A feature on the work of Damien Angelica Walters that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE: DAMIEN ANGELICA WALTERS
Widely published, American writer Damien Angelica Walters will be familiar to readers of Black Static from the stories that appeared in #46 and #52, and for those who wish to get better acquainted with the full range of her talents in the short form, assuming you haven’t already done so, then there’s an ideal opportunity to be taken in the form of 2015 collection SING ME YOUR SCARS (Apex Book Company pb, 200pp, $15.95). It contains twenty stories presented in three sections.
With the title ‘HERE’, the first part of the collection opens with Stoker nominated title story ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ which in some ways reminded me strongly of Clive Barker’s classic ‘The Body Politic’ though Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a very obvious influence. A mad doctor works to assemble the perfect woman by stitching together assorted body parts, but the women whose flesh he uses retain a localised kind of consciousness and form a gestalt entity to oppose their tormentor. It’s a fascinating idea and vividly realised, with Walters bringing each separate body part to compelling life and showing how they unite in a common cause, while fully exploring the possibilities of this scenario, raising questions about the nature of our humanity and those who are willing to abuse others for their own ends. The misogyny underlying it all is self-evident, with the scientist wishing to shape a woman to his desires and blaming his victims when things don’t go according to plan, seeing women as nothing more than subjects for his experiments and indifferent to any wishes, hopes, and dreams they themselves might have.
Meg, the protagonist of ‘All the Pieces We Leave Behind’, is an idealist who believes the best of people and tries to help them when she can, but here she is infected with a kind of societal fear and finds herself acting in ways that are entirely opposed to her caring nature. Underlying the main narrative is a powerful subtext about the nature of identity, of who we essentially are and how mutable that is, with a kind of despair and indifference arising in society and spreading to others. In ‘Girl, With Coin’ the young woman Olivia doesn’t experience pain and makes her living as a performance artist, cutting herself in trendy art galleries and creating tableau vivant, but at the bottom of it all is Olivia’s failed relationship with her estranged mother, the one person who she wishes to affect. While physical pain is beyond her, Olivia is prone to emotional aches, and in this her mother is the complete opposite, apparently indifferent, unaffected by anything her daughter does. The story takes a long, hard look at the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others, and how society itself contributes to the atrocity exhibition, challenging the idea that female masochism/self-sacrifice can be a form of virtue’.
Previously published in our sister magazine Interzone, ‘Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion)’ is set in a Lithuania where magic is forbidden and soldiers steal away practitioners, and while terror reigns outside in a small apartment a man grieves for his missing wife and performs illusions to charm his dying daughter. It is a beautifully written piece, one that brings home the nature of terror, of political oppression, and at the same time shows us that there is hope of a kind to be found in even the most dreadful situations, with the keenness of the emotions penetrating deep into the reader’s psyche. ‘Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods’ gives us the scenario of human beings as the playthings of alien entities, who replace their parts with clockwork and strip them of their basic humanity, but at the end there is hope again, with Naomi finding her identity and revolting against the oppressor. At least that’s what this story feels to be about, with a touch of Cthulhu and his ilk in characters Big and Little Big, but fascinating as the concept and execution were, it didn’t entirely work for me, felt a little too oblique for my liking, with too much that the reader is left to infer regarding what is actually taking place.
This section ends with a story that could have been amusing in less skilled hands, but here uses the comedic situation to more serious ends. ‘Sugar, Sin, and Nonsuch Henry’ tells of an exotic dancer called Sugarsin who is obsessed with the Tudors and at a yard sale acquires a robot built to look like Henry VIII, but it turns out that he has feelings and is attracted to her. It’s a delightful story, with some deliciously witty dialogue and a Ray Bradbury vibe going on, but along the way it deals with real concerns regarding the nature of physical and emotional attachment, asks questions about the things which are missing from our lives and how much we are prepared to do to get them.
We move on to ‘PART II: AND THE NOW’, which opens with ‘Running Empty in a Land of Decay’. The story’s unnamed protagonist is running as displacement activity, a way to avoid thinking of the zombie plague that has wiped out the rest of humanity and how she had to shoot her partner when he became infected, but you can only avoid the obvious for so long, and through the activity of running she finds the way to a kind of inner peace, in this short, elegiac narrative, a swansong of sorts for the human race, with running as a metaphor for the way we dodge those essential, life threatening questions. In ‘Scarred’ Violet remembers her past, when she caused the deaths of other people by carving their names into her flesh, and is haunted by guilt but also tempted to use this ability again when a man abuses his wife and child. The story operates on several levels, giving us the option to believe that Violet is mistaken about what happens, that she is suffering from a mental condition, but at the same time it can be taken at face value, with the question of what right she has to play judge, jury and executioner at the centre of the story, and then there is the end twist when her attempt to kill herself goes horribly wrong, with consequences that are as unexpected as they are completely logical with hindsight. The story’s central conceit enables Walters to examine matters of personal morality and responsibility.
‘The Taste of Tears in a Raindrop’ is the story of Alec, a divorced man who wants to spend more time with his daughter but is denied by his ex-wife, and the woman who comes and cries in his garden each night, the story touching on mythic themes and the ways in which we refuse to take responsibility for our mistakes, how we can only move on once we own them for what they are. We get a different perspective on the story of the Gorgon Medusa in ‘Always, They Whisper’, with Medi portrayed as a rape victim who was then held responsible for what was done to her and cursed. The story offers a detailed study of victim blaming, and ends with the triumphalism of a woman who has been pushed so far that she decides to take control of her own story instead of continuing to accept the judgements of others, with the serpent imagery used throughout and the suggestion that they give voice to Medi’s guilt adding to its psychological acuity.
Set in a world where singing can be used to build things, ‘Dysphonia in D Minor’ tells of the love between two women and how it came to be tainted and soured, the central conceit here quite dazzling, but the miraculous undermined by jealousy and despair. Walters poses questions of what is right and what is wrong, but she offers no easy answers, only the lingering scent of fake regrets. A woman is haunted by photographs of the man she loved and couldn’t let go when he was struck down by a fatal illness in ‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’ It’s a ghost story of sorts, albeit one with a highly unusual method of delivery, but beyond that it touches on the inability to let go, to allow things that have gone on for too long to die a natural death. It’s a ghost story in which the living compel the dead. ‘Immolation: A Love Story’ does exactly what it says in the title, chronicling the unhealthy obsession a shoe shop employee with pyromaniac tendencies has for one of his female customers. There’s a thread of suppressed eroticism to the story, a passion that is too strong to be denied, and underlying that a fetishistic intensity that leads to the final reversal of fortunes at the story’s end.
In ‘PART III: AND AWAY’ we have the terrible sadness of ‘Melancholia in Bloom’ with its depiction of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and her belief in a kind of magic that her daughter rejects. Memory is at the centre of this story, the ways in which we preserve the past, and how in losing that past we also lose something essential to who we are. The protagonist of ‘Iron and Wood, Nail and Bone’ is nailed to a cross in some sort of ritual of empowerment, coming to an awareness of her own strength through suffering. Reminiscent in some ways of Orson Scott Card’s early work, it’s a powerful word picture of a soul in torment, somebody who needs to be punished before they can accept who they really are. An archetypal female figure wanders through the pages of ‘And All the World Says Hush’, a palimpsest on which the desires of others are painted, and in this way she becomes somehow symbolic of all females, or rather of all who are given validity by the imaginings of other people.
In a land where magic is forbidden except to those who swear to serve its king and whose abilities are warped to evil ends, a young woman learns the truth that ‘They Make of You a Monster’. Again there are echoes here of Card’s early fiction, both in the fantastical setting and in the way that a good cause can only be forwarded through an act that many would regard as evil. Walters bestows a certain grace and nobility on her protagonist, but only through sullying such things can she achieve a better future for everyone. ‘Paper Thin Roses of Maybe’ has a one-dimensional reality encroaching on our own world, causing a falling out between Joshua and Maddie, who cannot wait for the flatness to reach and engulf them, instead runs to meet her fate. The central conceit here is a striking one, and with the transformation of the characters into paper you could draw comparisons with the literary situation, while underlying it all is a message about lack of faith and what that can lead to.
One of the most powerful stories, ‘Grey in the Gauge of His Storm’ presents us with the portrait of an abusive relationship, with love used as justification for both enduring and inflicting pain on others, but Walters makes it especially memorable by having her characters made out of material that unravels. A harrowing account of male violence, it’s made all the more painful through the way in which the female character consents in what is happening to her, is willing to take the blame despite her obvious innocence, hides the marks of violence from others. It’s a fantastical scenario, but at the same time one that feels all too real, a story that, like the very best of speculative fiction, uses the bizarre elements to illuminate genuine problems, and it’s a trait that is common to many of these fictions.
Finally we have ‘Like Origami in Water’, the tale of Johnny whose body is gradually disappearing and his companion who makes origami animals as he vanishes, using them to externalise the hurt they are both feeling. Again, the conceit is striking, and made even more so by the way in which it is used to tell us something of human nature, with Walters injecting a strong dose of poignancy into her story.
I loved this collection, with something striking and original to be found in every story, and insights into the human condition that dazzle with their unerring accuracy at hitting the targets the author has set for herself.
Similar qualities are to be found in PAPER TIGERS (Dark House Press pb, 284pp, $14.97), Walters second outing at novel length. It opens with the words “Please don’t look at the Monstergirl”, our introduction to one of the central themes of the book and its viewpoint character Alison. The survivor of a fire that took two fingers and one eye, left one side of her body hideously scarred and devoid of sensation, Monstergirl is how Alison characterises herself, an opinion that is predicated on how she feels other people react to her appearance. Physical beauty is only part of what she lost to the fire – she also lost her unborn child, the man who claimed to love her, and has subsequently abandoned any hope of a career in teaching. Now she lives alone, interacting only with her mother and physiotherapist, leaving the house only when she feels it is unlikely she will meet anyone on the street.
About the only thing that still engages Alison’s interest is her collection of old photograph albums, but her latest find, located in an antique shop that was open at an ungodly hour, is rather unusual. It has an inscription, only one line of which Alison can read – “A paper tiger to swallow you whole”. The pages are stuck together and Alison can’t separate them, no matter how hard she tries. The only photograph available to her is the first in the album, that of a rather impressive looking man she decides to name George. As she falls under the spell of the album, imagining a life for George, more pages are revealed, and Alison has the sensation that she is able to push her hand through the surface of the album, through into the world that it portrays in sepia tones. Research reveals that the house depicted in the pages of the album is Pennington House, built in the 1800s and burnt to the ground in an unexplained fire in 1992, and yes, the man of the house was called George. Now Alison finds herself drawn fully into Pennington House, like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. She is able to exist alongside George and his extended family, be part of their soirees, and in this world she is not scarred, not disfigured. Some of the “healing” carries back over into the real world, making the temptation to return to Pennington House all the stronger, even though Alison senses that George is not entirely what he seems and the house represents terrible danger for her. That danger is much greater than she suspects and ultimately will require a horrific sacrifice from this young woman who has already lost so much.
Okay, at heart this is a haunted house story, one of the oldest of genre tropes, and as far as that goes Walters hits it out of the ball park. The way in which Alison digs into the past of the building, the steps by which she discovers the grim history of Pennington House, none of which require any great of stretch on the part of the reader to confer credibility, are a master class in how to set up such scenarios. Similarly the things which Alison witnesses within the walls of Pennington House, the morbid and minatory atmosphere of the place, the slightly off kilter tone of the social gatherings, the fear of the children who hide in its secret places, all combine magnificently to create a compelling and believable atmosphere, a setting every bit as credible as Hill House or The Overlook Hotel. Ultimately it is the understated nature of what Alison experiences that works so well. There are no jump moments as such, no torrents of blood or white sheeted figures clanking chains. Instead all we have are odd smells, voices heard at a distance, things seen out of the corner of the eye or not all, a gradually mounting series of suggestions, none of them conclusive in themselves, but which powerfully and effectively combine to convey that there is something horribly wrong with this building.
One of the most striking aspects of this setup is the family gathered round George, the way in which at first they present an idyllic façade to the world, a setting in which Alison might feel at home, that she belongs, safe from the judgements of her own reality. But then as we, along with Alison, peer closer the cracks become apparent, the ways in which each of them is one of the weak and the wounded. George himself is a kind of psychic vampire, feeding on the pain and suffering of others, and in the figure of Alison he sees a veritable buffet to be consumed. Walters has another neat trick up her sleeve with the way in which she uses the photograph album as gateway drug to this other world. Alison doesn’t walk into the light; she falls forward into the Kodachrome. And, in parenthesis, the implication seems to be that photographs are in some manner interlinked with ghosts given the way in which they capture moments of the past, are snapshots of frozen time, often of things and people that have passed on. Anyone looking at an ancient photo album can say with conviction, “I see dead people”.
While it works splendidly as a haunted house story, what makes Paper Tigers even more special is Walters’ depiction of Alison and her Monstergirl persona. Although the back cover text gives a lot away, within the context of the narrative we only gradually discover how much she has lost to the fire. The physical disfigurement is out there from the start, and slowly we learn of her unborn child and the way in which her lover abandoned her after the blaze and its consequences. It seems churlish to say so, but although she deserves our sympathy in some ways Alison is not always a sympathetic character, which is entirely understandable given what has happened to her. Alison imagines herself as a victim, as somebody who will be laughed at and shunned by other people, and her actions are often dictated by that expectation, even though it is justified far less than she believes. The more acceptable template would be to make her a heroic figure, bravely soldiering on and fighting against the odds, not a Monstergirl but a poster girl for survivors of tragedy. Walters has the wisdom to avoid that easy option, and instead give us a real person, a woman who is all too human, warts and all, who can both cope with her problems and at times plunge into the pit of despair. Alison’s inner demons are given voice as what she calls the Muses of Disfigurement, with the emotions that dominate her life summed up as Yellow, Red, and Purple. And yet for all her suffering and surrender, Alison ultimately proves capable not just of redemption but of heroism, of sacrificing herself to save others, confronting the thing that she fears the most.
The ending to the book is so unexpected and harrowing that it nearly breaks your heart. But while it might not be the ending we were all hoping for, the bleak and uncomforting resolution that Walters gives us is the right ending, and kudos to her for having the courage to write that ending instead of something more palatable for the reader. This is a superb haunted house story, and at the same time it is so much more than that, has so much more to offer in showing us how people cope with their problems, the ways in which they rise above the obstacles that confront them. I loved Paper Tigers, and I am eager to see what this promising young writer can come up with next.