“The Shadow Keeper” by Kim Lakin-Smith

Black Static readers first encountered the work of Kim Lakin-Smith in #12, and with this story in #13 she became the first writer to appear in consecutive issues, a record held until Ray Cluley came along in #19, #20 and #21 (and there still appears to be a slot vacant in #22 if Ray gets his skates on).

The story opens with the narrator reminiscing about the fair that comes to Burton-on-Trent every October, with special mention of ‘The Great Hall of Mirrors – where we are all transformed into midgets, beasts and giants’. The time is pinned down to the first decade of the new century, but then we skip back to October 1871 and the events of the story proper.

Master William Ward is sent to the fair by his family to engage the services of a young woman to help their aging domestic with her workload, but the person he engages, a Miss Kitty Brooke, though she appears to be an adult from a distance is in fact a twelve year old giantess, and mocked by the intolerant crowd for her outsize body.

Regardless, William takes her home and she is gainfully employed, the family seeing her as a tragic figure once their initial shock subsides. William seeks to further ameliorate the girl’s condition in life by letting Kitty attend the school where he teaches and does his best to prevent the other children bullying her.

William’s doctor father identifies Kitty’s gigantism as an effect of acromegaly and predicts her early death, though his diagnosis is linked to Biblical concerns regarding giants. But there is something very strange about the girl besides her appearance – Kitty refers to ‘her shadow’, claiming that she keeps most of it within, and William thinks that she is just talking gibberish until during a playground incident he thinks he sees a black vapour emerging from the girl’s mouth.

Though William does his best to safeguard her, the bullying continues and when things go too far Kitty accidentally falls and is killed by a blow on the head. In the wake of her death the boy responsible is driven mad with grief and haunted by something he can only describe as a shadow that shows him scenes from Kitty’s life. It’s up to William to find a way to bring peace to both children, the one living and the one dead.

Lakin-Smith manages to capture the period feel of the piece, with some choice dialogue and vivid descriptions of the various settings, but this is a side issue to the universal themes with which the story deals. Reading this, one inevitably thinks of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who would have been a contemporary of Kitty and suffered from a similar condition that made him an outcast. The bullying that Kitty endures, punishment simply for being different, is keenly felt and brought alive on the page, moving the reader and making us identify with the child’s plight, something that still continues to plague our playgrounds today, even if the victims aren’t always as obvious.

With her unknown origin and shadow within, and the hints given by William’s father, one can’t help but wonder if Kitty is kin to the fallen angels and Biblical giants, and as far as this goes there’s a subtext about how the mysterious no longer inspires awe, but has become a thing to be treated with contempt and ridicule. And perhaps this is only our way of dealing with the fear unknown things and people who are different engender.

There’s a strong sense of sadness woven throughout the narrative, but seen most obviously in the two ‘present day’ sections that bracket the story. William mourns not only for a more innocent age, but feels a deep regret at his own inability to save the girl, that he may have let her down or even caused her demise by insisting she be schooled.

Whatever her physical appearance, Kitty was an innocent, nothing mean or spiteful about her, simply a wish to be accepted for who she is, to grow up and have a husband and family and all the things other girls of her age take for granted. There’s no vengeful revenant, no grand curse to be played out here. At the end redemption for her enemy comes through the simple expedient of saying sorry: that’s all that it takes, as long as the words are sincere.

And finally there is the nature of the shadow itself, perhaps real or maybe only something as prosaic as the outward manifestation of the bully’s guilt. But William offers another explanation in the story’s closing sentence – ‘even the living have their ghosts and that these are the dark keepers of the inner self; the mirror house reflections of the soul’, bringing us back to the opening with its Great Hall of Mirrors.

The shadow as ghost, a reflection of the soul – it’s an aesthetically pleasing conceit, one that effectively brings the curtain down on a fine story, a tale that moves the reader while also giving him something to think about.

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