Sisters, Salt, Shoes: A Review of “Left Foot, Right”

When I woke up this morning, the only review I intended to write was another satirical take from the point of view of Sad Puppy blowhard John Z. Upjohn, USMC (Aspired). That’s sitting in a mostly-finished draft, as I try to work out the final flourish that will bring it home.

One of the things that happens to me when I go through a spiral of depression and close myself off is that I stop reading. I was sitting here thinking it would be nice to work on some poetry, and then I decided the first thing to do would be to feed my mind. So I picked a venue that was on my mind (Strange Horizons, because I missed their tea party this past weekend due to a distinct and troubling lack of time-turners in my life) and went to see what I’ve been missing recently.

Instead of opening their poetry page, I found myself clicking on a link near the top of the front page for a short story by Nalo Hopkinson, an author similarly on my mind from WisCon, and I then found myself reading it, and then, eventually, glad that I had, albeit let me tell you that there were more emotions along the way to that gladness. They were all good emotions, in the sense of being well-made, sturdy, and suited to their purpose, but they were not all happy ones.

The mental and emotional state in which I exist right now is one that my partner, Jack, has accurately described as “having more feelings than sleep”. This is either the best or worst place from which to read a story such as “Left Foot, Right“. This story seems to have originally (or at least, previously) been published in an anthology called Monstrous Affections, two years ago, but can be read for free at Strange Horizons.

Let me start by saying that the shortest way to bore me to tears is to tell me a story about something spiritual and transcendent and make it mundane, to focus on what I call the “scienterrific” details that power a haunting, animate the undead, or make magic work.

This story, thank goodness, does not do this.

Good fantasy and good horror should be rooted in the real world, sure, but not in quantum fluctuations or viruses or electromagnetic energy or other things that plainly exist in the real world but just as plainly do not, in the real world, actually work that way.

No, the grounding of a story that touches another world should be found at a more liminal point, a point where the physical, tangible world around us already intersects with the unseen, with things that do work that way. Things like: memories. Feelings. Trauma.

This is a story…

I do not write many reviews. I would like to write more of them. It is difficult to describe what this story is or what it does without committing the sin of simply telling you what happens in it, stripped of context and robbed of emotion. A story is never simply the sum of the events within it, though. A story is not just what happens, it is the story of what happens, and you really have to experience it as intended to get the full effect.

This is a story about loss and regret and guilt and shame and trauma, and letting go, which is to say that it is a ghost story. That’s a bit reductive, of course, but most labels are. All stories are products of a time and place, and of those who tell them, both within the story and without. This is a story that is not concerned with the logic of the dead, but the logic of the survivor, of the living. I’ve often heard it said that funerals are for the living, for those left behind. I have never before considered that ghost stories might be, too.

The realness of the story’s depiction of emotional damage leaps off the page in the opening scene, with phrases like “before her world fell in” and “when she needs to fake normal”. If you’ve been there, you know. If you haven’t, you might be lucky enough to learn from a story from this before you find out some other way.

From that initial scene, the tale unfolds in a structure that will be familiar to many TV viewers: we see scenes from a life that contain haunting hints of something, things that trigger memories within the viewpoint character, which bit by bit, fill in the blanks until finally we have something like the whole story, just in time to make a kind of sense of what we’re seeing at the end.

Not everything is explained; certainly nothing of the supernatural is explained away, nor does it need to be. There are elements for which I no doubt lack the necessary cultural background to understand the significance of, but the story of what is happening still makes perfect sense even to me as an outsider invited to look in. It all fits together. It all comes to bear.

The looping structure of the story is hardly unique to the screen, but it is one of which the screen is that much more forgiving. It is hard to pull this off well in text. You either must be able to move fluidly from present-detail to past-memory, stepping backward and forward through moments in time with a deft, purposeful touch, or you have to use the literary equivalent of jump cuts, interrupting your prose with rows of asterisks or an extra line break. The latter is a serviceable solution to translating this form of nonlinear (or maybe superlinear) storytelling; the former is more satisfying when it works, but less likely to do so.

Nalo Hopkinson takes the former tack, and succeeds so beautifully I’m not sure it was the more difficult approach. I believe this is because she understands that this sort of storytelling is not exactly nonlinear, as I suggested in the previous paragraph. There is a line, a constant thread, running from moment to moment. While we are riding along with her viewpoint character, we follow that thread as she does. We learn of events that happened before, but we do not see them in flashback; we experience them in the present as the character experiences them. We learn of what she has gone through the way we might, if we could know her in real life: bit by bit, and only by hints and inference at first.

If you think about a richly layered musical piece that starts with a single voice, a single instrument, quiet and plaintive but hitting a few piercing notes, which weaves a theme that is then echoed and layered over by other voices, as motifs are woven in and it builds to a crashing crescendo and then the song recedes, and we’re left again with the quiet stillness of the opening movement, albeit transformed by what has happened along the way… if you think about that, if you have ever experienced something like that, then you will have an emotional picture in your head of the way this story unfolds.

This story is published in both text and audio form, with a play button embedded near the top of the page. I read the prose version so that I could follow the looping thread of the story at my own pace, soar and swell and unfold and spiral downward and inward and outward with it. I did not regret it. My mind rebels at listening to a story when it could be reading it. Other readers may find it useful to indulge themselves in the audio version, though, to not just read the story but hear it told, as I think that the aural medium might well serve it best for many audience members.

Catching up on some reading: Chesya Burke

Back in May, I bought the Kindle edition of Chesya Burke’s short story collection Let’s Play White with the intention of reading it on the way home from WisCon. After our plane was delayed until the middle of the night (and possibly the next day), I shelved that because I needed to keep my phone battery charge available for being a phone.

Funnily (at least in retrospect) enough , the author was stuck in the same airport as us. For a while we were even both at the same gate, even though we had different planes. That’s how messed up it was. Anyway, after WisCon it was one thing or another: summer sickness, family weddings, depression, computer crises, more sickness, flooded bedroom… so it was only last night that I made it back to the collection.

I’ve said before on a blog that I think Stephen King is a better storyteller than he is a writer. Some people get the distinction right away. Some people don’t really think there is one. To me, it’s just simple truth: he is a master of storytelling who also happens to be a competent, workmanlike writer. Well, I say “happens to be” but I know he worked for those skills. No amount of storytelling gift would let him make the kind of money he does if he didn’t know how to package it. The storytelling ability is magic; the writing is the ability to bottle it.

I think it is because he is better at storytelling than he is at writing that Stephen King’s best short stories and novellas far outshine his best novels, in my mind. As fat paperback novels go, Stephen King is right up there with a lot of other people whose novels you can find in airports and drug stores. Right up there with them. Koontz, Barker, and people who write other stuff. Right up there with them.

But the shorts? The really good shorts? And the novellas?

Forget about it. That’s where King is King. That’s where he’s in a class of his own.

You might wonder why I have several paragraphs in a row talking about Stephen King in a review of someone else’s book. I want you to understand exactly how I feel about Stephen King, so that when I say that Chesya Burke’s book of shorts is like having a collection of the best Stephen King stories you’ve never read, you understand what I’m saying.

She doesn’t read like Stephen King. She has her own voice—her own voices, even—but in terms of storytelling? In terms of blending the fantastic, the grotesque, the mundane, and the banal? In terms of finding the voice of a time and a place… well, actually, there’s no point or need in comparing her to anyone else there, because I can’t think of anyone who’s managed it as well as she does.

The other place where she exceeds Stephen King as a writer of horrific short fiction is her ability to write emotively, with words that hit you like ice water dumped down your back or a sledgehammer to your heart. Where his prose is workmanlike, hers is alive with the weight of grief, of guilt, of doubt, of hopelessness… and the blazing intensity of joy, of hope, and triumph. It’s hard to tease out art from artifice when looking from the other side of the looking glass, but I suspect that as a true literary empath she feels what she writes and she writes what she feels, and she makes you feel it, too.

It’s hard to single out a favorite from the book. The story that gives the collection its title is the one that first put me in mind of Stephen King, and where I first really noticed her talent for plumbing the deep well of feeling. “Purse” is an honest suckerpunch to the gut. “Chocolate Park” is a richly braided mosaic story that makes me hungry for a longer work. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is a true American gothic, an amorality play rooted in historical drama. “He Who Takes Away The Pain” is a haunting and powerful allegory without being preachy.

“CUE: Change” is an interesting one: is it zombies being portrayed as a social revolution, or a social revolution portrayed as zombies? It’s possibly my favorite in the bunch, though I’m not good at picking favorites because I tend to like different things for different reasons, and this collection gives a lot of very different things.

I linked to the Kindle version above. You can find all the format/buying options at the publisher’s website: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/products/lets-play-white-by-chesya-burke. Note that while I endorse this collection on its merits, it is primarily a collection of horror stories. The content is very raw and includes the frank portrayal of racism, violence (particularly against women, and including sexual violence), exploitation, and horrific imagery. It will not be too everybody’s needs or tastes. Caveat emptor.