Margo Lanagan’s newest collection, Cracklescape, has recently been released as part of Twelfth Planet Press’s “Twelve Planets” series; it is a small, pocket-sized book containing four short stories as well as an introduction by Jane Yolen. Each of the stories is linked by a stunning sense of place: rather than making the strange familiar, here Lanagan takes the familiar—in this case, Australia—and makes it strange. The stories are also linked, as Yolen suggests in her introduction, by haunting or being haunted, of the ghost in the shadow, be it real, imaginary, or metaphorical.
Cracklescape is like a box of gourmet chocolates: four unique, rich bites. This is the natural intent of the “Twelve Planets” series of collections, of course—in each case, to give a sampler of four stories from a great Australian SF writer. (Twelfth Planet Press, run by Alisa Krasnostein with editors Tehani Wessely and Helen Merrick, publishes other fine books, too, which have been winners and nominees in everything from the Aurealis award to the Tiptree.) Margo Lanagan’s Cracklescape is the seventh installment of the series, which is slated to run through 2013, and also one of the most powerful to date.
The four stories that make up Cracklescape are “The Duchess Dresser,” “The Isles of the Sun,” “Bajazzle,” and “Significant Dust.” They are each of similar lengths, taking nearly a quarter of the book a piece, and are all set in contemporary or near-contemporary Australia.
“The Duchess Dresser” is an almost typical tale of a haunting attached to the titular piece of furniture, which the protagonist finds in someone’s trash on the way to his share house, but with a sideways tilt. The protagonist is a young man, a bit unattached to the world at large and lacking direction in a way familiar to many folks in their twenties, but the ghost is a young woman. He experiences her through his dreams: her pains, her struggles—her punishing wardrobe. The feminist commentary of the story is subtle but strong, as this young man observes and becomes the woman who has been split off from him by many years. The thing is—she’s not dead, or isn’t haunting the dresser because of a death. The ghost, finally, just walks out of their house (also seen by another woman who lives there) into sunlight. The ending, after the intense buildup and the changes the event has sculpted in the young man, resonates, positive and understated. The imagery of pregnancy, caught up with the boundaries of socialized womanhood and the echoing potential of the past into the present, creates a lingering impression.
The next piece, “The Isles of the Sun,” is Peter Pan-esque: a boy is visited by beings of light, who he believes fix and support the whole world, and wants to become one of them. When they give him the instructions on how—to become light, to fly—the other neighborhood children are caught in the web as well. His mother, too late, follows the children when he sneaks out of the house, only to watch them all fling themselves off of a cliff. For a vertiginous moment, balanced between the seemingly dull and stable reality of the Australian neighborhood and the possibility of these strange creatures existing at all (and being benevolent, if they do), Lanagan smashes the mother’s terror into the reader—have the children fallen to their deaths? The answer is no, but the blow of loss is not lessened by their fantastic survival. The mother has lost her child, and so have all of the other parents in this small community. The children, thoughtless of the effect of their going away to be golden beings themselves, have abandoned the parents and left them with nothing. The emotional jerk of the closing, the children’s joy juxtaposed with the mother’s devastation, is accomplished with relatively little flare but quite a lot of kick. Lanagan’s prose is free of misstep, and each word splashes necessary light on the finale. The final question, too, remains a mystery, this one tinged not with joy but sorrow: were the golden beings so positive, so delightful, after all? “The Isles of the Sun” echoes childhood fantasies and stories of escape from boring “real” life in many ways, but in others, casts doubt and pain on those same narratives.
However, the story that I had to read more than once to work through my own reactions was “Bajazzle,” in which a fad has come around for young women to dress up as gothic sheela na gigs (old statuary that depict women with exaggerated vulva, generally assumed to ward off evil) and “sing” in public places. It is, also, a succubus tale—in which an older man is seduced by a woman who is just what he likes, but she takes him for her own needs against his eventual will and terrifies him to his core. That older man, Don, is also the narrator of this story, and he isn’t exactly thrilled with his feminist wife, or the sheela na gig movement, or women in general, or himself. This makes for a narrative structure that is telling the reader directly through Don’s eyes one thing—that the young women are gross and offensive and horrible; that his wife’s body is just never what he wants and she’s not either—and through the actions, events, and speech of everyone else something entirely different. The end result is a staggering, discomfiting scene between Don and the woman who becomes a sheela na gig in the stony flesh as she sexually assaults him; afterwards, Don stumbles back out into the night, physically unharmed but mentally devastated, and the reader is left to wonder about the Sheela movement and what it’s doing, what it means, what the supernatural experiences signify. Or, as his wife Su says when Don makes a joke about not clapping for the Sheelas on the train who make him so uncomfortable with their singing, “Maybe that’s ’cause it’s not put on for your entertainment.” (54) There are layers upon layers to the commentary this story is spooling out, and it will be something I think about for a long while yet—particularly the way the image of the ancient powerful woman is brought around to contemporary significance in a world where feminism has had roots for a century or more.
The final piece, though, is the best. “Significant Dust” takes the tale of a reported alien encounter in Western Australia in 1988 (a quote regarding it is the epigram) and weaves into that experience of the inexplicable a story about Vanessa, a young woman whose brief playful shove paralyzed her sister in an accident. She has come to the deserted scrub land to work and live at a roadhouse, to get away from her own memories and guilt, but she also has no sense of belonging or being in the world. She encounters a man who sifts black dust off of his body impossibly in the restaurant one morning; later, she experiences strange lights in her room as she lies awake. These narratives piece slowly, carefully, together—her sister’s accident, her home life, her time at the roadhouse, and finally her search for the alien and ineffable, “towards any possibility at all.” It’s difficult to encompass much of what this story is doing; there is balance, tension, emotional movement, and a devastating level of realism. It would surprise me if “Significant Dust” didn’t garner a great deal of attention in the coming year. It also goes almost without saying, at this point, that Lanagan’s masterful prose is a major part of what brings about the power in this story.
As you may have noted, there is one other thing, beyond the concrete sense of place and the emphasis on hauntings, that comes through in all of these stories: a tendency toward the ineffable, the ambiguous, and the uncertain. In short, they illustrate with great power and precision the not-easily-categorized experience of real, daily life, where answers are not guaranteed and often the sense of closure that a person might achieve comes only from an emotional arc, an internally reached and realized conclusion. The concreteness of the settings is complemented and enhanced by the oft-ambiguous tones of the stories—the narrative movement of each piece tends to arc through the characters, as opposed to an external plot; the characters, having reached a crisis point, are equally often uncertain of what it has meant or will mean, only that they have made a decision and that something has ended, or begun.
The ability to weave a satisfying story with narrative movement and emotional resonance out of the simple details of familiar people living familiar lives, encountering only briefly something inexplicable to them and to us, is rare. It’s the sort of accomplishment that appears flawless and simple, nearly rustic, but is made up of a dazzling series of interlocking, microscopic parts. Lanagan’s other-world fantastic stories are great, but the understated and graceful force of these four pieces, put into concert, demonstrates her equal gift for bringing to life real people in the real world—only, a touch sideways, a touch out of kilter, encountering things that they cannot explain. We, the reader, are left to wonder, and to turn over and over in our minds what Lanagan has shown us, searching for impossible answers.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.