Filler content with singing

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-

There are nineteen stories in SINGING WITH ALL MY SKIN AND BONE (Undertow Publications pb, 240pp, $17.99), the first collection by American writer Sunny Moraine, two of which are previously unpublished. Written in the first person and with an almost stream of consciousness technique, opening story ‘Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale’ sets the tone for much of what follows. Set in a post-apocalypse world, it starts with a celebration of beauty and all the things lost, a kind of requiem, and slowly but with an inexorable energy moves into darker territory, showing how the people live now, scraping a meagre existence from the land, trusting no-one, indulging in cannibalism, even of a loved one. It was one of the most powerful stories I have read recently, heartfelt and cutting deep, a paean of disgust at human folly, a funeral dirge for the lost and the lonely.

Title story ‘Singing With All My Skin and Bone’ is an account of witchcraft, the nature of power and how to get it, the sacrifices required and self-immolation. Again it’s a powerful piece of prose poetry, surging with a frantic energy and manic imagery that sticks in the mind’s secret places. ‘A Perdition of Salt’ is a highly unusual ghost story, the ghost in question being an accumulation of moisture with intelligence and the will to be reunited with a past lover. Beautifully written and evocative, it catalogues the need to let go, to accept death as a phase shift into some other state of being. Susan in ‘Cold As the Moon’ is stranded in a frozen landscape, left alone to look after baby sister Carol, after her mother dies and her father turns into a bear, having first taken action to maroon them where they are. Seen through a child’s eyes it’s an almost mystical tale of transformation, with the bleakness of the setting perfectly captured on the page, and an unreliable narrator so that we can never quite be sure how genuine that bear transformation is.

‘I Tell Thee All, I Can No More’ explores a new kind of sexuality, that of people who fuck drones, and expands to consider the relationship options attendant on such practices. It’s a fascinating account, on the surface very matter of fact, but underneath that a strong subtext about how people are being alienated from each other, distanced by the technology that is supposed to connect us. A migrant worker carries the myths and folklore of his home to the new land in ‘Across the Seam’, the story cleverly blurring the line between fact and fiction and introducing an almost hallucinatory quality. ‘Dispatches From a Hole in the World’ is set in the aftermath of a global suicide plague, one that has wiped out millions, if not billions of lives, each victim recording the details of their own demise, and the story is told from the viewpoint of a researcher scanning the archives in the hope of finding an explanation for what took place. It’s a fascinating idea and Moraine develops it well, with a rich wealth of material and the hint of a subtext regarding the human need to care for each other and what happens when that need is not met.

Two young men, one with a crush on the other, feed living animals to a strange house in the aptly titled ‘Event Horizon’, but when one of them announces that he is going away and the other gets trapped by bullies things change with regards to the mysterious building. In one way this is a haunted house story, with a desres that is every bit as sinister as others within this subgenre, but the human dimension drives the story, with the conflicting passions of the people involved colliding in a way that leaves them all in a hopeless situation. It is a strange and compelling story, beautifully written and involving. There’s a phantasmagorical feel to ‘The Horse Latitudes’, with a couple of men on the run from the local mob saved by a tsunami, imagery of horses overlapping everything else and injecting a hint of magic into the narrative, that what is happening is in some way preordained. We’re back among the drones for ‘All the Literati Keep An Imaginary Friend’, with psychiatrists employed to figure out why the mechanical killers seem reluctant to carry out their purpose, but of course things take a slightly different turn, with the mental health professionals becoming obsessed with their patients. Again what we have bubbling away in the background to the story are thoughts on how we interact with technology, the ways in which it performs purposes we possibly do not intend, both beguiling and alienating us from each other.

Similar themes are examined in ‘Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained’ with a man’s relationship with his mechanical limb put to the test when the opportunity arises to replace it with one of flesh and blood. At the heart of the story is a question about what it means to be human, the validity of the cyborg persona. A man on a beach is given a skull that he is told belongs to him in ‘Memento Mori’, the ramifications playing out as he carries the skull round the boardwalk with him. Again the skull acts as a distancing device, a way to put the issue of the man’s mortality at the very heart of the story and consider how he can live on. ‘The Cold Death of Papa November’ is the story of a grieving man who seeks his dead wife in Eastern Europe, where the suggestion is made that she worked as a spy. There is the sense of a relationship between the cancer that killed her and the radiation sickness of Chernobyl (though that name is never mentioned). It is a clever story with a strong sense of how we can be haunted by grief and the effects that has, and underlying this the truth that we can never really know another, but ultimately it’s all perhaps a little too diffuse for my taste, with the feeling that much of the text is simply going through the motions, and attempting to make a story out of what might have worked better as a metaphor or symbol. Simply put, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough substance.

‘So Sharp That Blood Must Flow’ offers a bloody variation on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the little mermaid, with this time around the piscine marauder seeking revenge on the prince who betrayed her. Vibrant and alive with invention, it is a wonderful tale that deals with its central themes of love unrequited and the search for justice with verve and originality. I love the title ‘Tell Me How All This (And Love Too) Will Ruin Us’ but the body of the story, with a woman trying to complete a ritual come rite of renewal is a bit more of an acquired taste. I liked it, but at the same time don’t regard it as one of the best in this collection, in part because it all feels a bit too oblique for my taste. The protagonist of ‘Love in the Time of Vivisection’ is being physically dismantled by her persecutor, but there is evidence that she is a willing participant, seeking answers to questions that only he can provide and entering into an unholy bargain. Written in an episodic style it’s a powerful piece, grim and compelling in its matter of fact account of butchery.

‘A Shadow on the Sky’ tells of a quest to find the queen of death machines in a desert in a post-apocalyptic world the story deftly turning on its heels to celebrate the inauguration of a new god. It’s a clever piece, atmospheric and with a strong sense of place, the bleak landscape made vibrant with repressed energy on the page. Suicide is revisited in ‘It Is Healing, It Is Never Whole’ which takes us to an afterlife where souls are processed by officials and placed on a train, and one of the processors finds a soul that has an unusual effect on him. This vision of the afterlife is grandiose and original, reducing the whole thing to the level of a packing plant and then adding an outré element that enables us to proceed a bit further and discover what might lie behind the next veil. Finally we have ‘The Throat is Deep and the Mouth is Wide’ in which a woman who works a telephone line talking to lonely callers has one such that leads to an existential query, the story unnerving and unsettling as it unfolds with hints of much more going on behind the scenes than we are shown in the forefront.

Straddling the speculative genres with consummate artistry and a seemingly effortless panache, Singing With All My Skin and Bone is one of the best collections I’ve read in recent years. The stories are haunting and lyrical, written with compassion and the fire of righteous anger, the work of a writer with a unique voice and important things to tell us.

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