Review: Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, edited by Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn
I read the first story in this anthology, “The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter” by Elaine Cuyegkeng, when it was reprinted on the horror site Pseudopod (here, you can read it for free there right now). And after reading Cuyegkeng’s story I immediately went and bought this book, so I could continue reading strange, sharp, wonderful stories of Asian horror, written by Asian writers and centering Asian women. Editors Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn have assembled a wonderful collection, dark and unsettling and fierce, that examines womanhood—and more specifically, the experience of womanhood as an Asian woman—from a variety of angles.
These stories encompass far-future science fiction, secondary-world fantasy, and stories set in worlds far closer to our own. There is absolutely creepy, spell-binding horror, but there’s some humor as well. Many stories draw from traditional myths and legends. The authors come from a variety of backgrounds—Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino, and more—and this diversity is reflected in the variety of inspirations, settings, and characters. Many of the writers are also diaspora, living in the West, and diaspora themes of assimilation and cultural conflict are a common thread in several stories.
The most common threads, however, are rage and resentment. These are stories of women struggling in various ways with expectations and thwarted desires—expectations from parents, lovers, families; internalized expectations from themselves, and expectations from the world. While a few characters openly rebel, most contort and bury themselves alive trying to meet these expectations. But the resentment builds and eventually finds an outlet, to horrifying (and often cathartic) effect.
Elaine Cuyegeng’s story opens the book (as I’ve said), and it remains one of my favorites. “The Genetic Alchemist’s Daughter” is a gorgeous, fairy-tale/sci-fi fantasy of genetic alchemy, of winged cats, singing bees, and prodigal children altered to fit their parents’ desires. In a future Manila, Leto has been bred to be her mother’s perfect daughter, a living advertisement of what her mother’s genetic alchemy can achieve. As her mother’s chief assistant, Leto herself creates and modifies specimens for clients. Sometimes that work entails modifying children who were born naturally, but who grew up to disappoint their parents. Sometimes that work means the destruction of memories and personalities. When Leto is assigned the task of thus modifying the three grown daughters of the Dowager, the powerful matriarch of a local dynasty, Leto finds her own memories and identity challenged. This is a stunning story, gorgeous and haunting. Its depiction of parents’ desire for control, for perfect and perfectly obedient, dutiful children (and their belief that they are owed this) hit me hard.
The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of many of these stories. Daughters chafe in resentment at mothers’ expectations and demands, at the burdens of hope their mothers have placed upon them. But mothers, too, feel resentment; the relationship is also fraught on the other end, as mothers are overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, both from their children and the world at large. The monstrous baby, the demon infant, is a recurring figure of myth across Southeast Asia. In Gabriela Lee’s stunning “Rites of Passage,” a vampiric baby of Filipino myth, the tiyanak, haunts generations of a village. There is a monstrous baby, taking advantage of human kindness; there is a monstrous mother in the jungle, and a debt to be paid. There is a dark, dark reminder that forced pregnancy and birth is perhaps the most horrific of all body horror stories. This story is layered and complex and incredibly unsettling. It also stands out to me, in all its gruesome darkness, as one of my favorites.
Geneve Flynn in her story, “Little Worm,” also makes use of a monstrous baby from her culture’s folklore: in this case, the kwee kia (which is also known as a toyol in Malaysia, and appears similar to the kuman thong of Thailand). The kwee kia is a dead fetus which is transformed by dark magic, and enslaved to its owner’s will to carry out deeds of mischief and darkness. When Theresa, the main character of Flynn’s story, returns home from Australia to Malaysia to care for her ailing mother, she finds her mother feeding a mysterious child, who may or may not be a kwee kia. This story has a poignant twist on the traditional legend of the kwee kia, however. It’s a story about a woman who has chosen an unusual method to deal with all the difficulties, frustrations, and thwarted dreams and hopes of her life. Like Gabriela Lee’s tale, it’s remarkably dark and creepy, and one of the strongest tales in the book.
Thwarted ambition and dreams is a recurring theme in this collection. “Frangipani Wishes” by Lee Murray is a particularly haunting and moving example of this. Told from the second-person point-of-view, it relates the tale of a woman who seems born to misfortune: her mother dies when she’s a child, and she’s then raised in her father’s house by her father’s other wives. She’s neglected and bullied by her step-mothers and half-sisters, and haunted by Hungry Ghosts. Her life is a series of misfortunes as she becomes pregnant by a faithless lover, and falls into dire poverty. There seems a chance at happiness when her daughter is born, and when she seizes ambition for her daughter’s sake. . . but this character is unable, in the end, to rise above the resentments and wounds of her life. In a sense, it’s a cautionary tale of a mother pouring too much of her hopes and dreams into her daughter, leaving nothing for herself; it’s the tale of a woman emptied by her struggles in life.
Grace Chan’s stories, “Of Hunger and Fury,” and “The Mark,” are also tales of women who have quietly emptied themselves, and who quietly seethe with resentment—in these stories, so quietly that the characters themselves don’t quite realize it. And although their lives are materially much better than the character’s in “Frangipani Wishes”—although they seem to have much more agency—Chan’s characters are no less angry. Grief over miscarriages—over lost motherhood—also haunts the character in Chan’s second story, “The Mark.” These are both stories that traffic in the surreal, in slowly unwinding horror that unpeels layers even as they build in tension.
But while currents of strangeness and darkness run throughout the book, there’s humor as well. One of my favorite pieces, “Phoenix Claws” by Lee Murray, masterfully twists humor with the bizarre in the tale of a Chinese-New Zealander woman introducing her white New Zealander boyfriend to her family over dim sum. Her family has a somewhat joking (or is it?) litmus-test for new boyfriends: whether or not they’ll try the chicken feet, or “phoenix claws,” at dim sum. When the narrator’s boyfriend flinches at the test, the narrator decides to cover for him. It’s a tale that made me laugh and smile at the loving descriptions of a typical dim sum restaurant and gathering. . .even as it makes a sharper point about how women will betray themselves, in seemingly small ways as well as large, for others.
There are other stories in this collection, too. Fairy-tale-like romance in Rin Chupeco’s “Kapre: A Love Story;” contemporary horror with unexpected twists in Geneve Flynn’s “A Pet for Life;” a fox-spirit tale in Rena Mason’s “The Ninth Tale,” and a pair of science-fiction stories, “Skin Dowdy” and “Vanilla Rice” by Angela Yuriko Smith, which offer short, sharp looks at the pressures that women face to conform to standards of beauty, and how far they’ll go to achieve that. Finally, there’s action-adventure in Nadia Bulkin’s wonderful “Truth is Order and Order is Truth,” a secondary-world fantasy tale of a Sea Queen reclaiming her throne, and in Christina Sng’s tale of a far-future zombie war, “Fury.”
There’s a little something for everyone in this collection. Most of all, there’s strangeness, fierceness, emotion, catharsis, and even some moments of wonder and beauty amid the darkness. This is a brilliant collection, one of the best books I’ve read this year—and one of the strongest anthologies I’ve ever seen. A must-read for horror fans.