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All the Fabulous Beasts – Priya Sharma, 2018

01/13/2020

Priya Sharma writes very dark stories in a very strong, terse style, drawing on horror, weird fiction, and fairy tales as the mood strikes her. Overly flowery prose (particularly overwrought and ineffective similes and metaphors) has really been irking me recently, and this was exactly the palate cleanser that I needed.

The oldest story here (“The Englishman”) is a relatively straightforward use of horror/weird tropes to examine race and alienation and belonging. These same concerns motivate many of the later stories as well, but in a much subtler, more diffuse way, with characters finding their very humanity blurring away as often as not (human-animal hybrids are a recurring theme). Familial alienation is the other key concern here, with many of her protagonists are working through issues caused by missing, indifferent, or actively hostile parents (or are indifferent or hostile parents themselves). The stories range from 2006 to 2018, and watching Sharma develop and pare her work down to the bare essentials is truly fantastic.

The Crow Palace • (2017)
The perfect story to begin the collection; a recent publication that distills a lot of her thematic concerns into an excellent slow burn of family secrets and off-putting details. A woman returns home for her father’s funeral years after drifting apart from him and her twin, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Their mother died under Mysterious Circumstances when they were children, and our protagonist has been an emotional void ever since. This reverberates throughout the pitch-perfect social misery of the father’s funeral. The titular structure sits in the family’s backyard, and corvids are omnipresent in general, and, again, the slow accretion of details about their behavior is fantastic. I’m trying to avoid using comparisons in review quite as much but I have to say this is quite (positively) Ramsey Campbellian.

Rag and Bone • (2013)
I read and enjoyed this one when it was first posted on Tor.com (five years ago?!) and resolved to read more of Sharma’s work, which of course I promptly failed to do until now. It’s all the well, though, this one’s very much an outlier here, an alternate history Liverpool, kind of steampunkish (if that even means anything anymore) focused on class and exploitation with a dash of gender bending and biopolitics. The voice is rather noir-ish, and in retrospect Sharma was working outside her comfort zone, having to convey worldbuilding in a way most of these stories don’t; the dialogue is a bit wooden at times, and the narrative kind of careens about, zipping from one point to the next to cram a novel’s worth of ideas into a short story. That sounds overly harsh – this is a good story, it just suffers in comparison to the surer hand of her later work.

The Anatomist’s Mnemonic • (2013)
A man, having been awakened sexually by a palm reader, retains an overriding hand fetish. Things take a dark turn when he happens to commission some art from a woman who lives with her sister. This was a beautifully-written, solidly-constructed story that I did not enjoy reading at all. I wasn’t expecting such a straight horror story, having pegged Sharma as more of a weird/dark fantasy type, which serves me right for making assumptions, I guess.

Egg • (2013)
A woman, suffering from endometriosis, obtains the assistance of a mysterious hag in becoming a mother. She finds parenting a bittersweet ordeal. Very much a working through, in reverse, of the territory “The Crow Palace” was investigating – an embryonic version, if you will.

The Sunflower Seed Man • (2013)
There are these young parents, and the man is a great, enthusiastic father, and the woman unfriendly and harsh toward their toddler. She makes more of an effort after the father sickens and dies, sharing with the girl the regenerating lifecycle of the sunflowers they’ve grown. Letting go takes the form of wrestling with the titular monster, which is emotionally resonant but faintly ridiculous.

The Ballad of Boomtown • (2012)
In Ireland, a woman living in an unfinished, post-crash housing development and ostracized by the scant community surrounding it circles around happier times in her memory (you know how I love weird stories that circle around past unhappy occurences). She was an oral historian, researching a local revenge myth centering on three standing stones, and entered into an affair with the builder behind the development, and then things went awry. A great one.

The Show • (2011)
A woman from a family of psychics lost her abilities after her dad died young, leaving her alienated from her mocking sister and mother. Now she fakes it on a ghost-hunting reality show until she doesn’t have to fake it anymore. Another relatively straightforward horror tale, although more my speed than “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic.”

Pearls • (2012)
Medusa finds herself after a “millennium of sleep” an artist living in NY (in a “flat”), desperately lonely despite (because of?) the best efforts of weak men over the ages, until she meets a familiar face. Not my thing.

The Absent Shade • (2015)
A man returns to his native Hong Kong. As a miserable, unruly child, neglected by awful parents, his nursemaid was his one source of comfort, until she was jointly betrayed by the misogyny he and his father both harbored. Cursed, he now works as a hitman, alienated from the world, cold and unfeeling aside from his continuing fixation on her. Also, there’s shadow magic. A good one!

Small Town Stories
A woman in a small (and getting ever smaller) post-industrial town is surrounded by low-key hauntings – ghosts, but not the vengeful kind, just ever-present reminders of loss. She herself is haunted by a more mundane trauma from her childhood, and the present day unfolds in a series of vignettes as she retraces the past leading up to the crisis. Class-inflected, suffused with melancholy and a very concrete sense of place, the standout piece of the collection, just an absolutely fantastic story.

Fish Skins • (2012)
A fisherman-turned-fishmonger, 20 years after an accident smashed his leg and he was rescued by the mermaid who became his wife, fears that they’re drifting apart. A steady, low-key story with a nicely touching ending.

The Rising Tide • (2014)
A doctor, having made a huge mistake, retreats to her dead father’s beach hut, full of mementos of his time as a diviner. She struggles with depression and grief and then Gwrach-y-Rhibyn pays her a visit. A solid weird tale.

The Englishman • (2006)
The titular man returns to post-colonial India and tries to figure out where he belongs. Tackles race and colonialism effectively even while making clear that Sharma hadn’t yet pared down her prose into her later effective style.

The Nature of Bees • (2010)
A woman, defined entirely by her male relationships, rents a house next to an apiary that produces “the caviar of honey.” Another early, relatively didactic story, about gender rather than race and less successful (and even more flowery) than “The Englishman.” This story about bees features a woman named Bea.

A Son of the Sea
A dilettante is summoned back to Hong Kong after the death of his (wealthy, absent) father, having inherited the old man’s apartment. He’s always felt alienated, especially socially but especially sexually, and looks forward to exploring his family’s mysterious roots. The inhumanity of humankind vis a vis marine life is explored in asides, and this one is overall a bit more surreal and oneiric than many of her other stories. I’m a sucker for weird fiction about the ocean.

Fabulous Beasts • (2015)
The perfect story to end the collection. An unflinching look at trauma and abuse and monstrosity and finding beauty in ugliness (and snakes). Nicely structured, beautifully written, and resonant with much of her other work.

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