Sometimes the blade of a knife or the point of a nail is the only way you know you're real.
Everyone reads for different reasons. At least, I gather that's the case from various articles, blog posts and comments online. And, you know, there's no real right way or wrong way to approach these things. Some want to get lost in rich and detailed worlds, some want to meet 'likeable' characters (I have my own opinions on this one, but that's a different conversation), some are looking for 'beautiful' prose and some approach their reading from an intellectual direction. And there are many other things people look for in their fiction, and almost infinite varieties and combinations of all of these. Personally, I tend to read for an emotional response and I find I'm looking for that more and more as I get older. That's not to say I can't appreciate those other ways I've mentioned, or others I haven't, but they're not necessary for me to enjoy something. I do tend to find, though, that a story which hits me in a way that actually makes me feel something is one I will rate far above others. Like I say, it's a personal thing. Doesn't really matter what emotion I get and it can range from the thrill of excitement to feeling crushing dread, and the entire spectrum in-between and around. But more and more, I'm drawn to those stories that push my buttons and make me feel sad. And not just in a 'oh, that's a little sad'; I'm talking deep, heartbreaking gut-punch emotion. The kind of thing that makes you tear up and stays with you for days, if not longer.
A lot of stories have managed this for me over the years. Daniel Keyes's Flowers For Algernon was probably one of the earliest (the short story - the novel did it a few years later). Passages in longer works can do it, too. Then there's a scene in Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction where a group of enhanced mercenaries have formed a ring around a group of fleeing children. They're putting themselves in the firing line against a supernatural attacking threat to give the kids time to get picked up in a drop-ship. It's a powerful scene in a cracking bit of space-opera, and it's making me choke up now thinking about it. Hey, I'm a sucker for that last stand/heroic sacrifice kind of thing. More recently, Carole Johnstone's Equilibrium in Black Static really hit me, alternating deep melancholy with mounting dread, before a final breath of quiet hope. Beautiful stuff. Black Static tend to be a great resource for this kind of thing. And Christopher Fowler's Down, in the anthology The End Of The Line; this one had me bawling my eyes out, coming at me unexpectedly and at a time where I had similar things on my mind as the subject matter. And I think that's the common theme with these and all the other stories that have affected me. They resonate with me, push past all my 'defences' and get me right in the soul, for want of a better word.
All this is a massive preamble to a collection I've recently finished which I'm really struggling to do justice to in reviewing. Sometimes, something comes along and it just feels utterly perfect and magical. Whether that's just me and it's getting me at just the right time, or whether there truly is a pinnacle of writing and craft that these stories hit, I haven't got the faculties to analyse properly. I mean, there's no denying the beautiful sentences, the clarity of prose, the sense of someone who just knows exactly what they're doing, who is in complete control of their writing and style; the writing is confident, assured and poetic.
Of course, all this might mean little if the content of the stories themselves were lacking, but thankfully, that's not even close to the case. The breadth of imagination, the multitude of scenarios, the seemingly endless invention; all presented with absolute conviction and convincing detail.
I have to say, that even with the huge amount of fantastic short stories, novellas and novels I've read over that last few years - ever since getting back into horror reading - I am completely blown away by Damien Angelica Walters's first collection, Sing Me Your Scars.
Instead of doing my usual with anthologies/collections - talking about my favourite stories - I think I'll do something a little different here. I'm going to give an overview, talking about my impressions of the book as a whole, and dipping in and out of various stories to try and give an idea of what's on offer here.
First off, the overriding theme of the book - as you'd expect from the title - is one of pain and darkness, of suffering and the dark side of human emotion. Within these dark, fantastical tales, are undertones - and overtones - of abuse, mental illness, heartache and melancholia; there is loss and grief. Yet there is also hope, though fragile, and a quiet strength; even dignity. What's also noticeable about these stories is how plausible Damien makes everything seem. From the opening title story, Sing Me Your Scars, where we are presented with a woman stitched together from the various body parts of other women - and each woman still retains her voice in her respective piece; to Dysphonia In D Minor, which follows the fracturing relationship of two women who come from a region of the world where there singing voices can literally create buildings and structures; through to the final tale, Like Origami In Water, where a woman watches helplessly as her brother slowly fades from existence, piece by piece; we are struck by how utterly convincing it all feels, presented in such a style as to feel all too real. At no point did it cross my mind that these situations were anything less than depictions of reality; as soon as I started each tale, it felt as though I had always known the story, the situations. To me, it's a rare gift to be able to make the reader immediately comfortable with what would otherwise be absurdities.
That's not to say that these stories are predictable. They most certainly aren't, merely that the voice is so confident, so assured, that you do not question what you're reading. Take, for example, the story Paper Thin Roses Of Maybe. In this, we are presented with a world in which the doomed protagonists are existing in a small pocket of all that's left, as a strange wall encroaches on them from all sides, changing everything to motionless sepia-tones of an old photograph. And yet, we accept this situation on the face of it, because the inhabitants of this world experience the pain and fear so keenly. But I also think another part of it is that there is also deep subtext to these stories. The bizarre and unexplained end of the world in this story could equally be read as a metaphor for change, for unforeseen circumstance disrupting a previously smooth existence. Melancholia In Bloom puts us inside the mind of a woman who is lost in the horrible depths of dementia. It alternates viewpoints with her daughter, who is struggling each time to visit someone who appears unable to recognise her own family. Weaved through this terribly sad tale is a hint of magic, of lost hope and a fragile, aching attempt to pass on a precious family legacy. It can be read as literally as it's presented or with layers of meaning.
Or something. It occurs to me that I've got this far into the review, and I feel I'm not even close to doing justice to how wonderful these stories are, how beautifully written they are, how heartbreaking, and how absolutely filled with the pure depth of human longing, grief and pain. As I said at the start, I'm not an intellectual person, I don't know how to deconstruct a piece of prose or a story; I can only go on my instincts and the accumulations of what I've read in the past. Thirty or so years of reading have taken me to a point where I know what I like and love, I know what moves me and pushes my buttons, but I can't always say just why. And I don't think it matters terribly. What matters is that these stories spoke to me, touched me deeply in a way that very few have managed before. Again, I've read some wonderful pieces of fiction over the years, hundreds and hundreds of fantastic stories that I've loved in their own way. But this is something special, something just at a level above all that.
Girl, With Coin I first read in the anthology Choose Wisely and it was my absolute highlight in a very strong group of stories; yet on rereading it here, it loses none of its power. It is still a powerful piece of writing that pierced my heart with its perfect depiction of someone who feels no physical pain, yet still yearns for an emotional response that was denied her growing up. She does this by offering herself as an art exhibit, mutilating and scarring her body in installations of blood and torn flesh. Yet the only reaction she gets from her audience is revulsion. Her inner world is thrown off-balance when she receives a letter from her mother, after years of nothing. This was my first taste of Damien's fiction and it remains one of my favourite stories. Yet the absolute pinnacle for me in this collection is unequivocally Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion), a story set in an alternate Lithuania overrun by Germany, where the people are capable of real magic yet are forbidden from practicing it. Andrius takes care of his young daughter, Laurita, who is ill, possibly terminally. He tries to keep her entertained and occupied whilst worrying about what has happened to his wife and trying not to be caught performing magic for Laurita. This one had me in tears. The quiet, hopeless desperation of Andrius; the innocent, optimistic sweetness of Laurita; the looming inevitable threat of capture or worse. This one really got to me. I'm an absolute sucker for that kind of innocent character who isn't fully aware of the harsh world around them. Characters like John Coffey or Tom Cullen in Stephen King's books, or Genna in Ray Cluley's Water For Drowning. There's something about that kind of bittersweet naivety that really gets to me. Definitely my favourite story in a fantastic collection.
I worry that I might be overselling this, that my praise - or gushing - is setting the collection up to too high a standard. Yet I can only give my honestly felt opinion, it's all I ever do. Having read many other accolades and testimonials for Damien's work, I think I'm probably not overstating too much how good these stories are. But, you know, hopefully I've given you enough of an idea as to what these tales are like. The rest is up to you, but I doubt you'll be disappointed. Definitely one of the best things I've read recently, and I have read a lot of great stuff.
Paul M. Feeney
Ginger Nuts of Horror, The Heart and Soul of Horror Fiction Reviews