Wed
Nov 23 2011 11:45am
Bookended by Dragons: Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette

Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is Sarah Monette’s first general short fiction collection, published by Prime Books, who also handled her collection of Kyle Murchison Booth stories The Bone Key in 2007 (discussed here). While there is one Booth story in this collection, the rest are varied in theme and content, spanning Monette’s career publishing short fiction from the first story (“Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland”) to new tales unique to this collection, and covering all of the ground between.

The book opens with “Draco Campestris” and closes with “After the Dragon,” both stories featuring dragons inspired by the jewelry of Elise Matthesen. Bookended between these two tales are stories ranging from science fiction to classic horror to urban fantasy (with trains!), spanning an emotional gamut from the desolate to the uplifting, often united by their focus on people who have been othered or made outsiders in their society. There are several queer stories, and yet more stories that deal with women’s sexualities (queer and otherwise) and identities in a patriarchal world. Issues of gender, sexuality, class, and able-ness permeate Monette’s short fiction; trauma and recovery, too, are common themes.

Minor spoilers follow.

Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is a strong book, achieving the necessary balance between variety and unity that single-author collections often strive for but fail to manage. The stories — for the most part short; there are no novellas here — are concise, tightly-woven universes, evocative and complete in their storytelling as well as their emotional resonance. Whether the subject is Lovecraftian urban fantasy, parodic science fiction, or classic horror, Monette’s prose is precise and vividly complex, often poetic. There is, also, one actual poem.

That this book contains twenty-five stories, yet no two read entirely alike, is a testament to the flexibility of Monette’s short fiction. These stories slip between and around generic convention as often as they mimic it, containing homages to writers like du Maurier, Lovecraft and M. R. James, but also reinventions of older stories, like the Tam Lin/Orpheus story, “Katabasis: Seraphic Trains,” or the mashup universe of the two connected stories, “A Night in Electric Squidland” and “Imposters.” More often than not, there is an intertextual element to Monette’s short fiction, recalling layers upon layers of prior reading and prior mythology; there is also a smattering of metafiction.

However, while these stories reward the reader who is looking for intertextual connections, they are in no way impenetrable to those readers who have come to the table for only, or also, entertainment — creepy ghosts, strange cities, and handsome fairies abound for the fantastical delight of the audience. The stories are well told; while their thematic and emotional resonances are intense and gripping, their actual narratives are equally engaging. Balance is the key, again, in this case; the theme is carried by the story and the story is enriched by the theme.

There are five stories in particular which stand out from the rest, though all are remarkably good. These five are the ones that stuck with me, after putting the book down, or the ones that prompted a visceral, emotional reaction, or both — often both. Those are “Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veteran’s Day,” “The Watcher in the Corners,” “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland,” “Somewhere Beneath Those Waves was Her Home,” and “After the Dragon.”

“Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veteran’s Day” (originally published in Ideomancer) is a ghost story, but it’s also a story of loss, family, and the tragedy of war. Not only that, it’s a kicker of a story, emotionally. My strings are not easy to pull, but there were tears in my eyes as I finished this story — and it isn’t the first time I’ve read it. The narrator’s relationships to his brother, who goes away to war and does not come home, and his mother, who doesn’t care much for him and who he has a frigid-to-nonexistent relationship with, are wrenching, combined as they are with his youthful experience of not only losing his brother, but losing all memorials of his brother, except one rescued teddy bear. The details of his life which emerge through the slow build of the story form the backbone of the tale, tying the reader tightly to the narrator’s consciousness. His meeting with a wounded soldier at his brother’s funeral, who gives him a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, is a particularly concrete, too-real scene which both the reader and the narrator continue to recall throughout the rest of the narrative. The finale — the ghosts, the war-memorial — is at once fulfilling and immensely sad. (Especially notable is that, in her liner notes, Monette says this is the first short story she successfully finished. Considered as a first successful short story, it’s doubly impressive.)

“The Watcher in the Corners” (originally published on Monette’s blog) is another ghost story — this time, a scary one. The parts of the story are familiar to readers of supernatural horror, but the way in which Monette assembles them and narrates them makes “The Watcher in the Corners” a gripping, legitimately discomfiting story that hangs around the readers’ imagination long after it’s over. The lead character, Lilah, is a sixteen year old woman — married to a husband who is at best a drunk and a cheater — who cleans house for a rich family. Their son disappears, and the house becomes uncanny, haunted. The interactions between Lilah (uneducated, poor, and a woman at a time when being a woman is to be a kind of property) and the people around her are the core of the story, as much or moreso as the ghost itself — but don’t let that make it sound as if I’ve discounted the ghost story. The fate of the young boy and the eventual development of his malevolent ghost are hair-raising, and the final lines of the story make certain that the reader is left with the discomfiting reminder of what lurks in that big house’s cellar.

“Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland” (originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet) is one of Monette’s most reprinted short stories — it won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for short fiction in 2003, and has been included in several anthologies since them. It was also her first sale — again, displaying an astounding level of skill for a “first” story of any kind. The tale is about a young Victorian woman who has had a love affair with the fairy queen, and has left her to be married and respectable, because she knows that she is the entertainment of a moment for the Queen. Her husband finds the three titular letters, begging her to return to the Queen, and confronts her — she tells him the truth, but it isn’t the truth he wanted to hear. “Three Letters” is not a happy story, but in that, it’s a real story; for so many Victorian women, the loves of their lives were women, and those affairs were by necessity of survival broken off for men. The husband is left bereft, unsure of how he could have fooled himself so thoroughly to think that his wife relied on and loved him utterly, and the wife is left discontent and stuck in a life she doesn’t particularly love but which is her destiny as a woman in her time. It’s a queer feminist story that resonates through history, while it also tells a heartstring-tugging story of abandoned love.

“Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home” (originally published in Fantasy) is a story about a selkie, patriarchy, and women’s identities — even if you’re not the same species. While the story opens with trapped women, a selkie who has lost her skin and a woman in an empty marriage whose life is still dictated by her husband, it ends with hope and freedom as they escape to the sea as sisters, to be among sisters. In addition to the rich thematic freight, this titular story is immensely engaging; reading to find out what has happened, what will happen, and how it’ll happen is as satisfying as the crunchy thematic bits. The two women the story balances between are very different but equally excellent protagonists. It’s also one of the most poetic of the stories in the volume, filled with vivid description and evocative language.

And finally, there’s “After the Dragon” (originally published in Fantasy), the newest previously-published story in the collection and another kicker of a tale; emotionally difficult, but also uplifting. The protagonist has slain the dragon before the story ever begins, and the story is about her recovery from the trauma — it starts where most stories leave off. “After the Dragon” is literally and metaphorically a story about recovery, and what recovery means: not magic regeneration to what you have been before, because scars don’t work that way, but coming to be who you are, as you are, and to appreciate yourself again. The power of this story is in that allegorical possibility: that it is not just a story about this one particular woman but about the process of recovery from trauma as a whole. The prose is phenomenal, the emotional resonance is intense, and the ending is moving — it’s the perfect close to the collection, and a perfect story in and of itself.

Those five are the strongest stories in a collection made entirely of strong stories, and they’re each doing something drastically different.

(It’s worth mentioning that I don’t, generally, enjoy reading horror fiction — or, at least, contemporary horror fiction. I find it cheaply manipulative, ineffective, and shallow a really large part of the time. This stuff, though? This is the good stuff. The horror stories in Somewhere Beneath Those Waves are, to the last, carefully constructed and genuinely frightening without that sensation of cheapness that I usually associate with the form. Possibly and probably, it’s that all of these scary stories also contain commentary on things like gender and class in addition to their terrible ghosts and eerie visions. At the same time, their narratives are inescapably creepy and suspenseful; Monette doesn’t skimp on the atmospheric effects.)

*

As a whole, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is a powerful collection, well put together and streamlined into a nicely coherent whole without losing any of the variety of subject and tone contained in the stories themselves. It is a book about outsiders, in their various forms, and what it means to endure — as well as to recover. There are several great queer stories and feminist stories which I found immensely satisfying, if not always uplifting; there is a core reality to the pain and alienation of being an outsider that these stories try to capture over and over in different ways. Sarah Monette’s Somewhere Beneath Those Waves is one of the better collections of this year, and I would recommend it to fans of speculative fiction that like intertextual, thematically crunchy, and entertaining stories.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

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