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Winter can be a bleak time of year, with colder weather and shorter days. It can be a time for introspection, and as such, December’s Words for Thought focuses on stories about the nature of self, and the struggle to find a balance between the light and the darkness within.
The House That Jessica Built by Nadia Bulkin, published in November’s The Dark, is a haunted house story on the surface, full of unsettling and eerie imagery. Below the surface, it’s a story about family, loss, and the terrible contortions girls often put themselves through trying to fit in. Rue lives with her father, and her little brother. After the death of her mother, her father moves them to a new house, one Rue claims is haunted. No one believes her, and her father calls in a therapist. At first this makes Rue glamorous to her classmates, but eventually it isolates her as she continues to insist on a ghost no one else can see. Rue’s father begins calling the ghost Jessica, the name on Rue’s birth certificate. Eventually, Rue comes to think of Jessica as a dark twin, all the ugly parts of herself, and the line between them blurs. The girls in Rue’s class who harm themselves with bulimia are beautifully tragic, and ultimately disposable. Rue, who insists on her version of reality, inflicting it on her family and friends in the form of haunting is inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worse. She is not what girls are supposed to be, but is Jessica? Bulkin continues to draw parallels between Rue and her ghost, even as Rue discovers Jessica’s true identity. A girl named Esther died in the house years ago, so desperate for love and acceptance that she allowed herself to be caught up by a murderer, helping him to prey on and murder other girls, until he ultimately murdered her. The story is grim and terrifying, playing with the idea of the monstrous feminine, but there’s hope as well. Rue learns to reconcile conflicting parts of herself – the darkness and the light – and carve a place for herself in the world, even if it doesn’t fit the mold of what others think she should be.
Terpsichore by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría (translated by Lawrence Schimel) published at Strange Horizons in October, tells the story of a lone woman on ship designed to pierce the veil between realities. Her sole companion is Piotr, a zombie of sorts, animated by the ship’s AI.
The boy was a kind of Schrödinger’s cat who would always remain animate so long as he never left the undifferentiated space of the ship. Within the Terpsichore, he would be alive and dead at the same time, and it was in that state that he had been possessed by the ship’s AIs almost half a century ago. A state that could be prolonged eternally.
Piotr’s role is ensure that Captain Levitanova, Stephana, remembers herself and comes back from the journey with knowledge gained by meeting other possible versions of herself from other branching realities. From the outset, there’s an uncanniness to Piotr that makes his stated purpose seem suspect. However, Stephana continues with the mission, allowing him to guide her to a meeting with multiple versions of herself, the result of diverging events and choices in their past. Each version of Stephana carries a code name, Salmon, Wolf, Panther, Swan, and so on. Some are war-like, some manipulative, some submissive, some seductive. Stephana, Salmon, the one who returns home, struggles with the other versions of herself. How can they be so different, and yet also literally her? What separates them from her? Is she capable of their violence, their cunning? In the end, Piotr opens up a world of larger possibilities for her, giving her a choice – who is she, and who does she want to be? The imagery throughout the story is striking, giving the narrative a dream-like quality. There’s a sense of the mythic, and the cosmic. Where does the line between self and other lie, the possible and the impossible? Perhaps they aren’t so impermeable after all.
In Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place by Lia Swope Mitchell in November’s Shimmer, Rachel sees the devil as a literal manifestation in her life. She hears him whispering, feels him crawling inside her and making her say terrible things to her friends and family. Julie, a straight A student, seems to be haunted by the devil as well, but has no trouble resisting him. Even though they’ve never really been friends, Julie and Rachel form an alliance, and Julie reveals her secret. She shows Rachel how to build an altar in her closet, to call the devil, and let him feed off her so it will leave everyone else alone. Part of the horror in this story is the banality of evil. Rather than tempting Rachel to huge and destructive acts, the devil primarily tempts her to petty acts of jealousy and bitterness, talking back, and being disrespectful. The story also highlights everyday cruelty, showing how Julie’s former classmates bullied her relentlessly at the slightest hint of difference. Like Bulkin’s story, “Skills to Keep the Devil at Bay” can be read as a metaphor for growing up, and trying to fit in. Are the devil’s temptations really just a young girl not fitting in with the perception of ladylike behavior? Since no one else sees the devil except Julie and Rachel, is it their imagination, a coping mechanism to deal with the darkness in themselves and others? Like Bulkin’s story, it is also laced with hope. Ultimately, whether the devil is real or not, Rachel and Julie forge a friendship, learn how to fight, and come out stronger within themselves on the other side.
Migration by Tananarive Due from November’s Nightmare Magazine begins with Jaz waking in the middle of the night, suddenly disgusted by her fiancé. She is sickened by the scent of him, everything about him, and it moves her to violence. She hefts a table lamp, ready to smash his skull, pausing only to admire the inhumanity of her shadow.
The shadow looked so right, like seeing her true reflection for the first time. She reveled in herself—the lamp a misshapen extension of her arm, her braids like Medusa’s crawling on the wall; she, a grand snapshot of poised violence.
This pause is just long enough for Cal to wake and flee. Jaz flees as well, waking the next day on a beach, her clothes stained with someone else’s blood, her head full of half-formed memories. As a child and again as a young woman, Jaz’s grandmother performed exorcisms on her, believing she was haunted by a demon. Jaz is uncertain what she believes. Dogs fear her, but her town was superstitious and maybe her “demon” is just anger which her parents sought to control and explain away. There are social and racial elements underlying the anger in this story, providing a different angle on the idea of “fitting in”. Cal went to an elite school, he speaks differently to Jaz than he does anyone else, he trusts cops, and he’s never been a target of violence.
The boo did it—his faux vernacular, like That’s so dope, which he said to no one but her, as if he hadn’t spent his teenage years at a lily white prep school and done his undergrad in biology at Stanford—trying to find a common language with his scrappy country girl from the Florida bog.
At times, this infuriates Jaz, at others, she struggles to find common ground. As the story progresses, Jaz’s rage continues to simmer. She remembers killing a boy after chasing Cal away, and when she flees him a second time, she hits and old woman with her car. But is it real? Her mother calls immediately afterwards, throwing Jaz’s monstrous nature into question. Her mother is soothing, telling Jaz to come home, implying there is nothing wrong with her after all. She is of a certain place, and Gracetown, with its history of violence, made her. She belongs with those who love and accept her, not in the big city. As with the other stories, truth and reality are questionable here, and the story can be read in many ways – a story of literal evil, or a story about very human rage and our capacity for violence.
Perfectly Not Normal by Alexis A. Hunter from November’s Flash Fiction Online offers a different take on the idea hidden fear and insecurity manifesting in monstrous ways. The protagonist of the story knows there is something different about her baby, even in the womb. The ultrasound appears normal, everyone keeps telling her Ani is normal, but she feels too many limbs. Once the baby is born, she continues to see hidden dimensions to her child no one else sees.
You can’t cradle Ani to your chest without her stabbing you with numerous invisible spikes, or lashing you with what feels like a heavy, corded tail. Still, you let her hurt you as she shifts her edges, both of you helpless to the uncontrollable muscle spasms of infancy.
The disconnect between the apparent truth and a mother’s instinct carry through this short and effective story. Unlike the first four stories discussed, it is not as much about the struggle with the self, but the struggle with the other who is of the self, which lies at the heart of the story. “Perfectly Not Normal” can be read as a parent’s anxiety manifesting in the illusion of something monstrous. Perhaps Ani is a perfectly normal child, but her mother cannot perceive her that way. Her fears make the child something other, but she is determined to love her regardless. No parent can control what their child becomes, they can only do the best for them, and hope. Similar to the other stories, “Perfectly Not Normal” is about finding balance, about accepting perceived darkness and moving past it to find the best possible outcome in the face of disbelief and fear for the future.