On reading the opening story in Holly Black's debut collection, I became fixed in the delusion that its title was "Vampires Are So Glamorous." In fact, that story's true title is "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown." "Vampires Are So Glamorous" feels so right to me, though, that I have to literally check the book every time I've needed to refer to it by its true title. When I first discovered my error, after very little thought I realized the source of the spurious title: a national anti-smoking ad campaign a decade or so ago that had been centered on the theme "Smoking is so glamorous," in which these words served as the caption on a parade of images depicting decidedly unglamorous people—usually blatant stereotypes of working-class men and women—with ash-laden, burning butts sticking out of their mouths. In the US at least, glamour is, after all, the antithesis of working-class life, which, in the case of Black's stories, can mean living in a trailer court, squatting in a crack house, working at a candy counter selling gummy geckos and chocolate-covered malt balls—or pulling lattes in a coffee shop furnished with "ratty" tables and chairs salvaged from the roadside. Interestingly, the stories in The Poison Eaters remind us that the only actual non-negotiable components of glamour are charisma and power. For although wealth is often a component of glamour (since wealth and power often work hand-in-glove), in the worlds Black takes us to, wealth isn't actually an essential ingredient of glamour. Black's subtle insistence on preserving this distinction, whether ironically—as in the opening story—or matter-of-factly—as in "The Land of Heart's Desire"—anchors most of the stories in the collection.
And thus the irony-rich "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" plunges us immediately into the degradation and pain that attends protagonist Matilda Green's infection with vampirism. Wishing desperately not to become a vampire, Matilda is trying to beat the disease by staying blood-free for eighty-eight days, which is how long it takes "for the venom to sweat out of a person's pores" (p. 6). To do this, she lives on the streets, away from her family, inviting skuzzy men to buy her alcohol, which alone can dull the pain and nausea incurred by resistance to the fierce desire to drink blood. Her sole focus, driving her resistance, is a boy named Julian, whom she naively imagines as Romeo to her Juliet.
Vampirism, the narrative tells us, is a disease that became an epidemic when it was deliberately spread by an infected guy romanticizing himself, perhaps because "films and books and television had started romanticizing vampires" (p. 8). As the epidemic spread (and with it, of course, panic), the National Guard began to quarantine victims of the disease—vampires—in "coldtowns." Given the role romanticism plays in the story, the reader knows it's only a matter of time before Matilda's own romantic illusions are destroyed. When that happens, she loses her sole reason for enduring the unrelenting pain of keeping herself human. She then takes blood and enters a coldtown, where she lives in a grungy house with vampire groupies. Coldtowns may be physically quarantined from the rest of the world, but they do, of course, have wifi. Matilda sets up a live feed to her blog to show not only the ugly sight of herself ineptly feeding, but also the suffering of the girl she bit and keeps chained up, showing the world the agony the girl endures as she's kept from drinking blood:
You've probably seen lots of video feeds from inside Coldtown. I saw them too. Pictures of girls and boys grinding together in clubs or bleeding elegantly for their celebrity vampire masters. Here's what you never see. What I'm going to show you. (p. 27)
Yeah, vampires are so glamorous. When a vampire's not a celebrity but a runaway girl living with other runaways under quarantine, we're not exactly in Anita Blake territory anymore.
The specific glamour of faerie as it touches ordinary mortal lives—often with an emphasis on the desire it generates in the beholder—appears in several of Black's stories. In the lightest of these, "The Land of Heart's Desire," the narrative observes:
Lords of Faerie sometimes walk among us. Even in places stinking of cold iron, up broken concrete steps, in tiny apartments where girls sleep three to a bedroom. Faeries, after all, delight in corruption, in borders, in crossing over and then crossing back again. (p. 175)
Wealth is of no interest to faeries, and faerie glamour is mere enchantment, the thinnest of veneers. And so it is that fairy gold amounts to nothing more than glamoured leaves, and the devotion of a faerie child's nurse, compelled through enchantment, is inconstant and resentful. Acutely aware of this, Roiben, King of the Unseelie Court who hangs out in his girlfriend's coffee shop, faced with the incomprehensible longing and desire that non-enchanted humans have for faerie, "wondered why mortals so wanted to be associated with suffering that they told foolish tales. Why not tell a story where one's grandmother died fat, old and beloved by her dozen children?" (p. 181). In fact, the grandmother in question was indeed abducted by the faerie after she'd given birth to a stillborn baby—the abduction, Roiben realizes, of his own caretaker when he was a child, a woman taken from her children who "in her more lucid moments . . . hated her faerie charges" (p. 183). Roiben understands the degradation of enchantment well, for even faeries are subject to enchantment. He recalls "all the humiliations I have suffered, all the things I have done for my mistresses at their commands"—and notes his contrasting pleasure in voluntarily serving coffee to "fools" in a "dirty human" coffee shop (p. 191).
"Virgin" offers us a closer look at the desire Roiben finds incomprehensible. The narrator, Jen, who has run away from the latest of her foster homes, reads fantasy. Tanya, one of the people she's squatting with, points to Jen's copy of The Hobbit and says,
"Reading that stuff would depress me. People like us—we're not in those kind of books. They're not for us."
I stared at her. It might have been the worst thing anybody had ever said to me.
Because no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn't make it feel any less true. (p. 98)
Tanya means, of course, that fantasy novels are written for middle-class girls with stable lives and affluent homes—not girls living on the street, homeless.
Jen is passionately interested in Zach, a "crazy" boy who "makes everything seem different" (p. 94). Zach tells her a story about how after his mother was shot in front of him by drug dealers, in a forest "just outside the city," a unicorn came and laid its head in his lap while he petted it. "I forgot everything but that moment," he tells her, "everything but the white pelt, for a long, long while. It was like the whole word went white" (p. 96). Zach, not Jen, is the virgin. Jen wants to believe in Zach's unicorn, but she's also angry with him. She wants to believe, she says, "that there was something heroic and special and magical about living on the street" (p. 98). "Virgin" is all about the desire for being "special and magical," the pain of exclusion from the "special and magical," and the personal betrayals spurred by that pain. Glamour feeds on the need to believe that certain people are not ordinary mortals but are in their very being (rather than in what they do) special, compounded with vicarious identification with that "specialness."
If Black portrays objects endowed with glamour, enchantment, and desire as a handful of dead, dry leaves, she shows love as a powerful, active force that inspires those who feel it to risk all for the sake of its objects. In the most powerful and unusual tale in the collection, "The Night Market," Tomasa, following the instructions of her family's maid Rosa, negotiates with an enkanto—an elf boy—to save her sister Eva. The enkanto is slippery, requiring Tomasa to make three perilous trips to bargain with him to remove the spell he's cast on Eva. The tale ends with a wonderful twist that must not be spoiled for the first-time reader and makes it a story not just to like and admire, but to love.
"A Reversal of Fortune," a Deal-with-the-Devil story, is another tale of a mortal girl, powered by love and caught up in tricky negotiations, that ends with a twist—only this time with a twist most readers will see coming. Still, this Deal-with-the-Devil story manages to escape the clutches of cliché through the author's choice of characters and setting and the quality of the narrative's prose. Teenaged Nikki lives in a trailer park and works at a candy counter in the mall, where the "pay was pretty much crap, but Nikki was allowed to eat as much candy as she wanted" (p. 34). Nikki, perhaps because she is "skinny as a straw no matter what she ate" (p. 31), sees no reason not to cram herself full of sugar, which not surprisingly results in jitters and blood-sugar crashes. Her brother Doug, who weighs more than 400 pounds, is a champion speed-eater. Having just eaten 50 shrimp, when he belches he makes the "air smell like a beach after the tide went out and left the mussels to bake in the sun" (p. 33).
The tale begins after five pages of beautifully written set-up. On the bus home from the mall, the old man seated next to her, his breath "like honey," tells her he's going to "give [her] what she want[s]" (p. 35). Nikki "wished she could just tell freakjobs to fuck off, but she hated that hurt look that they sometimes got. It made her think of Boo" (p. 36). (Boo is her pit bull.) When she tells him she wants him to act like she's not there, he tells her he's going to grant her wish. And then a woman, thinking Nikki's seat is empty, sits down in Nikki's lap. The old guy informs Nikki he's also going to give her the next thing she wants—for a price. Nikki then debarks from the bus. When she arrives home, she learns that the hunk who lives next door ran over her pit bull, Boo. Surgery to save Boo would cost $2000, which Nikki and her family don't have. And so the vet will be putting Boo down as soon as Nikki can get to the vet's to say goodbye. Like most of Black's characters, Nikki is conversant with urban fantasy conventions and immediately knows what she has to do to save Boo's life.
The pattern recurs in "The Coat of Stars," which when the collection is read in order is the first story to lack a distinctively YA sensibility. In this tale, talented costume designer Rafael Santiago bargains with the Queen of Faerie to recover his lover, Lyle, who disappeared the summer they were fourteen. Again, the story hinges on its protagonist's being savvy to the fantasy convention in question, motivated by love, and bold and determined enough to play a game where the outcome's all but fixed. Only our interest in the setting and protagonist (in "Coat of Stars" and "Night Market") or the fineness of the prose ("A Reversal of Fortune") or genuinely fresh twist ("Night Market") make these worth reading and rereading. Although this particular narrative arc works in the collection as a formula on which Black hangs what really interests her, Black manages to make each tale distinctly itself rather than a mere iteration of the familiar.
Though most of the tales in The Poison Eaters are sufficiently interesting and well-written to warrant multiple readings, a handful of them don't quite come off or are just too trivial to stand a second, closer reading. And the quality of the writing is in places uneven. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," for instance, has a predictable ending that feels as if it were hastily thrown together, as though Black got too bored with her original conception to make the tale as rich and complex as her best stories. Her inattention is borne out by the grating grammatical error in the first sentence of the third paragraph of the story—which I take for a copy-editing oversight, given the relative sophistication of the language used throughout. Of course authorial TLC to the text doesn't always preclude bloopers. I should also probably note that in the otherwise excellent "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown," the protagonist's name changes from Matilda to Melinda for a few paragraphs (p.13)—presumably the remnant of an earlier version of the story. It took me a second close reading of the story to be certain that "Melinda" is actually meant to be "Matilda," and not actually an odd bit of narrative about a mysterious additional character whose presence in the story the narrative never explains.
Many writers learn their craft writing short fiction before turning to novels. But Black's reputation has been built on her two immensely popular YA series, Tithe (2002), Valiant (2005), and Ironside (2007), and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2003-2009). The earliest story in the collection, "The Night Market," dates from 2004, but most date from 2007 or later. Although she appears not to have had much experience writing short fiction, she is nevertheless master of her craft. I'm impressed by the freshness of Black's treatment of old, worn conventions, for she uses her characters' consciousness of the conventions to stretch and explore them rather than make light of them, and by the insightful emotional intelligence of her characterizations. And I especially like that she writes about people who aren't middle-class—about the people Tanya tells Jen that fantasy is not meant for. I only wish that Black had dropped the weakest stories from her collection. The strength and beauty of the book's best tales may incline readers to overlook its slightest tales, but the contrast may also make their slightness harder to forgive.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.
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