Unwelcome Bodies by Jennifer Pelland
Jennifer Pelland is one twisted writer. I should start by admitting upfront that I’m a fan of her stories and have been for a while. So when I was offered the chance to review Unwelcome Bodies, her upcoming collection , I jumped.
Many short story collections, even single author collections, are arranged around a theme. I don’t think Pelland had to hunt around for hers much. All of the stories in the collection deal very distinctly with the body – it’s limitations, desires, and possibilities. Even many other stories of hers that didn’t make it into the collection (like Dazz and Mercytanks) are about the cutting up of or the living out of one’s body, respectively.
The first eight stories in the collection have been previously published. The second one, “Big Sister/Little Sister,” made the biggest impression on me. It’s part horror, part scifi. It is unflinching, but not gory. One of the things that Pelland often does best is to keep the language simple whenever possible. The story carries enough weirdness on its own without having to get into detail about this near future world. The hideousness is in the humans, not the technology.
Similar in tone is “Captive Girl,” one of the other standout stories. It’s on the preliminary Nebula ballot, for good reason. It’s both terrifying and touching – a powerful story. In her notes, Pelland writes that she was thinking “about how terrified I was at the thought of total captivity…And because I’m a sicko, I turned it into a love story.” I can’t describe it any better myself.
“The Call” is told in the second person, and it’s one of those stories that just works, partly because of how short it is.
“Flood” was the only story that really left me cold. It’s confusing, and the end happens too fast. I’m not sure it accomplishes what it is trying to do. In fact another story, “Songs of Lament” seems to be everything “Flood” wanted to be, and to do it faster and sharper, with a brilliantly interesting premise. I was amazed at how short “Songs of Lament” really was when I went back and looked at it. It’s an example to short story writers of how to put volumes into just a few hundred words.
“Brushstrokes” is the grand finale, one of the longest and most absorbing stories in the collection. It does the opposite trick that “Big Sister/Little Sister” does, in that the story it tells is an old one (though still a cautionary tale) but it’s the ethereal world Pelland creates that draws you in. It is an earth-worshipping culture that lives among clouds and air – or not, depending on your caste. Each morning the main character must paint his face before going out, reminding us of other cultures that require certain segments of the population to cover themselves before being seen in public.
Unwelcome Bodies comes out on Feb. 29th. You can order in online from Apex Books here.