Many of us, as writers of the fantastic, begin with (and return to, again and again) the skin. Skin as surface, skin as race or colour, skin as the site of separation of self from universe, as the axis of identity. Skin as the medium in the art of being in the world.
In the absence of SFnal technologies such as mirrors or still water, we look at our hands to know who we are. We look at the skin and its scars. The hands—their flex and clench, dexter and sinister—are will, embodied. They are our first and most visible indicator of the unity between mind and body. They grow invisible as we take that unity for granted: in this forgetting there is room for rediscovery. The other day I looked at the skin of my hands and realized I had grown older since the last time I really looked at them. In fiction, this is a cliché. In life, which has no obligation to be interesting, this is merely commonplace. We can properly see our own skins only in the moment of estrangement.
It strikes me how often we reach for the shapeshifter as the device through which we approach (racialized, existential) skin-anxiety. Skin as a malleable surface, skin that can be otherwise. Skin that can become more or less vulnerable. Skin that becomes more or less free. It's an old tradition in both the lore and the literature of the fantastic, yes, but it's very much a living tradition in the contemporary shortform, too, where it necessarily functions in different ways than it does in the novel and the series. I've wondered lately if non-white writers reach for the shapeshifter more often, or earlier in their careers, or find it resonant in different ways. (The device seems positioned within arm's reach, fitting easily in the hand. The first story I ever sold was a shapeshifter story, too.) I don't mean in cartoonish metaphors where the werewolf simply "represents" blackness or brownness, or whatever: we can easily find examples much more varied and interesting than that. I mean in the sense of the malleable, shifting skin as a working out of anxieties of visibility, as Sofia Samatar wrote about so eloquently in her essay "Skin Feeling":
[The] issue is not so much how blackness is made visible, whether the purpose is to defame or to defend, but the fact that in either case, visibility is the end point. The visual marker of blackness stands in for the person, and once it has taken the person's place, it becomes amenable to a variety of uses. In Ellison's words, it's "drained of human significance." […] our visibility is consumed in a way that legitimizes the structures of exclusion. Skin feeling: to be encountered as a surface.
I'm not making an argument about how the presence of shapeshifters in contemporary short SF maps to the field's demographics. That would be absurd, anyway: everybody writes werethings all the time and there are many different anxieties-of-visibility in operation. There are always the stresses of writing itself, such as the fear of becoming concrete, of being articulated, of being read. And then, for a lot of people, layered on top of that, there is what Sara Ahmed describes as the work of making others comfortable with the fact of our arrival.
What I'm pointing at is not a pattern or theme or anything located in the work, exactly. It's good to consider this question of where things are located: spatialization of abstractions is a wildly SFnal metaphor, like Delany's The which is "a grayish ellipsoid about four feet high that balances on the floor perhaps a yard away." What I'm pointing at is located in the reading, and in the tensions of different readings: the slusher's reading and the editor's reading in particular, and how those readings stand in for the readings of an implied readership. How that implied readership is constructed through this reading-on-behalf, and the disjunctions between that and the world of particular readings by particular readers. Clearly, more attention needs to be paid to this act. What it means to read the shapeshifter is more complicated in many ways than what it means to write the shapeshifter.
Consider, then, the shifting shape: the skin as separator, as marker, as heritage, as sickness.
Erin Roberts, "Wolfy Things":
Wolf was there soon as I got to the woodshed, all dressed up like a man, tall and dark haired and wearing some old sheet like it was a shirt, but eyes on fire and the smell of blood and mud and river.
"Wolfy Things" relies not at all on surprise. Nothing is hidden from us. We can see that the young narrator Nicky is part wolf himself; we know even if he doesn't that the wolf he's trying to kill is his father. Nicky's mother doesn't try to talk him out of it. Is it because Nicky's mother can't take the threat seriously from a little boy, any more than the father can? Perhaps. But it seems to me more that the violence is so deeply ingrained in their society that it's impossible for anybody who identifies as human to imagine that things could be otherwise. Of course wolves have to be killed; this is just how things are. The horror of the story isn't rooted in the wolf's unthinking violence or Lee's malice or even in the oppressive, claustrophobic society they live in: it's rooted in the depth of Nicky's anger and resentment. Like his parents, we have to learn to take Nicky's anger seriously, to acknowledge that its childishness doesn't make it less dangerous.
The story nods toward the familiar arc of personal growth and redemption—can't you just see the uplifting version of this story where Nicky learns to Accept Himself and runs away to the woods with his father?—and stabs that narrative in the back instead. The stab is slow and deliberate and we're made to watch it coming. At the end, when Nicky throws out that casual "cubs and all" in his pogrom fantasy, the skin we're wearing has grown altogether too hot, too tight, too painful.
An image that sticks with me from "Wolfy Things" is the ashy patch in the wolf's palm, the scar from the previous encounter with Nicky's poisoned knife. "Rotting from the inside" is how Nicky puts it. Scars are special to the shapeshifter. They represent anchors in time: the shapeshifter has been nailed to a moment, lost a little bit of the atemporal fluidity that comes with a self-rejuvenating body. A scarred shapeshifter is an image that completes the circle, returns to mortality.
Nicasio Andres Reed, "Painted Grassy Mire":
Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
In a sense, "Wolfy Things" and "Painted Grassy Mire" are otherwise almost perfectly opposed endings: Winnie exults in her gator-nature and abandons humanity to do it, while Nicky commits to not only denying his own wolf-nature but eradicating all wolves. The former tucks despair into the form of a heroic ending just like the latter tucks triumph into the form of a horrific ending. But looked at another way, they are exactly the same: they're both stories of young, alienated protagonists who hunger for community so deeply that they commit patricide.
"Painted Grassy Mire" doesn't rely on surprise any more than "Wolfy Things" does: we understand where it's going long before Winnie, but the story is in watching Winnie come to her realizations. Unlike Nicky with Lee, Winnie doesn't have a foil to work against; Winnie's story is a lonelier journey, full of vivid textures, of heat and sun and mud. The narrative suggests at first that this is part of her gator-nature:
A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.
But as it turns out, this is not true. There is a gator nation: a maternal clan, a nest that is defended. Even before Winnie gets her gator skin, even before she knows that such a thing exists, she's already walking among them. She's already trying to negotiate her entry into a world she doesn't even understand, except she knows it's there and that she belongs in it. When she comes back, finally wearing the right skin and carrying the right sacrifice, the moment is, though bloody and eerie and inhuman, also triumphant:
Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies.
The shapeshifting in both the above work very differently from, for example, Ursula Vernon's "Jackalope Wives." Grandma Harken's own days of transforming are long behind her, and her skin long lost: she is a fully naturalized human. We see the young jackalope wife's botched transformation—she is "a horror," caught between being one thing and another, entirely reliant on Harken—and her suffering, but we see it from the outside, from a distance. The jackalope wife does not speak. The jackalope wife cannot speak. "Jackalope Wives" is a story that prominently features shapeshifters, but it isn't about shapeshifters in the particular sense that I'm talking about here. It is not about the anxiety of skin, but a comforting story about Grandma Harken, whose strength derives from being entirely comfortable in her own skin. So we're talking about a particular reading of the shapeshifter rather than the shapeshifter as a "trope" or image: it is entirely possible to have the latter without the former. And for that matter, it's also possible to have it the other way around: the reading is tied to the skin, not to the shapeshifter proper, so you could do a skin reading of a story that doesn't technically have any shapeshifters at all.
Sofia Samatar, "The Closest Thing to Animals":
[Nadia] was in the most advanced stage of the lanugo ever experienced, because, unlike other victims, she had survived. Her long hair grew everywhere. It was shorter on her hands and face; she must have trimmed it […] She looked tiny, shrunken in all that hair. She was wearing a purple sweater vest and denim shorts. I tried not to look at her legs […] her knees, the only part of her body not covered with hair, were these bulbous bunches of bright red growth with yellow veins going down.
In "The Closest Thing to Animals", there is a disease that transforms the body, the lanugo. It turns the infected into something part-plant and part-animal. The narrator S says Nadia looks like a cat and her knees look like peppers. Nadia calls herself "all of lost Nature concentrated in one young woman" (a chimera werenature rather than a werecat or a werepepper)—lost because in "Animals" animals are extinct. The skin of lanugo sufferers is colonized by an outside made extinct by human activity, as if in punishment: the sin of extinction is inscribed onto the surface of their selfhoods.
Meanwhile, the entire lanugo quarantine zone is wrapped in an enormous translucent skin: "grayish, like a fuzzy window" during the day, and at night by colourful lights that drip down the sky. The night lights have replaced the stars, because the authorities of the outside world determined that fake stars would be too depressing. The night lights and the lanugo are both surface effects that obscure deeper, uglier processes: the lanugo that kills those infected, the state whose interventions (the tent, the quarantine encampment whose death sentence is so final that its inmates consider themselves "tent-widows" and "tent-orphans") are a pound of cure trickling in decades after failing to muster an ounce of prevention. S finds the lights abstractly beautiful, but the lanugo ugly: Nadia accuses her of running away out of fear and disgust, and S can only accept this as just. She recognizes herself in Nadia's eyes: her skin uninfected, but her shell of avoidance so strong that when we meet her she's making herself ill so as to have a legitimate excuse not to meet people.
The day I met Hodan Mahmoud, I was home with a cold. I’d been cultivating it for a few days, staying up late, leaving my house with wet hair every morning, and coughing a lot at work to make my throat sore and let people know I was coming down with something, and finally it had paid off. I was lying under blankets, pleasantly woozy, preparing to sleep, really sleep, when I heard something crashing and banging around outside the window.
Her raw discomfort with being—not only with being trapped in quarantine and exposed to lanugo, but with being an artist, being a lover or friend ("What are you? Are you a person?" Nadia asks, at S not visiting her in hospital)—is so powerful that she's persuaded herself that she isn't the one who abandons people, but instead is the one who is abandoned by them; that people withhold information from her, when she's the one who remains deliberately ignorant. She does manage to shed this (armour as skin) and make herself vulnerable, but I didn't read "The Closest Thing to Animals" as a redemption story either. It allows S to grasp at acceptance and vulnerability without suggesting that those things are sufficient. Sometimes it's a gift just to be able to look yourself in the face without flinching, your surfaces exposed and strange.