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Ormeshadow by Priya Sharma, Tor.com, 2019, $14.99, tpb ($3.99, ebook)
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson, Tor.com, 2017, $11.99, tpb ($3.99, ebook)
The Survival of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson, Tor.com, 2019, $11.99, tpb ($3.99, ebook)
A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney, Word Horde, 2019, $16.99, tpb ($6.99, ebook)
Full disclosure: I love novellas. I find them magical both to read and write. Yet if literary forms were characters in a fairy tale, the novella, at least in commercial terms, might be the goosegirl or youngest son: often ignored, locked away in the cellar, cast out to make their own way in the world. Of course, goosegirls and youngest sons inevitably meet up with the magical personage who rewards their steadfastness or courage or kindness, and all ends happily, at least until we turn the page and the next tale unfolds.
So it goes, too, with the novella, which is now having its own happy moment. Never exactly ignored by the literary community, the novella (along with its smaller sibling, the novelet) was until recently often a hard sell to editors, publishers, and readers. Usually defined as a work between 17,000 and 40,000 words, the novella was often deemed too long for many magazines, too short to merit the cost of producing it in hardcover or even paperback. This despite the fact that many of the greatest dark fiction tales are novellas: "The Turn of the Screw," "Heart of Darkness," "The Beckoning Fair One," "The Great God Pan," several of Isak Dinesen's best works.
Publishers that specialize in fantastika have long been more welcoming of long form fiction, giving us (among many others) modern classics such as Stephen King's "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners," Peter Straub's "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," Lucius Shepard's "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Graiule," Aliette de Bodard's "On a Red Station, Drifting," Nisi Shawl's "Good Boy," Usman Malik's "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Tree," Victor LaValle's "The Ballad of Black Tom," Stephen Graham Jones's "Mapping the Interior," Fritz Leiber's "Ill Met in Lankhmar," Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," Gene Wolfe's "The Fifth Head of Cerebus," James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," Thomas Disch's "The Brave Little Toaster," Connie Willis's "The Last of the Winnebagos," Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," and Nnedi Okorafor's "Binti."
Among fantastika's many sub-genres, horror and supernatural fiction in particular are well-suited to the novella, which can be short enough to be read in one sitting. Every time a reader sets aside a story, that fictional enchantment is broken: The writer has lost control of her narrative spell, and the reader may or may not succumb to it when he next picks up the tale. Masters of the supernatural novel have created vast epics of horror and unease, like Richard Adams's The Girl in the Swing or Stephen King's The Stand, and the massive popularity of the Harry Potter books and A Song of Ice and Fire prove that people still love immersing themselves in tales that encompass decades and a big cast of characters.
Yet the success of Rowling's works, and Martin's, has been enhanced by their film and TV adaptations. These days, I wonder how many of their millions of fans have actually read all (any?) of the books the movies are based on. Not as many as did fifteen or twenty years ago, I bet. With so much competition (streaming services, social media, political and climatological traumas, gaming, disaster porn, food porn, porn porn, etc.), who has the time to commit to a couple thousand pages of old-fashioned text?
Yet people still like to read, and the rise of digital publishing and the concomitant proliferation of ebooks has created a market for smaller, yet perfectly formed, books—novellas, often published in both digital and carbon-based formats. The success of platforms like Tor.com, Subterranean Books, Word Horde, and PS Publishing means these are boom times for long-form short fiction (an admittedly oxymoronic term), allowing readers the chance to sample work by both established and emerging writers at a lower price point than the cost of hardcover. The fact that some of these writers are creating some of the most exciting works seen in years is an additional enticement.
Case in point: the UK writer Priya Sharma's haunting Ormeshadow, a spare yet gorgeously written novella that has the earmarks of a soon-to-be-classic tale. Sharma has already won acclaim for her stories—a Shirley Jackson Award nomination for her collection All the Fabulous Beasts, and a British Fantasy Award for the tale "Fabulous Beasts." In addition to being an extraordinary writer, she's also a General Practitioner—"cradle to grave medicine," as she told Emma Webster in a 2018 interview at Fiction Unbound. "Longing and grief are an essential component of growing as a human being," Sharma continues. "We can't outrun pain."
So it is that in Ormeshadow, the darkness that gathers around the tale's protagonist, Gideon, seems more the result of human intervention than the supernatural. As the book opens, the boy, Gideon Belman, and his parents, John and Clare, are in a coach en route from the city of Bath to the tiny village of Ormeshadow and Ormesleep Farm, the ancient property in which John shares ownership with his brother, Thomas. As a young man, John left the farm to attend university, but fell in love with the beautiful yet emotionally cold Clare before he could matriculate. For years he had a wealthy patron in Bath, where he and Clare and Gideon partook of a comfortable life, and the bookish Gideon of an education.
But the family has been forced to leave their home for reasons that remain undisclosed until late in Sharma's story. John's brother takes them in, though not altogether happily. His wife, Maud, gives Gideon a closet to sleep in. Her own children dislike and later bully their bookish cousin, who along with his father is quickly put to work tending the sheep that are the Belmans' sole source of income. The farm work is unrelenting and often bloody—shearing sheep and attempting to save animals injured in the process; helping the ewes give birth. John adjusts swiftly to the change in fortune as he picks up the threads of a life he'd left behind years before. Clare, too, accepts their new life as she helps Maud tend to the household.
For Gideon, though, Ormesleep Farm can be a cruel place, its strangeness heightened by the near-constant undercurrents of discord he detects between the four adults. He takes solace in the tales his father tells him about the Orme, the towering cliffbound peninsula that gives the area its name and which is part of John Belman's inheritance, as the farm is his brother Thomas's.
But the Orme isn't just a rocky precipice: the word orme is analogous to the Old English wyrm, itself derived from the Old Norse ormr, or dragon. John first tells Gideon about the Orme as they are leaving Bath:
"There's a legend that a great dragon flew over the bay and then swooped down to cool herself in the sea. She crept along the shore and settled with her head resting on her folded forelegs. Smoke came from her nostrils. She was tired, shifting in the sunlight like an adder warming itself in the heather."
Like most dragons, the Orme is believed to guard a treasure. When Gideon asks when the Orme will wake up, his father replies, "When she's ready."
Later, John takes Gideon to the cliffs, and as they walk tells his son that the dragon is "beneath your feet. Behind us, where the land rises before it dips, are her hindquarters. This ridge is her backbone."
Her spine ran away from them down the centre of the Orme. Limestone showed through in patches, seamed with lichen. She was taking shape beneath Gideon's feet.
Yet there is no hint of magic in Ormeshadow or Ormesleep Farm, other than that evoked by John's tales to his son. And when tragedy strikes the farm, even that glimmer of enchantment fades.
Like Alan Garner's Alderley Edge novels, Ormeshadow draws much of its power from Sharma's understanding of how landscape shapes us as surely as it shapes the myths we tell about it. Like Garner, Sharma is a Cheshire native, though the topography she maps in Ormeshadow seems more like that of West Penwith, in Cornwall, and Great Orme is a real place in Wales. I am fond of quoting Melville on this sort of thing: "It is not down on any map. True places never are." Ormeshadow also made me think of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, especially The Grey King, as well as "Hamlet" and Wuthering Heights, and her unsparing depiction of life in a rural village brought to mind Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project.
But Ormeshadow is very much its author's singular creation, as beautiful, stark, and stirring as a Child Ballad. It reminds us of why we humans need dragons as much as we need tales about them: as a caution that while we may think of ourselves as immortal, it's really only our stories that are, as the Orme herself knows—"It was a human child, a mere wink in time, where she was the slow blink that lasts for centuries."
Tade Thompson's Molly Southbourne novels remind us of another truth about humanity—you can't trust anyone. In fact, the eponymous protagonist of The Murder of Molly Southborne, winner of the 2018 Nommo Award for Best Novella, and its sequel, The Survival of Molly Southborne, can't even trust herself to recognize a human.
Thompson, author of the acclaimed first-contact Wormwood trilogy, set in Nigeria and London and celestial portals in between, here imagines another near future dystopia. This time, it's an unspecified city that appears to be in the UK, or whatever the UK has become in the wake of Brexit. The story begins in medias res as its first person narrator wakes to find herself— himself? this too is unspecified—shackled and badly injured, lying in her own excrement. The door opens and a woman enters:
…maybe in her twenties or early thirties, long dark hair, athletic, casually dressed, face bruised.
Um, yes. The strange woman—captor? savior?—returns over the course of some days. On one visit, she is naked and seems surprised to see the prisoner, who wonders, "What the hell is going on?"
The reader may well ask the same question as Thompson's narrative unspools. After setting fire to whatever structure is outside the room, the mysterious visitor sits and tells the prisoner, "My name is Molly Southborne. I'm going to tell you a story. It's long, but you must try to remember it. Your life depends on how well you remember.… Afterwards, I will release you."
The rest of this slim book is the story of Molly or, more accurately, of many Mollys. The Molly telling the story grew up on Southbourne Farm, where her parents make her memorize a set of rules:
"If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
The prevention of bleeding, under any circumstances, turns out to be especially important. Molly's blood, through an unexplained process, causes Molly clones to appear. They have to be killed on sight; otherwise they will kill Molly and, presumably, her parents and anyone else they meet. While Molly's earliest encounters with the other mollys seem to be benign, she soon learns her parents are right: Her doppelgangers are murderous. They are also legion—it's more difficult to eradicate stray drops of blood than you might think. Menstruation turns out to be especially dangerous.
And the mollys are clever. Molly's parents teach her every conceivable means of defending herself, yet mollys still creep up on her and attack. Molly's formidable skill means that she nearly always eradicates them first. On those few occasions she fails, her mother kills them. The mollys grow and age along with Molly, but as she gets older, she begins to question her parents' rules—blot, burn, bleach—and also the truth of her own origins.
Still, her bizarre, homeschooled childhood with its attendant army of murderous doubles doesn't prevent her from attending university—she aces the exams and is allowed special living quarters when her parents claim she is a hemophiliac. She embarks upon a relationship with James Down, a professor of physiology and anatomy, who teaches her the art of dissection as well as the history of the so-called resurrection men, the nineteenth-century grave robbers who provided corpses to medical school. Throughout, Molly continues to annihilate mollys when they appear. When her life is derailed by an abrupt and tragic event, she gets the first hint as to exactly who and what she is, and—
—and that's where The Murders of Molly Southbourne ends, and The Survival of Molly Southbourne begins. I suppose one could read the second book before the first, but I wouldn't recommend it. Molly's story, and the mollys', is dizzying enough as it is. I didn't always understand what was going on, but I was confident that Tade Thompson did. Once begun, the novels are hard to put down—for one thing, with all the head-spinning intrigue and proliferation of mollys, I was never sure I'd remember exactly what had just happened, and to whom (or what).
In their urgency and stripped-down characterizations, Molly's exploits bring to mind those of Villanelle, the assassin anti-heroine of Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle and Killing Eve, the BBC series it inspired, though Molly isn't a femme fatale and she seems to have a more tender heart than the razor-cold Villanelle. But as she excavates her own history and learns the truth of her own origins, and the mollys', that heart begins to calcify into something far more sinister and lethal.
Or does it? The Survival of Molly Southbourne appears to end on a deliberately tentative note, suggesting that its protagonist's story isn't over. Though maybe it is. With Molly Southbourne, as with real life, one never really knows what might happen next.
Life unfolds at a slower pace in Craig Laurance Gidney's lyrical and beguiling novel A Spectral Hue, in which the central mysteries are those of artistic inspiration and the human heart. Not much appears to happen in Shimmer, a sleepy town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded by freedmen in the nineteenth century, Shimmer remains an African-American town, its sole claim to fame a small museum dedicated to the late Hazel Whitby. An outsider artist and former slave, Whitby's intricately embroidered quilts cast a strange spell on those whose eyes and minds are open to the possible existence of beings, and worlds, that most people can't see, or imagine.
Xavier Wentworth is one of those who've been captivated by Whitby's work. He has reluctantly set aside hope of a career as an artist: Instead, he intends to write his master's thesis on Whitby and Shadrach Grayson, one of the other outsider artists whose work is displayed in the small museum devoted to Shimmer's painters. Lush and exuberant as one of Hazel Whitby's quilts, Gidney's prose illuminates both Shimmer's marvels and the town's horrific past, including the slaveowners who cruelly beat the young Hazel, separated from her family as a young girl.
But a spirit animates Hazel—a manifestation of the spectral hue of the book's title?—inspiring her to create the lavishly colored textile art that can disturb and sicken some people who gaze upon it, even as it drives others to create. Gidney populates his fictional town with memorable characters, men and women hobbled by grief and loss and drug addiction, as well as the everyday sorrows that can consume us all if we don't find something or someone to shake us from our spiritual or emotional lethargy. Hazel Whitby's art does just that, as does Gidney's lovely novel. It's a timely reminder that even in the midst of almost unimaginable tragedy and change, art endures, along with our memories of those who create it.
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