Book Review: Next Curious Thing by Ephiny Gale

I first came across Ephiny Gale’s work last year when I read her story,
“In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold,”
 in the journal Syntax and Salt. It’s a strange and wonderful tale, about a village where children are born without hands. . . but when they’re old enough, they walk to a forest to pick out the hands that fit them just right. It’s a surreal, eerie concept, but a surprisingly warm and gentle story. It’s a story about friendship, about the paths that you choose, the paths you didn’t foresee, and the inevitable heartbreak that comes with love and life. It brims with light and love and was one of my favorite stories from 2017.

So, I was delighted to learn of Gale’s first published collection, Next Curious Thing, which was recently released by Foxgrove Press. “In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold” opens the collection. What follows are twenty more stories, ranging from a few pages to novelette-length, encompassing stunning horror and warming sweetness, all lit with a striking imagination. Six of these stories are original to the collection and have not appeared anywhere else.

Gale has a clear love for fairy tales, and several of her stories mix and twist classic Grimms’ tales into new forms. “Sickly Sweet” mashes up “Hansel and Gretel” with “The Girl Without Hands”, while “And the Queen was Vein” is a dark, dark (as though the original were not dark enough) re-imagining of “Snow White.” The most ambitious retelling is “Five Tales of the Rose Palace,” which takes as its frame story the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” and then proceeds to unfold a series of nested narratives, one re-imagined fairy tale within another, characters reappearing across narratives, unexpected connections revealed, until the reader arrives again at the outermost frame. It’s a technical tour-de-force and a delight. Perhaps my favorite fairy tale, however, was one which Gale imagined from whole-cloth: “The Light Princess” is the story of a princess born radiating such intense light that no ordinary person can long touch or even look upon her. What prince can be a match for such a girl? The princess’ journey to find out is a lyrical tale of marvels.

This collection also features fantasy, science fiction, and unclassifiable tales set in a contemporary setting. There are short, weird wonders, like the story of a woman who sleeps in a tank with squids in “Emelia and the Undrowned.” There are varieties of horror—from the existential horror of not knowing who you are and of then needing to recover/rebuild your identity in the clever “Wrecked,” to the absolutely stunning, gasp-inducing I-can’t-believe-it-went-there escape-room horror of “Little Freedoms.” This last story centers on the trials a group of women must pass to gain their freedom—and wow, does it make you appreciate the little freedoms of ordinary life, of being able to scratch an itch, fidget, stretch, or stand. This story describes a merciless competition to see who can endure cruel trials the longest, and the tension escalates breathlessly as the clock ticks down and the women conspire silently with and against each other. A viscerally horrific, stunning read.

But though Gale does horror very, very well, it is her gentler stories that I loved most. Next Curious Thing holds tales of warmth and hope alongside the darkness. Along with “In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold,” my absolute favorite pieces from this collection were “Strange Dancemates” and “The Secret Death of Lane Islington.” In “Strange Dancemates,” dance teacher Lara Jean accidentally opens a portal to Hell in the basement of her dance studio. Strange creatures slip from the portal and visit her bed each night—including a mermaid, a faun-like creature, a golem, and actual star mist. While the setup sounds like horror, it surprisingly is not; the tone is light and whimsical, and the strange creatures mean Lara Jean no harm. And she finds that she is able to help them, one by one, escape from their own personal hells. It’s a warming story of finding connection, something that Lara Jean has had little of in an emotionally disconnected life. “The Secret Death of Lane Islington” is also about an artist with trouble navigating human relationships. Lane Islington is a nineteen-year-old musician who has only just shot to fame with the release of her first album. She loves music (just as Lara Jean in the earlier story loves dance), but Lane hates dealing with the public and all the publicity work associated with being a pop star. So, she opens a portal to an alternate world and finds her physical doppelganger, an ordinary and overlooked girl who just happens to look exactly like Lane. Lane’s double, ordinary Aeris Dormer, is eager for the public adulation which Lane hates; Aeris is happy to do Lane’s photo shoots and meet Lane’s fans. Aeris also gets along with Lane’s family more easily than Lane does; she seems to fit into Lane’s life better than Lane does. There is an obvious way this story could go, but Gale does not go for the obvious route here. Aeris might crave attention, but she’s not evil or manipulative; a real friendship grows between the two women. As in “Strange Dancemates” this is a story about finding connection.

In various ways, these dark and bright stories are about human connections—connections made, maintained, lost, or severed. They are strange, surreal, lyrical, and moving. “An otherworldly banquet” of tales is how the back cover describes this book, and I would agree. This is a beautiful collection of imaginative stories. I greatly recommend it, and also greatly look forward to seeing more from Ephiny Gale.  

Next Curious Thing is published from the Australian small press Foxgrove Press. A far as I can tell, it's available from:

Barnes and Noble
Book Depository (does not ship to the United States)


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