Filler content with fabulous beasts

A feature on the work of Priya Sharma that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-

BLOOD ON THE PAGE: PRIYA SHARMA

Priya Sharma’s first story was published in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2012 that readers of TTA Press publications were treated to ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ in Black Static #28, a story Ellen Datlow subsequently picked up for The Best Horror of the Year 5. Since then Sharma has become a frequent contributor to TTA Press publications (it’s like being a “frequent flyer” but more prestigious), with four stories in Interzone and five in Black Static. Sharma’s first collection ALL THE FABULOUS BEASTS (Undertow Publications hc/pb, 288pp, £19.99?£11.99) contains sixteen short stories, including four that first appeared in Black Static and two that are previously unpublished.

Sharma’s world is a strange one, a milieu that will feel familiar to readers of genre fiction, veering from pure horror to alternate history, taking in such themes and motifs as the vastness of the sea, transformation, animal-human hybrids, troubled family relationships, and men called Thomas/Tom. But this is not formulaic writing; like all masters of the short form the author brings to each piece a touch of originality and uniqueness that is all her own, making it special, a concoction that could only have come from the imagination of Priya Sharma.

The tone is set with the opening story, the wonderfully subtle ‘The Crow Palace’ in which the death of her father brings estranged Julie back to the family home and her twin sister Pippa, who suffers from cerebral palsy, but it’s only the first step in discovering the true circumstances of her birth and heritage. It’s a story in which little is openly stated, but the text is ripe with hints that gradually reveal Julie’s ancestry and her “true” family. Sharma doesn’t put a foot wrong in bringing this scenario to life, making us believe absolutely in her heroine, managing the enviable trick of making Julie seem both standoffish and sympathetic at the same time as the revelations hit with the brutal force of conviction. On one hand it reads like an update of the changeling trope and on the other could just as easily pass muster as Rosemary’s Baby given a shocking and non-Satanic twist.

Next story ‘Rag and Bone’ is set in an alternate Liverpool, a place where the families of the plutocracy rule the roost and the poor live and die at their whim. Tom, the story’s protagonist, tries to protect a woman he loves, but has his own secrets to conceal. This is a beautifully told story, the backdrop realised in vivid detail and with a wealth of invention, one that has the story almost falling into the steampunk genre, though in the nature of this dystopia and the ways in which even the bodies of the poor are nothing more than a resource for the privileged few you can find echoes of the present day divide between the 1% and the rest of us. Characterisation is deftly done and the plot is a finely tuned vehicle which maintains both the ability to surprise and a sense of fatality about what takes place until the very last word. ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’ is one of the stories that comes closest to generic horror, with a man who is hopelessly obsessed with hands, a compulsion that leads him well off the beaten path as he seeks to create his perfect woman, in a creepy little tale that is reminiscent of the work of Roald Dahl and Poe’s ‘Berenice’.

‘Egg’ is another strange story, with a wealthy woman making a deal with a witch so that she can have a baby, only to find the resultant child is not quite what she had in mind (euphemism). There are some grotesque details in this aberrant fairy story, with sparkling dialogue between mother and hag, who has about her more than a little touch of Baba Yaga. Underlying all this there’s the sense that for a woman to want to have a child on her own terms is to invite punishment, though Sharma ends on an upbeat note, one that celebrates maternal love and the spirit of the protagonist. For the never named protagonist motherhood turns out to be a rite of passage, one that ultimately leads her to become a better human being. Difficult mother/daughter relationships also feature in the next story. Pip has a child to bond Jack to her, but he dies leaving her alone with Emma, and the dark flowing emotions that churn in their lives lead to the evocation of something monstrous, ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’, as a rural idyll is transformed into a scene of horror. At bottom this is a tale of a revenant, something that has come back from the grave, but at the end it is also significant for what it tells us of a mother’s love for her child, with the underlying theme of the need to let go of the past, not allow it to become a dead weight dragging you down.

‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ is set in Ireland at a time when the wave of prosperity embodied in the phrase “Celtic Tiger” has receded into the far distance. It conflates an affair gone wrong, the death of children, an abandoned housing project, a local legend, and a woman who may be going insane to telling effect. Underlying all of this is a feeling of fate, that what is happening is only the working out of an inevitable tragedy, and while individual decisions may have been responsible for what happens, in the end nothing could have transpired differently, with the metaphysical backdrop and moral compass of the story reflecting the economic downturn, as bust follows boom in both society and the protagonist’s personal life. Another story that sails close to the shore of the great continent of horror, ‘The Show’ is a Most Haunted wannabe, with the focus on fake medium Martha. Superficially this is a common or garden schlocker, but what makes it work is the back story of Martha, the one who cannot “see” in a family of mediums, and how things are finally turned round for her in an ending that plays out like a Certificate 18 version of Ghostwatch made by Eli Roth on a bad day or one of the more “challenging” episodes of TV show Medium.

‘Pearls’ puts a feminist spin on the story of Medusa and brings it forward into the present day. It’s an almost light hearted piece, despite the underlying sadness and bloody deeds lurking in the backstory, with the love affair of Medusa and Poseidon spanning the centuries, and showing the hero Perseus in a different light, along the way giving us food for thought on the nature of deity and faith, and the ways in which ordinary people are marginalised when the great and the good and the godly play their games of glory. Thomas the protagonist of ‘The Absent Shade’ is a professional assassin, but his inability to empathise with others, the coldness and alienation that are his defining characteristics, all date back to his relationship with “au pair” Umbra in childhood. This is a long and complicated story, one that weaves together several strands, the supernatural vying with real world horrors, and human nature shown at its worst in the spiteful actions of a young boy, so that the unhappiness between a child and its parents is the thing that drives the plot forward.

The wonderful ‘Small Town Stories’ is about the ghosts of the past and how they continue to haunt us in the present. The protagonist of the story is stuck in a terrible limbo, unable to carry on with her life, to let go of the past, and as we slowly learn what ails her, Sharma laying out the details like a poker player who always keeps her cards close to her chest, we come to care deeply for this victim of tragedy, an innocent caught in the crossfires of life, with a powerful feeling of despair underlying so much of the text. It offers a fatalistic retelling of the “I see dead people” theme, combining it with small town tragedy to show that not all the dead have let go the reins of life, instead embracing sadness and a peculiar form of alienation. Heartfelt and moving, this was one of the best stories in the collection, where the supernatural elements are almost tangential, but incalculably enrich the narrative. We’re back in a fantasy world of sorts for ‘Fish Skins’ in which a crippled fisherman has married a mermaid changeling, but relations between them have grown strained over the years. It’s a beautifully rendered piece, written with a rich eye for detail and an enviable emotional acuity, at bottom the common or garden theme of a relationship gone wrong, the ship of marriage floundering on the rocks of indifference and jealousy, but here given a novel twist.

‘The Rising Tide’ I reviewed when it originally appeared in 2014’s Terror Tales of Wales edited by Paul Finch, and I see no reason not to reprise my comments here. It “captures very well the pressures felt by a young doctor, telling how a mistake resulted in the death of a young girl and this in turn leads to her own supernaturally slanted demise. The complementary elements of depression and supernatural incursion play well off of each other, leaving the reader room to manoeuvre in between the margins of the conflicting narratives.”

Krishna Sharma is ‘The Englishman’, returned to the land of his birth after twenty five years of trying to fit in in the UK, a widower who has lost the only thing he really cared about, that he thought worth the sacrifice of his heritage. The setting is evocative, with Krishna’s sense of confusion regarding who he really is coming over strongly, his feeling of being lost and adrift ultimately given physical form in a powerful climax to a strong and suggestive story.

Vivian Avery, the sexually awakened heroine of ‘The Nature of Bees’, is lured into the clutches of a family specialising in the production of honey, but they are far more than they seem from the outside, and have plans for their guest. It’s another strange story, one where the appeal of the outré is almost overwhelming for the square peg in round hole protagonist, while the evocation of this nest of bees is stunningly rendered making us doubt the reality of the actual world and think that things might actually be as Sharma describes them, at least as regards the production of honey. At risk of going a bit off-piste, I could address this story as a more subtle and thoroughly modern iteration of Mandeville’s The Grumbling Hive. Thomas, the protagonist of ‘A Son of the Sea’, returns home after the death of his father, only to discover his true heritage. Again this is a lengthy and complicated story, one with layers to unwrap and a vivid and distinctive backdrop, almost as if Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ had been rewritten as a utopian exercise, and it climaxes in an ending that is as horrific as it is triumphant. Thomas’ sense of alienation, of not fitting in, and the estrangement of child and parent, are common recurring themes in this collection, offering a human dimension to play off the numinous one.

Finally we have title story ‘Fabulous Beasts’, also the longest in the collection, in which the otherworldly truth of a criminal family is revealed. The story is a triumph, Sharma capturing perfectly the feel of down on their uppers criminal nobility, with scenes and dialogue that have the vividness and immediacy of a soap opera. And yet from the very off we know that there is more to it than that, a dimension beyond the human, hinted at and lurking in the background of the story, slowly and surely moving to take up centre stage. The characterisation is handled with real skill; each plot development occurs naturally and overall the piece is beautifully paced, and the final revelations when they come are as unsettling as they are welcome, the trap Sharma has set for reader and characters snapping shut like a steel jaw. It’s the perfect end to a first class collection of stories, one in which the range of subject matter is epic in scope, and with each piece powered by genuine depth of emotion. It’s taken us twelve years to get to this point. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next collection from the pen of Priya Sharma.

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