‘The Inner City’ by Karen Heuler

Book Reviews

The Inner City coverReviewed by Chadwick Ginther

I couldn’t help but glut myself on Karen Heuler’s stories, devouring her words and ideas. A New York resident and O. Henry Award-winning author, Heuler blurs the line between genres. Science fiction, horror, fantasy—it’s all here. And so it’s exactly the sort of book that ChiZine Publications in Toronto has become known for producing, not only because of its genre blending—and bending—prose, but because of the excellence of the stories contained within.

Heuler bookends her fifteen story collection with tales of two unusual fish. One grants wishes while the other hunts mice in a man’s yard, and there is an ocean of ideas packed between the two. In “Escape Artist” a tightrope-walker who is both afraid of heights and in love with them, is lured to look down by an angel who wants her to fall—and to take him with her.

“Creating Cow” is a clever Frankenstein story where a young girl tries to reassemble a cow from packaged meat. Puns and cheeky humour mask the dark thoughts in “Ordinary” as Guy and Jill, two fraternal twins or “girl twins” according to their “sporadic feminist” mother, become desperate for new sensations. Among statistical absurdities in “After Images” are the narrator’s ruminations on what’s beyond death: “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are scams beyond the grave. Some people will believe anything; other people will take advantage of anything.”

The titular story of the collection, “The Inner City,” hides a secret city under a New York, where a cabal far more sinister than the Bridge and Tunnel Authority is secretly controlling everything from lottery winners to the availability of parking spaces. A stray memo about the importance of shredding litter leads Lena Shayton to this Inner City and its convoluted bureaucracy. “Think of us as a service organization,”Shayton is told, “Only we serve ourselves.”Remaining a secret also serves this Inner City’s purposes, and so after Lena finds them, they corrupt the communication centres of her brain, disrupting sounds and meaning, so that she can speak only in gobbledygook. “Whirlybanging all over bingo next Tuesday too. Please please bing she think. Words, she say words.” This is one of many stories of transformation and power within Heuler’s collection.

“Difficulties of Evolution” has children that evolve into animals and the dangers of “watching change while change crept up behind.” Some of these changes are more prosaic. Paulina, narrator of “Hair,” has first her hair stolen by co-worker, Mindy—“hadn’t bothered to change the part, even”—and then her position with the company, leaving Paulina to join the masses she’d hoped to elevate.Heuler gives a visceral punch in describing the scientific wonders of “Down on the Farm.” Narrator Tercepia sees pigs that “had rows of eyes like polyps growing around their necks like garlands.”

The reader is thus cued to be horrified long before learning that Tercepia is a human/animal hybrid, part of a breeding program to create a servitor class; “The dog gene will affect their longevity of course.” Heuler doesn’t shy away from the unsavoury connotations to this class of non-people. The reader will shudder when a potential buyer notes, smiling, “I live alone, you see. My life needs a woman’s touch.”

At times Heuler wields words like cant and outlawry that can give her writing an old-fashioned feel, but the themes of transformation and questioning are all very contemporary and relevant. She also manages a surprising take on the be careful what you wish for trope in her fable “Fish Wish,” when Celia is granted what she wants: to be that which she loves most, her wish fish. “And all around her other wishes raised their voices too, and came at her with hooks and nets and the wilful madness of desire.”Heuler also plays off the wishes of her readers—who hasn’t wanted to fly? You won’t after reading “How Lightly He Stepped in the Air”:

It was all right now, in the summer, to hover giddily in the air until it was time to come down to Earth—but in Winter? In winter it could be unpleasant, at the rate he was going, to be stranded outside a third story office window waiting for whatever it was that took him down again.

The stories in The Inner City are full of questions: “Is there a terrible disease beginning in me, how long will I live, is my wife faithful, are my kids good, do people respect me, why am I not happier, where is the money I deserve?” but there are few answers. Even when an answer is provided, you wonder about what your reaction might be. “How can there be a right side in war? … It’s just that each side wants to live.”Heuler’s queries linger in the mind, and each story leaves you wondering long after you’ve moved to the next.

Whether you choose to classify The Inner City as science fiction, fantasy, horror, or literature, the book is just plain magic.

ChiZine | 260 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927469330

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Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther latest novel is Tombstone Blues (Ravenstone). He lives and writes in Winnipeg.