daughters. Language in this collection shocks and startles. Each poem is a surprise. A horse eats a woman’s hair. A cat drags a movie star into a woman’s bed. A dog is transformed into a woman in a garden. A winged baby flies to the ceiling. At every turn, Hamm’s imagination thrills and delights.“
~Nicole Cooley, Author of The Afflicted Girls
“Christine Hamm’s Gorilla is a potent, and wholly original, collection that traces—with the indelible strokes of dream logic—the contours of domestic dramas and estranging losses, along with the menaces of masculinity. In these charged pages, we encounter animals in states of power and peril—including eponymous Gorilla, whose actions corrode and haunt, throughout the book—along with flying babies and oddball creatures, all set arrestingly in absurdist tableaus. The emotional complexity limned by Hamm is something to marvel at. These distilled poems are strange and dark enclosures that have “a mind of [their] own,” inviting us to be captive to their collective spell and astounding power.”
~Jenny Xie, Author of Eye Level
“In Christine Hamm’s haunting new collection of prose poems, adolescent girlhood is populated by characters out of a surreal bestiary of family life. They play out scenes both monstrous and quotidian, like dreams that twist into nightmares and then back into dreams within a few turns, or slides viewed through a grotesque Viewmaster where the central actors melt away only to transform and reform later in a different configuration—or conflagration—of searing images and slow burns. The real horror is not a fantastical apparition of fairy tales but that normalized violences become visible only when they sprout feathers and rubber claws.”
~Lauren Russell, Author of Descent
Thanks to Random Things Tours and author Christine Hamm, Tomes and Tales got the chance to feature the prose-poetry collection Gorilla on its worldwide blog tour, and I interviewed Christine for this feature.
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE HAMM
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, and for winning at The Word Works. The pieces from Gorilla have been previously featured in anthologies and chapbooks. How did the idea for this book come about?
Great question! It was a long process of focusing years and years on the same obsessions. I think I answer this best in 2 and 6.
2. You have mentioned how you kept sending out the manuscript for eight years. As a writer and poet, what drives you to keep writing what you refer to as “weird things”?
This book is really distinct in that the poems are very similar in style, message and tone. I write all kinds of poems, but I was given the advice to make one manuscript where all the poems really matched. It took me years to get this book to the point where all the poems were fairly similar, and then I tried to make all of them in the second person point of view to make them even more coherent. I don’t only write prose poems, but I am really attracted to dark subjects and surrealism. I’ve had a difficult life, and it’s really therapeutic for me to explore that through writing.
3. You have a PhD in poetry and an MA in fiction. How much of a role do degrees play in writing and getting published? How has formal education influenced your own writing and compositions?
I think my degrees have not at all helped me get published, but they have certainly taught me a lot about myself as a writer, and also, about how to think about the craft and subject of poetry. I did my dissertation on animals in the poems of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath, and how those animals reflected the poets’ experience of the feminine. My studies for that project developed my understanding and position on writing, animals and women.
4. Could you tell us about your chosen genre of prose poetry? Why this merging of forms for Gorilla?
Okay, straight off the bat, I like rebelling against and disrupting conventions. I’m uncomfortable writing the stereotypical feminine poetry about birds and flowers, and even more uneasy writing with rhymes and traditional forms. I think a lot of this is related to me being queer and disabled. I have a sense that neither me nor my body is accepted in the standard canon. Therefore, when I started writing poetry in my 30’s, I was really attracted to the twisted females in Sylvia Plath’s rage poems, and the bizarre matter-of-factness of Russel Edson’s prose poems. I also memorized Carolyn Forchés’ The Colonel early on because I thought it was so antipoetic, and yet so beautiful, evocative, condensed and traumatic.
5. The cover is quirky and catchy. What’s the story behind it?
The cover was one of many that I designed for this book, and this cover was the one the editor and book designer enjoyed the most. I’m a painter, collagist, jack of all mediums, and I’ve made the cover images for almost all my books and chapbooks. In this case, I was trying to convey the idea of a childlike but menacing male figure. I used the children created by Nara, one of my favorite artists, as a jumping off point for the figure and face (yes, there’s a complete face under the mask) and then tried about 15 different mask styles until I came across one that seemed the most “scrawled by a kindergarten” which seemed to fit best. I also like the idea of thinking of my poems as masks – something that conceals, but can also reveal more than just a bare face.
6. Domestic issues, gender, animals – Gorilla covers a range of topics. How did you put together these pieces?
I think “Gorilla” really addresses all my obsessions – I think about these issues daily. For example, I am constantly asking myself; why/how did the idea of the Nuclear Family destroy women’s sense of self and create a space (the suburbs) that values conformity above all? As a woman, how do I deal with the fact that my experiences and feelings are often not pretty, but horrible and hostile? Why are women and animals so aligned historically, and how does that connect to the cruel disregard of the experiences of both? I grew up with many animals, who I cared for deeply, and I also saw how loved those animals were by my parents, who were much more ambivalent about their children. I also frequently visited my farm-owning relatives as a child and witnessed how gleefully the farmers and children tortured and killed the livestock. I’ve also always been obsessed with the differences in gender stereotypes, and how those rigid ideas warp people who try to conform to them. For example, at one point I realized that the male silverback gorilla was a perfect example of a stereotypical macho male. It was a figure that emphasized, in almost all ways, power through intimidation and brute strength. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed many men who feel helpless or broken because they feel they don’t have that kind of power, and many who do anything to prove to others and themselves that they DO have that power.
7. Thank you, Christine, for taking the time for this interview. Finally, who are your favorite poets? Any books you would recommend we check out?
I love Charles Simic, Collected Poems, Cynthia Cruz, Ruin, Marti Ludwig, Pinwheel, and of course, Sylvia Plath and Russel Edson.
Christine E. Hamm, queer & disabled English Professor, social worker and student of ecopoetics, has a PhD in English, and lives in New Jersey. She recently won the Tenth Gate prize from Word Works for her manuscript, Gorilla. She has had work featured in North American Review, Nat Brut, Painted Bride Quarterly and many others. She has published six chapbooks, and several books, including Saints & Cannibals, about which Cynthia Cruz said, “Joyfully acrobatic is her language and the wonderful jumps she makes. Hers is a voice we have been waiting for.”
An aspiring magician who derives sinister pleasure from playing all kinds of tricks on those around him. Two strangers running into each after 20 years and wondering what they’ve missed. A long-suffering husband who decides it’s time he started making big decisions. An unhappy child at Christmas struggling to deal with his new surroundings before a wonderfully surprising encounter. All this and more within the seven stories of Always Never, Rarely Sometimes, where a wide range of characters are forced to challenge long-held beliefs and powerful memories, accompanied by a sprinkling of magic. Alexander Raphael’s latest offering features original premises and distinctive characters with his trademark imagination, humour and memorable dialogue.
The book is a collection of short stories from a range of genres, and covers varied topics. Raphael’s eclectic endeavor is in equal parts humorous and quirky, suspense-filled and heartwarming, philosophical and disturbing – every story striking a chord and lingering long after it has been read. The beauty of the writing lies in how he gets the reader involved in the story, having you decide for yourself what each story means for you. A wonderful collection that perfectly displays Raphael’s range as a writer and his proficiency in short fiction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Half-Welsh, half-Mexican and growing up in London, Alex Raphael was surrounded by different influences and interests. But it was always books that spoke to him most and had the greatest impact.
He started writing when at college, where his love of reading evolved into a desire to write, in particular focusing on poetry and short stories. Studying English and American Literature at university meant he took a break from writing, as well as giving him the chance to see more of Mexico on his travels. He concentrated on his journalistic career while working on different writing projects, but his favourite genre of literature has always been short stories as they are what first inspired him to write.
Always Never, Rarely Sometimes is the third book from Alexander Raphael, following on from his short story The Summer of Madness and his set of conceptual short stories Illusions, Delusions.
In the previous blog post, we spoke with New Zealand writer Lee Murray about her dual win at the Bram Stoker awards this year, and her journey with Black Cranes. (Click here for the first interview in this series.) Here we cover her second award-winning book, Grotesque: Monster Stories.
Grotesque: Monster Stories was your first collection, and it won a Bram Stoker for best collection. After all the books you’re famed for, why the move to short stories? What challenges did you face in comparison to publishing novels and novellas?
Not exactly a ‘move’ to short stories; I’d been writing short fiction for anthologies and magazines, and less frequently for competitions, in order to improve my writing, and gain some early credits. Short fiction is a demanding form, with every word vital for creating ambiance, character, and plot. There is the tricky balance of adhering to the theme of the submission call, while also delivering something fresh and engaging. And there is the discipline of sticking to a deadline, word count, and other constraints imposed by the market. So, while creating my novels, I was simultaneously writing short stories to dip my toe into the mechanics of the publishing industry. I didn’t occur to me to gather those works into a collection. Grotesque: Monster Stories might not have happened at all if Steve Dillon at Things in the Well hadn’t approached me for a volume not long after the release of Into the Ashes, the third book in the Taine McKenna series, when I was at a bit of a loose end regarding my own writing. Between jobs, if you like. So we selected some likely stories in my back list, identified a unifying theme and scope (monsters, horror, breadth of style and form), and highlighted some potential gaps which I set about filling with fresh material, including a Taine McKenna novella. I approached it as if I were the editor of an anthology, only in this case I was the sole contributor.
2. Your own stories in Black Cranes, as well as the ones in Grotesque, cover a lot of cultural horror – from New Zealand to China and even other places. Is this a deliberate attempt to educate through literature? What kind of research goes into building a story around traditions, rituals, and cultural events?
No. While I hope that ultimately my writing educates and informs, I think it can be dangerous to make education the focus of our writing. We have to remember that readers are discerning; they know when we’re trying to clobber them over the head with our ideals, and it’s the kind of thing that makes them put a book down. Far better to write a narrative that engages and entertains and inject your theme into the book in more subtle ways, such as through symbolism, metaphor, and character responses. Recently, I’ve been writing more at the intersection of culture and myth, exploring my Asian heritage and Māori culture of my country. “I’ve always felt a yearning for Māori stories,” I wrote in a Medium interview by my Cranes sister, Christina Sng. “There are a lot of shared values and beliefs between the Māori culture of my homeland and the Chinese culture of my heritage: a certain synergy. Both cultures are founded on the deeds of supernatural ancestors, live by a mandate to protect the natural world, are imbued with a sense of community over individual, and tell simple compelling tales which teach respect and honor.”I do a lot of secondary thorough research—online, library resources—but occasionally I’ll use interviews and other primary sources to inform my work. I also send my work out for review and sensitivity assessment before I submit it, because we can’t see our own biases. When it comes to traditional culture and beliefs, authenticity and intent are key factors, as well as ensuring the dynamic aspects of character, since none of us are homogenous; we’re all the sum of myriad influences and identities.
3. You have co-written the Path of Ra series with Dan Rabarts. Could you tell us about the experience in co-writing a book? How does each author’s writing and storytelling style sync with the other to form the final product?
Here’s what I had to say on this topic when interviewed by Claire Fitzpatrick for The Horror Tree back in 2018: “The more I learn about collaborative writing projects, the more I realise that there are a million ways to go about it. It’s always different, depending on the medium, the subject matter, and the writers in question. With Dan and me, we have a kind of Lucy and Linus van Pelt thing going on: where I am the bossy big sister, and Dan is the highly independent little brother, who likes to charge off and do his own thing. Of course, that makes me even crabbier! So, we’ll have a basic plan, and we’ll start out writing chapter about, and by Chapter Four, Dan will have Matiu racing down a dark alley, dodging explosions. Then I’ll have to come up with an explanation for the ‘diversion’, since I’m responsible for the science, writing the uptight stickler-for-rules science consult. Aargh! It’s actually a lot of fun, our real-life process mimicking the relationship you see on the page between our protagonists, Matiu and Penny. I haven’t heard of any other teams writing in quite the same way, but it seems to work for us.”
For our Path of Ra work, we chose a ‘he-said, she-said’ approach to retain very distinct voices for the dual protagonists, so we kept our editing light for that reason. When I wrote Mika (a Kiwi-NZ version of the Wizard of Oz for youth), a collaboration with Piper Mejia, author of The Better Sister and Other Stories, and Dispossessed, we also wrote the book from a basic plan using a turn-about chapter-by-chapter approach, but when the novella draft was completed, I went back and ‘smoothed’ the narrative, sanding off any identifying edges so the story appears to have been written by a single author. There are so many ways to approach collaboration, a no one way is best, but possibly the most important factor is your choice of collaborator because it really is like raising a child with someone; you have to want what’s best for the work.
4. As an editor, you work with writers across science fiction, fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, thrillers; a mix of poets and prose writers. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?
I love a fruit salad of genres and forms, and the privilege that comes with working with other writers (and having a small part in shaping their work), so editing projects are a passion on mine. Plus, I’ve forged some incredible friendships as an anthologist; the Black Cranes sisterhood is a good example. I do have to hold myself back from becoming too much of a chipmunk, though. I’m tempted to drop the nut I’m carrying, for another enticing nut I’ve encountered on the way. I’ll get enthusiastic and jump in, taking on new projects at the expense of my own writing. It doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer, with Hemingwayesque wordcounts of just 500 words a day. I don’t typically do the ‘word vomit’ drafts that other writers speak of. I blame my inner editor, a perfectionist, who always has her lips to my ear, saying things like, “Make it lean. You don’t need that. Delete that clutter. What is that: a cliché? No, no, no.” She slows me down a lot; very annoying. So, while I set out to be a writer, and that is still my intent, I find editing easier. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll often edit instead. So, yes, getting that balance is essential and I’m not sure I’ve cracked it yet.
5. Thank you, Lee, for taking the time for this interview. A final question for readers – What and who are your own favorite books and writers for reading? Any authors who inspire your writing, or books you would recommend picking up?
Oh dear. I always find this question very hard to answer, Renata, because there are so many great books, and I don’t want to offend any of my wonderful colleagues. However, I’d be grateful if people who haven’t yet discovered them would pick up a copy of my Bram Stoker Award®-winning works Grotesque: Monster Stories and Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women. Supporting my work means I can continue to write, so I’m grateful for any reader support. And if you do pick up a copy of Black Cranes and enjoy it, please look for other work by our wonderful contributors, including Geneve Flynn, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rena Mason, Gabriela Lee, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng. Please also show some love to Alma Katsu, who wrote our foreword and who has appeared on the Bram Stoker Award® finals twice in two successive years with The Deep and The Hunger. Katsu’s latest work, Red Widow, is a spy thriller, so sure to be an intriguing fast-paced read. Tori Eldridge, who lent the book so much support, has her wonderful Lily Wong series, Asian American thriller fiction with a kick-ass protagonist, and E Lily Yu, who also endorsed the collection, has her newly released fairy tale-inspired On Fragile Waves—wonderful works to discover. For more horror fiction, there is no better place to start than the Bram Stoker Award® finals list which is crammed with incredible stories from novel through to short fiction.
“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.
The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories, and a fabulous one to start the collection as it sets the pace for what lies ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.
The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.
Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters, with many more still to be met.
In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears.~Lee Murray
This book will delight horror fans, and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.
Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.
My rating of the book: 5/5
This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.
The Birthday Bookathon progresses steadily. For the uninitiated, my reading goals for the year have been regional books from India – one (at least) from each of the twenty nine states and seven union territories. I started on my birthday in November last year and have three more months to go. I just finished one from the northeastern state of Assam. “If A River” is a collection of short stories by Kula Saikia originally written in Assamese and translated into Hindi, Bangla, Odia, Marathi and Telugu languages over the years. This is the first English translation which came out in February this year, comprising twenty short stories, translated into English by six writers.
Saikia’s storytelling is thought provoking, his writing simplistic, with stories inspired from day-to-day life. He transports the reader into the minds of his characters, whereby one feels one isn’t merely reading, but thinking and feeling like his characters do. Some of the stories end with a twist, some twist your thinking throughout, but every one of them causes you to reflect on seemingly mundane issues. From the pathos in ‘Well-wishers’ , to the charming ‘Gift’ , the child-like exuberance of ‘If A River’ , to the horror of ‘Birthmark’ , every story invokes myriad emotions that go beyond the actual story and make you live the character’s life, and experience like he does.
Saikia touches on prosaic themes – waiting at a bus stop, attending a school reunion, going for a run, preparing a will, wanting to play a game of football, making new friends. His narrative, however, leaves a deep impact – causing you to reflect long after each story has ended. I read at the rate of two or three stories a day – in spite of being short reads, the author has the knack of making you read and reflect, and take your time through them. Some of my favorites were, ‘In The Rain‘ – about an elderly couple waiting for the rain on noticing their flower bed wilting, ‘Whispers‘ – set at a funeral, where the death of a house owner results in a maid losing the job she was dependent on for her dying child, ‘The Game‘ – featuring a sports coach and his emphasis on the importance of sports, ‘The Final Hour‘ – the difference between what is thought, what is said, and what is done when doomsday arrives, ‘The Will‘ – about a man with dementia pondering over preparing a will, before he forgets the things he owns, and the people he knows.
I loved Saikia’s usage of figures of speech, and was astounded at his seamless weaving of alliterations, metaphors and personifications in a work of prose, which makes it seem almost poetic. Some beautiful lines:
~ “Look at this candle. We simply look at its flame that gives light, the molten wax remains unseen to the eyes. The burning candle does not weep for the molten wax.”
~ “Tell me about your long journey. Was it the same old countries, same old oceans, same old mountains, or something new? Did you notice any new clusters of stars to show you the way?” (A bedridden old man talking to birds at his window.)
~ “Sometimes poems, as yet unwritten, are created in a hidden, secret chamber of the mind.”
~ “An annoying boredom gnaws at her in the silence. Noise could become her friend now.”
~ “The doors of his mind are open for the winds of knowledge to enter from all directions.”
~ “The pleasure of a journey encompasses much more than the mere satisfaction of arriving at your destination. You may assume that the journey always continues, and it will continue till the last step.”
~ “Memories stay with us. They cannot be bequeathed through a will.”
~ “Every object has a specific use, and is created for a definite purpose. Yet the significance of that purpose may vary from person to person.”
~ “Smiles sweep across their faces like barges on a river, and he stands on its side, unmoved as a rock.”
I marked a lot of quotes and excerpts throughout the book, and this collection will stay cherished among my shelves to flip through occasionally. A mention needs to be made of the translators who have done a fabulous job in bringing Saikia’s works to a wider audience of readers worldwide. The “painting” on the cover is beautiful – simplistic and connects with the reader, just like a river connects its banks. The first page of the book is also printed in the Assamese language – providing a connect with the original writer and his writings – something I have not seen in many translated books. I attempted the script on the origami paper boat I crafted to go with the picture. The words are the title of the book, followed by the name of the author. If you like books that make you think, give this one a read. “If A River” is the only collection of Kula Saikia’s works available for English readers.