Behind the scenes, Angela Slatter has been working as WFR’s managing editor by, among other efforts, answering queries, working with writers on solicited submissions, and helping coordinate our forthcoming 101 Weird Writers feature (organized by Adam Mills). She’s agreed to stay on while we get set-up and organized, and, going forward, as her writing schedule allows. Slatter is a sensational storyteller whose collection The Sourdough & Other Stories recently appeared on the finalist list for the World Fantasy Award. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again, Tartarus Press’ Strange Tales II, Twelfth Planet Press’ 2012, Dirk Flinthart’s Canterbury 2100, and in journals such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, ONSPEC and Doorways Magazine. Slatter also runs a great blog that includes numerous interviews with writers.
We’ll have announcements about some regular columnists soon, but for now we thought we’d leave you with my afterword to Slatter’s collection, as another way to get to know her. Have a great weekend!
(Slatter photo by David Pollitt June 2010)
Sourdough and Gallowberries for Us All: An Afterword
by Jeff VanderMeer
I still remember that first adolescent rush of excitement when I discovered the short fiction of The Other Angela, Carter—the way in which she created, using that amazing style and voice, updated fairy tales that changed the point of view, the emphasis, from male to female, and in so doing revitalized a whole type of story. In some cases, Carter also restored the authenticity of the tales’ origins.
But they were still tales, and as much as I idolized them, the stylized, baroque qualities of the prose means they must be read like you’d eat rich truffles, or, perhaps, gallowberries: each time you wink out, come back dislocated and needing a break. Today I admire such tales, but they don’t speak as personally to me.
Which brings me to Angela, Slatter. Now I’m older and less susceptible to writer crushes. I’ve read a lot more, seen a lot more, and survived a lot more, and one reason I adore Sourdough and Other Stories is the feeling that Slatter has, too. There’s a sense of wanting to infuse her fantasy fiction with the invisible outlines of personal victories hard-won, of chances taken, and of a restless passion.
You could call what she’s created her “take” on folktales, but I think that’s too limiting. She’s not just riffing off of what’s gone before but creating something new that’s less stylized and more three-dimensional. The opener, “The Shadow Tree,” is a glorious and complex start to staking out her own territory, with its examination of the deliberate and thoughtless cruelty of those with unlimited privilege. But Slatter’s narrator isn’t there to relay a story so much as to be her own true self—someone in exile, in a difficult situation, using every advantage at her disposal. The queen and the sociopathic kids aren’t out of your normal fairy tale scenario, either. They have a freshness and a specificity that carries weight without being weighty. This means that the narrative can accomplish more than lesser efforts that start out with the stale crumbs of “Once upon a time.”
In short, these characters exist somewhere on the edges of our real world. They aren’t just echoes of echoes passed down through oral storytelling—they’ve popped out of the tapestry on the wall and into our lives. Slatter’s narratives stay true to this fact by being firmly wedded to the concerns of the people in them.
The strength of the voice in stories like “The Gallowberries” or “Sourdough” is also a joy. No matter how uncertain the fates of the women in this collection, there’s nothing uncertain about their storytelling ability. There’s also the lovely frisson of pitch-perfect moments like this one in “The Gallowberries”: “He lifted both of my legs onto the worn padding, then pushed my skirts up to my knees. The right ankle seemed to swell even as we watched, the flesh hot and pink. His hands touched the heated skin and I shivered, as much from excitement as from the coolness of his palms.”
It’s difficult to convey passion and love in ways that don’t seem like they came out of bad romance novels, because it’s such an exposed position to be in, such a heightening of the senses. But Slatter manages it in part by her restraint—by focusing on an ankle, for example.
As exciting for the reader is the level of invention, especially devilish invention. Slatter writes that gallowberries taste “without exception, of rotting flesh and spent seed—their garden lies at a crossroads, under the gallows…The lives of such men shudder to a halt, their last breath and last pleasure simultaneous.” What a wonderful/horrible line in the best possible sense!
But description without completion is meaningless, and the completion is as much of a joy as biting down on the flesh of a less ghoulish fruit: “She popped one of the gallowberries she habitually carried about in her pockets into her mouth. As she moved forward, she mouthed a word or two, bit down hard and blinked out of existence.” Voila! For me, that’s a blissful fictional moment.
Several other stories, like “A Porcelain Soul,” abound in this effect akin to the taste explosion after sampling an exotic fruit. Slatter matter-of-factly tosses off lines like “Pious mothers bring newborns here and donate their babies’ breath.” A lesser writer would spend paragraphs (stretching like boring hours) explaining, when the explanation is already hardwired into the description. (Slatter’s adroit at getting on with the story.)
Later, she writes “Selke slipped five homunculi in amongst the church choir. A harmless enough trick and, if anyone had paid attention, they’d have noticed the blankness on the ill-painted faces and known them for the soulless little abominations they were. She set them to explode when the hymns were sung.” Huzzah! That sound you’re hearing an echo of is me cackling fiendishly at that detail, and a myriad of others throughout this collection.
Slatter also writes clever, short teasers for openings that I find especially good because they’re deceptive. “There were too many apples.” When you finish the story you realize those lines meant more than you thought. “All I ever wanted was the tower.” Even better, they’re lovely hooks that don’t oversell the story through over-emphasize or hyperbole. “I’m just a boy, I keep telling them. A common footpad.” Or, sometimes, that opening is just a great opening salvo into complexity of situation or character: “My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.”
These, then, are the impeccably imagined moments that allow the loud, big, deep human moments to hold the foreground with such authority. Slatter’s characters are witches, nomads, exiles—seekers, travelers, chance-takers. They’re fully three-dimensional, and they provide the reader with the joy of encountering people who aren’t by any means perfect, but who seem real—women in disguise, in extremis, both sure and unsure of their identities—and who you want to know more about even after story’s end (even the weird ones; especially the weird ones). “The Shadow Tree”’s Ella is the quintessential narrator of Sourdough and Other Stories—resourceful, nuanced, clear-seeing and clear-thinking—but so is Magdelene in the last story, “Under the Mountain”. One is our entry into story and one is showing us the way out. “How much do I care? Enough to stay? Enough to let go of this flesh, this humanity? Do I dare to dig beneath my skin and see what really lies there?”
Earthy, hearty, cheeky, and wise, Sourdough and Other Stories delivers so many different types of reading pleasure that perhaps it ought to be a crime. Which is another way of saying I’m in love with these stories, and if you’ve come this far I hope you were, too.