Aliya Whiteley, From the Neck Up and Other Stories (2021)

Author: Aliya Whiteley

Title: From the Neck Up and Other Stories

Format: e-book

Pages: 368

Series: –

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 4/10

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.

Compel 5/10

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.

Chantress 6/10

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.

Score: 7.5/10

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

47 thoughts on “Aliya Whiteley, From the Neck Up and Other Stories (2021)

    1. I’ve been burned so many times by my NG choices recently, particularly when it comes to new authors, but I’m very happy with this collection! 😀
      Into Glass just gets under your skin, doesn’t it? 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I loved her first novella “The Beauty”, a weird story about a world with no women and what nature might do in such a case. Also her most recent novel “Skyward Inn” about alien invasion. She certainly left an impression on me and got me thinking about things. I will look out for this, thanks Ola!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In this case you should love this collection, Wakizashi! 😀 She certainly has a way with words, and a knack for the uncanny and unsettling. Glad to be able to give you a recommendation! 😀
      And obviously, now I need to hunt down “The Beauty” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Never heard of this author, thanks for bringing this up!
    As for a stopped Gulf Stream, I recently read KSR‘s Green Earth novel. Without much fuss, they (reinsurer companies) throw salt into the Atlantic to restart it again. Lots of salt of course. They figured that it would be far cheaper than covering the devastating effects.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s an idea! I hope it’s feasible as Gulf Stream seems to have some problems recently… I wonder how the salt thing would work, though – might just read Green Earth! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Heh, I did read it but I didn’t leave a comment, and when I was reading it I actually was more interested in characters/no characters in KSR’s novels, as I feel that problem in his works quite acutely 😉

              Liked by 1 person

                    1. That’s true – same for me! But the Ship was the only character that seemed fully human, and I don’t think that KSR would be as cynical as to do that intentionally 😉

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Exactly; so it seems to me that the “higher” humanity of the ship in relation to other characters must’ve been unintentional after all, and drives me toward the conclusion KSR is not overly concerned about his characters, with some exceptions – of course, I need a wider selection of books to make this assumption with a higher degree of certainty 😁

                      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a perfectly fine collection. I noticed that you are not shy of giving very low marks when a story doesn’t work for you 🙂 2/10! My scores actually always fluctuate somewhere between a 5.5 and a 9.5. My scoring is boring.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You should put it on a t-shirt! 😀

      I’m totally not shy when it comes to rating! 😉 I even may be more ruthless when it comes to short stories re novels, as there’s less time and effort involved.

      Actually, the rating is quite easy to explain:
      1/10 for stories with deeply substantial ethical/political issues;
      2/10 for stories that are either profoundly faulty or leave me totally cold and could well not exist as far as I’m concerned;
      3/10 and 4/10 for stories that have at least a tiny bit going for them but still have some serious structural/plot/character-related problems;
      5/10 for less than average stories that are digestible but have something that bugs me, aesthetically or thematically, or in terms of skill;
      6/10 for average stories,
      7/10 for interesting but still slightly flawed/underdeveloped stories;
      8 and 9/10 for very good stories that elicit a reaction from me, whether emotional or intellectual, and
      10/10 for those which are just perfect 😀

      Liked by 2 people

                    1. I’m kind of wavering; it’s well written, but the rape is glossed over, the dead in Foyle’s wake seem inconsequential, and the whole transformation of Foyle is rather far-fetched. I’m reserving judgement, though – it might still surprise me, the prose is good.

                      As for Abercrombie, welp, I’m on a waiting list in the library, but the library is closed in lockdown, so who knows when I’m going to read it 😉

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Yeah, and the metaphors are a bit on the nose – to name the protagonist Gulliver and travel him from one weird society to another? 😛 Still, there’s still the second half for me to change my mind 😉

                      Like

    1. Fingers crossed!
      I find short stories collections work very well for me lately – even if there’s a story or two that doesn’t work, there are others that are great; with novels, there’s a much higher risk involved with more time and effort needed 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There are several intriguing – and promising – stories here and although the collection is far from perfect, as is bound to happen with anthologies, the overall quality looks good, particularly where the first, novella-length story is concerned: that’s the one that piqued my curiosity more than the others…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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