The acknowledgements page of Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After reads like a who’s-who of contemporary genre authors and editors. Among her colleagues, friends, and early readers she counts Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Ellen Datlow, Michael Kelly, Stephen Graham Jones, Simon Stranzas and a great many others. What this list shows is a confirmation of why I’ve heard Helen Marshall’s name before: she is growing an impressive literary reputation. This, her second short story collection, comes hot off the heels of her first, Hair Side Flesh Side, which was published in 2012 to a positive critical response. If nothing else, this newest book serves as proof that such a glowing reputation is well deserved.
In a 2013 interview for The Weird Fiction Review, Marshall expresses some surprise at the fact that her first collection was categorized by most critics and readers as horror. In the interview, she mentions that before writing that collection she was largely unfamiliar with the genre, but she does offer that art should push boundaries and go too far, qualities often emphasized in literature of the horrific. Gifts for the One Who Comes After is just as difficult to categorize as that first collection but the best of its stories do exhibit those qualities of great art and literature that push up against both boundaries and expectations.
The stories here are certainly unsettling. They are filled with monsters, curses, odd happenings, and occasionally blood, but they are never outright scary. Marshall cultivates instead a slow build-up of dread. From each story’s first paragraph it is clear that something is off, but finding out just how far from normal these stories will take you is a tremendous joy. She shares a penchant for the weird and bizarre with writers like Robert Shearman and Nathan Ballingrud (both of whom are also mentioned in the acknowledgements), though their works are more overtly horrifying.
The basic premises behind each of Marshall’s stories are remarkably original. The back cover promises “ghost thumbs, miniature dogs, and one very sad can of soup,” and while this does accurately present the gist of a few of the stories, it doesn’t come close to summing up just how much is contained within them.
The soup can comes from “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects,” told from the perspective of a young girl who is convinced that her yet-unborn twin siblings escape from the their mother’s belly at night and steal her things. The story “Ship House” centres on another family with twins but also has a secret which involves the sacrifice of one child so that the rest of the family may flourish. In “The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass,” a boy’s father explains that the images of constellations and galactic bodies which appear in the telescope are thousands of years old because it takes so long for the light to reach earth, and that looking into space with the telescope is a way of looking into the past. But the telescope does much the same thing when the boy uses it to look into the apartments across the street.
Often the zanier or more outlandish ideas in these stories serve to disarm the reader for truly profound and thought provoking contemplations. “The Santa Claus Parade” touches on factory farming and commercializing religious holidays by depicting a production line where tiny Santas are grown and inspected in order to meet world-wide demand. “Supply Limited, Act Now” is about a group of boys who order a shrink ray (that actually works) out of a comic book. After a rampage of shrinking anything in the town they come across, their friend Melanie, whose maturing femininity seems to be making her less apt to hang around with them, asks, “Why ya always gotta go doing that? Why ya always gotta go making things small just so that you can grow up? It doesn’t have to be like that, you know? Why do you wanna go on being kids that just wreck everything because ya don’t know better?” Her outrage at the boys’ behaviour and their shame over it capture perfectly the pain of realizing that you’re no longer a child and that the real world has real consequences, whether you met to bring them about or not.
Marshall has an exceptional talent for portraying the voices and perspectives of children. The young girl in “On the Raising of Household Objects” observes,
“there is a hole in Mommy’s tummy. I have seen it because that’s what the bellybutton keeps all plugged up, and that’s why her bellybutton points out now, because the twins are pushing on the other side. I wonder if I came from the other side of the hole like the twins, or if I came from somewhere else. I am afraid sometimes. What if I don’t have guts and things behind my bellybutton?”
Her reflections are at once charmingly childish and yet oddly perceptive.
There are a few stories here that don’t seem to be quite as well thought-out as the others: “The Hanging Game” appears to be building on a metaphor that it isn’t ready to fully explain and “I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said” has interesting characters, like all the other stories, but the plot relies on the appearance of a ghost for which the rules governing such an apparition are unclear (specifically, can everyone see the ghost or only the narrator?). But these are very small criticisms of a collection that is eminently enjoyable and of outstanding overall quality. Helen Marshall is an author you should be reading.
ChiZine| 300 pages | $19.99 | paper | ISBN # 978-1771483025