British weird fiction writer Priya Sharma has been appearing in numerous year’s best anthologies for some time, and her story, “Fabulous Beasts” (included in this volume of course) was a finalist for a Shirley Jackson Award and won a British Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. Now a first full collection of her short fiction has appeared, from the very wonderful Undertow Publications, with striking covers in both the hardback and paperback edition. It’s no wonder that the volume opens with praise from both Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, two of the most revered editors and anthologists in the current weird/dark fiction scene. I’m more than happy, then, to report that All the Fabulous Beasts both exceeds expectations, and confounds them.
For one thing, and especially for North American readers, Sharma’s writing is far more about British experience than British Indian, or Indian. There’s only one story in here that directly concerns India, and that, significantly, is titled “The Englishman.” The language and feel of a British setting, and often a pretty grim and downbeat one at that, are integral to many of the tales. Take “Rag and Bone,” for example, which unfolds in a sort of alternative steampunk Liverpool, with extremely unpleasant goings-on and fantastic elements seamlessly woven into the gritty, harsh texture of Merseyside life. Or “Small Town Stories,” which declares that “I’m going to hell when I die and it’ll be Sandbach Motorway Services,” and genuinely makes you feel it. Or “The Rising Tide,” where revenants and mediums counterpoint the mundane medical horror of “the Casualty department of Bronglais General Hospital, Aberystwyth.” Yes, there are stories that are more fantastical and exotic; just don’t be misled by the title and lovely covers into expecting a compendium of Leonora-Carringtonesque whimsy.
Fabulous imaginings abound nonetheless. “The Sunflower Seed Man,” for one, conceives exactly the kind of monstrosity you’d expect from its title. There’s a beautiful modernization of the Medusa legend, though I won’t spoil it by revealing which story it is. There’s a very strong strain of body horror, which comes as no surprise, given Sharma’s medical background, but does add a gruesome ingredient to an already strong brew. There’s minutely observed Hong Kong social dislocation in “The Absent Shade.” There’s Irish upsets without a trace of the Celtic Twilight in “The Ballad of Boomtown.” And more.
A sense of place, as of personality, are essential to most of the stories. Sharma has said that “The stories in ‘All the Fabulous Beasts’ concern themselves with nature and the environment, feminism, and sexuality, life, death, and rebirth. They show how the past haunts us. Place and setting are integral. We never escape where we come from. Nostalgia is powerful, but we can’t let it kill us.” Roots and legacies, choices and consequences, frequently do far worse and more unsettling things than just killing in these stories, though. In Sharma’s words, “after all, we are all just fabulous beasts.” After these tales, you may want to reflect hard on just what kind of beast you are.