October isn’t the exclusive domain of monsters. Maybe it’s because I just finished re-watching Gravity Falls, with its perfect summer of monsters, but monsters and summer seem like they should go hand in hand. After all, sometimes the oppressive heat makes monsters of us all, and we need a reminder of the chill of autumn creeping in. While not all of these stories are shiver inducing – some are more tragic, while others speak of hope – they all explore different facets of classic monsters.
The Black Menagerie by Endria Isa Richardson in Fiyah Issue #15 features shape-changing creatures, but the true monster of the story is fear itself, and what happens when people try to control that which they don’t understand.
Alta has lived in San Francisco for a very long time, longer than a single human lifetime. Her house, which bears a plaque identifying it as The Black Menagerie, is filled with all manner of animals, just as her body is covered with tattoos of animals, which she calls her siblings. She has been called by many names over the years, including witch. Her specialty is fear, drawing it out of one body and into her own, cultivating and tending it. Depending on perspective, she might be tending that fear and taking it into herself to protect others, or she might be honing it to use as a weapon.
She is no stranger to what fear can do to a body. She knows how to pull fear from people, ride it out of them–because fear needs to be kept and her body can keep it better than ours–but it has always been a choice, a relationship. Rituals are followed; roles are acknowledged. A door or a window is left open, and thus she is invited to complete the haunt.
The story is beautifully-written, full of evocative language and imagery as it explores humanity’s relationship to fear. Do we view fear, or the object of our fear, as an enemy, something to be caged and kept at bay? Or do we view fear as a companion, a healthy emotion ultimately keeping us safe? Are we willing to learn to walk beside our fear, understand the thing that makes us afraid, and cultivate a respect for it, or do we ultimately let fear make us destructive towards ourselves and others? Alta’s role as a woman, and as a Black woman specifically, plays into this dual-sided exploration of fear. How she is perceived often depends on who is looking. Fear of the “other” and dehumanization of women and Black people are themes threaded through the story, with parallels drawn to animals and the way they are treated by humans throughout. Alta is self-possessed and comfortable in her own skin; it is those viewing her from the outside who are the problem. They are the ones who ultimately weaponize their own fear, seeking to turn it against Alta simply for being a confident Black woman. A thread of sexuality and desire runs through the story as well, tied to the idea of comfort in a body versus the attempt to control, possess, or shame women for their sexuality. What is monstrous is in the eye of the beholder, and like many of the best monster stories, “The Black Menagerie” holds up a mirror to show us that what and how we fear says more about ourselves than it does about the things that frighten us.
Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills by Kristina Ten in the July Issue of Lightspeed is also set in San Francisco, and sees the titular witch of Russian mythology coping with the modern world. After a life (or more) of feeling unappreciated, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut takes off on its own, forcing her to go in search of it. Along the way, she finds herself contending with roommates for the first time in her life, and seeking the advice of modern day magicians.
Why San Francisco? Baba Yaga needs help—serious help, magical help—and she knows San Francisco to be a place of magic. The city built on seven hills. Vehicles that drive themselves. Eyeglasses that hold alternate universes. Buildings that stay standing when the ground beneath them splits in two. If anyone can help her, they will be in San Francisco.
In the course of her search, Baba Yaga learns that magic doesn’t always look like spellcraft. Sometimes it looks like community, and making sure those around you feel loved and are fed. Magic potions aren’t always brewed up in cauldrons, sometimes they are baked into pot brownies to serve as a peace offering, take the edge off anxiety, and ultimately bring people together. Marketing can be its own form of magic, as can technology, leading an old witch to consider new perspectives, including kindness to roommates, even and perhaps especially, if your roommate also happens to be your house.
It’s a charming story, and sticks mostly to the light side of things, though Baba Yaga does occasionally still find herself with a craving to eat children. Ultimately, it is a story about turning over a new leaf, learning to see things from another person, or house’s, point of view. San Francisco is lovingly described, making it a character in its own right, vibrant and full of life, and possessing its own unique brand of magic, the way certain cities do.
Bobbie and Her Father by Gillian Daniels in August’s issue of The Dark gives off a distinct Frankenstein vibe. Bobbie is a young girl who we first meet sitting on the couch, watching TV, a normal enough activity, but from the start there is a sense of something off. Bobbie isn’t allowed to open the door to strangers, which is normal enough as well, but what isn’t normal is that Bobbie has never interacted with another human other than her father. Naturally, she’s curious, and when one of her father’s co-workers comes looking for her father, Bobbie can’t resist opening the door, the first step to her world coming disastrously undone.
He stitches her up with clear thread, as if one more scar on her face would somehow be painful to her. One less scar wouldn’t give her the ability to dance or go outside. It will just be another line on her skin when she looks in the mirror and brushes her hair before bed, alone for hours in the dark, pretending she sleeps the way he sleeps.
Add to the idea of Frankenstein’s monster the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl, cut off the from the world, and therein lies the story’s true monstrosity. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Bobbie is a created thing, born of her father’s hubris, and much like Frankenstein’s monster, she is ultimately an innocent, a victim of the circumstances of her creation. Bobbie is stronger than any human, constantly having to be aware of the dangers of her own strength. She is deeply lonely, and merely wants to be loved, and that is her tragic downfall. The story is by turns heartbreaking and frightening, and while it is not without its death and gore, at its heart, it is a story of monstrous loneliness rather than monstrous rage. At the end of the day, Bobbie is like any other child, trying to find her place in the world, wanting be liked and understood and to form a connection with another human being, proving she too deserves to be considered part of humanity.
Slipping the Leash by Dan Micklethwaite published by PodCastle is a unique take on a werewolf story, one that may or may not actually contain a werewolf at all. The story is short, hovering just around flash length, but it packs in a lot, including war-related PTSD and family trauma. Aloysius “Louie” Proctor only wants to play music, but he knows he shouldn’t. He supposed to be content with being a family man, working a job he hates, keeping his head down and staying away from devilish things like smoky clubs and hot jazz.
All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say?
But despite what he knows he’s “supposed” to do, music has its hooks in Louie, exerting a pull as sure as the moon. There’s a crackling energy and rhythm to the prose that evokes the music Louie so wants to play. Micklethwaite perfectly evokes the tug-of-war beneath Louie’s skin, desire versus duty, true self versus the person he’s been told he should be. Werewolf imagery is effectively employed here, giving the story a sense of urgency, a sense of something buried rising to the surface. Is Louie truly monstrous, or is he simply slipping out of his day-to-day skin for a few brief and glorious moments of freedom?
In tangentially-related news, with the return of Apex Magazine next year, my Words for Thought review column will be coming back as well. Hopefully, in the interim, you’ve enjoyed Shiny Shorts. The year isn’t done yet, and I may post one or two more columns here as the mood strikes me, and either way, I’ll be on twitter shouting about short fiction and hopefully helping people find new stories to love. Happy reading!