The stories in Peadar O Guilin’s Forever in the Memory of God are in some ways old-school weird fiction, Clark Ashton Smith style, heavy on disturbing imagery and sanity-shattering trauma so far over the top that it risks going beyond gallows humor and straight into comic absurdity, and yet it works. Every time. Even for me, and this is usually not my kind of thing. What these stories have going for them that the old pulp classics didn’t is striking characterization, a flesh of psychological realism animating some surprising configurations of plot bones.
The characters in the three stories here collected find themselves in dire predicaments. These characters — not all of them can be called heroes — bring their own moments of insight and blindness, laughter and grief, to their struggles. O Guilin keeps them struggling against plot twist after plot twist, all the way to twisty endings that gave me that wonderful readerly shock followed by a sense of inevitability: What?! Oh, but of course!
In the opening story, “The First of Many,” a young woman, born into the Rememberer tribe in a post-alien-invasion Earth, is the first of her kind to be a host organism to the larval young of the slug-like conquerors. She copes with the gradual loss of her arm and her privacy in her own mind — as the larva learns to read her thoughts and chemically manipulate her emotions — with a gallows humor that will be familiar to anyone who has lived with a chronic illness.
Strange as it is to call anything understated in a story this wild, Olive’s repertoire of coping mechanisms is so familiar and real, my disbelief in the sentient slugs suspended itself effortlessly. Olive knows she has herself to blame for picking up the increasingly dangerous parasite that seems to dominate her life, but she’s still driven just as much as she ever was by the curiosity and longing for freedom that put her in harm’s way as a girl.
Has Olive learned anything? And if she has, is there still time for what she’s learned to matter, now that a cult of fellow humans who worship the slug-like invaders as gods comes to hunt down the Rememberers and destroy the traces of knowledge and resistance Olive’s community treasures? The Believers see in Olive a heretic nourishing the body of a god; the Rememberers see in her a walking tragedy, an impending loss to be remembered along with all the other glories humanity has lost. And the Masters, the smarter-than-us slugs who have taken over the Earth with their baffling ability to manipulate gravity, see Olive as a food source not even preferable to the goats they usually parasitize.
In a twist ending that puts the “Ew!” in eucatastrophe, Olive turns out to be something more significant than anyone has imagined.
In “Forever in the Memory of God,” we have a character marked from birth as a bearer of a rare and holy ability. The watcher, a child-soldier in a holy order that has trained him to accept spirit possession by warriors of past generations, must hold off a barbarian army long enough for the priestesses who trained him to work one last prayer-spell. In what he expects will be the last hours of his life, he remembers his training and tries to prepare himself for an ordeal no boy of fourteen years should have to face. Who is worthy to be a champion remembered by God? Those who have sacrificed the most, and not all of those were warriors. The watcher remembers the champions he has learned not to allow to possess his body, including a philosopher who tried to bring equality to the city:
Even at the block, Gobhann had refused to kneel, and five guards failed to bring him down. “Let the headsman take me where I stand,” he’d declared to the booing crowd. “I will not resist his stroke.” Nor had he. A strong soul, yes, but he was of no use to the watcher. In fact, most of the great souls he encountered seemed strangely… peaceful. Many were nothing but mothers who’d given all to protect their miserable families. And yet, their names burned so brightly, they often distracted him from his own searches. He needed heroes. Fighters.
This is the lesson the watcher glimpses, but fails to learn. The priestesses who order him to his death have glimpsed and failed at lessons of their own. The invading barbarians who fall before the watcher’s sword had their chance to learn better. And the God of the watcher’s city? What is his lesson, and has he, too, failed at it?
In the final story, “Fairy Gold,” Regan owes the wrong people money, so he disguises himself as a scientist and infiltrates a research center that has made contact with faeries deep under Ireland. The reader’s reasons for cheering Regan on shift again and again over the course of the story, as do the reasons for the reader’s simultaneous uneasy certainty that s/he should not be cheering him on at all. O Guilin puts a fresh spin on the fae by making them objects of scientific study and evasive partners in interspecies, inter-universe diplomacy. And yet, he draws on familiar strands of faerie lore, particularly on strands of menace and glamour, to set up the puzzle Regan must solve and the crisis he tries to rise to. In the end, is anything more menacing than Regan himself? Maybe, but not what I expected it to be.
I want to talk a bit about the giveaway at the end of the book, the sample chapters of O Guilin’s novel The Inferior.
Peadar O Guilin has told the story here of how he came to self-publish this collection. In short: The Inferior, his first novel in the Bone World trilogy, attracted all kinds of industry buzz and attention, was reviewed glowingly, sold well where it was distributed, but suffered from breakdowns in distribution that remain mysterious. The second volume in the series came out too late to help, or be helped by, the first. The third was passed on by the publisher. What’s an author to do?
Relaunch the whole series himself, and once he’s taken that step, why not free himself from traditional publishing to release all his projects on his own? And he’s not the first author to take that approach to this kind of problem. It’s authors like O Guilin, authors with critical accolades and fan love whose books succeeded on their own terms but didn’t meet the business goals of their publishers, who are making self-publishing an increasingly respectable option.
The impressive psychological depth O Guilin achieves in these wild short stories pales before what he accomplishes in the sample chapters of The Inferior. O Guilin sets himself the task of bringing modern readers to identify with the loves and anxieties of a tribe of cannibals, in particular a cannibal in perpetual danger of being traded as meat to a neighboring tribe because of his stutter. If all you know about it is the premise, the book might sound off-putting, even icky. On the other hand, I just surprised myself by loving a story in which a girl who’s being eaten alive by a slug, painfully over years, develops a temporary alliance with it in order to fight the crazies who want to worship it, so premise only tells you so much.
I went into the sample chapters prepared to be won over. I turned out to be the wrong reader, or perhaps the right reader a few years too late. Before I had children, I might have been able to slide into Stopmouth’s story and wear his worldview, admire what is worthy in him and root for him in his journey. But parenthood has rewired my brain and this is a story in which children get eaten. I Just Can’t Go There. Just. Can’t. Go. There.
They’re imaginary children, made of pixels on my computer screen shaped to form letters, which are combined to form sounds, which are translated by my own brain to represent a vague image of children, but my amygdala just starts yelling, Children getting eaten! AAAAGH! Perhaps this is a credit to O Guilin’s storytelling, that I got far enough into the story of The Inferior to fear to go any further. If your amygdala is more laid back than mine, I commend the book to you. I know I’ll be missing out on one hell of a story, but I don’t think I can make it through more than the sample chapters I’ve already read.
But O Guilin’s next collection of short fiction? And the next, and the next? Sign me up. I can’t wait to read them. Here’s an author I’ll follow anywhere short of cannibalism.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.