Paula Guran Reviews Breakable Things by Cassandra Khaw

Breakable Things, Cassandra Khaw (Undertow Publications 978-1-98896-437-9, $20.00, 250pp, tp) November 2022. Cover by Mario Sánchez Nevado.

Cassandra Khaw starts their superbly strange and beautiful debut collection Breakable Things with the story ‘‘Don’t Turn On the Lights,’’ a stygian twist on urban legend. It, in turn, begins:

Stories are mongrels. It don’t matter whether they were lightning-cut into stone or whis­pered over the crackle of a dying flame; no story in the world has pedigree. They’ve all been told and retold so many times that not God himself could tell you which one came first. Yes, every story in creation.

True, but Khaw’s mongrels are written in purebred style and to startlingly unsettling effect. ‘‘All monsters must eat,’’ they write in ‘‘Kiss, Don’t Tell’’, ‘‘whether they are men or myth, fabrications of fear or consequences of nurture.’’ In ‘‘Recite Her the Names of Pain’’, a personal favorite inspired by Greek myth, a siren delivers her ‘‘prophecies of the present’’ thusly: ‘‘Verbiage profound as the siege of Carthage, alliterations like artillery, it rills from my lips, a trickle at first before it begins to pour. Now, there’s metaphor, verses and curses, a hip-hop throughline, swagger straight from the Bronx…’’ A character in ‘‘An Ocean of Eyes’’, a vast improvement on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘‘The Cats of Ulthar’’, is described: ‘‘The scythe of his mouth, his milk-pale skin, his eyes like tatters of the noon sky.’’ The protagonist of the only previously unpublished – and an out­standing – story, ‘‘How Selkies Are Made’’ ‘‘was many things, but mostly she was true: a woman who held little as holy as a word given, a heart of­fered. For this, she was loved. For her beauty, she was wanted.’’ The sea figures in several other tales as well. In the haunting ‘‘Mothers, We Dream’’ a sailor’s salvation is revealed to have a tragic price. Mermaids are far from Disneyfied in ‘‘And in Our Daughters, We Find a Voice’’.

There are ghost stories like the aptly titled ‘‘The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires’’ which is set in the far future, and ‘‘some Breakable Things’’, in which a father’s hungry ghost follows his estranged daughter. Deliciously warped fables like ‘‘A Leash of Foxes, Their Sto­ries like Barter’’, ‘‘You Do Nothing but Freefall’’ (written with A. Maus), and ‘‘A Secret of Devils’’ are offered. ‘‘The Quiet like a Homecoming’’ has an ‘‘animal wife’’ theme but is also a metaphor for the eternal story of ending relationships.

Then there are stories that are uniquely Khaw’s. ‘‘A Priest of Vast and Distant Places’’ looks at a human and holy relationship with airplanes. ‘‘In the Rustle of Pages’’ is a love story of sorts, but also a tale of survival. ‘‘Goddess, Worm’’ is con­cerned with injustice, power, and the lack of it.

That’s far from all. Twenty-three stories: some quite short, some without traditional beginning-middle-end structure. All worth reading.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the November 2022 issue of Locus.

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