Short and Bitter-Sweet
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the things that frightens a reviewer most is coming late to a book that everyone else has already raved about, and which is a multiple award winner. Sure you trust those other reviewers, and the award judges, but you never can tell. Some writers and books you just have blind spots about. It is therefore with considerable relief that I can tell you that Black Juice by Margo Lanagan is indeed as wonderful as other people say, and thoroughly deserving of its awards. It may yet get more. Iíll come back to that later, but first a few additional general observations.
One of the common items of conversation at World Fantasy Con this year was the way in which so many writers these days are disavowing the term "horror" and adopting "dark fantasy" instead. This is largely a publishing phenomenon: the word in the posh offices of New York is that "fantasy" sells whereas "horror" does not. Who wants to read another Freddie v Jason splatter novel? So if you write creepy stuff you have to market yourself as "dark fantasy".
Now, far be it from me to ignite yet another Internet flame war by suggesting that I have precise, or even approximate, definitions of these two genres, but I would like you to think for a while about the difference between Joe Hill and Margo Lanagan. Hill is, of course, happy to be called a horror writer, but he could hardly be anything else. 20th Century Ghosts is full of the sort of marginal characters that we expect to find in horror stories: sadists, murderers, people who turn into monsters, and of course the dead. Lanaganís stories are often just as disturbing as Hillís, but they are disturbing in a very different way. There are murderers in her book: a young woman who kills her husband, a political revolutionary. But even those are disturbing not because they are freaks or social outsiders, but because they could so easily be us. Lanaganís stories are disturbing precisely because they are about such ordinary things and people.
Even so I worry a little over the term "dark fantasy". Sure, Lanaganís fiction is dark, but fantasy? There are no elves or princes, no dragons or unicorns, not even a friendly wizard. Lanaganís stories are fantastical only in that they contain clues ó sometimes quite subtle clues ó that indicate they do not take place in our world.
More of that later, but I have one more general digression to make, one which may shed some light on why I think I am a much better reviewer of novels than of short fiction. When you review a novel, one of the basic questions you have to answer for the reader is, "what is this book about?" But with Lanagan I often found that asking what a particular story was "about" was about as helpful as asking what a strawberry cheesecake is "about". (Answer: it is about 8" across. Also circular, brown and crispy on the bottom, white and creamy above that, red and sticky on top.) Lanaganís stories can (mostly) be understood on an intellectual level, but their true impact is emotional, and in the patterns of language that she weaves. "About" misses way too much.
The book starts with the now famous story, "Singing My Sister Down?" What is it about? Well, it is about a young boy watching his elder sister being publicly executed for murder. To be more precise, she is being slowly drowned in a tar pit, while her family sits round trying to keep up both her spirits and theirs during the hours it takes her to sink. The story starts with the girl stepping out onto the tar, and ends with the boy trying to come to terms with family life, and life in his village, after what he has witnessed. Everything is about people. The girl is apologetic but defiant. We never learn whether she acted out of revenge or self-defense, but she has no regrets, and her mother does not blame her. The smug and self-righteous way in which the dead manís family oversees the execution suggests that we should have sympathy with the girl. Then there is the story of the girlís favorite aunt who is finally persuaded to forgive the shame that has been caused to her and come to say goodbye (or perhaps more accurately is persuaded that she will suffer more shame by boycotting the execution than by attending it). There is clearly a lot going on here, but to simply state what it is about just wonít do, you have to read it.
I note in passing that Black Juice came out in Australia 2004, which is how come it has just won a World Fantasy Award. The US edition from Eos came out in early 2005, but "Singing My Sister Down" has been granted an eligibility extension for the Hugos. Iím certainly going to nominate it, and I hope you do too. But I suspect it is too far from traditional Hugo material to actually win. There are clues in the story that suggest it takes place in our future rather than in some primitive tribal culture, but that is the sole fantastical element to it. Besides, it is by no means warm and fuzzy, and does not feature any cats.
Not that Lanagan has anything against putting cats in stories. "Perpetual Light" is another story involving death. It is about a young woman attending the funeral of her grandmother, which as usual with Lanagan tells you almost nothing. It is perhaps the most Australian story in the book, with its images of driving vast distances through a wasteland that is, in part, suffering the sort of traumatic environmental collapse that might lead to the Mad Max films. But it also hints at a very different, more disturbing world, as best exemplified by this short memory of the dead grandmotherís cat.
Every night Taw brought in something different. Mostly they were broken inside, with the outer layers still bright and their remaining movements natural. But sometimes he lost his head and ate half, and brought us the rest, the light gone out of their eyes and the mechs and biosprings trailing.
That is pretty much all we are told. Perhaps all of the animals and birds are long dead, and have been replaced by simulacra to keep people happy. Perhaps this Australia is not ours at all. Lanagan leaves us to wonder.
One or two stories are more conventionally fantastical. "My Lordís Man" is about a noblewoman who absconds with a band of gypsies. "Rite of Spring" is about a young man performing a religious rite. "Earthy Uses" actually features "angels", although they are not the sort of angel any medieval person would recognize. But mostly the stories are fantastical in their strangeness, their not-here-ness.
Take "Sweet Pippit" for example. It is a story about a group of elephants. They live in captivity: a zoo, circus or theme park. One day an elephant goes crazy and a human dies. Their handler, whom they all love dearly, is made a scapegoat and loses his job. So the elephants decide to break out and go to find him. The entire story is told by one of the elephants whose understanding of humans, as if the case with all of them, is somewhat limited.
Then there is "Red Nose Day". It is the story about the aforementioned revolutionary. His job is to assassinate rich people. Except in his world all of the rich people dress as clowns. This makes them both more laughable and more scary, for as every child knows, the easiest way for a clown to get a laugh from a group of children is to pick on one kid who seems to be an outsider and persecute her. At first I couldnít quite get my head around the story; all these clowns where dropping dead from a sniperís bullet and no one seemed to notice. But then I asked myself, why am I worrying about that? This is a story in which rich people dress up as clowns. What makes you think it should make sense?
Another story I particularly liked was "The House of Many". Ostensibly it is about a young boy who escapes from a strict religious community and makes a success of his life. But actually it seems to be more about his mother. She was forced to take refuge in the community when her husband was killed and no one else would take her in. The patriarch treated her very badly (well, he treated everyone badly, as such people tend to, but her worse than most) and she got her revenge by living a far more holy life than he ever could, by showing up his arrogance, brutality and hypocrisy, which destroyed him in the end.
That just leaves two tales. "Wooden Bride" is, I think, a meditation on the utter foolishness of the whole bridal business. "Yowlinin", apparently another post-apocalyptic Australian tale, is the story of an outcast girl in a village community. I canít say much more than that without giving the whole thing away, although it is a fairly common motif.
OK, so Black Juice only contains ten stories, but there isnít a bad one amongst them. Given the amount of really bad short fiction I have read since I started Emerald City, I am surprised and delighted to have found someone as good at the form as Margo Lanagan. I hope she produces more stories.