‘When we shed the disguises that are Georgia and Eliza, and then the skins that are Lola and Tallulah, we are monsters. Fabulous beasts.’
(‘Fabulous Beasts’, 283)
All The Fabulous Beasts, published by Undertow Publications (2018), is the much-anticipated debut short story collection from UK-based speculative fiction author Priya Sharma, who has been writing prize-winning short fiction for over a decade. This collection brings together sixteen tales, infused with darkness, touched with horror, which draw on myth and folklore and introduce us to versions of ourselves and the world that are at once strangely familiar and unsettlingly strange. The collection encapsulates Sharma’s talent in drawing out the macabre nestled within the everyday, of exploring the depths of guilt and regret and the infinite ways we are haunted by the past. The magnetism of her writing lies in its sparse but lyrical style, in the way the ordinary slips so easily into the extra-ordinary, the tender into the realms of the terrifying. Fundamentally, it is Sharma’s fresh explorations of liminality and metamorphosis, and the porous lines between life and death, human and animal, real and surreal which makes her work pulse.
‘I break open the other one. Another girl. This one’s different. She has massive, dark eyes that are too wide set to be normal. There are sparse, matted feathers on her back. Faint scale over her feet.’ (‘The Crow Palace’, 20)
The opening story, ‘The Crow Palace’, is a guilt-ridden tale of twins, abandonment, and what it means to be ‘normal’; at its core, it is also an eerie changeling mystery, providing a glimpse into the secret dealings of the Corvidae. Julie, smothered by her father’s anxious affection and the burden of responsibility to her sister, Pippa, who has cerebral palsy, escapes her childhood home, returning years later for her father’s funeral. Though Pippa exhibits unconditional love for her, Julie is haunted by her choices: ‘I’ve abandoned her again and again’ (13). Sharma’s characters are never perfect; instead, she asks us to consider the complexity of emotional truths, regardless of how brutal and unforgiving they are — what it means to be selfish, to choose yourself, to take, or relinquish, responsibility of loved ones. As the story unfolds, we learn of the twin’s mother’s suicide; of the treasure-trove of buttons, coins, metal trinkets and bones, gifts which the crows leave for them in the ‘crow palace’, and the key the magpies have left. In true fairy tale tradition, the key opens a steel box buried deep inside their parent’s closet and reveals secrets of the past. Inside, Julie discovers a pair of eggs, inside them miniature models of two foetal babies, one perfect, the other ‘different’ (20).
Sharma’s exploration of difference escalates as the lines between birds and humans blur. Julie learns she was a jealous baby, biting and stealing food from her sister, that their mother believed one of her children were ‘swapped’ by the birds (30), and when she digs under the crow palace, she discovers the skeleton of a girl-child, ‘smaller than a newborn, pushed out into the cold far too early’ (30). Horrified, Julie believes she is looking at her ‘real sister, not the creature called Pippa’ (31). Her gut response is an indictment of how we, as a society, still consider those who are differently abled, as something less than normal, as strange ‘creatures’. Sharma turns this on its head when Julie realises she is the bird-changeling: ‘Now I know why I’m loveless. Pip’s not the aberration. I am’ (32). The real horror Julie discovers is not merely discovering oneself as other but having the chance of redemption snatched from you. Not only has she abandoned her sister and considered her an ‘aberration’, Julie realises: ‘Pippa is how she is because of my failed murder attempt. I affected her development when I tried to foist her from the womb.’ ((32). There is no escape for Julie; we leave her trapped in her hybrid body, subsumed by guilt.
‘My shed skin felt fibrous and hard.
[…] “Tallulah, what am I? Am I a monster?”
She sat up and leant against me, her chin on my shoulder.
“Yes, you’re my monster.”’
(‘Fabulous Beasts’, 265)
The final story, ‘Fabulous Beasts’, closes the collection in a thematic loop: a moving exploration of difference, what it means to be a ‘monster’, the disguises we don to hide our true selves, the sacrifices we make for those we love, and the real monsters we encounter in our everyday lives. Through a tender relationship between two sister-cousins turned lovers, Sharma presents a modern-day version of princesses trapped in the tower and rewrites it into a tale of courage, fear and female desire let loose: the ‘princesses’ escape the threat of domestic violence and rape by transforming into snakes, killing the villain, and embracing their monstrous sides.
Explorations of difference and otherness appear repeatedly in Sharma’s stories. Her story ‘Egg’ is a complex study of motherhood.Sharma mines an age-old fairy tale formula: a strange old crone who promises you your heart’s impossible desire, who will negotiate the price later; ‘a reckless trade’ (70). The main character is given an egg to incubate inside her, and when it hatches, she sees her daughter has ‘dark, bulbous eyes’, hands that are ‘useless appendages’ (71). The baby, Eloise, is the ‘culmination of all [her] wishes’, yet she thinks ‘not right’ (71). She goes back to the old crone, calling her a liar, unable to say what she’s thinking: that her child is not ‘normal’, that she will struggle to bring up a child who ‘requires sacrifice’. But as the crone opines: ‘Life’s a lottery […] you can’t swap her’ (71). Her baby-chick can only be fed the way normal birds are fed, and though revulsion roils in her, she manages to chew wriggling worms; Eloise’s development is vastly different to a ‘normal’ child’s and her demand for attention and ways of showing love are intensely difficult. Sharma’s protagonist cannot ‘deny’ she has ‘thought of smothering her [child] with a pillow or drowning her in the bath’ (77). The desperation, helplessness and callousness bound up in these thoughts, though shocking and socially taboo, also challenge impossible notions of perfect motherhood.
Yet, as with all of Sharma’s tales, the story is complex and layered. ‘Egg’ manages at once to be an ode to the very real struggle and insurmountable sacrifices required from motherhood and the inevitable journey of children who fly the nest, whilst also being an unflinching interrogation of what being ‘normal’ means. The story asks us to consider difficult questions: is it easier to harbour dark wishes (the desire to swap your child or abandon your twin) when we consider someone as not ‘normal’; what does it mean when this insidious way of thinking drives our actions? The protagonist redeems herself when she finally sees her daughter for what she is: ‘Ferocious. Dignified […] She doesn’t need my limited definitions. She has her own possibilities and perfections’ (79) and frees her, enacting ‘the biggest sacrifice’ (78). Her redemption carries a beautiful message: how necessary it is for us all to grow beyond ‘limiting definitions’.
‘Her abdomen was revealed. Womanhood had ravaged her […] Her breasts were like a beast’s, damaged by the dragging suckling of a large and selfish litter. Her limbs were emaciated.’
(‘The Nature of Bees’, 217)
Sharma’s challenges to idealised notions of motherhood are particularly powerful and emerge subtly in many of her stories. On the theme of wishes gone wrong, ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’ is a visceral narrative of the force of grief, despair, and the thoughts we allow ourselves in times of desperation. Pip, upon the death of her husband, Jack, remembers looking at her daughter and bargaining with the universe: ‘I’ll give anything […] Take Emma instead. Just give me Jack back’ (85). Sharma’s fictional universe is, of course, not a benevolent one: whilst something does uproot from the earth, it is not Jack resurrected from his grave as Pip desires but a terrifying sunflower man intent on claiming his wife. As in ‘Egg’, occasionally, Sharma offers her characters redemption through sacrifice, but only after a harsh trial: Pip, ready to exchange the life of her daughter, must physically fight the sunflower man, a struggle which becomes emblematic of her fight with grief, allowing her to finally see a future for her and her daughter.
Whilst ‘Egg’ and ‘The Sunflower Man’ close by offering us a redemptive version of motherhood, in ‘The Nature of Bees’, Sharma explores a nightmarish vision of fertility, motherhood and female desire. We meet Vivien Avery, newly moved to a cottage adjacent to an estate of wealthy beekeepers. We learn she has ‘blossomed at the age of thirty-eight […] the men buzzed around her, enthralled’ (213); we think we’re reading an empowering manifesto of female sexuality and desire at all ages. However, throughout the story Sharma threads informative but unsettling snippets of bee lore. As we start meeting Vivien’s neighbours, industrious women and beautiful men, the line between humans and bees collide, and gender binaries reserved for the slavish handmaidens, hedonist drones, and the adored queen in the bee world take on a horrific reality. The story culminates with Vivien carried off into the heart of a human-sized hive to replace the ailing old queen, body visibly ‘ravaged’ by motherhood. She is made to gorge on ambrosia, coronated, and, brimming with fertility, ready to be serviced by hundreds and hundreds of drones – Vivien’s gruesome end is reminiscent of cautionary folktales which curbed ‘dangerous’ female desire. Instead of an empowering tale, we are faced with a grotesque vision of female sexuality and fertility, the female body reduced to a mere reproductive tool.
‘I’m going to take your shadow and you’ll never feel whole again. When you’re older you’ll wonder why you’re different and I want you to remember that I did this to you.’
(‘The Absent Shade’, 155).
Sharma is skilled at offering up disturbing tales where protagonists perish physically or emotionally, but the real power of her stories comes from her flawed characters; she imbues them with emotional honesty, both terrible and taboo, and they pulse with life. ‘The Absent Shade’ introduces us to Thomas, a hired assassin, and through flashbacks, to Thomas as a difficult child looked after by a domestic servant from the Phillipines, Umbra, who comforts him through tears by shaping shadows into beautiful spectacles. Adult Thomas, though married, seeks out women who resemble Umbra for sex. Yet his cold obsession is riddled with violence: ‘He imagines her at forty-six and him at thirty […] Sometimes he marries her. Sometimes he kills her’ (152) and Sharma begins unfolding a tale of guilt, accountability and revenge. Despite the actions of the protagonist, Sharma still manages to squeeze out recognition from her readers for Thomas’ actions, a testament to her skill in exploring the complexities of human emotions.
At sixteen, Thomas is eaten with a quiet jealousy when he sees Umbra caressing a young boy tenderly on her day off (‘Will you promise to never leave me’, a neglected Thomas asks her, 147). When he discovers his father fucking her, and fails to notice Umbra’s shadow on the wall, ‘sat in a corner with its arms wrapped around its drawn up knees’ (147), he plants his mother’s pearls in her room, and sets into motion Umbra’s dismissal, condemning her and her son to a life of poverty and danger: ‘My country makes monsters of men and women […] I don’t want [my son] to die in a gutter […] I don’t want him to carry a gun. It’s your fault. You and your family’s’ (155). The reality is, of course, that Thomas’ father takes sex in return for the livelihood of Umbra’s son. Umbra’s words are a powerful reminder not only that she is a real person with real responsibilities, but also of the careless exploitation of domestic servants by the wealthy, the women particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Though she has cared for Thomas as her own son, Umbra doesn’t let her maternal feelings stem her rage. She tells Thomas she has lived through the rape of her mother, her own rape when she was fifteen, the moment she decided to take something from her rapist by tearing his shadow: ‘That made me understand how it is to violate another person. I felt powerful and controlling. I knew I’d changed him forever, just as he’d changed me. His life would be a dry, joyless thing’ (155) – and so she, helpless economically, politically and sexually, exacts the price she can from those who have wronged her, leaving Thomas shadow-less and unfeeling for the rest of his life. A complex study of jealousy, regret and guilt, ‘The Absent Shade’ is a also a deeply satisfying tale of female vengeance.
‘The past is too heavy. I can’t carry it anymore […] It smells my guilt and swells, emboldened […] It’s all the people I can’t face […] They’ve risen up to smother us.’
(‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, 110)
Sharma’ characters are often haunted by guilt. In ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, small town claustrophobia, economic austerity, a secret affair and an accident which leads to the death of a lover’s son, is the backdrop to the protagonist’s all-consuming guilt, manifesting literally as a dark force, spirits which come for reckoning: ‘They’ve risen up to smother us’ (110). Likewise, in ‘Small Town Stories’, remnants of the dead linger as physical reminders. Cheryl is haunted by a lost love, stuck on the day of her father’s murder of her mother and her mother’s lover, losing her bright future and sense of self. In ‘The Rising Tide’, Cariad, a doctor on medical leave for depression, is unable to process, or forgive herself, for the death of Jessica, a young girl, brought in after a near-drowning, who dies after Cariad fails to complete the necessary checks. Her guilt calls a ghostly Jessica and the vengeful sea into her room to mete out a dark justice. Sharma’s stories also traverse the historic past, taking us to the world of sham ghost hunting documentaries in ‘The Show’, where gruesome histories are studied in advance, special effects and emotions faked for drama – until they’re not, and the bloody past comes rising up to deliver death.
In ‘Pearls’, while the past is fraught with injustice, Sharma offers up a chance of hope and renewal. Spinning off the myth of Medusa, the serpent-headed gorgon with a deadly gaze, Sharma rewrites Medusa into our present-day world. Awake after a thousand years, sunglasses and scarf hiding her identity, still seething from the brutal murder of her sisters by Perseus, still suffering from the betrayal of her lover, Poseidon, Sharma imagines an alternate future for Medusa. Instead of centring the ‘hero’ Perseus who beheads the ‘monster’, Sharma centres Medusa’s rage, her desire for justice, and unfurls the story of her metamorphosis to a gorgon, borne out of love for her sisters. We are invited to look closely at Medusa’s desire for a destructive power: it is also the desire to protect oneself and the sisterhood from the whims of lusting gods and men, the desire to have power over one’s own body, the way others look at it, and the things they do to it. Though Sharma excels at endings steeped in tragedy and horror, she chooses to write an ending for Medusa with the hope of forgiveness and healing when she meets Poseidon again, and offers up a powerful feminist rewriting of the Greek myth.
Many of Sharma’s tales draw on familiar myths and lore – yet she peers at the story from a different angle, taking kernels of shared tradition and creating something new and wondrous, frightening and grotesque. In ‘Fish Skins’, the familiar selkie-mermaid figure appears as the wife of a fishmonger. One day, her husband catches her on a rock by the sea, covered in fish skins shaped into a fake tail. Recognising the aching longing in her act, grateful for the enormous sacrifices she’s made for him, he too dresses himself in fish skin, in merman’s finery, and waits for his wife to discover him by the sea. The call of the ocean is just as compelling in ‘A Son of the Sea’. Sharma challenges us again and again with monstrous metamorphosis and, particularly in this tale, of spectacles of women changed into eight feet long eels, of sex deep under the sea where women ejaculate into the tip of the penis, and impregnated men excruciatingly ejaculating a stream of tiny lives, sea horse fry, ‘each spasm […] a perverse happiness’ (254).
‘I want to say, Look at me. Look me in the eye. I’m a person, not a piece of meat, but then I realise I just might as well be. A piece of meat. Rag and bone.’
(Rag and Bone, 54)
In ‘Rag and Bone’, set in historical Liverpool, Sharma creates an alternate past where wealthy families, fortunes made in real estate, textiles, soap factories, and ship building, ‘rule’ the city in a macabre fashion, keeping a tight lock and key on who travels Outside. Sharma turns metaphors of border control, wealth and poverty, and particularly, metaphors of upper classes exploiting the flesh, blood and tears of the poor working classes into a literal reality: ‘these wealthy people we never see, are monstrosities that live to a hundred years by feasting on Scousers’ flesh’ (34); ‘keep[ing] people in tanks like fish, cutting off the bits they want’ (43). Sharma draws on Britain’s history of workers’ protests, riots, and union formations to paint a powerful scene: factory workers, during a visit from their ‘owner’, show their dissent by singing a ballad, showering the air with images of the dead body of one of their own, filling the air with the threat of a ‘revolution of beheading, raping, and redistribution of riches’ (35). The protagonist, Tom, a rag and bone man, brings flesh and blood samples to these merchant princes, collects his payment, hating himself for the lies he trots out to ‘volunteers’ – except just when you think you have a firm grounding in Sharma’s world, the tales take unexpected turns. When Tom meets Kate and Sally and experiences a moment of pure tenderness with Sally, instead of giving up his new ‘customers’, Tom chooses to reveal herself as a woman living in disguise, sacrificing her own body to the blood-thirsty Lords: a redemption and love hard won, one which leaves her at the end of the tale ‘a piece of meat. A rag and bone’ (54).
Whilst ‘Rag and Bone’ has the wealthy living off the flesh of the ‘slaving classes’ (34), ‘The Englishman’ flips that over, taking us to the narrow streets of Delhi, where it is the Englishman who is beset by a horde of impoverished children, who clamour for more as he hands them money, and starved, start nibbling on his flesh, eventually making off with his entire body: a cosmic reckoning for an imbalanced world.
The body also features grotesquely in ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’, which starts off a ‘romantic quest’ for a ‘nice and unassuming’ (55) man with a quiet life and a simple passion for hands. To find a woman with the perfect pair of hands, he hires Beth, a medical illustrator. Beth creates his vision perfectly using her sister’s hands as a model; however, when Sam meets them, it is Beth he feels a deep desire for, sensing her to be a kindred spirit. Sharma exhibits her mastery in shocking the reader with the last scene. With blunt precision, we are told: ‘Desire drove Sam […] The flat was upended by his passions. The kitchen had become an impromptu theatre. The surgical instruments lay on the floor. Kate had easily become overcome […] Beth, though he’d surprised her, put up a greater fight’ (64). We realise with growing horror that Sam has amputated both Beth and Kate, and fixed Kate’s perfect hands onto Beth’s ‘bloody stumps’ (64) through cauterisation. Sharma’s understated writing heightens the sickening nature of the scene. In the current political climate where men’s violence against women is explained away or justified with debate about ‘incels’ and ‘sex redistribution’, this tale with its seemingly harmless but insidiously dangerous protagonist, is a bone-chilling reminder of the real possibility of violence that lurks under veneers of intellect and niceness, of how longing can turn into sick obsession and the lengths abusive men will go to satiate their desires. ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’ can also be read as a cautionary tale: what happens when we simultaneously expect women’s bodies to be perfection incarnate and also view them as body parts that can be ‘fixed’.
All the Fabulous Beasts is an impressive collection of short stories, mining the depths of beauty, horror, and the dark sides of humanity: an impressive feat of imagination which pushes our expectations as readers, and, subtly laced with powerful social commentaries, challenges us to consider what it means to be human.