While posting on facebook about my Sunburst nomination, I noticed that the two short stories I had forthcoming– “An Important Failure” and “The Bletted Woman” which will be in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction-– are both sad stories about the BC coast. Then a friend pointed out that “The Glad Hosts” falls into this category. As does “Such Thoughts Are Unproductive” and “Lares Familiares, 1981” and “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady.” Basically, I have a genre, wherein sad, weird, unpleasant things (magical, dystopian, alien) happen to people on the west coast. Or to people in some way related to the west coast. In this case, it’s about a luthier who’s collecting wood to build a violin in a poor, beat-down near-future version of Vancouver and Vancouver island.
So “An Important Failure” is another one of these sad stories about the coast. I started writing it while watching the bushfires in Australia back in January, and finished it in June, while in lockdown. The world seemed to transform several times in those months, and the story reflects my disorientation. It’s a story about processing change– how we do it, how we fail to do it. It’s also about the giant trees of BC– the “Champion Trees” of UBC’s big tree registry. The miraculous old growth they show you on fifth grade field trips to Cathedral Grove, or just off the road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew. They’re vulnerable, of course: logging, poaching, climate change, wildfires. They’re so old, they belong, quite literally, to a different world.
Finally, it’s about what’s leftover when the world changes and what we do with trees after they’ve fallen. And it’s about making a violin, sort of, because though I love forests, I also love the things that come out of the forests: the people, the houses, the shakes, the paper, the stories, the colour of red cedar, the feeling you have walking into a wood-heated house in January, when it’s raining outside, the smell of fire fills all the rooms. I love the lives and afterlives of trees. I love the violin my main character is trying to make, and even the lengths he must go to to make it.
“An Important Failure” is available to read at Clarkesworld.
New year, new story, and this in a magazine I have long coveted publication. When I started reading contemporary SF/F/H again a few years ago, two of the first magazines I encountered were Shimmer and Clarkesworld and here it is–my first Shimmer story! It has the longest title I’ve so far come up with: “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.”
I wrote the story last spring, conceived and drafted during the second trimester of my pregnancy, though completed during the third.
Pregnancy is miraculous and terrifying and cool and weird. You grow a new organ. Your senses of taste and smell change. Your emotions. Your centre of gravity. I thought a lot about the peculiar subjectivity of pregnancy, in which you are once yourself and not at all yourself. In which the idea of a distinction between self, brain, body, and mind seems increasingly ridiculous, since your body undertakes actions beyond your control, and rewires your perceptions and your brain. Of course, this is always true of the mind/body relationship– but pregnancy foregrounds it.
I came across the story of Mary Toft a few years ago, and it so horrified me I couldn’t pursue it in fiction, though I wanted to. I returned to her in those strange months midway through my pregnancy, and I began to seek out other reproductive marvels: mooncalves, and headless children, and maternal impression, and hens that give birth to prophecy-eggs. Several times I encountered the image of a reversed birth, of children returned—forcibly—to their mother, and felt a deep, visceral horror at the image.
So what do I do with all those feelings? I collect them, and watch the images play against one another, and try to imagine what sort of era produces this deeply awful image of reversal, of wrongness, a disorder so profound it unsettles the forward momentum of reproduction itself. This is probably why Mary Toft’s story speaks to me so viscerally: it is unnatural in a deep way, and witnesses a stealthy, awful sort of violence that is at once intimate and public.
Finally, a note on attribution: I borrowed two lines of poetry in one of the story’s subtitles, which reads “where children thus are born with hairy coats / heaven’s wrath on the kingdom it denotes” which is, as far as I can tell, from an anonymous seventeenth-century work attributed to Aristotle.
New story in Liminal 3. It’s about logging, the economic downturn of the early 1980s, and the Cowichan Valley. And the smell of Grand Fir. And a family with a peculiar relationship to the woods.
Like a lot of kids, I grew reading legends and myths. The ones I loved best were about encounters with gods and strangers (the not-quite-human kind):
…Baucis and Philemon meet two strangers and share their meager supper.
…The villagers of Woolpit meet two green children, who say they have come from a world underground and who speak no familiar human language.
…A human midwife attends a fairy birth, and accidentally touches an ointment that allows her to see through fairy charms. This ends badly for her eyes.
…Mark Antony hears an invisible procession leaving the city of Alexandria, and knows that Dionysos has abandoned him to his fate.
When you encounter these narratives in the stripped-down language of a legend, they are often a little disjointed. They lack the final revelation of what’s really been going on that we seem to require in fiction, but which is absent from the urban myth or the weird anecdote.
I like these stories best when they’re bare and conversational, the kind of story someone might tell you at a bus stop, or in a bar… one time, I met this guy who… Something weird happens, but the story ends before the weirdness resolves into something we can properly grasp, leaving us– the listener– unsettled not only by the events described, but by their incomprehensibility. The best versions of these stories provide no explanation but accident and the arbitrary rules of a universe we don’t actually understand. In the world of these stories, you might do nothing wrong and still end up transformed forever. You might just be walking in the woods at twilight, and find yourself making a life-or-death decision as you meet a fairy host. You might catch the eye of a god or a monster and be punished for your presence in no way you could ever plan.
I learned two things from these stories: first, that it’s not a good thing to be noticed by powerful, inhuman creatures, no matter what CS Lewis and Tolkien might tell me; second, that stories can give the reader an unsettled feeling by what they leave out. Most often, the why of an encounter. At their very best, M.R. James, Daphne Du Maurier, and Robert Aickman write about that place between revelation and mystery, where no human knowledge is complete, and all one can do is observe the strange encounter and hope to survive it.
I’ve been trying to write in this mode for a while—much of The Paradise Engine was driven by my love for those unsettling, incomplete tales. “Lares Familiares, 1981” is from my latest experiments in capturing that texture of unknowing. I also have a story forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that fits the genre, too.
These stories are about that strange sense of a dislocation on an otherwise ordinary day. An encounter for which one cannot prepare, and which might redirect one’s life entirely by accident.
This is an aside, or a footnote to the post about Queenston Heights (and my ability to alienate strangers). I’m including it because when I was writing that one up, I remembered seeing the Corpse Flower that day, too. Corpse Flowers bloom only rarely in greenhouses and gardens. It is a strange paradigm for a flower, a massive (3m!), stinky lily that looks like a low-budget extraterrestrial from an early episode of Doctor Who. It had already begun to sag when we saw it, and the enormous spadix (the thick, fleshy thing in the middle) was collapsing into the folds of the spathe (the leafy, petal-y thing that wraps around the thing in the middle).
The “Floral Showhouse” was full of people photographing the last blooming days of the Corpse Flower, but we got a good look at it. I was happy to have seen the curiosity, which looked a bit alien and lonely among the more conventional flowers.
I like to know where I am. I grew up in a valley, on an island off the south coast of British Columbia. I learned to find my way on what were once logging roads, pinched between Satellite Channel and Saanich Inlet to the northeast, and the hills and mountains of the Vancouver Island Ranges on the west, north and south. Wherever you are in the Cowichan Valley you can find your way by looking up at mountains whose names you know: Tzhouhalem or Provost, the Malahat, Mount Baker and the Olympics on the American mainland, Mount Newton on Saltspring Island, across the channel. Vancouver was the same, with “mountains” always meaning “north” in my neighbourhood.
Of course, bed bugs are a problem in other Canadian cities. I’ve woken up to red welts on my arms and legs before now, in both Victoria and Vancouver. It’s hard not to notice that we’re in the middle of a bed bug “epidemic” in many major cities. “Recolonization” seems like a better word, though, as this temporary respite from bedbugs is a sixty-year, first-world aberration from the rest of human history. They seem to me like an antique problem, but I know they were always with us, in the pesticide-resistant reservoirs of the third world. Continue reading