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Sarah McCarry

Fiction and Excerpts [4]

Fiction and Excerpts [4]

About a Girl

, || The conclusion to Sarah McCarry's Metamorphoses trilogy. Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There's no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty—or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born.

Weird Cosmologies and Unsubtle Monsters: The Shared Terrors of H.P. Lovecraft and Christopher Pike

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds. This time out, Sarah McCarry teases out similarities in the mythmaking of noted racism enthusiast H.P. Lovecraft, and noted purveyor of ’90s teen chillers, Christopher Pike.

You probably haven’t spent a lot of time considering the striking similarities between HP Lovecraft’s classic 1931 Antarctic travel warning At the Mountains of Madness and Christopher Pike’s extraordinary 1992 Martian-mission-from-hell bonanza The Season of Passage, if for no other reason than the fact that you probably haven’t read The Season of Passage. In thinking about this essay, I did consider the possibility that the Venn overlap between “people who are enthusiastic about At the Mountains of Madness” and “people who cannot shut up about The Season of Passage” consists entirely of, well, me. And yet! dear and patient reader, I ask you to join me, on a journey that will carry us from the frigid, lizard-vampire riddled plains of Mars to the frigid, lizard-ish-vampire-ish-infested mountains of Antarctica, from wet monsters to dry monsters to comely young ladies frolicking about spaceships in their undershorts; in short, a very specific window into the more dubious corners of the American psyche.

Are you ready? Let’s go.

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Series: Close Reads

What if The Abyss, But Lesbians: Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea

In James Cameron’s 1989 classic horror-thriller, The Abyss, the seasoned crew of an experimental underwater oil-drilling platform are reluctantly recruited by the United States Navy to assist a SEAL team in investigating the mysterious sinking of an American nuclear submarine near the Cayman Trench. Led by foreman Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) and his hypercompetent, stubborn estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the crew endures a variety of harrowing mishaps before ultimately sending Bud into the titular Abyss to disarm a nuclear warhead. Bud (spoiler alert, I guess?) runs out of oxygen in the trench, sending a final text message as Lindsey weeps: DONT CRY BABY. KNEW THIS WAS A ONE WAY TICKET BUT YOU KNOW I HAD TO COME. LOVE YOU WIFE.

“Knew this was a one way ticket but you know I had to come/love you wife” serves as a tidy résumé of Julia Armfield’s saltwater gothic Our Wives Under the Sea, a haunting and masterfully crafted novel of love, loss, lesbians, and sea monsters.

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Good Cheeky Fun With Depth: Sara Gran’s The Book of the Most Precious Substance

Rare book dealer and lapsed novelist Lily Albrecht is minding her own business at a rare book sale in Manhattan when she’s approached out of the blue by an oddball colleague with a too-good-to-be-true offer: find a copy of an obscure 17th-century book of sex magic, The Book of the Most Precious Substance, and he’ll come through with a client willing to pay a million dollars. Having never read a Sara Gran novel, Lily says sure. Within hours, the other dealer is dead under mysterious circumstances.

Not to be deterred, ever-pragmatic—and broke—Lily decides to track down the book and the client on her own, with the help of Lucas, a charismatic fellow dealer who may or may not be on her side. Lily soon finds out that the Book is more than just a priceless curio; its promise of earth-shattering sex and limitless power for aspirants who complete each of its five rituals is real, and there’s more than one obscenely wealthy and correspondingly ruthless person who’s after it.

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“You Used to Be Optimistic”: Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth

The Secret Commonwealth begins twenty years after the events of La Belle Sauvage and eight years or so after Lyra’s grand adventures in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra is a student now, dedicated to her studies and happy among her friends. Her chief source of trouble is a falling-out with her daemon, Pantalaimon, who has never entirely forgiven her for separating from him at the edge of the world of the dead. And she is no longer able to lie with impunity; “now,” she thinks to herself at one point, “she just lacked inventiveness, or energy, or chutzpah.”

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How Dead is Dead, Really? Shelley Jackson’s Riddance

Shelley Jackson has long been one of gothic fabulism’s most delightful and ambitious Renaissance persons. Her 1995 hypertext Patchwork Girl is a reimagining of Frankenstein by way of L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a labyrinthine and nonlinear rabbit-hole collage of quotations, allusions, and anatomical diagrams. In 2003 she began the novella Skin, published entirely as one-word tattoos on the bodies of several thousand volunteers; her ongoing novella project is written in snow. She is a visual artist who’s illustrated the covers and interiors of Kelly Link’s short story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners as well as her own children’s books. And her most conventional (in form, anyway) novel to date, Half-Life, is the story of conjoined twins Nora and Blanche, one of whom is on a murderous quest to take back the first-person singular pronoun.

Riddance is Jackson’s first novel in twelve years, and it’s as noisy, category-defying, and fantastically weird a book as a longtime Jackson fan might hope for.

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The Taiga Syndrome; Or, a Haunting

1. how does any story work

Wood, snow, blood: old stories. The witch in the forest, the breadcrumb trail, the grandmother-skinned wolf—everybody’s here, in this wild little book, breath steaming humid in the cold air. The taiga is the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of the high northern latitudes. A person has gone there with her lover to become lost. Or perhaps she has gone there to find something else.

2. suicide

Our narrator is a writer, a failure, and a detective. She is hired by a man whose Adam’s apple she cannot fail to notice to find a woman who loves someone other than him, or who has run away to the taiga with someone other than him, which, to him, is the same thing, but may not be the same thing to us. The circumstances of her own disappearance may not be of interest to the disappeared. She is the protagonist of a different story than the one the man seeking her has told.

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Inverting the Antihero: Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

“It is productive to think about utopia as flux, a temporal disorganization, as a moment when the here and the now is transcended by a then and a there that could be and indeed should be,” writes the late, much-missed queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz in his 2009 survival manual Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Queer time, Muñoz suggests, is a strategy for demanding queer possibilities from straight retellings of the past in order to bridge the gap between the material conditions of the present and the longing for a radically utopian future. And if ever a novel has succeeded in explicitly making flesh the possibilities of queer futurity, Confessions of the Fox is that book.

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A Grim, Anti-Science Future: Julia Whicker’s Wonderblood

Julia Whicker’s debut novel, Wonderblood, is set 500 years from now in a barren, disease-ravaged United States that bears more resemblance to Europe of the Middle Ages than a far-flung future. A mad cow-like disease, Bent Head, has decimated the population; the survivors rove about in bloodthirsty traveling carnivals, beheading one another unrestrainedly and, in a delightful bit of invention, worshiping departed NASA space shuttles and awaiting their return. As the novel opens, mysterious comet-like lights burn across the sky and the sinister, charismatic Mr. Capulatio, whose carnival sets the bar high for decapitation and mayhem, gathers an army and steals himself a (second) bride.

In this world religion and magic have displaced science, astrology supersedes astronomy, and the feudal king—descended from astronauts—rules from a palace built over the wreckage of Cape Canaveral. The citizenry collects and preserves the heads of their enemies—and friends—for magical purposes; medicine is forbidden; human sacrifice is de rigueur (“Wonderblood” refers to a religious doctrine in which only human blood can contain the spread of disease); nobody takes baths.

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The Whole Kitchen: Jo Walton’s Starlings

“For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories,” Jo Walton notes in the oddball introduction to her first full-length collection, Starlings. And indeed, while Starlings is a collection, calling it a short-story collection is something of a misnomer: the book is instead a jumble-sale assemblage of jokes, opening chapters to unwritten novels, poetry, point-of-view exercises, and speculative fictions interspersed with Walton’s commentaries on her own work—which are as likely to be complaints about permanently delayed payments as they are insights into her work.

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A Muted Prequel: Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust

Twenty-two years after the publication of his extraordinary novel The Golden Compass, a passport into an intoxicating universe of infinite marvels, Philip Pullman has returned to the parallel world he created with the first installment in a new trilogy.

La Belle Sauvage opens a decade or so prior to the events of The Golden Compass. Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the son of an innkeeper, is an inquisitive, intelligent, and resourceful boy who spends his time helping out his parents, picking fights with Alice Polstrow, a cranky teenage girl who works at the inn, and loitering about at the Priory of Godstow, where the tolerant and kindly nuns give him free rein. His quiet life is abruptly upended by a series of events, beginning with his discovery of a mysterious message from Oakley Street, a secret society working in opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Church, which is tightening its hold on the government.

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A High Fantasy with All Your Old Friends: The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Like most people who grow up to be writers, I was a pretty weird kid. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you to learn that I was not a popular child; I spent the majority of my elementary-school recesses looking for dragons in the woods alone. I dressed as Raistlin three Halloweens in a row. I was certain that magic slumbered within me—not sleight of hand, but the real weather-altering enemy-smiting fireball-hurling stuff—waiting patiently for me to find the key to unlocking it. Other children were not kind to me, so I kept reading. There’s not a single doorstop-sized fantasy epic published between The Sword of Shannara and Sunrunner’s Fire that I haven’t read at least once (when I realized, belatedly, that this predilection was not endearing me to my peers, I took to disguising the telltale sword-and-naked-lady covers of my preferred reading material with a reusable cloth book cover; this concession, however, did not make me popular).

Tad Williams’ first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, was published in 1985. It follows the adventures of Fritti Tailchaser, a young feral cat whose love interest, Hushpad, disappears suddenly and mysteriously. Fritti’s search for his beloved takes him through multiple cats’ societies, a magnificently creepy underground city ruled by a diabolically Rabelaisian cat-god whose throne is a mountain of dying animals, legendary cat heroes in disguise, a kingdom of squirrels, and a complex and extensive cats’ mythology complete with creation stories and a family of cat deities. I read it so many times as a kid that my copy’s covers literally fell off. I can still quote parts of it from memory. When Williams’ next book came out in 1989, I was more than ready. I was obsessed.

The Dragonbone Chair isn’t about cats, but it’s so marvelously complex and vivid that my ten-year-old self was willing to overlook this flaw.

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A Madcap Debut: The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden

The first thing you should know about Nicky Drayden’s wildly imagined debut is that it’s really, really fun. You’ll bounce from tormented more-than-besties Muzi and Elkin’s first sexual experience (under the influence of a hallucinogen that unlocks their inner dolphin and crab selves, obvs) to a demigoddess moonlighting as a nail tech who plans to destroy the human race to a robot uprising to a young lady who is More Than She Seems to a global superstar and impossible diva whose friendly neighborhood drug dealer is the only person who knows her Dark Secret to an aspiring government official with a very overbearing mother and a secret life as a charismatic transgender pop star. And that’s just the first few chapters.

Spinning between the perspectives of multiple main characters, the seemingly divergent storylines of The Prey of Gods soon begin to intersect in—spoiler alert—unexpected and often delightful ways.

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Myth and Magic: A Conversation with Kat Howard

I’ve long been a fan of speculative fiction writer Kat Howard’s lyrical fairytale mashups, whether it’s her stunning collaborative work (as in The End of the Sentence with Maria Dahvana Headley, a gleeful and gory Western by way of Old Norse myth) or her beautiful short fiction (Howard’s numerous accolades include multiple year’s best and best-of anthologies and a World Fantasy Award nomination). (I’m such a fan, in fact, that I published one of Howard’s stories myself.)

Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, releases this month, and it has all of her distinctive hallmarks: gorgeous prose, riveting storytelling, sources that range from Scottish ballads to Shakespeare, a hellish dilemma, and, at its heart, a heroine who’s learning hard lessons about art, sacrifice, and love. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and read it again. Howard was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation on myth, magic, and monsters.

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About a Girl

Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There’s no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty—or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born.

But when a sudden discovery upends her fiercely ordered world, Tally sets out on an unexpected quest to seek out the reclusive musician who may hold the key to her past—and instead finds Maddy, an enigmatic and beautiful girl who will unlock the door to her future. The deeper she falls in love with Maddy, the more Tally begins to realize that the universe is bigger—and more complicated—than she ever imagined. Can Tally face the truth about her family—and find her way home in time to save herself from its consequences?

About a Girl—available July 14th from St. Martin’s Press—is the powerful and entrancing conclusion to Sarah McCarry’s Metamorphoses trilogy.

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