The third entry in the Apex Voices series, Sing Me My Scars by Damien Angelica Walters is a sharp treatise on the subject of human pain, in all its forms, and what comes after. Underlying the physical torments endured by Walters’ protagonists are believable emotional horrors with which most readers will relate. Realistic tragedies–loss of love, proxy wars in a messy divorce, parental disinterest, the loss of a relative to Alzheimer’s–are placed side-by-side with more bizarre tribulations, such as the gradual vanishing of a lover’s body, impossible anatomical experimentations, and Inquisitorial ordeals inflicted on wielders of magic. But not all pain is so clearly unwelcome, as we see in one of the stronger selections, “Iron and Wood, Nail and Bone.” Comparisons to Kafka seem inevitable with this piece and its apparently self-inflicted, ritualized torments, but it has a distinct voice that feels more personal and less clinical than the bizarre machinations of the Czech writer.
In several stories, Walters lightly dips a few toes (hopefully still attached) into splatterpunk waters, to chilling effect. “Sing Me Your Scars”, “Girl, With Coin”, and “Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods” are particularly unsettling in their explorations of the ways in which we must ask ourselves how much we can be reduced or recombined and still retain a consistent notion of selfhood. The theme of scars, whether physical or otherwise, is present in virtually all of these pieces. Human frailty is juxtaposed in fascinating ways with toughness and a capacity to heal. The initial wound reveals the weakness, the subsequent scarring displays the strength to carry the damage on through life. Such a pattern could become stale in the hands of a less imaginative writer, but the stories here are inventive enough to avoid this potential pitfall. Rather, the collection comes across as a “variations on a theme” concept, and each story is bolstered and informed by those that came before.
Matching silver bands. Fingers entwined. One hand is hale and hearty; the other frail, the veins standing out like mounds in a field of fresh graves.
— “Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?” (included in 2014’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 1)
To Walters, being alive seems synonymous with pain, and scars inflicted by others or by the world often find a way of being perpetually reinflicted by oneself.
Although most of the stories have a strong body horror element, many of the collection’s strongest moments arrive when Walters relents, if just a little, on the physical components of human suffering. One of the strongest selections, “Dysphonia in D Minor,” uses an elegantly simple tale of fading love as its core, but the beautiful descriptions and grandiose, speculative elements of the story make it fresh and serve as an excellent counterpoint to the more familiar components. Similarly, “Like Origami in Water” calls attention to the fragility of the human form, and it is in this piece that one of the collection’s recurring images—paper and its attendant capacity for being reshaped and repurposed—finds its most affecting expression. Other fragile items, such as flower petals, frequently find their way into stories and accompany the sufferings of those who bear them.
While the collection is quite strong overall, it falters a bit in a few places. At least one story ends in a fashion that is pointedly ambiguous and would likely have benefited from a subtler approach. On occasion, a story’s premise and characters are compelling enough that the story still seemed to have room to grow before its finish. These examples tend to come from the shorter selections, while the longer pieces tend to be a little more successful at exploring the book’s themes and creating characters in which the reader becomes invested. Bearing this in mind, it will be interesting to see what Ms. Walters does with her next release, Paper Tigers–a novel from Dark House Press due out in August of 2015.