In Nisi Shawl’s story “Beyond the Lighthouse,” the main character, Leelah, has the power to astrally project herself as a bird. The narrator tells us that “when she flew, the figurative became literal. That was how the power she used worked: it made imaginary changes real.” This motif—of making the imaginary real through the application of science or sufficiently advanced magic—recurs several times in the eighteen stories that make up Our Fruiting Bodies, the new collection from the acclaimed writer and editor. One could argue that this is the appeal of all fantastic fiction: to literalise our dreams and nightmares, the better to process or understand them. But in Shawl’s hands this notion is far from comforting or tidy. Human fears are concretised as beasts and apparitions, but doing so makes them more, not less, dangerous. Giving a monster form not only makes it comprehensible; it also gives it teeth. This is a fitting device for a collection which successfully balances both the whimsy and the danger of speculative fiction, even if some of the stories on offer don’t have quite enough bite. The opening story, “Women of the Doll,” gives a demonstration of this technique, as well as Shawl’s oblique approach to several of their subjects. Its main character, Josette, is a member of the titular society, a hidden organisation (“Not secret. Hidden,” she chides another character at one point), which scoops up “women in some sort of trouble” and puts them to work offering intimate services for large considerations. Tax deductible, of course. The precise nature of the Women of the Doll and their beliefs are left tantalisingly incomplete, but we learn early on that Josette keeps a doll named Viola with her, and later we find out that
Hers was the Whore’s Story, and they’d shown her what to do with it, how she could sell her body and still keep her soul alive. Her soul was in Viola now, all the time. And Viola was safe, she knew how to make her doll safe and keep her from being touched.
It’s easy to read as a metaphor for the alienation caused by religious indoctrination and/or a career as a sex worker. But Shawl is uninterested in spelling out the precise contours of this metaphor. Instead, the story focuses on the dreary grind of Josette’s daily life, as she balances caring for her strange surrogate child with meeting clients and trying to view homes she will never be able to buy. A cold, melancholy atmosphere permeates the story, creating a deeper and more subtle sense of dehumanisation than a more straightforward, “realistic” treatment of such subject matter could ever provide.
A similar obliqueness characterises many stories in this collection. “The Tawny Bitch” is an epistolary tale of a woman locked in a tower who forms an alliance with an apparently unkillable dog. The canine in turn helps her formulate an escape plan; the narrative cuts off before the break-out can actually be attempted. “Looking for Lilith” is a kind of ekphrastic horror story, the main character of which is so enraptured by a mosaic that she undertakes a dangerous quest to better understand it. When she finally perishes under the gaze of the woman she journeyed to meet, it is with a kind of dumb sublimity. “She had made the dangerous journey not to reach the end, but to travel to it.”
While these pieces have a haunting power to them, others wind up feeling rather dry. “Luisah’s Church” introduces some fascinating details about its future society of religious violence and government surveillance, but ends on something of a damp squib. “A Beautiful Stream,” meanwhile, offers some hard-to-follow intrigue set during the First World War, but never quite manages a plot hook or clear emotional throughline.
Indeed, some of the collection’s weakest stories are the ones that attempt to play in more conventional narrative territory. The Brit Williams saga, a trilogy of short stories including “Street Worm,” “Queen of Dirt,” and “Conversion Therapy,” starts out in a fairly standard Young Adult Urban Fantasy mode. Brit Williams is a gifted but troubled teenager who runs away from her parents, meets a mysterious old man, and winds up saving the city and forming a circle of new friends/surrogate children. It’s a familiar premise enlivened by a focus on Ebonics, a distinctly African American language, as a contrast to “standard English,” and on the fact that Brit’s powers involve
translating the ways of “non-physical entities” into “concrete, manipulable analogies.” It boiled down to her boiling down demons, angels—and other things, things without names, all the things most people couldn’t see or understand—to simpler forms.
In these stories, the anxieties of adolescence are literally transformed into monsters: giant worms, bees, ants, and fungi. But the opacity and ambiguity that make Shawl’s other stories shine manifest here as muddy storytelling and slipshod pacing. Some plot developments in “Queen of Dirt” feel wholly arbitrary, and the central conflict of “Conversion Therapy” is both over-exposited and underdeveloped, not to mention that its titular concern drops unsatisfyingly out of view in favour of a monster runaround. As YA treatments of this subject matter go, it’s no Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shawl’s creeping and indirect approach works better in the collection’s outright horror stories. Shawl describes the story “Cruel Sistah” as an “Ebonics retelling of a rather bloodthirsty sixteenth-century Scotch ballad,” and the influence of Cain and Abel is also felt in this delightfully chilling tale of a young girl killing her sister. The story’s narration migrates from character to character as each becomes involved in events, with an opening section focused on the murderer translating seamlessly to one centred on her victim’s ghost:
Time didn’t stay still. Mostly, it seemed to move in one direction. Mama kept crying; Daddy too. Dory decided she must be dead. But what about heaven? What about the funeral?
This is an effective technique, and it keeps the reader guessing as this brief but densely packed horror fable builds to its crushing conclusion.
Similarly memorable is “To the Moment,” a five-page piece about a pregnant vampire who finds herself in need of sustenance on a cruise ship. It feels like a feminist slant on the Demeter section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and when Shawl’s narrator reminisces about her relationship with “D,” the identity of her offspring’s father is not difficult to guess. When feeding time comes, it’s with an unnatural quality that makes the underlying action even more terrifying:
He does scream. I do too, and shout Oh God, I’m coming, I’m coming, so if anyone hears us they’ll stay away. It lasts a little long for an orgasm, but after a couple of minutes he stops thrashing on the bed and lies still, deflating. I pump and pump. The rosy goodness suffuses me, warming my womb. When I’m done I fall into a dream, sliding slowly off the monkey and curling up next to him on the soiled sheets.
Yet while these macabre tales are among the book’s better offerings, the single best piece is Shawl’s Arthuriana riff, “I Being Young and Foolish.” The protagonist, Nia, is an albino sorcerer who travels from Africa with her cat, Odeh, to be apprenticed to Merlin, and ends up taking his place at the right hand of his patron, “King Bear.” It is a strange, melancholy story, filled with odd details and the acceptance of old age. Its most intriguing sections focus on the protagonist’s pupillage:
He showed her trays crawling with people as small and purposeful as ants, opened books filled with images that moved while she watched them, then returned to their starting places when she looked away. He blinked slow as Odeh in approval of her ability to sit motionless as a heron through a lesson on creating new homes for the future to live in. That brought a troubling bout of smugness. Stillness was the first skill the trees had taught Nia.
Shawl effectively conveys the shifting, unknowable nature of magic, and of the old stories they are reinterpreting. Arley Sorg at Lightspeed advises that we “Read it, think about it, let it linger after the reading is done.” It’s an instruction befitting so many of these stories; Shawl’s writing is best appreciated in a contemplative frame of mind. For whoever said that our own imaginations, even in being made real, would be easy to understand?