Cry Murder! In A Small Voice is a jewel of a novella. In chapbook form, it fills fifty-two pages of elegant typeface on good quality paper. The cover illustration by artist Kathleen Jennings is a lively set of figures in shades of umber and grey, their lines reminiscent of a Renaissance woodcut, shadows cast behind them. It suits the contents perfectly, in more ways than one. The care that has gone into the design of this Small Beer Press chapbook, impressive as it is, pales besides the craftsmanship on display in the novella itself.
Greer Gilman is not a prolific writer. But when she writes, her work is recognized. Her first and thus far only novel, Moonwise, won the Crawford Award in 1991. A novella, "A Crowd of Bone," won the 2004 World Fantasy Award; her 2009 collection Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales (published, like this chapbook, by Small Beer Press) took home the Tiptree Award for that same year. If I had been paying attention, perhaps Cry Murder! In A Small Voice wouldn't have taken me quite so much by surprise.
The Devil is an ass
I do acknowledge it.
The epigraph that opens Cry Murder! In A Small Voice is from Ben Jonson's 1616 play, The Devil is an Ass. Ben Jonson is Cry Murder!'s main character, and its action is set across 1603-1604, divided between Venice and London. And that action? It involves a dead boy actor, the Earl of Oxford, murders, justice, plays, changes, and transformations. The epigraph, here, is doing at least three things at once: establishing the importance of Ben Jonson to what follows; recalling the play's meta-textual strain, and recalling the supernatural elements of both stories. The Devil is an Ass is often held up as an example of meta-theatrical discussion of cross-dressed performance. Not only is cross-dressed performance, performativity and gender, important to Cry Murder!, but The Devil is an Ass involves the intrusion of a (albeit comic) supernatural presence into London, and there is a supernatural presence here also: oblique, not obvious, but present throughout the text.
The old ones, hornèd, pricked, and fluted, wait: at thresholds, in the shoals of fountains, set on bridge-ends and in niches, drown in silt: the keepers of the isles. Immortal, they decay: are smutted, streaked with mutings of millennia of birds; cracked; maimed. The patient gods.
They wait the ass, god-bringing; for the green to whelm the stone. (p. 27)
A text written in Early Modern English, or so close a facsimile I cannot tell the difference. Gilman's language has the rhythm of a play, and it's intoxicating: one could grow drunk on the wordplay, lost in layers of allusion, symbol, significance. There is density here, and prose too nimble and too full of white-hot intensity to term lush—although "occasionally baroque" would not be inaccurate. And there are references to—a kind of playful intertextuality with—the dramatists and players of the period.
Perhaps if I knew more of the period, or followed the flashing brilliance of Gilman's prose more easily, I would find myself less lost. The narrative is not a wholly linear thing: it opens in Venice in 1604, and closes in Whitehall at May Eve 1606. In between it goes back to All Hallows 1603 and tells the story forward across the year. Scene on scene, implication on implication: nothing ever outright stated, save that Oxford is a murderer; Ben means to have some justice; and the player's boy Calder will bait a trap for the Earl.
Explanations are not, of course, always necessary, but even on a third reading it seemed that even the implications did not add up to offer a satisfactory conclusion as to how one should read Calder's role, and its multivalent possibilities.
For me, there is no certainty, only possibilities. Gilman's novella marries narrative to the sensibility of poetry: in language, but also in logic. The logic of poetry relies on the interrelation of symbols and allusions, the unstated—sometimes the unstatable—to give shape and meaning to what is voiced in words. That makes this, for all its brevity, a novella that will reward attention and revisiting: each new reading wrings some fresh connection or different possibility from the words on the pages. On the other hand, it also makes this a novella that will primarily appeal to a very specific kind of a reader: the kind of reader who wants to get drunk on words, parse the language of Shakespeare and Jonson, delight in the Renaissance stage and its world; prise meaning from obliquity.
Gilman's command of her craft is nothing short of astonishing. Cry Murder! In A Small Voice is the kind of work one keeps close to chew over again and again. It made a definite impression on me.
I loved it. But I wouldn't recommend it for everyone.