By Jennifer Pelland
Apex Book Company — February 2008
ISBN: 9780978867683 — 247 Pages — Paperback
This impressive debut collection from a Nebula-nominated author features enough moments of stunning brilliance to make a reader yearn for more of Pelland’s imaginative writing. Over the last decade Apex published her novel, Machine, in 2012, but no further collections of her promising short work have appeared. Until that changes, if you are unfamiliar with the unsettling plots that she writes in a beautifully flowing prose, you should check out Unwelcome Bodies.
Each of the stories in the collection is accompanied by a short note discussing the seeds of its creation, usually a random ‘what-if?’ thought that Pelland runs with to develop into a character-driven story, often featuring a female protagonist. The collection dwells among the thematically dark, with a current of personal introspection running throughout. Characters struggle to discover themselves, to define themselves, set against worlds that highlight their imperfections, situations that entrap them with limitations.
The collection begins strongly, with two stories that subverted my expectations, after starting with plots that seemed familiar. “For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” is an alternate history where mutations in HIV have enhanced its transmissibility and lethality, resulting in a strain that is almost guaranteed to pass through the air or general contact. The point of view of two women, who will soon come into contact, provide two societal reactions to the pandemic. Here, Pelland portrays the power of mortal fear and the actions that people can be driven to when faced with horrible disease. The story at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic story of disease, but Pelland takes it through interesting angles within the confines of her characters. She produces something horrific, but also with undertones of humanity and compassion. This quality ends up permeating all of her work here.
The second story in the collection, “Big Sister/Little Sister” ended up being one of my favorites. It shocks and disturbs, while also still leaving the reader with tremendous empathy for the tale’s protagonist, despite her abhorred actions. Not all of Pelland’s stories include monsters, but even here with the most evil, there is something there broken and sad that the reader can see in pity, and a realization that we all have a bit of similar injury in ourselves.
The third story, “Immortal Sin”, led me to begin worrying that Pelland’s horror (like Stephen King’s) would be largely drawn from very negative experiences with religion. (The first story on HIV features a religious cult.) Taken on its own, this tale is actually a great little work of theological musing, portraying a disturbed man with a simplistic view of absolution. The irony of the ending is fantastic. Thankfully the remainder of the tales did end up showing that Pelland was not relying on cliches of extreme religious fervor as her sole horror (or speculative) fuel.
Later stories in the collection demonstrate that Pelland has a wildly inventive mind, that while going toward the dark side of things, isn’t always going to produce something that one might classify as ‘horror’. With “Last Bus” she even provides a touch of sweetness. Speculative elements of science fiction also feature into several of the tales, particularly the world of “Brushstrokes”, a longer story featuring world building that could easily form the foundation for deeper exploration. Depicting a dystopic, caste-separated society of humans who have been taken from Earth, it focuses on a forbidden romance between two men of different castes.
“Captive Girl” and “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” might easily be episodes of The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, and both stories rank with my favorites in the collection. The first tells the story of a woman whose body has been cybernetically connected since childhood to serve as a monitoring system for possible alien attack. The story tackles issues such as disability, body image, power differentials in relationships, exploitation, and objectification all while telling a heartfelt tale of basic human emotions: needing to be loved, a desire to sacrifice or serve, devoted affection. These can be good, but taken to extremes they can step into the horrific. The second story – a novella – flips the disfigured ‘Elephant Man’ of history into a future Earth where he is traded a ‘normal’ body so that his can be used by the wealthy in a culture where disfigurement is a la mode, even a fetish. The irony in this tale is superb, and it paints a poignant picture of what society considers ‘beautiful’ through the ages, and the differences between what selfishness and human compassion might engender.
I could go on and write more about each specific story in the collection – or even more words about the ones already mentioned. But suffice it to say I loved the collection with the exception of “The Call”, which even the author seems to dismiss in her notes on the story, as an experiment on second-person written entirely in questions that she now never will have to want to do again.
Fans of horror, or even just simple fiction on the darker side will find much to love in Unwelcome Bodies. The stories almost all contain something uncanny and discomforting, yet Pelland uniformly portrays all of her characters with compassion, writing in a haunting prose that lingers sweetly through any fears.
This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019.
They are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.