Filler content with skull kings

A review of Emily B. Cataneo’s debut collection that originally appeared in Interzone #271:-


Like Gwendolyn Kiste, who I interview in the current issue of our sister magazine Black Static, Emily B. Cataneo is an American writer whose star has been on the rise for the last four years, give or take the odd month. Though not as productive, at least as regards fiction, just like Kiste, Cataneo has appeared in both Black Static and Interzone, and just like Kiste she has a first collection out now from publisher JournalStone, albeit released under the umbrella of imprint Trepidatio Press. The evocatively titled SPEAKING TO SKULL KINGS AND OTHER STORIES (Trepidatio Press pb, 204pp, $18.95) contains twelve stories, two of them previously unpublished.

In title story ‘Speaking to Skull Kings’, the children Genevieve and Joseph live alone in a forest clearing, abandoned by Bird, who was supposed to protect them from the encroachments of the skull kings. Genevieve wants to go in search of Bird, but Joseph feels to stay in the clearing is the safer course, but as the story unfolds and we learn more about the nature of the skull kings another direction is found. Taking as its launch pad the fairy tale conceit of children abandoned in a forest, Cataneo’s tale then takes off at a tangent, cleverly leading us to a place where the children’s condition becomes emblematic of childhood itself. Ultimately the story is a rite of passage, one in which any journey, whether undertaken or not, is a metaphor for the ascent into adulthood and abandonment of the virtues of the childhood state, the betrayal of one’s earlier ideals and hopes. The next story is written as ‘A Guide to Etiquette and Comportment for the Sisters of Henley House’, but the rituals the sisters perform are simply a kind of magic to keep at bay the reality of their situation, and eventually it all breaks down with the truth laid bare for all to see. In many ways this story reminded me of Nicole Kidman film The Others with the real world slowly seeping in, intruding its presence into a closed community. The irony for the sisters is that ultimately freedom from illusion doesn’t bring happiness, only a sense of despair at how much they have truly lost. We wince at their “etiquette”, the rules and regulations that circumscribe their lives together, but at the end they are revealed as a coping mechanism, the thing that made them able to endure, and we are left wondering if the truth is always better than the illusion.

Bitterness and feelings of regret inform the story of ‘The Rondelium Girl of Rue Marseilles’, who was transformed into a monster by those who claimed to love her, but put their experiments ahead of her welfare, and who now need her help to save themselves. Cataneo is superb at portraying the emotions of her characters, the anger and despair that they feel, the sense of love betrayed. Almost Gothic in its imagery and reminiscent of the Angela Carter of Nights at the Circus through its milieu and flying girls, this is a story that draws the reader in and then sucker punches him with its cold reality, the idea that pursuit of the marvellous can be the cause of so much hurt when it is done with no thought to the human consequences, a poisoned chalice. There’s something of obsession in ‘Not the Grand Duke’s Dancer’, as a ballerina finds that even death won’t free her from the attentions of her biggest fan. From its opening image of teaching earthworms to dance through to the final scenes of doing arabesques in Hell, this is a story filled with sly humour, that delights with its twists and turns of fortune, but also one that has an element of misogyny at its heart, as the Grand Duke seems incapable of considering the wishes of his protégé even as he claims to love her so greatly.

Although she is deeply attached to them, ‘The Ghosts of Blackwell, Maine’ drive Jo from the family house. The story is memorable for the playful spirits and the almost amiable nature of their haunting, one that put me in mind of Beetlejuice though ultimately Cataneo is her own woman and her ghosts are proud to follow in her footsteps. The real narrative thrust though has to do with Jo and why she wishes to stay put, rattling round an old house like a ghost herself, so that finally Cataneo is using the afterlife as a sounding board and means to affirm the value of earthly existence. ‘The Heart Machine’ has some of the trappings of steampunk and a strong dystopian element with its depiction of a privileged society and those who are excluded. Ignore the stage scenery though and what we have is a compelling story of somebody who feels they have been abandoned and betrayed by those she cared about, a person who will do anything to recapture the loyalties and camaraderie of the past, the freedom from loneliness she once knew, even if it means pulling her friends down with her.

In ‘Purple Lemons’ there’s a black market trade in keys and portal coordinates that enable people to briefly visit other worlds, but from the viewpoint of the authorities this trade is illegal and those who “use” are addicts. It’s an ingenious conceit, with the story told from the perspective of an unscrupulous journalist who hopes to use an innocent student to recapture the glories of her past. Hanging over the proceedings is a genuine sense of the numinous and its ephemeral appeal, but in foreground by way of contrast we have more grubby concerns, so that even the marvellous becomes soiled and shop-worn through our attempts to capture and control it. ‘The Firebird’ is the tale of sisters Elena and Nina, who are nobles with body enhancements struggling to survive in a steampunk version of post-Revolutionary Russia. Contrasting desires come into conflict: on the one hand the desire to debase and destroy anything that is different, that presumes to regard itself as special or in any way superior, and on the other the lust for revenge, driven to the point where even survival becomes a side issue. Cataneo depicts both sides with equal conviction, in a story where, although there is an obvious villain, in general it’s hard to say who is right and who is wrong, as both go to extremes. And she captures perfectly the feel of the snowclad Russian landscape in which decadence and poverty struggle for the upper hand, and where the face of tyranny is showing on both sides of the coin.

In ‘The Emerald Coat and Other Wishes’ Alex is gatekeeper of the Emerald Coat Museum, a garment that is “said to bring the wearer beyond the veil to another realm from which he or she can never return”. She exists in a love/hate relationship with the coat, watching it kill those she cares about, but incapable of taking any action other than to wait and see how things turn out. Alex’s fascination with the possibility of death and the guilt she feels at being left behind seem to paralyse her in life, Cataneo capturing perfectly her awareness that the coat is something marvellous, mingled inextricably with the sense of dread it arouses in her heart with its embodiment of death’s inevitability. The subtext of the story seems to be that the dead hand of the past can endlessly taint the future, poison our lives with its influence. Eliska is coerced to use magic in ‘The City Dreams of Bird-Men’, summoning the fabulous Bird-Men back from their exile to save the city from the Dark, but as always with magic there is a price to be paid. With its sorcery and muted quest element, this is the story in the collection that comes closest to traditional fantasy, but Cataneo has plenty of embellishments of her own to throw into the mix. With a convoluted plot and some nice stings in its various tails, this is perhaps the story that is most plot driven, the author delighting in her invention and visions she conjures up for our eyes to behold.

Sally draws other people to her house and feeds them to the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ in the basement in a story that first appeared in Black Static #45. The real crux of the story though lies in the way in which she is turned into this avenging spirit, with misogyny and betrayal breaking her once meek and gentle nature, destroying her desire to question the role she’s been assigned by fate. We are horrified by what the ghosts do, but even more by the casual cruelty of people, with the matter of fact tone of Sally’s narration adding authority and credibility to her story. Finally there is ‘Victoria’s One-Way Ticket’ set in a world where machines have consciousness, but retire to the equivalent of an elephant graveyard when their parts start to wear down and become irreplaceable. Though the protagonist is not human, the feelings of loss and regret and resolution that inform the story certainly are and will catch us up into caring about what is in all the essentials a form of euthanasia. It’s an apt end to an impressive collection, the work of a writer with a strong and unique vision, a voice that needs to be heard.

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