Author: Aliya Whiteley
Title: From the Neck Up and Other Stories
Other: Short story collection
A collection of 16 short stories from the murky border of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Whiteley has a penchant for infusing the mundane with the strange and the uncanny, successfully punching holes in the surface of our perception of everyday life with her creepy little tales. She is a skillful writer, seemingly seamlessly combining lightness of style and a wide range of topics with socio-philosophical observation. As usual with collections of short stories, the quality is uneven – but I did find a few gems here, and I’m quite happy I gave this anthology a chance.
As usual, I will review and rate each story separately and in conclusion I will give a general rating which may, or may not, be a simple average of the stories’ scores.
Brushwork 8.5/10 stars
A cli-fi novella, almost 80 pages long, about a world roughly resembling that from Snowpiercer: the Gulf Stream stopped, the land started becoming colder and colder, the vegetation died off under heavy snow and frost, and only corporate farms offer a possibility of a secure live – for the price of freedom. There is a lot going on in this novella: reflections on aging and the division between young and old; meditation on living with one’s past regrets and difficult choices; inequality and terrorism, slavery and trust. It’s one of the strongest stories in the collection, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.
Many-eyed monsters 2/10
Meh. Didn’t care for this one at all. I had the impression that the author was trying too hard for the uncanny, which made the whole story feel forced and artificial. Also, it couldn’t seem to decide what it wanted to be: a satire, a horror, a critique of modern society and its propensity for artificially enhanced and groomed physical beauty, or something else altogether.
Three Love Letters from an Unrepeatable Garden 5/10
Started out strong, but fizzled out into a preachy drivel about the conflict between the elusiveness and the transient nature of natural beauty and the duty to protect it. Well, since the opposition of the two seems pretty contrived to me, I didn’t find this story either interesting or enlightening.
Corwick Grows 6/10
Another attempt at body horror with echoes of Metropolis, this one more successful than Many-eyed monsters. While the story makes no sense, it has an interesting, slightly uncanny atmosphere and nicely explores the themes of growth and decay. The formula “the beating heart of the city” certainly gets a new meaning.
Loves of the Long Dead 2/10
Did not click with me at all. Somehow the central idea, of a vengeful ghost haunting a person and changing her personality, turned out to be a total dud. There was nothing interesting here, not the setting, not the characters, and even the writing, quite skilled and with a nice turn of phrase throughout the collection, here felt flat and largely lifeless.
Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion 7/10
An interesting story with a thoughtful sleight of hand at its center. Ostensibly a story of a childhood trauma of encountering the uncanny, it turns into a meditation on loss and lack of understanding. I really like how the focus of this story is not the inexplicable event, but rather the relationship changed by this event.
Farleyton is a veiled critique of creating exclusive walled enclaves of the rich in the wake of growing economic inequalities in general and of Celebration, FL, in particular – but since I’ve read Andersen’s Fantasyland recently, Whiteley’s take pales in comparison. Nothing new, nothing original, and the lonely tooth of this satire seems quite blunt and wobbly. I guess it’s not an easy topic to comment on in a relevant way, especially because in this case reality is even weirder than fiction – Atwood tried to do it too, in The Heart Goes Last, and also miserably failed.
Into Glass 10/10
The best story from the collection, Into Glass is an intriguing take (pun only partly intended) on the nature of love: whether true love has limits, whether it can be emptied by taking, or whether it is inexhaustible and indestructible; on the heels of those questions comes another, ethical in nature: whether one should take from love, or whether they should only accept what they are given? A really fascinating and superb short story which will stay with me for a long time.
Eh meh. Starts off well, with what seems like an alien invasion, but then devolves into obnoxious navel-gazing and impassioned, if pompous, call for respect for language. I cannot say I don’t share the sentiment, on the contrary, but as a short story this simply doesn’t work. Thankfully, it’s short.
A spin on three witches on a mountain, chosen to their roles by village elders. One is Enchantress, living atop the mountain to sing and cajole the stars, another one is Disenchantress, living in the valley and muttering depressing stuff and throwing stones at passers-by; Chantress, living in a hut midway, just sings, and people from the village believe her songs have power to bring forth the outcomes she sings about. A curious little story about the power of tradition and the yoke of expectations and routine we put on ourselves.
Blessings Erupt 8.5/10
An intriguing story about a post-apocalyptic Earth where plastic pollution reached unlivable levels; the evolutionary response was to create a mutation allowing for consumption of plastic both in humans and plants; Hope is one such plastic-eater, who lives by consuming people’s plastic-caused illnesses such as cancers and tumors. But as she nears the end of her life, she finds herself cynical and disillusioned in a world which seems to be jumping back from the brink of extinction. Is she a realist, or has the consumed toxin clouded her judgement? This is a skillfully told story, with the intricate worldbuilding revealed in small increments.
Star in the Spire 5/10
An post-apocalyptic story with plant-related body horror. A mix of Carey’s The Rampart trilogy with Vandermeer’s Annihilation and touches of Dukaj’s The Cathedral (a short film by Tomasz Baginski of Netflix’s The Witcher fame was nominated to Academy Awards in 2002 and can be viewed on Youtube) it creates a creepy atmosphere but fails to deliver a meaningful payoff, at least for me.
From the Neck Up 8/10
A sweet story of an early mid-life crisis and of finding meaning in life outside of the limits of the usual rat race. As the whole story starts off with a severed head, it’s at once gory and delightful, and highly imaginative. It’s a perfect example of Whiteley’s style, mixing uncanny with everyday: a severed head, talking and dirtying the duvet, becomes a source of a small epiphany after it sprouts leaves and roots.
The Tears of a Building Surveyor, and Other Stories 2/10
Eh meh. Didn’t care about this one. The main protagonist, Violet, struggles with an unprocessed trauma from the past, exacerbated by the ongoing trauma caused by the exhausting and painfully slow dying of her husband Tom. Her way of coping is to escape into her imagination, Walter Mitty-like, and experience grand adventures around the world. Neither her life nor her confabulations held any interest for me.
To the Farm 8/10
A popular theme in SF, the humanity of androids/AI. Lem, Asimov, Dick, all the greats have written about it at some point, and for a reason. Whether we ascribe humanity to sentient beings speaks more about us than about them. While Whiteley writes nothing new, I liked her melancholy little story, both for its careful optimism and its clean, precise structure. No word wasted.
The Spoils 7/10
An intriguing dragon story, with worldbuilding nicely tucked between the story threads and some skilled use of vignettes to create an immersive experience. Highly enjoyable, slightly nostalgic, evoking the cadence and rhythm of fairy tales.
All in all, I’m very pleased with Whiteley’s short story collection. She manages more often than not to hit that sweet spot between horror, fantasy and science fiction, keeping the genre trappings mostly elusive and symbolic, and concentrating on the psychology of the characters instead. Her stories are delightfully creepy and unusual, and while not every story in this collection worked for me, there are some gems that will stay with me for a long time.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.