World Fantasy Award-winning author Helen Marshall has made a name for herself as a major voice in short dark fantasy and horror, with stories appearing in ezines like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Nightmare Magazine and several “year’s best” anthologies. Her success in the short story format produced two powerful collections from ChiZine Publications that could easily fit within either the genre or literary niches: Hair Side, Flesh Side (2012) and Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014).
Marshall’s stories often feature an atmosphere of otherworldly weirdness, with flashes of disturbing actions or unsettling imagery that she then transcends with moments of sublime beauty and wonder. She subjects her characters to bodily and mental anguish or trauma, yet gives them some measure of hope with which to overcome the bleakness. Reminiscent of writers like Shirley Jackson or Neil Gaiman, she crafts circumstances that are unnervingly fantastic or horrific as a way to explore her characters, to scrutinize basic human emotions and our reactions to things disquieting that we’d otherwise avoid. The Migration, her recently published debut novel, effectively applies these elements of her writing into a long-form story that spans genres and somehow both terrifies and comforts.
Amid near-future global climatic change, an enigmatic immunological disease starts appearing in the young with high morbidity and mortality. Entering into her final year of high school and starting to consider college, Sophie Perella’s future plans become sidetracked when doctors diagnose her beloved little sister Kira with the Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficiency Syndrome (JI2) disease. With their parents’ already failing marriage under additional strain, their mother takes the girls from their home in Toronto, Canada to live with her sister, their Aunt Irene, in Oxford, England.
A professor of historical epidemiology with experience in both medicine and the humanities, Irene specializes in the Black Death and now works at a state-of-the-art facility studying and caring for JI2 patients such as Kira. As doctors try to manage Kira’s condition and determine both its cause and effects, Sophie struggles to adapt to her new life, coming to terms with Kira’s illness and the likely prospect of her young sister’s death. Discussions with her Aunt Irene help Sophie process her emotions, even after Kira does succumb to the disease. However, reports of rejuvenated movement (or jitters) in bodies that have supposedly died of JI2 lead Sophie and others to begin suspecting that adult government and medical professionals are hiding something about this bizarre condition. Meeting other young people her age susceptible to and afflicted with JI2, Sophie comes to realize they face a frightening biological change that might also hold something glorious.
The genesis for Marshall’s novel traces to her doctoral research, undertaken while at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, into the epidemiological history of the Bubonic Plague. The character of Aunt Irene thus represents a surrogate for Marshall, imparting academic information to Sophie and readers alike about the nature of disease as one possible outcome of interaction between species or between a species and its environment. As a microbiologist, I really appreciated these parts of the novel that delve into the roles that disease plays in influencing human society and biology, for worse or better:
“Disease shaped our development, not just at a superficial level, but our biology as well. Our genome is riddled with the debris of ancient viruses, invaders, colonizers who inserted their genes into our own. They changed us, and we changed them in return […] Think about this: it was only when people began to gather in large communities, during the Neolithic period, that the opportunities for disease to spread increased dramatically […] So, disease is the price we pay for being close to one another […] Disease presents us with the worst picture of humanity we can imagine. It shows us our fallibility, our mortality. At a basic level it makes us fear for our lives, for our communities, and that fear can be a powerful incentive for violence. But in times of plague there are also stories of great kindness, generosity and heroism. It’s the testing ground of a civilization.” (pp. 44-45)
The latter part of this quotation from a dialogue between Aunt Irene and Sophie goes beyond the direct effects that disease has on humanity to consider how humanity can respond to the threat of pandemic. A plot of disease outbreak coinciding with catastrophic climate change that upends global civilization is certainly not new to The Migration. Apocalyptic literature has taken these themes to fuel countless stories from historical religious texts that give the genre its name, to modern dystopic science fiction, fantasy, or horror. What sets Marshall’s novel apart from the bulk of these is that she is considering a scenario in which humanity doesn’t simply collapse. Aunt Irene supplies an example in miniature of this from history, when quarantine in Eyam stops the spread of plague:
“It wasn’t like all those apocalypse movies, you know? No fighting, or pillaging or anything. They didn’t all suddenly become lawless barbarians. In fact, they probably saved a lot of lives by figuring out how to take care of themselves. It’s nice to remember that people aren’t always completely savage when they’re abandoned in a bad situation. They made a decision for themselves.” (pp. 52-53)
What is even more interesting is that, for The Migration, Marshall puts the responsibility for that decision—about how to respond to the disease—squarely in the court of the younger, afflicted generation. With Sophie. Though the perspective and advice of Aunt Irene bears importance for the first part of the novel, Sophie seems to realize that living in this new post-JI2 world is something that only she and those of her generation can ultimately face and respond to, because they are the ones directly affected. While the adults view the effects of JI2 as an “end”—a death—of the afflicted, Sophie and her other young friends can instead view it as a continuation of life, not its cessation. They see it as a migration to a new state of being, a metamorphosis into a different form.
The “death” of JI2 patients, followed by their reanimation, evokes the zombie genre: the dead not staying dead. Marshall’s novel doesn’t go down the traditional route of how reanimated life might be dealt with in a fantasy/horror story, either. When Kira first shows signs of the “jitters,” Sophie responds with an almost joyous hope: her sister might not actually be dead, just changed. This kind of idea has popped up in zombie fiction (such as The Walking Dead), but ultimately the concept seems to go nowhere and the characters who feel this way are portrayed as being delusional, clinging on to something gone, exhibiting an inability to pass through grief. But here Marshall plays with the idea that those who succumb to JI2 actually do retain a part of themselves while also becoming something new. While some see the change as monstrous and panic-inducing, others like Sophie, see it as a beautiful miracle.
The newsreel shows footage of the nymph from what looks like cameras worn by the officers. What they capture is like something snagged from a fairy tale. Androgynous. Its golden eyes are flicking left, right, left in pure panic, and its body begins to—I don’t know, undulate or bristle. The strange pearly white of its skin sucks in until I can make out the shape of its bones, the thin twig of its humerus, and a ridge that runs vertically down its chest. It leaps into flight. (p. 225)
By employing the fantastical plot of JI2 disease and the human response to the metamorphosis it sets off in young people, Marshall is really working around one central theme: death. Like all horror novels at their core, The Migration considers our fear of the inconstancy of life, of the shift to a condition which, prior to achieving it, is utterly unknown to and unexperienced by the individual. Marshall gives a possible perspective on death other than one governed by fear, through a girl hanging out with a group of friends that includes Sophie. The girl relates her feelings when her pet kitten died, and her parents tried to reassure her by telling her it was now in a better place for eternity:
“But I was upset because I don’t like forever, the idea of it. Tomorrow is good. Maybe I’ll be happy or maybe I’ll be sad. But being the same? All the time? I didn’t want it to be forever for the kitten. Not even in heaven! I didn’t like that idea, the attempt to turn death into something it wasn’t. Death is simple, the end of one set of biological processes. Our bodies disappear and the cells that once we were made of decompose and feed new life. It seemed beautiful to me […] I wanted to a scientist too, so I could understand why nothing in the world stays the same forever.” (p. 202)
Marshall doesn’t treat her dark themes with any sort of simplicity, but she does treat them with an exceptional, gentle compassion. This translates into how she writes her characters as well, and the reader cannot help but also be drawn into empathy with all the divergent points of view dealing with basic fears and traumas that we all share on some level. Her ability to achieve this in her plots, characterization, and the language of her writing are what has made Marshall’s short stories so richly evocative and captivating, and her expansion of them in The Migration makes me look forward to her future novels just as much as her future story collections.