“My wife has brine instead of blood. She’s full of the sea. I can taste it in her sweat, her tears, her sex. She’s crafty and quick. She’s lunar. She’s tidal.”
“When we wake again as human beings she says, “Of course I love, you, monster.””
Priya Sharma’s debut short story collection All The Fabulous Beasts (2018) heralds a powerful new voice in horror and dark fantasy fiction. The stories collected here are luminously beautiful with dark depths. Sharma uses folklore, mythology and monsters to help us confront truly modern anxieties around sexuality, embodiment, inheritance and guilt. Over 16 stories, Sharma demonstrates her skill at constructing powerful and disturbing visions using beautiful yet concise language, as well as drawing her readers into the minds of a varied cast of troubled and troubling characters. The end result is essential reading for anyone who loves horror, or enjoys their myths and folktales with a healthy helping of darkness.
Transformation is a key theme in Sharma’s tales, and images of the human body merged or converted into the animal recur throughout the collection. ‘Fabulous Beasts’ tells of two women who can transform into snakes; they have shed their previous identities like snakeskin so they can move on from their abusive upbringing. ‘The Nature of Bees’ sees its protagonist brought into an insectile family and groomed to be their new queen. ‘Fish Skins’ explores the relationship between a human fisherman and a mermaid, and the debt they owe each other to be able to live together. The protagonist of ‘A Son of the Sea’ undergoes a painful transformation resulting in a male birthing scene. These stories use the animal to symbolise our uncomfortable relationship with our bodies, the characters falling prey to uncontrollable desires, exploring hidden aspects of their sexuality, or finding themselves learning a new and challenging social language as their animal natures disrupt how they interact with the human and the natural.
If Sharma’s transformations straddle the line between frightening and enticing, her characters gaining something new and invigorating in exchange for their humanity, All The Fabulous Beasts contains other stories in which the body is not transformed but mutilated. In ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’, the protagonist’s fetishization of hands is taken to such an extreme that when the woman of his dreams has hands that aren’t up to scratch, impromptu surgery is the only answer. The Show updates Clive Barker’s Books of Blood for the TV age, with the hosts of a fraudulent ghost hunting show wind up accidentally finding more than they bargained for. ‘Rag and Bone’ imagines a Liverpool ruled over by a vampiric elite who maintain their immortality by feeding off the bodies of the poor and disadvantaged. Other stories feature transformations gone wrong, such as the returned lover in ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’, the vengeful revenant in ‘The Rising Tide’ who the protagonist cannot stave off, or the man who has his shadow removed by a wronged servant in ‘The Absent Shade’. Others focus on extraordinary people down on their luck. The woman in ‘Small Town Stories’ can see the dead, but the murder of her mother and her best friend by her father has paralysed her in time. ‘Pearls’ shows us Medusa and Poseidon passing as human in the modern world, washed up and alienated.
A couple of the stories focus particularly on female embodiment and sexuality, and ideas around gendered assumption, pregnancy and childbirth. The protagonist in ‘Egg’ so desperately wants a child she makes a deal with a witch, while ‘The Crow Palace’ explores similar ideas but from the point of view of a changeling. Both stories offer a frank and in-depth examination of the pressure to have children and fears around infertility, as well as exploring the complexities of the parent/child relationship, especially when the child does not match the preconceived ideas about family life that the parent has. The stories compliment each other well, with the opposing viewpoints of parent and daughter allowing Sharma to subtly explore these ideas with depth and sympathy.
An undercurrent running throughout the collection is the damage wrought by Western patriarchal colonialist attitudes. We can see this in the casual disregard the rich have for the lives they feed on in ‘Rag and Bone’. This comes to the surface in several of the more powerful stories in the collection. ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ explores how the selfishness and indulgence of investors have cursed an abandoned development town in Ireland, both on a personal and an institutional level. The au pair in ‘The Absent Shade’ is from a poor background, forced to work for a rich family where she is casually seduced by the father and loses her job because of the son’s jealousy. ‘The Englishman’ explores cross-cultural identity, and the feeling of being part of two cultures but feeling welcome in neither.
For all the fantastic nature of much of the horror of these stories, Sharma’s deft characterisation and vivid sense of place means that they always contain an element of the real and the relatable. Sharma makes good use of her settings, from Liverpool and its environs to Ireland and Wales, all vividly drawn and with a lived-in feel. The depth of her characters makes the reader engage with them, however unsympathetic, dark or disturbed they become. All The Fabulous Beasts is a powerful and engaging collection, one whose stories will haunt the reader long after they have turned the last page. I look forward to reading whatever Priya Sharma writes next.