Laird Barron reviews Damien Angelica Walters

Sing Me Your Scars, Damien Angelica Walters (Apex Book Company 978-1-9370-0928-1, $15.95, 200pp, hc) February 2015.

Damien Angelica Walters science fiction book reviewThe new millennium has indeed proven a bountiful era for readers of weird fiction. Sing Me Your Scars is another debut collection of horror and dark fantasy stories by an outstanding young author. I’ve observed Damien Angelica Walters’s progress over the past few years, not­ing that she has quickly gone from an intriguing newcomer to a mainstay, appearing in various anthologies, including year’s bests. Her literary presence in 2014 and 2015 borders upon ubiquity and this collection jolts out of the blocks with a significant amount of momentum, heralded by a bevy of veteran authors and major literary review organs such as Kirkus and LA Review of Books. All this said, the vast majority of readers are unlikely to have crossed paths with Walters. These folks are in for an enviable experience.

Sing Me Your Scars contains 21 stories, eight of which are original to the collection. Walters’s narratives travel a spectrum of pure horror literature to the out-and-out weird. She throws aside the curtain on a macabre universe of body horror, ghosts, and murder. She writes of damage and trauma and doomed relationships, and does it with powerful affect that reminds me of Livia Llewellyn and Nathan Ballingrud for its lyric rawness and psychological flensing of numerous protagonists. Recurring scenes of surgeries, mutilations, and self-inflicted poison­ing are also reminiscent of Brian Evenson’s best work, a contemporary master of the surreal and Kafkaesque. Also redolent of Evenson, in a Walters narrative, mythology and supernatural forces routinely impinge upon mundane reality; quotidian existence is punctuated by intrusions of the existentially horrific and the absurdly fantastical. One’s diminishment leads to power, one’s loss is often a net gain (of awfulness), and one’s scars do indeed sing.

The opening eponymous tale, ‘‘Sing Me Your Scars’’ is told from the perspective of a compos­ite woman, a sewn together slave-bride of a gen­teel madman, á la Frankenstein. The protagonist is the dominant personality, but must contend with the ghostly presences of the other women who contributed limbs or organs. As with much of this collection, powerful crosscurrents are at work – the language is precise and grounded in concrete detail, yet what is described can only be comprehended and accepted in the abstract. Walters wields absurdism and surrealism like twin carving knives. She pronounces afflictions upon her characters with a delicacy that belies the bloody effect. Nonetheless, these characters resist and persist, even as they wither and fade or are remade entirely.

Rot and renewal figured into the first story and recur elsewhere. Transformation, often at gruesome cost, is a thematic artery that carries lifeblood throughout the body of the collection, albeit, the nutrient supply possesses high levels of toxicity. ‘‘All the Pieces We Leave Behind’’, ‘‘Running Empty in a Land of Decay’’, and ‘‘Always, They Whisper’’ deal with transfor­mation, physical and psychological, and to one degree or another, loss, disassembly, decay, the curse of the masculine gaze (another potent and rightfully squirm-inducing sub-theme that
recurs), and the death grip of familial and romantic attachment. One of the most devastating pieces in the entire collection is ‘‘Gray in the Gauge of His Storm,’’ an emotionally bruising metaphor of a man- and-woman-as-dolls, their torn burlap stitches and loose stuffing synonymous with scars and let blood. The co-dependent couple, these living dolls, represent the pathology of modern romance, and are ultimately torn asunder not by love, as they might profess, but by a fundamental misapprehension of love’s true nature and their own lack of capacity to love or be loved. At this juncture in her career, ‘‘Gray…’’ is arguably a quintessential Walters story and most definitely a thematic cornerstone of this particular arrangement.

Congruent with the vast body of popular hor­ror and its Judeo-Christian morality, women are frequently victimized by predatory men or the predacious culture that facilitates systemic violence against women. Walters seizes that convention of women as victims, women as canvases for the horrific fantasies of predatory men, and tears it apart as her characters are torn apart. She remakes that worn-to-the-bone cliché as her characters are remade – with transformation, mock submission, and occasionally, blood-soaked fiery vengeance. ‘‘Turnabout is fair play’’ could be the motto bla­zoned upon this book’s crest.

Love, loss, and the mutable, yet ineluctable, truth of identity are the bedrock, the steely spine of Sing Me Your Scars. The stories comprise a mirror, shattered to 20-odd bits and reassembled and bound within a frame. Each jagged sliver reflects some distortion of the viewer, each shard bends and traps light and pierces the eye, perhaps the soul, with an isolated wound, but step back and back and a kaleidoscopic effect takes hold. Behold a powerful, important statement writ in the weird.

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