Blood-soaked but tender, Cassandra Khaw’s debut collection Breakable Things is a lush collection of the dark fantastic, twenty-three short stories honed down almost to the point of flash fiction. Largely pulled from the beginning of Khaw’s career, published between 2015 and 2019, with one new addition, they showcase an author with a distinct voice from very early on.
Khaw’s work tends to fall in one of three major modes: high fantasy, mythic/folkloric, and weird horror. There’s overlap between them, of course, but for all that the latter is my usual preference, I think the first is where Khaw really shines. Their prose, rich and baroque, suits the epic nature of high fantasy, but even there the meat of the stories is pared down to the barest essence: wisps of incisive, poetic lines. The brevity of much of their work is a necessity, because their prose is so rich that to stretch out their stories much would risk losing their message in the language itself. Khaw’s stories will appeal greatly to readers with a love of lush language and poetic flourishes, particularly those with a taste for the dark and macabre. My own taste tends to run toward lengthier pieces and less ornate prose, but even I found a great deal to enjoy here.
The new story in the collection, “How Selkies Are Made,” is illustrative of many of Khaw’s tendencies. A Scottish woman disappoints her father, the laird, by refusing to marry one of her many suitors: “And yet despite both these traits, she was her father’s despair for Ursilla of Stronsay, freckled and fair, would not marry for fortune” is one of many perfect sentences in the collection. After her father’s sudden death, the woman immediately marries her secret lover, a man whom her mother would have warned her against, but her mother abandoned them long ago. Bound by honor not to injure or abandon her husband despite his abuse, she finds solace in a selkie—not, as Ursilla has been told, a predator, but a horny monster:
“Hearsay,” said the selkie. “Lies told by angry husbands. What we do is give neglected wives respite from their cold marriage beds.”
The conclusion of the story is bifurcated: “This is the story they tell” vs “This is the story they don’t tell.” It’s up to the reader to decide which is real, with even the title of the story bearing equally on both. There’s a human monster and a monstrous human, a gory vivisection, and some incredible food writing; shapeshifting and narrative revisionism; failed connections between parents and children. The story is Khaw’s work in a nutshell, really, and it’s excellent, poignant and pointed in its allegorical wrestling with the bad choices women face.
Selkies famously rely on flayed skins to change shape from seal to human, and this gory metamorphosis is an apt summation of Khaw’s themes in general. Both body and story messily revise themselves, predators and prey both fighting to change the narratives in which they find themselves trapped. There’s a struggle between interior and exterior, as bodies, like stories, are revised and revisited, metamorphosing and shedding their skin. Sometimes this exposure of the interior is quite literal—there’s a shocking number of eviscerations and dissections in the collection, autopsies “a kind of bizarre intimacy, penetration and halogen-lit dissection, a baring of skin, meat, and spirit.” Other times it’s cloaked in myth and metaphor, in the case of the Selkie and other human/animal monsters, and particularly in stories of torturous relationships, monstrous women wronged by shitty men. Khaw’s protagonists are messy, believable characters—not perfect victims, not even likeable as often as not, but their struggles are relatable and well-painted. As one monster admonishes his children, “not even monsters are safe from predators, my loves.”
Like the ending of “How Selkies Are Made,” many of these stories rely on pedal points of revisionism, narrators and characters framing their stories as hearsay or shifting their narratives as they tell them. “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires,” the one science-fictional entry here, revolves around the narrator reminding a reader that “That’s what they say,” as they recount various permutations of a love story playing out in a space graveyard and alternate realities. The story is a particularly strong entry, structurally intriguing even as the characters provide the narrative drive, and fruitfully rewards multiple readings. It’s replete with Khaw’s interest in revisionism—characters telling one another, “I can’t tell you. The story isn’t over yet” or, “You’d rather be a ghost story?” Other stories in the collection are similarly framed or interrupted: “This is not your story,” or “Tell us a story, Papa,” or “You are my story, its beginning, its happy ending” or, again, “This is not your story.” (All these examples drawn from different stories!)
Stories, in one sense, are denials of agency, concrete narrative trajectories that bind monsters and women into roles they never asked for. “The Truth That Lies Under Skin and Meat” isn’t entirely successful in its structural experimentation—section headings that list actions and prices a la MasterCard advertisements come across as overly silly—but the underlying story is a strong one: a werewolf struggles with the “language of carnivore lusts,” a phrase that could serve as an apt tagline for the collection. Her partner attempts to get her to swear off some sort of vengeance, two different predacious, pathetic men harass her (and are eaten for their indiscretions), and she tries to decide how much to constrain her own monstrous appetites—whether other people and their stories matter, in other words, or whether they’re just meat.
My favorite story in the collection, “Mothers, We Dream,” is a sharp alternate history infused with cosmic horror—the post-traumatic story of a shipwreck survivor, his barracuda-esque wife, and the cruel imperial judicial official who interrogates him about the loss of his ship. The latter two are excellent examples of Khaw’s mingling of human and inhuman monsters. The wife is an uncanny presence from the magisterial opening sentence, but the slow unfolding of her actual identity, her active role in the narrative, and the man’s status as a victim-survivor, is a remarkable achievement. Like Khaw’s other fantasy works, the offhanded worldbuilding is evocative without ever falling prey to the great clomping foot of nerdism, to borrow a phrase from M. John Harrison. Khaw is similarly on point in “The Games We Play,” a nerve-wracking match between the king of a predacious dog-people and a bird-woman attempting to rescue her sister. The story muses on individualism and agency/manipulation, and the richness of Khaw’s prose (the bird people are beautifully referred to as “the Ten Thousand Colors”) draws one into this evocative world despite the brief run-time of the story.
“Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” is a touching pledge of love and fealty in the face of the apocalypse; an ode to a relationship greater than anything that threatens it. It’s rather like Frodo Baggins’s “I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things,” but expanded to a full story in and of itself (though not expanded too much, it’s a brief flash piece). Two lovers from competing covens, faced with the choice of forcible separation or holding the line in the vanguard against an onslaught of gods, “many-bodied and million-eyed,” have chosen the latter. The story is a one-side monologue (natch), promising that this love story for the ages outweighs everything else—nothing matters but the couple’s relationship, their story, larger than themselves or the apocalypse. Again, it’s a struggling against a destiny and narrative that seem fixed and preordained. It might be the happiest story in the whole collection, and it’s also the one facing down the end of the world. Make of that what you will.
“She Who Hungers, She Who Waits” is a less sweet expression of a similar level of fealty, in which Khaw’s usual emphasis on romantic entanglements is replaced with one sister seeking revenge for another. It’s another story lush with tiny sparks of worldbuilding: government-issued jade glyphs sealed into a soldier’s bones, people residing “in nubivagant jellyfish or on the spines of the world-turtles.” The protagonist Mei Huang earns a living by rewriting fates for her clients, much as Khaw does for their characters. Caught between the two titular goddesses, Mei Huang fails to save her most recent client but finds that this opens up an avenue for her to avenge her sister (by means of some shifting stories, of course). The story opens and closes with torsos opening—a disembowelment for the soldier, a magical unhinging of a rib for Mei Huang—and she muses at one point on the compelling nature of gore, the allure of power over the vulnerability of opened flesh: “something elemental … about seeing the body’s clockwork exposed, something that flenses the mystery from the flesh, that reduces a smile to a composition of meat.”
Given the sheer number of stories here, perhaps it isn’t surprising that there were more than a few that didn’t work for me. For the most part, it was the ones so short that I felt I couldn’t sink my teeth into them; other readers with a taste for brevity may well therefore appreciate more of them. Beyond those, for me the stories which fit less well were the weird horror entries. Sometimes their tenderness crosses over into a maudlin sentimentality, with “Goddess, Worm” and “For the Things We Never Said” being particular offenders. As I alluded to above, I found Khaw’s strengths to lie more in glimpses of lush, extant fantasy worlds than in weird horror, which favors revelation and unsettling. “Don’t Turn on the Lights,” which opens the collection, reaches toward the latter, and I found the core of it too thin to maintain the weight of its twists and turns and narrative revisions. “Some Breakable Things,” on the other hand—the (almost) title story that ends the collection—combines Khaw’s strengths at extant weirdness and emerging horror, following a woman whose dead father is increasingly insistent on haunting her, is entirely successful, and the fact that it thematically maps over “For the Things We Never Said” almost perfectly, but at a longer length, makes me feel vindicated in my preference for longer stories: the ending is almost as sentimental (in a vicious way, this time), but here it feels earned and justified. It doesn’t hurt that it makes a commanding use of second person, a particular weakness of mine.
It’s pertinent that “Some Breakable Things” opens with—what else?—the father’s autopsy. The flensing, the overwhelming sensory experience of gore, the dissolution of the boundary between interior and exterior—all lie at the heart of Khaw’s artistry. That maximalist sumptuousness (which, disturbingly, expresses itself just as much through their beautiful food writing as through the gore) makes Khaw’s prose a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s both beautiful and impressive in a technically accomplished way, but it’s so rich, so lush, that it sometimes threatens to weigh down the stories themselves—risks the trees overpowering the forest, as it were. It does help that the stories are so short, and I’m looking forward to reading some of Khaw’s longer work, to see if they modulate the prose there to account for the higher page counts. Khaw does have a real gift for metaphors and similes, crafting turns of phrase that manage to be baroque, but not overwrought, as in the ending to the truly remarkable first sentence of “Mothers, We Dream”:
It would, Henrik decided, always trouble him to hear his wife described as a barracuda, a sobriquet inflicted by her jutting underbite and cold acumen for economics, her predilection for late-year swims in the harbour, when the water wore the ice like a wedding caul.
This is an assured collection that I think will strike a chord with many readers, especially those with a taste for rich, concentrated shots of darkness.